Theme: Pilate’s Examination
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
The second thing about his conduct as the Gospels report it, in addition to his opening the case, is that he conducted the trial in a manner utterly above reproach. According to Roman law you first of all had to have an accusation. There had to be a formal charge, meaning you couldn’t simply have a fishing expedition to find something to accuse someone of. That’s what the Jewish court had tried to do the night before. You couldn’t do that in a Roman court of law. And, of course, you weren’t supposed to do it in a Jewish court of law either. There had to be a formal charge, and finally they made it.
They said, “Well, he calls himself the king of the Jews.” That charge having now been made, he began to investigate it. He explored it, not merely taking it on the basis of the words but to see what it meant. “So, you’re the king of the Jews,” he said to Jesus. “What does that mean?” And Jesus had to explain.
“Do you have a kingdom?” Pilate asked.
“Yes, I have a kingdom, but it’s not of this world,” said Jesus. “It’s a kingdom of truth.”
Oh, Pilate understood what was going on here then. This wasn’t a Messiah who was trying to drive out the Romans and establish a Jewish state. This is one of those crazy religious figures who thinks he knows what truth is, probably because he has a special word from God. “What is truth?” said Pilate. He didn’t have any more use for that kind of an examination. He thought that although this might be something Jesus’ own people are concerned about, it is of no matter to him as a representative of Rome.
At that point we’re told he did the third thing. Having heard the charge, having examined the evidence, he now pronounced the verdict: “I find no fault in him at all.” In Latin it is the formal way of saying that the prisoner is innocent and should be allowed to go free. So up to this point, as far as Pilate is concerned, there is nothing at all that would cause us to question him or say he was a bad governor.
Now that raises a question before we get to the verdict itself, which of course was an entire reversal of everything that had gone before. Why did Pilate, whom we know from other sources was not a noble man, nevertheless act nobly under these circumstance? A lot of people have asked that question, almost everybody who has written about the trial. Why did Pilate act properly in this situation when in other situations we know he did not?
Different ideas have been suggested, but I would suggest that Matthew’s account actually gives us the reason in a short little thing that we find in the middle of the passage that we read earlier. It’s told in verse 19: “While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’” I don’t want to read too much into that, but I think it’s easy to set up what probably had happened.
I suggested a moment ago that it had probably been prearranged for Pilate to hear the case early in the morning. If that’s true it might well be that Pilate had either shared with his wife what was going to happen in the morning or that she had been present when this request was made and Pilate’s agreement was given. This woman, now knowing that next morning her husband is going to preside over the trial of Jesus of Nazareth, goes to bed with this in her mind. God may have sent a vision, or he may not have. We’re not told what happened in detail. All we know is that she had a dream that caused her a great deal of suffering. She’s deeply troubled about all this. She knows that Jesus is innocent and does not want her husband to condemn him. So she sends him a message to this effect, which Matthew records for us. She tells him, “Don’t have anything to do with this man because he is innocent.”
How would you expect Pilate to react to that? Well, in the first place, it would be a most unexpected and unusual thing. How often, I suppose, was it that Pilate’s wife sent him a little message of that nature when he was deciding a case? Probably never before. Pilate must have been surprised by that all by itself. But there was more to it than that. Pilate was undoubtedly a secular man, a pagan, but the pagans had their superstitions. One thing they were very superstitious about were dreams. They believed that the gods spoke through dreams, and if somebody on the eve of something important should receive a dream, well that dream was something to be listened to.
In addition, the pagans also had the idea that sometimes the gods came in human flesh, and sometimes they married mortals and had offspring that were half gods and half men. This is just all through ancient culture. Some were cynical about it. Some believed it superstitiously, but in one way or another that kind of thinking was common. Pilate was familiar with all this, and may have believed this kind of thing. In those circumstances I would imagine that Pilate, receiving a message from his wife to have nothing to do with an innocent man, and being impressed by Jesus who was certainly more than the kind of people he normally tried, began to think to himself that he certainly doesn’t want to do anything wrong in this trial. I would suggest that it’s because of those circumstances that he conducted himself in a most uncharacteristic and upright manner.
Yet in spite of that—in spite of the warning, in spite of the fact that he was acting nobly, in spite of the fact that he had power as a Roman governor so he could exercise law as he saw fit—in spite of all those things, Pilate, nevertheless, condemned Jesus and allowed him to be crucified.
Given what we know about Pilate from non-biblical sources, why did he act so properly in how he conducted Jesus’ trial?
Read the account of Jesus’ encounter with Pilate in John 18:28-19:16. What additional elements of this encounter does John include?
In spite of what Pilate knew about Jesus, why does he nevertheless allow him to be crucified?
Reflection: What was the real reason why Pilate put Jesus to death? For help, see Acts 2:23.
For Further Study: To see John’s perspective on the encounter between Jesus and Pilate, download for free and listen to James Boice’s message, “Jesus before Pilate.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)