The Evidence of Jesus: John 18:28-40
We have been looking at the evidence of Jesus, the evidence that makes us ask makes us ask serious questions about being a Christian in our world. Tonight we come to the evidence of Jesus before the Roman legal authority; tonight we come to Jesus’ trail before Pontius Pilate.
We are looking at John 18:28-40. It is daybreak. John follows the Roman method of dividing the night into two watches. The cock crow at verse 27 marks the change from the third to the fourth watch of the night. It is described by John as early morning.
Jesus’ appearance before Annas and Caiaphas has been illegal, both in its timing and in the way it was conducted. The high priest and his officers knew they could do nothing themselves against Jesus, they hadn’t the necessary legal authority; so at cock crow, we see the transfer of the case to the Roman governor.
In verse 28, we see John changing the way he talked about Jesus’ enemies. Up to this point in the chapter, he has identified those involved, now he just talks about the Jews, “the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the place”; “the Jews did not enter the palace”. John is Jewish himself, Jesus was Jewish. John is making the point that it was Jesus’ own people who are responsible. It is his own people who plot against him; it is his own people who arrest him; it is his own people who demand his execution. Do you remember the words of John Chapter 1 that are always read at Christmas? “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him”. John highlights the tragedy of the situation; that the people have rejected their own Saviour. They have rejected the evidence before their eyes and overturned the Law that they held so dear.
The sadness of their situation is made clear in verse 28. They will not go into the palace for fear of being ceremonially unclean and missing Passover, but they cannot see that their religious rule-keeping is made completely meaningless by their moral behaviour in conspiring and bringing false charges against Jesus. When we lose touch with God our religion can very quickly descend into an obsession with rules and traditions and a neglect of the big issues of truth and justice. It is a trap into which the Church of Ireland easily falls; we keep the little rules but fail to see that being religious is useless if we ignore God’s commands of justice and peace.
The Jews knew that Pilate was vulnerable politically. They know he has been in trouble for not keeping order in Jerusalem. Pilate knows that if word of more trouble in Jerusalem gets back to Rome, he could be out of a job.
Pontius Pilate, as governor, is supposed to stand for the rule of law, he is supposed to stand for justice, but when he comes under pressure, he caves in. Instead of being an impartial law-keeper, he gives in to the threat of violence.
Pilate is a sad example of human experience that law and order do not necessarily go together. Pilate has to abandon the rule of law in order to keep order in Jerusalem.
When we look at verse 29, Pilate appears impatient with the Jews. He has been woken at an early hour of the morning, presumably with some story that the Jews were involved in some religious disagreement. You can imagine Pilate, whom we know to have been an aggressive man, striding out and asking his question. Pilate hadn’t much liking for the Jewish religion; he had twice had run ins with the Jewish leaders about images of the emperor, which the Romans regarded as images of a god and which the Jews regarded as a blatant breach of the Commandments. Twice Pilate had allowed Roman standards bearing images of the emperor to be carried into Jerusalem. Pilate had also been involved in a row over money; Jerusalem needed a new water supply so Pilate had taken money from the treasury in the Temple to pay for a new aqueduct.
The Jewish leaders know what sort of man they are dealing with and it is surprising that they are taken off-guard by Pilate’s question. “What charges are you bringing against this man?” asks Pilate; look at how the Jews reply. “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you”. They are defensive; they seem affronted by Pilate’s question.
We can almost imagine a tired an irritable Pilate waving his hand dismissively and saying, “you take him yourselves and judge him by your own law”.
It shows the extent to which Jesus is prepared to take on our human life that he allows his future to be determined by petty, squabbling politicians. The future of the world is being settled between and obscure politician and scheming clergy.
Pilate wants no part in this argument. He wants the Jews to sort out the matter themselves. By the time they have brought Jesus before Pilate, they have changed their accusation against Jesus. In 18:18 we are told that the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. Their dispute with Jesus in the high priest’s house is clearly about religious matters, but they know Pilate will have no interest in a religious dispute. If we look at verse 33, Pilate says “are you the king of the Jews?” Knowing that religious charges would be of no interest to the governor, it is quite clear that the Jewish leaders have said to Pilate that Jesus was making political claims. Jesus is immediately aware of what is going on, “Is that your own idea”, he asks “or did others talk to you about me?” Then in verse 35, Pilate admits that the Jews have handed over Jesus, making a political charge against him.
These devout religious men have set aside the Law by which they lived and they have set aside the truth, and they now perjure themselves by making legal allegations against Jesus which they know to be completely untrue.
When challenged with the charges, Jesus’ evidence is the truth. He is a king, but not of this world. Pilate can see for himself that Jesus has no political ambitions; if Jesus had been politically motivated, his disciples would have fought to resist his arrest. Jesus has come to speak the truth.
It is a strange conversation. Pilate clearly realises that there is no political case to answer, but he doesn’t want to get involved in the discussion. Pilate’s words are short and sharp. He knows what truth is but he is unwilling to face the truth.
Pilate’s next move is extraordinary. He throws Roman justice out of the window. In verse 38 he says, “ I find no basis for a charge against him”. Roman law demanded that Jesus should have been released immediately. But Pilate does not do that, instead he says to Jesus’ enemies that it is customary to grant an amnesty to a prisoner at the time of Passover. Jesus doesn’t need an amnesty; Pilate himself says he is guilty of no charge. But Pilate is trying to extricate himself from a difficult political situation. Maybe he thinks that if he pretends to accept that Jesus is guilty and then grants him an amnesty, it will satisfy both justice and the Jews. If so, he only makes matters worse by taking a dig at them, “Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” Pilate’s contempt for them is clear.
What we see in these verses is an intense political struggle, each side looking after its own interests, and in political struggles truth is usually the first casualty.
We finish on a sinister note. The crowd are offered Jesus, they are offered the truth, and in verse 40 they shout, “Give us Barabbas”. They prefer a terrorist, a man of violence, to a man of truth and peace. As we read through the story, we see that the democratic decision of those in Jerusalem was in favour of Barabbas. The majority preferred the way of violence.
Those shouts for Barabbas in Jerusalem are a chilling reminder that democracy is not infallible. There are times when we must choose between the evidence of Jesus and the way of the overwhelming majority of those around us, making the choice for Jesus is not always easy.