The Rejection of Israel's Messiah - Part II (Luke 23:1-25)

Jesus Before Pilate

1 Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. 2 And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.” 3 So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. 4 Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.” 5 But they insisted, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.” 6 On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. 7 When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.

Jesus Before Herod

8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. 9 He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. 12 That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.

Jesus Again Before Pilate

13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” 17 [Now he was obliged to release one man to them at the Feast.] 18 With one voice they cried out, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” 19 (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.) 20 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21 But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” 22 For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” 23 But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.

Introduction

Sometimes we hear of “an offer you can’t refuse,” especially by those like me who are bargain hunters. We also hear of those “offers you can’t accept,” or perhaps we should say, offers people assume you will not accept. As a college student, I lived in the upstairs of a house owned by the college with two roommates who lived on the second and third floors. An older man and his wife lived on the first floor. One day the man came up to ask two of us to help him carry a desk from the top floor down the stairs to the driveway where it was to be loaded onto a trailer. It was a very easy task which couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes. I have often helped with such things without even thinking about it.

Except this time, when we had finished placing the desk on the trailer, the man reached into his wallet, pulled out a five dollar bill, and offered it to me. Looking back, I see that his offer was “one I could not accept.” But he didn’t know me very well. Perhaps he thought he had couched his offer in such a way I couldn’t take it—but he was wrong. I was in need, and I took it—gratefully—but I did take it. My roommate couldn’t believe it, and after thinking about it, neither could I. But the man offered it. If he had not intended to give me the money, I reasoned then, he should not have offered it.

We all make offers we really don’t expect others to accept, don’t we? I believe Pilate made the leaders of Israel—the chief priests and rulers of the people—an offer they would never accept—but they did. The religious leaders of Israel brought Jesus to Pilate, accusing Him of being a criminal worthy of death. But Pilate did not see it this way at all. Eventually, he made these leaders an offer I think he was sure they would not accept. His offer was to release to them Barabbas, a thief, a revolutionary, and a murderer. Which would they choose—to turn Barabbas loose on their city—or Jesus? Jesus was a man of peace, a seemingly harmless fellow. Barabbas was a dangerous criminal. Surely they would leave Barabbas in prison, where he belonged, and be content to have Jesus found guilty of a crime and then pardoned.

If Pilate thought the Jews would accept this offer, he was wrong. They demanded the release of Barabbas, and the execution of Jesus. Now this was something this Gentile ruler could not comprehend. He had made them an offer which they accepted. What an amazing thing!

When we read the account of the trial of our Lord before the political rulers of that day, it is like watching a table tennis match. On the one hand, Jesus is passed back and forth between Pilate and Herod. On the other, the dialogue between Pilate and the religious leaders bounces back, from one to the other. Pilate repeatedly pronounces Jesus innocent of any crime, but the Jewish religious leaders respond by even more vigorously affirming His guilt, demanding nothing less than the death penalty. One would think that Pilate, with the power of Rome behind him, would have little difficulty enforcing his will on the people, but such is not the case. We see that indeed the people prevail, and the story ends with Pilate giving them their way, even though this means the death of an innocent man.

The Structure of the Text

Portrayed in our text are basically three scenes. Scene one (verses 1-7) takes place in the presence of Pilate. Scene two (verses 7-12) takes place before Herod, to whom Pilate has referred the Jews and Jesus, gratefully breathing a sigh of relief, because Jesus’ alleged offenses seem to have occurred in Herod’s jurisdiction. Scene three (verses 13-25) takes us back, once again, to the judgment seat of Pilate who unhappily finds himself the one who must make the decision concerning the accusations made against Jesus. In spite of repeated pronouncements of Jesus’ innocence, by Pilate (primarily) and Herod (by inference), Jesus will not only be mocked and beaten, but He will be put to death as a common criminal, while one of the nations most dangerous criminals will be set free.

Characteristics of Luke’s Account

Each of the gospels has a unique emphasis which causes each writer to include or exclude certain material, as well as to arrange his material uniquely. Luke’s account of the secular trial of Jesus is quite distinct from the other accounts. Before beginning to study the text in Luke, let us first consider some of those distinctive characteristics.

(1) Luke’s account is a very short, concise version of the trial of our Lord before Pilate. It is not the shortest, for Mark’s account is only 15 verses, while the text of Luke is 25 verses. Matthew covers the trial in 26 verses (with verses 3-10 dealing with the remorse and suicide of Judas), and John’s account is the most detailed, with 27 verses.

(2) Luke is the only gospel to include the trial of our Lord before Herod. The significance and contribution of this will be pointed out later.

(3) Luke’s account describes Pilate more in terms of his intentions and desires, than in terms of his actions. Luke tells us that Pilate proposed that he would punish Jesus, and then release Him. We are never told by Luke that Jesus was actually severely beaten, as seen in the parallel accounts in the other gospels. The fact is that most of what Pilate intended to do—such as releasing Jesus—he was not able to do. That is significant in light of the fact that this man was a dictator, with great power and with armed forces at his disposal to back up any action he decided to take.

(4) Luke does not emphasize the external pressures brought to bear on Pilate, as the other gospels do. As I view Luke’s account, we see two major forces at work: Pilate’s decided purpose to release Jesus, whom he judged to be innocent, and the religious leaders, who were determined that Jesus must die, and at the hand of Rome. Matthew tells us Pilate’s wife warned him not to condemn this “innocent man,” due to her tormenting dream that night. John’s account depicts an increasing sense of Pilate’s wonder and fear at the person of Jesus.

(5) Luke has a strong emphasis on the innocence of Jesus, as repeatedly stated by Pilate, and as at least implied by Herod.

(6) Also impressive in Luke (though apparent in the other accounts) is the silence of Jesus. Herod pressed Jesus with many questions, but with no answer. Pilate received more answers, as recorded in the other accounts, but in Luke’s version of these events, Jesus said only these words, “Yes, it is as you say” (verse 3). Nothing more is recorded in these 25 verses as to anything Jesus said. This is not surprising in light of the Old Testament prophecies which foretold the silence of the sinless Messiah (cf. Isaiah 53:7).

(7) The account has a kind of “ping-pong” structure, with a back and forth dialogue between Pilate, who maintains Jesus’ innocence, and the Jews, who insist He is guilty. Notice this characteristic when we indent the verses in a way that demonstrates the back and forth nature of the debate between Pilate and the religious leaders of Israel:

1 Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. 2 And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.” 3 So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. 4 Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.” 5 But they insisted, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.” 6 On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. 7 When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time. 8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. 9 He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. 12 That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.

13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” 17 [Now he was obliged to release one man to them at the Feast.]

18 With one voice they cried out, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” 19 (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.) 20 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21 But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” 22 For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” 23 But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.

Jesus Before Pilate
(23:1-7)

1 Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. 2 And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.” 3 So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. 4 Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.” 5 But they insisted, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.” 6 On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. 7 When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.

It would seem that it was very early in the morning when a very persistent pounding commenced on the front door of Pilate’s107 house.108 Pilate, probably begrudgingly, slipped out of bed, angry at the interruption of his sleep but nonetheless trying not to awaken his wife who was probably still asleep. As Pilate’s day begins, his wife’s sleep will be disturbed by a very unpleasant dream, the essence of which is that Jesus is an innocent man who should not be put to death (cf. Matthew 27:19). The Jewish religious leaders are bold and aggressive in their attack against Jesus, and in expressing their expectation that Pilate will give them what they want. Not only do the Jews seem “pushy” in demanding Pilate’s attention at this hour, they also refused to enter into the palace, forcing him to come out to them (cf. John 18:28-29).

Luke informs us in verse 2 that the Sanhedrin (who apparently all came along to bring charges, cf. 23:1) pressed three charged against Jesus, all of which were political (that is, against the state), and none of which were religious.109 The charges against Jesus were:

(1) stirring up unrest and rebellion: “subverting our nation”110

(2) opposing taxation by Rome

(3) claiming to be a king.

These, of course, were very serious crimes against the state, crimes which could not be brushed aside, and crimes which would have brought the death penalty.111

Pilate seems to know the Jews better than they may have thought. Roman rulers had no interest in being “used” by one Jewish faction against another.112 It did not take very long for Pilate to see that this was, indeed, a power struggle (Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10). He saw Jesus standing before him, already beaten and bloody from the abuse the temple guards had hurled on Him during the night (Luke 22:63-65). He did not look very awesome or dangerous to this political power broker.

Notice that Pilate passed right over the first two charges. If Jesus were a revolutionary, would not the Romans have known about Him much sooner? Indeed, did not the Romans know of Jesus? Surely they had long ago determined that He was no threat. Revolutionaries there were, but Jesus was not among them. And neither did the Roman IRS have any evidence that Jesus had ever so much as implied that the Jews should not pay their Roman taxes. And, as Jesus had emphasized to His arrests, had He not taught publicly, day after day, so that His teaching was a matter of public record (cf. Luke 22:52-53)?

No, if any of these three charges had any substance at all, it was the last. At least this was the real issue with these Jewish religious leaders. And so Pilate passed over the first two charges, asking Jesus only to respond as to whether or not He was “the king of the Jews.” I understand Pilate not simply to be asking whether or not Jesus is a king of the Jews, but the king of the Jews. Would this man not be aware that the Jews looked for a Messiah. After all, were not some of those who were guilty of insurrection those who claimed to be the Messiah (cf. Acts 5:33-39)? I believe, therefore, that while Pilate may have been cruel and ungodly, he was at least shrewd and well-informed about the Jews.113

One would think our Lord’s acknowledgment that He was the Messiah, the King of Israel, would have caused Pilate considerable distress. Pilate, however, does not seem surprised at all. Did he not already know this was, indeed, Jesus’ claim from the beginning of His public ministry? And did not John the Baptist and the disciples go about introducing Jesus as Israel’s king? Contrary to our expectations, Pilate is not at all distressed by Jesus’ admission of His “claimed” identity—claimed, that is, so far as Pilate was concerned. At this point, I believe Pilate probably looked upon Jesus as one would respond to a “hippie” who claimed to be Albert Einstein. “How pathetic,” Pilate could have reasoned, “but certainly Jesus is no political threat to Rome or to me, and not even to these Jewish leaders.” Pilate’s appraisal of Jesus will change considerably over the course of his interrogation, to the point where he will actually begin to fear Jesus, or at least fear putting Him to death (cf. Matthew 27:19; John 19:7, 12).

Pilate announced his verdict, but it was not well-received. He said, “I find no basis for a charge against this man”114 (Luke 23:4). In effect, Pilate had just functioned as a one-man grand jury. He had listened to the charges and to the evidence, and he “no-billed” Jesus. There was insufficient evidence to prove that Jesus was a criminal, worthy of the death penalty, which these leaders wanted.

The chief priests and the crowd would not be so easily denied what they had determined to have—Jesus’ blood. They protested, insisting that Jesus “stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching, starting in Galilee, and now reaching all the way to Jerusalem.” The Jewish leaders had sought to reinforce their indictment, but they had gone too far. They had disclosed that Jerusalem was simply the last place where Jesus had created some measure of unrest. He was not a Judean, a man of Jerusalem, but a Galilean. This was where His ministry began. Most of Jesus’ ministry had been in Galilee, and thus Pilate delighted in ruling that this case was really not in his jurisdiction. The case must go to Herod the Tetrarch, for he was the one who ruled over Galilee. And so Jesus, along with the religious leaders and the rest of the crowd, were sent, still early in the morning, to bother Herod.

I can see Pilate smiling to himself, congratulating himself for getting rid of this thorny problem. In fact, he had succeeded in passing the buck to a man he really didn’t get along with anyway. “It serves him right,” I can hear Pilate thinking to himself. Perhaps Pilate leaned back in his chair and ordered breakfast. What a leisurely and enjoyable meal it must have been. What a great day it would be. No more worries about Jesus, or so it seemed. How fortunate it was that Herod was also in Jerusalem at this season (cf. Luke 23:7).

Jesus Before Herod
(23:8-12)

8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. 9 He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. 12 That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.

While Pilate seemingly had little interest in Jesus and virtually no previous contact with Him, Herod at least had a fair amount of indirect contact. Remember that one of the women who followed Jesus and helped to support Him was Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward (Luke 8:2; cf. 24:10). And then, of course, there was Herod’s relationship with John the Baptist. Let’s briefly review what Luke has had to say about Herod115 thus far in his gospel.

Herod Antipas

Luke 3:1 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—2 during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

Luke 3:19 But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, 20 Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison.

Luke 9:7 Now Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was going on. And he was perplexed, because some were saying that John had been raised from the dead, 8 others that Elijah had appeared, and still others that one of the prophets of long ago had come back to life. 9 But Herod said, “I beheaded John. Who, then, is this I hear such things about?” And he tried to see him.

Luke 13:31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ 33 In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!

Mark’s gospel records a very interesting incident related to Herod the Tetrarch, which Luke’s gospel does not include:

11 The Pharisees came and began to question Jesus. To test him, they asked him for a sign from heaven. 12 He sighed deeply and said, “Why does this generation ask for a miraculous sign? I tell you the truth, no sign will be given to it.” 13 Then he left them, got back into the boat and crossed to the other side. 14 The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.” 16 They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.” 17 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? 18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” “Twelve,” they replied. 20 “And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?” They answered, “Seven.” 21 He said to them, “Do you still not understand?” (Mark 8:11-21)

In Mark’s account, Jesus warned His disciples to “watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and of Herod” (v. 15). The disciples could only think in literal terms of “yeast” and of “bread.” The moment Jesus mentioned “yeast,” they had the word association with “bread.” That brought to mind that they had not remembered to bring “lunch” with them. And so in the midst of a very important word of warning, the disciples’ thoughts are diverted to food. Jesus’ words which follow are not an interpretation of “yeast” but are rather a rebuke for being concerned about “bread,” the very lesson which the two miraculous feedings was intended to teach them.

Jesus therefore reminded them that in both instances where many people lacked food, when all was said and done there was an excess, so that the leftovers had to be collected in several baskets. The point is that Jesus’ disciples need not be concerned about “food,” for the Lord will meet their material and physical needs, a principle frequently found in the gospels (cf. Luke 12:22ff.). And so, when Jesus speaks of “yeast” His disciples should not be distracted by thoughts of their next meal, but they should be free to consider the spiritual implications of His words.

And what was the spiritual lesson Jesus had in mind when He warned them of the “yeast” of the Pharisees and of Herod? The preceding context of Mark chapter 8 tells us (Mark 8:11-12). The Pharisees and Herod both wanted Jesus to perform some great sign, to prove that He was, indeed, the Messiah. Both were looking for external evidences, rather than looking at the Old Testament prophecies concerning Messiah, to see if Jesus had indeed fulfilled them. In this sense, the disciples of our Lord suffered from the same preoccupation that blinded Herod and the Pharisees—a preoccupation on the external and the physical, that which can be seen, as opposed to the “unseen” things which faith “sees” (cf. John 20:29; Hebrews 11:1).

We should not at all be surprised, then, when Luke informs us that Herod was more than happy to see Jesus, unlike his Roman counterpart, Pilate (Luke 23:8). Herod was very eager to see Jesus. Indeed, he had been hoping to see Him for a long time (Luke 9:9). But, as Jesus had warned His disciples earlier (in Mark chapter 8), his motives were wrong. He wanted to see Jesus work some wonder. If He did so, he would show Himself greater than John who performed no such signs. And if Herod could be so fortunate as to make an alliance with a miracle-working Messiah, what would this do for his own position and power?

So far as we can tell from the gospels, Jesus never came in direct contact with Herod. There were various “links” between the two men, as we have shown above. And there was, as well, the “threat” which the Pharisees conveyed to Jesus, warning Him not to flee because Herod wanted to kill Him (Luke 12:31). If this were a true report, something which one cannot be certain about, then Jesus ignored it, giving the Pharisees a message to take back to Herod, a message which conveyed His determination to carry out His mission, without any deviations or compromises.

The chief priests and scribes were standing nearby, constantly reiterating their charges against Jesus, pushing Herod to find Jesus guilty. It seems as though Herod was completely ignoring them. And, likewise, Jesus was not responding to Herod. How disappointed Herod must have been after eagerly bombarding Jesus with questions which were intended to induce a barrage of miraculous signs, or at least some compelling evidence of His power. Luke informs us that Jesus did not speak so much as one word to Herod. All he received in response from Jesus was silence. This must have been a severe blow to the pride of this man, who was used to having things his way, and to having people submit to his power. Jesus had no words for him, not one.

Herod was in a very awkward position here. It was obvious that the religious leaders wanted Jesus put to death. All the time he was trying to interrogate Jesus, they kept pressing their charges. But the fact was they had no real evidence to back up these charges. And because Jesus would not testify, they were at a stalemate. It would seem like a no-win situation for Herod. It is it this point that he makes a very shrewd move. He conceals his own frustration, at being unable to persuade Jesus to produce some miraculous sign, and at the same time pleases his own soldiers and at least sides with the religious leaders by mocking Jesus. And yet in all of this he has avoided taking a clear stand on Jesus. Although Pilate will infer that Herod found Jesus innocent, Herod has avoided the wrath of the chief priests and scribes by not pronouncing any verdict. He seems to be “firmly standing” on both sides of the issue at the same time. What a politician! In the final analysis, Herod forced Pilate to make the decision which he did not want to make himself. And he did so in a way that actually won the friendship of a former enemy.116 Now that is quite a feat.

Why does Luke include this incident with Herod while no other gospel writer does? I believe it is important to see that everyone rejected Jesus as the Messiah, including Herod. But it was absolutely necessary for Rome and the Gentiles to share in the rejection and the crucifixion of Christ so that all men, not just the Jews, might be guilty of His innocent blood. Thus, Herod does play a part, but this is the time for the Gentiles to show their own disdain for the Savior.

Jesus Again Before Pilate
(23:13-25)

13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” 17 18 With one voice they cried out, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” 19 (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.) 20 Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21 But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” 22 For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” 23 But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.

If Pilate thought his problems were over with Jesus, he was wrong. Perhaps it was during the time Jesus was standing trial before Herod the message came from Pilate’s wife that she had a frightening dream, warning her husband not to have anything to do with “that innocent man” (Matthew 27:19). He may thus have thought to himself, “Not to worry. I sent Jesus on to Herod. He’s his problem now.” As the noise of the unruly crowd began to draw nearer and became noisier, Pilate knew that his desire to duck the issue of Jesus’ guilt or innocence was not to be realized.

It would seem, not only from verse 13 but also from the parallel accounts, that Pilate took Jesus aside after He was brought back from His “trial” before Herod, and that He attempted to satisfy himself concerning Jesus’ guilt or innocence. When he came out, Pilate called the chief priests and rulers of the people (for it was they who were pressing him for a guilty verdict) and reiterated that he was unconvinced of any criminal charges which the case presented against Jesus merited, reminding them that by his actions, Herod had also acknowledged the innocence of Jesus.

Having just repeated, for the second time in Luke’s account, the innocence of Jesus, Pilate makes a very perplexing statement to these Jewish religious leaders. He tells them that he is going to punish Jesus, and then release Him (Luke 23:16). I am assuming the punishment referred to is that which is described in the parallel accounts when Jesus was beaten severely (cf. John 19:1-3). Now why, if Jesus has been convicted of no crime, would He be punished? Because Pilate is trying to appease his own conscience, while attempting to appease the hostile crowds at the same time. Pilate hoped, it seems, to satisfy this bloodthirsty crowd by beating Jesus so badly that He would present them with such a horrible sight they would have mercy on Him. Pilate had not judged the animosity of the chief priests and religious leaders correctly.

It is interesting that in Luke’s account only the intentions of Pilate are recorded. That is, Pilate announced it was his intention to “punish” Jesus, but Luke does not go on to report that Jesus was beaten. It is not what happened to Jesus that Luke focuses on so much here as that which Pilate (and Herod too) wanted to do with Him.

It is at this point the name of Barabbas appears. The editors of the NIV and the NASB have chosen to omit verse 17 because of its omission in a few of the older manuscripts (although not necessarily “better”—here is a subject of hot debate). I believe that it should not only be accepted as a part of our text, but that we should accept it because of its clear mention in the parallel accounts. Somehow the custom had come about that Pilate would release one prisoner to the Jews, seemingly as a kind of “goodwill” gesture.

From the record in the parallel accounts, I believe Pilate raised Barabbas as a second proposal to these Jewish leaders in the hope that he would appease them and also secure Jesus’ release. Every year at this time, we are told, Pilate would release one prisoner. Why not convict Jesus as being guilty of the crime of treason—giving government approval to the condemnation of Jesus by the religious community—and then release Him, as a gesture of goodwill? There was, of course, another “criminal” whom Pilate could release—Barabbas—but he was a violent and dangerous man. (Is it possible that he was scheduled to be executed that very day, and that Jesus, indeed, took his place? Surely they would not want him back on the streets.

Here was the shocker, which I don’t think Pilate expected at all. How could these people possibly prefer the release of Barabbas to that of Jesus? Barabbas was a thief, a revolutionary, a terrorist (it seems) and a murderer. Jesus, while He may have had some misguided delusions of grandeur (or so Pilate may have thought at the time), was not a dangerous or violent man. He was a man of peace, a man who had done many kind and wonderful things to help His fellow-countrymen. The offer of Barabbas was, it appears, an offer no sensible Israelite could accept; the offer of Jesus’ (release), was one no sensible Israelite could turn down. If Pilate thought thus, he was very mistaken indeed.

The crowds, incited by the chief priests and scribes, called for Jesus’ death and for the releasing of Barabbas. I suspect Pilate could hardly believe his ears. Why did they hate this man so much? Pilate wanted very much to release Jesus (23:20). While it is not said plainly, surely Pilate did not want to release Barabbas. That man was nothing but trouble. His kind deserved to stay in confinement. And so Pilate pled, once again, for the release of Jesus. Again the innocence of Jesus was reiterated, and Pilate’s intention of beating Him unmercifully and then releasing him was repeated.

The Jews who were present would not hear of it. With loud shouts they demanded the crucifixion of Christ and the release of the revolutionary. And Pilate caved in, giving them their way. The final verses tell it all. Pilate released to them the man who was a danger to society, Barabbas, while He kept Jesus in custody, so that He could be hung on a Roman cross, crucified for crimes Pilate knew He did not commit.

Conclusion

The first thing our text establishes is that Jesus died, not because He was guilty of any offense, or of breaking any law, but simply because He was the sinless Son of God, and because He acknowledged that He was the “King of Israel.” Pilate, who was no “friend” of the Jews nor of Jesus, repeatedly reiterated the fact that Jesus was not guilty of any crime, and most certainly not of any crime worthy of death, even though this is precisely what the religious leaders demanded.

The second thing I believe the Holy Spirit intended for us to learn from Luke’s account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate and Herod is this: the rejection and crucifixion of Jesus was not just that of the Jews, nor of the Gentiles, but it was a rejection by both. I believe this is why Luke alone includes the account of Jesus before Herod. Note the apostles’ commentary on this matter as recorded in the Book of Acts by none other than Dr. Luke:

24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: “‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’ 27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen (Acts 4:24-28).

Luke thus informs us that his gospel account was intended to historically establish and document the collaboration between Herod and Pilate, and in a broader sense between the Jews and the Gentiles, to put Jesus, the Messiah, to death.

If the rejection of Jesus as the Messiah was a mutual action of both Jews and Gentiles, it was also a unanimous decision, reached by all. No one stood for the Savior. All rejected Him, as this moment in time. The disciples had fled. Judas has now taken his own life. Everyone who is mentioned in these verses in chapter 23 has rejected Jesus as the King.

While the form which their rejection takes is different, the essence is the same in every case. The chief priests and leaders of the Jews took a very hostile and aggressive stance with respect to Jesus. That is very evident in our text, for they, in a very pushy and offensive way demanded nothing less than His execution.

The third thing this text teaches us is the utter sinfulness of men, as evidenced in the rejection of Jesus as the King of the Jews. As I view the individuals described by Luke at this trial of our Lord, I find that the description of the sinfulness of man in Romans 3 is remarkably appropriate for this occasion. As you read these markedly descriptive words, remember that these are a collection of statements from the Old Testament, descriptive of man’s sinful and lost condition:

“There is none righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit. The poison of vipers is on their lips. There mouths are full of cursing and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways, and the way of peace they do not know. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:10-18).

This is the one thing which Pilate failed to take into account. He seems to have thought that his audience was a reasonable, rational group, who would objectively hear, consider, and accept his verdict. If he thought thus, he was wrong. He seems to have felt that if Jesus were beaten severely enough, they would take pity on Him and give up their demand that He be crucified. If this was his thinking, again he was wrong. And he seems to have thought that if he found Jesus guilty, and then gave the crowd the choice between pardoning Barabbas, a hardened and violent criminal, and Jesus, they would have to take Jesus. He was again wrong.

It is important crucial to recognize that all of those who were at this trial were wrong, and that indeed they all rejected Jesus, not just the Jews. Clearly, the religious leaders were hostile to Jesus and demanded that he be put to death. In a different way, Herod also rejected Jesus. He was eager to see Him. In some ways, he was a religious man, a man who had listened with keen interest to John the Baptist. But when Herod saw that Jesus was not going to “jump through his hoops,” that He would not perform for him, and that He was not going to further his own personal interests and ambitions, Herod rejected Jesus, making a public mockery of Him. The soldiers, both of Herod and Pilate, were wrong, for they mistreated and mocked Messiah. And then there was Pilate. Granted, he harbored no great hostility toward Jesus, but neither did he accept Him for who He was. Granted, Pilate seems only to wish that Jesus would just go away. His rejection is polite, aloof, disinterested. But, my friend, it was rejection.

I do not know what your response is to Jesus Christ, but if it is anything less than receiving Him as the divine Son of God, the King of Israel, and the Savior of the world, it is not enough, and it is rejection. Your rejection may be polite. Indeed, it may appear that you have not rejected Him at all. Perhaps you have ignored Him. But if you have not received Him as God’s Messiah, you have rejected Him. If you and I had been there that day when Jesus was on trial, I am convinced that we would have sided with one of these rejecting groups, and not with the Savior.

It seems hard to believe, doesn’t it, that men can actually hate God, that they can hate Him as God? Those who rejected Jesus in our text, rejected Him as the promised Messiah, as their King, even though He was innocent. Far more, even though everything about His life and ministry bore witness to the fact that He was righteous, and that He was the Son of God.

In the politeness with which men often reject Christ, we have lost sight of the deep hatred and animosity which unsaved men and women have toward God. As I was preparing this message, I was reminded of a book by R. C. Sproul, entitled, The Holiness of God.117 Sproul’s concluding chapter is entitled, “God in the Hands of Angry Sinners.” In this chapter Sproul reminds us that fallen men are not neutral toward God—they hate Him. He writes,

By nature, our attitude toward God is not one of mere indifference. It is a posture of malice. We oppose His government and refuse His rule over us. Our natural hearts are devoid of affection for Him; they are cold, frozen to His holiness. By nature, the love of God is not in us.

… it is not enough to say that natural man views God as an enemy. We must be more precise. God is our mortal enemy. He represents the highest possible threat to our sinful desires. His repugnance to us is absolute, knowing no lesser degrees. No amount of persuasion by men or argumentation from philosophers or theologians can induce us to love God. We despise His very existence and would do anything in our power to rid the universe of His holy presence.

If God were to expose His life to our hands, He would not be safe for a second. We would not ignore Him; we would destroy Him.118

I not only believe Sproul is biblically correct, I also believe that this description of man and his animosity toward God describes both those who were a part of our Lord’s trial, and describes us, apart from God’s initiative and grace in saving us. Have you experienced this salvation? If so, your love for God is a supernatural thing, the result, not of your reaching toward God, but of His reaching out toward you, through the very One whom men rejected—Jesus Christ.

Just as Pilate could not avoid making a decision about Jesus, so you and I must make a decision as well. And if we should think we can avoid a decision by ignoring Him and ignoring a decision, let me simply remind you that this is a decision—to reject Him. May this not be so for you.

We find in our text that Pilate ultimately feared man more than he feared the Son of God. Pilate was willing to sacrifice Christ, as it were, for his own ambitions, for his own self-interest. I believe he thought he had to “sacrifice” Jesus for his own survival, and yet his decision spelled his own doom. Pilate, like Herod, soon fell from power. Their ends were not pleasant. How tragic.

This text should teach us that human government is, like men, sinful and fallible. The very government which was given by God to protect the innocent and to punish the evil-doer (cf. Romans 13:1-5), is that government, in Jesus’ day, which condemned the innocent and freed the wicked. If there was ever a dramatic demonstration of the need for a new government, a new “kingdom” where righteousness reigned in the person of Jesus Christ, it was at the trial and crucifixion of our Lord.

This text also serves to illustrate, at least to my satisfaction, the limitations and liabilities of the political system and its approach to getting things done. I hear Christians today talking about taking over the political system, as though they can use it to further God’s kingdom. I hear others talking about “beating the humanists at their own game.” In our text, I see the inability of the political process to achieve the righteousness of God. The problem lies not only in the system itself, but in the fallen humanity which operates it. Herod was never finer, as a politician, than in his maneuverings in which he rejected Christ, maintained the support of the chief priests and leaders, and won Pilate as a friend. But righteousness and justice were not served here. Pilate, though he knew Jesus to be innocent, also knew that politics require compromise and keeping the constituency happy. God’s work is not done in man’s way, and nothing is more human than the political process. It may be the best means of getting the business of state done, but it is not the means of doing God’s work. Let us beware of using “politics,” whether it be office politics or church politics, to do God’s work.

One last remark. If men are so utterly angry with God that they will always hate, oppose, and reject Him, how can they ever be convinced, converted, and changed? It will not be through human might or methods, my friend, but only through the Holy Spirit of God. As we read the Book of Acts we learn that men were convinced and converted—miraculously so, such as Saul—but they were convinced and converted through the work of God’s Spirit, as He empowered men and their testimony for Christ. May we go about His work, dependent upon His Word and dependent upon His Spirit.


107 “Pontius Pilate was the Roman Procurator from 26 to 36 A.D.. He resided ordinarily in Caesarea, but during the feasts was accustomed to be present in Jerusalem, so as to quickly suppress any disorder. He was born in Seville, Spain, was twice married, having abandoned his first wife to marry Claudia, the daughter of Julia, the prostitute daughter of the Emperor Augustus. After a checkered political career as procurator, he was banished by Caligula on account of his cruelty and inability to maintain order, to Vienne, Gaul, and at Mount Pilatus he ended his life by suicide. He was a typical Roman—stern and practical. He had a contempt for religious superstitions and traditions, and an imperious desire to rule with a high hand, compelling obedience. He had not tactfully managed his government, and soon became odious to the Jews and Romans. He planted his standards on the citadel on his first entry to the city, regardless of the religious feeling of the people, prohibiting all images. The people were greatly incensed at the standards, bearing the Emperor’s image, and requested their removal. Pilate at first condoned their request, and threatened them later with violence; but, with extreme persistence, the Jews won out and the Governor submitted. Later, when he would have constructed an aqueduct for supplying the city with water, he made the serious blunder of defraying the cost from the Temple treasury. When the people revolted, he suppressed the tumult with great cruelty. Just a short while before the trial of Jesus, he had a company of Galileans in the Temple court and mingling their blood with their sacrifices, a thing which sent a shudder of religious superstition and horror through the whole nation.” J. W. Shepard, The Christ of the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. [photolithoprinted], 1971), pp. 582-583.

108 According to Mark’s account (15:25), Jesus was put to death at 9:00 a.m. This would mean that the judicial proceedings must have begun quite early that morning. Mark also begins the account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate by telling the reader that the Sanhedrin reached their verdict that Jesus was guilty “very early in the morning” (15:1), and then he immediately moves on to say that they bound Jesus and led Him away, taking Him to Pilate. The inference here as well is that Pilate was disturbed early in the morning to pronounce Jesus guilty so as to crucify Him before the day is far along. John’s Gospel tells us clearly that Jesus was led to the palace of the governor in the early morning (John 18:28).

109 John tells us in his gospel that a fair bit more took place before Pilate inquired of our Lord as to whether or not He was “the king of the Jews.” He informs us of the Jews’ hope that Pilate would simply take their word for the fact that Jesus was guilty of whatever crimes they were to indicate (John 18:29-32). Pilate wanted specific charges and evidence that these were true. I think that he had too much experience with these folks to give them too much latitude. He did, however, invite them to proceed on their own, judging Jesus by their own laws. Then, they had to admit that they could not do so because they did not have the authority to utilize capital punishment.

110 The Jerusalem Bible renders this, “inciting our people to revolt.”

111 It is generally agreed that the Jews had lost the freedom to carry out capital punishment some 40 years before this. Nonetheless, they did, as in the case of Stephen (Acts 7), execute people at times, taking their chances with the state by doing so without prior permission. There were times in Jesus’ life when they would have killed Jesus, if they could have done so out of the sight of the crowds (e.g. John 7:19, 25, 30). But now, I think they sought the approval of Rome, not so much out of concern that they would incur its wrath for executing Jesus without permission, but that this was the justification with the crowds for His death. Let Rome take the heat for Christ’s death.

112 Acts 18:12-17 is a parallel text, which shows that Roman officials had no intention in getting involved in the “in fightings” of Judaism.

113 It is my understanding, for example, that Pilate normally resided in Caesarea, but because this was the season of the Passover, he had temporarily stationed himself in Jerusalem, since this was both the most likely time and place for a revolt to occur.

114 The Jerusalem Bible renders it, “I find no case against this man.”

115 There are a number of “Herods” in the New Testament, so that we can easily confuse one with another. Herod the Great was the Herod who sought to kill the baby Jesus, who is the villain of Matthew chapter 2. He died in 4 B.C. He had three sons. Archelaus, the oldest, succeeded his father in ruling over Palestine (cf. Matthew 2:22). It was Herod Antipas, the younger brother of Archelaus, who ruled over Galilee during the lives and ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus. Herod Philip was tetrarch of Ituraea and Trachonitis, whose wife Herodias, left him to elope with Herod Antipas. Herod Agrippa I was the “Herod” of Acts chapter 12, who killed James, and who arrested Peter with the intention of putting him to death as well (Acts 12:1ff.).

116 We are not told precisely why the two men, Pilate and Herod, were enemies, nor are we told exactly what it was that healed this wound. We do know from Luke 13:1 that the blood of a number of Galileans had been mingled with their sacrifices in Jerusalem, by none other than Pilate. As Galilee was Herod’s territory and Jerusalem was under Pilate’s control, this was surely one source of tension between the two men. Did Herod go to Jerusalem at this time to insure the safety of other Galileans?

117 R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 1985).

118 Sproul, pp. 229-230.

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