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Christ’s Civil Trial Before Pilate

John 18:28 – 19:16

The trial of Jesus Christ is history’s most egregious miscarriage of justice. The “Judge of all the earth” (Gen 18:25) was arraigned before petty human judges; the “exalted Lord of glory” (I Cor 2:8) was humiliated by being mocked, spit upon and beaten; the One who is the Truth (John 14:6) was by evil liars.

Last week, we looked at the religious trials of Jesus before Annas and Caiaphas who were committed to killing Christ. The trials they conducted were illegal; Jewish law prohibits examining and sentencing prisoners during the night, it also requires the testimony of witnesses as well as a waiting period before sentencing. But the Jewish leaders only wanted a veneer of legality to the murder of Christ. They wanted an expedient crucifixion because the next day was the Passover. Today we’ll look at Christ’s civil trial before Pilate as a whole.

First, we see Pilate examine Christ (18:28-38a). Christ’s religious trial had three phases: before Annas and Caiaphas, then early in the morning Jesus was condemned, and then sent to Pilate. The civil trial had three phases as well: Jesus questioned by Pilate, then by Herod, then once more by Pilate. Pilate was the governor of Judea from AD 26-36 and was not well-liked by the Jews because he was arrogant, cruel, and a fearful and indecisive man who simply wanted power. Three times he pronounced Jesus “not guilty” but, in the end, he allowed Him to be crucified.

Early in the morning (about 6 a.m.), the Jews took Christ to Pilate’s praetorium but would not go into his quarters lest they become defiled and unable to observe the Passover (28). They avoided ceremonial defilement by not entering a Gentile home while committing the worst of moral defilements by murdering the Son of God. What twisted legalistic religion! Pilate asked for the official charges (29). They replied by assaulting Jesus’ character but with no specific legal violation, affirmed Jesus’s innocence. Wary, Pilate sought to dismiss this as a Jewish matter they should handle (31). The Jews responded that they did not have the authority to put a man to death. This fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy that the Gentiles would be involved in his death (Mark 10:33-34).

Pilate shuttled back and forth between the interior of the praetorium where Christ was held and outside on the pavement where the Jews were gathered. Trying to assess if Jesus was a political threat to Rome’s imperial power, Pilate asked Christ if He was King of the Jews. Jesus replied that He was a King but not a political ruler to challenge Rome. Jesus had rejected the attempts to crown Him King. His kingdom was not of this world. The Messianic kingdom would not come about by human effort because it is a spiritual kingdom. Rome conquered by the sword; Jesus conquered by the Word of God and the Sword of the Spirit (Eph 6:17).

Jesus affirmed that He was a King, “born” (humanity) but for this cause He “came into the world” (deity, preexistent). He came to testify to the truth and those who seek the truth listen to him. Pilate’s cynically retorted, “What is truth?” Skeptics and postmodernists today don’t believe there is universal truth. Without God there can be no absolutes or objective truth, so truth becomes subjective, relative and pragmatic.

Secondly, we see Pilate confront the Jews (18:38b-19:6). Pilate faced the mob and said, “I find no fault in Him at all.” According to Jewish custom, a prisoner was released at Passover. Pilate asked if they wanted Him to release Jesus. The crowd insisted on Barabbas! The other gospel accounts tell us Barabbas was a robber, insurrectionist, and a murderer! In contrast, Jesus was the sinless Son of God. Pilate had Jesus scourged with a short whip with jagged pieces of metal and bone attached. Jewish law restricted the number of blows to 40, but the Romans had no such law. They beat the prisoner until the torturer was exhausted, or the commanding officer ordered him to stop, or the prisoner was dead. The body of the victim was often so lacerated that the muscles, veins, bones and even internal organs were exposed. Pilate, hoping this horribly brutal punishment would satisfy the bloodthirsty mob, presented Christ, bloody from the scourging, swollen from the beating, and declared “Behold the Man!” This pathetic spectacle elicited no sympathy from Jesus’ accusers. They shouted, “Crucify Him!”

Lastly, we see Pilate appease the crowd (19:7-16). When Pilate heard that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God (19:7, 8), he was afraid. The Romans and Greeks had many myths about the gods coming to earth as men. As a superstitious man, his fears grew. He asked Jesus where He was from, was He a god come to earth? He already knew Jesus was from Galilee. But Jesus did not answer him. There is a basic principle that God doesn’t reveal more truth to men when they reject the truth they already have. Pilate boasted that he had the authority to crucify or release Christ. If that were the case why didn’t he release Him? Pilate had already said three times that Jesus was innocent! Jesus stated that all authority comes from God. Not even the death of Jesus Christ is outside of the sovereignty of God. God is in complete control, but man is still accountable for his actions. Pilate would answer for his spineless, politically-motivated decision in the court of heaven. He made a feeble attempt to release Christ until the crowd shouted that he would be betraying Caesar. The Jewish crowd’s last words were, “We have no king but Caesar. We will not have this man reign over us” (Luke 19:14).

In conclusion, we see Pilate’s dilemma clearly expressed in Matthew 27:22, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” That is the question every person must answer. There are only two options: stand with the rejecters and crucifiers and face eternal damnation (Heb 6:6), or acknowledge Him as Lord and Savior (Rom 10:9) and be saved. There was no middle ground for Pilate and there is no middle ground for us today. Will you accept or reject Jesus Christ?