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The Greatest Trial Ever Held

The story of Pilate
This sermon is part of the sermon series "Three Days". See series.


It was a long and difficult night. Jesus' best friends abandoned him. One of his closest colleagues committed suicide. Police arrested him. Religious people treated him with disdain—they mocked him, hit him, and spit in his face.

When the sun finally rose, it dawned on Jesus' day to die. He was hours away from experiencing one of the most horrific forms of capital punishment ever devised by sadistic executioners. But first there was a trial.


The Jewish authorities wanted Jesus dead but didn't have the legal authority to order an execution—that would require the verdict and sentence of a Roman court. The authorities resented Jesus' popularity and accused him of blasphemy against God, but the Romans couldn't have cared less whether Jesus was popular or if he blasphemed the Jewish God; the Romans blasphemed the Jewish God all the time.

Legally, the Jewish authorities needed a charge that would hold up in a civil court. Their best shot was to accuse Jesus of claiming to be the king of the Jews—it sounded like treason. They dragged Jesus to the outside courtroom in front of the governor's palace and pressed their accusation. The governor asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate, the governor, asked him, "Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?" But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.

Pilate and the Jews essentially hated each other. Pilate was procurator, which meant that he was appointed by and accountable to the Emperor and not the Roman senate. Though "governor" is a close enough title to his role, he was not elected by the people as governors are in the United States.

Pilate had gotten off to a terrible start with the Jews. His predecessors had cut the Jews some slack and accommodated their religious traditions and scruples. For example, the Roman standards once had images of eagles or the emperor on top. Jews considered this an idolatrous offense against the first commandment, so previous governors removed the images whenever the army marched into Jerusalem. Pilate, however, figured that Roman pride was more important than Jewish religion and refused to remove the images. He marched them right into the temple. When he went to his seaside palace in Caesarea, 5,000 Jewish men petitioned him to change his mind and remove the ensigns. Pilate called out his army. The Jewish men bowed down and bared their necks, inviting wholesale slaughter. They said, "You may cut off our heads, but don't desecrate our temple." Pilate eventually backed down. Another time, Pilate ordered a new aqueduct built to bring water to Jerusalem. That was a good idea. He then confiscated money from the temple to pay for the aqueduct. That was a bad idea. The Jews kept threatening to report Pilate to Rome for his heavy-handed and sometimes brutal treatment of the people. Through these examples we get an understanding about Pilate's relationship to the Jews. The Jewish Sanhedrin filed charges of treason against Jesus: "He claimed to be the king of the Jews when Caesar was really the king." It was a ridiculous charge and everyone knew it. The Jews rejected Caesar as their king; they were as disloyal to Rome as they accused Jesus of being disloyal. Jesus never claimed to be a political king; his claims were all spiritual. When asked if he was king of the Jews, Jesus said: Sure, whatever you say. He could have insisted that he was the spiritual king and not the political king, but Pilate and everyone else already knew what he meant.

When his accusers pressed their prosecution, Jesus stood there in silence. When asked to defend himself, he said nothing. There is no point in defending oneself against accusers who have already made up their minds. Everyone there knew the facts and knew his innocence—he didn't need to say anything. But Jesus did put Pilate in a bind, because no judge should condemn someone whose side has not been heard.

I think Pilate was rattled by Jesus' quiet confidence. Jesus had a powerful presence. It's clear that he was the true judge in that outdoor courtroom, and Pilate was on trial.


Knowing that Jesus was innocent, Pilate offered the crowd a choice he hoped would get him off the hook: to set Jesus free and satisfy the crowd and the Jewish leaders.

It was the governor's custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a notorious prisoner named Barabbas. When the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, "Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" Pilate knew it was out of envy that the authorities had handed Jesus over to him.

The chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and have Jesus executed. "Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" asked the governor.

"Barabbas," they answered.

"What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?" Pilate asked.

They all answered, "Crucify him!"

"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"

The whole situation was ridiculous. Jews hated crucifixion. It was uncharacteristic for these Jews to be shouting for anyone to be crucified. This minor mob was recruited by some of Jesus' enemies to give the impression that they spoke for the whole Jewish population. None of this had anything to do with the charges or Jesus' guilt or innocence. It was all a political game. Some of the religious leaders of Jerusalem felt threatened by Jesus and envied his popularity. They knew Pilate didn't want another confrontation that would get him reported to Rome, so they used their political advantage to get Pilate to murder Jesus.

Were the people in this crowd the same people who five days earlier on Palm Sunday had shouted his praise? I don't think so. I think this was a group that the religious leaders had gathered in front of the governor's residence for the purpose of swaying Pilate against Jesus. There were a few hundred people at most. I imagine they were radical extremists who were heavily influenced, if not paid, by the religious leaders of the city. They did not represent all Jews. They were like any small group in a political movement today who shouts loud enough to give the impression that they represent more people than they actually do.

For those in the crowd it was a clear choice: freedom for Barabbas, death for Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus always calls us to make a choice about him—to accept him or to oppose him.


While Pilate sat on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him." Historians tell us her name was Claudia Procula and that she was a pagan fascinated by the Jewish religion. In any case she was obviously a spiritual woman who remembered her dreams and interpreted them in favor of Jesus.

What do you think of that? Does God speak to us through personal dreams? Did she suffer from the dream or from the jalapenos from dinner the night before? If God chose to speak to you through a dream would you recognize his voice?

I believe God does speak to people through dreams then and now, although it has never happened to me. I also believe that God speaks directly to people like Pilate's wife who are not yet believers in Jesus. Recurring reports come about people with Muslim backgrounds who have visions of Jesus that eventually lead them to become followers of Christ. I've talked to Christians who reach out to Muslims for Jesus. Many say that when they ask their Muslim friends if they have had any dreams about Jesus, their friends say yes—and this becomes God's means for drawing them to himself.

God used a dream to warn Pilate's wife and Pilate against killing Jesus, but Pilate wouldn't listen. He was going against his own best judgment, Roman law, his wife's advice, and a seemingly supernatural dream in order to please a political minority. He hoped they would choose Jesus to live and Barabbas to die.


Pilate's plan backfired. The crowd didn't pick the right guy. They chose to release the guilty and condemn the innocent. When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere but that instead there was uproar, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. "I am innocent of this man's blood," he said. "It is your responsibility!"

All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!"

Pilate knew what he was about to do was wrong. He was going to condemn an innocent man to death. He must have had some conscience in him, as he was anxious to distance himself from any guilt. He thought that a public washing of his hands would symbolically exonerate him, but exoneration is not that easy. Moral guilt does not wash off in a bowl of water. There are stains on the soul that only God can remove.

The crowd was quick to accept responsibility. They shouted an awful promise, "Let his blood be on us and on our children." Imagine yelling to get the guilt for crucifying the Son of God. This statement has been horribly misinterpreted through the generations as an excuse for anti-Semitism. Those who hate Jews have here found an excuse for sinful discrimination. They claim that everything from ancient persecution to the Holocaust in the 20th century is rooted in those Jews who pleaded for a curse for crucifying Jesus. In the early centuries, some cited this statement of responsibility for the crucifixion as the reason why the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Let us never think such thoughts. Jesus clearly prayed for forgiveness to those who crucified him.


Even though he knew Jesus' innocence, Pilate released Barabbas to the crowd. He had Jesus flogged and handed him over to be crucified. Flogging entailed viciously whipping through a man's skin until he was shredded to the bone in indescribable agony. Crucifixion was worse. It was an ultimate form of deadly torture.

Jesus didn't have to do it. He could have defended himself and gotten out of the situation. He who walked on water and raised the dead could have left the court, and no army could have been able to stop him. He who was the Son of God could have called ten thousand angels from heaven to protect him. He didn't do any of these things. He suffered quietly. Peter was an eyewitness who later explained:

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls (1 Peter 2:23).

When inviting people to become Christians, we often tell them to pray a simple prayer of faith and commitment to God: "Tell God you are a sinner and that you accept Jesus as your Savior and Lord." It sounds so easy and simple; in some ways it is. But it was not easy for Jesus, and our salvation is not cheap. Sin is an awful thing. Our sins caused Jesus to suffer. What he went through was for us. Jesus did all this for us.


We would never know the name Pontius Pilate had he not unjustly condemned Jesus to the cross. We only have tidbits of history and contradictory stories about the rest of his biography. We know that his political career ended badly. In his day there was a man who claimed he could show everyone ancient artifacts once hidden by Moses at Mount Gerizim. A large crowd gathered there; Pilate terribly misjudged the situation, sent in his army, and slaughtered the people. It was a rally around a charlatan, not a political uprising. Pilate overreacted. The Samaritans filed a complaint against Pilate, and he was summoned to Rome to account for his behavior before the Emperor. In a bizarre twist of history, the Emperor Tiberius died while Pilate was traveling to Rome, and he never went to trial. Legends say that Pilate committed suicide.

There is another ancient Christian legend that I like better. It says that Pilate and his wife Claudia became Christians and devoted followers of Jesus. The Coptic Church has adopted this legend as truth and calls them both saints. Who could have guessed there'd be a Saint Pilate?

I don't know which if either of the legends is true, but I do know that Jesus died for all sinners—from those in the crowd who shouted for his crucifixion, to Pilate who condemned him to death—no matter what we've done. Jesus was innocent but convicted. He was sinless but crucified. He came to save sinners including all of us.

Leith Anderson is president emeritus of the National Association of Evangelicals and Baptist pastor emeritus of Wooddale Church in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

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Sermon Outline:


I. Charges

II. Choice

III. Dream

IV. Decisions

V. Sentence