We’ve already looked at the first three of the six trials that Jesus went through prior to His crucifixion and resurrection. A closer look at these trials shows that Jesus clearly received some very unfair treatment during these proceedings.
For example, take a look at this list of legal rules that were broken while Jesus stood trial before the religious leaders of His day…
- All criminal cases must be tried in the daytime, and must be completed in the daytime.
- Criminal cases could not be conducted during the Passover season.
- Only if the verdict was “not guilty” could a case be finished on the day it was begun; otherwise night must elapse before the pronouncement of the verdict so that feelings of mercy might have time to arise.
- All evidence had to be guaranteed by two witnesses separately examined and having no contact with each other. And false witness was punishable by death. (1)
All these legal protections were broken in Jesus’ case.
Following Jesus’ trials before the religious authorities, He was taken to stand trial before the Roman court system. Now you might wonder why it was necessary for Jesus to go before a Roman court especially since He had just completed three other trials before the religious authorities. Well, the answer is that it wouldn’t have been necessary except for one important thing.
You see, the religious authorities felt that Jesus had insulted God by claiming to be the Messiah and wanted to punish Him by giving Him the death penalty. However the Roman government (who controlled Israel at that time) had a rule that forbid the religious leaders to carry out a death sentence against anyone.
So in order for the religious authorities to have any chance of putting Jesus to death, it became necessary for Him to stand before a representative of the Roman government. In this case, the government’s representative was a man named Pontius Pilate.
Pontius Pilate was the governor over the Judea area of Israel from 26-36 AD and had total authority over the non-Roman citizens who lived within this area. Pilate apparently did not have a very good relationship with the Jewish people at the time of Jesus’ arrest and it’s said that some had already made complaints to the Roman Emperor about the way they were treated under his leadership.
Because of this, it’s likely that Pilate had a strong desire to keep things quiet and under control, which may explain why he did some of the things he later did concerning Jesus. But before we get into that, let’s take a look at the events surrounding Jesus’ first meeting with Pilate which represents trial number four…
“Then the entire Council took Jesus over to Pilate, the governor. They began at once accusing him: ‘This fellow has been leading our people to ruin by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is our Messiah– a King'” (Luke 23:1-2).
Now if you’re sharp, you’ll notice that the charges against Jesus have suddenly changed, haven’t they?
When the religious leaders first put Jesus on trial, the charge against Him was blasphemy. But as soon as Jesus was made to stand before a Roman authority, He was suddenly portrayed as someone who encouraged people not to pay taxes and who also claimed to be a king (which of course, would make Him a competitor to the current Roman leaders).
How did Jesus suddenly become an accused tax evader and king when the real issue was whether or not He was the Messiah? Well, the answer is actually pretty easy. Remember that Pontius Pilate was an agent of the Roman government and really didn’t care about such “religious” questions such as Jesus’ claim to be the Savior.
Therefore, the charges against Jesus had to be presented in way that would appeal to a Roman secular (or non-religious) court. The best way to do that was to deliver the charges in a way that was sure to be a concern to a Roman political leader like Pontius Pilate…
- “We have found this man subverting (or trying to overthrow) our nation” (NIV). Certainly Pilate would be interested in taking action against a person like that.
- “He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar…” (NIV). That speaks for itself.
- “…(He) claims to be Christ, a king” (NIV) who would therefore be opposed to the Roman Emperor Caesar or even Pilate himself.
So in response to these accusations, Pilate decided to question Jesus directly…
“So Pilate asked him, ‘Are you their Messiah– their King?’ ‘Yes,’ Jesus replied, ‘it is as you say.’ Then Pilate turned to the chief priests and to the mob and said, ‘So? That isn’t a crime!'” (Luke 23:3-4)
But Jesus’ accusers kept it up:
“Then they became desperate. ‘But he is causing riots against the government everywhere he goes, all over Judea, from Galilee to Jerusalem!’ ‘Is he then a Galilean?’ Pilate asked. When they told him yes, Pilate said to take him to King Herod, for Galilee was under Herod’s jurisdiction; and Herod happened to be in Jerusalem at the time” (Luke 23:5-7).
Pilate obviously wanted to avoid dealing with this whole situation and it appears that he saw a possible way out: “If this man Jesus is from the Galilee area then that means I can pass him off to Herod. Galilee is Herod’s area of responsibility- let him handle it.” So Jesus was sent off to stand before Herod for trial number five.
The “Herod” mentioned above was a man named Herod Antipas. Antipas was the very same guy who had earlier arranged to have John the Baptist’s head chopped off (see Matthew 14:1-12 for the story). His father, Herod the Great, was the guy who killed all of the male infants in Bethlehem while attempting to eliminate Jesus when He was a baby (see Matthew 2:1-1). Herod the Great later went on to murder all of his sons with the exception of Antipas. Because of this it was said of his family, “It’s better to Herod’s pig than to be his son.”
Luke continues the story:
“Herod was delighted at the opportunity to see Jesus, for he had heard a lot about him and had been hoping to see him perform a miracle. He asked Jesus question after question, but there was no reply.
Meanwhile, the chief priests and the other religious leaders stood there shouting their accusations. Now Herod and his soldiers began mocking and ridiculing Jesus; and putting a kingly robe on him, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate– enemies before– became fast friends” (Luke 23:8-12).
To Herod, Jesus was just a magician, worthy only for His entertainment value. So when Jesus refused to perform any tricks for his amusement, Herod and his men totally insulted and made fun of Him and then sent Him back to Pilate.
So despite his best efforts, Pilate was unable to get away from the responsibility of deciding Jesus’ case. On the one hand, it seems that Pilate was unwilling to convict a Man that he knew was innocent. But on the other hand, he was still unwilling to stand up to Jesus’ accusers.
So in an effort to avoid making a decision that he’d really rather not make, Pilate made an attempt to reason with everyone involved…
“Then Pilate called together the chief priests and other Jewish leaders, along with the people, and announced his verdict: ‘You brought this man to me, accusing him of leading a revolt against the Roman government. I have examined him thoroughly on this point and find him innocent.
Herod came to the same conclusion and sent him back to us– nothing this man has done calls for the death penalty. I will therefore have him scourged with leaded thongs and release him'” (Luke 23:13-16).
Luke 23:18 tells us that the entire crowd reacted to this attempt to release Jesus by shouting, “Away with this man…” Now Pilate was in an even more difficult situation -but still… there just might be one last way out…
“Now, it was Pilate’s custom to release one Jewish prisoner each year at Passover time– any prisoner the people requested. One of the prisoners at that time was Barabbas, convicted along with others for murder during an insurrection. Now a mob began to crowd in toward Pilate, asking him to release a prisoner as usual.
How about giving you the “‘King of Jews'”? Pilate asked. ‘Is he the one you want released?’ (For he realized by now that this was a frame-up, backed by the chief priests because they envied Jesus’ popularity)” (Mark 15:6-10).
In addition to being a murderer and a guy who tried to overthrow the government, Barabbas is also spoken of in the Bible as “a robber” (John 18:40) and a “notorious criminal” (Matthew 27:16).
Although we don’t know the exact details of Barabbas’ crimes the chances are good that he was a particularly bad criminal because it seems that Pilate is trying to make a contrast between him and Jesus. In effect, Pilate is saying this: “Who do you want me to release? This notorious criminal, murderer, robber and insurrectionist Barabbas or Jesus whose only ‘crime’ is His claim to be your King?”
You see, Pilate wasn’t stupid. He knew that the real reason that Jesus was brought to him was because the religious leaders were jealous over Jesus’ popularity and influence (see Mark 15:10). Pilate also knew that if Jesus had not gotten on the wrong side of the religious elite, none of this would be happening.
So Pilate’s response was to bypass the religious leaders and go straight to the people. The idea was simple: if Pilate could convince the people to let him release Jesus instead of Barabbas, he could then go back to the religious authorities and say, “I’m really sorry but the people have spoken. They want me to release Jesus instead of Barabbas and I must follow the will of the people.” It was the perfect plan!
Or so it seemed…
“But at this point the chief priests whipped up the mob to demand the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. ‘But if I release Barabbas,’ Pilate asked them, ‘what shall I do with this man you call your king?’ They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ ‘But why?’ Pilate demanded. ‘What has he done wrong?’ They only roared the louder, ‘Crucify him!'” (Mark 15:11-14)
At the instigation of the religious leadership the people suddenly started to call for Barabbas’ release and Jesus crucifixion. Pilate then made the decision to severely whip Jesus (even though he knew Jesus wasn’t guilty) and allow his soldiers to disgrace Jesus by beating Him, giving Him a “crown” made of thorns and dressing Him up in a robe of purple, the color of royalty (see John 19:1-3). Pilate then presented Jesus -now beaten and bloodied- to the people.
The reaction was anything but sympathetic…
“Pilate went outside again and said to the Jews, ‘I am going to bring him out to you now, but understand clearly that I find him not guilty.’ Then Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said, ‘Behold the man!’
At sight of him the chief priests and Jewish officials began yelling, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ ‘You crucify him,’ Pilate said. ‘I find him not guilty.’ They replied, ‘By our laws he ought to die because he called himself the Son of God.’ When Pilate heard this, he was more frightened than ever” (John 19:4-8).
This whole situation was starting to get dangerously out of control and was quickly turning into something a lot bigger than Pilate had expected. The pressure began to increase even further as the religious authorities changed their approach…
“Then Pilate tried to release him, but the Jewish leaders told him, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar’s. Anyone who declares himself a king is a rebel against Caesar'” (John 19:12).
Uh-oh. The last thing that Pilate wanted was for Caesar to get the idea that he was unable to keep things under control within his area of responsibility. This not-so-subtle threat by the religious leaders provided a clear message to Pontius Pilate: Give us Jesus to be crucified or we’ll make sure that it costs you your job.
Now to this point, Pilate has worked very hard to avoid taking responsibility for deciding Jesus’ fate but as we’ll see in a moment, he has almost reached the point where he will no longer be able to escape his responsibility. Pontius Pilate is about to answer the question that everyone will eventually have to answer: What will you do with this man Jesus who claims to be the Savior?
Pilate’s final decision -and the motivations for it- are summed up in two lines from the gospel of Mark:
“Then Pilate, afraid of a riot and anxious to please the people, released Barabbas to them. And he ordered Jesus flogged with a leaded whip, and handed him over to be crucified” (Mark 15:15).
This marked the end of Jesus’ sixth and final trial. Although he tried to wash his hands of the whole matter (see Matthew 27:24), Pilate couldn’t escape responsibility for his actions. Unfortunately, the sad truth is that Pontius Pilate didn’t act very differently in the end than people often do today.
You see, Pilate had an opportunity to do what was right and courageous but he chose not to. Like many people today, Pilate knew what was right but did what was wrong because he was more concerned about what people thought than he was about doing what was right.
The Doctor hopes that your choices will be different.
If you’d like to continue with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, take a look over here.
(1) William Barclay Gospel of Matthew Vol. 2 page 354