What I hope will be a meaningful read as we come to Thursday and Friday of Holy Week this year.
The most dramatic and consequential questioning of Jesus took place during the hearings and trials He went through prior to His crucifixion. Actors have tried to capture the drama in a multitude of plays and movies ranging from small church youth-led Good Friday services to the big screen of Hollywood.
But the consequences were more important than the drama. For Jesus it meant His death on the cross. Of course He knew the reason He came was to die, but His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane gives us insight into His inner struggle. In addition, the consequence of His death was an opportunity for us to have life, through the forgiveness of our sin and restoration of our status as children of God.
Context and Setting
The accounts of the night of Jesus’ arrest and trials, all the way through His resurrection and ascension, are in many respects the most difficult to harmonize in the Gospels. The trials before His crucifixion and His appearances after His resurrection are most challenging. John’s account of Jesus before Pilate is the most complete of the four with Matthew and Mark being in the most agreement about the entire ordeal. I suggest reading and studying one account at a time and not investing a great deal of time and energy in trying to harmonize everything.
In terms of the questioning of Jesus prior to His crucifixion, the questioning from Pilate was the final stage. Prior to appearing before Pilate Jesus went before Jewish authorities two or three times. It seems clear Jesus was first questioned informally and then later taken before the Sanhedrin (the formal Jewish council). Only John tells us that Jesus was taken first to Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas (18:13). After that He was taken “to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered” (Matthew 26:57).
Early the next morning the night’s questionings came to a climax. This exchange is also the high point of all that had transpired between Jesus and His critics during His final week.
The Jewish leaders were looking for evidence to charge Jesus so they could put Him to death. In the first part of the “hearing” they couldn’t get two witnesses to agree. Finally, two agreed about Jesus saying He was able to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. Yet even with the high priest challenging Him to respond, Jesus remained silent.
Finally, exasperated, the high priest challenged Him: “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah of God” (Matthew 26:63). By the things He had done and said, especially in recent days, Jesus had given enough reason for the high priest to ask the question. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report Jesus’ answer a little differently; Matthew has Him saying, “You have said so” (Matthew 26:64a). As we will see later, this is very similar to the response Jesus would soon give to Pilate.
But the answer that brought everything to a head was what Jesus said next: “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26:64b). It was a bold statement claiming a special relationship with God no human being could have. The high priest tore his clothes (a sign that blasphemy had been committed) and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” (Matthew 26:65 and 66a). And all agreed Jesus was worthy of death.
The final note of context and setting is Matthew 27:1 and 2: “Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people made their plans how to have Jesus executed. So they bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate the governor.”
Questioning Jesus and Considering His Responses
Since John’s account of Jesus before Pilate gives the most detail, we will use it in this part of our study. Pilate began the proceedings by asking the Jewish leaders what charges they were bringing against Jesus (18:29). These enemies of Jesus knew they didn’t have a charge that would stand up in the Roman court so their response was Jesus was a criminal. In the first of several efforts to remove himself from the situation, Pilate told them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law” (18:31).
The leaders’ response was they did not have the right to execute anyone; this was the very reason they had taken Jesus to Pilate. The Roman government did not permit its subjects to convict and carry out the death penalty. That was in the hands of the local governor. The leaders’ problem was compounded in that blasphemy was a serious infraction for the Jews, but meant nothing to the Romans.
It was at this point that Pilate asked the key question. The question is identical in all four Gospels: “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matthew 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 23:3; and John 18:33). The question is identical, but the recorded response of Jesus is not. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all have Jesus responding, “You have said so,” the same response Jesus had given earlier to the high priest. R.T. France notes this answer “is a qualified affirmative,” indicating yes to the question, but not in accordance with the meaning the questioner has in mind.20 In other words, Jesus was agreeing He was indeed a king, but not in the way Pilate was using the word.
John’s fuller account of the exchange between Jesus and Pilate bears out France’s interpretation of Jesus’ answer recorded in the other Gospels. John tells us Jesus’ responded with a question: “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” (18:34). It seems pretty clear that Jesus’ accusers had set Him up ahead of time. Pilate responded, “Am I a Jew? Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” (18:35)
The final part of Jesus’ response to Pilate is one of His best-known sayings: “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” (18:36). He had a kingdom, but it was not like the world’s kingdoms. If it was His disciples would have fought for Him.
Only Luke tells us that at this point in the proceedings Pilate learned Jesus was from Galilee and sent Him to Herod (Luke 26:6:12). This was the second attempt by Pilate to opt out of dealing with Jesus. But Herod sent Him back to Pilate.
Pilate made two more attempts to get out of dealing with the charges and requests the Jewish leaders brought to him about Jesus. He brought up the custom of releasing a prisoner at the time of Passover and offered to release “the king of the Jews” (John 18:39). Instead they chose Barabbas. Pilate also repeated his view that Jesus was innocent by declaring, “I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 19:6b).
In John’s account Pilate also continued questioning Jesus, concluding with, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” (19:10). In Jesus’ final words to Pilate He gave another bold and powerful answer: “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” (19:11). Jesus told Pilate the only power he had over Him was given to him by God. And even though Caiaphas (probably) was guiltier, Pilate was also guilty.
Pilate was a conflicted leader who tried hard, but not hard enough. John tells us, “From then on Pilate tried to set Jesus free” (19:12a). But the Jewish leaders would not accept it. The final straw for Pilate was no doubt what these leaders had in mind when they first took Jesus to him. They told Pilate, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (19:12b).
Even though I have known the account since I was child, and have heard it more times than I can count, I think one of the saddest verses in the Bible is John 19:16: “Finally Pilate handed him to them to be crucified.”
This is chapter 13 of my book Questioning Jesus: Considering His Responses. To learn more about the book, read endorsements, or order the book go to Amazon’s website:
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