The Trials of Pilate

24 Apr

Once an African chief happened to visit a mission station. Hanging outside the missionary’s hut on a tree was a little mirror. The chief happened to look into the mirror and saw her reflection, complete with terrifying paint and threatening features. She gazed at her own frightening countenance and started back in horror, exclaiming, “Who is that horrible-looking person inside that tree?” “Oh,” the missionary said, “it is not in the tree. The glass is reflecting your own face.” The African would not believe it until she held the mirror in her hand. She said, “I must have the glass. How much will you sell it for?” “Oh,” said the missionary, “I don’t want to sell it.” But the woman begged until he capitulated, thinking it might be best to sell it to avoid trouble. So he named a price and she took the mirror. Exclaiming, “I will never have it making faces at me again,” she threw it down and broke it to pieces. This is precisely what the Jewish religious leaders did to Jesus. They would dash this mirror of their souls! So they nailed him to a cross, only to find that this magnified the reflection.

Mark 14:53-65 describes the religious trials of Jesus, where he was accused of blasphemy, claiming to be God. 15:1-20 describes the political trials where he was accused of treason, claiming to be a king. As God, Jesus suffered for us. As King, Jesus died in our place.

Since the Jewish Sanhedrin did not hold trials at night, they reconvened shortly after daylight to finalize their verdict. Since they did not have the right to carry out executions (John 18:31), they sent the matter to Pilate, the Roman governor, hoping he would rubber stamp their decision (1). Surprisingly, Pilate wanted to hear the case (2-5).

Pilate was a Roman prefect, or governor. He ruled over Judea from A.D. 26-36. While he normally lived in Caesarea by the Mediterranean Sea, he came to Jerusalem during Jewish festivals to help keep an eye on things and to maintain order.

Pilate was a true politician. He usually made decisions that increased his stature and favor with Rome. The people’s desires and well-being were secondary to him. He was especially careful in dealing with the Jewish people. While he despised the Jews, charges had been brought against him because he offended them on two previous occasions.

Since the Roman officials left for more pleasurable activities by mid-morning, Pilate held court from 6-9AM. This is when he opened the proceedings against Jesus.

During the religious trials, the Jews accused Jesus of blasphemy, claiming to be God. In the civil trials, they change the accusation to one of treason, claiming to be a king. Since Pilate is concerned about a king who would threaten Caesar, he inquires whether Jesus is the King of the Jews (2). Jesus’ response indicates, “Yes, but not in the way you are thinking.” After Jesus’ explanation, “My kingdom is not of this world,” (John 18:36), Pilate realizes that Jesus is not a threat to Rome.

Though Pilate asked Jesus to defend himself, Jesus remained silent. Such silence was rare in a Roman court, and Pilate was amazed. At this point, Pilate’s initial feeling is that Jesus is not guilty.

However, Pilate discovered Jesus was a Galilean. Hoping to avoid making a judgment against him, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, the governor of Galilee, who also happened to be in Jerusalem during this time. Herod only mocked Jesus by asking Jesus to entertain him by doing a miracle. When Jesus declined, Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate (Luke 23:6-12).

During the Passover Festival, the governor’s custom was to release a prisoner selected by the people (6-8). Rather than acquit Jesus of the charges, Pilate offered the customary Passover amnesty. Instead of choosing Jesus, the people chose Barabbas (11).

Barabbas was a freedom fighter, robber, and murderer, the equivalent of a first century Robin Hood. He had been condemned to death and was awaiting execution.

Pilate was shrewd enough to recognize that while Jesus was innocent, he had been arrested out of jealousy and hatred (10). He offered to release Jesus, probably in an attempt to spite the Jewish leaders. Being a political animal, Pilate also recognized he would have a riot on his hands if he did this. When he took a poll of the people, the demanded execution by crucifixion (12-14).

In releasing Barabbas, Pilate unknowingly provided an example of substitutionary atonement. Jesus, an innocent man, would die in the place of a guilty convict.

The Roman practice of crucifixion was more than hanging on a tree. It included humiliation and unrestrained torture. During a scourging (15), the prisoner was stripped, often tied to a post, and beaten on the back by several guards using short leather whips studded with sharp pieces of bone or metal. While the Jews limited the punishment to 39 lashes, the Romans had no set limit on the number of blows. Often this punishment was fatal as the subject’s flesh hung in shreds.

If this wasn’t enough, the Roman soldiers toyed with Jesus like a cat toys with a mouse (16-20). They took a faded scarlet military cloak and put it on Jesus like a royal purple robe. A crown of thorns became the victor’s laurel wreath. A reed or staff took the place of the royal scepter. The mocking cry, “Hail, king of the Jews!” parodies the Latin greeting, “Hail, Caesar, Emperor!” As a whole, it was a grotesque, vaudeville production designed to humiliate Jesus before his crucifixion.

On January 23, 1968, the USS Pueblo, a U.S. Navy intelligence ship, was hijacked by North Korean patrol boats in international waters off the coast of North Korea. The incident provoked a tense diplomatic and military standoff for eleven months. The eighty-two surviving crew members were taken into captivity. In one particular instance, thirteen of the men were required to sit in a rigid manner around a table for hours. After several hours, the door was flung open, and a North Korean guard brutally beat the man in the first chair with the butt of his rifle. The next day, as each man sat at his assigned place, again the door was thrown open, and the man in the first chair was brutally beaten. On the third day, it happened again to the same man.

Knowing the man could not survive, the next day, another young sailor took his place. When the door was flung open, the guard automatically beat the new victim senseless. For weeks, a new man stepped forward each day to sit in that horrible chair, knowing full well what would happen. At last the guards gave up in exasperation. They were unable to overcome that kind of sacrificial love.

Each of us is the person sitting in the first chair, but instead of getting beaten, we are to die. Knowing this, Jesus traded places with us and took the death blows that were intended for us. No one suffered more than Jesus. Why? Because he loved us. Jesus is the King who died in our place.

This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on April 24, 2016. It is part of a series in the Gospel of Mark. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.


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