Jesus’ Trial for Claiming Kingship

Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”
“If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”
Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” “But we have no right to execute anyone,” the Jews objected. This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicated the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled. Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Hews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You are right in saying that I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
“What is truth?” Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”
—John 18:28-38, NIV

There are several things I’d like you to notice about this passage.

The Roman Occupation

The Roman occupation was theologically unpalatable to the Jews, particularly the lower classes, who saw their theocratic government subordinated to a pagan, idolatrous empire; however, the upper classes were very much aware of its benefits. Rome stationed soldiers, who stimulated the local economy by making trade and travel safe; they imposed taxes, which were unfair and unpopular, but they did not meddle in local affairs. Wherever the Romans went, the local government authorities remained in power and the local legal system remained intact. Rome’s primary interest was not in political domination but in safeguarding trade. The Pharisees are depicted in the New Testament as working hard to preserve the status quo: to satisfy Rome on one hand and to keep rebellious elements under control. In fact, that was their explicit reason for delivering Jesus to Pilate.

Why the Sanhedrin Took Jesus to Pilate, and Pilate’s Role

Pilate tells the Jewish authorities to try Jesus according to their own law, but they protest that they do not have the power of capital punishment. Here we see the Roman unwillingness to meddle in the local legal system, except to reserve capital punishment. Anyone found guilty of what was locally a capital offense had to be brought to the Romans for a determination or a new trial. This was true everywhere in the Empire, not just in Judea. It sounds to me in reading this passage that the authorities made arrangements in advance with Pilate and expected a speedy rubber-stamp approval, but Pilate threw it back at them and forced them to make a case. This might be because they showed up much later than planned and Pilate was upset about being kept up all night waiting. The debates in the Sanhedrin might have lasted longer than anticipated (Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, followers of Jesus who were members of the Sanhedrin, might have put up a fight), and we know from Jesus’ long vigil in the garden that the whole process was late in getting underway.

Pilate’s only concern with Jesus is whether or not He is a political revolutionary. As Roman governor, that is his only concern. Jesus convinces him quite effectively that His claims to kingship pose no political threat. Pilate then has no legal grounds for approving an execution.

The authorities brought Jesus to Pilate because they saw Jesus as a threat to their authority with the people, which would unbalance the status quo with Rome. They knew that Jesus was not a revolutionary Himself, but they feared that His popularity might cause anarchy and rebellion indirectly. They brought Him to Pilate in a way that was designed to show them their political submission and loyalty, but Pilate’s unexpected response backfired on them, placing them at odds with Pilate instead of on his good side, as planned.

The Authorship of this Passage

This account had to have been written by an eyewitness to the events or by someone who interviewed the eyewitness. Some authorities have brought forth biblical evidence that the Apostle John himself was present. This is not unthinkable or even remarkable. The only reason that the Jewish authorities did not enter the building was because entering a gentile building would make them ritually unclean for a period of time that would exclude them from Passover that year. The only reason Peter did not go in was because he was afraid. So it appears that there was no obstacle for someone to enter the palace and witness the trials who was less fearful than Peter and more concerned with Jesus’ fate than with participating in the festivities.

I might also note that John was the only apostle who stood at the foot of the cross, while the others hid in fear. So if John had reason to be unafraid of being at the Crucifixion, there is ample reason that he would be unafraid of attending the trial.

Implications of Jesus’ Kingship

Jesus is a king, but not of this world. If Jesus is a king, he is due honor and obedience from His subjects, and what He says is law. In a democracy, the majority of the people can effect policy changes or adopt new laws, but the Kingdom of God is no democracy. It does not matter what everyone wants or thinks or believes; what matters is what Jesus says.

Pilate’s Political Fate

It might interest you to know that Pilate suffered an inglorious end to his political career: we know from secular historical sources that he was—in modern terms—laid off in a reorganization. He pandered up to what turned out to be the losing side in a political struggle and lost everything.

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