Jesus’ Trial Before Pilate

March 1, 2009 / No. 3452

Dear radio friends,

In our program today we begin an exposition of the narrative of our Lord’s suffering and death upon Calvary’s cross as that narrative is given to us in the sacred Scriptures, Mark 15. I would ask that you open that passage with me.

In this narrative of Mark 15 we have the heart and the foundation of the gospel of God’s grace. It was in this way that God’s Son gave Himself up for His children so that they might live. In the words of Peter: “the just one for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.”

It must be with special reverence and amazement and love in our souls that we consider this narrative, for, unless He had given Himself for us, we should have perished everlastingly in our sins. We see Him stand bound and silent before Pilate, so that we might stand free eternally before God.

In this narrative we will see the most brilliant display of the divine mercy of God over against the backdrop of the most nauseating display of human perversity. But, should we expect it to be otherwise? For if the gospel is the good news of God’s grace to hell-deserving sinners, then around the cross we would expect to be displayed the marvels of that divine grace over against the unmentionable and awful evidences of our human depravity. We will see that God gave His Son to stand in the place, in the stead of, His chosen ones, in order that those chosen ones should not be condemned, and so that they should be given the right to stand before the face of God and His holy angels for eternity.

In verse 1 of Mark 15, Mark gives to us an account of the last part of the ecclesiastical or religious trial of Jesus, which led to our Lord’s being delivered over to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, to be crucified. There was an early morning gathering of the Sanhedrin. We read, “And straightway in the morning the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council.” They, the council, had already been meeting throughout the night and had reached their conclusion in a mock trial. We read of that in chapter 14:63, 64: “Then the high priest rent his clothes, and saith, What need we any further witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy: what think ye? And they all condemned him to be guilty of death.” The Jewish council, in that night, had condemned Jesus to be worthy of death because He testified that He was the Son of God in the flesh.

Now we read that they gathered together again in the morning, perhaps at 5:30 or 6:00 — at daybreak. Why do they gather yet again? Well, the answer is, to give a semblance of legality to their proceedings of the former night. A night session was illegal for them. It was prescribed in the Jewish laws that there could not be such a gathering of the council at night. Furthermore, their proceedings that previous night had been shot through with illegalities. So they gathered together in the morning to whitewash this by having a daytime sentencing.

And straightway, after they held their consultation, they bring Him to Pontius Pilate — to the Roman courts. For the Roman policy was: first come, first served. If you had urgent business, you would want to appear before the Roman governor at the first light of the day.

We do well, however, to notice three things that they have done. First of all, they have passed a formal resolution. They held consultation, we read, or passed a resolution. The purpose of their early morning meeting, then, had not been to deliberate, but to pass a resolution for the death of Jesus Christ. They had already deliberated, and in their kangaroo court they pass a formal resolution that Jesus should be put to death for blasphemy.

Secondly, there is the forced extradition. They bound Jesus and carried Him to Pilate. When a criminal is extradited or transported, he is brought from one jurisdiction to another jurisdiction. Here, Jesus is not brought from one state to another, but from one court to another — from the Jewish court to the Roman court, from the religious court to the civil court.

The third thing we note is that they have unwittingly fulfilled the Lord’s words, for they deliver Him up to Pilate. Pilate was the Roman governor in charge of the area of Judea and Samaria and appointed to keep peace and order. The Jews could not execute capital punishment. That was in the hands of Rome. In bringing Him to Pilate, they have brought to pass the Lord’s own words (Mark 10:33), when He said to His disciples, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles.” The way of the cross, like all of the sufferings of Jesus Christ, was appointed long before in the counsel of God. Now the moment has come. According to God’s determinate counsel (Acts 2:23), God’s own Son is being delivered over unto the cross. God (Rom. 8:32) spares not His own Son, but delivers Him up for us all.

Mark gives us, in verses 2-5 of chapter 15, an abbreviated account of what transpired when they stood before Pilate. (For a fuller account, I would refer you to John 18:28-32.) It seems clear that when one was delivered over to the Roman governor, Pilate would expect that charges would be stated and substantiated. So we read in John 18:29 that Pilate asked, “What accusation bring ye against this man?” Pilate is no rubber stamp. They had to prove their case. Evidently the Jews at this point were caught off guard and respond in a way of arrogance: “If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him unto you.” In other words, “We don’t have to bring a specific charge. Does not our standing as men of the cloth validate that we would not bring an innocent man to you, Pilate?”

But Pilate, at that particular point, showed that he had some principle. That is, although Pilate was a self-seeking man, a tortured man, a pathetic man, a cowardly man, yet, at that point, he responded to the Jews: “Take ye him and judge him according to your law.” He was acquainted, evidently, with the Jewish law that there had to be witnesses. Therefore, he says to them, “If all you say is that I must take your word for it, I give him back to you.”

The Jews responded, “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death. Pilate, we want His death! And death must be inflicted by Rome, the government. Further, we want crucifixion. We have come in order to have Him crucified.” The Jews, of course, did not bring the charge that they had agreed upon. In their council meeting they had agreed upon the charge of blasphemy: “He says He is the Son of God.” Pilate’s laws said nothing about that. That could not bring upon one the civil verdict of death. So they will try to convince Pilate that this is a man who attempts to overthrow the authority of Rome. The Jews believe that they can convince Pilate that Jesus is guilty of perverting the nation.

So, at that point, the Jews begin to charge Jesus with many things, all requiring death by crucifixion. We read in Luke 23:1, “And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King.” All those things would be especially odious to Pilate as the governor.

They said that He was perverting the nation — literally, crooked. In other words, they are saying to Pilate, “We would be on a steady course, but this man is turning us off the course.” They believe that this is going to prick up Pilate’s ears. Further, “We have found him forbidding to give tribute to Caesar.” Now, that was a bold-faced lie. Three days earlier they had tried to ensnare Jesus on the question of tribute to Caesar. They thought that they could place the Lord on the horns of a dilemma. And our Lord had answered, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and the things that are God’s give to Him.” Now they distort Jesus’ answer, to get Pilate on their side.

Then they say to Pilate, he makes himself a Messiah, a king. That, too, is a lie. They mean that He tries to make himself an earthly king. But the Lord had made it abundantly plain to them that He was no earthly king but a spiritual king. Pilate knew that there was at that time a tremendous expectancy among the Jews for a Messiah, for a political, for an earthly leader to break the back of the Roman rule. So, if they wanted it to register with Pilate that this was someone deserving of crucifixion, they seek to formulate those accusations calculated to touch the raw nerve of Pilate’s political sensitivity.

This leads Pilate to ask Jesus two questions. We read in Mark 15:2, “Art thou the King of the Jews?” Remember that they had struck Jesus upon His face with their knuckles and they had spit upon Him and they had buffeted Him. There were no ice-packs to place upon His wounds, bruises, and contusions. There had been none to wash away the dried blood. So it is almost in a whisper of contempt that Pilate asks: “You, you the king of the Jews?”

Try to hear it as Pilate would say it. Here is a man bound before him, deposited at his court of scrutiny with welts, bruises, and dried blood. “You? The king of the Jews?” And Jesus answered: “Thou sayestit.”

A clear affirmation, a quiet, calm affirmation. “As you have said — not, of course, as the Jews conceive of it, not as an earthly king but a spiritual kingdom. My kingdom is not of this world. My kingdom is established upon truth and righteousness. Yes, that is who I am. I am God’s King.”

It was at this point that the Jews intensified, evidently, their accusation. We read in verse 3, “And the chief priests accused him of many things: but he answered nothing.” They let loose a barrage of accusations, many unsubstantiated accusations. Try to picture it. Try to understand what the Holy Spirit sets before us here. Pilate has asked, “You are the king of the Jews?” Jesus answered affirmatively. Then from every direction there is a great chorus of voices hurling accusations against Jesus. And in the midst of it, Pilate observes Jesus. He stands there as the Son of God, majestically, but bruised and bloodied — and silent.

This leads Pilate to his second question, verse 4, “And Pilate asked him again, saying, Answerest thou nothing? behold how many things they witness against thee.” Pilate can no longer keep it in him. He looks upon the scene as the governor of the Jews. Many a time had he seen a man brought before his bar. There, hammer and tong, one would accuse, and the accused would follow it by a vehement denial. But our Lord does not answer—not so much as one reply. Pilate marvels: “Aren’t you going to answer?”

“But Jesus yet answered nothing; so that Pilate marvelled” (v. 5).

The Lord, in all of His sinlessness, would not stoop to dignify the accusations with a response. It was His silence that tore at Pilate. He marveled. He could not understand. This was no ordinary man. And Pilate begins to fear and look for a way to avoid this issue and decides that he will send Him off to Herod.

What is the significance of all of this for us? As I said when we began, we should not be amazed to see, in this narrative, the most lucid display of God’s grace over against the most lurid display of sin’s power and ugliness. But I see especially three applications.

First of all, let us behold our glorious Lord who, when He was delivered over for us, to bear the condemnation of our sins, answered not a word. He stands in perfect composure. He offers no defense for Himself. We construct the circumstances. He stands before Pilate. He stands before the wild, the hateful, the false, the vindictive, the spiteful accusations hurled against Him by the Jews. And He answers nothing. Why? Because the Son of God willingly and in love has come under the accusation of our sin.

We have here the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:7, “He was oppressed and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth. He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.” The one who bears our iniquities does not open His mouth in legitimate self-defense. For the heavenly Father, now, has called Him to take upon Himself our condemnation, our sins, the sins of all those whom He has chosen to give to Jesus. And so submissive is He, so filled with love to the Father and love for us, that He is utterly silent before those vicious charges.

He does this because He knew that beyond Pilate’s court is the cross. The Lord is saying, “To that cross I must go. There I must receive accusations that are true — that is, all the accusations of God’s holy law against the sins of My children and people. These I must answer by bearing that wrath of God and answering, ‘I love Thee, O Lord,’ for them.” And to make it very plain, He opened not His mouth. If He opened His mouth at that point, He would not be our Savior. But He kept His mouth closed so that ours might be opened in praise today.

The second application that I see is this. We have a very powerful example to those who suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ in well-doing. The gospel of Mark was written primarily to Roman Christians who, with the apostle Paul, were receiving opposition and persecution. They were being brought before rulers and kings and were being accused of many slanderous things. Christ, now, is our example of enduring slander for His name in patience. We read of this in I Peter 2:20-23. There the apostle Peter highlights an aspect of Christ’s suffering. He says to us that when the Lord was reviled, He reviled not again. That word “reviled” means “destructive, tearing-down speech, untrue, false.” He did not respond, thus leaving us, says Peter, an example that we should follow in His steps. Christ knew as He stood before Pilate that day that all of the accusations brought against Him were false. Yet, He answers not a word. He is our example, then, of suffering patiently in His service.

The third thing that we should see is this. Behold our sin and God’s grace. Look upon the human nature, the human heart devoid of God’s grace, as it is reflected in the chief priests and in the Jews—as it is reflected even in those who are immersed in religious orthodoxy. We read in the Scriptures that the Jews and the chief priests would not go up into Pilate’s judgment hall themselves—they were very scrupulous—for it was the time of their feast, and they were concerned that they observe their regulations of purity. They have been plotting murder throughout the night. They are filled with hatred. But, they say, “Oh, we must not be found in the Gentiles’ courts on the holy feast day. Oh, how terrible it would be if we would place so much as the sole of our foot within this man Pilate’s court on the Jewish festival day.” Yet, within their heart they were filled with hatred and murder. They are the picture of the religion that is devoid of daily, personal knowledge of one’s own sin. This is the religion that knows all the right places, all the right words, and all the right external deeds—but does not have the experience of the grace of God upon the heart, to be humbled before the holy God, in the knowledge of one’s own filthiness and sin.

The picture here is of the heart that knows nothing, nothing at all, of its own sin and of the holiness of God. It is a heart, then, that can lie. It can hate. It can devise evil. It can lust. It can envy. And at the same time, in its outward deeds, it can be scrupulous over the external details, all the while churning within in cruel sin.

But this is a picture also of what we are. This is a picture of our human nature. This is a picture of our sin. This is what we are by nature. This is what we amount to before the eyes of God. This is what we are without the grace of God. We are vile, wretched, hateful, envious sinners. And this is the grace of God. For God gave His Son, not for the righteous, but for sinners chosen of His grace.

And God will show us now. He will show us our sin at the cross. Do not point the finger here. See yourself. Confess by the grace of God that “I brought this upon Him. This is what I am.” And this is the grace of God and the love of Jesus, for He gives Himself to death for us.

Christ gave Himself over to be innocently condemned in order that we might never be condemned, in order that we might stand cleared before God. When you see that, you will, by His grace, love Him. You will trust Him. You will obey Him. And you will worship Him.

Let us pray.

Father in heaven, we thank Thee for Thy holy Word. And we pray for its blessing upon our hearts in this day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.