The Civil Trial
In the chapter before last we saw the Sanhedrim pass a death sentence on Jesus. Gladly would they have carried it out in the Jewish fashion -- by stoning. But, as was then explained, it was not in their power: their Roman masters, while conceding to the native courts the power of trying and punishing minor offences, reserved to themselves the prerogative of life and death; and a case in which a capital sentence had been passed in a Jewish court had to go before the representative of Rome in the country, who tried it over again, and might either confirm or reverse the sentence. Accordingly, after passing sentence on Jesus themselves, the Sanhedrists had to lead Him away to the tribunal of the governor.


The representative of Imperial Rome in Palestine at this time was Pontius Pilate. The position which he held may perhaps be best realised by thinking of one of our own subordinate governors in India; with the difference, however, that it was a heathen, not a Christian power, that Pilate represented, and that it was the spirit of ancient Rome, not that of modern England, which inspired his administration. Of this spirit -- the spirit of worldliness, diplomacy and expediency -- he was a typical exponent; and we shall see how true to it he proved on this momentous day.[1]

Pilate had occupied his position for a good many years; yet he neither liked his subjects nor they him. The Jews were among the most intractable and difficult of all the states which the officials of Rome had to manage. Mindful of the glory of their ancient history, and still cherishing the hope of universal empire, they were impatient of the yoke of subordination; they were constantly discovering in the conduct of their rulers insults directed against their dignity or their religion; they complained of the heavy taxation and pestered their rulers with petitions. Pilate had not got on at all well with them. Between him and them there was no sympathy. He hated their fanaticism. In his quarrels with them, which were frequent, he had freely shed their blood. They accused him of corruption, cruelty, robbery, and maladministration of every description.

The residence of the governor was not in Jerusalem, in which no one accustomed to the pleasures of Rome -- its theatres, baths, games, literature and society -- could desire to live, but in the new coast city of Caesarea, which in its splendour and luxury was a sort of small imitation of Rome. Occasionally, however, the governor had to visit the capital for business reasons; and usually as on this occasion, he did so at the time of the Passover.

When there, he took up his residence in what had formerly been the royal palace while Judaea still had a king. It had been built by Herod the Great, who had a passion for architecture; and it was situated on the hill to the south-west of the one on which the temple stood. It was a splendid building,[2] rivalling the temple itself in appearance, and so large as to be capable of containing a small army. It consisted of two colossal wings, springing forward on either side, and a connecting building between. In front of the latter stretched a broad pavement; and here, in the open air, on a raised platform, was the scene of the trial; because the Jewish authorities would not enter the building, which to them was unclean. Pilate had to yield to their scruples, though probably cursing them in his heart. But, indeed, it was quite common for the Romans to hold courts of justice in the open air. The front of the palace, all round, was supported by massive pillars, forming broad, shady colonnades; and round the building there extended a park, with walks, trees and ponds, where fountains cast their sparkling jets high into the sunshine and flocks of tame doves plumed their feathers at the water's edge.

Through the huge gateway, then, of this palatial residence, the Jewish authorities, with their Prisoner in their midst, came pouring in the early morning. Pilate came out to receive them and seated himself on his chair of state, with his secretaries beside him, and behind him, no doubt, numbers of bronzed Roman soldiers with their stolid looks and upright spears. The Accused would have to ascend the platform, too; and over against Him stood His accusers, with Caiaphas at their head.

What a spectacle was that! The heads of the Jewish nation leading their own Messiah in chains to deliver Him up to a Gentile governor, with the petition that He should be put to death! Shades of the heroes and the prophets, who loved this nation and boasted of it and foretold its glorious fate, the hour of destiny has come, and this is the result!

It was an act of national suicide. But was it not more? Was it not the frustration of the purpose and the promise of God? So it certainly appeared to be. Yet He is not mocked. Even through human sin His purpose holds on its way. The Jews brought the Son of God to Pilate's judgment-seat, that both Jew and Gentile might unite in condemning Him; for it was part of the work of the Redeemer to expose human sin, and here was to be exhibited the ne plus ultra of wickedness, as the hand of humanity was lifted up against its Maker. And yet that death was to be the life of humanity; and Jesus, standing between Jew and Gentile, was to unite them in the fellowship of a common salvation. "Oh the depth both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!"


Pilate at once demanded what was the accusation which they brought against the Prisoner.

The reply was a characteristic one, "If He were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered Him up unto thee." This was as broad a hint as they could give that they desired the governor to waive his right to re-try the case, accepting their trial of it as sufficient, and content himself with the other half of his prerogative -- the passing and the execution of the sentence. Sometimes provincial governors did so, either through indolence or out of compliment to the native authorities; and especially in a religious cause, which a foreigner could not be expected to understand, such a compliment might seem a boon which it was not unreasonable to ask.

But Pilate was not in a yielding mood, and retorted, "Take ye Him and judge Him according to your law." This was as much as to say: If I am not to hear the case, then I will neither pass the sentence nor inflict the punishment; if you insist on this being a case for yourselves as ecclesiastics, then keep it to yourselves; but, if you do, you must be content with such a punishment as the law permits you to inflict.

To them this was gall and wormwood, because it was for the life of Christ they were thirsting, and they well knew that imprisonment or beating with rods was as far as they could go. The cold, keen Roman, as proud as themselves, was making them feel the pressure of Rome's foot on their neck, and he enjoyed a malicious pleasure in extorting from them the complaint, "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death."

Forced against their will and their expectation to formulate a charge, they began to pour forth many vehement accusations; out of which at length three emerged with some distinctness -- first, that He was perverting the nation; second, that He forbade to pay the imperial tribute; and third, that He set Himself up as a king.

It will be observed that they never mentioned the charge on which they had condemned Him themselves. It was for none of these three things that they had condemned Him, but for blasphemy. They knew too well, however, that if they advanced such a charge in this place, the likelihood was that it would be sneered out of court. It will be remembered how a Roman governor, mentioned in the life of St. Paul, dealt with such a charge: "Gallio said unto the Jews, If it were a matter of wrong or wicked lewdness, O ye Jews, reason would that I should bear with you; but, if it be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no judge of such matters. And he drave them from the judgment-seat." [3] And, although of course Pilate could not have dared to exhibit the same cynical disdain for what he would have called Jewish superstition, yet they knew that it was in his heart.

But their inability to bring forward the real charge put them in a false position, the dangers of which they did not escape. They had to extemporise crimes, and they were not scrupulous about it.

Their first charge -- that Jesus was perverting the nation[4] -- was vague. But what are we to say of the second -- that He forbade to pay the imperial tribute? When we remember His reply that very week to the question whether or not it was lawful to pay tribute -- "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things which are God's" -- it looks very like a deliberate falsehood.[5] There was more colour in their third statement -- that He said He was Christ a King -- for He had at their tribunal solemnly avowed Himself to be the Christ. Yet, in this case, also, they were well aware that to the ear of a Roman the claim that He was a king would convey a different meaning from that conveyed to their ears by the claim to be the Christ. Indeed, at bottom their objection to Him was just that He did not sufficiently claim to be a king in the Roman sense. They were eagerly looking for a king, of splendour and military renown, to break the Roman yoke and make Jerusalem the capital of a worldwide empire; and it was because the spirit and aims of Jesus were alien to such ambitions that they despised and hated Him.

Pilate understood perfectly well with whom he was dealing. He could only be amused with their zeal for the payment of the Roman tribute. One of the Evangelists says, "He knew that for envy they had delivered Him." How far he was already acquainted with the career of Jesus we cannot tell. He had been governor all the time of the movement inaugurated by the Baptist and continued by Christ, and he can hardly have remained in entire ignorance of it. The dream of his wife, which we shall come to soon, seems to prove that Jesus had already been a theme of conversation in the palace; and perhaps the tedium of a visit to Jerusalem may have been relieved for the governor and his wife by the story of the young Enthusiast who was bearding the fanatic priests. Pilate displays, all through, a real interest in Jesus and a genuine respect. This was no doubt chiefly due to what he himself saw of His bearing at his tribunal; but it may also have been partly due to what he had already heard about Him. At all events there is no indication that he took the charges against Jesus seriously. The two first he seems never to have noticed; but the third -- that He was setting Himself up as a king, who might be a rival to the emperor -- was not such as he could altogether pass by.


Pilate, having heard the accusations, took Jesus inside the palace to investigate them. This he did, no doubt, for the purpose of getting rid of the importunity of His accusers, which was extreme. And Jesus made no scruple, as they had done, about entering the palace. Shall we say that the Jews had rejected Him, and He was turning to the Gentiles -- that the wall of partition had now fallen, and that He was trampling over its ruins?

In the silence, then, of this interior hall He and Pilate stood face to face -- He in the prisoner's lonely place, Pilate in the place of power. Yet how strangely, as we now look back at the scene, are the places reversed! It is Pilate who is going to be tried -- Pilate and Rome, which he represented. All that morning Pilate was being judged and exposed; and ever since he has stood in the pillory of history with the centuries gazing at him.[6] In the old pictures of the Child Christ by the great masters a halo proceeds from the Babe that lights up the surrounding figures, sometimes with dazzling effect. And it is true that on all who approached Christ, when He was in the world, there fell a light in which both the good and the evil in them were revealed. It was a search-light, that penetrated into every corner and exposed every wrinkle. Men were judged as they came near Him. Is it not so still? We never show so entirely what is in us as by the way in which we are affected by Christ. We are judging ourselves and passing sentence on ourselves for eternity by the way in which we deal with Him.

Pilate asked Him, "Art Thou the King of the Jews?" referring to the third charge brought against Him. The reply of Jesus was cautious; it was another question: "Sayest thou this of thyself, or did others tell it thee of Me?" He desired to learn in what sense the question was asked -- whether from the standpoint of a Roman or from that of the Jews; because of course His answer would be different according as He was asked whether He was a king as a Roman would understand the word or according as it was understood by the Jews.

But this answer nettled Pilate, perhaps because it assumed that he might have more interest in the case than he cared to confess; and he said angrily, "Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered Thee unto me." If he intended this to sting, the blow did not fail of its mark. Ah, tingling shame and poignant pain! His own nation -- His own beloved nation, to which He had devoted His life -- had given Him up to the Gentile. He felt a shame for it before the foreigner such as a slave on the block may feel before her purchaser for the father and the family that have sold her into disgrace.

Jesus at once proceeded, however, to answer Pilate's question on both sides, both on the Roman political and then on the Jewish religious side.

First, He answered negatively, "My kingdom is not of this world!" He was no rival of the Roman emperor. If He had been, the first thing He must have done would have been to assemble soldiers about Him for the purpose of freeing the country from the Roman occupation, and the very first duty of these soldiers would have been to defend the person of their king; but it could be proved that at His arrest there had been no fighting on His behalf, and that He had ordered the one follower who had drawn a sword to sheathe it again. It was not a kingdom of force and arms and worldly glory He had in view.

Yet, even in making this denial, Jesus had used the words, "My kingdom." And Pilate broke in, "Art Thou a king then?" "Yes," replied Jesus; "to this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth." This was His kingdom -- the realm of Truth. It differs widely from that of Caesar. Caesar's empire is over the bodies of men; this is over their hearts. The strength of Caesar's empire is in soldiers, arms, citadels and navies; the strength of this kingdom is in principles, sentiments, ideas. The benefit secured by Caesar to the citizens is external security for their persons and properties; the blessings of Christ's kingdom are peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Ghost. The empire of Caesar, vast as it was, yet was circumscribed; the kingdom of Christ is without limits, and is destined to be established in every land. Caesar's empire, like every other earthly kingdom, had its day and passed out of existence; but the kingdom of Truth shall last for evermore.

It has been remarked that there was something Western rather than Oriental in this sublime saying of Christ. What a noble-minded Jew longed for above all things was righteousness; but what a noble-minded Gentile aspired after was truth. There were some spirits, in that age, even among the heathen, in whom the mention of a kingdom of truth or wisdom would have struck a responsive chord. Jesus was feeling to see whether there was in this man's soul any such longing.

He approached still nearer him when He added the searching remark, "Every one that is of the truth heareth My voice;" for it was a hint that, if he loved the truth, he must believe in Him. Jesus preached to His judge. Just as the prisoner Paul made Felix the judge tremble, and Agrippa the judge cry out, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian," so Jesus, with the instinct of the preacher and the Saviour, was feeling for Pilate's conscience. He who fishes for the souls of men must use many angles; and on this occasion Jesus selected a rare one.

There will always be some who, though common appeals do not touch them, yet respond to this delicate appeal. Is truth a magic word to you? do you thirst for wisdom? There are those to whom the prizes which the majority strive for are as dross. The race for wealth, the pride of life, the distinctions of society -- you laugh at them and pity them. But a golden page of a favourite poet, a thought newly minted in the glowing heat of a true thinker's mind, a pregnant word that sets your fancy ranging through eternity, a luminous doctrine that rises on the intellectual horizon like a star, -- these are your wealth. You feel keenly the darkness of the world, and are perplexed by a hundred problems. Child and lover of wisdom, do you know the King of Truth? This is He who can satisfy your craving for light and lead you out of the maze of speculation and error.

But is it true, as He says here, that everyone who is of the truth heareth His voice? Is not the world at present full of men and women who are in search of truth, yet pass Christ by? It is a very strong word He uses; it is, "every one who has been born of the truth." Have you actually clambered on Truth's knees, and clung to her neck, and fed at her breast? There are many who seek truth earnestly with the intellect, but do not desire it to rule their conduct or purify their heart. But only those who seek truth with their whole being are her true children; and to these the voice of Christ, when it is discerned, is like the sunrise to the statue of Memnon or as the call of spring to the responsive earth.

Alas! Pilate was no such man. He was incapable of spiritual aspiration; he was of the earth earthy; he sought for nothing which the eye cannot see or the hand handle. To him a kingdom of truth and a king of truth were objects of fairyland or castles in the air. "What is truth?" he asked; but, as he asked, he turned on his heel, and did not wait for an answer. He asked only as a libertine might ask, What is virtue? or a tyrant, What is freedom?

But he was clearly convinced that Jesus was innocent. He judged Him to be an amiable enthusiast, from whom Rome had nothing to fear. So he went out and pronounced His acquittal: "I find in Him no fault at all."

[1] On Pilate there is an essay of extraordinary subtlety and power in Candlish's Scripture Characters.

[2] An eloquent account in Keim (vi., p.80, English tr.), who gives the authorities: "in part a tyrant's stronghold, and in part a fairy pleasure-house."

[3] Acts xviii.14-16.

[4] ethnos, not laos: they were speaking to a heathen.

[5] Keim calls it "a very flagrant lie."

[6] "Socrates, quum omnium sapientissime sanctissimeque vixisset, ita in judicio capitis pro se dixit, ut non supplex aut reus, sed magister aut dominus videretur judicum." -- CICERO.

chapter iii the great denial
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