Luke 23:1–25 . . . Bible Study Summary with Photos
Further Rejection of Israel's Messiah
Likely, many of you have had the experience of sitting on a jury. You probably didn't volunteer for the job, but you couldn't get out of it so you fulfilled your civic duty. Sometimes you're forced to come up with a verdict on someone when you'd rather not. But to be neutral in matters of dispute is to take a side! Maybe, as with jury duty, you didn't ask to be involved; it was thrust upon you, forcing you to make a decision you'd rather not make.
That was the situation in which Pilate found himself on that April morning, probably in A.D. 33. He hated the stubborn, difficult-to-govern Jews; he didn't appreciate their religion. Why couldn't they be more tolerant and open-minded, like the Romans? But here he was, governor of Judea. He had to maintain law and order. He found out that the Jewish leaders had a prisoner whom they wanted him to judge right then. He didn't want to be bothered and told them to judge Jesus according to their own law (John 18:31). But they wanted to put him to death, and Roman law wouldn't allow them to inflict capital punishment. And so, without warning that morning, Pilate had had the task of making a verdict on Jesus Christ.
Whenever a person comes in contact with Jesus Christ, no matter how inadvertent that contact is, whether he realizes it or not at the time, he's faced with the most important decision of his life: If he decides to investigate further and eventually introduce himself to Jesus Christ, his life and eternal destiny head in one direction; if he ignores what he's heard, or ridicules or rejects it, his life and eternal destiny go in the opposite direction; to do nothing, or to put off a decision, is a decision in and of itself; neutrality is impossible. Thus, the verdict we make on Jesus Christ is the most important decision we'll ever make.
Portrayed in our text are three scenes: Scene one (vv. 1–7) takes place in Pilate's presence; scene two (vv. 8–12) takes place before Herod, to whom Pilate has referred the Jews and Jesus, gratefully breathing a sigh of relief because Jesus' alleged offenses seem to have occurred in Herod's jurisdiction; scene three (vv. 13–25) takes us back to the judgment seat of Pilate who unhappily finds himself being the one who must make the decision concerning accusations made against Jesus. In spite of repeated pronouncements of Jesus' innocence by Pilate (primarily) and Herod (by inference), Jesus will not only be mocked and beaten, he'll be put to death as a common criminal while one of the nation's most dangerous criminals will be set free.
Scene 1: Jesus Before Pilate (vv. 1–7)
Luke informs us in v. 2 that the Sanhedrin (all of whom apparently went to bring charges, cf. v. 1) made three charges against Jesus, all of which were political (i.e., against the state), while none were religious. The charges against Jesus were: (1) stirring up unrest and rebellion by "subverting our nation"; (2) opposing taxation by Rome; (3) claiming to be a king. These, of course, were very serious crimes against the state; crimes that couldn't be brushed aside; crimes that would have brought the death penalty.
Pilate seemed to know the Jews better than they may have thought. Roman rulers had no interest in being "used" by one Jewish faction against another in power struggles. Pilate saw Jesus standing before him, already beaten and bloody from the abuse the temple guards had hurled on him during the night (22:63–65). Notice that Pilate passed right over the first two charges. Jesus hadn't been a revolutionary threat to the Romans. Neither had the Roman IRS had any evidence that Jesus had ever so much as implied that the Jews shouldn't pay their Roman taxes.
If any of these three charges had any substance at all, it was the last. At least this was the real issue with these Jewish religious leaders. And so, Pilate passed over the first two charges, asking Jesus only to respond as to whether or not he was "the king of the Jews." One would think our Lord's acknowledgment that he was indeed the Messiah, the King of Israel, would have caused Pilate considerable distress. However, he doesn't seem surprised at all. Contrary to our expectations, he isn't at all distressed by Jesus' admission of his "claimed" identity, as far as Pilate was concerned.
Pilate announced his verdict but it wasn't well-received. He said, "I find no basis for a charge against this man" (v. 4). There was insufficient evidence to prove that Jesus was a criminal, worthy of the death penalty, which these leaders wanted. The chief priests and the crowd wouldn't be so easily denied what they'd determined to have: Jesus' blood. They protested, insisting that Jesus "stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching, starting in Galilee, and now reaching all the way to Jerusalem." The Jewish leaders had sought to reinforce their indictment by making that indictment, but they'd gone too far by disclosing that Jerusalem was where Jesus had created unrest.
Most of Jesus' ministry efforts had been performed in Galilee. Thus, Pilate delighted in ruling that this case was really not in his jurisdiction. The case must go to Herod, the tetrarch, for he was the one who ruled over Galilee. And so Jesus, along with the religious leaders and the rest of the crowd, were sent, still early in the morning, to bother Herod.
Scene 2: Jesus Before Herod (vv. 8–12)
While Pilate seemingly had little interest in Jesus, and virtually no previous contact with him, Herod at least had a fair amount of indirect contact. Remember that one of the women who followed Jesus, and helped to support him, was Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward (8:2; 24:10). And then, of course, there was Herod's relationship with John the Baptist (3:1; 3:19; 9:7; 13:31). Herod was very eager to see Jesus. Indeed, he'd been hoping to see him for a long time (9:9). But, as Jesus had warned his disciples earlier, Herod's motives were wrong. He wanted to see Jesus work a miracle; if Herod could be so fortunate as to make an alliance with a miracle-making Messiah, what would this do for his own position and power?
The chief priests and scribes were standing nearby, constantly reiterating their charges against Jesus, pushing Herod to find him guilty. It seems as though Herod was completely ignoring them. And, likewise, Jesus wasn't responding to Herod. Luke informs us that Jesus didn't speak so much as one word to Herod. Thus, Herod found himself in a very awkward position.
It was obvious that the religious leaders wanted Jesus put to death. All the time Herod was trying to interrogate Jesus, they kept pressing their charges. But the fact was they had no real evidence to back up their charges. And because Jesus wouldn't testify, they were at a stalemate. Yet Herod made a very shrewd move. Concealing his frustration at being unable to persuade Jesus to produce a miraculous sign, he pleased his soldiers and sided with the religious leaders by mocking Jesus. Yet in all of this he avoided taking a clear stand on Jesus.
Herod had avoided the wrath of the chief priests and scribes by not pronouncing any verdict. He seemed to be "firmly standing" on both sides of the issue at the same time. What a politician! In the final analysis, Herod forced Pilate to make the decision that he avoided making, doing so in a way that won the friendship of former enemy Pilate (v. 12). Now that was quite a feat!
Scene 3: Jesus Again Before Pilate (vv. 13–25)
If Pilate thought that, thanks to new friend Herod, his problems with Jesus were over, he was wrong. It would seem, not only from v. 13, but also from parallel accounts in the other three gospels, that Pilate took Jesus aside following his "trial" before Herod, and that he attempted to satisfy himself concerning Jesus' guilt or innocence. When Pilate came out, he called the chief priests and rulers of the people who'd been pressing him for a guilty verdict and reiterated that there was no merit to the criminal charges brought against Jesus, reminding them that by his actions, Herod had also acknowledged the innocence of Jesus.
Having just repeated (for the second time in Luke's account) the innocence of Jesus, Pilate made a very perplexing statement to these Jewish religious leaders. He told them that he was going to punish (e.g., beat severely) then release Jesus (v. 16). But why, if Jesus hadn't been convicted of a crime, would he be punished? Seemingly, Pilate was trying to appease his own conscience while also attempting to appease the hostile crowds. Pilate appears to have hoped to satisfy the bloodthirsty crowd by beating Jesus so badly that he'd present them with such a horrible sight that they'd have mercy on him. However, Pilate had misjudged the animosity of the chief priests and religious leaders.
It's at this point the name of Barabbas appears. (Note: The editors of the NIV and some other versions have chosen to omit v. 17 because of its omission in a few of older manuscripts. We might prefer to accept it because of its clear mention in the other gospels.) Somehow the custom had come about that Pilate would release one prisoner to the Jews, seemingly as a kind of "goodwill" gesture. How could these people possibly prefer the release of Barabbas to that of Jesus? Barabbas was a thief, a revolutionary, a terrorist (it seems) and a murderer.
The crowds, incited by the chief priests and scribes, called for Jesus' death and for the release of Barabbas. With loud shouts they demanded the crucifixion of Christ and the release of the revolutionary. And Pilate caved in, giving them their way, releasing to them Barabbas, the man who was a danger to society, while keeping Jesus in custody, so that he could be hung on a Roman cross, crucified for crimes Pilate knew he hadn't committed.
Our text establishes that Jesus died, not because he was guilty of an offense or of breaking a law, but simply because he was the sinless Son of God, having acknowledged that he was the "King of Israel." Quite possibly, the Holy Spirit intended for us to learn this from Luke's account of Jesus' trial before Pilate and Herod: The rejection and crucifixion of Jesus wasn't just that of the Jews or of the Gentiles, but a rejection by both. Luke alone includes the account of Jesus before Herod. (Note the apostles' commentary on this matter, as recorded in the Book of Acts — 4:24–28 — by none other than Dr. Luke.)
Pilate ultimately feared man more than he feared the Son of God. While he couldn't avoid making his decision about Jesus, we disciples of today must wholeheartedly make a conclusive decision. And if we think that we can avoid making a decision that includes him, we've actually made the decision to reject him. May this not be so for you. Instead, may you go about his work, dependent upon his Word, dependent upon his Spirit. Amen.
It Makes You Wonder . . . .
- Q. 1 Of the three charges brought against Jesus before Pilate (v. 2), which are were true or partly true?
- Q. 2 Why doesn't Jesus answer any of Herod's questions (v. 9)?
- Q. 3 As hearty disciples, what are we to learn from this sordid story of Jesus' trial amid Roman justice?
This Week's Passage
New International Version (NIV) [To view it in a different version, click here; also listen to chapter 23.]
† Watch this passage-specific video clip from the "Jesus" film titled "Jesus Is Brought to Pilate."
23 Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. 2And 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 Messiah, a king."
3So Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?"
"You have said so," Jesus replied.
4Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no basis for a charge against this man."
5But they insisted, "He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here."
6On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. 7When he learned that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.
8When 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 a sign of some sort. 9He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. 12That day Herod and Pilate became friends — before this they had been enemies.
13Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14and 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. 15Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16Therefore, I will punish him and then release him."  [Some manuscripts include here words similar to Matt. 27:15 and Mark 15:6.]
18But the whole crowd shouted, "Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!" 19(Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)
20Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21But they kept shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!"
22For 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."
23But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.