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The Life of Jesus - Series 13: Episode 5

Jesus tried by Pontius Pilate

| Martin Charlesworth
John 18:28-19:16
Luke 23:1-4
Luke 23:5-12
Luke 23:13-25
Matthew 27:11-31
Mark 15:1-20

The Sanhedrin insists that Pontius Pilate should try Jesus, find him guilty and have him crucified. Pilate cannot find any reason to do this but does so to have an easy life. All involved are 'judged' within a generation of Jesus' death.

The Sanhedrin insists that Pontius Pilate should try Jesus, find him guilty and have him crucified. Pilate cannot find any reason to do this but does so to have an easy life. All involved are 'judged' within a generation of Jesus' death.


Hello welcome to Series 13 and Episode 5, in which 'Jesus is tried by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate'. We are going to be studying this incident from John's Gospel and also from Luke's Gospel. In this episode, as in so many others recently, it is helpful to integrate the different Gospel accounts because they provide different perspectives and information, and give us a fuller story.

Introduction and Recap

I hope you have been with us in recent episodes, following the story of the dramatic events of the last week of Jesus' life. We are now in the third series that has looked at just one week of Jesus' life and there is a lot more still to happen. There has been a remarkable series of events. As I have explained in previous episodes, the underlying theme, as Jesus enters Jerusalem in this week, is the conflict between him and the religious establishment, the Sanhedrin, which was the Jewish ruling council, led by the High Priest and all the other religious authorities, who had formerly turned against Jesus. At the point we reach now, they have arrested him; tried him somewhat illegally but carried out a trial of him in the Sanhedrin court overnight on the Thursday night and Friday morning of the last week of Jesus' life. It has been an incredibly dramatic series of events that has taken place and they are all so very different. The mood has changed. The circumstances change so dramatically from the moment on Sunday when Jesus comes into Jerusalem with a vast crowd of people claiming him and welcoming him as the Messiah. From that moment onwards, things got more complicated because Jesus went into the Temple on Monday and created a real stir by overturning the tables of the market traders in the Temple who worked for the religious authorities. Then on Tuesday, there was a difficult conflict in the Temple compound to do with trick questions being asked of Jesus by the religious leaders.

On Wednesday, that fateful moment happened in Bethany, at a hospitality event where Jesus was being entertained with his disciples, when Judas Iscariot went to the authorities and offered to work with them to arrest Jesus. From that moment onwards, it became inevitable that Jesus' arrest would take place and it also became likely that it would happen very quickly. So it turned out. If Judas Iscariot went on Wednesday to meet the religious leaders,  within just over 24 hours, they actually arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. We followed that story in earlier episodes. We looked at the Last Supper on Thursday evening, as Jesus gathered the Twelve and we noticed in that story how Judas Iscariot left halfway through the meal, without any explanation and went off to the religious leaders and told them where he predicted Jesus was going to be shortly, which would be in the Garden of Gethsemane - a place that he went to often with his disciples, on the way home from Jerusalem to Bethany, where they were staying, just a short distance outside the city. We then saw the dramatic events of Jesus being in the Garden of Gethsemane: the great suffering, as he anticipated his arrest; the sleepiness of his disciples as he prayed; and then the trauma and drama of the sudden arrival of Judas Iscariot, with a group of religious leaders and Temple guards armed with lanterns so that they could clearly see; they wanted to find out who Jesus was, and he was betrayed by Judas with the famous sign of the kiss. We have seen that he was tried overnight informally at the High Priest's house. Caiaphas, the High Priest, gathered the Sanhedrin together and they had a quick trial in which they condemned him as a blasphemer and decided to hand him over to the Romans in the morning. All these events that I have described just now, take place in the scope of one evening, from the Last Supper through to handing over to the Romans. We are dealing with Thursday evening through to Friday morning. This was a night where all the participants were awake most of the night.

In the last episode, we saw the tragic story of Peter who, in the courtyard of the High Priest's house, was questioned by the servants of the High Priest as to whether he was a follower of Jesus. Three times he denied it and then realised what a terrible thing he had done, and went out and wept bitterly. Meanwhile, we also saw the story of Judas Iscariot, who as soon as he handed Jesus over realised the full implications of what he had done and the fact that Jesus was to be executed imminently. He couldn't cope with the thought of his responsibility in that area and he ended his life by suicide. This is really a night of high drama if ever there was one. We are now approaching the time of morning, and the next day.

Events are going to move fast early in the morning, because from the Jewish Sanhedrin's point of view, their task now was to get Jesus handed over to the Roman authorities. As stated in earlier episodes, the Sanhedrin's authority extended to ruling over the religious life of the Jews which was a very important part of their life. They could make lots of decisions on their own about the conduct of religion and they could deal with legal cases relating to religion without any interference from the Romans. They met regularly in Jerusalem. There were 70 members of the Council. The High Priest was usually the chair and they conducted their business on a regular basis. However, the Romans specifically prevented them from having the authority to execute any criminals, or those who had turned against their religion, or anyone else that they wanted to get rid of. They did not have that power. It was illegal. Therefore, the Sanhedrin is now in an awkward position. During the night, in their trial, they have condemned Jesus as a blasphemer who is worthy of death. They want to get him executed but they are not able to do it in any legal way. They are totally dependent on the cooperation of the Roman authorities, and this brings us to the person of Pontius Pilate.

Pontius Pilate has been in the story in the background of the Gospels and we have mentioned him on a number of occasions but now he becomes, quite suddenly, the central figure. Everything depends on the decision that he is just about to make. Pontius Pilate was representing the Roman Empire. He governed the province of Judea, of which Jerusalem was the central city - the Jewish capital. He, himself, lived on the coast in the Roman city of Caesarea, which they built. It was a coastal port and a military headquarters. That was his base. That is where he lived; he had a palace there but he came to Jerusalem regularly - at least three times a year for the major festivals. The reason he came was to keep a watchful eye on the crowds because these religious festivals could be occasions of uprisings, assassinations, discontent and riots against the Romans. There was a big military fortress in the centre of the city near the Temple and he could stay there, and could watch over everything that was happening. He had a reputation for harshness and wasn't popular with the Jews but he was the ruling governor. He was mostly concerned in Jerusalem that there should be public order and peace, and no rioting on the streets, or attacks on any Roman institutions. That was the most important thing in his mind. There is no evidence that Pilate knew a great deal about Judaism, or cared about it very much. He wasn't interested in the Jewish faith. Romans generally found Jews difficult to deal with as their subjects, so they left all the religious side to the Sanhedrin. and to the Temple authorities. Pontius Pilate was going to be called upon to make a major decision.

Pilate's Dilemma

We are going to follow the story by looking in John 18: 28 - 38.

28Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. 29So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” 30“If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.” 31Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” “But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected. 32This took place to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die. 33Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” 34“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” 35“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you that have done?” 36Jesus said, “My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my Kingdom is from another place.” 37“Oh, you are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” 38“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”’

John 18:28-38, NIV

Pilate found this a very difficult situation. The Sanhedrin was hoping that he would make a quick decision but he didn't really want to get involved in this case and he didn't understand what the issue was. If Jesus had been some kind of a militia leader, or a leader of a rebellion, or he had an armed gang with him - then he could understand that it was his responsibility to deal with him but he couldn't really understand Jesus' answers to his questions. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ He's trying to work out whether he was claiming to rule over that province and get rid of the Romans. Jesus' answer pointed to the fact that his Kingdom was not a human Kingdom - was some kind of a spiritual Kingdom - and this completely mystified Pilate. He could not find any basis for charging Jesus. He really was hoping to get rid of this case quickly, send Jesus back to the Sanhedrin to sort out in another way but it wasn't going to be that easy. The Jewish leaders started pressing Pilate very hard.

Herod Antipas Meets Jesus

We are going to turn now to Luke 23: 5 - 12 which takes the story forward and adds another detail that isn't in the other Gospels. 

5But they insisted,“He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.” 6On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. 7When he learned that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. 8When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. 9He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. 12That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.’

Luke 23:5-12, NIV

Pilate, at this point, is trying to get rid of the responsibility and he thinks a good way is through the fact that Jesus is actually not from Judea, the province that he is directly ruling, but from Galilee in the north which was ruled for the Romans by Herod Antipas, or Herod the Tetrarch. who we met in the story a number of times earlier on. He was based in Galilee. His headquarters were in the town of Tiberias, on the western side of the Sea of Galilee and only a few kilometres south of Jesus' headquarters of his Galilean ministry in Capernaum. Technically speaking, Jesus was a citizen of Galilee and was a subject of Herod Antipas and Herod was here in Jerusalem because he, like Pilate, came to the city for the religious festivals. He needed to show his face. It was part of his responsibilities. Many Galileans were coming to the festival and he wanted to show his respect for the Jewish religion. Herod was in town and Pilate was hoping that Herod would deal with him. He was hoping that Herod would perhaps arrest him and take him back to Galilee and try him there. But no. Herod was just interested in meeting Jesus. He had never met him before. Jesus made a point of not going to Tiberias during his three years of Galilean ministry. He was also well aware that Herod had arrested, and executed, his relative, John the Baptist. Herod was tainted by that terrible action. Herod found it really frustrating talking to Jesus. He ended up mocking him and sending him back to Pilate, which was the last thing that Pilate wanted. He was really hoping that someone else was going to deal with this troublesome case. He didn't want to execute someone without any obvious reason for doing so.

Jesus is Returned to Pilate

We take up the story again in John 18: 39, and we are going to read to John 19: 16.

39But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” 40They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising. 1Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face. 4Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” 5When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” 6As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.” 7The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” 8When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, 9and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10“Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don't you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” 11Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” 12From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” 13When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down at the judge's seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). 14It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. 15But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. 16Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.

John 18:39-19:16

Pilate is doing everything in his power to avoid crucifying Jesus. He feels uneasy about the situation and he doesn't see any reason why the Roman authorities should be involved with a religious situation. It is interesting that at this time Matthew records, in Matthew 27:19 the following:

19While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”

Matthew 27:19, NIV

Pilate is uneasy, and his wife is urging him not to get involved in this particular case but the Jewish leaders are pressurising him. They are gathering a crowd and chanting at Pilate, ‘Crucify, crucify!’ every time Pilate tries to release him. They are chanting ‘Crucify him!’. Pilate is hoping that the offer to free Barabbas, another prisoner, would pacify them because of the tradition that one prisoner could be freed at this particular time of year but no, they didn't want Barabbas to be freed - they wanted Jesus to be crucified. When Pilate ordered Jesus to be flogged, he was punishing him in such a way as hoping that that would be enough for the religious authorities. He was then mocked with a crown of thorns and a robe over him, by the soldiers, but this action was designed to stave off the possibility of crucifixion. It didn't work. The flogging was terrible. The victim was tied to a post and whipped many times. Some people died of flogging. Pilate still said he found no basis for the execution and even ironically said why don't you execute him, knowing that that was illegal and they couldn't do it. After Pilate's final private words with Jesus, he feels the pressure is too great and he gives in and, in order to have an easy life, he decides that he will order the execution of Jesus by crucifixion.

Who is Responsible for Jesus' Death?

The process of getting Jesus crucified is energised only by the Sanhedrin and the religious establishment. It doesn't come from the Jewish crowds in the city; it doesn't come from the Roman political authorities; it doesn't come from ordinary Jewish worshippers; it doesn't come from the visitors to the city. It comes from the religious establishment. They manipulate things so as to get Jesus arrested privately, and they manipulate a trial doing a number of illegal things in their trial, according to their own traditions and rules, in order to get a judgement against him, and then they seek to manipulate Pilate's judgement by putting tremendous emotional pressure on him and claiming that Jesus is a threat to the Roman Emperor. They are the ones who drive this process. Who has the responsibility for Jesus' death? This is a question that people have asked over the centuries. The responsibility is shared between the Roman authorities and the Jewish authorities - the Gentiles and the Jews.

There is a particular responsibility for the Jews of that generation, especially when they cry out in Matthew 27: 25, ‘His blood be on us and our children.’ They are inviting the judgement of God upon them, which came upon them in the Jewish war and the destruction of Jerusalem between 66 and 70 A.D. - something we discussed in considerable detail particularly at the beginning of Series 12, when we looked at Jesus teaching in Matthew 24. You might want to refer to that. The responsibility was shared and, therefore, there is no basis for anti-Semitism because the Jewish religious leaders orchestrated the death of Jesus. The judgement that came on the nation, came on them, within a generation of Jesus' death. There is no basis for any anti-Semitism in a good understanding of the New Testament in the life of Jesus, and the Christian faith. There is a recognition that that generation paid a heavy price for the terrible decision that was made by the Sanhedrin. There is terrible suffering for Jesus here; he has been suffering tremendously: the anticipation in the garden; the humiliation of the trial in the Sanhedrin; the desertion of his followers; and now the flogging at the hands of the Roman authorities; he is being humiliated; and the suffering of Jesus has well and truly begun and will lead now, directly, to his execution by crucifixion, which will take place within a very short period of time from Pilate's final moments of judgement which was seen taking place at the end of this episode.

Man's Power vs God's Plan

However, human power is very temporary. Let us think of the fate of those people involved in what has gone on in this terrible treatment of Jesus. What happens to Pilate? About three years after this event, he was dismissed by the Roman Emperor and exiled to Gaul. That was the end of his power. Gaul is what we would now call France, in the western part of the Roman Empire. Within three years, he had been dismissed, forgotten. No power ever again. What happened to Herod Antipas who mocked Jesus? He was deposed within about three years of this event - about the same time, and also exiled to the western part of the Roman Empire. What happened to the Sanhedrin that was instrumental in bringing Jesus to judgement and death? It was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. The Temple was destroyed and its structure and functioning was effectively destroyed at that time, as the nation was dismembered by the Romans. All these authorities, that played a part in this travesty of justice, soon came to a bitter end. But Jesus rose again from the dead.

Let us leave the final word with Peter, in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost. He says this in Acts 2:23 - 24.

‘“This man was handed over to you by God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge and you, with the help of wicked men put him to death by nailing him to the cross. But God raised him from the dead freeing him from the agony of death because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”’

Acts 2:23-24, NIV

He is addressing the Jews, ‘You put him to death with the help of wicked men’ that is a reference to the Romans. But it was God's deliberate plan and foreknowledge that allowed these things to happen, because he had a greater plan in mind - a plan which we will discuss further in subsequent episodes.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. Do you think Pontius Pilate's wife's dream was from God? Has God ever given you a dream?
  • Discipleship
    1. With power comes responsibility. Was Pontius Pilate showing this? Consider the power shown by the Roman military organisation as part of your answer. What power and responsibility do you have?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Who was responsible for Jesus’ death? Think about all the people and authorities involved.
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