Pastor Scott Andrews | April 2, 2023
Things have already started to heat up for the election of President of the United States, still a year and a half away. The people of this nation will elect one of the most powerful men or women in the world. Typically, the choice comes down to two – the Democratic or Republican nominee. The candidates of those two parties over the past few years have been somewhat disappointing. Without trying to sound political, the decision last time was between an elderly basement-dweller, and a mouthy, Twitter officiando. And the way things are shaping up, it seems it could come down to those two again – the still aging incumbent who has difficulty reading teleprompters, and a now-indicted former president. The question for Americans will be, who best represents the people of the US? Who has the decorum, the intellectual ability, economic and international acumen, indeed, who looks and acts more presidential?
Well, let’s roll the clock backward about 2000 years to see the most powerful man in the world at that time. Was it an Alexander the Great figure or one of the Caesars, Tiberius? Was it a local potentate like Herod Antipas or Pontius Pilate? I don’t think so. The most powerful man on the planet, the greatest ruler, the king of all kings didn’t much look like it. He didn’t look very presidential; He didn’t look very kingly. He didn’t even look much like a ruler or a conqueror. He looked more like a peasant. In fact, He was. And near His end, He looked defeated. He didn’t command a vast army, conquering the world. His army consisted of 12 – no, make that 11 scared followers who deserted Him when He was about to wage the greatest battle of all history.
I would suggest if He threw His hat in the ring in November ‘24, not many would vote for Him. One writer of Scripture said He had no appearance that we would be attracted to Him. One song writer said He possessed no scenes of stately majesty – what you would expect of a world ruler. So, when it came time for the Jewish crowd to cast their votes – they cast their votes against this Man, and voted for a murderous insurrectionist instead. The most powerful ruler on the planet? What kind of king was that? What do you do with this kind of king? That’s exactly the question the two-bit potentate of Judea wanted to know. We read about it today in Matthew 27:11-26.
Does He look much like a king to you? I decided to take a break this week and next from our study of Revelation to remember the events of Passion Week – so called, because it tells the story of the passion or suffering of Jesus, our Christ. We’ve heard the story many times – but it’s one that never grows old. I’ve told you before, while Jesus lived to be about 33, a full third of the gospel narratives cover this last week of His life. It seems to carry some degree of importance.
The week started with today – Palm Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey. The story tells of the attempts of religious leaders to trap Him in His teaching. It tells of one of His own agreeing to betray Him for thirty pieces of silver. We read of the Last Supper – the first communion which we will observe today, the Olivet and Farewell Discourses, the prayer, betrayal and arrest in Gethsemane. The illegal trial by the Jews. This mistreatment by the Romans, spitting, beatings, mocking, scourging, crown of thorns, the crucifixion. And so, it was challenging week. On one hand, I understand, as much as I can, that His passion resulted in our salvation. On the other, His suffering was cruel, barbaric, inhumane, unjust. And we are talking about the King. And we are talking about the most important events of all history – the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are on holy ground. Everything in history points forward or backward to this week.
I want to remind you Jesus was a king. Not just any king, but the King of the universe. While He may not look like it – while He may not present Himself as the world’s most powerful man – He was, and is, and always will be. In fact, in a few short weeks, we will look at the Second Coming when Jesus arrives not as a peasant on a donkey, but the King on a white horse, bearing the name, King of Kings and Lord of Lords. So my question for you this morning is the same question Pilate asked the gathered crowd, “Then what will I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?” What will you do with Jesus, that is, how will you cast your vote?
As you may know, Jesus endured two trials this fateful week – one Jewish, one Roman. Each consisted of three parts – the Jewish trial before Annas, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin; the Roman trial before Pilate, Herod Antipas, and Pilate again. None of the gospel narratives carries a full description of the events, but we can piece them together to find a reliable account. Today, I want us to look at the Roman trial. My outline will simply follow those three parts – before Pilate, before Herod, and before Pilate again. All I’m going to do is tell the story – the story of all stories – in hopes to prepare us for the week ahead. I’ve said this before too – if we go from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday, high point to high point, well, we miss the indispensable valley in between. You see, without the suffering, there would no salvation.
The Roman trial began when the Sanhedrin concluded their business early that morning and led Jesus bound to Pilate, the Roman governor. Remember, the Sanhedrin had limited authority – they could try people according to Jewish law, but they couldn’t give the death penalty. Only Romans could do that, so they had to take Jesus to Pilate.
Let me tell you about Pontius Pilate, because there are some things that help us understand what happened here. He’d been appointed the sixth governor of Judea in 26 AD. Actually, governor is a general term – more precisely, he was a prefect or procurator appointed by Tiberius Caesar. A prefect was generally a military man, as Pilate was, and he usually governed small, troubled hotspots. Having almost unlimited power, their primary job was to keep the peace in these difficult regions – failure to do so would result in replacement, even banishment.
Extra-biblical sources portray Pilate as a cruel, insensitive ruler who hated his Jewish subjects and made very little effort to understand them, which caused him a lot of trouble. For example, when Pilate was first named prefect of Judea, he wanted to display strength – he was not a man not to be trifled with. So, the first thing he did was have his soldiers march into Jerusalem carrying their ensigns or standards, complete with an image of their divine emperor engraved on top. None of the previous five governors had done that, they were smart enough to know better.
Not Pilate – it was tradition, so Pilate thought, so I’ll show them who’s boss. He had them march into Jerusalem at night, so the next morning, the people of the city woke up to what they considered idolatrous, graven images. They went berserk. A horde of protestors traveled to Caesarea, where Pilate lived, to decry the images. Pilate chose to ignore them, refusing to see them for five days. But there was a problem – they wouldn’t leave. Finally, he sent word for them to gather in an amphitheater where he promised to meet them. When he finally showed up, he came with his soldiers. Pilate threatened them, go home or be executed. It is said several protestors bared their necks and laid down at the soldiers’ feet. They said, we will not leave until you promise to remove the images – kill us is you have to. The whole thing blew up in his face.
So he had to give in – the last thing he needed was a massacre. But it incensed him. From then on, Pilate did things to intentionally provoke the Jews. For example, he once used money from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct to Jerusalem. The whole city was in an uproar. This time, he sent soldiers dressed as civilians, armed with swords and clubs, into the crowd. At a prearranged signal, the soldiers pulled out their weapons and began killing people.
There was another event that got Pilate into serious trouble – not just with the Jews, but with Tiberius himself. Remember, Pilate was supposed to be maintaining the peace – but every time he turned around, the Jews were threatening to riot. This time, he decided to have some shields made and dedicated to Tiberius. They were hung for all to see in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. Guess what the inscription on the shields read? They included titles of Tiberius, one of which declared him divine. The people went nuts again, only this time, Tiberius found out about it. He personally wrote a letter to Pilate telling him, in no uncertain terms, actually reviling and threatening Pilate, to take the stupid shields down.
The point is, Pilate was already in a tenuous position in Judea. The Jews didn’t like him; his superiors were breathing down his neck. He felt a tremendous amount of pressure to keep the peace at all costs. He hated the Jews – he frankly didn’t want to give in to them. That’s what was going on with Jesus. Pilate didn’t care about a Galilean peasant, but he did enjoy opposing Jewish leadership. He also knew, if the people rioted and Tiberius heard about it, it could be the end of his career.
That is the situation in which we find ourselves. Pilate doesn’t care about Jesus. It was Passover – hundreds of thousands of Jews were gathered in Jerusalem. That’s why Pilate was there from his seacoast home in Caesarea – to make sure a riot didn’t break out. And the Jewish leadership showed up at the Praetorium – that is, his house in Jerusalem, very likely at the Antonia Fortress next to the Temple – with this man named Jesus. No doubt, Pilate had heard of Jesus – everyone had. But, one look told Pilate that Jesus didn’t seem to pose any kind of political or military threat. The fact is, He didn’t much look like a king. John tells us what happened first in John 18:
28 Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover. [Notice, they wouldn’t enter the home of a Gentile, that would be a grievous wrong, but they would murder Jesus.]
29 Therefore Pilate went out to them [probably standing on a balcony or porch] and said, “What accusation do you bring against this Man?”
Which is good, Pilate is following Roman law. To try a man, you had to know the charges being leveled against him. So, Pilate says, what are the charges? Now remember – by this time, Jesus had been kept up all night, been beaten by the Sanhedrin, He was likely bloodied and bruised. Pilate takes one disdainful look at this Galilean peasant and says, what are the charges?
Verse 30, “They answered and said to him, ‘If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him to you.’” Do you see what they said? They didn’t answer. Pilate, if He wasn’t an evil guy, we wouldn’t have brought Him to you, would we? You can trust us, Pilate, good buddy. Pilate knew right away something was up.
So Pilate said to them, “Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law.” [In other words, Pilate saw right through their ruse – it was obvious their problem with Jesus had to do with their religious laws, so he didn’t want anything to do with it. So, at this point] “The Jews said to him, ‘We are not permitted to put anyone to death,’ [There you have it. Even if we do try Him, we can’t kill Him, and that’s what we want. Notice verse 32] to fulfill the word of Jesus which He spoke, signifying by what kind of death He was about to die.”
Do you see that? Jesus had said that He would be crucified – a Roman form of execution. Pilate had to judge Jesus, and Pilate had to hand Him over to crucifixion – Jesus said so.
Which brings us to Luke 23 where we finally see the charges leveled against Jesus. “And they began to accuse Him saying, ‘We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.’ So Pilate asked Him, saying, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’ And Jesus answered him, ‘It is as you say.’” Please notice the charges they leveled against Jesus. It had nothing to do with blasphemy – Pilate would not have cared about that. So, they invented some things they thought would get Him the death penalty.
First, they said, He is misleading our nation. How was Jesus doing that? Healing people, driving out demons, feeding people, raising dead people, teaching people? It was that last one that irritated the Jewish leadership, because it exposed them for the hypocrites they were. Notice second they said, He is forbidding people to pay taxes to Caesar – which was not true. A few days earlier when asked about paying taxes, He had actually said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Pay your taxes. But it was the third accusation that caught Pilate’s ear. They said, Jesus claims to be Christ, a King. In fact, all four gospels pick up this point of the dialogue, including Matthew 27, when Pilate asks, “Are You the king of the Jews?” The point? You don’t much look like a king.
To which Jesus responded in about the same way He did when Caiaphas asked Him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of God?” Jesus said, “It is as you say.” Now, yes, Jesus is being somewhat ambiguous. He is saying, yes, I am a king, but, no, not like a king you think. We need to switch gospels again and pick up the rest of the dialogue back in John 18:
36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting [who were His servants – the 12? 11? Pilate, don’t you know that I could as this moment call 12 legions of angels if I wanted to?] so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”
37 Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” [irony]
38 Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in Him.”
Yes, I’m a king, Pilate, but you don’t have to worry about some silly insurrection. If I were a king of this world, my servants would be waging war. But they aren’t, because my kingdom transcends this world – my kingdom is a universal kingdom. Yes, I am a king, Jesus says. But, it was obvious to Pilate that Jesus posed no threat. He had no position, no wealth, no soldiers. He was a Galilean peasant – what kind of king is that?
After affirming He was a king, all four gospels record Jesus then remained completely silent. The Jewish leadership continued their assault against Him, He remained silent, which floored Pilate. He had tried hundreds of prisoners by now – and no doubt, without exception, they had pled their case. They had either pled for mercy or claimed their innocence or counter-charged their accusers. But Jesus said nothing.
Why? His time had come to die. The accusations were false – everyone knew it – the Jewish leaders knew it, Pilate knew it – verse 18 of Matthew 27 says Pilate knew they had just handed Jesus over for envy. Even Pilate’s wife knew it – she’s sends word to him to have nothing to do with this “innocent man.” Everyone knew Jesus was innocent – everyone knew this was a sham. So why answer? Besides, Isaiah 53:7 says, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.”
So, at this point, Pilate goes out to the Jews and said, the first of three times, “I find no guilt in Him.” He’s innocent. Charges brought, case examined, verdict rendered, case over, right?
It was probably about this time we get to the second phase of the trial – the trial before Herod. Luke is the only one to record it. After Pilate said the first time, He’s innocent, the Jewish leadership kept persisting, making accusations. Finally, at one point, they said, “He stirs up the people, teaching all over Judea, starting in Galilee, even as far as this place.” That got Pilate’s attention. He asked them, is this man a Galilean? Great, that means He’s out of my jurisdiction – He falls under Herod Antipas’ authority, who just happens to be in Jerusalem for the Passover – take Jesus to Herod. Pilate thought he had discovered a way to pass the buck. Again, it’s not that he cared about Jesus – he just didn’t want to give in to the Sanhedrin. So, Luke 23 tells us Jesus was taken to Herod. Look at it with me, Luke 23:8-12:
8 Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him.
9 And he questioned Him at some length; but He answered him nothing.
10 And the chief priests and the scribes were standing there, accusing Him vehemently.
11 And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Him with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate.
12 Now Herod and Pilate became friends with one another that very day; for before they had been enemies with each other. [the enemy of my enemy is my friend]
This is the Herod who had arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded John the Baptist. Throughout His ministry, Jesus seems to have steered clear of Herod. Herod always wanted to meet Jesus. Because he was concerned about truth? No – because he wanted to see Jesus do a trick. He questioned Jesus for a long time, but Jesus answered him nothing, even when the chief priests and scribes leveled charges against Him. [Everyone seems to think they’re in charge] Finally, Herod and His soldiers began mocking Him – mocking His kingship. You see, He didn’t look much like a king. So they helped Him out – they dressed him in a kingly robe and sent Him packing back to Pilate. Which brings us back to Matthew and the continuing trial before Pilate.
At this point, Pilate was still trying to release Jesus. Luke even says that, since both Herod and Pilate had found Him innocent, Pilate offered to scourge Jesus and let Him go. As I said earlier – John records three different times Pilate declared Jesus innocent. In Roman trial law, the accused is brought, charges are made, evidence is presented, the defendant is given a chance to defend himself, and the verdict is issued. All of that had been done. End of trial. Jesus had been presented, spurious accusations brought, there was no evidence, Jesus remained silent, and the verdict had been read – innocent. But that was not good enough for the Jewish leadership who wanted Jesus dead. Pilate found himself in a predicament, so he was looking for a way out.
And an idea came to him, and for a moment, he thought he found a way. All four gospels record this part. There was apparently a Jewish custom which said the Roman governor was required to release to them a prisoner of their choosing during the Passover. It was now later in the morning, and the crowds began to gather. Pilate had likely heard about the Sunday before when those same crowds had been delirious when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. They had spread out palm branches and their coats before Him. They had cried out, “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” Jesus was obviously wildly popular. I know, Pilate thought, I’ll ask them if they want me to release the prisoner Jesus. In fact, verse 17 says, I’ll put it to a vote: King Jesus or Murderer Barabbas.
Now, who was Barabbas? His name literally means, son of the father. It’s likely he was a son of a famous rabbi. I’ve told you this before – which son of the father would they choose? Now, most of us, I think, have an faulty picture of Barabbas. Most portray him as an ugly, filthy, grimy lunatic. That’s not who Barabbas was. Verse 16 calls him a notorious prisoner – a better translation would be a noteworthy prisoner. The other gospels call him an insurrectionist and apparently, he had committed murder during the insurrection. But know this – insurrectionists were folk heroes among the Jews. The Jews hated the Romans, so anyone who tried to revolt against the Romans, the Jews loved. Look at Mark 15:7-8:
7 The man named Barabbas had been imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection.
8 The crowd went up and began asking him [that is, Pilate] to do as he had been accustomed to do for them.
Do you see that? It appears the crowd gathered to ask Pilate to release Barabbas. Add to that their leaders were the ones who had delivered Jesus over to the Romans. Add to that – Barabbas was more like the Messiah Deliverer King the Jews were looking for than Jesus – one who would throw off Roman oppression – Jesus actually talked about loving your enemies. Barabbas looked more like a king than Jesus. Pilate made a tactical blunder. He assumed Jesus would be more popular than Barabbas – and that may have been true in Galilee – but they weren’t in Galilee. So, prompted by the chief priests and elders, the crowd cast their vote: give us Barabbas. Pilate was stunned. Add to that the fact his wife had just warned him about Jesus, and Pilate was in a quandary.
So, he asked the question that every person on the planet must eventually ask, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” What do I do with this guy who claims to be a king, who doesn’t look much like a king? What will you do with Jesus? And they replied, Crucify Him! Pilate said, “Why – what evil has He done?” But they just got louder – Crucify Him!
Now notice verse 24 – “When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting…” Remember, Pilate was in a tenuous political position. He was supposed to keep the peace. One more failure and he was likely outta there. So, Pilate made a pragmatic, political decision. It wasn’t a decision based on truth or right or morality. He simply gave in to the demands of the Jews to keep his position. He sacrificed an innocent man to keep his job.
Matthew, and only Matthew, records what Pilate did next. In a gesture to proclaim his own innocence, he took some water and washed his hands in front of them. This wasn’t a Roman custom – it was Jewish. Right out of Deuteronomy 21, if a man is found dead in a field, the elders in the nearest city, would take a heifer and break its neck, wash their hands over the dead heifer, and then say to the Levites, the religious leaders, “Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it. Forgive Your people Israel whom You have redeemed, O LORD, and do not place the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of your people Israel.” Pilate was doing something he knew they would understand. I am innocent of this man’s blood. But the fact is, he wasn’t – he’s the one who delivered Jesus over to be crucified. He was guilty.
But notice what the people said. They cried out, “His blood shall be on us and on our children.” They had no idea what they said. For their guilt of putting the Messiah to death, His blood fell on them ultimately in judgment in 70 AD when Jerusalem was overrun by the Romans during another revolt, and hundreds of thousands were killed. But not only that, for those who would later receive Jesus as Messiah, His blood was on them for salvation. Verse 26 says this: “Then [Pilate] released Barabbas for them; but after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified.”
Most of you know what Roman scouring was. They used a whip with multiple leather straps at the end. Within those straps were lodged pieces of glass, bone, and metal. While Jewish law said you could only give a man 40 lashes – there was no limit to Roman scourging. The victim would be tied to a pole with his arms over his head, skin pulled tight. Usually two soldiers would administer the beating, one on each side. The whip with the pieces of glass, metal and bone would rip the flesh open. After a Roman scourging, the flesh would be in ribbons, the bones exposed, and sometimes, even internal organs exposed and lacerated. Frequently, a person would not survive the beating. It was meant to weaken them for crucifixion.
John says that after the scourging, Pilate brought Jesus out to them and said, “Behold, the Man!” And I ask you, what kind of king is that? Pray.
Communion was given to help us remember this sacrifice. Bread and cup, body and blood. Think of it, Jesus stood there, beaten, marred, disfigured, bleeding, broken – and the way He looked on the outside is the way we looked on the inside. Broken, sinful, grimy, dirty, bleeding. But, Jesus was innocent, perfect. But by His scourging on the outside, we are healed on the inside.