The Life of Christ in the Synoptic Gospels
JESUS AND PILATE
Golden Text: “Pilate saith unto them, What then shall I do unto Jesus who is called Christ.” (Matt. 27:22)
1. The Combined Story of the Trial of Jesus before Pilate
2. Scene I - The Praetorium (Jn. 18:28-31)
3. Scene II - The Charges Preferred Against Jesus (Lk. 23:2)
4. Scene III - The Silence of Jesus (Mk. 15:3-5)
5. Scene IV - Pilate’s Interview with Jesus (Jn. 18:33-38; Lk. 23:25)
6. Scene V - What Shall I Do with Jesus? (Jn. 19:4, 5, 7, 9; Matt. 27:22)
7. Scene VI - A Dream and Pilate Washes His Hands (Matt. 27:19)
8. Scene VII - The Jewish Leaders Accept Responsibility (Matt. 19:25; Lk. 23:25, 26; Jn. 19:16)
Time: Friday morning, April 7, from a little after dawn till 8 or 9 o’clock.
Place: The Judgment Hall of Pilate, and the Palace of Herod, at Jerusalem
Research and Discussion: Pilate, life and character. Herod, life and character. The charges against Jesus. Pilate’s acquittal of Jesus. Why he did not release Him. Dream of Pilate’s wife. The attitude of Jesus during this trial. Pilate’s washing his hands before the people. Why Pilate yielded to the demands of the rulers.
Introduction: The story of the trial of Jesus before the Roman authorities is recorded in all four Gospels, which fact renders it difficult to realize from any one the complete picture as a whole. Yet to those who are accustomed to reading each Gospel account separately, it might hopefully bring a new realization, perhaps a fascinating and illuminating vision of the whole scene, to read the combined account. Therefore, the format of this lesson varies from the other lessons offered in this series. Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea, who came from the household of Tiberius in A.D. 26 to be Procurator (‘pro’ in behalf of, and ‘curator,’ care taker, hence one who administers a province for the emperor) over Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. He ruled ten years, quarreled almost continuously with the Jews, and in A.D. 36 was recalled. Eusebius relates that he was exiled to Gaul, and committed suicide at Vienne. Pilate kept the roman peace in Palestine, but with little understanding of the people. Sometimes he had to yield; as when he sent the standards, by night, into the Holy City, and removed them after a siege of five days by Jewish suppliants at Caesarea. He attempted to use the Temple treasure to build an aqueduct for Jerusalem. He slew the Samaritans who came to Mt. Gerizim to dig up sacred vessels hidden by Moses. Herod Agrippa described him as a man ‘inflexible, merciless, obstinate’ (from ‘Encyc. Britannica,’ 11th Ed.). “His administration had been marked by frequent and needless insults to the Jews. His character was but too well illustrated in his relations with our Lord – not altogether bad, but weak even while stubborn; willful, yet vacillating, and incapable of perceiving high truth and purity” (‘American Commentary’). “He was skeptical, cold, and cruel; arbitrary in his acts, and cherishing no feelings but those of contempt for the religion of Israel” (Philip Schaff). He was however a Roman judge. And “the laws of the Romans were the best in the ancient world, so equitable that they still rule the majority of civilized nations, and are permeating our common law” (Dr. K.P. Battle). His capital was at Caesarea, but during the great feasts in Jerusalem the governor was accustomed to going up to keep order.
1. The Combined Story of the Trial of Jesus before Pilate
(The four Gospel accounts are the verse locations for the below text; providing the explanations and illustrations. In other words, as stated in the above introduction, the story of the trial of Jesus before the Roman authorities is recorded in all four Gospels, which fact renders it difficult to realize from any one Gospel account the complete picture as a whole. Thus, it might hopefully bring a new realization, perhaps a fascinating and illuminating vision of the whole scene, to read all the accounts combined into one.)
Pilate therefore went out unto them, and saith, “What accusation bring ye against this man?”
They answered and said unto Him, “If this man were not an evil-doer, we should not have delivered Him up unto thee.”
Pilate therefore said unto them, “Take him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law.”
The Jews said unto him, “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death”: that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which He spake, signifying by what manner of death He should die. And they began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ a King.”
And when He was accused by the chief priest and elders, He answered nothing. Then saith Pilate unto Him, “Hearest Thou not how many things they witness against Thee?” And He gave him no answer, not even to one word: insomuch that the governor marveled greatly.
Pilate therefore entered again into the Praetorium, and called Jesus, and said unto Him, “Art Thou the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Sayest thou this of thyself, or did others tell it thee concerning Me?”
Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests delivered Thee unto me: what hast Thou done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now is My kingdom not from hence.”
Pilate therefore said unto Him, “Art Thou a king then?”
Jesus answered, “Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth My voice.”
Pilate saith unto Him, “What is truth?”
And when he had said this, he went out again unto the Jews, and saith unto them, “I find no crime in Him.” But they were the more urgent, saying, “He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Judaea, and beginning from Galilee, even unto this place.”
But when Pilate heard it, he asked whether the man were a Galilaean. And when he knew that He was of Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him unto Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem in these days.
Now when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad; for he was of a long time desirous to see Him, because he had heard concerning Him; and he hoped to see some miracle done by Him.
And he questioned Him in many words; but He answered him nothing.
And the chief priests and the scribes stood, vehemently accusing Him. And Herod with his soldiers set Him at naught, and mocked Him, and arraying Him in gorgeous apparel sent Him back to Pilate.
And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day: for before they were at enmity between themselves.
And Pilate called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said unto them, “Ye brought unto me this man, as one that perverteth the people: and behold, I, having examined Him before you, found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse Him: no, nor yet Herod: for he sent Him back unto us; and behold, nothing worthy of death hath been done by Him. I will therefore chastise Him, and release Him.”
Now at the feast the governor was wont to release unto the multitude one prisoner, whom they would. And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas, lying bound with them that had made insurrection, men who in the insurrection had committed murder.
And the multitude went up and began to ask him to do as he was wont to do unto them.
And Pilate answered them, saying, “Will ye that I release unto you the King of the Jews?” For He perceived that for envy the chief priests had delivered Him up.
Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas, and destroy Jesus.
But the governor answered and said unto them, “Which of the two will ye that I release unto you?”
And they said, “Barabbas.”
Pilate saith unto them, “What then shall I do unto Jesus who is called Christ?”
They all say, “Let Him be crucified.”
And he said unto them a third time, “Why, what evil hath this man done? I have found no cause of death in Him: I will therefore chastise and release Him.”
Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged Him.
And the soldiers led Him away within the court, which is the Praetorium; and they call together the whole band.
And they stripped Him, and arrayed Him in a purple garment. And they platted a crown of thorns and put it upon His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they kneeled down before Him, and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and they struck Him with their hands. And they spat upon Him, and took the reed and smote Him upon the head.
And Pilate went out again, and saith unto them, “Behold, I bring Him out to you, that ye may know that I find no crime in Him.”
Jesus therefore came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple garment.
And Pilate saith unto them, “Behold the man!”
When therefore the chief priests and the elders saw Him, they cried out, saying, “Crucify Him, crucify Him!”
Pilate saith unto them, “Take Him yourselves, and crucify Him: for I find no crime in Him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and by that law He ought to die, because He made Himself the Son of God.”
When Pilate therefore heard this saying, he was the more afraid; and he entered into the Praetorium again, and saith unto Jesus, “Whence art Thou?”
But Jesus gave him no answer.
Pilate therefore saith unto Him, “Speakest Thou not unto me? Knowest Thou not that I have power to release Thee, and have power to crucify Thee?”
Jesus answered him, “Thou wouldest have no power against Me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivereth Me unto thee hath greater sin.”
Upon this Pilate sought to release Him: But the Jews cried out, saying, “If thou release this man, thou art not Caesar’s friend: every one that maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar.”
When Pilate therefore heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment- seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha.
And while he was sitting on the judgment-seat, His wife sent unto him, saying, “Have thou nothing to do with that righteous man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of Him.”
Now it was the Preparation of the Passover: it was about the sixth hour.
And he saith unto the Jews, “Behold, your King.”
They therefore cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” Pilate saith unto them,
“Shall I crucify your King?”
The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”
So when Pilate saw that he prevailed nothing, but rather that a tumult was arising, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man; see ye to it.”
And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us, and on our children.”
And they were urgent with loud voices asking that He might be crucified. And their voices prevailed.
And Pilate wishing to content the multitude, gave sentence that what they asked for should be done. And he released unto them Barabbas, him that for insurrection and murder had been cast into prison, whom they asked for; but Jesus he delivered up to their will.
And when they had mocked Him, they took off Him the robe, and put on Him his garments, and led Him away to crucify Him.
Scripture Reading: John 18:28-31
2. Scene I - The Praetorium
v 28 ... “Then led they Jesus ... into the hall of judgment” [‘the Praetorium’], “weary and exhausted, bound and guarded by soldiers, accompanied by members of the Sanhedrin, Temple guards, scribes, Pharisees, priest, servants, and a growing number of all sorts and conditions of people” (C.T. Brady). The Praetorium, residence of the governor when at Jerusalem. It was perhaps the palace of Herod the Great in the northwest corner of the western hill of Jerusalem, a bridge connecting it with the Temple area. Note that some scholars place the Praetorium in the fortress of Antonia, northwest of the Temple area. “This palace was very gorgeous. It was half citadel, half fairy pleasure-house. Set in a sumptuous park, its central portion a stately colonnade, within which was a rich mosaic pavement; and out here, seated upon an uplifted throne, Pilate was wont to hold his assizes” (T.C. McClelland, ‘The Cross Builders’).
This was necessary because “they themselves entered not into the Praetorium that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover” (v 28). The Jews would not enter Pilate’s palace on that holy day because it was a heathen’s headquarters, and in it there were many things (especially the presence of leaven) which would have defiled them. Some Orientals are known to remain two days without food rather than share the food of others or cook their own in the utensils of strangers, fearing ceremonial defilement.
v 29 ... “Pilate therefore went out” of the court room, but Jesus remained. As usual during the great Feasts, Pilate came down to Jerusalem from Caesarea, his capital, because the city was thronged with people from all over the world. It has been said that sometimes as many as two million people attended the Passover celebration. Their religious zeal was soon blown into such white heat, such a temper that the populace became dangerous, potential for a riot. Pilate needed to be present to over-power the crowd with a show of imperial arms. Maclaren calls the conference between Pilate and the Jewish authorities “a duel.”
Pilate naturally asks them “What accusation bring ye against this man?” (v 29) Standing on their dignity, they answered that Jesus must be an evil-doer, or they would not have brought Him to Pilate. They did not wish to tell him that the charge was blasphemy for which they had condemned Him to death, for that would be no crime in a Roman court.
So Pilate says, very well, in that case “take Him yourselves and judge Him according to your law” (v 31); and, of course, limit the punishment to what you can inflict. They had to accuse Jesus of political crime to secure even ordinary attention at the hands of the Roman governor.
Then they showed their real purpose by saying, “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death” (v 31). They wanted Jesus crucified.
Scripture Reading: Luke 23:2
3. Scene II - The Charges Preferred Against Jesus
The Jewish leaders now changed their original accusation against Jesus. In the Jewish Court the charge brought against Jesus was blasphemy, that is, treason against God and the Jewish commonwealth. In the Roman Court, the charge was treason against the Roman government. Neither change was of any account in the other court. The Jewish leaders rather favored treason against their old enemy, Rome. The Romans cared nothing for blasphemy against a God of whom they knew nothing. The only change for which Jesus could be condemned by the Romans was treason. “The greatest crime known to Roman law, the greatest crime conceivable by the Roman imagination” (Innes).
There were three counts in the charge: First Charge – “We found this man perverting our nation” (v 2), that is, sedition against Rome, treason (a false charge); Second Charge – “Forbidding to give tribute to Caesar” (v 2), another form of treason, apparently a false inference from His saying that He was a king, as if He needed the tribute Himself. The question about the tribute money on the previous Tuesday (Matt. 22:16-22) shows that this charge lay only in their minds. Christ’s wise answer then foiled this deadly charge; Third Charge – “Saying that He Himself is Christ a king” (v 2), a rival of Caesar, and therefore treason (totally a false charge, as if Jesus claimed to be a political king, a rival of Tiberius Caesar, emperor of Rome).
Scripture Reading: Mark 15:3-5
4. Scene III - The Silence of Jesus
To all this Jesus “answered nothing” (v 3).
Even when Pilate turned to Him and asked, “Hearest Thou how many things they witness against Thee?” (v 4)
Still “Jesus gave him no answer, not even to one word. The governor marveled greatly” (v 5) at this. But what was the use of getting into any argument with those who were determined to misunderstand and destroy Him. Silence is sometimes golden. But when Jesus was within the judgment hall with Pilate and away from these false accusers, the situation was different.
Scripture Reading: John 18:33-38; Luke 23:25
5. Scene IV - Pilate’s Interview with Jesus
Pilate now goes into the hall to speak with Jesus privately, putting the question to Him: “Are Thou the king of the Jews?” (v 33) In all four Gospels these are the first words of Pilate to Jesus, and in all four the emphasis in the Greek is on “Thou.” Doest Thou, forlorn, despised, poor, insignificant, claim to be King of the Jews? “There is nothing to bear out the pretension: no position, prestige, wealth, following; no troops, etc. The very accusation suggests that the accused may be innocently popular” (Expositors Greek Testament).
v 34 ... “Jesus answered” this by asking another question, which was essential to a true answer to Pilate’s question. It made a difference whether it was asked from a Roman or a Jewish point of view. If the Roman asked it of himself, Jesus had to answer “no,” because He was not a king as Romans reckoned kingship.
And so Jesus replied: “Sayest thou this of thyself, or did others tell it thee concerning Me?” (v 34)
Pilate answers: “Am I a Jew? ... What hast Thou done?” (v 35) Jesus then stated His position. I am not a king as the world counts kingship. I am no rival of Caesar.
v 36 ... “My kingdom is not of this world” to be gained by armies and war, material wealth and physical strength. You can see this is true because I have none of these things.
Pilate replied: “Art Thou a king then?” (v 37) Where is your kingdom?
Jesus answered: “Thou sayest that I am a king [i.e., ‘I am a king’]. To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth” (v 37).
Pilate then asked: “What is truth?” (v 38) Bacon begins his Essay on Truth by saying: “‘What is truth?’ said jesting Pilate, and would not say for an answer.” Whately remarks on this, “that never was any one less in a jesting mood than Pilate on this occasion ... Pilate is at a loss to see what this has to do with his inquiry, ‘I am asking You about Your claims to empire, and You tell me about Truth: what has that to do with the question?’”
The Kingdom of Truth: The kingdom over which Jesus is King is the kingdom of heaven, a spiritual kingdom founded on everlasting spiritual realities – the truth about God, righteousness, faith, eternal life, love, conscience, immortality. It conquers not by material power, but by spiritual forces, by truth taught and lived, by changes in the hearts of people. Its business is to transform the world by these spiritual forces. Armies, treasures, worldly power, persecutions, cannot do this work. Everyone that hears the voice of Jesus and obeys is a member of this kingdom of Jesus.
Pilate’s verdict (given to the Jews outside the hall): “I find no fault in Him no fault at all” (v 38).
In the House of Herod Antipas: The leaders were so angry and fierce at the acquittal of Jesus by Pilate, and they reiterated the charges with such passion and fury, that Pilate hesitated about releasing the prisoner. They mentioned Galilee in their charges, suggesting to Pilate a way of escape from his dilemma – he must either incur the bitter hatred of many of the Jews, or he must burden his conscience with the damning crime of killing one whom he knew and had openly declared innocent. Jesus was a Galilean; and Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee, was in the city. Therefore, since he had jurisdiction over the case, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod. This was the Herod who had murdered John the Baptist, and in his terror thought Jesus was that prophet risen from the dead. Herod received Jesus lightly, expecting to see Him work some miracle. But Jesus refused even to speak to him. “Jesus was silent so the voice of dead John might be heard.” Herod looked upon Jesus as a pretender, and saw a chance for a stroke of wit. Jesus was arrayed in a gorgeous white robe, like those used by Jewish kings and Roman grandees on high occasions, a parody of His royal claims. “Thus, amid peals of laughter, Jesus was driven from Herod’s presence.”
Pilate Again Pronounces Jesus Innocent: The leading Jews are called, and Pilate declares that Herod agrees with him that “nothing worthy of death hath been done” (v 15) by Jesus.
The Fatal Choice: Jesus or Barabbas – It was customary at the Passover to release a Jewish prisoner. By suggesting that he release Jesus on this occasion, Pilate hoped to escape deciding the fate of Jesus against his own judgment and conscience. But the leaders persuaded the people to choose Barabbas. “Barabbas was plainly a ringleader in one of those fierce and fanatic outbreaks against the Roman domination which fast succeeded one another in the latter days of the Jewish commonwealth” (Tranch). This would naturally make him a favorite. He probably had attractive and popular qualities, perhaps like Robin Hood, of English history. But Barabbas was reckless, and probably had committed robbery and murder (Lk. 23:25) under the name of patriotism. He was looked upon as a patriot and martyr. The people therefore shouted, “Barabbas, Barabbas!” It was a fatal choice both for Pilate and for the Jewish nation. The great lesson turns upon our choice of leaders – Jesus or Barabbas; Jesus or the world; Jesus and His kingdom, or the kingdom of the prince of this world.
Scripture Reading: John 19:4, 5, 7, 9; Matthew 27:22
6. Scene V - What Shall I Do with Jesus?
Pilate saith unto them: “What then shall I do unto Jesus who is called Christ? [And the people answered] Let Him be crucified” (v 22). The question Pilate asked is one we all must answer. (a) Every person must do something with Jesus, either accepting or rejecting Him. (b) Some try to escape this decision by refusing to decide, but even that is deciding against Him; by the substitution of obedience to His Holy Word for the opinions of men; by laying the blame on others, on circumstances, on temptations; but it’s all in vain. There is no avoiding the responsibility. Each of us must decide whether we will receive or reject the loving Savior. (c) To reject Christ is to reject the sum and soul of all goodness. (d) Rejecting Christ is the great sin of the world. (e) Christ is rejected from wrong and selfish motives. (f) There will come a time when there will be a somewhat different question to answer – What shall I do without Jesus? In the hour when we feel our sins unforgiven; in the hours of sickness, need, death; in the day of judgment; who then can endure being without Jesus, His forgiving love, His divine help, His comforting presence?
The Mockeries: Again Jesus was mocked by the soldiers, who jested at the contrast between the common clothing of Jesus and rich and radiant robes worn by kings. They put on Him royal purple robes, a crown of thorns that looked like the ivy crowns of victors, gave Him a reed for a scepter, and then hailed Him as the king of the Jews, spat upon Him, and struck Him who was and is the greatest king this world has ever known. It is hard to find anything meaner, more contemptible, more unmanly than such treatment. And yet that same spirit is still in the world, the strong maltreating the weak, the upper classes in college hazing newcomers, the well-favored ridiculing the less favored in intellect and opportunity, etc. Many of the best things in the world have been ridiculed in their beginnings. So the story of Rome’s foundation when Romulus killed his brother for sneering at the walls of Rome. “The early poems of Wordsworth were criticized as being next to idiotic.” Byron said that this poet wrote so naturally of the Idiot Boy that he must be the hero of his own tale. Tennyson’s early volumes of poems were criticized in “one of the cleverest and bitterest things every written,” and of his lyric, “The Owl,” Blackwood said, “Alfred himself is the greatest owl; all he wants is to be short, stuffed, and stuck in a glass case, to be made immortal in a museum.” What he did is a lesson to us, for he waited ten years – ten years of hard, skilled work, and then Tennyson began his immortal career.
Ecce Homo: In order to touch the hearts of the people, and “that ye may know that I find no crime in Him” (v 4). Pilate brought Jesus bleeding from the scourges, and wearing the crown of thorns, out from the praetorium before the people, and said: “Ecce Homo, Behold the Man!” (v 5) Let us hear the Ecce Homo, and behold the Man before us. Here is the noblest exhibition of love; a perfect example; the fulfillment of ages of prophecy; the atonement in progress for the redemption of man; the central battle, and here is the central victory of the universe. Jesus is, at it were, a composite photograph of all the best in human nature, including all types and all races. He is the ideal man, a perfect man under the most difficult circumstances.
Pilate Becomes More Earnest To Release Jesus: The Jews claimed that Jesus was worthy of death “because He made Himself the Son of God” (v 7). Pilate then became alarmed. He went back into the Praetorium and said to Jesus: “Whence art Thou?” (v 9) Jesus refused to tell Pilate, because Pilate could not possibly understand (read again the conversation between Jesus and Pilate). Pilate was still anxious to release Jesus. The Jews now put before Pilate their final argument: If you do not release Jesus, you are an enemy of Caesar, a traitor to Rome. That settled the case for Pilate. He dared not refuse.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 27:19
7. Scene VI - A Dream and Pilate Washes His Hands
The people of the East make much use of pantomime in all their affairs. In the markets, for example, one will frequently see used the pantomimic sign of washing the hands without a word being spoken, the obvious meaning being to disclaim all responsibility; ‘See you to that. I will have nothing to do with it. I wash my hands of the whole business.’ (Dr. James E. Priest)
Pilate, avoiding a tumult, “took water, and washed his hands before the multitude” (v 19). By this symbol disowning al all responsibility (Deut. 21:6, 9), as if his words could cleanse his soul from guilt, as the water washed the dirt from his hands. But all this made him nonetheless guilty; and he has been pilloried in history as the man who crucified the Son of God, even while knowing and confessing His innocence.
Scripture Reading: Matthew 19:25; Luke 23:25, 26; John 19:16
8. Scene VII - The Jewish Leaders Accept Responsibility
“His blood be on us, and on our children” (Matt. 19:25). And it was upon them. Some years later, and on that very spot, judgment was pronounced against Jerusalem; and many were scourged and crucified against the praetorium. The populace who that day cried “Crucify Him!” shared in the unparalleled horrors of the destruction of Jerusalem. Not from revenge or retaliation, but in spite of all that love could do. They rejected their king, losing their kingdom.
Then Pilate “Delivered up Jesus to their will.” (Lk. 23:25) “And they led Him away ...” (Lk. 23:26) “To be crucified.” (Jn. 19:16)