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Christ Before Pilate.
John only gives the detailed account of the private examinations of Jesus by Pilate during the civil trial recorded in 18:33–37. He probably went within Pilate's palace as he would not be deterred by the scruples of the Jews, having eaten his passover, and he was therefore a personal witness. His account aids much in explaining Pilate's language to the Jews and to Christ, which is recorded in the other Gospels. The trial before Pilate divides itself into the following acts: 1. Without the Prætorium. The Jews demand the death of Christ (18:28–32). 2. Within the Prætorium. Christ “witnesses a good confession.” Christ a King (18:32–37). 3. Without the Prætorium. Jesus declared innocent. Barabbas proposed (18:38–40). 4. Within. The Lord scourged and mocked (19:1–3). 5. Without. Second and third declarations of innocence. “Behold the Man!” “The Son of God” (19:4–7). 6. Within. Authority (19:8–11). 7. Without. Pilate gives way before Jewish clamor and tramples on his convictions (19:12–16). In the appeal to Pilate the Sanhedrim, at first, concealed the real grounds on which they had condemned Jesus, and sought to have him put to death as a dangerous character who aimed to secure the kingly power.
The transference of the trial from the Sanhedrim to the “judgment seat” of Pontius Pilate was made necessary by the political condition of Judea. One badge of the servitude of the Jewish nation to the Roman yoke was, that while the Jewish courts were permitted to try and to punish minor offenses, the final judgment of all capital offenses was reserved for the Roman tribunals. A Roman judge must sign the warrant before the condemned person could be led to execution, and the punishment was then indicted by the Roman officials. These capital cases at Jerusalem were usually brought up at the great feasts, at which time the Roman Governor came up from his home at Cesarea to the Jewish capital. Pontius Pilate, at this passover occasion, had come up, and as he would probably return as soon as the passover was over, it was needful to make their appeal to him at once. Besides, after the passover began it would be unlawful for them to conduct civil business, and unless they were prepared to hold Jesus for a week as a prisoner the death warrant would have to be obtained this very morning, and the crucifixion follow immediately, in order that the bodies might be removed before the feast began. It is needful to consider these facts in order to 271understand the extreme hurry and urgency of the members of Sanhedrim. Hence, early upon that Friday morning, the great dignitaries of Israel were assembled before the hated judgment hall of Pilate, a building they could not enter at this time without defilement. No Jew was permitted, during the passover week to enter any house that had not been purged of leaven, under the penalty of death, and this would, of course, exclude them from all buildings occupied by Gentiles. Though the rulers could trample the law of justice to the earth, they were scrupulous in observing the ceremonial law. (Joh 18:28)
28. Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgment. The first examination was at the house of Annas, where an officer had smitten Jesus. Then Annas sent him to Caiaphas. Still later he was tried before the Sanhedrim (see Matt. chap. 27) and condemned. Then he was led from Caiaphas to Pilate's judgment hall. Pontius Pilate, now mentioned by John for the first time, made conspicuous before all the world by his connection with the crucifixion, was the Roman governor, or rather “procurator” of Palestine. The principal duties of his office were to preserve order, collect the tribute and, in certain cases, administer justice. Since a.d. 6 Palestine had been thus governed and Pilate had entered upon his office two or three years before. His usual residence was in Cesarea, but at the time of the great feasts he was wont to come up to Jerusalem to prevent tumult. His name indicates that he belonged to the warlike gens of the Pontii, of whom the great Samnite general, Caius Pontius, was most conspicuous. His history, as given by profane authorities, indicates that he was a bold, unscrupulous, cruel man. He was removed from office about a.d. 36 on account of his cruelties and banished. The traditions report that he killed himself from disappointment, or remorse, and Mt. Pilatus in Switzerland, is pointed out as his last earthly home. Justin Martyr, in his defence of Christianity, cites Pagans to the official report of Pilate to the Emperor Tiberius concerning the death of Jesus Christ, which he says, they could find in the archives at Rome. Tertullian, Eusebius and others also speak of it. A very ancient document, entitled the Acts of Pilate, is still extant, but the weight of scholarship is against its authenticity. It was early. Probably after the hour of sunrise, about six or seven A. M. The informal meeting of the Sanhedrim, held some time before dawn on this Friday morning, at the palace of Caiaphas, had adjourned, and the mob were mocking Jesus. But as soon as morning dawned, and it was lawful to condemn Jesus, the Sanhedrim assembled, probably in their own council chamber—either the hall Gazith, in the temple court, or a hall near by—and proceeded to pass formal sentence of death upon Jesus. But they could not inflict the death penalty. The Romans were now the rulers of Judea, and had taken to themselves the right to decide on all cases of capital punishment. Hence, it was 272needful for the Jews to go to Pilate, the Roman governor, to secure this condemnation of Christ. They themselves went not into the judgment hall. The judgment hall, or Prætorium, literally, was the name given to the headquarters of the Roman military governor, wherever he happened to be. These Jewish leaders, filled with the hate of Christ, and ready to secure his judicial murder by the foulest means, were yet so scrupulous that they would not enter the house of a Gentile lest “they should be defiled” (see Deut. 16:4), so that they would not be able to eat the passover. The Pharisees held that contact with a Gentile, or to enter his house was a source of defilement. Hence, this deputation of the Sanhedrim waited without and Pilate “went out unto them” to ascertain their business. Men can be very religious and yet great sinners. (Joh 18:29)
29. What accusation bring ye against this man? As a detachment of Roman soldiers had been furnished to assist in the arrest, he probably knew already that they regarded the prisoner an evil doer, but he did not know what were the specific charges. (Joh 18:30)
30. If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee. Their reply shows that they had hoped that Pilate would take their verdict that Jesus was a malefactor, worthy of death, and would send him to death without a trial. They had condemned Jesus to death on the charge of blasphemy, because he declared that he was the Christ, the Son of God, but they knew well that Pilate would be indifferent to a charge of this kind. Such a claim on the part of Jesus would be no offence against the Roman law. (Joh 18:31)
31. Take ye him, and judge him according to your own law. They had judged and condemned according to their own law and Pilate, on their refusal to state their charges, bade them proceed according to their own laws. They answered that this could not be done for “it was not lawful for them to put any man to death.” The Roman laws forbade it. The power of life and death had been taken away from them as a subject people. (Joh 18:32)
32. That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled. Had the Jews been allowed to put Christ to death, he would have been stoned, as Stephen was, by a mob in Jerusalem, stoning being the usual Jewish method of execution, but he had “signified what death he should die” (John 12:32, and Matt. 20:18, 19) and had declared that he should be crucified. This was the method of punishment that the Roman uniformly adopted towards conquered races. 273 (Joh 18:33)
33. Then Pilate entered the judgment hall again. Before Pilate returned into the judgment hall, where Jesus had been taken, the Jews had made a formal charge that must demand the attention of Pilate, that Jesus was aiming at the sovereignty of Judea and seeking to overturn the Roman government. See Luke 23:2. These charges were well adapted to perplex Pilate. Jesus did claim that he would establish a kingdom and had come into the world to be a King; he had a few days before entered Jerusalem, hailed by the throng as King of the Jews. It was not to be expected that Pilate would understand that his kingdom was spiritual, especially when a dishonest and wily priesthood was perverting every fact to give color to their accusation. Art thou the King of the Jews? This was a private investigation within the Prætorium, after the Jews, carefully suppressing the religious grounds on which they had condemned our Lord, had advanced against him a triple accusation of, (1) seditious agitation; (2) prohibition of the payment of the tribute-money, and (3) the assumption of the suspicious title of “King of the Jews” (Luke 23:3). This last accusation amounted to a charge of treason—the greatest crime known to Roman law. Of the three points of accusation, (2) was utterly false; (1) and (3), though in a sense true, were not true in the sense intended. (Joh 18:34) (Joh 18:35)
34, 35. Sayest thou this thing of thyself? or, etc. This question of Jesus is not for information, but it strikes right at the merits of the charge. Who made it? Did any Roman ever see me breaking the Roman laws? If a Roman had preferred the charge of insurrection, it might be examined, but when did the Jews find fault with a man who sought to free them? Pilate knew well how restive they were under the Roman yoke, how ready to rebel, and the very hate shown Christ was proof that he was not aiming to be such a King as they desired. Pilate comprehends the point, for he exclaims at once, “Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me.” That disproves their charge. But what hast thou done? (Joh 18:36)
36. My kingdom is not of this world. Jesus did not hesitate to relieve the honest perplexity of Pilate; still it would be hard for Pilate, with his gross ideas, to form any conception of a kingdom not of this world, a kingdom of which the subjects did not fight with carnal weapons to defend its king, or to extend its borders. But such was Christ's. It was not of this world, did not spring from it, was heavenly in its origin, and hence his servants would not fight that he should not 274be delivered to the Jews. The fact that no resistance was made to his arrest was a proof that his servants did not propose resistance to worldly governments. Note what this remarkable declaration contains: 1. Christ's kingdom is supernatural, not of human origin. It is in the world but not worldly. 2. It is maintained, not by carnal weapons, but by spiritual and moral means. All attempts to propagate Christianity by the sword are prohibited. (Joh 18:37)
37. Art thou a king then? If Christ has a kingdom he must be a King. Some commentators have thought that Pilate asked this question in contempt of the poor, bound prisoner that was before him, but the gravity of the answer of Jesus shows that it was sincerely asked. The Lord did not reply to sneers. Hence he declares that he had come into the world to be a King, that he was a King, and that all who were under the influence of the truth would hear his voice, because he bore witness to the truth. (Joh 18:38)
38. What is truth? Pilate's inquiry was not answered in words, but Truth sat embodied and bound before him. It matters not whether his question was sincere, or in pity of one whom he may have thought an enthusiast, it is evident that he was profoundly impressed, for at once he stepped out of the hall to the street, where the priests were waiting, and declared, I find in him no fault at all. It is his formal acquittal in the face of the Sanhedrim. Unless he had been profoundly stirred, he, a bloody, unscrupulous man, would not have cleared a helpless prisoner in the face of the Jewish nation which sought to destroy him. (Joh 18:39)
39. Ye have a custom, that I should release unto you one at the passover. By a comparison of the other accounts it is evident that, in the interval, before his effort to release Jesus according to the custom of the passover feast, he sent Jesus to Herod in order to shuffle off the responsibility, but Herod had sent him back. Then he asks whether he shall not release him, according to the custom. He was placed in a very trying position. Jesus was accused of treason against the Roman emperor; he declared that he was not guilty; the priests then accused Pilate of not being Cæsar's friend, intimating that they would accuse him to Cæsar. Had he been accused of letting a man go who claimed to be King of the Jews it would have gone hard with him. Still he is intensely averse to being the instrument of the murder of Jesus, and he hopes that they will accept his liberty on account of the passover. The custom had arisen of the Roman governors always dismissing, as an act of favor at that time, one prisoner who had offended 275the Roman authority. There were only two such prisoners of note in Pilate's hands. One was Barabbas, a man who had been engaged in sedition in Jerusalem as the leader of a band of robbers, a desperate man and a murderer; the other was Jesus, of whom he had said, “I find in him no fault at all.” (Joh 18:40)
40. Not this man, but Barabbas. He had not named Barabbas, but they, in their anxiety to reject Christ, at once name him. The people were stimulated to this choice by the bitter hatred of the priests. It is remarkable that this man Barabbas was confessedly guilty of the very crime with which the priests and rulers had falsely charged Jesus—that of sedition; and no plainer proof of their hypocrisy could be given to the watchful Pilate than their efforts to release the former and condemn the latter.
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