THE THREE TRIALS OF CHRIST, PART 3
38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.
1 Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. 2 And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. 3 They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. 4 Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” 5 So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” 6 When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.” 7 The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” 8 When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. 9 He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10 So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 11 Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” 12 From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” 13 So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. 14 Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” 15 They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16 So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.
— John 18:38-40, 19:1-16, ESV
The Lord Jesus Christ was convicted in His first, religious trial by priests and Pharisees who valued their own religion and positions more than a right relationship with God. Jesus had exposed their religion as a farce and their positions as a fraud, so for revenge they sought to put the Christ on the cross. But for this they would need political help from the Roman Empire.
Praetorius Pontius Pilate presided over the second trial, the political trial, and actually found Jesus to be innocent of any and all charges. But while Pilate had the good sense to know Jesus was not guilty, the Roman ruler did not have the great courage to let Jesus go free. Such an exoneration would have cost Pilate political points, and doing right by himself meant more to him than doing right by God.
Since Pilate did not want the Pharisees to have their way in the religious trial, and sense Pilate lacked the backbone to assert his own authority in the political trial, there had to be a third trial to settle the matter. This one would be decided upon by the voice of the people, the general public, in true democratic and demagogic fashion. While the first two trials were quite brief, this third trial of Christ, the public trial, would take about three hours and pass through three phases before a final verdict was rendered.
A Choice Between Bad or Good
With the chief priests and Pharisees still putting unrelenting pressure on Pilate to crucify Jesus, and with Pilate struggling with his own conscience, as small as it was, the Roman authority was caught between the Rock and a hard place. He did not want to be responsible for Jesus’ killing and he did not want to be responsible for letting Jesus go.
Cagey politician that Pilate was, he thought of a third way. He would take the decision out of the hands of the Pharisees and his own by throwing it open to the people to decide Jesus’ fate. Both the Jewish high priest and the Roman ruler thought they could sway the people to get their way, and one of them would. Pilate, at least, gave it three strikes before Jesus was out.
In his first attempt to persuade the people to set Jesus free, Pilate used a rare custom. During Passover, Pilate would placate the Jews by pardoning a prisoner condemned to death. Three were awaiting execution, three crosses were being prepared, and Pilate took the worst of the three, a man most ironically named Jesus Barabbas, and paired him with Jesus for a popular vote. Surely the people would not release a notorious terrorist into their midst, surely they would let the meek and lowly Messiah get back to preaching and performing miracles.
Goaded by the Pharisees, the people picked Barabbas. Yes, he was sinner, but he was their sinner. Barabbas had murdered, robbed, and run from Rome. Jesus, only the other hand, had seemingly ignored the transgressions of Rome and told the Jewish people they were sinners, they needed to repent, and they needed to follow Him as Lord and Savior.
Human nature embraces the bad boy over the good one every time. We love the rebel because we are rebels. This explains why immoral movie stars and licentious music stars are heroes to our kids, why Bill Clinton’s poll numbers went up when he had the affair with Monica Lewinsky, why millions of dollars were raised to get the West Memphis Three out of prison, and why religious pilgrims from the region of Judea would choose the sinful Jesus, son of the father, over the sinless Jesus, son of God.
A Choice Between Beating or Killing
Pilate then took a second swing at the matter, literally. Ordered by the crowd to release Barabbas and crucify Jesus, Pilate sought to placate them by roughing up the Lord a bit and then letting Him go. Humiliation can be worse than death, at least Pilate thought the Jews might see it that way.
John’s text tells us Pilate had Jesus flogged, a sort of public paddling, which was far short of the scourging Jesus would later receive as a prelude to the cross. Soldiers slapped Jesus, put a few bruises on Him, platted His brow with a cross of thorns, and mocked Him with a majestic purple robe.
When Pilate brought Jesus out once again before the people, the language he used, “Behold, the man,” could better be translated, “Look at this poor fellow.” Pilate let it be known, again, that Jesus was innocent, but for the Jews’ sake, he roughed Him up a bit. Now, let’s let him go.
Strike two. The Pharisees had put a spin on the people and convinced them killing was much better than flogging. Once again it appealed to their sinful human nature. Who wants a bruise when you can draw blood? This explains why murders in America are on the rise, why in the wild west the biggest draws on the town squares were public hangings, and why the people Pilate allowed to choose the fate of Jesus wanted Him dead.
But Pilate, to his infinitesimal credit, would try one more time.
A Choice Between King or Cross
Like Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg, Pontius Pilate knew his last effort would fail. The third vote would go down the way of the first two. He appealed to the priests for help, but they wanted Jesus executed for what they called the blasphemy of claiming to be God. He appealed to Jesus to help His own cause, but Christ calmly accepted His fate, rightly pointing out that God was in control of all authorities, events, and outcomes, especially this one. So, Pilate essentially gave up and gave Jesus over to the mob.
What made Pilate’s blood run cold was the cry of the Jews, “We have no king but Caesar.” It sounded as shocking as walking into a church service and hearing the congregation say, “Hail, Satan.” But when Pilate heard it, he knew Jesus was through; or, Pilate knew that he would be through if he did not send the Lord to His crucifixion.
So, in a sarcastic sendoff, Pilate put Jesus before the people one last time, replete with crown of thorns and robe of purple, and said, “Behold your King.” In other words, the time is now to accept Jesus of Nazareth as your King and Savior, or I will, I will actually do it, I will if you don’t stop me, I will send Jesus Christ to the cross.
The people got what they wanted, blood on their hands. Pilate got what he wanted, a passing of the buck, and his reign ran downhill afterward. Jesus got what God willed, by going to the cross on this particular Friday, a preparation day for the Passover Sabbath. He would die that day, rest on that Sabbath, then on that third day, well, we’ll save that part of the story for later.
How could Pilate be such a coward? How could the people make such terrible choices? How could the greatest man who ever lived, the God man, be convicted as a criminal and crucified on a rugged Roman cross?
Depravity Darkens Choices
Depravity is a theological word and it is a dark word. It darkens the mind so that it cannot know God. It darkens people’s choices in ways they can only see themselves. Depravity is the sinful nature, shared by all natural men and women. Depravity is selfishness, the desire to puts self ahead of God and other people. Depravity reigns in the choices people make, unless by grace they are chosen by God and until they choose to put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ as Lord.
Depravity drove the chief priests and Pharisees to plot to kill Jesus. Depravity and its byproducts jealousy and hypocrisy can drive one to such an atrocity. Pride goes before a victim falls. In this case the victim would actually be the victor, for Jesus was, is, and always will be the exact opposite of the Pharisees, sinless and loving and true.
Depravity drove Pilate to save his own skin by sacrificing Jesus’. Had he cared about Christ, he would have listened, learned, repented, and believed. Had he cared about the Jewish people, he would have used his authority to curb their evil desires and set Jesus free. But Pilate cared about Pilate, about appeasing the public, about holding on to power, about his own safety, security and, yes, sin.
Depravity drove the people to call for the killing of Jesus. To depraved men, bad will always be better than good, bruises will beget blood, and no king will do other than the exalted self. We want it my way, not God’s way, though God has a way of getting His will, anyway.
Depravity, not His own but ours, drove Jesus to embrace His own execution on the cross. “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (ref. Romans 5:8). The trials are over. Death is at the door. Soon we will open it and see that the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ is the only remedy for the depravity and sin of man.