Jesus Tries to Save Pilate
Last week we talked about three trials. We talked about the mock trial of Jesus before Annas and the Jewish leaders. The second trial was that of the Jewish nation before Jesus. The third was the trial of Peter and John in the courtyard before the people. All parties were found guilty as charged, the first wrongly, and the others rightly.
I am sure that every time that either Peter or John heard the crowing of a rooster in the future, that is would be a call to remembrance, as much as the broken bread and cup. Like the Lord's Supper, it is a call to humility and repentance before God. It was also a reminder to them, that this bitter failure was not the end, thanks to the grace of God. It is a reminder to us all that God will forgive us if we only truly repent.
Exposition of the Text
v. 28 It is interesting that John uses the present tense when describing the procession from Caiaphas' house to Pilate. Either one of two things can be meant here, or both. The first is that it is so vivid in John's mind that he is seeing it all over again. John, too like Peter, had failed to stand up for Jesus. Peter had run out with bitter tears, but John had remained undetected. He continued to observe from a distance, but his heart must have burned within him. The other use of the present tense emphasizes the journey itself. The literal translation into English is "They are leading Him from Caiaphas' house to the Praetorium". One can only imagine the sorrowful journey, the shame, the beating, the mocking, and the spitting. We are reminded of the words of Isaiah "He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, and we hid as it were our faces from Him" (Is 53:3).
The verse continues that the Jewish leaders stopped at the entrance to the Praetorium. They did not want to defile themselves so as not to be able to eat the Passover. Gentile houses were unclean, and rumors were that the Gentiles killed their unwanted children there. They were the leaders of the people. Even though they had no faith in God, they still bound themselves to the Laws regulations for appearance's sake. It gave them their sense of importance. These same leaders who so hypocritically wanted to remain ceremoniously clean were the same people Jesus had accused of crossing to the other side of the road to avoid the man who fell to thieves on the Jericho road (Luke 10:29-37). This road was so narrow with a steep drop off a cliff face, that crossing to that side put them in considerable danger of life and limb. Yet they were willing to risk all rather than defile themselves! They wanted to remain clean so they could eat the Passover lamb. How little did they understand that the true Passover Lamb was in their midst! How ignorant were they of exactly how unclean they really were! The very Passover Lamb who could make them clean was the victim of their abuse.
v. 29 Pilate must have been expecting them. He would have given the order for the Roman Cohort to join the soldiers of the High Priest to arrest Jesus. Pilate usually resided on the coast at Caesarea which was a more modern and Greek style city. But Passover was always a time of unrest in Israel. Passover was our version of the 4th of July, a
celebration of freedom from the domination of a foreign power, the Egyptians. It is easy to see the similarities between the Jews situation under Roman domination and their slavery in Egypt. There had been several popular revolts already which were met with Rome's cruel use of force. I would suppose that the Jewish leaders when they had asked for the soldiers had exaggerated the case that Jesus was about to lead an armed revolt against Rome. How ironic it was that Jesus' "army" consisted at that point of eleven scared men and only two small swords, hardly the means to carry out a violent revolt and
overthrow of Rome. However, this did not mean that Jesus could not have overthrown the Romans, as we are reminded later in the trial before Pilate that he could have called down a legion of angels for that purpose. Rome would fall to the followers of Jesus, all right, but not for three hundred years, and without the resort to violence. And we also know that Jesus will return and slay the followers of the beast with the sword of His mouth, which is by simply speaking the word.
Pilate goes out to them, an unusual concession, and perhaps a sign of weakness. Rome was not in the habit of condescension to any foreign subjects. The Roman view would have been that if they really wanted to condemn Jesus that they would have to bring Jesus into the hall of judgment with them. This dealing from a position of weakness would cost Pilate dearly when he later on tried to have Jesus released. But Pilate's weakness and the rage of the Jewish leaders would only serve to unwittingly fulfill God's plan.
So Jesus was brought before the military tribunal of that day, conducted by the Roman governor, Pilate. So Pilate asks the Jews what charge they had against Jesus. I can only imagine that Pilate had the expectation of seeing some husky man with the look of a warrior and leader. But the same 53rd chapter of Isaiah we quoted before says that his appearance was only average at best (Isaiah 53:2). So the appearance of Jesus must have come as some surprise.
v. 30 The response of the Jewish leaders is again somewhat strange. They were walking a political tightrope. They were in the position that they could not afford to lose respect of the people by judging someone on the Passover and becoming unclean. Man of the common Jews had thought their leadership had sold out to the Romans. And they dared not offend Rome either. Pilate had the reputation of being ruthless. His cruelty to the Jewish people would get him removed as governor. So they spoke in political babble, saying that they would not have bothered to bring Jesus to Pilate before the crack of dawn if He wasn't an evildoer. But as we have already seen, Pilate had at least a pretty good idea of what the Jews accused Jesus of being.
v. 31 Pilate's answer was emphatic. You take Him and judge Him according to your Law. Pilate was not about to lower himself to the level of the Jews in conducting a trial without a specific charge. And that charge would have to be that He was guilty of breaking Roman law. The Jews had already been given the authority to conduct their own trials in cases of non-capital offenses. He was not about to act as a judge in a dispute over the interpretation of the Jewish law. Pilate was shrewd enough to see the mischief that would result if he, a Roman, interfered in this affair. He was trying to prevent a riot, not create one.
The Jews responded that their authority did not allow them to execute anyone. Still they have not specified the charge against Jesus. Still Pilate was not about to try Jesus on the basis that he had committed a capital offense against Jewish law.
v. 32 John explains to us here that all of this was happening to fulfill the prophecy in Scripture. There are several Scriptures which can be cited besides Isaiah 53. Psalm 22 also talks about it, Deuteronomy says that anyone hung on a tree is cursed. Several other Scriptures could be cited as well. All of the actors in this drama, the Jewish Leaders, the people who would shout "Crucify Him!", Pilate, the Lord Jesus, and the disciples were acting to fulfill Scripture. This does not mean that they were robots. They acted out of their own free will, for good or ill, to fulfill God's purpose. For Jesus, fulfillment was in a positive way by submitting to the will of the Father. For the others, it was in a negative way, but still God's will is done.
The form of capital punishment used by the Romans against subject people and slaves for treason was crucifixion. Jesus had to die that death of hanging on the tree, to become a curse for us. Crucifixion was especially gruesome. It was done very publicly as a deterrent to others committing the same crime. The Romans had once crucified 6,000 rebels on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho as a warning that they would not tolerate anyone rebelling against their authority.
Crucifixion was meant to shame the individual. The victim was hung naked just above eye level. There is something horrible in the psychology of the crowd which witnesses an execution. Public hangings were stooped because this amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. People, including those who knew nothing about what the victim allegedly had done would start mocking and degrading the individual. They would spit in the faces of the victim. The victim lost his/her status as a human being and became a mere animal. Crucifixion also caused intense suffering which would cause many of the victim to curse and swear violently, which would only incite the crowd to torment the poor victim more. Jesus' composure in the face of this on the cross must have influenced the Roman Centurion's statement "Surely, this man was the Son of God (Mark 15:39). What a statement for a man sworn to loyalty to Rome, and Rome's emperor who was considered to be the son of god.
v. 33 Pilate goes back inside again to question Jesus. He looks at Jesus and says either You, You are the King of the Jews!", "So then, You are the King of the Jews!" or "Are You the King of the Jews?" depending on how one translates the Greek. The first of the possibilities is that Pilate is taken back from Jesus' appearance. He sees nothing in Jesus' looks and bearing which would make Jesus appear as a threat to either Pilate or Rome. The second possibility is a sneer of contempt, something like "So this is what these Jews think is their king -- Some king!" The third possibility is that Pilate simply asked Him a question. I think this is unlikely, considering this would be asking Jesus to incriminate Himself, which was against Roman law. Pilate was careful about proper charges being filed, and I don't think he would have been careless here. Pilate had a lot of enemies, so he would have to carefully and exactly adhere to Roman law. The second possibility would be in line with Pilate's attitude to the Jews in general and documented elsewhere. But I think that Pilate was actually caught off guard by Jesus. He was not at all what Pilate had expected. The fact that he took the time to examine Jesus privately showed that the encounter with Jesus had an effect on him.
v. 34 Jesus' answer must have startled Pilate. Pilate was a man of authority, commissioned by Rome as governor, with the power of life and death, so he thought, concerning this Jesus who stood before him. Usually the prospect of death, and death by crucifixion, would make ones knees shake in terror. There is almost an instinctive desire under circumstances like this to cower and beg for one's life, or else if all was lost, to be
combative. But Jesus turns the tables on Pilate and asks him a question. Jesus is taking control of the proceedings by asking Pilate a question. I think he asked the question in a respectful and not with an in-your-face attitude. Again we have multiple trials going on. Pilate is not only conducting the trial. He is being tried himself!
The question is one that demands a response from everyone who hears it. It isn't enough to know what others say about Jesus. Every person, including Pilate must respond for his or her own self. As Jesus asked first His disciples at Caesarea Philippi, "Who do men say is the Son of Man?" (Mt. 16:13), He follows up with the question "But Who do you say that I am? (Mt. 16:15).
v. 35 Pilate's response here is one of frustration. He couldn't get a straight answer from the Jews. And he can't get one from Jesus either. He snorts, "Certainly, I am not a Jew, am I?" He still thinks that this is a dispute over the Jewish laws and customs. Besides making it very clear that he is not Jewish, and probably very glad he isn't either, he is wondering how he could be competent to judge such matters. He throws the situation back to Jesus emphatically stating that it had been His own people who had delivered Him to Pilate, not the Romans. "What have you done to get here?, he asks Jesus. Again, there is irony here. No one can be a true Jew who does not believe in Jesus. In a way, Pilate's refusal to answer the question says that Pilate is making not claim to be a Christian either. The purpose of the Gospel of John in John 20:31 is that anyone who will believe that Jesus is God's Messiah might have eternal life through His name. Jesus here
is bearing direct witness to Pilate to challenge him to believe.
In the beginning of the Gospel, we read "He came unto His own, and his own people did not accept Him (John 1:11). Here the rejection of the Jewish people and nation is brought out by a Gentile. "Your own people have betrayed you", Pilate says. The word translated "delievered" is the same word used by Judas to betray Jesus, so the idea of the betrayal of the Jews is not too strong to use here. They betrayed Jesus into the hands of a detestable foreign power rather than to take responsibility themselves. But this betrayal also brought with it an opportunity for a Gentile to hear for himself the gospel. The God who is not willing that any should perish, was not willing for Pilate to perish either. And Paul makes mention of Jesus witnessing "the good confession before Pontius Pilate" (I Tim. 6:13).
v. 36 Jesus' response is even stranger than the last one. Jesus cannot deny who He is. He had to bear true testimony concerning Himself regardless of the consequences. But He also makes it clear that He isn't another Caesar wanna-be. Dictators of this world rule with a strong arm, and are also backed by a strong police force and army. Sadaam Hussein and the dictator of North Korea are good examples, as was the example of Herod the Great when Jesus was born. All opposition to the rule of the dictator are put down with brutal force. If Jesus' kingdom was like worldly kingdoms, His army would back Him up. So Jesus affirms that He is a king. But at the same time, He affirms that His kingdom is no immediate threat to Caesar's.
God's kingdom is upheld by the Word of God. The world was created by Jesus Himself speaking "Let there be...." The whole universe is sustained by God. And when Jesus returns, he will as we noted earlier win the final battle over evil by speaking the Word. Rome could not stand one minute without God's will, so fighting against it with human weapons is ridiculous. And if Jesus Himself submitted Himself to the authority which
God had granted Rome, it is also an example to Christians at all times everywhere, that the use of earthly force is not the way to proclaim the Christian message. As a matter-of- fact, it displays a lack of faith in God's Providence.
v. 37 Pilate again asks Jesus if He is a king. This time the Greek indicates that Pilate expects an affirmative answer. Jesus had not given an answer the first time, but now Pilate is again asking Jesus to declare Himself. Remember this is a trial, and what Jesus answers could very easily be used against Himself. Certainly, Jesus knew that. You get the idea here that Pilate is already trying to wash his hands of the affair and is skating on legal thin ice to ask Jesus a question that is self-incriminating.
Jesus clearly and unambiguously states to Pilate that He indeed is a king. Just as Jesus's response to Caiaphas' final charge whether He was the son of God (Mt 26:63) clearly became the means of the Jews' conviction of Him, these words left Jesus completely open to the charge of treason. But again He makes it clear that is was His purpose for coming into the world to bear witness of the truth. And again, Jesus is bold and firm enough to challenge Pilate to accept Him, He says, "Everyone who is of the truth comes to Me." He did not want Pilate to perish, but repent. Jesus had come to Him. Now Jesus was returning the favor by inviting Pilate to come to Him. We just don't know. Perhaps at some later time, Pilate took up the offer--but not today.
v. 38 Pilate was obviously rattled. Here he had Jesus' own confession that he was a king. It would have been easy for him to have convicted Jesus on Jesus' own words. Politically, it would have been expedient for Pilate to have simply let one person die, rather than to risk a riot and lose his place as governor. Following Jesus has a high cost. Pilate was greatly troubled about the truth Jesus presented to him. The Greek mind held truth to be something which existed in the mind, an idea, or factual statements. Philosophical truth was subjective, just as it is today in post-modern America. Everyone can have their own truth, their own concept of right and wrong. The truth of the natural world involved observation of things with the senses. But here, truth is being presented in a relationship with a person, Jesus Christ. His question becomes our question, "What is Truth?" Jesus response to us is found in John 14:6, "I am the truth, the Life, and the Way. No one comes to the Father but by me."
Pilate was so moved, that instead of returning outside condemning Jesus, he came back saying the charges were baseless. Here is the beginning of Pilate becoming a believer in Jesus. But like Peter, he was not yet up to the test. We can only hope that later on he became a Christian.
As we have noted, there are two trials going on here. The one trial happened long ago. We know that Jesus would go to the cross and die for our sins. We know that the Father raised Him up and that He has ascended back to where He was before the world was. Jesus passed the trial with flying colors which, in turn, gives us hope.
The second trial goes on to this day. No, not for Pilate. His trial ended long ago. We can only hope for the best for him, but we don't at this time know how things finally ended for him. There have been countless millions since who have been confronted with "The Truth". Only God knows how the story ended for them. We can only hope in the God who was so unwilling anyone perish that He sent His Only-Begotten Son to die for the "whosoever will". We have covered just a little bit of his suffering for us this morning. We will all find out some day, if God wills.
What concerns me is the trial going on today. In a way we are all being confronted with the truth of Jesus, from His word. How are we going to respond to this confrontation with the "Truth of God." Will we turn away. Will we try to find truth somewhere else? I ask us all honestly this morning, Does anything else really matter? If we do not hear at the end of time "Well done, good and faithful servant...Enter into the joy of the Lord", all we have done and all the truth we have sought after will be for naught. And even worse it the unending misery the rejection of "The Truth" will cause.
We are also confronted with the mandate to witness. Jesus commands us to bear it, to everybody. The Greek even says "to every creature, just in case we consider some to be less than human (Mt. 28:19-20). Jesus had to stand alone and bring testimony before Pontius Pilate. But when we bear witness, we have the confidence that we are not alone. He will be with us till the end of the age. Amen.