Pontius Pilate was not in a pleasant mood. For more than six years he had ruled in Judea for the Emperor Tiberius, longer than any procurator before him; more than long enough, in his opinion, for any one man to be assigned to such an outpost. It was not so much that the climate or even the country itself was bad. There were many good things to be said for the land. What made life so burdensome in this part of the world was the people, their eternal contentiousness, their constant vying with each other for control, and the various contrasting shades of nationality represented among them. In fact, all Jews seemed alike in only one respect, a hatred for Rome.
In Pilates opinion, other captive peoples had shown their good judgment by accepting Roman rule for what it was, the strongest civilizing influence the world had ever known. The Jews were different, and even after years as ruler of Judea, the governor admitted that he had never come really to understand them. The priestly class, under Caiaphas and Annas, were as luxury-loving and greedy as any Roman official. Those impulses he could understand, but the self-righteousness of the Pharisees and the absurd attention to ritual was another matter.
Then there were fanatics, like followers of the criminal Barabbas who was a prisoner in the dungeon of the Fortress Antonia, headquarters for the Roman soldiers in Judea. Pilate had learned that the religious festivals were always times of tension in which rebels flocked to the city, often with the intention of proclaiming themselves as leaders, prophets, or even Messiahs. At times like these, a strong hand was needed in Jerusalem and this required the procurators presence.
When Pilate traveled from his headquarters in Caesarea to Jerusalem with his wife Claudia Procula, he occupied the truly royal palace of Herod the Great, rather than the fortified barracks of Antonia. Since the palace became property of the state, Roman procurators resided there and it was a more comfortable place for a governors wife.
Along with Pilate and his wife came the elite Italian regiment, headed by a centurion named Cornelius. Among a sea of discontented Jews, they made up a personal guard of trusted familiar faces for the governor. These soldiers occupied a fortified area adjacent to the palace and could be called on to crush any uprising at a moments notice. Pilate and Cornelius were friends and the procurator relied on him heavily for the most important tasks.
The Roman trial also composed of three stages: first interrogation by Pilate at the former palace of Herod the Great; questioning by Herod Antipas at the old Maccabean (Hasmonean) palace, his Jerusalem residence; and second interrogation by Pilate at Herod the Greats palace.
First Interrogation by Pilate
From the house of Caiaphas the procession of Christ, surrounded by Temple guards and the entire council of the Sanhedrin, walked briskly up the street to the main gate of Herods grand palace, Mount Zions highest point. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were not a part of the conspiracy. John alone followed behind.
Just before sunrise, a rude awakening came from Caiaphas. He spoke to the guard at the gate, We have urgent business with the governor! Time is of the essence and we must speak with him immediately! You can see we already have the prisoner with us waiting for him to dispense justice. He must come out to us since, according to our law, entering the palace would make us ceremonially unclean. If defiled, the leaders could not partake in the Passover festivities until the evening after 6 pm (next Jewish day).
Pilate let them wait until he had finished breakfast. He was already grumbling about their hypocrisy and inconsiderate behavior when he appeared on the elevated terrace overlooking the courtyard. The governor studied the faces of the waiting leaders who had summoned him to dispense justice. Then he noticed Jesus, bound and standing quietly in front of them. He didnt look like a criminal.
What is your charge against this man? Pilate demanded angrily, since definite accusations were needed to proceed with Roman involvement.
The question startled and disconcerted the leaders. On the evening before, he had authorized a detachment of Roman guard to arrest the Nazarene. With an attempt at evasion they replied, We wouldnt have handed him over to you if he werent a criminal!
As planned, the high priest and others shouted their accusations from the gate using their political rebel strategy, This man has been leading our people to ruin by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king.
Then take him away and judge him by your own law, Pilate ordered.
Caiaphas replied in false humility, We have already found him guilty. We know only Romans are permitted to execute someone, and that is why we brought him to you. It fulfilled the Lords prediction about the way he would die.
Pilate thought to himself, Im not going to let them do my work for me. But he said aloud to the Jews, Have your prisoner brought to me while I examine him. He went back inside the palace while Jesus was taken to him by Roman guards.
Are you King of the Jews? Pilate asked. This question was almost a code for any numerous rebels against Rome.
Jesus replied, Is this your own question, or did someone else suggest the idea to you?
Am I a Jew? Your own people and their leading priests brought you here. Why? What have you done?
I am not an earthly king. If I were, my followers would have fought when I was arrested by the Jewish leaders. But my kingdom is not of this world.
You are a king then?
You say that I am a king, and you are right. I was born for that purpose. I came to bring truth to the world. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.
What is truth? Pilate asked. It was not merely cynicism that reflected in this question for all ages, but utter despair of all that is higher. He understood the Savior, but it was not in him to respond to his appeal. His heart and life had so little kinship to the truth that he could not perceive the grand aim of Christs life and work. Even so, Pilates question was an implied homage to Jesus.
The governor went back outside to the leading priests and elders, I find no basis for a charge against him.
From the assembled Sanhedrists came a perfect hailstorm of accusations.
Pilate asked Christ, Dont you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?
But he made no reply, not even to a single chargeto the great amazement of the governor. Did this man not even fear death, or had he so far conquered it that he would not condescend to their words? Why then had he spoken of his kingdom and of truth? On this vague charge, the procurator refused to proceed.
Caiaphas now used the people to build his case, This false Messiah is causing riots all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here to Jerusalem! At the signal, the gathering crowd began shouting.
On hearing this, Pilate asked, Then the prisoner is a Galilean?
The centurion Cornelius, standing behind him, confirmed it, Yes, sir. He is a Galilean from Nazareth; and Tetrarch Herod Antipas is in Jerusalem for the Passover.
The governor breathed a sigh of relief. Here was a way out; let Herod take the blame since the Nazarene was under his jurisdiction. Take him to Herod, and personally see to his safety, he told Cornelius. A man should be judged by his own ruler.
Herod Antipas Questions Jesus
The sun began to rise above the Mount of Olives as Christ was bound once again, and this time surrounded by elite Roman bodyguards led by Cornelius. They quietly escorted him through a private gate away from the people in the street; and with his accusers following, headed eastward down the slope to Herod Antipas palace near the western gate of the Temple.
Herod was relieved when word came from Pilate that the Nazarene teacher had been arrested, and he was delighted at the opportunity to see him. The tetrarch considered this a mark of reconciliation between himself and the Roman; and in a flattering manner, since the first step had been taken by the governor by an almost ostentatious acknowledgment of the tetrarchs rights. Now he could finally see the Messiah perform a miracle, sign, or possibly shout the same denunciations as John the Baptist. Antipas still had guilty feelings about Johns murder, and now, once for all, his burning question about the Baptist could be answered.
When the procession arrived, Herod sent his Jewish bodyguards and servants to escort Christ and the leaders of the Sanhedrin into the audience chamber. Cornelius and the Roman guards waited outside the gate, securing the area.
As soon as Antipas entered the room, Caiaphas and the other leaders again brought false charges against Jesus and repeated the condemnation of the Sanhedrin. Then they summed up their case, He told us he was the Son of God and Messiah, King of the Jews, expecting Herod to be as outraged as his father was at any threat to his kingdom.
But it didnt work. Antipas had his own selfish agenda. Turning to Jesus, he demanded, Show us a miracle.
Christ remained silent.
A sign, then.
He said nothing.
Now for the really big question, Are you John the Baptist who has come back to life?
But the Savior refused to answer any of his questions.
Herod frowned with annoyance. He could almost believe the Nazarene pitied him; certainly his manner and refusal to speak fitted the assumption. But how could a man under sentence of death by the Sanhedrin pity the powerful Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea?
He shrugged it off and turned to a servant, Jesus claims to be King of the Jews. A king must be properly honored. Bring me a robe of purple and sandals for his feet.
The servant quickly brought a robe of Tyrenian purple which he draped about Christs shoulders. Another servant took off the worn sandals and laced on fine leather footgear from Herods own wardrobe.
Now you look like a king, the tetrarch mocked. Go back to Pontius Pilate and tell him I have named you King of the Jews.
Herod and his soldiers began to ridicule Jesus. This simulated worship was taking too much time. Caiaphas started to protest.
Antipas cut him off, Take this pretender back to Pilate. Neither you nor the Roman governor shall make me a scapegoat!
The chief priests had no choice; Herods trial was ended. They took Christ, still wrapped in the royal robe, back to Pilate. Upon returning, Cornelius reported that the tetrarch refused to take jurisdiction over him. The conspiracy was getting complicated.
When Jesus had been taken to Herod, the crowd settled down, and there was a brief interlude where Pilate could gather his thoughts. As he sat down in an ornate carved chair on a raised platform called the judgment seat, he felt a familiar soft hand upon his cheek. Pontius reached up and pressed Claudia Proculas fingers against his face. He immediately relaxed and gave a deep sigh.
My husband, I know you are troubled. I have also suffered much because of him in a dream. Please have nothing to do with this righteous man, she begged.
I wish this were all a dream, Pilate said wearily, and that it were over.
The Jews believe he is sent by their God as a warning. A warning from the dream world played on the superstitious nature of the governor, who believed in signs and omens.
Surely you dont believe any of this heresy, my dear, Pontius said, trying to convince himself as well as his wife.
What I hear of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth does not seem to be heresy. He teaches that all men should love and respect each other.
Pilate answered with a short laugh, In what world would that be? I only want to live long enough to shake the dust of this accursed country from my feet.
Then he remembered Christs words in his first interrogation and repeated them to Claudia, Jesus told me, My kingdom is not of this world. It is an interesting thought.
Why dont you let him go?
If I let the Nazarene go free, Caiaphas will have the Sanhedrin protest my action to Rome. You know how much I want to get away from this cursed land.
Could they make trouble for you because of a just decision?
Pilate nodded wearily. In this case, yes. The man was openly named King of the Jews by his followers; the Sanhedrin asked him to confirm to them that he was the Messiah, the Son of Godand he did. Even though he means a spiritual kingdom, I could never convince Tiberius of that.
What will you do then?
Caiaphas accomplices have stirred up a crowd of beggars and thieves, probably bribing or threatening them to demand the Nazarenes death. But there are many in Jerusalem who believe he is a prophet. Im trapped in between, but there are more procedures I can do to release Jesus and also satisfy his accusers.
Just then Cornelius returned with the prisoner and message from Herod, and Claudia returned to her quarters. The interlude was over.
Second Time before Pilate
Pilate came back out onto the terrace and summoned the chief priests, rulers, and the people. John walked among the crowd and hid himself among those near the gate. Nicodemus and Joseph arrived and weaved their way through the spectators, hoping to find someone they knew. They spotted John and slowly pushed toward him. They whispered, We had no part in this. What is happening to our Lord? The apostle gave them a brief summary of what he had witnessed that night.
From the lowliest beggar to the high priest, they all became quiet and listened closely while Pilate announced his verdict, You brought this man to me, accusing him of leading a revolt. I have examined him thoroughly on this point in your presence and find him innocent. Herod Antipas has come to the same conclusion and sent him back to us. Nothing this man has done calls for the death penalty. I will have him flogged, and then I will release him. The governor, hoping to enlist some popular sympathy, put this alternative to them to appease their thirst for vengeance. For a few moments it seemed as if it might have been successful; but was in vain.
Jesus or Barabbas
Now a multitude was gathering around the palace. It was not only to see what was about to happen, but to witness another spectaclethe release of a prisoner. At Passover season, the governors custom was to release one prisoneranyone the people requested. Among the prisoners at that time was Barabbas, who had committed murder during an insurrection. The Jewish leaders thought it might be easy to influence the people to choose Barabbas, since he belonged to that class which committed robbery and other crimes under the pretense of political reform. These movements had deeply struck root in popular sympathy.
Pilate knew very well that the Jewish leaders had arrested Jesus out of envy. But what he didnt know was that they had already persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas to be released, and for Christ to be put to death.
When the crowd came up and asked the governor for the release of a prisoner, he blindly asked them to make a choice, Which one do you want me to release to youBarabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?
The crowd shouted back their reply, Barabbas! Release Barabbas to us!
But if I set Barabbas free, Pilate asked, what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?
With one voice they cried out, Crucify him!
Why? What crime has he committed?
But they shouted even louder, insistently demanding that he be crucified. This was the most degrading form of execution and the ultimate humiliation for the lowest class of criminals who were not Roman citizens.
Pilate attempted a lesser punishment, I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore, I will have him flogged and then release him.
Under the governors orders, Christ was taken away from the crowds view into another courtyard where soldiers were waiting. After they removed his robe, they severely beat him with a lead-tipped whip. When Jesus was barely able to stand, the soldiers covered him with the purple robe, placed a crown of thorns on his head and a stick scepter in his right hand. Then they proceeded to mock him, shouting, Hail, King of the Jews! Christ had refused the gold crown that men had offered him many times so that he might have this crown of suffering.
Here Is the Man!
When Pilate sent for the prisoner, the brutal scene came to an abrupt end. He went outside again, saying to the people, I am going to bring him out to you now, but understand clearly that I find him not guilty.
When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, the procurator shouted, Here is the man!
That cry has been sounded in every age. There has only been one Man in all history who supremely matters to the world. Even though God allowed the governor to shout those words in that moment, the people in the street below were blind to the glory of what they saw.
The multitude was not satisfied with flogging. A mighty roar rose from the crowd, Crucify him!
But Pilate did not want to give in, You take him and crucify him. I find no basis for a charge against him.
Unwittingly and unwillingly, the chief priests insisted, By our laws he ought to die because he called himself the Son of God.
Christ Questioned Again
Those words caused the governor to again take Jesus back into the palace so they could talk privately. His first impression of the Nazarene had deepened during the trial, and it had now passed into the terror of superstition. He immediately asked, Where have you come from?
Since he could not have understood it, Christ returned no answer, and the feelings of the Roman became only more intense.
You wont talk to me? Pilate demanded. Dont you realize that I have the power to release you or to crucify you?
Even though battered and bloodied, the Savior was calm and assured, You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above, so the one who brought me to you has the greater sin.
The procurator knew no ordinary man or impostor spoke those words, and he earnestly wanted to set him free.
Caiaphas could see them inside and shouted, If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who declares himself a king is a rebel against Caesar. Former Emperor Augustus had inaugurated the prized title Friend of Caesar, and Pilate coveted this honor, hoping he would receive it on his return to Rome. He could not risk being called anti-Caesar and lose everything.
When the governor heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat, a platform that is called the Stone Pavement (Aramaic: Gabbatha). It was now about six oclock Friday morning and he said to the people, Here is your king.
Away with him, they yelled. Away with himcrucify him!
What? Crucify your king?
All the leading priests shouted back, We have no king but Caesar! According to the Law of Moses, with their own words they committed the ultimate sin of blasphemythe very accusation by which the Sanhedrin had condemned their Messiah to death.
Now Pilate was totally confused. Who could possibly understand these people? He suddenly realized he wasnt getting anywhere and that a riot was developing. He sent for a bowl of water and symbolically washed his hands before the crowd, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this man. The responsibility is yours! Well aware this ceremony was essentially a Jewish riteeven the words were Jewishhe hoped it would appear even more forceful because he was a Roman, and expose the guilt of Jewish resistance.
But this did not impress them, and the people yelled back, We will take responsibility for his deathlet his blood be on us and on our children! With this cry Judaism, in the person of its representatives, was guilty of denial of God, blasphemy, and apostasy.
Then, at last to satisfy the Jews, the governor released Barabbas to them, and ordered Jesus to be turned over to the Roman soldiers for crucifixion.
Greatest Wrong of the Ages
As Pilate went back into the palace, he moved like a man whose shoulders were weighted down by a heavy burden. He tried to do a just thing, but he could not escape the full legal and moral responsibility for his cowardly surrender to the Jewish leaders to keep his own office.
Guilt of the Sanhedrin is beyond dispute. Led by Annas and Caiaphas, both Pharisees and Sadducees united in the demand for the blood of Jesus. Annas and Caiaphas first began personal attacks against Christ at the beginning of his ministry when he cleansed the Temple, resisting their authority and exposing their greed and corruption. The Pharisees began attacks on theological and ecclesiastical grounds; and later the Sadducees joined the conspiracy against him, fearing a revolution. Judas was a mere tool of the devil and Sanhedrin. Full of remorse when he saw the Masters fate, he returned the betrayal money to the Pharisees and ended his own life. But there was enough guilt to go around for all the conspirators in the greatest wrong of the ages.
Jesus, who had no experience of death, was about to taste it, not only for himself but for everyone. The incarnate God-Man submitted himself vicariously to the deepest humiliation and paid the utmost penalty. Beyond this lies the deep unutterable mystery of Christs final conflict with Satan and bearing the penalty of our sins.