The Last Hours of Jesus #5: Standing before Pilate
The night begins to give way to morning light and at last they are ready to take Jesus to Pilate for judgment. Our understanding is especially helped by the following passages:
Matthew 27:1-2, 11-13
We are looking at Jesus’ first appearance before Pilate, all the way through His conversation with him about truth.
The Administration of Justice?
The gospels tell us something about the meetings held through the night about Jesus. But these were not even-handed deliberations about what is fair and right and just and what the facts are and whether or not the charges against Jesus have been substantiated. Matthew 27:1 tells us “when morning came, all the chief priests and elders of the people plotted against Jesus to put Him to death.” They were united in seeking not a fair outcome but a slanted one. Talk about kangaroo courts.
Their power and influence had to stay; Jesus’ power and influence had to go. He must be non-personed. He must be ended, eliminated, cancelled, murdered. He was too good and they were too corrupt; it was Him or them.
Jesus Taken to Pilate
Although it was very early, they took Jesus to Pilate. He did not go under guard of just two or three officers. Luke 23:1 tells us “then the whole multitude of them arose and led Him to Pilate.” All the chief priests, all the elders of the people, they go, as a unit, almost as a mob, to Pilate.
John 18:28 sets the scene:
Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover.
Jesus as we all know, was the true passover (1 Corinthians 5:7). These miscreants are about to see to His murder on the cross, and the whole Passover service they have in their minds will be without meaning for them when they themselves press for the murder of Jesus the Lamb of God! But they are not going to defile themselves. No. So Pilate has to come out to them. It must have been galling for Pilate to have to come out to the Jews, and so early in the morning.
You can read Ellen White’s fascinating chapter in her book, The Desire of Ages, and the chapter, “In Pilate’s Judgment Hall.” There you will find that Pilate was indeed none to happy with having to get up so early and go out to the Jewish leaders. As he moved to the judgment hall he had been determined to do his work as quickly as possible, and he was prepared to deal in full severity with the prisoner. He’d never seen Jesus before. But he did not walk out to the crowd with any affection. His intention was to get this over with.
Upon his arrival, Pilate asked the Jewish leaders, “What charges do you bring against this man?” John records what must have been the initial discussion. There is a testy exchange at John 30-32. Having asked what Jesus is charged with, petulantly the Jews answer, “If He were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him up to you.” In other words, take our word for it and just rubber-stamp His execution for us!
Pilate isn’t satisfied with that. That Jesus is no evildoer we all know. Pilate doubtless guesses that to be the case. On the other hand, long has he had to deal with the ridiculous demands of the Jewish elders.
Fake Charges Set Forth
So Pilate challenges them, asking them to go ahead and deal with it. But they are forced to respond that they want Jesus to be killed and that that can only be accomplished if he, Pilate, gives the word. I would like to know what look stood on Pilate’s face at that moment. The leaders had as much as said, trust us, and Pilate knew not to do that! So now the Jews pour forth three totally fake charges, which we find at Luke 23:2:
- Jesus has been engaged in perverting the nation.
- Jesus has forbidden His followers from paying taxes to Caesar.
- Jesus claims himself to be a King.
Notice that these are all claims made especially to arouse the Roman governor with the fiction that Jesus is a some kind of a rabble-rouser, some kind of political activist.
We all know the facts from the gospels. Jesus has been bringing healing and wholeness and hope to the people. Jesus hasn’t started any riots, He hasn’t aroused any mob. Every mob that’s been stirred into being has been whipped up by these very people! Perverting the nation is a very general charge. No group was more responsible, not even the Romans, for perverting the nation so much as the Jewish religious leaders of that day.
Did Jesus forbid paying taxes to Caesar? The opposite was true. He had actually told the people plainly, give to Caesar what was due Caesar. This was an outright lie, a counter-factual statement, a total untruth.
The third charge, that Jesus claimed to be a king, was also a distortion, but one Pilate will get to the bottom soon. The interesting piece here is that the charges brought against Jesus are all of the political sort. They are calculated to arouse the human government to indignation and murderous action, to flip the switch and provoke the state to exercise its police power to kill a man who is actually an innocent.
This is an important reminder for us that so often the resort of the enemies of God is to misrepresentation, bald-faced lying, and half-truths against God’s people. The lies are tailored not to the facts but to the situation and the goal of the liars. Satan was a liar and a murderer from the beginning. Whenever we find men lying and attempting to invoke police powers against the innocent, we smell the dragon’s breath.
The large crowd expands on the charges. Pilate is surprised Jesus says nothing in answer. Any of His disciples who could have been listening in would know all these to be lies. But Jesus neither affirms nor denies the charges.
Is Jesus a King?
Finally, Pilate directs questions to Jesus. He asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Here, there is a change. Jesus responds. “You say so,” which is as if you or I said in English, “Yes, that is correct.” The crowd unleashes a fierce verbal assault. They are saying things like “See, He admits it! Put Him to death now!” The noise is loud, even deafening. This is a substantial crowd although the hour is so early.
It is loud. It is hard to think. The pressure is on. Jesus is standing there silent as the people roar. We can be sure that of the many persons who have been brought to appear before Pilate, none ever had the calm, peaceful, pure, noble demeanor of Jesus. This had to have affected Pilate.
Again, here is a peek into the mind of Pilate. From The Desire of Ages, p. 726:
Pilate was astonished at His bearing. Does this man disregard the proceedings because he does not care to save His life? he asked himself. As he looked at Jesus, bearing insult and mockery without retaliation, he felt that He could not be as unrighteous and unjust as were the clamoring priests. Hoping to gain the truth from Him and escape the tumult of the crowd, Pilate took Jesus aside with him, and again questioned.
What did he ask Jesus? He again asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus knew that the Holy Spirit was at work upon Pilate’s heart. And so He did not answer directly but instead responded with a question of engagement. He wanted to give Pilate every opportunity to respond to the conviction that was forming in his mind. To paraphrase Jesus’ question, He now asked Pilate, Are you asking Me this yourself, or are you asking because others said it?
How do you think Jesus would have responded had Pilate said, “I want to know for myself if you are a King?” He would have responded as clearly as He did to the woman at the well when He said to her: “I who am speaking to you am the Messiah.”
Pilate knew what Jesus was asking. Jesus was asking him whether Pilate was personally interested in the answer or just because the priests had accused Him. Pilate misses the most important opportunity in his life here, in this moment. Standing before Him, and even trying to prompt him toward heaven, Jesus—the way, the Truth, and the Life—is having a conversation with him about matters spiritual, matters eternal.
Pilate’s response is a missed opportunity. “Am I a Jew? Our own nation and the chief priests have delivered You to me. What have you done?”
Pilate was a proud Roman, and both Jews and Romans were seriously biased in favor of their own nations and views. Satan nurtures a pride in us, that no other nation’s people, no other nation’s religion, no other nation’s government, could possibly be as good as our own. But think of the example the Jewish leaders and priests had given Pilate of their belief in God. Pilate was not exactly inspired by their lying, political, self-important, perjuring, twisting representations. The bulk of these were unconverted men. Their ethics were no better than the ethics of Rome. Their example testified that the Jewish religion was no improvement on the religion of Rome. Have some pity for Pilate; the example he should have been given, the influence he should have been reacting to, wasn’t there for him in his time of greatest need.
Now Jesus answers the twisted charges against Himself with truth. John 18:36-37:
Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I would not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.
Pilate therefore said to Him, Are You a king then?
Jesus answered, You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.
Much Higher Ground
Friends, have we really understood what Jesus here tells Pilate? Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Easily He could have raised an army and resisted the priests and elders and even the Romans. He didn’t. Now His kingdom is not from here. Jesus did not come here to wrangle and tangle in politics. He is a King. This is why He was born and came into this our world. But He didn’t come in to get you to join a political party or even a political movement. He came to bear witness to the truth, a truth that is not consonant with our world in its sin-damaged, fallen situation.
He calls us up to higher ground. I mean WAY HIGHER. How much higher? NOT-OF-THIS-WORLD higher. We are to be in this world but not of this world. We are to serve Jesus our King from heaven.
As Jesus called His disciples to something higher, fishing for men rather than fishing for fish, He calls us up to something higher, rather than winning an election, being the elect. A politician is elected for two, four, or six years; but Jesus is King forever and invites us to join Him on His throne. If a man were elected US president, would he go back and busy himself with that first political office he was elected to, as the dog-catcher? Then when we are called to serve Jesus, why do we permit ourselves to be caught up in secular politics?
We are called to something higher. Jesus said it clearly: “Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
Right here Jesus raises the question of truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears the voice of Jesus. Everyone--no exceptions. That is, everyone who is of the truth obeys Jesus’ voice.
Here is a clear line of distinction. Many claim to be actuated by truth, but they do not do what Jesus says. Jesus is telling Pilate that those who follow Jesus are transformed people, people who are not of this world. Jesus constitutes no threat to Roman civil power. His goals are higher than the petty posturing of the high priests and elders and of eternal moment in comparison to Caesar’s temporal interests. There is no real comparison. And Pilate must have sensed this. Here was an innocent man, a truly good man, a man, in fact, unlike any Pilate had ever faced.
Listen to the remarkable insight in this paragraph from The Desire of Ages, p. 727:
Christ affirmed that His word was in itself a key which would unlock the mystery to those who were prepared to receive it. It had a self-commending power, and this was the secret of the spread of His kingdom of truth. He desired Pilate to understand that only by receiving and appropriating truth could his ruined nature be reconstructed.
God’s word has immeasurable power. But this power works to transform to righteousness only those who are prepared to receive it. Am I prepared to receive it? Do we desire His word? Or do we tolerate the word for a moment and then bounce back down into the lesser things that we desire?
Why is this word so powerful? It has a self-commending power. Everyone who hears the word, whose heart is not seared, recognizes that it is truth. But how often it clashes with the maxims, the sayings, the texture of thought in this fallen world. There is so much science falsely so-called in our day which ingeniously arrays itself against the word. Whole reasonings and philosophies are erected with the premises that God does not exist. But all these human views, self-consistent within themselves as some of them are, still are not self-commending in any supernatural way. God’s word has a power unlike anything else there is. The conscience is involved in God’s word, whereas our perilous reasoning can be misguided by some of those sophistries. Oh how God desires and works toward keeping our consciences tender and alive.
But the most profound aspect of this remarkable paragraph is its final sentence. Jesus desired Pilate to understand that “only by receiving and appropriating truth could his ruined nature be reconstructed.” Truth and only truth, received and appropriated, is capable of reconstructing our ruined nature.
Do we realize how far out of sync the devils have taken contemporary thought? The thinking current today is not only that there is no truth or that there is no truth accessible to us, that our natures are not ruined. Humans are biological machines. With the right reprogramming we can be improved. We just need the right reprogrammers. And who are the right reprogrammers? The technocrats and the politicians. They will tell us how to live. They have the right combination of carrots and sticks. Humans are perfectible through the right technology, the right interventions.
That is nonsense. The human nature is so “ruined” to use Ellen White’s term, that a supernatural power is required. Do you remember that quote a few weeks ago? “Man needs a power outside of and beyond himself, to restore him to the likeness of God” (The Desire of Ages, p. 297). But even as she wrote that in the next line she mentioned the necessity of human cooperation with that external power. And it is imperative in this moment that Pilate, for his own soul’s sake, become more engaged.
Ellen White went on at The Desire of Ages, p. 727 to say,
Pilate had a desire to know the truth. His mind was confused. He eagerly grasped the words of the Saviour, and his heart was stirred with a great longing to know what it really was, and how he could obtain it. ‘What is truth?’ he inquired. But he did not wait for an answer. The tumult outside recalled him to the interests of the hour; for the priests were clamorous for immediate action. Going out to the Jews, he declared emphatically, ‘I find in him no fault at all.’
Friend, how is your desire to know the truth? Pilate was eager, his heart was supernaturally stirred. He is even described as experiencing a great longing to know what the truth really is, and even more importantly, how he could obtain it. So promising!
He asked Jesus, “What is truth?” But he did not wait for the answer.
Tragedy! So close and yet so far. If only he had pursued this question. Did anyone else in the gospels ever ask Jesus this directly the question what is truth? But, having asked, Pilate moves past the question. This is the most dangerous question a sentient being can ask. When you ask what truth is, you are affirming there is an ultimate moral fact and that you are morally bound by it. But we want to be free to follow the dictats of our own corrupted nature, our old habits, our conveniences, the things we have developed a love for. The pure, unvarnished truth, we fear. It may forbid some darling sin. So we tiptoe around questions of truth to preserve our preferences. We know that truth is non-negotiable. And since we doubt the love of God for us we doubt the benefit of truth for us. And that is our mistake.
Pilate’s Declaration of Jesus’ Innocence
After Pilate asked, “What is truth?” he turned and “went out again to the Jews, and said to them, “I find no fault in Him at all.”(John 18:38)
Pilate knew that the Jewish leaders had delivered Jesus up to him for other reasons than any crime. On his part, he, this moment, had no thought of condemning Jesus. But at the prospect that Jesus was about to be released, the Jewish group went into overdrive with complaints and claims. When Pilate heard that Jesus was from Galilee, he sent him to Herod. He wished to avoid tumults that would be retold in Rome and put to question his ability to govern the Jews. Here was his character weakness and a weakness of values. Political power was more important to Pilate than justice, for that is exactly the conundrum he here faced.
And so, Jesus is sent off to Herod. Pilate breaths a sigh of relief. He dodged that problem!
Just as we today so badly need strong and godly leaders, it was true in the time of Pilate. We need men who will not be bought or sold, who will stand true like a needle to the pole. Pilate was a roman governor, not a Christian. But of him in his situation one could hope for a just judge, a man who cared for justice and fairness, an impartial and benevolent eye for the downtrodden. Sadly, Pilate was not those things. With supernatural help the Holy Spirit brought him up higher, aroused the best things in his character. But without supernatural change it was not enough.
And so included in the last hours of Jesus was this first interaction with Pontius Pilate, who squirmed under the pressure and who to a point tried to deliver Jesus from the wrath of the crowd. Little does Pilate realize at this moment that later this day Herod will send Jesus back to him and that he will face the final prospect of delivering a person he finds innocent to a bloodthirsty, hate-driven mob for murder.
First Peter 3:18 tells what Jesus did for you and I. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.” He is the just. You are the unjust. He is working this hour to bring us to God.
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