Theme: Pilate’s Handling of the Trial
In this week’s lessons, we see that although Pilate declared Jesus innocent, nevertheless, he allowed for his crucifixion, and so failed to stand up for what was right.
Scripture: John 18:28-19:16
The Roman governors at their best were sensitive to the people they governed, and there’s a story that Josephus tells us that has great bearing at this point. An officer by the name of Petronius was ordered to put images of the emperor in the temple in Jerusalem. He knew the problem this would cause with the Jews. So he actually disobeyed the emperor, and then he sent a letter to the emperor to explain why he could not carry out it out. The emperor understood Petronius’ failure to follow the order, and no further action was taken.
But Pilate wasn’t at all like that. On one occasion he wanted to build an aqueduct to carry water from the Pools of Solomon into the city. He didn’t have the money to do it so he raided the corban treasury in the temple. Now the word corban means “dedicated,” meaning it was the money that Jews had dedicated to God in the service of God. It was a holy treasury and so to take that was very insensitive, which, of course, produced a great uproar about it. But Pilate didn’t pay any attention. He went ahead and built the aqueduct.
There was another occasion where Pilate took the votive shields that were used in a way to honor or pay homage to the emperor, and he brought them into Jerusalem. And there was such an uproar that the people actually protested to the emperor themselves and asked that they be removed. The Roman emperor granted their request, and so they were removed and taken down to Caesarea. Pilate would intentionally do things that he knew would create anger and unrest among the Jewish people.
Given these stories about Pilate, and what it reveals about his character and how he governed, it is interesting to see how he acts in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, particularly here in John, where it’s treated in greater detail. We find, much to our surprise, that Pilate isn’t operating the way we would expect him to be operating from the secular sources. As a matter of fact, as far as the actual conduct of the trial is concerned, we find him operating in an exemplary way. Although he did allow Jesus to be crucified even though he declared him innocent, how he went about conducting the trial itself was done with respect to the law and an awareness that the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus executed unjustly.
And that’s surprising because as I read this, I suspect that what the Jewish Sanhedrin had done in advance was work out with Pilate what they expected to have been something like a pro forma trial. Pilate didn’t care about these various Jewish characters who claimed to be messiahs, but the Jews did, and they had to have Pilate’s permission to proceed with an execution. So they must have arranged it with Pilate that night of the arrest, setting up Jesus’ trial with Pilate so early in the morning. They had to do all this quickly because Passover was coming. They couldn’t afford anything protracted, otherwise it would have been better not to have arrested Jesus at the feast and to let it go until afterwards.
The reason I say this is because when they finally bring Jesus in, they’re presenting him for a very quick verdict, and a judgment that would allow the crucifixion to go forward. Pilate surprises them, in verse 29, by asking them what charges they’re bringing against him. At this point they don’t seem to have a charge ready. In verse 30 they answer, “If he were not a criminal we would not have handed him over to you.” Now that’s not an answer to the governor’s question. By asking what the charges are, he indicated that this was not going to be a merely formal trial, but that it was going to be done properly.
At this point the Jewish leaders try to avoid the question by making it sound as if Jesus is so obviously guilty that none of these legal details is even needed. That would especially be true in their minds if they had already talked to Pilate about this previously and were therefore expecting a very quick rush to execution. They say, “If we didn’t have any reason, we wouldn’t even be bringing him.” But you see, Pilate presses it.
Now, John doesn’t tell us what happens there, but when you turn to the other Gospels, you find that the Jewish leaders were resourceful and they did come forward with an accusation, more or less right at that time. It had a number of parts. They said, “This man Jesus is going around perverting the nation, and he’s telling people not to pay taxes to Caesar, and besides he makes himself out to be a king.” Three parts, you see. Now, the first one was vague. He goes around perverting the nation. How does he go around perverting the nation? What’s he doing? They didn’t specify that.
The second of the three accusations was untrue, claiming that Jesus had taught people not to pay taxes to Caesar. As a matter of fact, he said just the opposite. Remember when they tried to trap him on that once, and he asked them for the coin. He asked them, “Whose picture is on it?” They answered, “Caesar’s.” Jesus then said, “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Pay the state its due, but make sure you honor God. So he was not guilty of telling people not to pay their taxes to Rome.
But this last thing was something that Pilate would take seriously: “He makes himself out to be a king.” Now although John doesn’t mention that, as I say, it’s implied because when Pilate begins the examination, which you find in verse 33, that’s the point he fastens on. He asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Now he wouldn’t have asked that if that hadn’t been part of the accusation. So what happens is that he has said to them that he is going to conduct a formal trial and do it right. They come up with an accusation on the spur of the moment, and then he beings his examination.
Now, at a Roman trial, there were four parts. The first was the indictment: “What is this man accused of?”—that’s what he asked. The second part was the examination. That’s what he’s doing. He brings Jesus inside and says, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He keeps asking questions. The third part was the defense, where the accused had an opportunity to answer the charges. Then, finally, there was a verdict. That’s exactly what’s going on here.
Contrast what we know about Pilate with how he conducts Jesus’ trial.
Why was the Sanhedrin seeking a quick trial for Jesus by Pilate?
List the three parts of the Sanhedrin’s charge against Jesus.
What were the four parts of a Roman trial?
For Further Study: For another encounter Jesus had with someone who was going to turn against him, download and listen for free to James Boice’s message, “Jesus and Judas.” (Discount will be applied at checkout.)