On Trial – June 28, 2020
Luke 22:63-71, John 18:28-19:16
June 28, 2020
In our “extended” look at Holy Week, we’ve now come to the point where Jesus has met with his disciples for the last time, he’s been betrayed and arrested, and his friends have forsaken him. Today we look at the beginning of his final trials. And that time begins with trials. I say that in the plural, because there are really two trials in this story. There’s the trial before the High Priest and the religious council, and then there’s the trial before Pontius Pilate.
The first one was not so much a trial, as it was a “questioning.” We might even call this a “grilling!” This was hard questioning under a “bare light bulb.” I picture that “cop show” scene where a suspect is “brought in,” and put in that bare room at a table, and there’s a one-way glass window and tv cameras, and the detective is grilling him with question, seeing if he’ll give a confession.
Now, I know that’s just a show. And I don’t know what it’s really like. (I’ve never been arrested!) And I, in no way, want to show any disrespect to the good police men and women, who protect us every day and who do those tough jobs! In fact, in light of the events in our country of late, I want to applaud the good police officers who do their job right! And they do it in the background! We don’t necessarily see them protecting us! (Unfortunately, we just hear the stories of the bad ones!)
But that’s the scene I picture here. In fact, this might be seen as the “bad cops,” abusing their power, breaking the rules. Remember, Jesus has already been beaten by the temple guards, and it’s clear here that the High Priest has really already “concluded” his case. He just wanted to solidify that case, and to get the evidence he needed, by questioning this Jesus.
His job was complicated. He didn’t just have to make a case for the council, but he did have to do that! He still had to convince some of them! He said, “There you have it! You’ve heard it from his own lips!” That was partly for some of the priests on the council who still weren’t sure! There were some, we know, who even supported Jesus. And I think those words, which were said as a “conclusion” – a verdict, if you will – were addressed to them!
Caiaphas, had to convince the doubters. But he was really concerned with what to tell the Romans. Because they were the only ones who would ultimately be able eliminate this Jesus. They had taken away the Jewish people’s right of capital punishment.
So, in the first “trial,” Caiaphas gets his confession! He has his verdict. Jesus claimed to be God. And that was “blasphemy!” In fact, it was blasphemy of the highest order! It was worthy of death, by their law! But, Rome, like much of the world today, didn’t care about such “religious offenses.” Caiaphas knew he would need some other kind of a case, some other kind of a crime, to accuse Jesus of. He had to come up with something else that would stick – with them. This is starting to look like one of those “cop shows,” isn’t it?
Well, they brought Jesus to Pilate, to the Praetorium – the Roman fortress in that region. And that’s where I believe the real trial took place! And to me, this is one of the most fascinating scenes in human history!
In some of the portrayals of this, they had to wake Pilate up. This was late at night, or very early on Friday morning. So, they had Pilate awakened, they made him put on his “robes,” and come out to deal with this prisoner. And one of the Gospel writers stresses that. The Jewish people wouldn’t go into Pilot’s headquarters, because they didn’t want to “defile” themselves going into the place of a Gentile – after all, it was the time of Passover!
So here we have this scene. And I have a great picture of this in an old illustrated Bible of mine, a picture that has stayed in my head for years. And it’s Jesus, standing there in chains, bloodied, ragged, before Pilate, in his great hall, seated on a great stone chair – a throne, if you will. And I think this scene is amazing. It was the ultimate power struggle! Here was Pilate, the representative of the most powerful empire on earth at the time. And standing before him, beaten and in chains, was Jesus, representing the power of God! And I have to ask, “Where was the real power?!” Who would win that power struggle? That would play out in the next thousand years or so!
So that’s the picture. And what took place next was just as fascinating to me. And I’m glad John gave us this dialogue! Pilate was all business. “What are the charges?” Sometimes we vilify Pontius Pilate. We state his name every time we say the Creed! “He suffered under Pontius Pilate…” But if you think about it, Pilate was just doing his job here. And yes, much evil has been done in this world by people who have said they were “just following orders.” But this is different. Pilate was following the Law. And remember that much of our civil code was based on the Romans! They gave us lots of things – architecture, engineering, art, mathematics, and much more. They’re sometimes seen as the evil empire, in opposition to Jesus and his cause. And yes, there arose some evil Caesars, like Nero and Domitian, who persecuted the Church horribly. But Rome was the height of civilization!
Its the same with Egypt. And yes, there were bad Pharaoh’s. But the real problem with the Hebrews in the Old Testament is that “There arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.” Before that, Joseph, the son of Jacob, was second in command of entire empire – which in its time, was also the height of civilization! Egypt gave the world many of the same things Rome would give us!
A few weeks ago, I mentioned the two salvation stories in the Bible. Do you remember? One was in the Old Testament, and one in the New Testament. Well, both of those stories took place at the height of two of the greatest civilizations in the ancient world. Egypt and Rome.
So, here Jesus stands before Rome. And Pilate asks, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” “What are the charges?” Again, all business! And notice their answer! “If this man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over!” Of course, that was a true statement, but it wasn’t an answer. It was certainly nothing that would “hold up in court.” Their position was weak, and I’m thinking they knew it! That’s when Pilate said, “Take him and judge him by your law.” And then they say what’s at stake. “But it is not lawful for us to put any man to death.”
Remember their “crime” was “Blasphemy! This man said he was God!” Pilate’s reaction? “That’s not a violation to us.” When later he would say, “I see no crime in him!” That wasn’t his opinion. That was a declaration of Roman Law. That was his official judgment! That was like the Judge at a preliminary hearing, saying, “This matter does not warrant a trial.” “There’s not enough evidence to make a case.” “There is no a crime here.”
Now, Caiaphas had a problem. Their crime, blasphemy, horrible as it was to them, meant nothing to Rome! And they needed Rome because that was the only way to get Jesus executed! So, they had to appeal that preliminary determination. And they didn’t have enough to go on! In the end, we’ll see that it was “mob rule” that would win out. Impending riot would rule the day! But first, they had another “ace up their sleeve.” They told Pilate, “This man said he is King of the Jews.” Now that was a crime Rome did care about. But that had to have been somewhat bizarre to Pilate. Because he knew that’s what the Jews wanted all along! They wanted their own king! Why would they turn Jesus over to him with that accusation?
That charge, ate least, Pilate to question Jesus. And that’s where this real power struggle is seen! Pilate asked him about the charge. “Are you King of the Jews?” His answer has always puzzled me a bit, but it makes more sense now. “Do you say this, or have others said it about me?” And Pilate says, “Am I a Jew?” “Your own people have handed you over to me.” In other words, “Look, if I heard you say it, we would have arrested you! But this is your own people are bringing this charge against you!”
I think that was puzzling to Pilate. Normally, when he took one of the Jews prisoner, the people would object. They hated the Roman rule. They usually demanded the person’s release. This time it was backwards! They were handing the person over to him! “Hey, here’s a guy who’s trying to be our king!” (“Would you kill him for us?”) That’s why this whole Barabbas thing seems out of place. They were always clamoring for prisoners to be released. So Pilate thought, if he put it out there, the crowds would call for the release of this Jesus. Problem solved. And, when that didn’t happen, I’m sure Pilate was confused. And that’s where the mob rule began to win the day.
Jesus answers the charge. And what he says is true! “My kingship is not of this world.” That’s where this power struggle is very real to me. “If it were, my people would fight, and I wouldn’t be standing before you!” “But my kingship is even greater than that!”
“So, you are a king!” Pilate asks. “Yes,” Jesus said, “but not the kind of king you’re used to.” “And this is bigger than you. It’s bigger than all of Rome!” And it’s amazing when you think of how this played out in history. The church was persecuted – by Rome for nearly 300 years. But then, in 325AD,
the Roman Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the official religion of the empire. And in that act, the Power struggle we see here in Holy Week is played out. And that’s only the earthly understanding of it. The heavenly kingdom is where the real power lies!
I sometimes wonder if Pilate knew that. At the end, he said to Jesus, “Why will you not speak? Don’t you know that I have the power to release you, and the power to crucify you?” And I would love to have heard what he said when Jesus said, “You would have no power over me at all, unless it had been given you from above!”
After that, Pilate tried for the last time to release Jesus. But in the end, the “mob rule” won the day. And Jesus was crucified. But we know that wasn’t the end, because we know the result of this power struggle. And I’m not just talking about the Resurrection! Every year, we celebrate the “Kingship” of Jesus. The entire liturgical year – the year that begins with Advent, proceeds through the seasons of Lent, Easter, and Pentecost – ends with the great celebration we call “Christ the King Sunday!” That’s the culmination of all of it! That’s the result of this power struggle. Jesus Christ is king!
When we celebrate that Sunday, I picture Jesus before Pontius Pilate. I picture the beaten man, standing in chains before the greatest power on earth, and I think, “Where’s the real power here?” It’s not as the world sees it! To the world, the power of Rome would be seen as total. But the power in that man standing there before Pilate is the real power – the eternal power – of God!
How do we see that power? Do we think in worldly terms? That’s very tempting, because that’s what we see all the time. Looking at that picture, we’re temped to see power in the columns and stairs of the great Roman fortress, in the soldiers standing by, arrayed in their armor and weaponry. In our world, we have to struggle to concentrate on the real truth, not the “worldly appearances,” that flood our senses every day!
At times, we feel overwhelmed by the power of the world around us. It’s full of frustrations and turmoil, and it would seem there’s little we can do about it. We’ve all felt like that in this time of pandemic, haven’t we? The powers of the world are solid, they’re firmly established, they are not to be moved or shaken. There seem to be no “movers and shakers” in the world anymore.
Maybe when we feel that way, we can pause and picture this scene, and know that, in the trial of Jesus, it was really the world that was on trial. In the struggle between the earthly and heavenly powers, God is indeed sovereign, and the real power lies, not in the columns or the soldiers or the armor, but in this prisoner standing before Pilate. In him, we can know that the Lord is our rock, and our fortress, our God in whom we place our trust! As we sing in the old hymn, “On Christ the solid rock I stand. All other ground is sinking sand.”
Eternal God, helps us to see your kingdom every day. Help us to look to Jesus as our rock and our fortress. Help us, amid the storms of this life, to stand strong in him. For we pray in his name, Amen
(The Lord’s Prayer)