13. Jesus before Pilate
Scripture: Matthew 27:11-31
11 Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” 12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he made no answer. 13 Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” 14 But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge; so that the governor wondered greatly.
15 Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. 16 And they had then a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas.17 So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.19 Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream.” 20 Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. 21 The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified.” 23 And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified.” 24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.
27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the praetorium, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. 28 And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe upon him, 29 and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on his head, and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 And they spat upon him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to crucify him.
The religious leaders charged Jesus with blasphemy because he called himself the Son of God. But since they did not have the power to put him to death, they brought him to the Roman authorities to have him tried and executed. The charge they brought before Pilate, however, was political rather than religious. Luke tells us that three false accusations were levelled against Jesus (Luke 23:1-2): First, that Jesus agitated sedition. Second, they said that he encouraged people to not pay taxes to Caesar. And third, he assumed the title king.
We know from the gospel accounts that Pilate made no less than four attempts to avoid condemning Jesus. He told the Jewish leaders to take Jesus and settle the matter themselves (John 19:6-7). He tried to refer the case to Herod. He tried to get the Jewish leaders to receive Jesus as a prisoner who was granted release at Passover time (Mark 15:6). And then he tried to compromise by offering to scourge Jesus and then release him. The Romans were noted for their impartial justice.
Why did the crowd want Barabbas released rather than Jesus? This was not likely the same crowd, who a week earlier, had hailed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Barabbas was a bandit known for violence. Jerusalem was filled with insurrectionists. That’s why there were so many Roman forces in Jerusalem at this time of high tension and religious fervor. He was probably part of a nationalist’s group known for murder and assassination. This crowd was very likely supporters of Barabbas who came on this occasion because they believed that Pilate would offer his release at the feast.
What finally coerced Pilate to sentence a just man to death? Blackmail! John’s gospel records that the Jewish leaders told Pilate: “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend; everyone who makes himself a king sets himself against Caesar.” The last thing Pilate wanted was a report back to Rome that he supported a dangerous man who was inciting the people to accept him as their king and to revolt against Roman authority. The last thing Rome would accept was civil disorder. So Pilate relented to avoid having a charge brought against him to Rome. Pilate was a ruthless leader, but he lacked one important quality, the courage to do the right thing. He sacrificed justice to save his face and his job. Are you willing to sacrifice reputation and position for truth and justice?
The Romans treated condemned prisoners with great cruelty. They were first scourged and then had to carry their cross to the place of execution. The prisoner was bound and bent so his back was exposed. Long leather whips tied with pieces of sharp iron and bones were used for ripping apart a man’s back. Some died from the whipping alone, some were made unconscious, and some went mad. Pilate had Jesus scourged in the typical Roman fashion. Jesus was led into the Praetorium, a large hall where the whole company of soldiers could gather and watch. After they scourged him, they robbed him in purple, the color for kingly garb, crowned him with thorns, beat him with a reed, and mocked him for his claim to kingship.
This scourging, crowning with thorns, and beating greatly weakened Jesus and made it difficult for him to carry his cross to the place of execution. While crucified men have been known to have lasted for several days on a cross before expiring, Jesus died within three hours on the cross, no doubt because he had been nearly scourged to death beforehand. The prophet Isaiah foretold what the “Suffering Servant” would undergo for our sake:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed.” – Isaiah 53:4-5
Jesus’ suffering and death has freed us from slavery to sin and won for us pardon and the hope of unending life for all eternity. Are you ready to suffer for your faith in this present life and to carry your cross for Jesus’ sake?
“Lord Jesus, you suffered injustice, abuse, and rejection for our sake. By your atoning death on the cross you have redeemed the world and won for us pardon and reconciliation. Give me courage to always choose what is right and good and to reject whatever is unjust and evil.”
14. The crucifixion of Jesus
Scripture: Matthew 27:32-44
32 As they went out, they came upon a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; this man they compelled to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mingled with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots; 36 then they sat down and kept watch over him there. 37 And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus the King of the Jews.” 38 Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. 39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, `I am the Son of God.'” 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
Are you prepared to die well? None of us can avoid the inevitable – our own death. We try to avoid it, to block it from our minds, but the truth is we will all die sooner or later. Dying is not easy for anyone. It involves mental and physical suffering, loss, and separation. We can choose to live well, and we can choose to die well in the Lord. Dying well is a life-long spiritual task. Fortunately, there is something stronger than death and that is the love that surpasses all else (Song of Songs 6:8). Jesus proved his love for his Father and his merciful love for each one of us. He willingly chose to lay down his life for our sake.
“For God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” – John 3:16
Jesus embraced the cross knowing it was the Father’s will and the Father’s way for him to suffer and die for our sake.
Crucifixion was designed to be a very humiliating, disgraceful, and excruciatingly painful way to suffer and die. A criminal condemned to death by Roman law was forced to carry his own cross. Soldiers made him carry it to the place of execution usually by the longest route possible. This prolonged the public humiliation and agony of carrying a weight that bowed the head and broke the back into a posture of submission. Jesus fell under the weight of his cross and could go no further. The Roman soldiers compelled another man to carry it for him. Simon had come a long distance from Cyrene (in North Africa, in present-day Libya) to Jerusalem for the Passover feast. The last thing he wanted to do was to participate in the public execution of a criminal. But he had no choice since Roman authority could not be challenged without serious consequences.
Mark records in his Gospel account that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21). Since Mark wrote his Gospel for the Christian community at Rome, it is likely that the two sons of Rufus were well-known to the Church there as fellow Christians. Who knows, if Simon had not been compelled to carry Jesus’s cross, he may never have been challenged with the message of the cross and the meaning of the Christian faith which his two sons later embraced. Perhaps Simon became a believer and passed on his faith to his family as well. Do you take up your cross willingly to follow Jesus in his way of love and sacrifice?
The Romans reserved crucifixion for their worst offenders. It was designed to be very humiliating and excruciatingly painful. The criminal was stripped and nailed to a cross erected in a public place, usually by a roadside or highway near the town where the criminal could be viewed by everybody who passed that way. A healthy man could live for several days on such a cross before he expired from hunger, thirst, exhaustion, and madness. It was a slow agonizing death, usually as a result of asphyxiation. The victim was hung on the cross in such a fashion that his lungs quickly filled with fluids and he could not breath unless he pulled his chest upward and gasped for breath. Every movement brought nerve-racking pain. Eventual physical exhaustion led to asphyxiation (inability to breathe). If the soldiers wanted to speed the process up, they broke the victim’s legs to prevent ease of breathing.
The place where Jesus was crucified was on a hill just outside of Jerusalem known as Golgatha (Aramaic word for skull). The authorities deliberately executed Jesus besides two known criminals. This was designed to publicly humiliate Jesus before the crowds and to rank him with robbers. When Jesus was nailed to the cross he was already more than half-dead. The scourging alone and the crown of thorns beaten into his skull had nearly killed him. In such a state it is all the more remarkable to see Jesus with a clear sound mind and a tranquil heart.
When Jesus was offered some wine mixed with myrrh to ease his pain, he refused it. He willingly embraced suffering and death for our sake because he knew and loved us all when he offered his life as an atoning sacrifice on the cross (Galatians 2:20, Ephesians 5:2,25). Jesus shows us the depths of God’s redeeming love and forgiveness. He loved his own to the end (John 13:1).
“In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.” – 1 John 4:10
“For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
Pilate publicly heralded Jesus “The King of the Jews” as he died upon the cross, no doubt to irritate and annoy the chief priests and Pharisees. Jesus was crucified for his claim to be King. The Jews understood that the Messiah would come as king to establish God’s reign for them. They wanted a king who would free them from tyranny and foreign domination. Many had high hopes that Jesus would be the Messianic king. Little did they understand what kind of kingship Jesus claimed to have. Jesus came to conquer hearts and souls for an imperishable kingdom, rather than to conquer perishable lands and entitlements.
As Jesus was dying on the cross, he was mocked for his claim to kingship. Nonetheless, he died not only as King of the Jews, but King of the nations as well. His victory over the power of sin, Satan, and the world was accomplished through his death on the cross and his resurrection. Jesus exchanged a throne of glory for a cross of shame to restore us to glory with God as his adopted sons and daughters.
“He humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every other name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” – Philippians 2:8-11
In the Book of Revelations Jesus is called King of kings and Lord and lords (Revelation 19:16). Do you recognize Jesus Christ as your King and Lord and do you exalt his name as holy?
“Lord Jesus, you laid down your life for me that I might walk in the freedom of your love and mercy. Free me from love of the world and from attachment to sin and hurtful desires, that I might love whole-heartedly and sincerely what you love and reject whatever is false and contrary to the Gospel.”
15. The death of Jesus
Scripture: Matthew 27:45-56
45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabach-thani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. 51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; 52 the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” 55 There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
The cross brings us face to face with Jesus’ suffering. He was alone – all his disciples had deserted him except for his mother and three women along with John, the beloved disciple. And his death was agonizing and humiliating. Normally a crucified man could last for several days on a cross. Jesus’ had already been scourged, beaten with rods, and a crown of thorns pressed into his skull. It is no wonder that he died mid-afternoon. Mark’s Gospel account graphically describes the end as a “darkness over the whole land” (15:33). This was Satan’s hour as he saw the Son of God dying on the cross. But that death was also his undoing. Through his obedience unto death, Jesus reversed the curse of Adam’s disobedience and won freedom and pardon for us. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).
One of the great consequences of sin is that it separates us from God. Since Jesus bore the weight of our sins upon himself, he experienced in his agony on the cross what that separation was like. That is why he prayed out the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, what have you forsaken me?” This is a Messianic psalm which foretells the suffering which Jesus underwent:
“They have pierced my hands and feet – I can count all my bones – they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them.” – Psalm 22:16-18
And it ends on a note of triumph and vindication:
“Posterity shall serve him; men shall tell of the Lord to the coming generation, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, that he has wrought it.” – Psalm 22:31
As Jesus expired he cried out a “loud shout,” Both Matthew and Luke mention this shout (Matthew 27:50 and Luke 23:46). John tells us that Jesus died with these words on his lips,
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” – John 19:30.
These parting words express triumph rather than defeat. Jesus bowed his head and gave up his spirit knowing that the strife was now over and the battle was won. Even on the cross Jesus knew the joy of victory. What the Father sent him into the world to do has now been accomplished. Christ offered himself without blemish to God and he put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (see Hebrews 9:24-26). We can find no greater proof of God’s love for us than the willing sacrifice of his Son on the cross.
“O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” – 1 Corinthians 15:55-57
Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) urges us to contemplate the love of God incarnate on the cross:
“As they were looking on, so we too gaze on his wounds as he hangs. We see his blood as he dies. We see the price offered by the redeemer, touch the scars of his resurrection. He bows his head, as if to kiss you. His heart is made bare open, as it were, in love to you. His arms are extended that he may embrace you. His whole body is displayed for your redemption. Ponder how great these things are. Let all this be rightly weighed in your mind: as he was once fixed to the cross in every part of his body for you, so he may now be fixed in every part of your soul.” [GMI 248]
In the cross of Christ we see the triumph of Jesus over his enemies – sin, Satan, and death. Christian writers down through the centuries have sung the praises of the Cross of Christ. Paul the Apostle exclaimed,
“But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Galatians 6:14
Hear what Gregory Nazianzen, a 6th century church father, has to say:
“Many indeed are the wondrous happenings of that time: God hanging from a cross, the sun made dark and again flaming out; for it was fitting that creation should mourn with its creator. The temple veil rent, blood and water flowing from his side: the one as from a man, the other as from what was above man; the earth shaken, the rocks shattered because of the rock; the dead risen to bear witness to the final and universal resurrection of the dead. The happenings at the sepulcher and after the sepulcher, who can fittingly recount them? Yet no one of them can be compared to the miracle of my salvation. A few drops of blood renew the whole world, and do for all men what the rennet does for the milk: joining us and binding us together.” [On the Holy Pasch, Oration 45.1]
Abbot Rupert of Deutz, wrote in the early 12th century:
“The cross of Christ is the door to heaven, the key to paradise, the downfall of the devil, the uplifting of mankind, the consolation of our imprisonment, the prize for our freedom.”
The Cross of Christ is the safeguard of our faith, the assurance of our hope, and the throne of love. It is also the sign of God’s mercy and the proof of forgiveness. By his cross Jesus has redeemed our sin and atoned for our punishment. The way to peace, joy, and righteousness in the kingdom of God and the way to victory over sin, despair, and death is through the cross of Jesus Christ. Do you willingly follow Jesus in his way of the cross with joy, hope, and confidence?
“Lord Jesus Christ, by your death on the cross you have won pardon for us and freedom from the tyranny of sin and death. May I live in the joy and freedom of your victory over sin and death.”
16. The burial of Jesus
Scripture: Matthew 27:57-66
57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock; and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre. 62 Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, `After three days I will rise again.’ 64 Therefore order the sepulchre to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away, and tell the people, `He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went and made the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.
Jesus not only died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3); he also, by the grace of God, tasted death for every one (Hebrews 2:9). It was a real death that put an end to his earthly human existence. Jesus died in mid- afternoon and the Sabbath began at sunset. Since the Jewish law permitted no work on the Sabbath, the body had to be buried quickly. Someone brave enough would have to get permission from the Roman authorities to take the body and bury it.
The bodies of executed criminals were usually left unburied as carion for the vultures and dogs. Jesus was spared this indignity through the gracious intervention of Joseph of Arimethea. Who was this admirer and secret disciple of Jesus? Luke tells us that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish council that condemned Jesus. We are told that he did not agree with their verdict. He was either absent from their meeting or silent when they tried Jesus. What kind of man was Joseph? Luke tells us that he was “good and righteous” and “looking for the kingdom of God.” Although he did not stand up for Jesus at his trial, he nonetheless, sought to honor him in his death by giving him a proper burial. This was to fulfill what the prophet Isaiah had foretold:
“He was cut off out of the land of the living … and they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.” – Isaiah 53:8-9
Jesus” enemies did what they could to prevent his resurrection. We can see how desperate the chief priests and Pharisees were by approaching Pilate on the Sabbath, the day of rest, with a request to have the tomb of Jesus guarded. They were willing to break their own Sabbath law to defeat Jesus’ predictions of his own rising. They came to Pilate saying that Jesus predicted he would rise from the dead on the third day. Pilate’s answer, “make the tomb as secure as you can” could be rephrased, “Keep the Messiah in the tomb, if you can!” To guard the sepulchre against the weak disciples was needless; but to think to guard it against the power of God was sheer folly and to no purpose. There is no tomb in the world that can keep the Son of God and Lord of the Sabbath imprisoned. Jesus Christ defeated death that we might have new life in him. As we prepare to celebrate the feast of Easter, the Christian Passover, let us leave behind our old way of life and put on the new life Christ has won for us through his victory over the grave. Are you ready to celebrate the feast of Easter with joyful praise and gratitude for Christ’s work of redemption in your life?
In the Book of Revelations, the Lord Jesus speaks:
“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one: I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” – Revelation 1:17-18
No tomb in the world could contain the Lord Jesus for long. His death on the cross purchased our redemption and his triumph over the grave on Easter morning defeated death. What preserved the Lord Jesus from corruption? He was kept from decay and he rose from the dead by divine power.
“My flesh will dwell in hope. For you will not let your Holy One see corruption.” – Psalm 16:9-10
The mystery of Christ’s lying in the tomb on the sabbath reveals the great sabbath rest of God after the fulfillment of our salvation which brings peace to the whole world (Colossians 1:18-20). Is your hope in this life only, or is it well founded in the resurrection of Christ and his promise that those who believe in him will live forever?
“Lord Jesus, you died that I might have life – abundant everlasting life in your kingdom of peace and righteousness. Strengthen my faith that I may I know the power of your resurrection and live each day in the hope of seeing you face to face for ever.”
Image of Jesus brought to Pilate, and image of Jesus falling from the weight of carrying his cross, watercolor illustrations by James Tissot, images in the public domain. See The Life of Christ Illustrated by James Tissot: An Artist with a Burning Compulsion to Paint the Narrative Story of the Bible.
Don Schwager is the editor of Living Bulwark and author of the Daily Scripture Reading and Meditation website. He is a lay religious brother and life-time member of the Servants of the Word.