THE UNJUST TRIALS OF JESUS
Topic: Sunday Morning Messages Passage: John 18:12–40
On those occasions when I am able to read something unrelated to ministry or theology, I will often find myself venturing into a John Grisham novel. Grisham has been a prolific and successful author, averaging a new title every year for over two decades.
In 2006, after having already penned a number of best sellers—some of which became major motion pictures—he attempted something he had never done before. Temporarily stepping away from his works of fiction, Grisham wrote the true-life story of an Oklahoma man who had been wrongfully convicted of a brutal murder, had stood trial, and was sentenced to be executed. After serving eleven years on “death row,” his case was overturned by appeal on the basis of DNA evidence that proved beyond a reasonable doubt that it was impossible for that man to have committed the crime for which he was wrongfully convicted. Exonerated by the court, he was at long last allowed to go free. The book was entitled, appropriately enough, The Innocent Man.
I couldn’t help but recall that story while reading again from John 18. Here we find the guiltless Son of God standing accused, tried, convicted, and sentenced to die without any measure of guilt being found in Him. It would be an understatement to refer to the conviction and execution of Jesus Christ as a travesty of justice. More than any other person who ever lived, He was truly “the innocent Man.”
Having spent an evening of intimate conversation and private instruction with His disciples, verses 1 through 11 of this chapter tell us that Jesus led them to a garden at the foot of the Mount of Olives. It was a place where they often gathered, away from the busy activity of Jerusalem during week of Passover. It was now late into the night, the darkness giving way to the light of a full moon.
Fully aware of the fate that awaited Him, Jesus willingly identified Himself to large company of “soldiers and...officers” (cf. John 18:3) who had been sent to apprehend Him. At the head of that group was Judas, that member of the Twelve who had turned traitor and agreed to hand Jesus over to those who sought His death.
Peter, another of His men, had tried to save the day by drawing a blade in defense of His Lord. But, as we shall see, his courage would soon fade into the coolness of the night air. As His Lord endured a shameless trial, Peter’s courage would fail him and he would be brought to bitter tears.
Were we to compare all four of the Gospel accounts, it would seem that before sunrise Jesus actually stood six trials—three of them religious and three of civil in nature.. Each one of them was illegal because judicial proceedings were forbidden by law from taking place at night.
To suit his purposes, John records only three of those trials in John 18, verses 12 through 40. There was the one before the Jewish authorities, another before the Roman governor, and the third within the heart of a trusted disciple. This is a lengthy section, so we’ll be considering it in “bite-sized” portions.
In the first place, we are informed of...
The religious trials before the Jewish high priests (18:12-14 and 19-24).
Follow along as I read verses 12 through 14:
12 So the band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound him. 13 First they led him to Annas, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year. 14 It was Caiaphas who had advised the Jews that it would be expedient that one man should die for the people.
Jesus is bound by His captors and led away from the garden and brought before Annas, who is identified as “the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was the high priest that year.” John reminds us that it was Caiaphas who had earlier admonished his fellow members of the Sanhedrin that “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish” (cf. John 11:50). Truer words had never been uttered by anyone who possessed not the faintest inkling of their significance. Jesus would “die for the people,” but not for the reason Caiaphas intended.
Historians tell us that Annas had held the office of high priest from AD 6 to 15 and continued to exert enormous influence for many years afterward. Five of his sons, as well as his son-in-law Caiaphas (from AD 18 to 36), subsequently held that office. As the patriarch of a high priestly family, many still considered him to be the “real” high priest at this time. That would help to explain why Jesus was taken first to Annas and not directly to Caiaphas.
Despite their relationship, the two were not likely close. While the Jews continued looking to Annas as the high priest, Caiaphas was more beholden to Rome. This would have set them at cross-purposes on many issues, but they were staunchly united in their opinion regarding Jesus. This first trial, then, was little more than a preliminary formality. For all practical purposes, Jesus’ “guilt” had already been determined by them, and the verdict had already been decided.
We need to drop down to verses 19 through 24 to listen in on the conversation between Annas and Jesus. It is here that we read:
19 The high priest then questioned Jesus about his disciples and his teaching. 20 Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world. I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who have heard me what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said these things, one of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered him, “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?” 24 Annas then sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
It is obvious that Annas was not questioning Jesus for the purpose of gathering information so that he might be able to render a just finding. He had already had ample time to hear both the reports of this One who had been generating much discussion among the common folk, as well as to have heard Him speak for himself. Jesus reminds him of this in verse 20. He was no conspirator or subversive. He was not opposed to having His motives questioned. His methods were not covert. His message had been clear for those having eyes to see and ears to hear. “Ask those who have heard me what I said to them;” He challenged His interrogator. “They know what I said.”
With angry impulse, “One of the officers standing by struck Jesus with his hand,” and accused Him of being disrespectful to the high priest. Jesus’ response in verse 23 is calm and direct: “If what I said is wrong, bear witness about the wrong; but if what I said is right, why do you strike me?”
Annas has clearly met his match. Getting nowhere in his interrogation of Jesus, he dispatches Him off to Caiaphas. As the ruling high priest, it was he who presided over the Sanhedrin and would have to make the final determination as to the Prisoner’s fate.
But before advancing the narrative, we need to give notice to the two paragraphs that appear on either side of the interchange that we have just observed between Annas and Jesus. They involve Peter...his instinctive bravado on display in the garden only a short time earlier having suddenly disappeared. This account plays an equally large role in the unfolding story of our Lord’s passion.
We’ll start at verse 15, where we witness...
The personal trial of a loyal disciple (18:15-18 and 25-27).
15 Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, 16 but Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. 17 The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” 18 Now the servants and officers had made a charcoal fire, because it was cold, and they were standing and warming themselves. Peter also was with them, standing and warming himself.
As we have noted before, the “other disciple” is almost certainly a reference to John himself. Never does he identify himself by name throughout this book, but repeatedly do we find references to “that disciple whom Jesus loved” and similar anonymous designations (cf. John 13:23, 19:26, 20:2, 21:7, 21:20, et al).
While no doubt keeping a safe distance, John and Peter had been following Jesus since the scene in the garden. Not to go unnoticed is the absence of the remaining disciples. Where are they? Mark 14:50 abruptly informs us that “They all left him and fled.”
We are not told how John would have been “known to the high priest.” Regardless of what the connection may have been, he is able to enter “into the courtyard of the high priest” where Jesus had been taken. And somehow he was able to coax “the servant girl who kept watch at the door” to permit Peter to enter as well.
With a note of suspicion, she asked him, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” Seemingly out of fear of being found out, Peter quickly responds, “I am not.” Peter had to wonder where those words came from. They were so out of character for him. Had he really said them? Immediately the pangs of guilt must have begun to be felt.
The cool late-night air had created the need for a “charcoal fire,” something which Peter would later recall in remembrance of this evening (cf. John 21:9). Several were gathered around it—perhaps rubbing their hands together or extending them toward the warmth of the fire.
Now drop down to verse 25, where the scene continues.
25 Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” 26 One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” 27 Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.
The arrest of Jesus was likely the main topic of conversation among those who stood around the fire. Remaining silent but tuned into the largely uninformed conversation, Peter was once again put on the defensive when first one and then another questioned his identity. He was the stranger among them, so they asked, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?”
With even more vehemence than there had been with his first denial, Peter responded, “I am not.” Just when his feelings of shame had begun to subside, he was gripped with an even more intense guilt. What a contrast that at the precise time when Jesus was denying nothing, Peter was denying everything! Clearly, Peter was undergoing his own personal trial of faith that night.
Perhaps shaking now—and not just from the cold—Peter suddenly heard another voice: “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” John tells us that this speaker was a relative of the man whose ear he had sliced a couple of hours earlier (cf. John 18:10). Peter likely did not make that connection, but its inclusion brings a note of providence to the events taking place.
Is it possible that he had indeed been recognized? Perhaps with even greater immediacy this time, we are told in verse 27 that “Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.” In a heartbeat, Peter recalled Jesus’ words from John 13:37 and 38, where after the disciple’s confident boast that he would follow Jesus to death, the Lord had responded, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.” Both Matthew (26:75) and Luke (22:62), as well as Mark (14:72) with lesser detail, add that Peter then “went out and wept bitterly.”
To what extent we can empathize with Peter during this grief-stricken hour? How despondent must he have felt—just as we do—in our repeated failures of the Lord...how we must disappoint Him time and again. Not three times, mind you, by an infinite number of times. How often have you found yourself asking, “Can God ever forgive me?” or “Can He forgive yet again?” when we—both willfully and accidentally—step into sin time after time? How far can God’s grace truly extend?
Peter’s denial is often compared with Judas’ betrayal of Christ, when it is the contrast between the two that is most significant. Both men were guilty of sin against the Lord, and both regretted their actions. But Peter’s sorrow would lead to repentance (cf. 2 Corinthians 7:10), whereas Judas would lead only to remorse and inevitable judgment. “The wages of sin is (always) death” (cf. Romans 6:23), but by God’s grace there is a “dying to self” that leads to eternal life (cf. Mark 8:36, Galatians 2:20, Philippians 1:21, John 12:25, et al). Peter would find that way. Judas would not.
While we must never sin “that grace may abound” (cf. Romans 6:1), God’s grace is truly abundant to those who repent of their sin and cling to the forgiveness offered through the cross of Jesus Christ. It was for that reason that our Lord “endured the cross, despising the shame” (cf. Hebrews 12:2). Is it any wonder that John Newton was able to say that God’s grace is “amazing”?
I cannot agree with everything that William Barclay has written, but I found great encouragement this past week from his comments regarding Peter’s lapse of faith. I hope it will be of help to you, my blood-bought fellow believers, especially those of you who may be experiencing your own trial of faithfulness these days. Barclay writes,
It was the real Peter who protested his loyalty in the upper room; it was the real Peter who drew his lonely sword in the moonlight of the garden; it was the real Peter who followed Jesus, because he could not leave his Lord alone; it was not the real Peter who cracked beneath the tension and who denied his Lord. And that is just what Jesus could see. A tremendous thing about Jesus is that beneath all our failures he sees the real man. He understands....The forgiving love of Jesus is so great that He sees our real personality, not in our faithlessness, but in our loyalty, not in our defeat by sin, but in our reaching after goodness, even when we are defeated.
Barclay is saying that “in Christ,” God’s condemnation is removed. The Father sees us, no longer soaked in our sin but rather clothed in the righteousness of His Son. Christian, have you laid hold on that marvelous truth? As believers, we are all “in process.” There will be days when we appear to be soaring in our faith, and other days when we find ourselves to be utter failures. There is nothing that is “able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:39).
At the same time, let us never hat such forgiveness came at an infinite cost. We move a step closer to the payment made by our Lord Jesus as we next consider...
The civil trial before the Roman governor (18:28-40).
Verse 28 resumes the narrative left off at the end of verse 24. There we saw that Jesus, still bound, was sent “to Caiaphas the high priest.” Now here we read...
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 would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover.
John omits the details of Caiphas’ interview of Jesus, whereas it is a major part of the story from the perspective of the Synoptic writers, Matthew (26:57-68) and Mark (14:53-65) in particular. For whatever reason, we are not informed by the writer of this Gospel about the false witnesses that were brought in to testify against Jesus in the presence of the Sanhedrin council. Nor are we informed of how the high priest “tore his robes” and charged Jesus with uttering blasphemy. Nor how some of them “spit in his face...struck him...slapped him” and taunted Him.
S. Lewis Johnson asks, “What should Annas and Caiaphas have done?” And then he answers, “They should have looked upon Him, deeply moved and smitten with the guilt and condemnation of their sinful hearts, come down from the high preist’s throne, taken off their ephods and put them on Him. And being the high priest that year, Caiaphas should have ‘prophesied, ‘Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world!’ ‘Behold the King of Israel!’” But they didn’t.
By the time they were finished this round of interrogation, the morning sun had already dawned upon what would be Jesus’ final day on earth. With the long night over, our Lord is now standing before Pontius Pilate, the man appointed by Rome as the proconsul or governor of Judea. History tells us that he was a ruthless and morally weak ruler. Scripture (cf. Luke 13:1) bears that out. He also was known for his indecisiveness, alternating and wavering between opinions. No doubt irritated by being awakened at the crack of dawn by a frenzied Jewish mob, we read on in verse 29:
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.” 32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.
From the beginning, Pilate wanted no part in settling what appeared to be a Jewish religious dispute. He was willing to let the ball stay in their court. But Jesus’ accusers were insistent. How ironic that they would call Jesus an “evil doer” when they themselves were perpetuating the darkest form of “evil.” In their desire to remain “undefiled” and thus able to eat the Passover, they were willing to hand over to death an innocent Man. Their remark in verse 31 says it all: “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” In other words, they had already judged Jesus worthy of death. What they needed was an executioner to carry out the sentence they had already declared.
Technically, the Jews might have executed Jesus by stoning on the false charge of blasphemy, to which Rome would have likely turned a blind eye. But in their desire to “pass the buck” and “wipe their hands” of Jesus’ blood, they inadvertently “fulfill(ed) the (very) word that Jesus had spoken.” Rome’s method of carrying out a death sentence was by means of crucifixion, being nailed to and lifted up on a cross. In John 12:32 and 33, Jesus has said, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” To which John adds, “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” Without realizing it, these Jewish leaders were playing into the sovereign hands of God and the testimony of Scripture (cf. Deuteronomy 21:23).
We bear witness to Pilate’s vacillating personality beginning with verse 33. In the warmth of the morning heat, the governor reluctantly agreed to question Jesus. We are permitted to listen in on a most amazing conversation:
33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 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?” 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.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
Still bound and no doubt with face reddened and bruised from the blows it had received, Jesus certainly didn’t look anything like a king. First Timothy 6:13 tells us that “Christ Jesus...in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession.” Pilate’s questions were probably more out of sarcasm than from a desire to learn Jesus’ true identity. But as the interview continued, Pilate was hearing more than he had bargained for.
The other Gospel writers tell us that the longer Jesus stood before Him, the more emotionally troubled Pilate became. Distraught over a dream that she had, Pilate’s wife had even sent a warning to him to “Have nothing to do with that righteous man” (cf. Matthew 27:19). Although convinced of Jesus’ innocence, perhaps fearing a riot that would not bode well in his report to Caesar, he lacked the moral courage to set Jesus free.
But again, God was in control of the circumstance being played out, as well as the final outcome. Jesus could not have been clearer than what He testified in verse 37: “For this purpose (that is, to reign as King) I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.” Jesus’ Kingdom was not an earthly one. If it were, He could have very easily brought it into being by speaking the word. Or He could have ordered His men to fight for it. Instead, He had come from heaven to earth with the express purpose of handing over His life as a payment for sin in order to gather unto Himself a people who believed in Him. Therefore, He adds, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”
Exactly what Pilate might have meant when he asked, “What is truth?” is a matter for ongoing debate. What we do know is that“truth” is the pre-eminent characteristic of Christ’s Kingdom. He is, after all, “the truth” (cf. John 14:6). It is doubtful that the governor was probing for information, but maybe he wasn’t being as cynical as we might think. Surely, Jesus had “gotten to Him,” and he was certainly persuaded that Jesus was being falsely condemned by His Jewish accusers.
Nevertheless, as we pick up the reading midway through verse 38,
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 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?”
Pilate is obviously trying to play both sides of the fence. He wants to release Jesus, but he also wants to appease the Jews. It is a pitiable attempt. His compliant role in Jesus’ eventual execution will extend into the next chapter. At any time he could have ended the proceedings with a “not guilty” ruling. He was convinced that Jesus was innocent of the trumped-up charges being leveled against Him, and he had the authority of his office to set Him free with a single word. But he didn’t do that. Instead, he opted for political expediency.
The Apostles’ Creed declares that “Jesus Christ...suffered under Pontius Pilate.” That aspect of His “suffering” was every bit as much due to Pilate’s reluctance to bow before Him as King, as it was to the beatings and floggings that He would subsequently receive.
The Jews would be content within nothing short of an execution. Their unwillingness to receive Jesus as their King is made even more horrific in verse 40:
40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.
In another twist of irony, the name “Barabbas” means “son of the father.” In addition, there are variant readings in certain Greek manuscripts which suggest that his given name was “Jesus.” The Synoptic writers tell us that he had committed multiple crimes (cf. Matthew 27:16, Mark 15:7, Luke 23:18-19). He was believed to have been a member of a local resistance movement against Rome and, therefore...in other words, a hero in the eyes of many of the Jews.
This is the man whom they preferred over the One who promised “eternal life” to those who would turn from sin, entrust themselves to Him, and become His disciples. Jesus Christ claimed to be the exclusive way to knowing the Father (cf. John 14:6, 17:2-3), and for that He was misunderstood and labeled “intolerant.” He was scorned and ridiculed, hated, and put to death.
Never has “justice” been more perverted and less served than in handing over Jesus Christ to be crucified. Never was a more innocent man sentenced to death. And yet it was the eternal plan of God for His Son to die in the manner that He did in order to redeem a people for Himself. It was because of our sins that Christ was put to death, and for that reason we each bear culpability. It is only by the grace of God that we are able to receive by faith Jesus’ death as payment for our sin. And when that grace is received, our guilt is removed and His righteousness is credited to us. Until then, His condemnation rests upon us.
To this day, “truth” continues blind those who refuse to see “the Light” (cf. John 8:12). In humanity’s sinful state, people will always prefer “the darkness rather than the light because their works (are) evil” (cf. John 3:19). Without question, as we proceed toward the closing chapters of John’s Gospel, we are about to enter the darkest hour of human history. And even at this point we should recoil with shame as we witness the cruel treatment being inflicted upon the Son of God.
The trials of Jesus Christ are more than a historic footnote. Like the novelist who has progressively revealed the outcome of his story through the clues that he has built into the plot, so God has provided us with a “spoiler alert” regarding the death of His Son. Jesus was “The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (cf. Revelation 13:8, KJV). God planned it from eternity and the Old Testament prophets foretold it for centuries. When Christ came, He fulfilled the plan and purpose of Father to the letter by mans of His death and resurrection.
And yet there is a sense in which Jesus remains on trial to this day. Like many of us, David Limbaugh was at one time at skeptic regarding the claims of Christianity. A lawyer by trade, he became a Christian by calling, and has written several books in recent years defending the faith he now holds dear. In the conclusion of the one entitled Jesus on Trial, he pleads with his reader to consider the evidence of the cross.
He calls unbelief “dishonesty” because it chooses close-mindedness over an honest appraisal of the evidence offered by a Christian worldview. He urges those who remain in unbelief to lay down their weapons of misunderstanding and distrust and give the message of the Gospel a “fair hearing.” While it is true that it takes God to draw a person to faith, that does not eliminate the responsibility each of us have to consider and appraise it honestly. Only then can we legitimately discover, “What is truth.”
And to the believer, He exhorts us to never be smug or complacent about matters of faith. “Blind faith” is no more a virtue than the lack of faith. While we will never understand completely what the death of Christ has provided for us, neither are we to play mind games with ourselves. The goal is “truth,” and “truth” is discovered not by avoiding potential obstacles, but by confronting them head-on. Only then will our verdict be just.
If you are looking for reasons not to believe, I suppose you will find them. And if you choose to remain a skeptic toward the Gospel of repentance from sin and total trust in the Savior, then the cross of Jesus—as well as the events preceding and immediately following it—will have no meaning for you...except to confront you on the last day.
Jesus’ “kingdom is not of this world,” but it is the kingdom of “truth.” Do not be deceived by the vain philosophies of this world and among those who shout, “Not this man, but...” another. “Everyone who is of the truth listens to (His) voice.” To whom or to what are you listening?