Who's on Trial?

John 18:1 – 19:16

As Jesus and his disciples left the upper room and walked through the south gate of Jerusalem to cross the Kidron Valley and climb the Mount of Olives where they entered the Garden of Gethsemane, it was late in the evening, perhaps even early in the morning of the beginning of Passover.

While John doesn’t tell us of Jesus praying in the Garden, the other three Gospels focus in on this night of agony as Jesus prays, “Not my will but yours be done,” as he sweats drops of blood.

And then they arrive. Judas is leading a detachment of Roman soldiers and Jewish Temple guards. Now, John uses some specific language here. The word translated “detachment” is the word for cohort, technically one-tenth of a Roman legion which would mean 600 soldiers. There were also Jewish soldiers from the Temple. John says they came with torches, lanterns and weapons. They assumed there would be violence – they came ready for a riot. If Jesus was who the chief priests said he was, they expected his followers and supporters to defend him. And so, if you can imagine it, the entire side of the Mount of Olives was turned into a military operation to take down Jesus.

When Judas was scheming with the priests to betray Jesus, they wanted it to be away from the crowds, under cover of darkness, and Judas knew just the time and place. Jesus went often with his disciples to this garden. Judas knew that he would be there, because he had been there with him many times. When the army of soldiers arrives, they find Jesus alone with eleven of his disciples. I imagine they sneered and thought how ridiculous it looked to have this kind of military force against twelve men.

But when Jesus asked, “Who is it you want?” and they said, “Jesus of Nazareth,” and Jesus said, “I am.” (There is no “he” in the sentence, and like his I AM statements, we miss the power of what he says, Jesus, speaking in Hebrew says, “Yahweh” – “I AM.” And when he says that they drew back and fell to the ground.

Do you remember that beautifully poetic lyric back in Psalm 29: The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD strikes with flashes of lightning. The voice of the LORD shakes the desert; the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD twists the oaks and strips the forests bare. And in his temple all cry, “Glory!” (Ps 29:5-9)

Jesus speaks with such power and authority even the Roman soldiers are intimidated. Twice more this happens. Finally, Jesus says, “I told you that I am he. If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” But Simon Peter isn’t about to let this go without a fight. He pulls out a sword and lops off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Truth is, I don’t think Peter was aiming for his ear, but he’s a fisherman not a fighter and he misses the center of the servant’s head and catches an ear on the way down.

Jesus yells, “Stop!” and he commands Peter “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”

You remember Jesus prayed in John 17, “Father, the time has come.” Many times Jesus had walked through the crowds unharmed when they tried to seize him or stone him because it was not his time. Now that it is his time, Jesus is ready to go to his death. But notice, Jesus is not the victim here – he goes willingly. He is in control of this situation, not the Roman soldiers, not the Jewish priests, and he will not be deterred, even by his own friend Peter who thinks he will single-handedly defend Jesus to the death.

While the soldiers arrest Jesus, the disciples go fleeing into the night. Jesus has accomplished his goal of protecting his disciples to the end. Two of his disciples, Peter and John follow the soldiers at a distance and arrive at the house of Annas, the father-in-law of Caiphas, the high priest. A few weeks ago, we watched as Peter was backed into a corner with questions from servants in the courtyard and how he finally and tragically denied that he even knew Jesus. But this morning our focus is on the three part trial of Jesus.

This trial begins at the house of Annas. As I said, he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas. John’s Gospel alone mentions this first part of the trial, or should I say pre-trial. This was not official, but it was significant. Annas was the real power behind Caiaphas. Annas was himself the chief high priest of the Sanhedrin for nine years, but was so corrupt that the Roman procurator had him removed from office. That doesn’t mean he was removed from power – he had his son-in-law, Caiaphas, voted in to succeed him, and Caiaphas became Annas’ puppet.

Annas questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching, but Jesus told him, “I always taught in synagogues or at the temple, where all the Jews come together. I said nothing in secret. Why question me? Ask those who heard me. Surely they know what I said.” (Jn 18:20-21) The questioning is really irrelevant because the decision to have Jesus put to death was made before Jesus ever arrived before Annas.

In fact, John’s Gospel gives only a passing nod to the next phase of the trial. He writes: (vs 24) Then Annas sent him, still bound, to Caiaphas the high priest… (vs 28) Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor.

What we do know about Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin we learn from the other Gospels. They focus on the dishonesty and treachery of the Jewish leaders who, for all their show of piety and concern for justice, are godless men who ran roughshod over justice to come to their conclusion. And when they send him on to the Roman governor, Pilate, it is not for justice, but for execution - because, and here’s the rub, they don’t have the authority to carry out their own executions.

When they arrive at Pilate’s residence it is still early in the morning, but it is the morning of the Passover and time is crucial. These pious priests don’t want to defile themselves by entering a Gentile’s residence, so Pilate must come out to them. He asks, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”

Listen to their indictment: “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” That’s not an indictment, they offer no legal reason to try him – it is the assumption of guilt, it is circular reasoning. He is guilty so we are handing him over to you – we wouldn’t be handing him over to you if he weren’t guilty.

Pilate sees through their politics and tells them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.”

And here is where their intentions are revealed: “But we have no right to execute anyone.” They don’t want a trial, they want an execution. They don’t want justice, they want Jesus eliminated.

I don’t want to paint Pilate as a good, righteous man who seeks justice, but he sees through the motives of these Jewish leaders and knows that he is being used as a pawn in their plan. As we read John’s account of this portion of the trial, it reads more like an interview. Pilate is both seeking information and trying to find some way to unhinge the plan of the Jewish leaders – again, not because of his soft heart, but for political advantage.

Let’s listen to this conversation: Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” “What is truth?” Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion. (Jn 18:33-40)

Notice that Pilate’s main concern and question is about this claim to be king. Rome would come down hard and ruthlessly on any pretender to the throne. They barely suffered Herod, and he was a powerless leader. But if Jesus were a king who commanded a following and threatened Roman rule, he must be dealt with immediately. But as Pilate questions Jesus, he comes to the realization that Jesus holds no threat for Rome.

Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but make no mistake he is a real king, and his kingdom will overcome and outlast every human kingdom. I’m sure Pilate looked at Jesus, humble, lowly, in chains and could not see beyond the ragged man who stood before him, but he was addressing the King of kings and Lord of lords, and if only he could have seen and realized who he was speaking to, I’m sure his demeanor would have changed. When Paul says, “Every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is lord to the glory of God the Father,” he leaves no one out. Your tongue, my tongue, great and lowly, Caiaphas and Annas and Pilate and every Caesar and Emperor and President and King who has ever lived, who will ever live will confess that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords.

Illust – In 1715, Louis XIV of France died. Louis, who built the palace in Versailles, Louis, who called himself “the Great,” was the monarch who made the infamous statement, “I am the State!” His court was the most magnificent in Europe, and his funeral was spectacular. Louis planned his own funeral. His body was laid in a gold coffin. To dramatize his own greatness, he ordered that the cathedral should be very dimly lit, with only one special candle set above his coffin. Thousands attended the funeral and sat in hushed silence. The Bishop Massilon began to speak. Slowly reaching down, he snuffed out the candle saying, “Only God is great!” 

At this point, Pilate tries to forestall the inevitable. He had his soldiers flog Jesus. We cannot overstate the brutal violence and physical damage that was done with flogging. Many men didn’t survive the flogging, and after he is flogged, the soldiers mocked him by putting a crown of thorns on his head and a purple robe on his back and continued to slap him and strike while calling out, “Hail, king of the Jews!”

Pilate once again has Jesus brought out to the Jews and says, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.” The Jews insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” (Jn 19:4-7)

What Pilate thought might elicit pity for Jesus has the opposite effect. They see him dressed in the purple robe and crown of thorns and they are enraged, because they know that not only was Jesus being mocked, they were too. And they begin shouting “Crucify! Crucify!”

Still, Pilate wants nothing to do with it. In fact, Matthew’s Gospel tells us that Pilate’s wife sent him a message that she had a nightmare about Jesus and he should have nothing to do with that innocent man. Pilate tells the Jews, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.” But the Jews are unrelenting: “We have a law and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”

Suddenly, Pilate finds himself facing a new dilemma and it terrifies him. John writes, When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (Jn 19:8-11) The claim to be king is one thing, to be the Son of God is quite another. Pilate, I’m sure was a superstitious man. Though, as a politician he had probably abandoned his belief in the gods, there was always that residual fear in the back of his mind. To ignore the gods is one thing, to defiantly oppose them is another.

But this part of the conversation helps us to see clearly that Jesus is not the one on trial here, but Pilate himself. Pilate says, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” In Pilate’s mind, he is the one who has the authority and power. He will make the decision of life and death. But Jesus says, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.” Pilate is not the one in control, but Jesus.

Back in chapter 10, Jesus had said, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.” Jesus is never a victim. When they arrest him, he goes willingly, when they beat him, he submits, when they nail him to the cross, he allows them to do it, and he prays, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Once more, Pilate brings Jesus out to the Jews and John writes, From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified. (Jn 19:12-16)

Up to this point, Pilate has the upper hand, he has the authority to grant or deny the Jews their request. But suddenly the Jewish leaders pull out their trump card: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” Pilate is nothing if not a politician, and being assigned to troublesome Judea is a precarious position already. If word were to get back to Caesar that he allowed sedition to go unpunished, it could quickly put him in jeopardy. Pilate had no stomach for a crucifixion, but even less a desire to risk his political future and even his own life. He realizes that regardless of the truth of the situation, the reality demands he acquiesce and so he grants their request. But in one final act to appease his conscience, he takes a basin of water and washes his hands, convincing himself that he is guiltless in the end.

The Jewish leaders have also revealed the depths to which they will stoop to accomplish their goal. When Pilate asks, “Shall I crucify your king?” They shout back, “We have no king but Caesar.” And it was true. Their loyalties were not to God. They were willing to do whatever it took, cross whatever lines needed to be crossed, manipulate and blackmail and extort to see that their will be done.

I’ve often wondered, if I were in the crowd that day, would I have been shouting “Crucify him!” or would I have followed my convictions? That day, it was not Jesus who was on trial, but Pilate and the Jewish leaders and even the bystanders who were taken up in the moment. Today, we are on trial with the same kind of question before us: Do you believe Jesus is who he says he is and will you fearlessly and boldly follow him regardless of the consequences? Or are you willing to leave Jesus when it becomes uncomfortable and inconvenient? Will you like Pilate, wash your hands of Jesus?