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Throughout history, most of humanity has lived under one empire after another.

Whether it was the Empire of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, or Romans— or, more recently, the British, Russian, American, or Chinese— all empires are essentially the same. 

Daniel depicted ancient empires as beasts (Daniel 7): a lion, a bear, a leopard, then a “beast—terrifying and frightening and very powerful”— most likely describing Rome. The nature of more modern empires is no different.

The Roman governor’s trial of Jesus Christ clearly demonstrated the nature of an empire. There is little or no interest in truth, love, or justice; it is about expedience, manipulation, and domination. Its means are brutal, and its end is death.

In this post, we will briefly examine Jesus’ trial before the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate. How does Jesus respond in this trial? And what can we learn about engaging in conflict?

The text we will examine is Matthew 27:1-31. I encourage you to read the context and compare what other Gospel accounts add to this incident (Mark 15:1-20; Luke 23:1-23; John 18:28-19:16).

Let’s begin by looking at the setting.

The setting

Matthew 27:1-2 sets the scene:

Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. They bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor.

Having lost the authority to execute a person, the Sanhedrin, or Jewish Ruling Council, put Jesus before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.

As Pilate asks his first question, another scene is taking place. Judas attempts to undo his betrayal (27:3-5):

When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” 

“What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.”

So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.

I have highlighted the words “That’s your responsibility,” which translate the Greek su opsē, which, more literally, means “See to it yourself.” We will come across these words again from Pilate’s mouth.

First, let’s consider Pilate’s first question and Jesus’ response.

Question 1 

Matthew 27:11 reads:

Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” 

“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.

The Sanhedrin appears to have brought him to Pilate on a charge of treason rather than blasphemy, which would have been of no interest to Pilate.

Pilate’s question concerned the core identity of Jesus Christ, the ultimate King of the Davidic lineage. And so, Jesus answered, “Yes, it is as you say,” or more literally, “you say” or “as you say.” This answer is minimal, giving nothing extra. 

For those with ‘ears to hear,’ there is much more to Jesus’ kingship. But Pilate is neither interested nor curious about this King or his kingdom.

Question 2 

It seems that the chief priests and elders are present calling out their accusations against Jesus, but, as before, the Lord remains silent (Matthew 27:12-14).

When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. 

Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” 

Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge— to the great amazement of the governor.

Pilate would have been familiar with accused people speaking desperately to exonerate themselves. Instead, Jesus’ silence produces “great amazement” in Pilate but nothing more. There is no interest or curiosity about his silence.

Question 3 (27:15-21) 

At this point, Pilate turns from Jesus and the Sanhedrin to the crowd and asks his next question twice. 

Now 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, called Barabbas. So 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?” 

For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.

While Pilate was sitting 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.”

But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.

“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. 

“Barabbas,” they answered.

In Aramaic, Barabbas means “son of a father.” He is a “notorious prisoner,” who, we are told elsewhere, was in prison for rebellion and murder. By contrast, Pilate’s wife refers to Jesus as an “innocent [dikaios] man.” Dikaios means a “righteous” person—by implication, he is innocent. No two prisoners could be more different

Despite his awareness that the Sanhedrin “out of envy … had handed Jesus over to him” and his wife’s warning, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent [dikaios] man,” Pilate persists by asking the crowd again:

“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?”

Why did he do that? He had the evidence and authority to release Jesus and condemn Barabbas. Was he seeking to insult the Sanhedrin? Was he appealing to the crowd? Was he hoping for a way out? 

Whatever his reasons, he seems to have acted to keep the peace and protect his position rather than to administer justice. 

Question 4 (27:22)

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

They all answered, “Crucify him!”

This question only compounded the problem. Not only had Pilate abdicated his position of imperial authority, he had conferred that authority on an unruly mob.

Question 5 (27:23)

“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. 

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

There is no truth, no reason, no justice— just brutality and death

The verdict (27:24-26)

When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, 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!”

Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.

Pilate’s words echo the Sanhedrin’s response to Judas: “It is your responsibility!” Neither the Sanhedrin nor Pilate avoided their guilt by this false and empty statement.

Pilate forfeited his judicial responsibility, bowing to the mob’s demands. He releases the guilty and crucifies the righteous. Justice cries out at this travesty of expediency, injustice, and brutality— but then, that’s the way of empires.

What can we learn?

Here are four things we can learn from our text. You might have more, and I want to hear them.

1.         Learn to discern

In the previous post, The Case of Caiaphas vs. Jesus, we observed when Jesus chose silence and when he chose to answer.

This encounter with Pilate confirms those choices and provides further insight into exercising discretion. When should we speak, and when should we be silent? 

2.         Know you don’t belong

This situation shows us that there is no room for the Lord Jesus Christ in the Roman Empire or any empire. Would you be “at home” in the Roman Empire?

Too many of us are at home in the empires of our present cultures, societies, and countries. We should not be at home here any more than Jesus.

Peter draws our attention to our status here as “strangers” in the opening sentence of 1 Peter:

Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to God’s elect, strangers [parepidēmos] in the world, scattered throughout …

He also uses this language in 2:11-12:

Dear friends, I urge you, as aliens [paroikos] and strangers [parepidēmos] in the world, to abstain from sinful desires, which war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. 

The concept of paroikos is an alien wherever we live— in my case, 21st-century Canada. In God’s view, I am not at “home” here— I am an alien (away from home). The word parepidēmos conveys that I belong to another “country” (headed home).

Paul confirms this in Philippians 3:20:

… our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ … 

And again, the writer of Hebrews (11:13) says:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens [xenos] and strangers [parepidēmos] on earth

We are aliens, foreigners, and strangers in whatever empire we live in; we belong to the Kingdom of God. 

Develop the attitude that you are an alien wherever you live, the representative of another country and its king, the Lord Jesus Christ.            

3.         Be aware and prepared 

If we are being faithful, we can expect that the ‘world’ in which we live now will treat us like they treated the Lord Jesus.

In his farewell address the previous evening, Jesus was preparing his disciples for what was to come (John 15:18-21):

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember the words I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the One who sent me.” 

Again, Paul echoes this reality (2 Timothy 3:12):

In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted

We do not desire or seek to be persecuted, but we should expect it if we want “to live a godly life in Christ Jesus.” 

Christians in the modern Western world have largely escaped persecution. That seems to be changing, and things might be significantly different in the future. So, be prepared. As you read the Bible regularly in large sections, take note of how much is written about Christians experiencing trials, suffering, and persecution.

4.         Be filled with hope 

Although Christians’ trials, sufferings, and persecutions are a significant theme in the New Testament, that is not the end. Briefly, here are two encouraging insights.

In the present, God is present. We know that our God (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) is not distant, isolated, or insulated from the persecution of his people. 

For instance, in the amazing conversion scene of Saul of Tarsus, a persecutor of Christians, he hears these words (Acts 9:4-5):

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. 

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

The persecution of Christians is the persecution of Jesus.

In the future, God will set everything right. We have the promises of God’s deliverance, vindication, and reward. Here is one assurance of that forthcoming certainty (Romans 8:17-18)

Now if we are children, then we are heirs— heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us

There is much more that could be written on this subject. I invite you to use this link and let me know your comments and questions.


BACK TO The Case of Caiaphas vs. Jesus

Image credit: Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”), Antonio Ciseri’s depiction of Pilate presenting a scourged Jesus to the people of Jerusalem (1888).  


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