Jesus' Trial before Pilate
1 Very early in the morning the leading priests, the elders, and the teachers of religious law - the entire high council - met to discuss their next step. They bound Jesus, led him away, and took him to Pilate, the Roman governor.
2 Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?"
Jesus replied, "You have said it."
3 Then the leading priests kept accusing him of many crimes, 4 and Pilate asked him, "Aren't you going to answer them? What about all these charges they are bringing against you?" 5 But Jesus said nothing, much to Pilate's surprise.
6 Now it was the governor's custom each year during the Passover celebration to release one prisoner - anyone the people requested. 7 One of the prisoners at that time was Barabbas, a revolutionary who had committed murder in an uprising. 8 The crowd went to Pilate and asked him to release a prisoner as usual.
9 "Would you like me to release to you this 'King of the Jews'?" Pilate asked. 10 (For he realized by now that the leading priests had arrested Jesus out of envy.) 11 But at this point the leading priests stirred up the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. 12 Pilate asked them, "Then what should I do with this man you call the king of the Jews?"
13 They shouted back, "Crucify him!"
14 "Why?" Pilate demanded. "What crime has he committed?"
But the mob roared even louder, "Crucify him!"
15 So to pacify the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified.
Following their preliminary trial the night before, the Jewish high council brings Jesus before Pilate, the Roman governor, who asks Jesus if he is the King of the Jews. The religious leaders bring charges against Jesus and then stir up the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas, a murderer and enemy of the state, rather than Jesus. The crowd demands that Jesus be put to death. Pilate has Jesus severely beaten, and then hands him over to the soldiers to be crucified.
Pilate (Mark 15:1)
"[T]the Sanhedrin, once having hold of Jesus, was determined to rush him to death because it feared the uprising of the people in case of delay. ... This meeting was held ... early in the morning, before the pilgrims were astir. ... [T]he resolution that had to be passed in this second session was the formal confirmation of the death verdict that had been pronounced at the night session. ... In all formality they took the final vote on the death penalty for Jesus. The next step followed as a matter of course: the Sanhedrin had to take Jesus to Pilate."1668 "Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor for the regions of Samaria and Judea from A.D. 26–36. Jerusalem was located in Judea. Pilate's normal residence was in Caesarea on the Mediterranean Sea, but he happened to be in Jerusalem because of the Passover festival. With the large crowds that flocked to the city for that celebration, Pilate and his soldiers came to help keep the peace. He stayed in his headquarters, called the Praetorium."1669
Why did the Jews need to go before the Roman governor, whom they despised almost as much as he despised them? "The Jews most assuredly wanted to put Jesus to death, but they lacked the authority to do so. For this reason they handed him over to Pilate in hopes of securing a death sentence. The Romans kept close control of the death penalty in conquered territories to prevent it being used to execute Roman sympathizers."1670 As another source explains: "Though the Sanhedrin could pronounce a death sentence it could not exercise capital punishment. So a condemned prisoner had to be turned over to the Roman authorities for a death sentence to be carried out (cf. John 18:31). The Roman governor could either ratify or rescind the Sanhedrin's death sentence (cf. John 19:10). If rescinded, a new trial had to be conducted before a Roman court in which the Sanhedrin had to prove that the defendant had committed a capital crime under Roman law."1671
One Bible commentator notes how the Sanhedrin was guilty of "group think": "Years ago, sociologists concluded that intelligent, capable people would fail to see the fault in their group decisions as each person dismissed evidence that might thwart consensus. They called it 'group think.' The people who condemned Jesus were not stupid, just afraid, confused, and desperate. Alone they would never perpetrate this crime - setting up a man for crucifixion by perjured testimony and concocted allegation. Together they pulled it off without dissent. They were wrong, but no one raised a voice once momentum built."1672 (The key to combating group think is to look out for, and offer rational alternatives to, "decisions based on fear, prejudice, and greed."1673)
King of the Jews (Mark 15:2)
King of the Jews" was a Roman designation, with Jewish equivalents being "Messiah," "son of David," and "king of Israel."1674 From Pilate's perspective, "King of the Jews" carried "political implications of sedition against Rome."1675 Jesus' response to Pilate's question regarding his kingship "is best understood as a yes answer but with a qualification attached. As Messiah, Jesus is the King of the Jews but His concept of kingship differed from that implied in Pilate's question (cf. John 18:33-38)."1676 Jesus "wasn't claiming kingship in any way that would threaten Pilate, Caesar, or the Empire. Jesus' kingship was spiritual; a charge of treason required it to be political. The religious leaders were attempting to build a case on this political twist - their only and best chance of winning Pilate's approval for a crucifixion. But ... Pilate could sense that the solemn rabbi standing before him was unlikely to lead a revolt against Rome. In Jesus' eyes, Pilate did not see the hardened glare of a zealot. Jesus was no revolutionary."1677
Many crimes ... all these charges (Mark 15:3, 4)
The charge of blasphemy would have meant nothing to Pilate. And so, as detailed in Luke's gospel (see Luke 23:2), the religious leaders accused Jesus of no less than three very serious crimes: "(1) encouraging the people to not pay their taxes to Rome, (2) claiming he was a king - 'the King of the Jews,' and (3) causing riots all over the countryside. Tax evasion, treason, and terrorism - all these would be cause for Pilate's concern. These accusations were false, but the religious leaders were determined to have Jesus killed."1678 As one Bible commentator explains: "In reality these three charges amounted to one: 'This man is a revolutionary, a seditionist, a politically dangerous person.'"1679 It is more than a little ironic that "Jesus, who disappointed the crowds for failing to lead a political revolution, was now being charged with that very crime."1680
"Pilate's low regard for the Jewish leadership sank even lower as their frenzied testimony continued. Pilate knew the charges were preposterous, and he obviously expected Jesus to defend himself against the false accusations.1681 " For their part, the religious leaders knew that crucifixion would place Jesus in the same league as rebels and slaves, and thus publicly and (hopefully) permanently disgrace him, his teachings, and his followers. It would also shift the blame for his death from the religious leaders to the Roman government.1682
Jesus said nothing (Mark 15:5)
Any other man would have begged Pilate to spare his life. Why didn't Jesus?
Just exactly why it was that Jesus remained silent has not been revealed. The following possible reasons, however, deserve consideration:
He "opened not his mouth" in fulfilment of prophecy (Isaiah 42:1-4; 53:7; 57:15; Zechariah 9:9). See also 1 Kings 19:11-12; Matthew 5:7-9; 12:18-21; 21:5.
Pilate did not deserve an answer, for he knew very well that Jesus was innocent. The governor had declared this openly (John 18:38; cf. Luke 23:4). He should have acquitted Jesus.
The Jewish leaders knew very well that they were lying. Not once during his ministry had Jesus spoken or acted as a political rebel. Rather, the very opposite (Mark 12:17; John 6:15).1683
In short, "It would have been futile [for Jesus] to answer [Pilate's questions], and the time had come to give his life to save the world."1684
"Learning that Jesus was a Galilean and hoping to avoid making a judgment against Him, Pilate sent Him to Herod Antipas, governor of Galilee (cf. Mark 6:14), also in Jerusalem at the time. But Herod soon returned Him to Pilate. Only Luke recorded this middle phase of the civil trial (cf. Luke 23:6-12)."1685 (These events occur between verses 5 and 6 in Mark's gospel.1686)
Barabbas (Mark 15:7)
It was an annual custom for the governor to grant clemency to one prisoner. Many within the crowd that morning saw Barabbas as a hero for daring to stand up against the oppressive Roman government, and they had gathered specifically to ask for his release.1687 Pilate fully realized that Jesus was innocent; if he had thought Jesus' kingship in any way posed a threat to Rome, he would have acted immediately.1688 Pilate did, however, perceive a very real threat to his political career:
There is no interest in justice here; only politics are at work. Pilate probably knew that Jesus was popular. He was not about to risk offending the populace, especially at Passover season, and so instigate a riot, the very thing he wished to avoid. ... Pilate is happy to accommodate the ruling priests' recommendation that Jesus be put to death - as long as in doing so he incurs no political risks. His only concern is that his condemnation of Jesus not provoke the Jewish people or be seen as yet another example of Roman brutality. Pilate is not about to create a problem for himself; he wishes only to extricate himself from responsibility.1689
Pilate "had placed Jesus beside a murderer [= Barabbas] - the man whom he himself had pronounced innocent beside the man whose bloody guilt was beyond a doubt. The flagrant injustice to Jesus is glaring."1690 In the final analysis, Pilate chose to murder the Savior and save the murderer. Of course we must keep in mind that Pilate's actions, including his declaration of Jesus' innocence, were part of God's plan: Behind "Pilate stood God himself. The responsibility for the sinful act, to be sure, remained with Pilate and with those who pressured him into delivering Jesus to be crucified. But the actions of all these sinners were included in the all-comprehensive, eternal decree of God: 'This man, having been handed over (to you) by the predetermined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you, by the hand of lawless men, have crucified and slain' (Acts 2:23)."1691
In Pilate we see "the impossibility of evading Jesus. Pilate had tried again and again to bypass Jesus. He discovered that this was entirely impossible. He was forced to take a stand, and he took the wrong stand."1692 There is no such thing as neutrality toward Jesus Christ: We are either for him or we are against him.
In Barabbas we find a divinely orchestrated object lesson: "Barabbas was released, though guilty and condemned, because the Lord Jesus took his place. Christ was his substitute."1693 The point is worth repeating: "Barabbas represents yet another example of the purpose of Jesus' death: to take the place, not just of one condemned man, but of all who stand condemned before God's perfect standard of justice. ... God commutes your sentence and sets you free. Because of Jesus."1694 We can easily imagine Barabbas, having been set free, making his way to the crucifixion site and, looking up at Jesus, declaring, "He died for me; He paid my penalty."1695
The crowd (Mark 15:8, 11)
"[Pilate] did not want to sentence Jesus to death. Yet, it was becoming more and more clear to him that this by now had become the desire of the fickle multitude. When the prophet of Galilee was still healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing the lepers, holding the multitudes spellbound by means of his marvelous discourses, he was popular. When he rode into Jerusalem, he was applauded. But now that he is seemingly helpless, and the leaders have used their strongest arguments to persuade the people to demand his crucifixion, they turn their backs on him."1696 "All the Gospels stress that it was actually the leaders more than the people who were guilty. Here we have the first time in Mark that the crowds turned against Jesus, and Mark stressed that they were incited to do so by the leaders."1697 "[I]n the end Jesus did not prove to be the kind of Messiah the people desired and were expecting."1698 It is no different today, as scores of people profess admiration for Jesus' miracles and/or teachings but refuse to accept him as their king. For most people, the image of Jesus as some sort of miracle-working holy man is fine; Jesus as the King of kings and Lord of lords, however, is too much to bear.
The tipping point came when the crowd uttered a semi-veiled threat against Pilate himself:
[W]hat turned the scale so that Pilate finally decided to yield to the mob's clamor was the frightening and diabolical outcry, "If you release this man [Jesus], you are no friend of the emperor. Whoever makes himself king rebels against the emperor" (John 19:12). It was this outcry that floored the governor. In his feverish imagination he saw how he was about to lose his prestige, position, possessions, freedom, even his life perhaps.
Pilate understood immediately that the people's angry statement implied much more than it expressed. It implied: "We will lodge a complaint against you. We will tell the emperor that you condone high treason against the government; that you have released a man who was guilty of continuous sedition, and who allowed himself to be called king. We will accuse you of 'softness toward rebels.' Then where will you be?"1699
The Roman government pressured Pilate "to do whatever was necessary to maintain peace. We know from historical records that Pilate had already been warned about other uprisings in his region. Although he may have seen no guilt in Jesus and no reason to condemn him to death, Pilate wavered when the Jews in the crowd threatened to report him to Caesar (John 19:12). Such a report, accompanied by a riot, could cost him his position and hopes for advancement. Pilate became afraid. His job was in jeopardy. The last thing Pilate needed was a riot in Jerusalem at Passover time, when the city was crowded with Jews from all over the Empire."1700
Flogged with a lead-tipped whip (Mark 15:15)
Pilate ordered for Jesus to be severely beaten and crucified. Scourging/flogging "was standard pre-crucifixion procedure,"1701 although "it could also be a separate punishment."1702 Regarding this hideous practice, one source notes: "Slaves or non-Romans could be punished with whips made of leather straps or knotted cords often weighted with pieces of metal or bone. Roman law allowed their use in four situations: as a torture to promote the questioning of a prisoner, as a self-standing punishment, as a capital punishment (people were sentenced to death by beating), or as a preparation for execution. On some occasions these beatings were so severe that bones and organs were left exposed."1703 And another source tells us: "A Roman flogging (traditionally, 'scourging') was an excruciating punishment. The victim was stripped of his clothes and bound to a post with his hands fastened above him (or sometimes he was thrown to the ground). Guards standing on either side of the victim would incessantly beat him with a whip (flagellum) made out of leather with pieces of lead and bone inserted into its ends. While the Jews only allowed 39 lashes, the Romans had no such limit; many people who received such a beating died as a result."1704
Pilate had the ethics of his class, and obviously tried to act up to the standard which he had formed. There was in him, however, no deep moral basis of character, as is shown by the utter skepticism of his question, "What is truth?" When he found that the doing of strict justice threatened to endanger his position, he reluctantly and with a great deal of shame gave way to the demands of the Jews. He sent Jesus to the cross, but not before he had exhausted every expedient for saving Him, except the simple and straightforward one of dismissing the case. He had the haughtiness of the dominant race, and a profound contempt for the people over which he ruled. This contempt ... continually brought him into trouble. He felt deeply humiliated at having to give way to those whom he utterly despised, and, in the manner of a small mind, revenged himself on them by calling Christ their king, and by refusing to alter the mocking inscription on the cross. It is certain that Pilate, in condemning Jesus, acted, and knew that he acted against his conscience. He knew what was right, but for selfish and cowardly reasons refused to do it. He was faced by a great moral emergency, and he failed.1705
Pilate is a striking instance of the danger of trifling with conscientious convictions, and not acting at once upon the principle of plain duty. Fear of man, the Jews' accusations, and the emperor's frown, and consequent loss of place and power, led him to condemn Him whom he knew to be innocent and desired to deliver. His compromises and delays were vain when once the determined Jews saw him vacillating. Fixed principle alone could have saved him from pronouncing that unrighteous sentence which brands his name forever (Psalm 82). His sense of justice, compassion, and involuntary respect for the Holy Sufferer yielded to his selfishness, worldly policy, and cynical unbelief.1706
??? Believers today face the same pressure from the crowd to deny Jesus' claims and to give him no place in our life - in effect, to crucify him all over again. What can Pilate's negative example teach us about what it takes to stand up for Jesus?