During the Roman time of peace in the first century (the Pax Romana), Rome would allow the provinces a level of self-government. This self-government allowed vassal kings to rule over their own provinces as long as they swore allegiance to Rome.
Herod (also known as Herod the Great) ruled all of Palestine until his death in 4 BC. After Herod’s death, his kingdom was divided among his three sons: Archelaus, Antipas, and Philip. Philip ruled the regions to the East, Antipas ruled Galilee and Perea, while Archelaus ruled Judea and Samaria.
Archelaus proved to be the worst of the three sons. He was corrupt and inefficient and by 6 A.D., the Jews had begged Rome to replace him. The Romans removed Archelaus and replaced him with a series of governors (also known as procurators). These governors were Roman commanders who were responsible for governing the regions and reporting to Rome.
The Roman governor over Judea from 26-36 A.D. was a man by the name of Pontius Pilate. Pilate had problems with the Jews from the start. On three separate occasions, Pilate had caused such a riot among the Jews that Rome had to directly intervene.6
On the first occasion, it was customary for the Roman governor to enter the city with his banners and the Roman standard, consisting of an eagle and the bust of Tiberius Caesar. The Jews would not allow the bust of Caesar, believing that the image of the emperor was an idol. Previous governors had obliged the Jews by removing the bust of Caesar, but Pilate refused.
The Jews followed Pilate through the streets of Jerusalem, begging him to remove the image of Caesar. They then followed him back to his home in Caesarea and pursued him for five days, protesting the image. Finally, Pilate brought all of the Jews into the amphitheater, surrounded them with soldiers and demanded that they stop their protest. The Jews all bared their necks and told Pilate to go ahead and kill them. Pilate was defeated. He knew that he could not massacre these Jews without getting in trouble with Rome so he had to back down and remove the image of Caesar.
On another occasion, Pilate needed funds to build a new aqueduct into Jerusalem, so he raided the temple treasury. The furious Jews rioted and Pilate sent his soldiers among them, dressed in common clothes. Upon his signal, the soldiers pulled out their swords and began to kill the Jews around them. The massacre of the Jews reported in Luke 13:1 may have been from this occasion.
On a third occasion, Pilate had shields hung in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. The shields had the picture of the emperor, which the Jews believed to be an idol. The Jews protested the images to Caesar and Pilate was ordered to take them down.
The Roman governor had two jobs: collect taxes and keep the peace.1 Tiberius Caesar cared little about what happened in the provinces as long as the money and stability remained consistent. But the governor was in trouble if the revenue stopped or if Rome needed to send in troops to crush a revolt.
Pilate was already in trouble with Rome because of the Jewish revolts under his leadership. His position in Rome was even more tenuous since his sponsor in Rome had been executed shortly before the trial of Jesus Christ. Pilate knew well that one more problem would cause him to lose his position and likely his own life.
This was the context when the Jewish leaders brought their prisoner to Pontius Pilate. Pilate’s home was in Caesarea, but he came to Jerusalem to oversee the city during the Passover celebration. It was there, at Pilate’s temporary abode in Herod’s palace,7 in the early morning hours that the priests came to him with their case.
The Jewish leaders had tried their prisoner but they needed the Romans to execute him (see here). They wanted Pilate to order this man’s crucifixion.
This trial was no surprise to Pilate. Pilate was holding court in the early morning hours (probably about 4:30 a.m.) out on the pavement in front of his residence. The Jewish leaders must have prepared him that they would be bringing Jesus to him.
“What are the charges?”, asked the governor.
The Jewish leaders responded that they would not have brought the man if he was not guilty. When pressed further, they brought a list of charges including misleading the nation and claiming that He was a king.
The charge of being a king got the governor’s attention. The Romans feared any types of insurrection in the provinces and there was no room for a new king. But Pilate was also suspicious of the Jews. He took Jesus away for a private conversation, asking him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus’ response unnerved Pilate. “Are you asking this for yourself or you only interested in the charges?” Pilate seemed to dismiss the question as an issue for the Jews. But Jesus continued, “My kingdom is not of this world”. In other words, “My kingdom does not come by force”. He is not going to start a war with Rome. His kingdom is a kingdom of truth.
Pilate emerged from the private conversation announcing that Jesus was not guilty. He would declare Jesus’ innocence five times during this trial. Furthermore, two additional witnesses testified to Jesus’ innocence: Herod Antipas and Pilate’s wife.
Pilate realized that he was in a difficult position. He knew that the Jewish leaders demanded that he execute an innocent man. If he gave in to them, he would have violated Roman justice and empowered his enemies. He was interested in hearing about this man, but he could not afford a riot from the Jews by setting Him free.
Pilate then began a series of attempts to free Jesus without starting a riot from the Jews. Any riot would bring swift retribution back to him from Rome.
First Attempt: Send Jesus to Herod
Pilate learned that Jesus was from Galilee. Gallilee was Herod’s (Herod Antipas’) jurisdiction and Herod was also in Jerusalem at that time. Pilate sent him to Herod. Perhaps this could become Herod’s problem. Not only would this absolve Pilate of any blame, but the Jews had less power over Herod. Herod would be free to render judgement with much less pressure from the Jews.
Herod looked forward to meeting Jesus but was soon disappointed. Jesus did not perform any miracles, nor did he reply to any of Herod’s questions. Herod and his soldiers mocked Him, put him in a fancy robe, and sent Him back to Pilate.
Second Attempt: Compromise with the Jewish Leaders
Pilate called together the leaders of the people and announced that neither he nor Herod had found Jesus guilty. Pilate offered a compromise. He found the man innocent, yet he offered to punish Him and release Him.
Luke’s gospel account says that the Jewish priests and elders would not change their mind. Jesus must be killed.
Third Attempt: Trade Jesus for a Criminal
The Jews had a tradition of freeing one prisoner at Passover. Pilate attempted a shrewd political move by offering to release a criminal for this Passover. He appealed to the Jewish people, who were enamored with Jesus, and gave them two choices for a prisoner to release.
He could either release Jesus or Barabbas. Barabbas was a known robber, insurrectionist, and a murderer. Surely the people would want to release Jesus over this man!
But the priests and the elders had influenced the people. When Pilate presented them with the question, they all shouted to release Barabbas and have Jesus crucified!
Fourth Attempt: Appease the mob with torture and humiliation
Pilate had Jesus scourged. This horrible beating was the first step of the Roman execution. The goal of the scourging was to cut open the prisoner’s back in order to maximize the pain and agony when hung on a wooden cross.
After Jesus was scourged, the Roman soldiers twisted together thorn branches in order to form a mock crown. They pushed the thorns on to his head and placed a purple robe on his bleeding back. The soldiers then mocked Him, pretending that he was a king, and hitting Him with their hands.
Pilate then presented the bleeding and bruised Jesus to the people, still in His crown of thorns and purple robe. Pilate said, “Behold the man!”. Surely this man is no threat!
Pilate even tried to reason with the crowd but they only became more agitated. They shouted all the more, “Crucify Him!”
Response by Jesus
The Jews told Pilate that Jesus must die because according to their law, He was guilty of blasphemy. He made Himself out to be the Son of God.
Pilate brought Jesus into the headquarters for another private conversation. Pilate was looking for an answer from Jesus that would help release Him, but Jesus was silent.
Jesus replied to Pilate that the only authority over Him had been granted by God Himself. The most wicked one is not Pilate but the high priest (Caiaphas) who had brought Him to Pilate and demanded His death.
Threats by the Jews
Pilate tried to release Jesus after talking with Him, but the Jews made a final threat. They would report Pilate to Caesar if he released Jesus. Pilate knew that he was already in trouble with Rome, and so he gave in.
Pilate took water and washed his hands before the crowd. He used the same ritual from the Old Testament for an unsolved murder to say that he was free from the guilt of this man. The Jews quickly jumped in to accept any guilt for Jesus’ death.
Jesus was handed over to the Roman soldiers for further torture and abuse while they prepared for the crucifixion.
Jesus was our example for how to answer for our faith:
1 Timothy 6:13-16
I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
“Either the blood of Jesus is on our hands, or the blood of Jesus covers our hearts” – Stephen Davey8
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