Truth on Trial

John 18:28-19:15

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
May 2021

Today, we will be looking at the most famous trial in history.  The most famous trial in history was not the OJ Simpson Trial or the Scopes Monkey Trial.  It was not Roe V. Wade.  It was the trial of Jesus.  This trial is mentioned in all four Gospels.  We will be looking at John’s account.  In John 18, Jesus is arrested and put on trial.  The trial will result in a sentence of death by crucifixion.

We live in a day in which people do not always get justice.  We have bad laws.  We have bad cops.  We have bad judges.  We have unfair sentences.    The guilty often walk free or get a very light sentence.  The innocent sometimes go to prison.

Many do not get a fair trial today. Jesus did not get a fair trial either.  He was falsely accused of a crime.  He had no legal rights.  He had no lawyer representing him and defending him.  Jesus was not a Roman citizen.

This trial was a complete travesty of justice.  J.D. Greear calls it, “The most unjust trial in human history.” [1] It perpetrated was the greatest injustice of all time, the murder of the incarnate Son of God. [2]

What is the background to our section?  Before Jesus’ civil trial, He had a religious trial.  Religion hates Jesus.  The top religious leaders in the nation HATED Jesus.   You would have expected the religious experts of the day to welcome Jesus.  They were very religious.  They memorized huge chunks of their Bible.  Their own Bible predicted that the Messiah would come.

Instead, they wanted to kill Him.  Jesus might not fit in too well into some churches today either.  He would have been a little too Jewish for some Baptist churches today. He drank alcohol.

Jesus was arrested at night by a huge army of soldiers armed with swords and clubs (Matthew 26:47; John 18:3).  He was brought to the house of the High Priest and interrogated under oath.  He stood before the Sanhedrin.

He was physically abused in their custody.  Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him (Matthew 26:67). The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. (Luke 22:63 NIV).  Jesus was given the death penalty for blasphemy.

65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. (Matthew 26:65-66 NIV)

He was placed in a holding cell.  The next day, they took Jesus to the Roman authorities.  As much as they wanted to kill Jesus, they could not do it legally.  Only the Romans had the authority to execute anyone, so the next day, they took him to Pontius Pilate very early in the morning, probably around 6 AM.

Did Pontius Pilate Actually Exist?

There is solid historical evidence for the existence of Pontius Pilate.  He is mentioned in Jewish (Philo, Josephus), Roman (Tacitus) and Christian (NT) sources but it was not until sixty years ago that we had actual archeological evidence for Pilate.

In 1961, his name was discovered by archeologists on a stone in Israel.  The stone has an inscription that says in Latin, “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.”

It is called “The Pilate Stone.”  You can see this stone if you go to Jerusalem today.  It is in the Israel Museum.  Since then, archeologists have found in Bethlehem a two-thousand-year-old ring with Pilate’s name on it in Greek.

Pilate met Jesus for the first time.  He came face-to-face with Him.  Pilate interviewed Him.   He interrogated him.  Jesus stood before Pilate’s Court. The Jews took him to Pilate’s headquarters, The Praetorium but would not bring Him inside, because they did not want to be defiled going into a pagan Gentile residence.

Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. (John 18:28 NIV)

Note the complete hypocrisy here.  These leaders didn’t have a problem with committing murder, but they do not want to be seen stepping into Gentile territory.  They were big on ceremonial purity but not too big on  moral purity.   As Jesus said, these people would “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:24 NIV).

They were scrupulous and meticulous about following all of the ceremonial rules, as they get ready to commit the worst sin ever committed in history, the murder of their own Jewish Messiah. They would not go into a Gentile’s house, so Pilate had to come out.

The interesting thing is that we know exactly where this was.  Pilate’s Judgment Hall was the Antonia Fortress beside the Temple.  If you go to Israel, you can visit it today.  It has been converted to a school.  There is this courtyard outside where Jesus would have been taken and stood outside.

We do not know if Pilate knew Jesus had been arrested the night before.  He asks them what he was charged with (John 18:29).  John does not tell us.  30 If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.” (John 18:30 NIV).

Luke gives us more details.  He gives us the actual charge.  It wasn’t blasphemy.  That would not stand up in a Roman court.  The charge was upgraded to treason.  It was changed to political rebellion.

Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. 2 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 Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:1-2 NIV).

Pilate brings Jesus inside and asks him questions about some of these charges.  The Bible records seven of Pilate’s questions.  While Pilate interrogates Jesus, he asks Him seven questions.  He probably asked Him a lot more but John only records seven.  In the end, it turns into a discussion about truth.  While Jesus is the one on trial, He puts Pilate on trial.

Pilate’s Seven Questions

Pilate’s FIRST QUESTION Pilate asked Jesus was, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (John 18:33 NIV).  Jesus says, “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” (John 18:34 NIV).  He gives an evasive answer. He did not answer Him directly at first.  Why did He do this?

It was a bad question.  It was a trick question.  The question was a trap.  There was a question of two behind the question.  What did Pilate mean by king?  Of course, Jesus is king.  What Pilate really was asking was whether Jesus was a political revolutionary.

That was really what Pilate wanted to know.  He wanted to know if Jesus was planning on taking up arms and planning to overthrow the government.  He wanted to know if Jesus was a threat to Rome but that was not what he asked, so Jesus sidestepped the question.

Pilate’s SECOND QUESTION was “Am I a Jew?” (John 18:35).  It was a rhetorical question. That is a question not to get information but to give information.  It implied a negative answer.  Pilate said, He adds, “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me.”

Pilate’s THIRD QUESTION was “What have you done?” (John 18:35).  The question assumed that Jesus is guilty.  There was no presumption of innocence here. Jesus does not answer this question.  He could have said, “I have healed the sick.  I have given sight to the blind.  I have raised the dead.  I have cast out demons. That is what I have done.”

Jesus answers, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36 NIV).

That is a very important statement.  Jesus does NOT deny that He is a king.  He does NOT deny that He has a kingdom.  He DOES deny that his servants are to fight for his kingdom.  That is very significant.

Jesus was very different from Muhammad.  Muhammad was a military man.  He fought all kinds of battles and killed many people.  He believed in jihad.  Islam is a religion of the sword.

Jesus never fought anyone.  We never see Him with a sword or a weapon.  We never see Him fighting people.  He never killed anyone.  He said to turn the other cheek and forgive your enemies.  He taught His followers to love people, not kill them.

When Jesus was arrested, Peter pulled out a sword and cut a man’s ear off, but Jesus healed the man and told Peter to put his sword away.  He said that His servants were NOT to fight.  There should not be any religious wars waged for Jesus.  The Crusades were wrong.  Jesus’ kingdom is NOT of this world.  In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church believed that his kingdom was of this world and they fought for it.

Right now, Jesus’ kingdom is internal.  It is a spiritual kingdom.  One day, Jesus will return to the earth to rule and reign.  He will establish His kingdom on the earth.  Then, He will have a sword.

Revelation 19:16 says, “Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.”  At the Second Coming, Jesus will reign on the earth as king but at the First Coming, He came as a lamb, not a lion.

Pilate’s FOURTH QUESTION was “So you are a king?” (John 18:37 ESV).  Jesus already answered this question, but He is more emphatic.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37 NIV)

Pilate’s FIFTH QUESTION was “What is truth?” (John 18:38 NIV).  That sounds like a question from a Philosophy 101 course.  It is perhaps the most important question a person can ever ask.   It is a question that everyone must answer.

When we talk to people about Jesus, we can get two completely different responses.  One response is to be open, receptive and accept the message.  Jesus said, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37 NIV).  Jesus said, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27 NIV)

The other response is to reject truth.  That is what Pilate does here.  Jesus gave Pilate an invitation to respond to Him here.  He invites the judge to be one of followers

He invites the judge to become one of His followers.  If Pilate was on the side of truth, he would have accepted Jesus’ words.  Instead, he said, “What is truth?”  He not only rejects the truth; he mocks it.  That is not how a true believer would respond.

The irony is that he was standing right in front of the incarnate Son of God, the very embodiment of truth.  He says, “What is truth?” when he is standing right in front of Truth.  Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life.

Some people can ask the question out of sincerity.  Pilate asks it out of complete cynicism and does not even wait for an answer.  He just walks away and leaves the room.

Is Truth Relative?

One of the biggest things you will hear today is that truth is relative.  What is true for you is not true for me.  Everyone has their own version of truth.  That is the dumbest thing I have ever heard.  Is the law of gravity only true for me or is it true for everyone?

Truth is absolute.  Two plus two equals four.  It equals four in China.  It equals four in India.  It equals four in America.  It equals four in every culture and in every place.  If you go to the Moon, it equals four.  It equals four in every time.  If you go back in time a thousand years, it still equaled four.

Truth has nothing to do with culture.  It has nothing to do with attitudes.  It has nothing to do with feelings.  I may feel great on the outside but that does not change the fact that I may have cancer on the inside and may be dying.

It has nothing to do with my beliefs.  I may not believe in the law of gravity but that will not change the fact that if I fall of a tall building, I will fall to the ground.    Gravity applies to those who believe it is a physical law and it applies to those who do not believe it is a physical law.

Pilate’s SIXTH Question was “Where do you come from?” (John 19:9 NIV).  Jesus did not answer this question.

Pilate’s SEVENTH Question was “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” (John 19:10 NIV).  Jesus said, “You have that power because God gave you that power (John 19:11).

Pilate has now interrogated Jesus.  He realizes that He is not violent.  He is not a threat to Rome.  He wanted to set him free.  He tries to set him free several different ways. He tried to avoid the case and sent Him back to the Jews.

When he found out that Jesus was a Galilean, He sent Him to Herod because Galilee was his jurisdiction.  He gave him a choice between Jesus and Barabbas.  He gave them a choice between releasing an innocent man and releasing a guilty man.

The KJV says that Barabbas was “a robber” (John 18:40 KJV).  The Greek word ληστής is the same Greek word used to describe the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus (Mark 15:27) but Barabbas was much more than a petty thief.  He was a murderer.  He killed someone.  He was a revolutionary.  (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19).

Jesus was brought before Pilate because He was accused of being a revolutionary, even though He was innocent, and then they let Barabbas go free when he was the one who tried to overthrow the government.  He was a real terrorist.  He participated in a bloody insurrection.  Barabbas was a thug and a killer.  This was complete hypocrisy.

Barabbas is the one who receives a pardon.  Jesus was punished and the criminal who should have been punished is released.  Jesus takes Barabbas’ place.  He walks off to His execution, while the guilty Barabbas is let free. A terrorist goes free.  A murderer goes free.

We are like Barabbas.  Barabbas was wicked and so are we.  We are sinners.  We broke God’s law.  We stand under condemnation like Barabbas did.  We deserve death and Jesus took our place. What Jesus did for Barabbas, He does for us.

Pilate tried to send Jesus back to the Jews.  He told them to try him.  That did not work.  He tried to send him to Herod, but Jesus did not talk to Herod.  He tried to release Barabbas instead of Jesus, but the Jews did not want Barabbas.  Finally, he tried to give Jesus some type of punishment to save his life.  He scourged Jesus.  That made no sense.  Pilate knows Jesus is innocent but treats Him like He is guilty.

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. 2 The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe 3 and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face. (John 19:1-3 NIV)

That approach did not work.  “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. 15 But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” (John 19:15 NIV)

What is happening here?   There is some politics going on.  Pilate gave in to the pressure.  He gave in to the mobs.  He was worried about his job.  Pilate was a politician, but he was not Donald Trump.  Donald Trump told you what he thought unfiltered and did not care what anyone thought.   Love him or hate him, he did not change his core principles based on the latest CNN poll or based on what violent mobs in the street did.

Pilate was different. Interestingly, Pilate only lasts three more years as Governor of Judea.  In 36 AD, Pilate was removed from office and sent back to Rome.

People complained to Emperor Tiberius about Pilate.  He was accused of many things.  Philo mentions him being accused of oppression, cruelty, excessive force, murder and not giving people a fair trial. [3]

Mobs tried to intimidate Pilate to crucify Jesus, even though he knew that He was an innocent man.  We see the same thing today.  Mobs in the street intimidate and blackmail the legal system.  If a guilty verdict is not reached in some murder cases, they threaten violence.  They will riot, loot and destroy businesses.  They will burn the whole city down.

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” (John 19:12 NIV)

Nathaniel Williams, who is a pastor in North Carolina wrote, “Pilates’ sins were many. He ignored his convictions and his wife’s wise counsel. He gave in to the whims of an angry mob. And he condemned Jesus to be crucified — not because he believed Jesus was guilty, but because it was more politically expedient. And when it was all over, he washed his hands — trying to convince himself and others (unsuccessfully) that he was not responsible for the unjust execution that was about to take place.” [4]

Pilate’s Choice

This brings us to Pilate’s choice.  He came face to face with Jesus.  He met him.  He talked to Him.  He interviewed him.  He knew that He was innocent.  In fact, Pilate said that he was innocent three times (John 18:39; 19:4, 6).  He had a choice to make: to release Jesus or to kill Him.  Pilate will go down through history as the man who sentenced Jesus to death, the man who ordered His execution.  He is known as the man who killed Jesus.

Everyone who faces Jesus has a choice.  The people had a choice.  They had to choose between Jesus and Barabbas.  Pilate had a choice and we have a choice.  Everyone who has encountered Jesus or who has been confronted with the gospel has a choice.  It is the greatest decision of your life.

What will you do with Jesus? Your eternal destiny depends on your response to Jesus.  Like Pilate, we only have two choices.  We can turn away from Him and reject him or we can accept Him, listen to what He says and follow Him.

Did Pilate Become a Christian?

Many Church Fathers believed that Pilate later converted to Christianity.  Tertullian in the second century wrote, “All these things Pilate did to Christ; and now in fact a Christian in his own convictions, he sent word of Him to the reigning Caesar, who was at the time Tiberius” (Apology, 21).

St. Augustine in the fourth century, wrote, “Yet both Pilate and the Magi sought, or at least recognized, not a king of the Gentiles, but the King of the Jews … As to the fact that the leaders of the Jews suggested to Pilate not to write specifically that He was the King of the Jews, but that He said He was the King of the Jews, Pilate here represents the wild olive tree to be engrafted in place of the branches which had been broken off” (Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, Sermon 201).

The Greek Orthodox Church believes that both Pilate became a Christian (Saint Pilate).  The Russian, Greek and Coptic churches believe, as does the Ethiopian Church, that both Pilate and his wife Claudia became Christians. They believe that they not only became Christians, they believe that they both became a martyrs.

On the other hand, there is no evidence from the NT that Pilate ever came to faith.  There is a much darker view of Pilate’s fate found in the writings of Eusebius. Eusebius lived in the fourth century and has been called “the Father of Church History.”

According to Eusebius, Pilate was not martyred; he committed suicide.  Eusebius says that Pilate, because of his own wickedness, became his own murderer and executioner  (Ecclesiastical History II.7).

[1] https://jdgreear.com/unjust-trial-history-redeem-every-injustice/

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XENGTj9IDf8

[3] Philo, http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book40.html (On the Embassy to Gaius 38 (299-305) ).  Cf. also Josephus, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html (Antiquities of the Jews 18.3-4)

[4] https://intersectproject.org/faith-and-politics/danger-pilate-politics/

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