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What did Jesus mean when He referred to the greater sin in John 19:11?

greater sin

In John 19, we find Jesus before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. In verse 10, Pilate boasted about his authority to release or crucify Jesus, prompting Jesus to say, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given to you from above. Therefore, he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11, ESV).

The expression from above is a reference to God. In other words, Jesus tells Pilate that he would have no authority over Him unless it had been granted to Pilate by God the Father. Such a statement, then, emphasizes the divine origin of human authority: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1, ESV). Jesus subjected Himself to Pilate’s authority, not because Pilate was superior to Him, but because He was obedient to the Father’s will (John 6:38). It is within this context that Jesus mentions a “greater sin.”

Jesus’ statement to Pilate that “he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11, ESV) probably alludes to Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who coordinated the arrest and subsequent trial of Jesus. In both John 18:24 and John 18:28, Caiaphas, in conjunction with other religious authorities, delivered Jesus into Pilate’s custody.

Now, let us turn our attention to the meaning of greater sin (John 19:11), a phrase that raises questions about the nature of sin, divine sovereignty, and human responsibility.

First, we must acknowledge that the Bible distinguishes between varying degrees of sin. References to lesser sins or greater sins can be found in Old Testament passages such as Leviticus 4:2, Numbers 15:30, and Ezekiel 8:6. Jesus spoke of “more important matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23) and taught lesser and greater punishments for different offenses (Luke 12:47–48).

Second, lesser sins implies that all sins are not equal in severity. Some sins, due to their nature or consequences, bear greater moral weight. In this regard, Jesus’ statement to Pilate is a powerful theological assertion, conveying the compatibility of divine sovereignty in orchestrating the arrest and trial of Jesus, while also holding Caiaphas and Pilate morally responsible for their evil deeds (cf. Acts 2:23). Nonetheless, Caiaphas is guilty of the greater sin since he is the one who, from a human viewpoint, initiated the chain of events.

God, the supreme judge of the world, evaluates sin with an eye that extends beyond external human actions. Indeed, the all-knowing God sees into the “thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12, ESV). Pilate had a case brought to him to judge—a case he did not want to take (Luke 23:7; John 18:31). Pilate sinned in failing to execute justice, and an innocent Man was killed as a result. But the one who handed Jesus over to Pilate for trial was “guilty of a greater sin” because that man had plotted to murder Jesus (Mark 14:55) and freely and deliberately suppressed the truth in unrighteousness (see Romans 1:18).

As high priest, Caiaphas possessed thorough knowledge of the Law and the Prophets. Despite his knowledge, he actively conspired to have Jesus crucified, denying the very Scriptures that testified about Christ (John 5:39). For this reason, Caiaphas is guilty of a greater sin than Pilate, having willfully suppressed the truth about the One of whom the Old Testament prophesied.

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What did Jesus mean when He referred to the greater sin in John 19:11?
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This page last updated: May 16, 2024