Theme: Jesus’ Two Trials
In this week’s lessons we look at Pilate’s role in Jesus’ crucifixion, and learn about our need as Christians to take a stand when righteousness is at stake.
Scripture: Matthew 27:11-26
Our study of the encounters that the Lord Jesus Christ had with the people of his day has lastly brought us to the story of the trial of Jesus conducted by the Roman governor Pilate. There were actually two trials. There was the Jewish trial and the Roman trial, and each of those trials had three parts. So there were six segments of the trial leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. All of this was squeezed into a very short span of time.
The Jewish trial was first. The first part of it was what we would call a preliminary hearing before the true high priest, whose name was Annas. He was not the high priest recognized by the Roman government. They had displaced him and appointed a relative, Caiaphas, in his place. But Annas was the true priest and the one that would have been recognized as such by the people. In this preliminary hearing they tried to discover in a rudimentary way a case against Jesus, because they knew eventually they’d have to present it before the full Sanhedrin, the full council of the people, if a charge that would merit death would be able to stand.
The second part of the Jewish trial was something of a preliminary trial before Caiaphas. This is because the first hearing didn’t get anywhere, and the Jewish authorities needed more clout. This was a semiformal gathering where they collected witnesses and tried to find something on the grounds of which Jesus could be condemned. It’s not so easy to do that in Jewish law. Jewish law was very strict in the matter of capital cases. Number one, they had to discover a capital offense. And then, number two, they had to prove it, which required two or three witnesses. From what we read about this portion of the trial, a great deal of time was spent that evening trying to find something upon which two witnesses could agree that was serious enough to result in the death penalty.
Eventually, the high priest Caiaphas, who was exasperated at the slow proceedings, invoked Jesus to speak about himself in the name of Jehovah, giving him the most solemn oath that was known in Israel. And Jesus, who would not decline such a high challenge, replied in his own part that he was, indeed, the Son of God, and that Caiaphas and the others would see him coming one day in judgment at God’s right hand. Upon hearing that, they judged that sufficient cause to condemn him for blasphemy.
Having gotten that far in their work against Jesus, the second part of the Jewish trial was completed. They adjourned to the next morning when the formal trial took place before the Sanhedrin. Jesus was condemned on the basis of his testimony the night before in very short order. He was condemned of blasphemy, a capital offense under Jewish law.
Now at that point the Jewish trial was over and the Roman trial began. Jesus was brought by the chief priests and the elders of the people to see Pilate in the very early hours of the morning. This must have been prearranged, because Pilate would normally not be up conducting business in the very early dawn and yet he was on this occasion. It must have been that the high priest Caiaphas, and perhaps the others, had a rather close relationship with Pilate, the Roman government. They didn’t like each other, but they worked together carefully and, therefore, had arranged for Pilate to hear the case. The reason they had to have a Roman trial was that at this particular point in history the Jews were not able to carry out the capital sentence. They could condemn somebody and pronounce the judgment, but they couldn’t effect the sentence. They had to have Roman concurrence in their verdict, which is why they appear before Pilate. This appearing before Pilate was the first part of the Roman trial.
Following this was the second part, when Pilate, trying to get off the hook, sent Jesus to Herod after Pilate learned that Jesus was born and had grown up in Herod’s jurisdiction to the north. Herod recognized what Pilate was trying to do, and after he entertained himself sent Jesus back.
Now comes the third part of the Roman trial, which is the crucial one. At this point Jesus was condemned by Pilate and is sentenced to death, which was carried out. Now that’s an interesting situation. Some lawyers have said that this is an absolutely unique situation in all the long history of law and judgment, because in one day this man Jesus, who claimed to be the Son of God, was heard and condemned by the two greatest tribunals, not only of his day but probably of any period in the entire history of mankind. The one tribunal was thought to be operating on the basis of the revealed law of God by the chosen representatives of the Jewish people. The other tribunal was before a representative of the Roman government that was the highest legal order of the day.
Both of these systems of law were exceptions. The Jewish law was exceptional for its humanity. It made it extremely difficult to condemn anybody of a capital offense. The guilt of the individual had to be established beyond any shadow of a doubt. And the proof of the difficulty is seen in the fact that over the long history of the deliberations of the Sanhedrin people were condemned to death very, very seldom. One of the rabbis said that the Sanhedrin which condemns a man to death so much as twice in seven years is a slaughterhouse.
On the other hand, you have the Roman law, which was a model of its day in the exactitude of its laws, the affixing of penalties, and the standards for the presentation and deliberation over evidence. Roman law became such a model of law that it has been taught in the law schools of the world even to our day. Moreover, although Rome never conquered the Germanic tribes (which were eventually instrumental in the overthrow of the Roman Empire), those same tribes, it would seem without question, adopted the principles of Roman law.
Now the interesting thing, and the reason I go into that kind of background, is that in spite of the fact that Jesus the Son of God was tried by the most outstanding legal systems not only of his day but of any day—the Jewish law, on the one hand, and the Roman law, on the other—Jesus was, nevertheless, condemned.
What was the first of Jesus’ two trials? Describe what happened in each of the three parts of it.
What was the second trial of Jesus? Describe the three parts of this trial.
How were both Jewish and Roman law exceptions to the carrying out of justice?