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“And the whole multitude of them arose, and led Him unto Pilate. 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. And Pilate asked Him, saying, Art Thou the King of the Jews? And He answered him and said, Thou sayest it. Then said Pilate to the chief priests and to the people, I find no fault in this Man. And they were the more fierce, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place. When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked whether the Man were a Galilean. And as soon as he knew that He belonged unto Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent Him to Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem at that time. And when Herod saw Jesus, he was exceeding glad: for he was desirous to see Him of a long season, because he had heard many things of Him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by Him. Then he questioned with Him in many words; but He answered him nothing. And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused Him. And Herod with his men of war set Him at nought, and mocked Him, and arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him again to Pilate. And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves. And Pilate, when he had called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, said unto them, Ye have brought this Man unto me, as one that perverteth the people: and, behold, I, having examined Him before you, have found no fault in this Man touching those things whereof ye accuse Him: no, nor yet Herod: for I sent you to him; and, lo, nothing worthy of death is done unto Him. I will therefore chastise Him, and release Him. (For of necessity he must release one unto them at the feast.) And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this Man, and release unto us Barabas: (who for a certain sedition made in the city, and for murder, was cast into prison.) Pilate therefore, willing to release Jesus, spake again to them. But they cried, saying, Crucify Him, crucify Him. And he said unto them the third time, Why, what evil hath He done? I have found no cause of death in Him: I will therefore chastise Him, and let Him go. And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that He might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed. And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required. And he released unto them him that for sedition and murder was cast into prison, whom they had desired; but he delivered Jesus to their will”—Luke 23:1-25.
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As we consider the inspired account of the condemnation and crucifixion of our blessed Lord, we may well approach the subject with repentant hearts and broken spirits while we remind ourselves afresh that it was for our sins that He went to the cross. Apart from this solemn fact there was no power on earth or in hell that could have forced Jesus Christ to die as He did. He need not have died at all: He was the sinless Son of God. But He chose to die as our substitute. He voluntarily became our Surety and undertook in grace to pay the debt we owed. The pitiable thing is that men, led on by Satan, should have raised wicked hands against Him and heaped such shame and ignominy upon Him. But it only told out the vileness of the sinful heart of man and the malignity of Satan. As we follow our Lord in His mock trials before Pilate and Herod, and from Pilate’s judgment-hall to Calvary with its bitter cross, it should surely break down our pride and subdue us as we reflect upon what sin really is, when we see the lengths to which men like ourselves could go when under its power.
We have four references to Pontius Pilate in other parts of the New Testament outside the Gospels. Of course, we read of the trial of Jesus in all the Gospels, and of Pilate’s failure to stand for righteousness at a time when he knew the Prisoner before him was guiltless of the charges brought against Him. When the apostle Peter was addressing the people of Israel after Pentecost (Acts 3:13, 14), he said, “The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified His Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied Him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let Him go. But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you.” In Acts 4:27 we hear Peter speaking in prayer to God, saying, “For of a truth against Thy holy Child Jesus, whom Thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together.” Then in chapter 13:28, when Paul was preaching in the synagogue at Antioch of Pisidia, he said, “And though they found no cause of death in Him, yet desired they Pilate that He should be slain.” In writing to his own convert, the young preacher Timothy, Paul reminds him, in 1 Timothy, of the faithful testimony of our Lord on the occasion of His trial. In 1 Timothy 6:13, he said, “I give thee charge in the sight of God, who quickeneth all things, and before Christ Jesus, who before Pontius Pilate witnessed a good confession; that thou keep this commandment without spot, unrebukable, until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Pontius Pilate’s name stands out in the Word of God and on the pages of history for eternal infamy. I suppose there is no other mortal man whose name is mentioned as frequently as the name of Pontius Pilate. Every Lord’s Day and often on many other occasions, hundreds of thousands of professed Christians gathered together in various places, repeat the words found in the Apostles’ Creed; “crucified under Pontius Pilate,” and so Pilate’s name is repeated and has been repeated all down through the centuries as the one who condemned the innocent Christ to death. And Pilate has not heard the last of it yet. When he stands finally at the great white throne he will see sitting on that throne the One who once stood as a Prisoner before him; the One whom he pronounced to be innocent of the charges against Him, and yet whom he delivered up to be crucified. The trouble with Pontius Pilate was this: he was so filled with selfish ambition, a desire to win the favor of the powers above him and even of the people whom he ruled, that he did not have the manhood, the conscientious principle, to stand up for what he knew to be right.
When Jesus Christ was brought before Pilate, He was not a stranger to him. Pilate had heard of Jesus before; he knew of His ministry in Israel; and he knew it was because of envy that the chief priests had delivered Jesus to be tried. Pilate should have dealt with Him as One who was falsely accused, but he was fearful he might be censured and so lose his position which he held by Caesar’s favor.
The whole multitude were gathered together and led Jesus to Pontius Pilate to be charged with sedition against the Roman Government. 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.” Notice there was a certain element of truth in their charges, and yet the charges as a whole were false, for a half-truth is often a whole lie. It is true the Lord Jesus Christ proclaimed Himself to be a King, but He never declared Himself to be King over Israel at that time. He came in full accord with prophecy and knew He was to be rejected, and that His kingdom was yet to come. On the other hand, their charge of sedition was utterly false, because when He was asked, “Is it lawful for us to give tribute unto Caesar, or no?” Jesus replied by requesting them to show Him a penny, and He asked, “Whose image and superscription hath it? They answered and said, Caesar’s. And He said unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which be Caesar’s, and unto God the things which be God’s” (Luke 20:24, 25). They heard Him say this; therefore, they lied when they came before Pilate and said He had forbidden them to give tribute to Caesar.
Pilate put the question definitely, “Art Thou the King of the Jews?” The Lord answered, “Thou sayest it.” This may seem to be ambiguous, but it was as though He said, “You have said it; you said that by right, by divine title, I am King of the Jews.” He had not stressed that as He went about ministering among the people, but the question was put to Him, and He confessed that He was indeed the One whom God had sent to rule Israel. Pilate turned to the chief priests and to the people and said, “I find no fault in this Man. And they were the more fierce.” They would not listen to anything that could be said in behalf of Christ. They cried, “He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place.” When Pilate heard the word “Galilee,” he thought he had found a loophole through which he might escape responsibility; so he asked whether the Man were a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus came from Galilee, he saw an opportunity to turn the judgment of Christ over to someone else. Herod was tetrarch, or governor of Galilee, who had come down to Jerusalem in order to keep the feast of the passover, and as soon as Pilate knew that Jesus belonged to that jurisdiction he sent Him to Herod, who, when he saw Jesus, was glad. He was delighted to see Him; he had heard so much of Him. He was always interested in wonder-workers and those whom the people lauded. He had been interested in John the Baptist until John faithfully said to him, as he pointed to another man’s wife who was sitting by his side, “It is not lawful for thee to have her” (Matt. 14:4). In indignation Herod put John the Baptist in prison, and, later to satisfy that woman’s desire for vengeance, Herod decapitated him.
Now here was a Man who was reported to have wrought great miracles, and Herod was glad to see Him, and hoped to see some wonder done by Him. “Then he questioned with Him in many words: but He answered him nothing.” As always the Lord Jesus had nothing to say to those who were curious but who had no desire to know the truth. “And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused Him. And Herod with his men of war set Him at nought, and mocked Him, and arrayed Him in a gorgeous robe.” It was evidently a robe of something like what we call changeable silk. One Gospel writer says it was purple; another says it was scarlet. The warp may have been of one color and the woof of another, so that it was indeed a gorgeous robe. They put it on Him; they bowed their knees, and put a reed in His hand, and mocked Him, crying, “Hail, King of the Jews/’ In the other Gospels we learn that the Roman soldiers platted a crown of thorns and pressed it upon His head, causing intense and bitter suffering.
We read in the next verse, “The same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves.” Here were two crafty politicians who hated and distrusted each other, but they could agree in rejecting the Lord Jesus Christ.
Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate. “And Pilate, when he had called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, said unto them, Ye have brought this Man unto me, as one that perverteth the people: and, behold, I, having examined Him before you, have found no fault in this Man touching those things whereof ye accuse Him: no, nor yet Herod for I sent you to him; and, lo, nothing worthy of death is done unto Him. I will therefore chastise Him, and release Him.”
This was the second session in Pilate’s courtroom. It took place after Jesus had returned from Herod, where He had been set at nought, but no charge sustained against Him. “I, having examined Him before you, have found no fault in this Man.” Pilate’s declaration should have meant the acquittal of Jesus, but that would not satisfy his relentless enemies, who were determined that He must die, little realizing that His death was predetermined by God for our salvation (Acts 2:23). “No, nor yet Herod.” This godless king had not dared to condemn Jesus to death, for he well knew he was not guilty of the charges, either of blasphemy or sedition, which were brought against Him. Pilate said, “I will therefore chastise Him, and release Him.” To inflict chastisement on an innocent man was preposterous, but Pilate evidently thought by this to placate the Jewish leaders and so he could release Jesus from any greater condemnation.
It had been the custom for some time, that a notable prisoner would be set free at the passover, and Pilate grasped at the thought that he might act upon that and release Jesus. There was a prisoner named Barabbas awaiting execution, and so he proposed, as recorded in another Gospel, “Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas” (Matt. 27:21). Barabbas was a notable rebel. He was in prison for sedition and murder. But the people cried all at once, “Away with this Man, and release unto us Barabbas.” With one voice they chose for release this famous champion of Jewish nationalism who was condemned to die. They demanded instead the death of Jesus, the innocent One. It is written (Matt. 27:22) that Pilate put the solemn question, “What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?” This is the question which has come ringing down the ages to every man. “And they cried out all at once, saying, Away with this Man… Crucify Him, crucify Him.” Pilate felt he was helpless before the multitude if he was going to save his own reputation, for he was afraid that the Jews would bring a charge against him. “And he said unto them the third time, Why, what evil hath He done? I have found no cause of death in Him: I will therefore chastise Him, and let Him go. And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that He might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed.” Pilate went against his own conscience; he went against his own best judgment; he went against the pleadings of his wife, who sent a message to him, saying, “Have thou nothing to do with that Just Man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of Him” (Matt. 27:19). And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required. “And he released unto them him that for sedition and murder was cast into prison, whom they had desired; but he delivered Jesus to their will.”
In the choice that was made that day between Jesus and Barabbas, we find the choice not only of Israel, but also the choice that the nations have been making all down through the centuries. They have chosen a murderer, a malefactor, instead of the Lord of glory. If Christ had been received He would have brought peace and righteousness to the world; but because He was not chosen the nations have been dominated by men of the spirit of Barabbas, in a large measure, ever since that fatal day. The world, itself, has been soaked with the blood of millions of people who have died because of the awful conditions which have ensued through the rejection of the Prince of Peace.
The question comes to every one of us as individuals: “What shall I do then with Jesus?” You who have heard the story of Jesus all your lives, do you still vacillate just as Pilate vacillated? Though you know you should receive Christ, are you afraid as Pilate was afraid? Do you fear what man will say more than what God would say? If you have never yet trusted Christ Jesus, I plead with you to answer, “Not Barabbas, but this Man!” for “through this Man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins: and by Him all that believe are justified from all things, from which ye could not be justified by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38, 39).