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Jesus before Pilate and Herod
Luke chapter 23, verses 1-25
Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. 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.”
So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.
Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”
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.”
On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.
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. He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.
Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 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. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.”
With one voice they cried out, “Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!” (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)
Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
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.”
But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 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.
The phrase “suffered under Pontius Pilate” has been spoken by confessing Christians for centuries. That the name of this man should have been included in both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed results from his governorship of the provinces of Judea and Samaria in the years A.D. 26–36. Little is known about Pilate except what is told in the gospels and in a few references by Josephus. However, because he is the judge who condemned Jesus to die, many writings developed claiming to chronicle his life before, during, and after the events recorded in the gospels.
Pilate was appointed by the Roman government as its representative, and he acted as the supreme judge in criminal cases. Usually the Roman governor resided in the seacoast city of Caesarea, but at certain critical times he came up to Jerusalem. The Passover festival was such a time when nationalistic feelings were high among the Jews, the city was crowded with pilgrims, and trouble was likely to break out. At least on this visit to the city, Pilate probably stayed in the fortress of Antonia, just north of the temple.
After Jesus had testified before the Jewish council early Friday morning, he is led off to Pilate. Three charges are leveled against him: (1) subverting (undermining) the nation; (2) forbidding the payment of taxes to Caesar; (3) claiming to be a king. Of these charges, Pilate seems unconcerned about the first two. He may have been aware that the second was a lie (chapter 20, verses 20-25). Pilate perhaps knew that Jesus had ridden into Jerusalem on the previous Sunday and was hailed as a king by the crowds. So he asks Jesus directly, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus’ answer is not so positive as the translation of the NIV suggests. The Greek literally says “You say,” with the you emphasized. Jesus must have answered with such a tone of voice that Pilate was convinced that the third charge was also false. He announces to the chief priests and people present that they have no case against Jesus. The trial should have ended at this point.
But the cry goes up that the teaching of Jesus is stirring up people throughout the land, starting in Galilee. With the mention of Galilee, Pilate cocks his ear. Galilee was a hotbed of revolutionaries. Perhaps the activities of Jesus need to be further investigated. Who better to do this than Herod, ruler of Galilee and presently in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. Pilate decides to send Jesus off to him. Herod was probably staying at the Palace of Herod built into Jerusalem’s western wall.
This man is the son of Herod the Great, who had been king at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod had expressed an interest in seeing Jesus (chapter 9, verse 9). He seems not to care about Jesus the teacher but rather Jesus the worker of miracles. Herod is totally disappointed in the performance he witnesses. Jesus answers none of the questions or any of the accusations. Herod and his soldiers end up playing games with Jesus before sending him back to Pilate dressed in an “elegant robe.” It’s not easy to say just what the robe symbolized. Some suggest that Herod may have dressed up Jesus to look like a clown. Others take the robe to either connote Jesus’ innocence or perhaps to mock it. In any case, this little episode served to reconcile Pilate and Herod, who previously had been enemies. They are united in condemning to death a man in whom they find no fault.
Now the ball is back in Pilate’s court. He calls together the chief priests and other leaders as well as the common people and for a second time declares Jesus innocent. He reports that Herod had made the same determination. Pilate proposes to punish Jesus and then release him. The punishment he has in mind is scourging with a whip containing pieces of metal. Such punishment is clearly unjust in the case of an innocent man, but Pilate hopes to appease the people.
After verse 16 some copies of the Greek text of Luke include the sentence: “Now he was obliged to release one man to them at the Feast.” Very similar words are found in Matthew chapter 27, verse 15 and Mark chapter 15, verse 6. Some copyist probably included them in the text of Luke’s gospel in order to introduce the request which is now made of Pilate that he release a man named Barabbas, who was in prison for some very serious crimes. It was a custom of Roman rule to grant pardon on some special occasions to a prisoner who was in custody. Pilate hopes to release Jesus, but the people demand the release of the dangerous Barabbas.
Now for the first time the word “crucify” is introduced into the proceedings. It comes not from the lips of Pilate but is shouted by the crowd that demands death for Jesus. For the third time Pilate declares Jesus innocent, but to no avail. He gives in to the Jewish leadership and surrenders Jesus to their will. He decides to keep peace in Jerusalem by sacrificing the life of one innocent person.
Luke chapter 23, verses 26-43
As they led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then ‘they will say to the mountains, “Fall on us!” and to the hills, “Cover us!”’
For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified him, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left. Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.
The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One.”
The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
There was a written notice above him, which read: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus answered him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The road to the cross has been christened by Christian tradition as the Via Dolorosa (way of pain/grief). The road begins at the fortress of Antonia and ends at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a distance of about one-half mile. Inside the church are the assumed sites of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. In New Testament times this location was just outside the northwest wall of the city.
According to the Roman historian Plutarch, “each of the criminals carries forth his own cross” to the place of execution. Simon, a man from the North African city of Cyrene, is compelled by the soldiers to carry the cross behind Jesus. He literally follows in the footsteps of the Savior and is not so much the helper as the one helped. He is identified in Mark chapter 15, verse 21 as the father of Alexander and Rufus. It is likely that all three were early members of the church (a man named Rufus is also mentioned by Paul in Romans chapter 16, verse 13).
The procession of cross-bearers draws a crowd. Among these are women who weep for Jesus. On Palm Sunday the crowds had welcomed him into the city with shouts of acclamation; now there are tears as he is led out of the city. Jesus tells these daughters of Jerusalem that their tears would be better shed for themselves than for him. We are reminded that Jesus had himself wept over the city of Jerusalem (chapter 19, verse 41).
The reason for the tears is the impending destruction of Jerusalem (chapter 21, verses 20-24). That will be a time when children are no blessing from the Lord; rather, the barren woman will be regarded as blessed. That will be a time when people again cry out to the mountains and hills for protection from violent destruction as they did in the days of Hosea the prophet (Hosea chapter 10, verse 8). Jesus’ concluding question is based on a bit of proverbial wisdom: if green wood burns, just think what a blaze will result from setting fire to dry wood. Jesus contrasts his own innocent suffering with the deserved suffering to befall the city of Jerusalem.
Jesus is crucified at the place called “the Skull.” The Aramaic word for skull is gulgulta (Golgotha); the Greek is our word cranium, which was translated into Latin as calvaria (Calvary). This spot was given this name, no doubt, because of its particular shape.
Two criminals are crucified on either side of Jesus. The Jewish historian Josephus spoke of crucifixion as “the most pitiable of deaths.” The Roman politician and author Cicero described it as “the worst extreme of torture inflicted on slaves.” Jesus endured the pain of having nails driven through his hands and feet and then being hoisted into the air to die.
It is customary to say that Jesus spoke seven “words” from the cross. This is based on compiling his statements from the four gospels. No gospel contains all seven of these words. In Luke we find the first, second, and seventh. The first is Jesus’ prayer asking forgiveness for those who are inflicting death upon him. They truly do not know what they are doing: killing the Son of God, by whose death the world is ransomed from sin.
Jesus is first crucified at 9 A.M. and dies six hours later. Not all the details of what happened during the time he hung on the cross are reported in every gospel. The division of Jesus’ clothing among the soldiers is a fulfillment of Psalm 22, verse 18. The crowd that had gathered along with the Jewish leaders and the soldiers made fun of Jesus. They mocked his ability to save others when he could not even save himself. Three titles are used with derision: Christ of God, the Chosen One (see chapter 9, verse 35), and king of the Jews. Even the title on the cross written by Pilate is meant to poke fun: “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” The information included in the KJV that the title was written in Greek, Latin, and Aramaic was copied from John chapter 19, verse 20 and doesn’t seem to be part of Luke’s original text.
One of the criminals joined the onlookers in ridiculing Jesus. He mockingly asks to be saved but cares nothing for the salvation that Jesus gives. The other criminal experiences that salvation. He confesses his guilt and declares Jesus innocent. He pleads to be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom. The second word from the cross is the personal assurance Jesus gives to this repentant sinner: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The criminal’s salvation is much nearer than he realized.
Luke chapter 23, verses 44-49
It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.
The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.
The death of Jesus Christ, Servant of God, is marked by three noteworthy occurrences and three responses from those looking on. First, there is the unusual darkness that hangs over the entire land from high noon till three o’clock. This darkness cannot be explained by an eclipse of the sun since such a thing is not possible when the moon is full, as is the case at the time of the Passover. Luke simply says that “the sun stopped shining” and leaves the matter there. All creation groans in darkness when the Light of the world is extinguished.
Next is the startling tearing of the temple curtain. There were large curtains in front of the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies. Once a year on the Day of Atonement, the high priest stepped through the curtain from the Holy Place into the Holy of Holies with the blood of a bull to sprinkle the mercy seat. No doubt this is the curtain torn in two by the death of the supreme High Priest whose blood cleanses all from sin (Hebrews chapter 9, verse 12). The tearing of the curtain opens the way into the heavenly sanctuary and marks the end of the old covenant.
Finally, through the darkness the voice of Jesus sounds from the cross, praying as he breathes his last: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” The words are from Psalm 31, verse 5, used by Jewish people as a bedtime prayer. The Son entrusts himself into the hands of his Father, whose will he has done.
It is the Roman centurion, a Gentile, whose response to the death of Jesus is recorded first. He is moved to praise God and pronounce his own verdict on all that has taken place before his eyes: “Surely this was a righteous man.” As people from Jerusalem turn away from this scene of death, they beat their breasts, as did the tax collector in the temple when he pleaded for God’s mercy (chapter 18, verse 13).
The third reaction is a silent one: the acquaintances of Jesus, both men and women, stand at a distance as they watch. They are not sure what the future holds for them. The women who had followed Jesus all the way from Galilee (chapter 8, verses 1-3) will be first at his grave on the third day.
Luke chapter 23, verses 50-56
Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to their decision and action. He came from the Judean town of Arimathea and he was waiting for the kingdom of God. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body. Then he took it down, wrapped it in linen cloth and placed it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. It was Preparation Day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.
The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes. But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
The proper burial of the dead was a matter of great importance to people in Bible times. In the Law of Moses it is stated that the body of a person hung on a tree is not to be left overnight but should be buried the same day (Deuteronomy chapter 21, verses 22 and 23). There are many references to burials in the Bible, and thousands of tombs have been found and excavated by archaeologists. To provide burial for another person was considered a virtuous act; its lack, a great tragedy.
A man of prominence comes forward to ask Pilate for the body of Jesus. This is the first mention in the gospels of Joseph of Arimathea. Like Simeon and Anna, he was waiting for the kingdom of God. It is thought that the small village from which he came may be the same as Ramathaim, where Samuel was born (1st Samuel chapter 1, verse 1). As a member of the supreme council of the Jews, he was present for the trial of Jesus but did not agree with the verdict. The fact that he owned a tomb cut out of rock suggests that he was not a poor man.
The location of Jesus’ tomb cannot be fixed with certainty. Since the fourth century, the traditional site is the place where the church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands. There are some factors which weigh against this location; the main question is whether it did indeed lie outside the walls of the city at the time of Jesus’ death.
The burial had to be hurried along because at sundown the Sabbath Day began. Like the donkey on which Jesus rode into Jerusalem, the rock tomb into which his body is placed had not been previously used. Joseph wrapped the body in a linen cloth. (The claim that the so-called Shroud of Turin is this very cloth is questionable.) The burial of Jesus is evidence that he truly died.
Joseph did for Jesus what none of those who followed him from Galilee could have done so readily: he gave Jesus an honorable burial near the site of the crucifixion. For him to step forward and claim the body of Jesus from the cross must have blackened his reputation with the Jewish leaders. It was his way of taking up the cross and following.
The Galilean women who had watched Jesus’ death follow Joseph and take note of the tomb in which the body is laid. Then they hurry off to prepare spices and perfumes intending to show their beloved master a last act of love after the Sabbath has passed. For Jesus, this Sabbath is a day of rest in the tomb. He waits for his day of triumph.