Jesus’ Trial before Pilate
After Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas, where He was convicted of blasphemy for telling the truth, they brought Him to Pilate for sentencing. The priests did not have the authority to impose the death penalty in those days, because Rome had removed that right from them. Neither did the Romans care about infractions against Jewish laws. But they took sedition very seriously, especially in the Jewish nation, where messianic hopes continually stoked the fires of revolt.
The priestly plan, therefore, was to present Jesus as a messianic leader of a revolt against Rome. The irony, of course, was that He was precisely the opposite of this, and His messianic view was peaceful—in contrast to Caiaphas’ own view that was shaped by the Shammaite school of thought dominating the Sadducee sect at that time.
Luke 23:1, 2 says,
1 Then the whole body of them arose and brought Him before Pilate. 2 And they began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.”
Matt. 27:1 says that this occurred “when morning had come.” Mark 15:1 says “early in the morning.” John 18:28 gives a few more details:
28 They led Jesus therefore from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium in order that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.
All of the accounts indicate that Jesus was sent to Pilate immediately after Peter had denied Jesus the third time when the bugle had sounded. Hence, this bugle, or “cock” was no doubt the one blown at daybreak, 6:00 a.m. The Praetorium was the Governor’s Mansion.
Matt. 27:3 tells us that when Jesus was led to Pilate, Judas then “felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders.” Apparently, Judas was waiting to see the outcome of the trial before Caiaphas, hoping that Jesus would do something to save Himself. When Jesus submitted to judgment, He realized that his plan to force Jesus’ hand had backfired. He then hanged himself.
In Luke’s narrative, he knew that Jesus was charged with “forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar,” and so he had been careful to record the actual story in Luke 20:21-26. Jesus had said to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” This was hardly the start of a tax revolt against Rome, and apparently Pilate knew this, for Pilate ignored this completely, and nothing further is said about it. Instead, the charges focused upon whether or not Jesus was a King.
But before focusing on this charge, John tells us of a preliminary exchange in John 18:29-32, writing,
29 Pilate therefore went out to them, and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?”
His tone of voice must have shown that he did not believe their charges were valid, for instead of giving Pilate a simple answer, we read,
30 They answered and said to him, “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him up to you.”
Obviously, this response to Pilate’s question indicates that Pilate did not believe that the priests had caught a seditionist “messiah.” No doubt Pilate had already heard about Jesus and knew He was not a seditionist.
Pilate also understood the resentment that the Shammaites had toward Rome and how the Sadducee priests themselves would have loved to overthrow Rome, were it in their power to do so. After all, he had been the Roman Procurator to Judea for seven years already, which was more than enough time to get a feel for the politics of Jerusalem. Pilate had little respect for the Jewish leaders, seeing them as hypocritical fanatics, and the chief priests hated Pilate in return.
Regardless, then, of what Pilate may have said to them verbally, it is certain that he was thinking about the priestly hypocrisy and politically-motivated charges against Jesus. John 18:31, 32 continues,
31 Pilate therefore said to them, “Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law.” The Jews said to him, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death,” 32 that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which He spoke, signifying by what kind of death He was about to die.
The Jews normally stoned people to death, while the Romans crucified seditionists. In Matt. 20:18, 19 Jesus had already prophesied what type of death He would die:
18 “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, 19 and will deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify Him, and on the third day He will be raised up.”
John assumes, of course, that the readers are already familiar with the other gospels and knew about Jesus’ prophecy.
King of the Jews
Once the preliminary accusations had been made, Pilate then focused upon the only real charge that concerned Rome. Luke 23:3 says,
3 And Pilate asked Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And He answered him and said, “It is as you say.”
With such a response, one would expect Pilate to find Jesus guilty as charged, but instead, we read in Luke 23:4,
4 And Pilate said to the chief priests and the multitudes, “I find no guilt in this man.”
This is astonishing. Surely more was said than this. Luke’s account is very short, leaving out details that are found in the other gospels. Matt. 27:12-14 shows us that the chief priests charged Jesus with “many things,” but that Jesus gave no answer while they were present. Pilate, then, decided to take Jesus into the Praetorium to question Jesus privately. He knew that the priests would not follow Him into the building, because they did not want to render themselves “unclean” just before Passover.
John alone tells us what was said in the Praetorium. John 18:34-38 tells us that Jesus then explained His claim as a King.
34 Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” 35 Pilate answered, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You up to me; what have You done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”
In other words, Jesus did not lay claim to the title of an earthly king, as the chief priests were accusing Him of doing. Even so, Jesus was indeed a king.
37 Pilate therefore said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” 38 Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, “I find no guilt in Him.”
John’s longer account clarifies how Pilate came to the conclusion that Jesus was not a threat to Rome. Jesus’ claim as a king was “to bear witness to the truth.” Essentially, He claimed to be the King of Truth. No doubt this was fully consistent with what Pilate had already heard about Jesus. Pilate found Jesus to be entirely believable, for if he had suspected anything else, he had the right by Roman law to send Jesus to the torturers to extract a full confession from Him.
While Pilate was questioning Jesus, Pilate’s wife (Procula, according to later Christian literature) sent word to her husband of a dream she had just had as she awoke. Matt. 27:19 says,
19 And while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.”
The Catholic Encyclopedia under the heading of “Pilate,” says of her,
“The belief that she became a Christian goes back to the second century, and may be found in Origen (Hom., in Mat., xxxv). The Greek Church assigns her a feast on 27 October.”
Scripture does not tell us of Pilate’s reaction to his wife’s dream. She gave him no new information. He already knew that Jesus was innocent and tried to set Jesus free, but his political situation would soon force his hand.
Pilate Sends Jesus to Herod
After Pilate told the chief priests, “I find no guilt in this man,” Luke 23:5 says,
5 But they kept on insisting, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching all over Judea, starting from Galilee, even as far as this place.” 6 But when Pilate heard it, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that He belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who himself also was in Jerusalem at that time.
No doubt Pilate thought that he might avoid bringing judgment upon Jesus by sending Him to Herod. Herod had a mansion nearby in Jerusalem, though he usually lived 7½ miles away at his fortress called Herodium. But he had come to Jerusalem for the Passover feast.
8 Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him.
Recall from Luke 8:3 that Herod’s steward, Chuza, who managed Herod’s household at Herodium, was apparently a believer in Christ. His wife, Joanna, supported Jesus’ ministry financially. There is no doubt that Chuza had told Herod about Jesus and may have been the reason Herod did not consider Jesus to be a threat as a rival “king of the Jews.” In fact, he was glad finally to meet Jesus.
So when Herod finally met Jesus, he gave no indication that he was concerned about this new “king,” in spite of the chief priests’ accusations. In fact, he was more interested in Jesus’ miracles.
9 And he questioned Him at some length; but He answered him nothing. 10 And the chief priests and the scribes were standing there, accusing Him vehemently. 11 And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Him with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate. 12 Now Herod and Pilate became friends with one another that very day; for before they had been at enmity with each other.
The chief priests were obviously concerned that Herod did not share their concern that Jesus was a rival king. So they accused Him “vehemently.” Ultimately, when Jesus would not speak with Herod, he felt insulted and so he treated Jesus with contempt. He then gave Jesus one of his royal robes and sent Him back to Pilate.
It is interesting, however, that Pilate and Herod became friends that day. What caused them to become friends? No doubt it was that they agreed that Jesus was innocent. They knew that the chief priests felt threatened by Jesus’ teachings and His popularity among the people.
Luke was the only gospel writer to tell us that Pilate sent Jesus to Herod. Because Jesus said nothing to Herod, this side journey could not have taken long. He was probably back at the Praetorium by 8:00 a.m., where the final drama was to unfold.