Books: The Path to the Cross — Chapter 11

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 Chapter 11

Stress Test

Jesus’ trial mocks justice

Vera Menchik, the world’s first women’s chess champion, found the whole situation quite amusing. It all started when she became the first woman to play in an international chess tournament with men. Few chess tournaments either before or since have gathered such an array of stars — all men, except Vera.

But some of the men didn’t think Vera belonged at the tournament. In particular, a master named Albert Becker declared before the tournament that if anyone lost a game to her, they ought to be forced to join the Vera Menchik Fan Club.

During the competition, Vera won only one game: she defeated Albert Becker! He became the first member of the Vera Menchik Fan Club.

That story both amuses and pleases us because we have a God-given sense of justice. We feel closure when the punishment so beautifully fits the crime.

But things don’t always turn out like that. Justice is not always done. I’m sure you’ve seen at least one grade-B western in which the leader of a lynch mob glances with cold rage at an unfortunate prisoner and says, “We’re going to give this man a fair trial and then hang him.”

That raises a note of fear within us, because we realize that real justice is being thrown to the winds. Unfortunately, that perverted kind of “justice” prevailed on April 3, A.D. 33, in the trial of Jesus Christ.[1]

Twisted Justice

On the previous night, Thursday, Jesus had observed the Passover with his disciples, a time we refer to as the Last Supper. Before the celebration had run its course, Judas left the group to consummate his betrayal of Jesus to the Jewish religious leaders. After singing a psalm to conclude the Passover meal, Jesus and the others crossed over a ravine into the garden of Gethsemane. As he was arrested there, Jesus said to his captors, “This is your hour — when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53).

Through that long night, Jesus faced the mock justice of a crooked court composed of the leaders who had plotted his death and held in the home of Caiaphas the high priest.

On the way toward their certain verdict, they broke literally dozens of the Sanhedrin’s laws regarding trials. Their own laws accused them of perverting justice, but in Christ’s case they plunged ahead. At about dawn, when they had reached the appointed verdict, they took Jesus to the headquarters of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.

Into the Pressure Cooker

In the early morning stillness, the Sanhedrin brought Jesus to the entrance of Herod’s Palace. In this imposing structure, surrounded by his own Roman troops, Pilate stood tall, ready to meet any disturbance that might arise during the Passover celebration. I find it ironic that, in such a position of power, it was Pilate who would come under enormous pressure and would ultimately crumble.

The Jews had to bring tremendous pressure on Pilate to accomplish their goal of putting Jesus to death. The Romans had wisely reserved to themselves the right to execute criminals so that civil leaders couldn’t start trouble through rash actions. The Sanhedrin also faced the double difficulty that Jesus had done nothing wrong and that they could not show any breach of Roman law.

Little survives from Roman times down to our present day, but the rigorous Roman legal system has profoundly influenced our own forms of justice. To accomplish their goal, the Sanhedrin knew that they would have to put such enormous pressures on Pilate that he would be forced to violate the legal system he had sworn to uphold.

The Jews accused Jesus of three things before Pilate (Luke 23:2–5): (1) opposing payment of taxes to Caesar, (2) stirring up the people by his teaching, and (3) claiming to be Messiah, a king. Pilate totally ignored the first two charges. He knew that Christ’s teaching had not led to any insurrection.

Knowing the Roman sensitivity to possible trouble, we can surmise that Pilate’s agents had heard what Jesus said about rendering to Caesar that which was Caesar’s (Matt. 22:21). Accordingly, Pilate realized that Jesus had not made any attempt to subvert the taxation system.

Only the charge about kingship gave Pilate any concern at all. As Caesar’s agent, Pilate had to ensure that no person set up his own authority in opposition to Roman authority. For anyone to do that would constitute high treason, punishable by the death penalty.

An Open and Shut Case

33 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?”
33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “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.”
 37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
   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.”
 38 “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.
(John 18:33–38)

Christ’s Roman trial began quietly enough. Pilate seemed unruffled and in complete command of the situation. Jesus, in spite of the fact that his life was at stake, betrayed no hint of fear or concern about the outcome. He cogently observed that if he were the kind of king that Pilate was concerned about, then his followers would be fighting for him at that moment. Pilate hardly needed to concern himself with a kingdom that was “from another place” (John 18:36).

Pilate continued to press Jesus on the central issue of his kingship. By admitting he was a king only when directly questioned by Pilate, Jesus demonstrated that he was not flaunting his right to rule in opposition to Rome. All of the initiative on that subject had originated with Pilate.

At the end of Pilate’s remarks, Jesus skillfully took the offense by saying, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Implicitly he was asking whether Pilate was on the side of truth. But the mighty governor had come to ask questions, not to answer them, so he contemptuously swept the matter aside. The quiet phase of Christ’s Roman trial ended with Pilate’s declaring Jesus innocent of all charges. Before the whole matter ended, Pilate would pronounce Jesus innocent three different times, yet he was executed.

Because Jesus was innocent, we ought to be told that he was set free. But the fact that Pilate, who held supreme power in Palestine, did not release Christ has caused controversy for many years. Research into this period of history has provided a satisfying explanation.[2]

In his early years as governor, Pilate had treated the Jews quite brutally and had done whatever he pleased. How then could he appear as such a weak and vacillating figure, allowing an innocent man to be crucified? The answer lies in Pilate’s relationship to Roman central authority.

During all of the years of Pilate’s governorship, Tiberius ruled as Roman emperor (A.D. 14 – A.D. 37). However, Tiberius bordered on insanity and isolated himself on the island of Capri. He ruled through deputies and seldom took a direct part in the everyday affairs of the Empire. The real power behind the throne during those years was a man named Lucius Sejanus, the head of the Praetorian Guards, who guarded the Roman Emperor. It was he who appointed Pilate as governor in A.D. 26. Sejanus hated the Jews and undoubtedly backed Pilate’s harsh measures against them.

But in A.D. 31, Emperor Tiberius had Sejanus executed and began to take a stronger role in the affairs of the Empire. Late in that year he issued orders that the Jews should not be mistreated. And in A.D. 32 Tiberius reversed certain actions that Pilate had taken toward the Jews.

So by the time Jesus came to trial before Pilate, the prefect was skating on very thin ice with Tiberius. Because of Pilate’s tenuous political situation, the Jewish leaders knew exactly where to apply pressure on him. Table 6 in the Appendix to this chapter summarizes the historical background of the trial.

An Attempt to Wiggle Out

39 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’?”
40 They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising.
1 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.
4 Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” 5 When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!”
6 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.”
(John 18:39–19:6)

Knowing that the Sanhedrin wanted Jesus to die, Pilate tried to maneuver around them by appealing to the Passover crowds. He first attempted to release the popular teacher, in accordance with a custom that had long been followed at Passover. But by working hard among the crowd, the leaders thwarted this attempt and prompted the crowd to call for the release of Barabbas, a common thief.

The Aramaic name Barabbas means “son of the father.” The guilty son of a human father was released, while the innocent Son of the divine Father was condemned to death. That irony highlights the miscarriage of justice that occurred on this day.

Frustrated in his first attempt to free Jesus, Pilate then tried a second strategy. He would have Jesus reduced to a bleeding, savagely beaten state and bring him back before the crowd in hope they would feel pity for their fellow countryman. To carry out this plan he had Jesus flogged with a Roman whip. How understated the Gospel account is! A Roman whip normally had pieces of glass, bone, and metal tied in the strips of leather so that every blow would tear the victim’s skin open.

In mockery of his claims to be a king, the soldiers gave Jesus a crown of thorns and then greeted him in a way similar to the way a person would greet Caesar. Matthew and Luke tell us that after issuing these greetings, they beat Christ across the head with rods.

What a sight Jesus must have been when Pilate declared him innocent the second time and then had him hauled out before the multitude. But the moment Jesus came into sight, the leaders again incited a shout that Jesus should be crucified. Pilate was becoming more desperate by the moment!

The Final Crunch

7 The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”
8 When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, 9 and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”
11 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.”
12 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.”
13 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).
(John 19:7–13)

In the grip of a moment of emotion, the Jews finally unveiled before Pilate their real reason for wanting Christ’s death: he had claimed to be the Son of God. If Pilate had any remaining doubt about Christ’s innocence, that must have removed it, for he could now see that the charges were strictly religious in nature. He had suspected that from the start.

We know that the Romans were commonly superstitious, and Pilate had several experiences on that day that must have shaken him severely. In the midst of the questioning of Christ, Pilate’s wife had sent a message, warning him not to have anything to do with the innocent man, Jesus, because she had been warned about him in a dream (Matt. 27:19). Further, Pilate may have been rattled by the utter calm that Jesus displayed. To risk Caesar’s displeasure was bad enough, but if he offended the gods — what would become of Pilate then?

Jesus calmly responded to Pilate’s many questions and then declared that the Jewish religious leaders had the greater guilt. By implication, he was saying that Pilate, the judge, had the lesser guilt. How totally uncommon for the prisoner to declare who was guilty and how much. When Pilate began to crumble under the pressure, Jesus continued to demonstrate his calm reliance on the guiding hand of the Father.

At the height of Pilate’s desire to free Jesus, the Jews moved in on Pilate’s political weakness. They shouted, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar” (John 19:12). To be a “friend of Caesar” meant that a man was loyal to the Emperor and was part of the ruling aristocracy. In effect, the Jews were saying that for Pilate to release Jesus would demonstrate disloyalty to Tiberius. The hidden threat was that if Pilate didn’t go along with their desire to crucify Christ, they would make enough trouble to have Pilate removed from office.

John makes it clear that when Pilate “heard” those words his resistance finally broke (John 19:13). In John’s Gospel, the Greek word for “hearing” always means to hear with comprehension; the words sank in and had their intended effect. Pilate knew what the Jewish leaders were threatening.

Pilate Surrenders Jesus to the Mob

14 It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon.
“Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews.
15 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.
16 Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
So the soldiers took charge of Jesus.
(John 19:14–16)

I find it quite significant that Pilate resisted the pressures brought on him throughout the morning and did not break until noon (“the sixth hour”). To understand the significance of that hour, we will need some background.

New Testament scholar Harold Hoehner presents evidence that the Galileans (including Jesus and his followers) observed Passover on Thursday, whereas the Judeans (and the temple officials) conducted Passover on Friday.[3] That explains how Jesus could share the Passover meal with his own disciples on one day and be slain as God’s appointed Passover sacrifice on the next day. There were two different observances of Passover on consecutive days.

The Passover celebration looked back to that time when the death angel had passed over every Jewish home marked with the blood of a lamb (see Exodus chapter 12). Any home in Egypt not marked with lamb’s blood on that night suffered death of a firstborn son. It was customary to begin slaying the Passover lambs at noon (the sixth hour) on Friday according to the custom of the Judeans. So at that very hour God’s Lamb was surrendered to the religious leaders who put him to death.

Pilate made a last weak attempt to sway the crowd, but when he failed he washed his hands before them, symbolically cleansing himself of any responsibility for what was to occur. An uproar was starting, and he had to avoid that at all costs (Matt. 27:24). Pilate had finally buckled under the stress.

Meeting Pressure Head-On

I would like to offer a few suggestions about how you can face pressures that are put upon you.

1. How easy it is for the end to justify the means. To do what is expedient rather than what is right eventually leads to disaster. Here are some critical questions to guide you when you have to make decisions under pressure:

As you consider God’s standards, would this action be right — for you, for your family, for others?

In a week or a year from now, will you feel good about your decision?

Are you simply taking the easy way out?

Are you merely forcing the answer to come out the way you want it, or are you being objective?

2. Many forces in life can put us under extreme pressure. How can we cope with it?

Pray for the Lord to strengthen you to resist pressure.

Get support and wisdom from other mature believers.

Be willing to trust God, even if obeying him leads to unjust suffering (see Phil. 2:8; Heb. 5:8; 1 Pet. 4:12–19).

A Final Word

Every hour of the day a military aide stays near the President of the United States. The aide carries a briefcase known as “The Football,” which carries the authentication codes that the President would give to unleash nuclear war upon the world. Imagine what it would be like to live with the stress of knowing that you might someday have to make such a decision. No wonder our presidents seem to age during their years in office.

Few Americans will ever have to worry about stress from “The Football,” but each of us will face things at various points in our lives that feel just that intense. Only by relying on the Lord, his power, and his principles for life can we hope to bear up under the strain and do what is pleasing to him. Jesus called upon those same resources during his stress test. That’s a lead we can follow with confidence.

 Appendix to Chapter 11

Table 6

Roman History and Jesus’ Trial

A.D. 26

Pilate appointed governor by Sejanus

October A.D. 31 Sejanus executed
Late A.D. 31 Emperor Tiberius’ order not to mistreat the Jews
A.D. 32 Pilate reversed by Tiberius
April A.D. 33 Jesus tried before Pilate


Coming next . . .

In Chapter 12, we realize that the death of Jesus on the cross brought a crisis of faith on everyone who saw it. He has been a test of faith ever since that day!

[1] Harold W. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976) 114.

[2] Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 111–112.

[3] Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ, 86–88.