As we continue our series The Way of the Cross, we come today to the account of Jesus before Pilate. We’ll read Mark’s recording of the encounter.
Mark’s telling of the encounter of Pilate and Jesus is a bit more economical in words than some of the other gospels, so I’m going to fill in some of the events that we learn from the other gospels as we talk about this event this morning.
1 Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.
2 “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate. “You have said so,” Jesus replied.
3 The chief priests accused him of many things.
4 So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”
5 But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.
6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested.
7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising.
8 The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.
9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate,
10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him.
11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.
12 “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.
13 “Crucify him!” they shouted.
14 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Occasionally, we read a story of someone found innocent after years of incarceration. It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to survive such an experience. Our system of justice operates on the assumption of fairness, which is very difficult to guarantee. If people do not believe the justice system is as fair as it can possibly be, their sense of trust will be greatly diminished. Imagine a system of justice that makes no pretense of justice; this is what Jesus faced in the Roman justice system. The Roman system of justice operated on two basic principles – power and force. The Romans held absolute power and as such were able to force their will on their subjects. Those who lived under Roman rule had no expectation of fairness in their justice system.
In recent weeks we have talked about the betrayal of Jesus by Judas and the subsequent arrest of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. After his arrest, Jesus was taken before the Sanhedrin, which was the religious court, for the first of his trials. There was nothing fair about the trials – before the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Pilate – that Jesus faced.
The Sanhedrin was a religious court, and each town could have there own Sanhedrin, but Jerusalem held the Great Sanhedrin, which was the final authority on religious law. There, before that court in Jerusalem, Jesus was convicted of blasphemy for claiming to be divine (Matthew 26:65-66). But the religious leaders were not allowed to carry out a death sentence. Only the Romans, who were in complete control at that time, could carry out a death sentence, so Jesus was taken to Pilate. Pilate was the prefect of the region, and his responsibilities were to collect taxes, hear legal matters, and keep peace in the region.
Pilate, after an initial interrogation of Jesus, sent him to Herod, who was a puppet king for the region of Galilee and was put on the throne by the Romans. Herod was initially excited to see Jesus, about whom he had heard a great deal (Luke 23:8). Herod was hoping Jesus would perform a miracle. Instead of a show, Herod received only silence from Jesus (Luke 23:9), and so sent him back to Pilate.
The entire process was a farce, in terms of fairness and justice, and while the religious leaders, Pilate, and Herod believed they were the ones dictating the course of events, they were not. Pilate and Herod were not on control; neither were the religious leaders. None of them were controlling these events or determining the outcome. Jesus, who remained largely silent throughout his trials, was not only in control of these events but was also the one who determined his destiny. Jesus was not a victim of these events, but the one who determined and controlled them.
Pilate, throughout these events, proves to be a strange case. As one who had little, if any, hesitancy to condemn others, Pilate appeared to be looking for a way to avoid pronouncing a sentence of crucifixion upon Jesus. Pilate condemned many – revolutionaries, false messiahs, and others, but Jesus was a different case altogether. Though he sought a way to relases Jesus, Pilate eventually relented to the desires of the religious leaders and had Jesus flogged and crucified.
One of the tragedies we see in this passage, besides the obviously terrible miscarriage of justice and abuse of power, is that the religious leaders present to Pilate the dark, negative, side of religion. It is no surprise to any of us to know that throughout history there have been unfortunate things done in the name of religion, and those episodes sadden us all. Prior to the time of Jesus, during the time of Jesus, and all the way to our age, there are people who have used religion to gain power and wealth, and were willing to do things in the name of religion that are as far away from the purposes of religion as can be imagined.
The religious leaders, who professed such concern about religious and doctrinal purity, did not hesitate to do what they had to do in order to have Jesus put to death. They had no love for the Romans but were willing to turn to the Romans to accomplish their terrible purposes. They were willing to change their story in order to accomplish their purposes. The religious leaders convicted Jesus on a charge of blasphemy, but presented him to Pilate as a revolutionary who challenged Rome by proclaiming himself king. They had no hesitation in making a false claim in order to accomplish their purposes. For them, the end totally justified the means.
I wonder what Pilate thought about those religious leaders. I am no defender of Pilate, certainly, but he was an astute enough man to see through their charade. What a terrible example of people of faith they were, showing Pilate their willingness to do whatever it took to get rid of Jesus. They were certainly a poor advertisement for faith.
The religious leaders, in order to get their way, not only lied about the charges against Jesus, they also stacked the crowd against him. Mark begins this passage by telling of the unanimity among the religious leadership to execute Jesus – it was the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin. It was not the entirety of the Jewish people who had turned against Jesus. In fact, among the people at large, Jesus was very popular. The crowds of people are, unfortunately, often portrayed as being fickle, welcoming Jesus into the city of Jerusalem at the Triumphal Entry and then turning on him, becoming the mob that only days later cried out for him to be crucified.
This is not an accurate portrayal of what happened. It was not the large crowds of people who had turned against Jesus, but the religious leadership (John’s gospel tells us it was the chief priests and their officials who shouted for Jesus to be crucified – John 19:6). This is why they wanted to arrest Jesus privately, away from the crowds, because they were afraid the people would riot it Jesus were arrested. Many of the people were probably not even aware of what had happened until Jesus was carrying his cross to the place of crucifixion.
This is how some people like to operate – in the dark corners of life, away from the eyes of the world. Their work must be done in secret because it is ugly work that many people would oppose.
These leaders felt threatened by Jesus, and they did not like being threatened. He was a threat because his teaching was popular, drawing the loyalty of the people away from their leadership. He was also a threat because those leaders were afraid that Rome would become agitated at the large numbers of people following Jesus and react very harshly. If Rome decided to respond to what they considered a rebellion, it wouldn’t be just Jesus and his followers who would be targeted, but the religious leaders as well. The Romans expected the religious leaders to keep the people “in line,” and as long at they did, the Romans would allow them to retain their positions of power and prestige. These men, then, were out to protect their power, status, and privileged station in life. Jesus was a threat to all of this, and as such, they had decided that he must be eliminated.
I find it fascinating that, in Mark’s telling of this story, Jesus remains quiet. Though he faced unjust trials before the Sanhedrin, before Herod, and before Pilate, he remained mostly silent.
I find the silence amazing and impressive. Jesus, of course, was not out to defend himself. Jesus was not seeking to avoid the cross. The cross was, he knew, his destiny and was the culmination of his mission and purpose. Jesus did not use his power, his verbal eloquence, or his popularity to plead his case, because these events all fit into the divine plan. But even though Jesus was not seeking to avoid the cross, his silence remains fascinating. For most of us, when we are in a difficult situation we are far too quick to strike back, and to allow our fear to control us. Jesus certainly did not react in such a way.
But here was his opportunity to set straight the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Pilate, and he said very little. He had the ear of Herod, the king, and said almost nothing. He stood before, Pilate, the representative of the Roman Emperor, and what an opportunity it was to proclaim the truth of who he was and the nature of his mission, but he offered very few words.
Perhaps Jesus realized that nothing he would say could penetrate those hard hearts or open those closed minds. Or, perhaps, he was content to allow his actions to speak. It is actions, isn’t it, which really captures the attention of people. Far too often we unleash a torrent of words, which have far less impact upon others than actions. The actions of Jesus had spoken, and would continue to speak volumes.
When Pilate presented Jesus, and proclaimed behold the man, he meant it in a mocking way. Though Pilate had the wrong attitude, he had the right words – behold the man! Behold the truth that Jesus is the center of our faith. It is not our church building, it is not our programs, it is not our worship services, it is not me, it is not you that are the center of our faith; it is Jesus.
William Willimon tells the story of going to speak at a church and being told we try to avoid the J word around here. The J word? he wondered, before he realized they meant Jesus. It’s actually easier to put something other than Jesus at the center of faith because it makes our faith easier. When Jesus is at the center and we reflect upon his life – in particular those final hours – it is a bold challenge to the status quo of humanity.
When Pilate had Jesus flogged and turned him over for crucifixion, he most certainly felt that was the end of Jesus. I’m certain the religious leaders agreed.
How wrong they were.
You cannot crucify, kill, and bury the truth. You cannot crucify, kill, and bury love. You cannot crucify, kill, and bury forgiveness and grace on a level never before seen by humanity.
God always has the final word. It doesn’t matter what the skeptics say. It doesn’t matter what any statistics say about the changing world of faith. It doesn’t matter how many people believe or don’t believe. God always has the final word, and God’s final word is Jesus.
Behold the man indeed!