(John 18:28 ESV) 28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.
John does not record the trial before Caiaphas, skipping straight to the trial before Pilate.
Notice that the Jews refused to enter the home of a Gentile, even though it was the Roman governor of Palestine and a man they wanted to persuade to execute Jesus.
You’d think that Pilate would be insulted, but evidently the Jewish scruples were so well known that he didn’t concern himself with such things.
(John 18:29-31 ESV) 29 So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”
The Jews fail to give Pilate a straight answer when he asks for the charges. Perhaps they’d not yet gotten themselves well enough organized. After all, the Romans would not have cared that the Jews considered him a blasphemer.
One reason the Romans insisted on the exclusive right to impose the death penalty is that they considered many of their subjugated people to be uncivilized in their criminal laws. They had no scruples about using their power with utter ruthlessness, but they did have their own moral code. And they weren’t about to kill someone over mere blasphemy against the God of the Jews.
(John 18:32-33 ESV) 32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die. 33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
John’s account is extremely abbreviated. Because Herod Antipas was king of Jews by virtue of the command of Caesar, the claim to kingship could have easily been taken as treasonous.
(John 18:34-35 ESV) 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus seems to be making a legal argument. The Jews have asked for his death but have made no charge against him. Pilate seems to be guessing. Or perhaps he’d heard rumors. But there’d been no trial.
One of the gifts the Romans brought to Western civilization is rule by law. They had an extensive, written legal code that prescribed rules for how trials should be conducted. They could be quite particular about following their own rules.
As a result, Pilate seems to want nothing to do with Jesus or his trial. He didn’t even live in Jerusalem, but it was his practice to be there on major feast days, in part to evidence Roman authority in the presence of so many religiously zealous Jews. He was “showing the flag.”
(John 18:36-37 ESV) 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
Jesus continues to control the conversation. He admits to being the king of a kingdom “not of the world” and “not from the world.”
He then declares that his purpose is “to bear witness to the truth.” Of course, there’s no way Pilate would understand this.
And yet Pilate did understand well enough to know that Jesus wasn’t merely claiming to be giving truthful testimony. He was claiming to know something called “the truth.”
(John 18:38 ESV) 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.”
Pilate cynical response — “What is truth?” — sounds very much like a jaded, condescending Roman politician. But he is, of course, stating the theme of John’s Gospel — written to answer that very question.
The truth is that Jesus is the King of the Jews, that is, the Messiah and Son of God. The truth is that Jesus is about to defeat both Roman and Jewish authority by showing himself more powerful than death and the powers that stood in opposition to him. He was about to take the best shot of Satan and the corrupt rulers of Rome and the Jews and reveal them in all their impotence.
Pilate has no interest in Jesus’ truth or Jewish messiahs. He seems to look down on the entire process as beneath him. He sees the Jewish leadership as nearly barbarian, their odd religion causing them to bring charges frivolously. Jesus is clearly no threat to Rome
— just another crazy Jewish false messiah. And yet he is unwilling to release Jesus. Politicians have always been like this — far more concerned to please the crowds than to do what they know is right. (Why on earth do we put so much faith in political parties and political leaders?)
(John 18:39-40 ESV) 39 “But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.
Rather than releasing Jesus or returning him to the Jews to be punished without the death penalty, Pilate gambled that the Jews would ask for Jesus’ release. After all, just a few days ago, Jesus was praised by the crowds as their new king!
But the crowds preferred to free a common thief rather than Jesus. Perhaps they were caught up in the frenzy of the mob. Perhaps they’d lost faith in Jesus once he was arrested, bound, and humiliated by the Romans soldiers. After all, it was surely hard to imagine Jesus defeating Rome when was being bound, beaten, and questioned at the hands of Roman soldiers.