(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

John gives a gripping and dramatic account of the trial of Jesus. One wonders how he discovered what transpired behind closed doors in the palace of Pilate! The apostle manages to convey the tension that existed between the Roman governor who did not want to accommodate the Jews and the chief priests who were determined to get their way. He also makes clear that Jesus wasn't the only one on trial - so, too, were Pilate, his soldiers, the priests, their officials, the Jewish people and human nature in general.

(B) The Prosecution.

Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning. v28. The prosecution team consisted of the chief priests, members of the Sanhedrin and their advisors - the official representatives of the Jewish people. What does the trial of Jesus tell us about them? They were:

(1) Exclusive.
John informs us that: To avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. One feels that this is so typical of the Jewish leaders that it must be true! However, there is a very puzzling discrepancy between John's account and that of the other gospel writers. John indicates that Jesus died on the day the Passover lambs were slain and before the meal was eaten whereas the other gospel writers strongly suggest that Jesus celebrated the Passover the day before his trial. It is impossible to satisfactorily harmonise John's description of events with that in the synoptic gospels. I think the best explanation is that Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover meal a day early and for reasons best known to themselves the authors of the synoptic gospels did not make this plain. There are all sorts of other suggestions but none are very convincing. See Daily Telegraph Article

To return to the subject - the Jews were so convinced that they were a special people that they would not enter the home of a Gentile for fear of being contaminated. There is nothing in God's law that said contact with a Gentile made a Jew ceremonially unclean; it was part of their tradition. Jesus had no time for Jewish traditions that had no basis in God's law. He said on one occasion to the Pharisees, "And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?"

The behaviour of the chief priests and their officials showed contempt for Gentiles. It was pure insolence and highly provocative to refuse to enter Pilate's palace. Little wonder the Roman governor hated them.

Exclusiveness is a loathsome trait and it persists in religious circles. Some of God's elect are so right and so holy that they don't wish to have anything to do with those in error. It is almost as if contact with Christians of a different persuasion will taint them. I know dedicated Calvinist who will have no dealings with Arminians for fear of being defiled. There are fundamentalist who treat those with more liberal views as if they were infected with a contagious disease. We do well to remember that those who bore greatest responsibility for the crucifixion of God's Son were exclusive in their outlook.

(2) Proud
When Pilate sarcastically asked the deputation of chief priests and lawyers, for whom he had been waiting, "What charges are you bringing against this man?" the prosecutors flared up and blazed back: "If he were not a criminal we would not have handed him over to you." v30.

The proud are touchy about their dignity and status and they won't be belittled. It is a fact that you cannot belittle a humble man! I am not saying that it is wrong to defend ourselves from unjust accusations. Jesus did so as did the apostle Paul. However, pride is easily offended, it is prickly and its reaction to a perceived slight is often disproportionate to the offence.

Some Christians lack humility! They are not very teachable, react badly to criticism and will never admit that they are wrong. It is amazing that so many who are quite happy to dogmatically assert man's total depravity are so unwilling to apologise for making a mistake.

(3) Dishonest.
When Pilate told the Jews to judge Jesus by their own law they replied: "But we have no right to execute anyone." v31. The Sanhedrin wanted Jesus tried for a capital offence. Luke details the capital offences the Jews accused Jesus of: "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king." Lk23v2. "He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here." Lk23v5. Now it just was not true that Jesus was stirring up opposition to Rome and challenging the authority of the Emperor. The prosecution was telling lies about Jesus.

Bearing false witness is a dreadful sin - almost as bad as murder - because it destroys an innocent man's reputation. That is why God commanded: "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour." Ex20v16. Sadly this commandment is not taken seriously now. Children make malicious accusations against their teachers. This results in a long period of suspension for the teacher. Nothing seems to happen to the pupil making the accusation when it is shown to be false! The same sort of thing happens in the work place where employees make mischievous claims against employers for racism, sexism or bullying.

(4) Manipulative
After Pilate announced to the crowd that had grown steadily during the early morning that he would release either Barabbas or Jesus to mark the Passover Matthew tells us: But the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. Mt25v20.

I wonder what the priests said to achieve their end? I expect they said things like: "He claims to be our king - look at him now - not much of king is he?" "He told us he was God's Son. Would God let his Son be arrested and beaten up?" "Barabbas is more of a patriot than Jesus - at least he had a go at the Romans." "For all his proud boasts nobody lifted a finger to defend Jesus. Nobody supports him; he's finished."

I hate to be manipulated - pressurised into making a decision that I don't want to make. It happened over and over again during my years as a teacher. I would resist some foolish initiative only to be told: "Times have changed. Things have moved on. It's no good harking back to the past. We have to adopt modern methods." None of these are reasoned arguments! They are a crude attempt to make an opponent of change feel old fashioned and reactionary.

It happens all too frequently in church life. Some years ago I opposed a proposal to extend our chapel. I argued that the time to do this was when our building could not hold the congregation. There seemed absolutely no danger of that in the foreseeable future! Those who were keen for an extension said things like: "I believe it is God's will for this church to grow. If we have faith it will grow. Without vision we will stagnate." Those of us who opposed the venture were made to feel guilty - opposed to God's will, without faith or vision.

We should thank God for those who refuse to be manipulated. Peter and Barnabas allowed themselves to be pressurised by legalistic Christians from Jerusalem to withdraw from fellowship with uncircumcised believers in Antioch. Fortunately Paul stood firm and opposed the Judaisers sent by James. See exposition on Acts15v1to5.

I like the story my friend Peter Chaffey tells of long ago. Old Mr Sparrow was in a rather fractious church meeting where the members were discussing various candidates for the pastorate. Nobody had a good word to say about any of them. Eventually Mr Sparrow could stand it no longer and he jumped to his feet and said, "Pastor Moss would do along a we. The trouble is he hain't high enough in the boughs for some of ye." His daughter meanwhile was tugging at his jacket saying, "Sit down father, sit down father." I have to say my heart goes out to the likes of Mr Sparrow who refuse to be manipulated.

(5) Heartless
After Pilate had Jesus flogged he brought him out - a sorry figure wearing a crown of thorns and draped in a purple rag. "Here is the man," declared Pilate. The Roman governor was saying in effect, "Look, that is all Jesus is - a poor, deluded, harmless man - no threat to anybody. Hasn't he suffered enough." But as soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him they shouted, "Crucify! Crucify!" They had no compassion, no mercy; they were cruel, pitiless, vindictive and spiteful. The religious leaders were getting their own back with a vengeance for all those occasions that Jesus had got the better of them.

I am afraid that the desire to punish those who upset us, offend us, oppose us or show us up is very strong. We can be heartless in exacting revenge. I have just finished reading a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsen. He showed no mercy to anyone whom he considered obstructed his work.

(6) Mistaken
The prosecution chose the wrong man. When Pilate asked: "Do you want me to release the king of the Jews?" They shouted back, "No not him! Give us Barabbas!" Mark informs us: Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. Mk15v7.

Barabbas was a terrorist - a serious threat to the status quo and limited authority that the Jews still possessed. If the chief priest really wanted to keep the peace they would insist that Barabbas was kept locked up. The Jews made a terrible mistake in asking for the release of a violent, bloodthirsty terrorist and condemning the Prince of Peace to the cross.

The ultimate mistake is to chose someone before Jesus. It happens all the time. A lover, friend, son, daughter, pop or sporting idol occupies the place in our hearts that should be reserved for Jesus. There are others for whom a cause, a distinctive body of doctrine or a church is more important than Jesus.

(7) Crafty
The Jews outmanoeuvred Pilate. They kept shouting: "If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar." Jn19v12. Pilate dare not act in a way that brought either his allegiance to Caesar or his judgement into question. The governor knew that Jesus was no king but he might have difficulty explaining this to Tiberius. So Pilate's enemies exploited his weakness.

The inveterate enemies of Christianity know our weaknesses and they will play upon them. Many followers of Jesus do desire to be accepted, appreciated and liked by those in the world. They do not enjoy being outsiders, marginalized or disapproved of. As a consequence the church is tempted to compromise on truth to win the approval of the world. The usual result is to water down the teaching of Jesus on moral issues and to qualify his unequivocal assertion that the only way to eternal life is through belief in him. Pilate lost what little respect the Jews retained for him by giving into their demands and the church never gains by making concessions to the world.

(8) Possessed by hatred.
The trial of Jesus reveals starkly the deadly hatred the Jewish leaders had for their Messiah.

"Here is your king," Pilate said to the Jews.

But they shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!"

"Shall I crucify your king?" Pilate asked.

"We have no king but Caesar," the chief priests answered. Jn19v14and15.

Matthew records that with an uproar starting and a riot imminent Pilate:

"Took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!"

All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!" Mt27v24.

According to Matthew envy was the reason for the Jew's hatred. For he (Pilate) knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. Mt27v18.

Envy and jealousy are a pair of evil twins; they hounded Jesus to death. The chief priests were envious of Christ's power, his gifts - in particular his ability as a teacher, and his extra-ordinary popularity. Envy, with all its attendant dangers, lurks within Christ's church. How easy it is to envy someone more talented, popular and successful than our selves. We may be envious of those who receive more love, praise and attention than we do. Envy is one of the chief causes of hatred amongst Christians and fractured relationships. I found it difficult when others were preferred before me for deacon and church secretary in my small fellowship.

(9) Prophetic
The Jews insisted, "We have a law, according to that law he (Jesus) must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God." Jn19v7.

These words were in a sense prophetic. Jesus died because God's Law condemns us all as sinners. He died because he was the unblemished Son of God and the only one who could make the ultimate sacrifice for sin. Jesus was the perfect Passover lamb slain for us.

(B) The Presiding judge

The presiding judge at the trial of Jesus was the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The proceedings reveal several things about him:

(1) Pilate was astute.
Pilate would not have been governor of Palestine if he had not been politically aware and a competent administrator. He was not caught on the hop when the chief priests brought Jesus to him early in the morning. He knew a lot about the Jewish leaders and something about Jesus. Pilate had his sources of information.

Pilate must have been told about Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the excited shouts of the crowd: "Blessed is the king of Israel." Jn12v13. So when the chief priests ask for a detachment of soldiers to arrest Jesus for stirring up the masses and representing him self as king of the Jews Pilate reluctantly agrees. He is probably suspicious because the nationalistic Jews had not previously shown much concern for the sovereignty of Caesar. The delegation from the Sanhedrin must have greatly exaggerated the threat posed by Jesus because Pilate authorises a substantial number of Roman soldiers to make the arrest.

After Christ's arrest and the return of the Roman soldiers to barracks Pilate would have received a report from the commander of the force. He must have been told that Jesus only had eleven supporters with him in the Garden of Gethsemane and that he did not resist arrest. Indeed, Jesus remonstrated with the only one of his disciples to resort to violence. This confirmed what Pilate knew about Jesus - that he was a religious teacher rather than a political agitator who was hated by the priests because they envied his influence and popularity. See Mt27v18.

Pilate was prepared for the priests when they arrived at day break. In all probability he was angry to have been conned into sending a large detachment of soldiers to arrest a harmless holy man. The Jews had already made him look a fool!

Pilate had made up his mind before the arrival of the prisoner that Jesus was innocent of any crime against the state. This was a verdict that remained unchanged throughout Jesus' trial. Over and over again he pronounced: "I find no basis for a charge against him!" Jn18v38. Pilate knew that Jesus was not a threat to Roman occupation of Palestine.

(2) Pilate had a profound contempt bordering upon hatred for the Jews and their religion.
This comes out very strongly in John's account of the trial. We see it in:

    (a) The first question Pilate asked: "What charges are you bringing against this man?" Jn18v29. Pilate already knew what Jesus was accused of. He sent out a detachment of soldiers to arrest him on the basis of accusations made by the chief priests. But the governor had already decided that the charge made against Jesus was false. His question was almost certainly sarcastic and suggested that the prosecution might have some more trumped up charges. What else had they been able to invent!

    (b) Pilate's response to the heated, indignant assertion by the chief priests: "If he were not a criminal we would not have handed him over to you." The governor replied to this by saying: "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." v31.

    Pilate's attitude was: "If you are sure of his guilt why bring him to me? What do you need me for? You've made up your minds, you're so right - well take him away and deal with him your selves."

    (c) Pilate's reaction when Jesus asked him if he had made up his own mind about him or was relying on the opinion of others. Pilate said: "Am I Jew? It was your people and your chief priest who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?" Jn18v35.

    It is not easy to understand what Pilate's remarks mean. But he seems to be implying that he didn't believe that Jesus was the King of the Jews. "Am I Jew?" he asked - only the Jews would be stupid enough to accuse you of being a king. It was they, and not Pilate, who had accused Jesus of claiming to be a 'king'. It was nothing to do with him.

    Pilate went on to demand: "What is it you have done?" I imagine he asked this question ironically. What had Jesus done to upset the chief priests so much? How had he managed to stir up their murderous hatred? What had he done to ruffle their precious feathers?

I don't think Pilate intended to execute Jesus. He wasn't prepared to give the chief priests that satisfaction. Such was his contempt for them that he would thwart them if he could. However, Pilate's hatred of the Jewish leaders impaired his judgement and led to him mishandling the trial. One thing he underestimated was the intensity of their desire to see Jesus humiliated and discredited.

Hatred is highly dangerous because it will always have an adverse affect upon our judgement leading us to act hastily, dismissively, carelessly, impatiently and without due thought thereby playing into the hands of those we hold in such contempt. We see this in the ugly disputes that have occurred between Calvinists and Arminians. It is almost impossible for the diehards of either side to conduct a rational, good-humoured and God honouring discussion such is the animosity each has for the other.

(3) Pilate underestimated the power of truth and significance of Christ's kingdom.
Jesus explained the nature of his kingdom to Pilate: "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.
You are right in saying 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." Jn18v36and37.

It is interesting that Pilate tried Jesus on the basis that he was king of the Jews. The question he asked Jesus that prompted the reply above was: "Are you the king of the Jews?" v33. Jesus told the governor that his kingdom was not of this world. It was a heavenly kingdom whose values were derived from God. He was a king in that he had divine authority to speak the truth, to lay down the principles of his kingdom and demand obedience from his subjects.

This did not impress Pilate who asked, "What is truth? " v38. I am sure that Pilate was once again being ironical. He was saying, "What sort of kingdom is truth? You can be king of Truth. That's not a kingdom that Caesar recognises. We Romans are not going to worry much about that." We know that this is Pilate's attitude because he immediately went out to the Jews and said, "I find no basis for a charge against him." Jn18v38.

Pilate is, of course, wrong to be so dismissive of truth. Religious truth is far more powerful and persistent than governors or emperors or armies. The Roman Empire fell but the Kingdom of God survives and expands by the day. Totalitarian rulers in the 20th century did not make the same mistake as Pilate. Lenin, Stalin and Mao tse Tung took Christianity seriously and did their utmost to suppress it - without success. But there are lots of people in Britain today who share Pilate's views on religion. They do not take religious truth seriously and dismiss it as an irrelevance. Christianity, and for that matter other religions, will outlast the fads, fancies and fashions that preoccupy a large proportion of the population.