The greatest trial of human history


By Mark Ellis

Jesus with Pilate, from “The Passion of the Christ”

We’re less than a month away from the elections, and we’re seeing very savvy political candidates and their operatives and the media’s talking heads all trying to out-spin each other. Sometimes it’s hard for anyone sitting on the sidelines, when we hear the charges and counter-charges fly back and forth to know…What is the truth?

Who would have guessed even a few weeks ago, that the biggest issue facing the country would turn out to be the survival of Big Bird? It’s been said that some parents might want their son or daughter to grow up some day to be president, but nobody wants their son or daughter to grow up to be a politician.

In Matthew 27, we find one of the craftiest politicians of all time, Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea. In this chapter is found the trial of Jesus. A few years ago the O.J. Simpson trial was called the Trial of the Century – and it had its notorious moments.


But nothing compares to this trial in Matthew 27, which in my opinion, is the most important trial in human history. Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God was on trial, a man who lived the purest and most noble life ever lived.

He had committed no crime. There were no victims. He went around healing the sick, giving sight to the blind. His trial was a mockery of justice.

In his trial, Pontius Pilate asked one of the most important questions that could ever be asked: “What then shall I do with Jesus, who is called the Christ?”

“What shall I do with Jesus?” This was a question that not only Pilate pondered, but each one of us should ponder as well: What shall I do with Jesus?

Let’s recap the events leading up to our passage this morning. It was a week like no other in history. On Monday, Jesus entered Jerusalem for his final Passover. On Tuesday, He cleansed the Temple of the money-changers  then He came back and taught all day Wednesday in a confrontation with the Jewish leaders.

On Wednesday night, He went to the Mount of Olives, where he taught about his Second Coming. On Thursday night, he ate the Passover feast or Last Supper with his disciples. Late that night they left the Upper Room and went over to the Mount of Olives.

At midnight, he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane– and had an intense spiritual battle with Satan. Satan came at Him in three waves of temptation and Jesus was victorious each time. With determination and resolve, Jesus set his face to the cross.

No sooner had he finished praying, than Judas, his betrayer, arrived with several hundred Roman soldiers and Jesus was arrested.

Following his arrest, they took Jesus to the home of the former high priest, Annas, because he was the power behind the scene in Jerusalem. They hoped they could come up with an indictment at his house.

They tried bribing false witnesses. They got people to lie. They paid off Judas, but even Judas came and threw the money back at them and said, “I have betrayed innocent blood.”

When they couldn’t come up with a charge that would stick at the home of Annas, they sent Jesus to his son-in-law, Caiaphas, the official high priest, where they had a sort of mock trial from one a.m. to three a.m.  At that mockery of a trial, they accused Jesus of blasphemy, because He said He was the Son of God.

They spit in his face, slapped him, and even punched him while he was blindfolded. What did they really want out of this? To put it simply: they wanted Jesus dead. But under Roman occupation, the Jewish leaders didn’t have the power to execute anyone. They needed the Romans to do the dirty deed.

So between 5:00 and 6:00 a.m. they walked Jesus over to the Roman Judgment Hall, to present their accusations to Pilate, the governor.

We get a better, more full and complete picture of this trial if we put together all the Gospel accounts, so instead of starting in Matthew, I’ll actually start with John’s account.

Let’s look at John 18:28,

28 Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover.  

According to their law, they would be “defiled” if they entered a Gentile dwelling. Consider the hypocrisy here. They don’t want to appear to be unclean by going inside the place of a Gentile, but they want to put to death a completely innocent man.

Verse 29: So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”

30 “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”

What a remarkable answer. They jump all over Pilate for even asking what the charge is. They made it very clear at the beginning. They aren’t looking for an impartial judge. They’re looking for an executioner.

Pilate sees through their designs and says in John 18:31, “Take him and judge him by your own law.”

“But we have no right to execute anyone,” they said.

In Luke 23 it tells us the Jews began to hurl accusations at Jesus at this point, they said, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.”

In John 18:33, Pilate took Jesus inside the judgment hall and began to question him privately. At that point, Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

And Jesus said, “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?”

35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “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, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

38 “What is truth?” Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.

Now the Jewish leaders had convicted Jesus in their mock trial of blasphemy, because he said he was the Son of God. But they knew the Romans would never execute Jesus because of their internal religious dispute. So they tried to charge Jesus with treason, claiming he was a threat to national security.

Their charge was ludicrous of course. Jesus never came to lead a political revolution. He never rebelled against Roman oppression. He taught them to pay their taxes and honor the authorities.

He’s no Che Guevara, Mao Tse Tung, or even George Washington. When the people wanted to make Jesus king, he disappeared from their midst.

Here’s a question: Why would the Jewish leaders, who despised Rome and hated Roman oppression, bring to Pilate someone who was a threat to Rome? It makes no sense.

Of course Jesus’ kingdom, as he explained to Pilate, is not of this world. It is a spiritual kingdom, an internal kingdom. He revolutionizes and transforms men and women on the inside. He changes hearts and lives.

After Pilate questioned Jesus privately and found no basis for a charge against him, he took Jesus out on the porch in front of the crowd.

At this critical moment, Pilate could have shown some courage, some backbone. He knew this was all a farce and there was no fault in Jesus.

Pilate could have pronounced him not guilty. He could have dismissed the crowd. Pilate could have moved soldiers in, broken them up, and given Jesus the protection he deserved. But instead, he put Jesus out there and lets everyone start screaming accusations at him.

And Jesus doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t try to argue or defend himself. His silence astounded Pilate. He’s never seen a man respond like this. Jesus just stood there with calmness and majesty.

What was Jesus thinking? What was he feeling? Why doesn’t he stand up for himself? Why doesn’t he demand his rights? What about justice?

A few times in my life I’ve experienced the sting of rejection or a betrayal of trust, and it felt awful. To be falsely accused or the subject of misplaced blame or harsh criticism causes me to want to lash back. Often in these situations I lose sleep, the wounds are slow to heal.

When they were slapping and hitting Jesus, there is something in me that wants him to become an action figure of super-human strength and knock them all down. But he didn’t do that; he took the blows.

Oswald Chambers makes the astounding point that when you take up His cross – when you’re on a mission for Jesus, don’t worry about whether you’re being treated justly. He says that looking for justice in this world is actually a sign that we’ve been diverted from our devotion to Christ.

He says never look for justice in this world, but never cease to give it. Chambers says the more we strive for justice for ourselves, and say, “Why should I be treated like this?” the more I fall into self-pity and discontent, which allows a foothold for the evil one.

In the physical realm we say it’s cowardly not to fight back with a fist, a knife, or a gun. But in the spiritual realm it is the very evidence that Jesus is in us. It may sound strange, but personal insults become an opportunity for us to reveal the aroma of Christ.

Rejection, being unfairly accused, mocked, a betrayal of trust – our response to these injustices can release the fragrance of Christ – and His cross – at work in our lives.

Jesus knew his mission, to endure these insults, so He could die for the sins of the world. It was His Father’s will and he was committed to it.

To return to our trial, Pilate faced a political dilemma. He’s already been in trouble with the Roman emperor three times for various problems with the Jewish people. He’s already been involved in two riots in Jerusalem and he couldn’t afford another. At all costs, he wanted to placate the crowd and keep the peace.

He heard somebody in the crowd say that Jesus had stirred up people in Galilee, and suddenly Pilate had a brilliant political solution. He thought to himself, ‘Oh, King Herod controls Galilee. I’ll send Jesus to Herod and let him deal with the problem. There’s a courageous politician’s solution: pass the buck.

Luke 23 records Jesus’ hearing before Herod. This is the same Herod who beheaded John the Baptist. It’s a brief visit. Herod plies Jesus with questions, and the chief priests and teachers of the law threw their accusations again at Jesus, but Jesus gave no answer.

He was silent once more, so they began to ridicule and mock him. Herod dressed Jesus in an elegant robe and sent him back to Pilate.

Herod could see that Jesus hadn’t done anything. He could see he was no revolutionary, no threat to security. So Herod’s verdict is essentially the same as Pilate’s: not guilty.

Just when Pilate thought he got rid of his problem, he’s back. And now Pilate feels trapped. He can’t defy the crowd without a riot, and a riot could be fatal to his political career. Every politician wants to hang on to power at all costs.

So Pilate comes up with a new idea. Let’s look at Matthew 27:15:15 Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. 17 So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.

While Jesus was falsely accused of being a revolutionary, Barabbas is the real deal, a political terrorist, a murderer, due to be executed. But the governor had this custom, every year at Passover, to pardon and release one criminal.

Many believe the cross that had been prepared for Barabbas was the one Jesus died on. So Jesus literally took Barabbas’ place on the cross. He also took my place; Jesus paid the price for all my sins and yours.

Pilate’s devious little idea here was to pit the Jewish leaders against the rest of the people. It was a little after 6 a.m., and more and more of the common folk were beginning to gather. Surely they would recognize the difference between an innocent man like Jesus and a common criminal like Barabbas!

But then an amazing thing happened. There is a fateful pause, an interruption that distracted Pilate. Let’s look at verse 19:

19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”

20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.

In the most important trial of human history, the judge got distracted by a message from his wife! What are the odds of that? And during the time he was interrupted, the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd that they should ask for Barabbas to be released and to have Jesus crucified.

There is a lesson for husbands in this passage. Listen to your wives. God has given them an intuition so they can spot dangers before you can see them. What I have sometimes wanted to dismiss as nagging from my wife, is actually a very important warning that I need to listen to.

Men, your wife can help you make a wise choice. And notice here, the timing of this allowed God’s plan to prevail.

Now in verse 22, Pilate asked the most important question in this chapter. In my opinion, it’s the most important question that can be asked in life:

22 “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked.

They all answered, “Crucify him!”

23 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

John chapter 18 records that Pilate protested in response to this. He replied, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.”

This is incredible. Five times Pilate pronounced the innocence of Jesus, but he ended up sentencing him to death. The clamor of the crowd was too strong for a man easily swayed by public opinion. He couldn’t reason with the mob. In a mob, the loudest voice prevails. There was no justice, just the loudest voices prevailed.

Let’s look at verse 24:

24 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!”

25 All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”

I wonder if the Jewish people knew what they were really saying here. They appeared to take upon themselves the guilt for killing Jesus, their Messiah. Some have twisted these words into a sort of indictment against the Jewish people as a whole in a manner that feeds their own anti-Semitism.

I had a grandfather who was very anti-Semitic. If he saw Barbara Streisand on television, he would start yelling and screaming insults at her. I absorbed some of that as a young person, before I came to Christ.

But God changed my heart and given me a great love for the Jewish people. The statement in verse 25 does not reflect the attitude of most Jewish people in history, or even most who lived at the time of Jesus.

But that was the dominant, tragic cry of the crowd that day, incited by their leaders. Some day, when Jesus returns, the Jewish people will recognize the one they pierced, their eyes will be opened, and they will embrace him as their Messiah. But for now, their vision is obscured, until the rest of the world receives the truth.

Pilate tried to wash his hands of the whole messy affair, but water could not wash away his guilt. An ocean of water couldn’t wash away the stain.

Judas came to the realization that he betrayed an innocent man, and he ended up committing suicide. Pilate also betrayed an innocent man and he later committed suicide.

The Scripture says the wages of sin is death. That means when we sin, we earn greater and greater separation from God, spiritual death, and eventually physical death and eternal separation from God.

Yes, Judas and Pilate and the Jewish leaders betrayed an innocent man. But as I look into my own heart, I have to admit I’ve rebelled against God. I have betrayed his trust through my own disobedience.

The ultimate sentence or penalty for my sins is death – eternal separation from God. But Jesus loved you and me enough to pay the penalty for every sin we will ever commit, past, present and future.

He loved Barabbas enough to literally take his place on the cross.

Which brings me back to that question, perhaps the most important question in the whole world: What, then, shall I do with Jesus?

When I was 29-years-old I knew I had to come to grips with that question. I read a book called “Evidence that demands a verdict,” by Josh McDowell.

Two chapters in that book grabbed my attention. One was on the manuscript evidence for the Bible, because I wanted to see if I could trust what I was reading.

The second thing was the chapter on the resurrection. I knew that if Jesus really did rise from the dead, that set him apart from Buddha, Muhammad, and every other religious leader.

I carefully read every theory, every argument posed against His resurrection. And I was persuaded that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus was in Pilate’s hands, but now He’s in your hands. What would you do if you were living in that time? Pilate condemned him to death on a cross. What would you have done? What will you do with Him today?

Imagine you have a ballot in your hands. But this ballot measure is even more important than anything in the upcoming election of 2012. On this ballot it says, Crown him or crucify him.

What will you do with Jesus? The right thing is to crown him as King, and receive Him as your personal Savior and Lord.


The preceding was adapted from a sermon delivered October 14, 2012 at Church by the Sea in Laguna Beach, California. Valuable insights that contributed to this message came from John MacArthur, Ray Stedman, and Chuck Smith, and my wife, Sally.