Jesus—His Life and Message: The Trial Before Pilate

March 1, 2022

by Peter Amsterdam

After being arrested, Jesus was taken to the house of Caiaphas, the chief priest. It was there that He faced His trial before the chief priests and the whole Council.1 When the chief priest said, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God,” Jesus said to him, “You have said so.”2 Jesus’ response was considered blasphemy, which was punishable by death according to Jewish law. However, because Israel was under the authority of Rome, the Jewish authorities were not allowed to execute criminals; only Rome could do that. So they had to go to the Roman procurator, who was responsible for maintaining law and order in the area, to receive permission for Jesus to be put to death. The procurator was named Pontius Pilate.

The Gospel of Matthew says:

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. And they bound him and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate the governor.3

The Gospel of John adds that those who brought Jesus to the governor’s headquarters did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. So Pilate went outside to them.4

Roman officials tended to conduct their business in the early part of the day, so it was important that the Jewish leaders act first thing in the morning. It was also required in Jewish trials that a judicial sentence be given in the daytime and not at night. As such, Jesus’ trial began in the morning. All of the chief priests indicates that there was a full assembly of the temple officials. There were also the elders of the people, which refers to eminent laypeople who were part of the highest Jewish assembly in the land. The Gospel of Mark speaks of the chief priests consulting with the elders and scribes and the whole Council.5 These temple officials discussed the accusations they planned to use when they would speak with Pilate. Their goal was to have Jesus executed, so it was important that they present evidence that He was guilty of a crime for which the penalty was death.

Pontius Pilate was the fifth governor of the Roman province of Judea. He served under the Emperor Tiberius in this position for ten years. He was of middle rank of the Roman nobility, known as the equestrian order. It is likely that he was educated, somewhat wealthy, and well connected both politically and socially. Due to cursus honorum, which was a sequential order of public offices which aspiring politicians were required to hold, it is likely that Pilate would have held a military command before becoming the governor of Judea.

As the governor, he was the head of the judicial system and therefore had the power to sentence criminals to death. His primary residence was in Caesarea, although he would go to Jerusalem during the major feasts to maintain order. Because of his position, he had the right to appoint the Jewish high priest. He kept Caiaphas in that position throughout his entire ten years as governor. It was to Pilate, the governor, that Jesus was taken for judgment.

At this point in the Gospel of Matthew, the focus shifts to Judas and his death.

Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”6

Seeing that Jesus was condemned to die, Judas changed his mind. Other Bible translations say he was full of remorse (CSB), repented himself (KJV), felt remorse (NAS), or was seized with remorse (NIV & TNIV). It’s not possible to know whether Judas, after seeing the damage he had done, was truly repentant or was only remorseful. Remorse is a strong feeling of sadness and regret about something wrong one has done, whereas repentance is to feel such sorrow for sin or fault as to be disposed to change one’s life for the better. Judas’ confession that he had sinned and his attempt to return the money was rebuffed by the religious leadership.

And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself.7 

We’re not told exactly where Judas was when his conversation with the chief priests and elders took place, but we do know that at some point in time Judas threw down the silver he had received into the temple. His reason for doing so was likely a desire to repudiate his betrayal of Jesus. He then committed suicide by hanging himself.

But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they took counsel and bought with them the potter’s field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.8 

Judas having thrown the money into the temple presented a problem to the priests, as it basically was “payment for murder.”9 Of course, this “blood money” came from the priests in the first place, as they had given it to Judas for betraying Jesus. Nevertheless, because it was blood money, they were unable to put it back into the temple treasury; so they needed to find another use for it. After deliberating, they decided to purchase land which they called the potter’s field in order to bury strangers. Some Bible translations use the word foreigners instead of strangers. Some commentators suggest that strangers or foreigners refers to Jews from other lands who died while they were in Judea. At the time this Gospel was written, this plot of land was still called the Field of Blood.

Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord directed me.”10

The Gospel writer refers to a prophecy from the prophet Jeremiah. However, the main portion of this prophecy came from the book of Zechariah, which says:

Then the LORD said to me, “Throw it to the potter”—the lordly price at which I was priced by them. So I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the LORD, to the potter.11

Some words in the Gospel of Matthew seem to have been derived from Jeremiah, as he wrote of the potter’s house,12 a potter’s earthenware flask,13 and buying a field.14 This brings to an end the focus on Judas’ suicide, and we return to Jesus’ trial before Pilate.

Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer.15 

Each Synoptic Gospel states that Jesus was brought before Pilate to stand trial, and that he asked Jesus if He was the King of the Jews. His response was: You have said so.16 The Gospel of Matthew doesn’t mention what crimes Jesus is being tried for. The Gospel of Mark says the chief priests accused him of many things, and the book of Luke is more specific:

They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”17

Jesus’ accusers laid three charges against Him, the first two of which were broad accusations of what He was doing to the Jewish nation. The first was that Jesus was misleading the nation. Jesus claimed to be sent by God in order to show Israel God’s way. However, the religious leaders and the elders rejected that message, and therefore considered Him to be a religious agitator who was deceiving the people.

The second charge was that Jesus was forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar. They claimed that He forbade the payment of Roman taxes. This was completely false, as Jesus had specifically endorsed paying taxes to Rome. Earlier in Matthew we read:

Then the Pharisees went and plotted how to entangle him in his words. And they sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances. Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. And Jesus said to them, “Whose likeness and inscription is this?” They said, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”18

The third charge was that Jesus claimed that He Himself is Christ, a king.19 Pilate didn’t pay much attention to the first two accusations, but He did to the third; and so he asked about it, as he was responsible to determine whether Jesus was a revolutionary and a danger to Rome.

And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.”20

In the Gospel of John, Jesus responds to Pilate’s question with a question of His own.

Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?”21 

Jesus is interested to know whether Pilate has been coached by others or if his question is truly his own. If he was asking the question on his own, it would mean “Are you a political king, conspiring against Caesar?” If he was asking the question at Caiaphas’ bidding, it would mean “Are you the messianic King of Israel?”

In response to Jesus’ question,

Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?”22 

Pilate’s answer shows contempt. He can’t be expected to know these things from his own knowledge, as he’s not Jewish. He wasn’t prepared to take what Jesus’ accusers said at face value. He wanted to know what was behind it, what Jesus had done to cause the chief priests to be so hostile toward Him. He was trying to determine whether Jesus had done something that had broken Roman law.

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.”23 

Earlier, Pilate asked Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?”24 Jesus stated that in a sense He has a kingdom, but it is not a kingdom as the world understands kingdoms. Twice He made the point that His kingdom is not of this world. If it were, then He would have recruited soldiers, and they would be fighting to protect Him.

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.”25 

In response to Pilate’s question, Jesus does not contradict what Pilate has asked, but rather He changes the subject. He states that He came into this world to bear witness to the truth, to lead people to the truth; and those who are of the truth will listen.

Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him.”26

Pilate’s question about truth was dismissive. He wasn’t expecting Jesus to answer, rather he wanted to end the conversation. At this point, Pilate went and told Jesus’ accusers that he didn’t find Jesus guilty of any crime. In the Gospel of Luke, Pilate also states that Jesus is not guilty.

Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.”27

However, this wasn’t the end of Jesus’ trial, as when Pilate found out that Jesus was from Galilee, he decided to send Him to King Herod, who was in Jerusalem at that time, since Galilee was under Herod’s jurisdiction.

(To be continued.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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1 Matthew 26:59.

2 Matthew 26:63–64. See also Mark 14:61–62.

3 Matthew 27:1–2.

4 John 18:28–29.

5 Mark 15:1.

6 Matthew 27:3–4.

7 Matthew 27:5.

8 Matthew 27:6–8.

9 The leading priests picked up the coins. “It wouldn't be right to put this money in the Temple treasury,” they said, “since it was payment for murder” (Matthew 27:6 NLT).

10 Matthew 27:9–10.

11 Zechariah 11:13.

12 Jeremiah 18:2–3.

13 Jeremiah 19:1.

14 Jeremiah 32:6–7.

15 Matthew 27:11–12.

16 Matthew 27:11, Mark 15:2, Luke 23:3.

17 Luke 23:2.

18 Matthew 22:15–21.

19 Luke 23:2.

20 Luke 23:3. See also Mark 15:2, Matthew 27:11.

21 John 18:34.

22 John 18:35.

23 John 18:36.

24 John 18:33.

25 John 18:37.

26 John 18:38.

27 Luke 23:4.