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#103. Before Pilate and Herod (Luke 23:1-25)by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Other online lessons from Luke | Lessons in book format
This week we'll be looking at a relatively long passage, but one that hangs together pretty well so we can cover it in one lesson -- the account of Jesus' trial before Pilate and Herod, and finally Pilate's sentence of death.
 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.
This week's lesson is grim. Jesus has been caught in the jaws of power politics and a corrupt justice system, and now it inexorably grinds on, going through the appearance of justice without any chance of real justice. For the Son of God is the captive, Satan the puppet-master behind the scenes, and Pilate and Herod Antipas -- two corrupt rulers in the momentary spotlight of history -- do what they must to retain their veneer of entertainment and power. Jesus' prospects are grim.
But into this very web of injustice we disciples must peer. We must learn how the Son of Man deals with institutional corruption when his life is on the line. For there we may stand ourselves, if Jesus' predictions come true for us.
To Pilate (23:1)
Jesus has been arrested in the middle of the night and hustled off to the high priest's palace where he is interrogated. Then at dawn, the Sanhedrin officially meets to condemn him. Now they must convince Pilate of Jesus' guilt in order to see him executed.
"Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate." (23:2)
The word translated "assembly" (NIV) or "multitude" (KJV) is Greek plethos. Though the word can refer to a "large number, multitude," here and in Acts 23:7 it refers to "a (stated) meeting, assembly." The Sanhedrin is taking no chances. They move en masse to Pilate's residence in Jerusalem.
According to an inscription found in Caesarea, Pontius Pilate's technical title was "praefectus Iudaeae," Prefect of Judea, a military title of a commander of auxiliary troops (500 to 1,000 soldiers). He is mentioned by Josephus, Philo, and Tacitus, and, of course, in the Gospels. He is appointed in 26 AD with the support of his mentor, Sejanus, commander of the Praetorian Guard. Pilate quickly builds a reputation of contempt for Jewish customs and beliefs. He is dismissed by Emperor Tiberius in 36 or 37 AD.
If Jesus is crucified in 33 AD, as many believe, Pilate has only recently received news of the execution of his mentor Sejanus, and may realize that, with his lack of political support in Rome, he must be more compliant with Jewish demands than he has been in the past.
Accusations Against Jesus (23:2)
Immediately Jesus' enemies thrust him before Pilate and are strident in their accusations.
"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.' " (23:2)
The word translated "accuse," here and in verse 10, is the Greek verb kategoreo, usually as a legal technical term, "bring charges in court." Look carefully at their three charges :
- "We have found this man subverting our nation." The word translated "subverting" (NIV) or "perverting" (KJV) is the Greek verb diastrepho, "to cause to depart from an accepted standard of oral or spiritual values, make crooked, pervert." Probably here it means, "to cause to be uncertain about a belief or to believe something different, mislead someone."
- "He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar." The term "oppose" (NIV) or "forbid" (KJV) is the Greek verb koluo, "hinder, prevent, forbid." This is a distortion. Jesus does not oppose paying taxes to Caesar, but he places one's obligation to God as primary (20:20-26).
- "...and claims to be Christ, a king." Of course, "Christ" (Greek christos) and "Messiah" (Hebrew masiah) are synonymous; they both mean "anointed one." Though Jesus' enemies believe his claim to be Son of Man and Son of God to be blasphemous, they know that the Roman governor will dismiss these as a religious dispute. The charge of claiming to be a king has political implications that Pilate can't ignore.
Are You the King of the Jews? (23:3)
Luke's account of the trial before Herod is quite abbreviated, and omits some of the details mentioned in Matthew 27; Mark 15; and John 18:28-40; 19:1-16.
"So Pilate asked Jesus, 'Are you the king of the Jews?'
'Yes, it is as you say,' Jesus replied." (23:3)
The NIV, "Yes, it is as you say," offers too positive a translation of Jesus' words. His answer to Pilate's question is, essentially, "The statement is yours." As in 22:70, as Marshall concludes, "The form of expression is not a direct affirmation; but it is certainly not a denial, and is best regarded as a grudging admission with the suggestion that the speaker would put it otherwise or that the questioners fail to understand exactly what they are asking."
In John's Gospel, Jesus qualifies his answer by saying, "My kingdom is not of this world... You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world..." (John 18:36, 36). But, in spite of hearing Jesus speak of his kingship face to face, Pilate neither believes him nor seems to take this charge seriously.
No Basis for a Charge (23:4)
Pilate can quickly see that Jesus is not a defiant rebel. He is no threat to Roman rule in Judea.
"Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, 'I find no basis for a charge against this man.' " (23:4)
The phrase "basis for a charge" (NIV) or "fault" (KJV) is the Greek noun aitios, a legal technical term (similar to the related noun aitia) which means "ground for legal action, ground for complaint, basis for a charge," here and in 23:14 and 23:22.
Notice who Pilate speaks to: the chief priests and the crowd. Who is the crowd here? The body of members of the Sanhedrin led by a delegation of the chief priests. In addition, probably some of their supporters have been gathered. This early in the day, it is unlikely that a crowd representative of the city's pilgrims and residents has gathered. The crowd is dominated by Jesus' vocal enemies.
Stirs Up People (23:5)
Jesus' opponents won't let Pilate off that easily:
"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.' " (23:5)
"Stirs" is the Greek verb anaseio, which literally means, "shake, brandish" a shield. Here is means "to cause to be disturbed, stir up, disturb, upset, incite," similar to our colloquial term, "shake up." Jesus' enemies are appealing to Pilate's need for civil order, and are trying to paint Jesus as a rabble-rouser.
Sent to Herod's Court (23:6-7)
But their mention of Galilee give Pilate a chance to escape from having to take the heat and decide this case on his own. Now he sends Jesus to be judged by another Roman representative, one who has a reputation for corruption.
"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." (23:6-7)
Herod Antipas (20 BC to 39 AD) has ruled as tetrarch of Galilee and Perea since 4 BC, heir to the bloody dynasty of his father Herod the Great. Though not Jews but Idumeans, the Herods served as petty local kings under Roman rule. Herod's capital city is in Tiberias, which he built on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee about 25 AD, and named after the Emperor to curry favor with Rome.
Herod Antipas is given some power and has a small detachment of troops at his command. When John the Baptist criticizes Herod for marrying his brother's divorced wife against the Mosaic Law, Herod throws him into prison. When Herod is drunk, he makes a rash promise that results in him beheading John (Mark 6:16-29).
Nor is Herod any friend to Jesus. Some Pharisees claim that Herod wants to kill Jesus (13:32). Jesus responds by referring to Herod as a "fox" -- that is, "a crafty person." But Herod is in Jerusalem this week for the Jewish Passover. Pilate hopes Herod can be useful in getting him out of a tough situation, and so he does Herod the honor of referring this case to him.
Jesus Gives No Answer (23:8-10)
"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." (23:8-10)
Herod has tried to see Jesus before (9:7-9), understanding him as a sort of John-the-Baptist figure. Now he gets his wish. Unfortunately, Herod isn't interested in truth but in entertainment. He wants to see Jesus perform one of those miracles he has heard about. But Herod takes neither John the Baptist or Jesus seriously. The picture of Herod painted by the New Testament as well as contemporary historians such as Josephus is one of a vain, selfish, and ruthless king.
But Herod receives no amusement this day. He asks Jesus numerous questions, but Jesus says nothing. During the entire interrogation the chief priests and scribes argue strongly against Jesus. "Vehemently" is the Greek adverb eutonos, "pertaining to expression of intense emotion, vigorously, vehemently."
Why does Jesus remain silent amidst Herod's questions and his enemies' slanderous accusations? Jesus has always been willing to answer an honest question, but ignores empty assertions. Herod is a mere trifler -- the only person to whom Jesus has nothing to say. And yet prophecy is fulfilled:
"He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth." (Isaiah 53:7)
Herod's Ridicule (23:11-12)
Now Herod turns on Jesus and shows his true nature:
"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." (23:11-12)
We see two verbs that describe Herod's behavior. "Ridiculed" (NIV) or "set at naught" (KJV) is the Greek verb exoutheneo, "disdain, regard another as of no significance and therefore worthy of maltreatment, treat with contempt." The translation "mocked" renders the Greek verb empaizo, "ridicule, make fun of, mock," also used in 22:63.
Finally, Herod dresses Jesus in a shimmering, cast-off royal robe in order to mock his claim to kingship. "Elegant" (NIV) or "gorgeous" (KJV) translates the Greek adjective lampros, which means "to have a glistening quality." The word is used with white garments especially, "bright, shining." Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate without comment, but appreciative of Pilate's deference to his authority. Ironically, it is this gesture that begins to warm their previously cold disdain for each other.
Pilate's Findings (23:13-16)
With Jesus back in Pilate's custody, Pilate seeks to act.
"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.' " (23:13-16)
First, he deals with their charge that Jesus is "inciting to rebellion" (NIV) or "perverteth" (KJV). These words translate the Greek verb apostrepho. The root meaning is "to turn away." Here it means to seek to "alienate, mislead, cause to revolt." Pilate offers to whip Jesus and release him. "Punish" (NIV) or "chastise" (KJV) is the Greek verb paideuo, "discipline by whipping or scourging," here and in verse 22. The word is primarily used of disciplining and thus educating children. To us, it would seem unjust to whip or scourge an innocent man, but for those who could not claim the privileges of Roman citizenship, this was not uncommon (Acts 16:22-23, 37). Pilate seeks to appease the Jews by punishing Jesus for his nuisance-value, but not crucifying him. The whipping, he feels, will serve to educate Jesus on the consequences of upsetting the status quo.
Release Barabbas! Crucify Jesus! (23:17-21)
But Pilate's ploy backfires and creates a firestorm of complaint:
"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!' " (23:18-21)
Crowds sympathetic to the chief priests and scribes shout down Pilate's decision, and their mood is turning ugly. The phrase "away with" translates the Greek verb airo, which means here, " 'take away, remove' by force, even by killing."
Matthew and Mark explain that it was customary for the governor to release a prisoner at Passover. But the man they demand released is guilty of the very thing they falsely charge Jesus with -- stirring up the people to rebellion. The word "insurrection" (NIV) or "sedition" (KJV) translates the Greek noun stasis, which here means "movement toward a (new) state of affairs, 'uprising, riot, revolt, rebellion' against the civil authority." Barabbas has committed murder in an insurrection (Mark 15:7) and is a "notorious prisoner" (Matthew 27:16). The crowd is in an uproar, shouting continuously now. "Shouting" (NIV) or "cried" (KJV) is the Greek verb epiphoneo, "cry out (loudly) against someone." This is in the imperfect tense, describing their continued action, translated well in the NIV as "they kept shouting."
Insistent Demands Prevail (23:22-24)
"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." (23:22-24)
Pilate does not want to condemn an innocent man. That is clear. He sees no real crime in Jesus. "Crime" (NIV) or "evil" (KJV) is the common Greek adjective kakos, here used as a substantive, "evil deed." Again, Pilate offers to punish him by whipping (Greek paideuo as in verse 16 above) and then release him, but the crowd will have none of it.
The shouting increases in volume and intensity. Pilate is getting nowhere. He is seeking a compromise to placate the Jewish leaders, but now his compromise is being shouted down. Three Greek verbs describe the pressure the crowd is putting on Pilate.
- epikeimai -- "be urgent about something," "insisted" (NIV). The word refers to physical force, pushing, pressing someone, and then moves over to a metaphorical use. Perhaps "to pressure someone" is about right. The verb is in the imperfect tense, suggesting that they kept on the insistent shouting without ceasing.
- aiteo , "ask for, demand." The word can imply a gentle asking as well as a forceful demand. Here it is the latter.
- katischuo , "to have the strength or capability to obtain an advantage, be dominant, prevail."
Finally, Pilate gives in. He'll have a riot on his hands if he doesn't give into the crowd. And what does he have to lose by capitulating? The life of a man and perhaps a bit of famous Roman justice, but he has acted unjustly before -- murdering Galileans (13:1), robbing temple funds to pay for an aqueduct, and nearly slaughtering Jews protesting the image of the emperor upon his legions' standards. John's Gospel includes the accusers' scarcely veiled threat, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar" (John 19:12).
Pilate is in a quandary. Though he has the armed might of Rome behind him, if he allows a civil disturbance and is not careful, he can be summarily fired by his superiors. His past errors and injustice come back to haunt him. If these angry subjects complain about him, he is in danger of being recalled. A few years after this, following the needless slaughter of Samaritans, their leaders complain to Vitellius, prefect of Syria and Pilate is recalled, replaced, and ordered to report to Emperor Tiberius.
So the Jewish leaders coerce the Roman governor to give into their incessant demands. "Crucify him, crucify him," they shout until they are hoarse. And their shouting prevails. Pilate has had enough. Matthew's Gospel relates the story of Pilate's pathetic show of absolving himself of responsibility:
"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!' " (Matthew 27:24).
Pilate Condemns Jesus (23:25)
"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." (23:25)
Luke ends his account by underscoring the irony of the conclusion. A man who is a danger to Rome and guilty of murder is released and an innocent man is condemned -- all in order that Pilate can keep his job for a few more years.
Luke describes this capitulation with the Greek verb paradidomi, translated "surrendered" (NIV) or "delivered" (KJV). Paradidomi is used as a technical term of police and courts, "hand over into the custody of," and as a military term, "surrender." While the Romans must carry out the death sentence itself, Pilate has given up Jesus to the Jewish leaders' "will" -- a sad day for Roman justice. A sad day for integrity. A sad day for mankind when the Son of God, the Redeemer is condemned while the guilty go free. "By oppression and judgment he was taken away" (Isaiah 53:8).
Lessons for Disciples
What are we disciples to learn from this sorry account of Jesus' mistreatment, mockery, and miserable excuse for justice. I see several lessons for us to ponder:
- By example, Jesus is instructing his disciples of their possible fate . Each of Jesus' apostles is condemned unjustly in compromised court systems. All but John are martyred. What Jesus' disciples observe here will happen to each of them. Though there will be occasional miracles and deliverance from false charges (Acts 12:1-19 and 16:19-40), Jesus doesn't tell us to expect deliverance, but rather an opportunity to speak a word of testimony to kings and those in high places (Luke 12:11-12).
- By example, Jesus teaches us how to behave . Jesus answers meaningful questions, but refuses to grovel with answers to insubstantial questions and corrupt questioners who are not seeking the truth.
- We may be under pressure to be unjust, but we must not give in . Pilate's bankrupt character must be a lesson to us. Some of us are under constant pressure to give in to powerful individuals and corporations who threaten us if we don't accede to their will. Pastors are pressured by wealthy donors and influential board members to forsake principle for the sake of expediency. We have seen what character flaws did to our Lord. We must not succumb.
- We are to understand that persecution and death are not the end. Jesus' disciples' first reaction to Jesus' death is dismay. They don't understand God's redemptive purpose. Only later do they grasp that Jesus dies for our sins in order to bring us to God.
We are not to expect immunity from persecution because we are Christians. Jesus tells his disciples: "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" (John 15:20). Are we willing to follow Jesus even though we can expect a high cost? Or are we fair-weather Christians who believe only until persecution comes as a result of the word? (Matthew 13:21)
In a similar way, we disciples must trust God that our suffering will not be in vain. Second century apologist Tertullian (160-220 AD) observes that Roman persecution isn't succeeding in crushing Christianity. Rather, "It is bait that wins men for our school. The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow. The blood of Christians is seed of the church."
God can use our suffering and persecution to bring about good, also. Consider the righteous sufferings of Martin Luther King, Jr. and members of his non-violent, pray-for-your-enemies civil rights movement. Consider the martyrdom of Jim Elliott whose death produced a generation of missionaries responding to the call. Consider the impact of the death of Stephen (Acts 7), Polycarp, and countless other Christian martyrs. We have a promise: "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28).
The Apostle Peter DID learn from Jesus' trial how to conduct himself in persecution, and passed it on to his own disciples:
"If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.
'He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.'
When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls." (1 Peter 2:20b-25)
Give us faith, Lord Jesus. Give us faith.
Father, when I consider all that Jesus put up with to redeem me, I know I am not worthy. He is the Son of God and yet must endure the vain posturings of weak and corrupt men. Increase my faith so I can go through testing without complaining, and so follow Christ. In Jesus' name, I pray. Amen.
"Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. But they kept shouting, 'Crucify him! Crucify him!' " (Luke 23:20-21)
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- What charges do the leaders of the Sanhedrin bring against Jesus before Pilate? (23:2) Which of are were true or partly true?
- Why doesn't Jesus answer unambiguously when Pilate asks him, "Are you the king of the Jews?" Why does he answer with," Thou sayest"? (23:3)
- Why does Pilate send Jesus to Herod Antipas? (23:6-12)
- Why doesn't Jesus answer any of Herod's questions? (23:9)
- What kind of power do Jesus' enemies exert over Pilate? Why does Pilate finally give in? (23:23-24)
- In what way is releasing Barabbas ironic? (23:18-19, 25).
- What are we as disciples supposed to learn from this sordid story of Jesus' trial before Roman justice?
- Who is responsible for Jesus' condemnation to death? The Jewish leaders? All Jews? Pilate? Herod? Others?
Common Abbreviations www.jesuswalk.com/faq/abbreviations.htm
- BDAG 825.
- Harold W. Hoehner, "Pontius Pilate," DJG, pp. 615-617.
- BDAG 533.
- Green, Luke, p. 299 argues that there is just one charge, grammatically: subverting the nation. He sees the other two charges as elaborations of this one charge, which is subsequently twice repeated (23:5, 14.).
- BDAG 27.
- BDAG 580.
- Marshall, p. 851, 853.
- BDAG 31.
- BDAG 71.
- BDAG 49.
- BDAG 414.
- BDAG 352.
- BDAG 323.
- BDAG 585.
- BDAG 122-123.
- BDAG 749. Also Georg Bertram, "paideuo, ktl," TDNT 5:596-625, especially p. 621.
- BDAG 28-29.
- Verse 17 probably isn't present in the original text of Luke, since it is missing in some of the earliest and most important Greek manuscripts -- p75, A B ita, copsa, etc. It reads, "Now he was obliged to release one man to them at the festival," and explains why the crowds were clamoring for Barabbas' release. It was probably based on Matthew 27:15 and Mark 15:6.
- BDAG 940.
- BDAG 386.
- BDAG 501.
- BDAG 373.
- BDAG 30.
- BDAG 534.
- Harold W. Hoehner, "Pontius Pilate," DJG, pp. 615-617. He cites Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 2.9.3, §§172-174; Antiquities 18.3.2 §§60-62; 18.4.1-2 §§85-89.
- BDAG 761-763.
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- JesusWalk: Beginning the Journey
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- Listening for God's Voice
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- Names and Titles of God
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- Rebuild & Renew: Post-Exilic Books
- Resurrection and Easter Faith
- Sermon on the Mount
- Seven Last Words of Christ