THE CIVIL TRIALS
(Mt 27.11-26; Mk 15.1-15; Lk 23.1-25; Jn 18.28-19.16)
It was envy that drove Israels leaders to the despicable lengths of murdering their own Messiah (Mt 27.18). Forbidden from executing the death sentence themselves, they hurriedly led the Lord Jesus to Pilate (Jn 18.28,29). Caiphas, as Israels high priest, carried the greatest guilt (Jn 19.11). His father-in-law and previous high priest, Annas, had been removed from office for unlawfully executing someone. This must have played a major part in Caiphas decision to involve Pilate. And yet, unbeknown to this wicked man, who as Israels spiritual head should have been thoroughly acquainted with Old Testament Scriptures, this turn of events ensured that Christ died by crucifixion (Jn 18.32), His hands and His feet pierced (Ps 22.16), rather than by Jewish stoning, which would have broken His bones and an important Passover regulation (Ex 12.46).
Passover was in fact so near, that the Jews, fearing defilement, refused to enter the "praetorium" (Jn 18.28, JND) the Gentile governors official Jerusalem residence and "judgment hall" (Jn 18.28, AV). Filled with impatience, they did everything in their power to ensure a swift end. They brought the Saviour as soon as possible; while "it was early" (Jn 18.28), probably between 4 and 5am. By charging Him with the treasonable offences of perverting the nation, tax evasion (an utterly false allegation, Mt 17.24-27), making regal claims (which was true enough), and stirring up the people throughout Jewry, they guaranteed Pilates intervention (Lk 23.2,5,14). They were fierce and persistent in their accusations (Lk 23.5,10,23). They shamelessly manipulated the crowd (Mt 27.20), and blackmailed Pilate into delivering the Lord Jesus "to their will" (Lk 23.25) - "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesars friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar" (Jn 19.12). Suddenly everything came together. Pilate passed sentence just after six (Jn 19.14),1 and the true Passover was slain by nine (Mk 15.25; 1 Cor 5.7).2
Israel chose sinful Barabbas over the Holy Son of God (Lk 23.18-19; Jn 19.7), and having rejected their King pledged undying allegiance to Caesar (Jn 19.15). And they have paid dearly for their choice: "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap" (Gal 6.7). Their foolish exclamation, "His blood be on us, and on our children (Mt 27.25), has rung true through centuries of suffering and will finally climax during the Great Tribulation, "the time of Jacobs trouble" (Jer 30.7).
Pilate the Governor
Even though Scripture is completely sufficient in itself to nourish our souls, secular historical data can often enhance our understanding of the Biblical text. This record of Pilates encounter with the Jews, with its underlying current of ill feeling, is no exception. Early in his rule Pilate provoked widespread riots by placing military standards bearing the emperors image within sight of the Jerusalem temple. He then yielded to Jewish pressure and removed them. On another occasion, in spite of Jewish objections, he plundered the temple treasury to sponsor the building of an aqueduct. At one time Pilates soldiers even killed Galileans while they offered temple sacrifices (Lk 13.1). Perhaps most significantly, in AD 32 Pilate hung golden shields, bearing the emperors name as a deity, in Herods palace. This so enraged the Jews, and even Herod Antipas, that Caesar himself intervened.
This is the man who now faced a terrible choice. Would Pilate condemn the Lord Jesus Christ because of fanatical Jewish demands, or have the courage to release Him? Roman law was not at stake. Jesus of Nazareth was not a Roman citizen and therefore had very few legal rights. It was rather a matter of conscience. Something deep within this cruel Judean procurator sensed Christs greatness and the seriousness of being implicated in His death. This terrified Pilate (Jn 19.8). He therefore "kept seeking to release Him" (Jn 19.12, ALT), three times over declared His innocence (Lk 23.22), and did everything in his power to "pass the buck". Bypassing Israels leaders, he appealed to the crowds, giving them the worst possible alternative in Barabbas, a thieving and murdering revolutionary (Lk 23.19; Jn 18.40). Attempting to satisfy the Jews lust for blood, Pilate scourged and mocked the Saviour (Lk 23.16,22; Jn 19.1). He even sent Him to Herod on discovering He was a Galilean (Lk 23.6-12).
But all was in vain. The choice remained. And everything was against him. The dogged determination of the Jews, their merciless application of political pressure (Jn 19.12), made possible through Pilates many previous offences against them, and his own ambitions all contributed to his final decision. "Pilate, willing to content the people [and secure his political career, or so he thought], released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus, when he had scourged him, to be crucified" (Mk 15.15). It is ironic that Pilate soon lost his position anyway, being deposed from office in AD 36, and according to tradition ultimately taking his own life. "We often bring on us the evil we fear, by doing evil to escape it" (A. R. Fausset).
Jesus the King
The big question was, "Art thou the King of the Jews?" (Mt 27.11). Only days before, by riding into Jerusalem on a colt in accordance with prophecy, the Lord Jesus had unmistakably declared Himself to be Israels King (Zech 9.9). He affirmed it before Pilate (Mt 27.11). This matter of Christs Kingship was central to Israels accusations (Jn 19.12), formed a significant part of Pilates questioning (Jn 18.33,37,39), and was reiterated by His superscription: "This is Jesus the King of the Jews" (Mt 27.37). The answer to Pilates question is a resounding YES.
But what sort of a king is He? He is flawless. The warning from Pilates wife bore testimony to this (Mt 27.19). Careful examinations by Pilate and Herod came to the same conclusion (Lk 23.14,15, JND). Even the Jews, after several years of critical scrutiny, found no fault with Him; so much so, that the Lord Jesus had challenged them on this very point (Jn 8.46)? This explains the haziness of their accusations (Jn 18.29) and the wonderful display of Christs perfection before Pilate. During painful scourging, with heavy whips loaded with metal and bone (W. E. Vine), and unbridled vilification, the Lord Jesus remained calm and dignified. His silence was so contrary to normal human reaction "that the governor marvelled greatly" (Mt 27.12-14).
He is truth. Because human hearts are inherently deceitful (Jer 17.9) no earthly ruler, so far, has been completely trustworthy. The Lord Jesus Christ, being both the truth Himself (Jn 14.6), and unfailingly bearing "witness unto the truth" (Jn 18.37), is the exception. He is God. The Old Testament teaches that "the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed" (1 Sam 2.3). Therefore, the Saviours ability to accurately measure degrees of guilt proved His deity (Jn 19.11). Israel may have rejected Jehovah as their King in the past (1 Sam 8.7; 10.19), but when in the future Messiah sits as both God and man upon Davids throne, Israels theocracy will be fully restored. The assertion that neither Christ nor His Kingdom are of this world (Jn 18.36) does not deny a visible manifestation of that Kingdom on earth, but simply emphasises its heavenly origin and character.
If envy was the root cause of Israels rejection of Messiah, and the driving force behind their murderous plans, let us with Gods help guard our hearts against this most bitter sin: "envy [is] the rottenness of the bones" (Prov 14.30). Pilate not only warns against worldly ambition but also reminds us that men simply cannot wash their hands of the Lord Jesus (Mt 27.24). Whatever evasive steps are taken, the challenge remains, "What think ye of Christ? (Mt 22.42). Herod was fascinated (Lk 23.8) and Pilate amazed (Mt 27.14), but neither entered the Kingdom, for "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit [second birth], he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (Jn 3.5). And this new birth depends on faith in Gods Word: "Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice" (Jn 18.37; 1 Pet 1.23). Barabbas experienced substitution first hand. It is very likely that the central cross on which the Saviour died was meant for him. Our Lords own impeccable behaviour should also inspire us to more godly living for, as Paul wrote to Timothy, "I give thee charge in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession; That thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukeable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Tim 6.13,14).
To be continued.
1 John recorded Roman time from midnight; therefore "the sixth hour" was 6 am.
2 Marks times, by Jewish reckoning, were from 6 am; therefore, "the third hour" was 9 am.