Jesus on Trial

A good writer knows how to keep a story moving. At key moments the writer will seemingly slow down and go into great detail. They describe the scenery, what people are wearing, where they stand, and conversations are recorded exhaustively. These are pivotal moments in the story so it is important that the readers not only learn the information but also feel what is going on.

Each of the four gospel writers record the three year ministry of Jesus. If you include all the events of the last week of His life over 25% of Matthew, 33% of Mark, 20% of Luke, and almost 50% of the Gospel of John take place during the last week of His life! They go into great detail because these events are significant events.

Jesus was arrested after midnight and was taken to the home of the High Priest where he was examined by the High Priest Emeritus and the High Priest. As daylight dawned there was an “official” meeting to condemn Jesus. In times past the Jews would have taken him to a cliff, pushed him over and begun stoning him. However, while they were under Roman rule they no longer had authority to execute anyone. The Roman government had to sign off on death penalty.

The Charges Against Jesus

Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.”

Pilate is Pontius Pilate. He was the Roman Governor of the area. Pilate was not a big fan of the Jews; nor were they a fan of his. Pilate had gotten into some trouble with the Emperor, Caesar, because of some uprisings in Jerusalem. When Jesus appeared before Pilate there was upheaval in the Roman government and Pilate held on to his job somewhat tentatively. Normally, Pilate lived in Caesarea on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. He had come to Jerusalem because it was Passover and the city was filled with people. Pilate wanted to be seen as supportive but also wanted to make sure there was no trouble.

When Jesus was before the Sanhedrin he was convicted on the charge of blasphemy (claiming to be God). Notice that this is not the charge that was presented before the Roman Governor Pilate. Pilate would never have agreed to execute someone for a religious offense. So, they simply made up new charges for Pilate that would cause him to be more favorable to their desires. There are three charges:

  1. Jesus was trying to subvert (or undermine) the government. This of course is just untrue. Jesus said He had come to show the nation the way to God. He never spoke against the Roman government.
  2. He Opposed Payment of taxes. This charge is also made up. We know that Jesus paid His taxes because once He had Peter take a coin out of the mouth of a fish to pay Peter’s tax and His own. When asked if people should pay taxes Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that belong to Caesar and to God the things that belong to God.” In other words, He affirmed the right of the government to impose taxes.
  3. He was a rival King. The third claim was a deliberate misrepresentation. The Jews tried to make Jesus look like He was a dangerous rebel or revolutionary that was seeking to usurp the throne of Caesar. Jesus had always said that His Kingdom was not of this world.

Over in the Gospel of John. John reports,

28 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. (John 18:28)

What hypocrisy! These men were engaging in the most blatantly sinful act of history by executing the very one God sent to be their Messiah, yet didn’t want to enter the home of Pilate (a Gentile) because it would make them unclean and defile them which would exclude them from the Passover celebration. It is the equivalent of saying, “I need to execute Jesus in time to get home to celebrate Christmas with my family!”

This is a painful reminder of two things. First, we see that it is possible to appear and believe we are very devout, while at the same time rebelling against God in blatant and sometimes even violent ways. Earlier Jesus said that these men were careful to tithe but they neglected to show justice and mercy to hurting people. Think of it as being like the person who

  • Gets drunk on Saturday night but never misses church on Sunday
  • Is stealing from their employer but still has his devotions every day
  • Is being unfaithful to his/her spouse but gets behind the pulpit every Sunday to lead the congregation
  • Is abusive to their family but has taught Sunday School for years
  • Claims to be spiritually mature yet relates to others with an attitude of superiority or hostility.

Is it possible to be a Christian and do such things? That is a tough question. Christians stumble, we have bad days, and we sin. However, if this is the regular course of a person’s life we are right to question the genuineness of their profession. When we become follows of Christ “the old passes away and we become new creatures”. 1 John 3:6 says, “anyone who continues in sin does not know Jesus”.

We are right to carefully examine ourselves and ask if we are using our religious devotion to hide sin. Are we using religious words to cover up a depraved and rebellious heart? In other words, are we living a lie?

There is a second observation: People will often say anything to get what they want. These religious leaders were willing to twist the truth to get Jesus executed. The world is full of false charges toward the church. It is sadly true that if you repeat the claims often enough, people begin to believe they are true.

  1. There are false claims about the Bible (it is full of errors and contradictions, it was not written by the disciples, it was created or edited by governing officials to maintain their hold on power.) These are false claims made by people who have not actually read the Bible and are simply parroting what they have heard others say.
  2. There is false information about Jesus (Some say: “Jesus never claimed to be God; Jesus would be horrified to see how we have exalted Him; He did not die as a substitute for sin but as an example of how to live, he didn’t really rise from the dead…it was a myth made up by His followers.”) Each of these shows a woeful ignorance of what the historical record of the Bible declares.
  3. There are caricatures of Christian beliefs (“Christians hate gays; they want to subject woman to bondage because of their teaching about submission and their opposition to abortion; Christians are angry and judgmental.”) All of these things are false charges. Christians welcome and love homosexuals even though we proclaim that God calls their lifestyle sin; Christianity affirms women and the value of every life. We speak of judgment not out of hatred but out of love and a desire to introduce people to God’s mercy and grace.

We must be vigilant against the gullibility that says, “Just because I heard it on TV (or read it in a book or newspaper) it must be true.” People feel free to change the truth to suit their needs.

The Initial Verdict of Pilate

Pilate was a savvy politician. He was an experienced Judge and knew trumped up charges when he heard them. So, Pilate went immediately to the most damning charge (in His mind)

So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.

Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”

This doesn’t seem like much of an investigation. The Gospel of John gives us much more of the conversation,

29 So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”

30 “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.” [Can you hear the hostility between Pilate and the leaders?]

31 Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”

“But we have no right to execute anyone,” the Jews objected. 32 This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled.

33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

35 “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?”

36 Jesus said, “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.”

37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “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.”

38 “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 18:29-38)

When Pilate asked the question: “Are you the king of the Jews” the “you” is emphatic. By this time Jesus had been up for over 24 hours. He surely had been abused by the Jewish authorities. When Pilate saw His sorry physical shape he said, “Are YOU the King of the Jews?’

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus was willing to engage Pilate in a conversation about spiritual things. He did not do this with Herod. It certainly seems that Pilate did not wait for the answer to his question, “What is truth?” I would have loved to have heard the answer Jesus would have given.  There are many like Pilate today who do not believe in any absolute or ultimate truth. They believe truth changes with the times. Jesus, of course, had said He was the standard by which everything else was to be measured.

Pilate was ready with his verdict: “Not Guilty!” The evidence did not support the charges. Pilate didn’t trust the leaders. He knew Jesus was being set up. Pilate saw through the charges of the lynch mob.

The Dilemma

Sadly, this is not the end of the story

But they insisted, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.”

On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.

When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. 12 That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.

Will Rogers once said, “There have been two great eras in American history, the passing of the buffalo and the passing of the buck.” Pilate passed the buck to Herod.

This Herod was Herod Antipas the same man who put John the Baptist to death. He was the son of Herod the Great who had tried to kill Jesus after his birth in Bethlehem. He was the uncle of Herod Agrippa who had the Apostle James killed in the book of Acts and was the man before whom Paul testified. Herod was most likely present in Jerusalem because of Passover and his Jerusalem home would have been only a few minute walk from the home of Pilate.

There was tension between Herod and Pilate because there was a dispute as to who had the real authority in the area. However, when Pilate heard that Jesus was from Galilee he saw a way to pass the buck and defer to Herod at the same time.

Herod was eager and willing to see Jesus but for all the wrong reasons. He had long ago hardened his heart. He was not interested in the message of Jesus; he wanted to see a show.  Herod asked all kinds of questions but Jesus said nothing. He mocked Jesus, shouted at Him, and probably beat him . . . but still nothing.

Why did Jesus refuse to speak to Herod? I think it was because it was a waste of time. Herod had closed his heart and mind.


We are only part way through the trial but we can already take away several lessons. First, we are forcefully reminded that Jesus was innocent. He was a perfectly innocent (legally, morally and spiritually) man who was executed to set us free. Paul said, “God made him who had no sin to be sin (or a sin offering) for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Cor. 5:21). This innocent man took the place of guilty men (like you and me) so that the guilty men might be declared innocent.

Someone who survives a horrible car accident or some other disaster is often changed. They view life differently. They savor life because they remember how quickly it can be taken away. Those who have put their trust in Christ should live the same way: as those who have been on death row and then given an undeserved pardon.

Second, we are reminded that you cannot be neutral about Jesus. Isn’t it interesting that there doesn’t seem to be anyone in this story who is indifferent to Jesus? The religious leaders were hateful, Pilate was apparently impressed by talking to Him; even Herod was interested in meeting Him.

You can talk to people about your spirituality; you can talk about God; you can say you have a strong belief system and people will be polite. However, as soon as Jesus comes into the discussion; as soon as you mention his name on a platform or in a school room . . . there is a response.

Why is this so? Jesus calls us to a point of decision. He says He is the only way to God; He says He is the only payment for our sin . . . . He has the audacity to say that we need a Savior and cannot be good enough on our own.  Who does this guy think He is?  He claimed to be God. If you understand what Jesus is really saying you cannot remain neutral. You either have to dismiss Him as a deluded crackpot or devilish con man, or acknowledge Him to be the Lord of life and serve Him. There are no other viable options.

Third, Pilate faced a crisis that confronts us all. We will look at this more fully next week but don’t miss the struggle of Pilate. This is a guy who is just trying to keep the peace. He wants to maintain justice. He wants to do what is right. He knew that Jesus was innocent of the charges. He wanted to set Him free.

The problem Pilate faced was the pressure of the crowd. He had to make a decision between doing what was right and doing what was popular. Pilate knew that doing the right thing might be costly. It could cost him his job (or his life) if the Jews created a disturbance. So, he tried to pass the decision off to someone else. It didn’t work.

Isn’t this the same dilemma you and I face every day?

  • Do we do what is best for our children or what will make them happy and popular now?
  • Do we live by God’s standards and risk being called a prude and possibly miss out on all the “fun” others are having; or do we just dive in with the justification that “everyone is doing it so it must be O.K.”?
  • Do we align our life with Scripture, or with our neighbors and friends?
  • Do we give freely or do we hoard selfishly?
  • Do we value the things that bring status and applause from friends or do we value the things that may bring criticism but please God?
  • Do we embrace the morality of Scripture or the morality of public opinion (or even the courts of law)?
  • Do we sacrificially cherish others or do we selfishly use others?

We face this struggle every day. It is probable that you are facing this decision in some area of your life right now: “Who will you follow?” These are the choices that determine the course of our lives. Howe we answer these questions will determine whether or not we will be seen by God as one who has remained faithful or as one who tried to walk in both the world and the way of Christ . . . and failed.

There are two roads and they head in two vastly different directions. The road you choose to follow will determine the course and the destination of your life. There are consequences to every choice. None are more significant than this choice. May God help us to be more like Jesus than Pilate.

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