Matthew: Jesus Before Pilate

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on January 4, 2000

Matthew 27:11-26

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If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 27, as we continue our study through the gospel. You will remember that we have already said in our first study of Matthew 27, that this chapter contains the final events leading up to the crucifixion, and then the description of the crucifixion of our Lord, but as it does so, as it lays those events before our eyes, Matthew specifically wants us to understand the nature and the purpose of Christ’s death. He wants us to understand that Christ’s death is not accidental, and that Christ’s death is filled with redeeming significance. It is for the purpose of accomplishing the redemption of His people.

The last time we were together we studied the first ten verses of Matthew, chapter 27, and there we saw that grim passage in which Judas, whose own sins catch up with him, and his remorse catches up with him and eventually he takes his own life. And we said that Matthew put that there, side by side with the denial of Peter at the end of Matthew, chapter 26, not only as a warning to us, not only to warn us of the consequences of sin and of the deceitfulness of the heart, but that Matthew opens this chapter, this great chapter, Matthew, chapter 27 showing us something of the wickedness of men’s heart and the sovereignty of God in what Jesus was going to do.

What Jesus did, what Jesus underwent, was in fulfillment of Scripture, and he opens the chapter affirming that, and even in Judas’ death Scripture was fulfilled.

Why is Matthew telling us that? He does not want us to approach the cross thinking that somehow this was an accident, that somehow this was all a big mistake, that somehow this was all something that God didn’t realize was going to happen and could have been avoided. On the contrary, this was something that God Himself had planned from the foundations of the world for the forgiveness of all those who had rebelled against Him, and who would trust in Christ. Bearing that in mind, turn with me to Matthew, chapter 27, verse 11, and let’s look at this trial of Jesus before Pilate. Let’s hear attentively God’s word:

“Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor questioned him saying, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you say.’ And while he was being accused by the Chief Priests and elders, he made no answer. Then Pilate said to him: ‘Do you not hear how many things they testify against You?’ And He did not answer him with regard to even a single charge so that the governor was quite amazed. Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the multitude any one prisoner that they wanted. And they were holding at that time a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. When therefore they were gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas or Jesus, who is called Christ?’ For he knew that because of envy, they had delivered Him up. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.’ But the Chief Priest and the elders persuaded the multitudes to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death. But the governor answered and said to them, which of the two do you want me to release for you? And they said, ‘Barabbas.’ Pilate said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with Jesus, who is called Christ?’ They all said, ‘Let Him be crucified.’ And he said, ‘Why, what evil has He done?’ But they kept shouting all the more, ‘Let Him be crucified.’ And when Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the multitude saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. See to that yourselves.’ And all the people answered and said, ‘His blood be on us and on our children.’ And then he released Barabbas to them, and after having Jesus scourged, he delivered Him to be crucified.”

Thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, as we come to this solemn passage again, we ask that You would speak to us of Your eternal truth. By Your spirit apply that truth to our heart and open our hearts to respond that the needs of our hearts might bow immediately before Your word. And embrace the one who is the only one among men, by whom we can be saved, even the Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

There are many amazing truths contained for us in this passage, but I’d like to focus your attention on just a few things. The passage itself breaks into two parts. The trial of Jesus is spoken of in verses 11 through 14, and then the sentencing of Jesus by Pilate picks up in verse 15 and runs down to verse 26.

I. The trial of Jesus.

And as you look at the trial of Jesus’ proceeding in verse 11 through 14, you see something of the dignity of the Lord Jesus Christ before His accusers and His judges, and you see something of the commitment of Christ to die for our sins. Matthew here in verse 11 is picking up on a story that he had left off on in verses 1 and 2. You remember he had started to tell you about Jesus being delivered over to Pilate, but then he stopped. But let me tell you for a moment what happened to Judas. And he does this deliberately so he can contrast Peter and Judas at the end of what we call Matthew 26, and the beginning of 27. Matthew sets these stories side by side for warning and for a comparison and for a contrast.

But now in verse 11 he picks up that story that he started to tell us in verses 1 and 2. And if the gospel accounts are read together, we learn something about this governor, Pilate. We learn that he was apparently very reluctant about carrying on this trial of the Lord Jesus Christ, and certainly about condemning Him and convicting Him. When we read the gospels together, in fact, we find out that already before this point, Pilate had tried to hand Jesus to the Sanhedrin in John, chapter 18, verses 29 through 31. After first hearing the charge of the Chief Priest and elders, he said, “Won’t you take him back and try Him in your court?” And they replied to Him, “No, we want the death sentence, and we can’t pass the death sentence, and we want you to try him.” And they went on to add to their argument, they said, “This man has caused an uproar in all of Israel, even up to Galilee, and when Pilate heard the magic word Galilee, he saw another way to get off the hook, and he said, “Oh, He’s caused a riot all the way all the way up to Galilee, well, let’s send him to Galilee. Herod is in charge of Galilee. So he sends Him off to Galilee, and like a package that won’t go away, Jesus shows back up, because Herod doesn’t want to deal with Him and sends him back to Pilate. And at that point Herod wants to grant Him amnesty. It was his custom at certain feasts to offer people the opportunity either to scare a man who had already been condemned, or to spare a man who was in the process of trial and sentencing. And so he offers Jesus. He says, “Don’t you want to have him released for the feast?” And they said, “No.” Pilate is a man who is very reluctant to deal with Jesus. Let’s look through the stories of the trials that are accounted for us in 11 through 14.

Pilate goes outside the praetorium to meet this crowd that has come to see him. The Sanhedrin and the Chief Priests and the elders who have come there to accuse Jesus won’t go into Pilate’s house. Pilate, you see, is a Gentile, and it is the eve of a great feast; and they would be declared unclean, defiled for having gone into the home of a sinner and would not be able to take place in the religious ceremonies of the Passover. And heaven forbid that these righteous men who were attempting to have attempted to execute an innocent man should sully themselves by entering into the home of a Gentile on the eve of the Passover. And so they refuse to go inside, and Pilate comes outside to see what the ruckus is, and they bring a charge against Jesus.

It’s very clear what that charge is in verse 11. They bring a charge that he’s some short of a political revolutionary. They call Him the King of the Jews. They know that Pilate isn’t going to be in the least interested in Jewish doctrinal disputes and against the God of Israel. They know that Pilate would want a political charge before he is interested in acting on this particular criminal. And so when Pilate hears that they charge him with being an insurrectionist, a political revolutionary, he says, “I’m going to question this man.” And he has Jesus brought into the hall, so he can question Him in some context of sanity, and he puts a direct question to Him. He asks if Jesus is, in fact, claiming to be the King of the Jews. That was the charge brought by the Sanhedrin, and Jesus answers Pilate, the same way He answered Judas, and the same way He answered the Chief Priest. Just as in Judas in Matthew 26:25, said, “Surely not I,” Jesus said, “You said it yourself.” And just as the Chief Priest said, “Are you the Messiah?” Jesus had said, “You said it yourself.” When Pilate said “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus says, “You said it yourself.” He is not evading Pilate’s question. He is actually answering in such a way to clarify specifically what it means that He is the king of the Jews. We’ll come back to that in a moment and take a loot at it.

We notice in verse 13 the calmness of Jesus. The quietness of Jesus. Pilate is stunned by the way this man reacts. He is amazed by his calmness and quietness. Pilate is used to prisoners who come into his courtroom frothing at the mouth for excuses of what they have done, with assertions that they are innocent, with a begging that they are only a part of a greater conspiracy. They were only accomplices and someone else was the chief criminal. Pilate is used to people begging for mercy and making a case for themselves, and this man stands quietly. He will not answer any of the charges that are being brought against Him by the accusers. And in fact, the only people who are frothing at the mouth are His accusers. It is a striking thing to Pilate. Have you ever been to prison before? Have you ever met a guilty man in prison before? I haven’t. Everybody’s innocent who’s in prison. And Pilate is used to that. He’s used to every criminal that comes before him has an excuse for why he’s done what he’s done, or he’s pleading that he didn’t do what he did. And so Pilate is used to this, and yet Jesus is quiet. That is very significant, and we’ll talk about that in a moment.

And then Jesus, though He answers Pilate’s questions directly, refuses to answer any of the charges of the Jews, and this shows us His commitment to God for us. I want you to see two or three points, key points which come out in the trial of the Lord Jesus.

First of all, notice that Jesus is basically accused of treason. He’s accused of being a revolutionary and trying to overthrow Rome. This was a capital offense, and that’s why the charge was made. The Sanhedrin needed something of a political nature if they were going to kill Jesus. Now, Matthew lets you know the nature of the charge, because what has Matthew been showing you that Jesus taught about His kingdom in public and in private with the multitudes and with His disciples? Matthew has already been showing you for twenty something chapters that every time Jesus’ own disciples misinterpreted Him as being some sort of a religious leader, Jesus did what? He corrected them and said “No, that’s not what I’m about. My kingdom is not of this world.” So Matthew knows that when you hear that Jesus is accused of being a political insurrectionist, you will know that that is an utterly false and groundless accusation. Because Matthew is showing you over and over in Matthew in Matthew 27 that this Man that is dying is absolutely innocent of all the charges brought against Him, He is utterly righteous, and He is utterly innocent. That’s the first thing that you see in this passage.

Secondly, Jesus in this passage admits to being the King of the Jews. But, He points out several things about that title, about that phrase to Pilate as He embraces it. In our passage, all Jesus says is, “You’ve said it. As you have said it. You’re the one who said it, not me.” We could translate it many, many ways, but that’s basically the gist of Jesus’ response, and you’re left wondering, well, what exactly did Jesus mean by that?

Well, very fortunately, John has recorded for us a little bit longer description of this conversation between Jesus and Pilate. And I’d like you to turn with me to John 18, verses 33 through 37 where John records for us a little bit more detail about this specific exchange between Jesus and Pilate which helps us understand exactly what Jesus was saying to Pilate, when Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” John 18:33 through 37: “Therefore, Pilate entered again into the praetorium and summoned Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews” Jesus answered,” “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate answered, “I’m not a Jew, am I. Your own nation and the Chief Priest delivered You to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world, if my Kingdom were of this world, then my servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not of this world. Therefore, Pilate said to him, “So You are a King?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a King; for this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”

Jesus basically tells Pilate three things in His response here. First of all He tells Pilate that this phrase, King of the Jews is something that others are either acknowledging about Him, or accusing Him of, that He Himself is not using that title to make some sort of a political claim. In fact, He backs that up by saying, “Look, if I were expiring to be a political ruler, wouldn’t my followers be following Me to prove this was happening to Me?” He says, “That’s proof in the pudding that I am not aspiring to political rule.” So Jesus makes it clear, and this is what Pilate already expected, that this charge that He’s a political revolutionary is a trumped up charge in the mouths of his enemies. It’s not something that can actually be accredited to His own teaching.

Secondly, He explicitly says, in answer to Pilate’s question in verse 36 of John 18, that He is not an earthly king with political aspirations. My Kingdom is not of this world. Now Pilate knows exactly what He means, but He goes on to say, “So you are claiming to be a King?” And Jesus answer is basically, “Yes, but I’m the King of Truth. My mission is to come into this world and bear witness to the truth.” And Pilate understood Jesus far better than many understand Him today. Pilate understood that Jesus was not claiming to be a social revolutionary. He was claiming to be a King in a spiritual sense. And Pilate recognized that He was not guilty of any political designs against the Roman empire.

But Jesus continues to refuse to answer the questions of the Sanhedrin. This is so important. Pilate, we have already seen, was a man who was reluctant to deal with Jesus, and from every indication in the gospel, was looking for an excuse to help Jesus get off the hook.

Jesus nevertheless does not speak when He was charged by the Sanhedrin. You need to understand why Jesus is doing that. Jesus, by not speaking in response of the charges of the Sanhedrin, is not only showing a contempt for the wickedness of their unjust charges, their true charges, Jesus is adopting this as a strategy to assure that He died for your sins. You need to understand that after you’ve read the gospel, it’s very likely that with a little talking Jesus could have gotten Himself off the hook. Pilate was anxious for Jesus to supply Him with reasons to let Him free. Jesus refuses to do it. My friends, the reason that Jesus refuses to do it is because He’s already been in the garden; He has wrestled with the consequences of His Heavenly Father, and He will not do anything to get in the way of dying.

Again, we see a glimpse of the dignity of our Savior, in His manhood, and His complete and unequivocal commitment to die for us. Jesus’ silence in His trial is not a model for how we as Christians ought to respond in a trial when we are unjustly accused. Jesus is not saying, “Now all you Christians, if you are every unjustly accused and you’re in a court of criminal law, make sure and not respond to the prosecutors accusations. Make sure and not have legal counsel. Jesus is not giving us that. Jesus is not showing how we ought to respond in the face of an unjust accusation in criminal court.

Jesus’ actions are unique because He is unique. His silence is reflective of His commitment to die for you because of His love for you and His love for the Father. The Lord Jesus Christ who does not open His mouth is sending a thunderous message to you that He wanted to bear your sin. And He is sending a thunderous message that there is nothing more in the world that delights Him than doing the will of His Heavenly Father even if it means being condemned unjustly. He loved to do the will of His Heavenly Father, and it was the Father’s will that He should die for the sins of His people. And, therefore, the Lord Jesus Christ was not willing to do anything that would spare Him from the torture and death which He would have to endure in order to release you from the bondage of the condemnation of sin.

When you see the silence of your Lord, I want you to remember two things. I want you to remember how committed He is to you, and taste and see the goodness of the Lord. Then I want you to remember the silence of those who are spoken of on judgment day who will have nothing to say before the just condemnation of God, and I want you to give thanks that you will not be in that silent party because Christ took that silence for you.

II. The sentencing of Jesus.

And then you see His sentencing in verses 15 through 26. And again, as we see Jesus’ sentence from Pilate, we see that the innocence of Jesus reaffirmed, we see the injustice of the sentence, and we see the weakness of man in the face of the wickedness of man in the incident which is recorded in verses 15 through 18 where Pilate would normally release a Jewish prisoner on a festival at the request of the crowd.

This passage is recorded for us again to show us that Pilate thought Jesus was innocent. Pilate was suspicious of the charges that the Jews were bringing. He was suspicious of the motives of the Jewish leaders. We know from other history that Pilate had a horrendous relationship with the Jewish people. He had contempt for them; they had contempt for him. There was abrasive contact between Pilate and the religious leaders of Israel for much of time while Pilate was the governor. And so this man was inherently suspicious of why these men wanted to be cooperative with him. Why would you want to help me out? We’ve never had a good relationship. In verse 18 it specifically says he figured these men were envious of Jesus. So he tries to provide a way for Jesus to be spared their particular condemnation. And what is Matthew telling us? Matthew is telling us that Pilate, the man who will eventually condemn Jesus, thought He was innocent.

And then in verse 19, this mysterious, this strange story about the dream that Pilate’s wife had. Pilate is sitting there on the judgment seat and a messenger comes up and whispers in his ear, and he says, “By the way, Pilate, your wife had a dream last night. She says, don’t have anything to do with Him. He’s innocent.” So Matthew is saying not only does Pilate think He’s innocent, Pilate’s wife thinks He’s innocent. And so you’ve opened up Matthew 27 with what happening. In Matthew 27, 1 through 10, Jesus’ betrayer declares that He’s what? Innocent. Then Jesus’ judge, Pilate, declares that He’s what? Innocent. Then Jesus’ judge’s wife declares that He’s what? Innocent. What’s Matthew trying to tell us? That He’s the spotless Lamb of God. And He’s the victim of injustice. He’s been unjustly accused by those who are bringing these charges. And still Matthew reiterates in verse 20, the Chief Priest and the elders will not relent. They demand that He be put to death.

And so finally Pilate gives them a choice. Who do you want? Do you want Barrabas or Jesus the Christ, the anointed one, Jesus the Messiah? Which one do you want, Jesus the criminal, or Jesus the Christ? And the answer is unequivocal from the crowd. “We want Barabbas. Bring him. Kill Jesus.” And so Matthew goes out of his way to tell us that the Chief Priest and the elders stirred the multitudes up and insisted that Jesus be put to death.

Finally, Pilate weakens before this wickedness, weakens before this miscarriage of justice, and he literally washes his hands from the matter. That’s where we get the metaphor. He washes his hands, which is a sign that he declares himself to be innocent of this matter, and he puts all the responsibility for the condemnation of Jesus Christ on His accusers. And His accusers mockingly accept it. His blood be upon us, and upon our children. They mock Him.

What is Matthew saying here? Many have accused Matthew in this verse, verse 25 of Matthew 27, of accusing all the Jewish people of all ages of being solely and singular responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. It is this passage, for instance, which many Nazi doctors went to and accused the Jews of being Christ killers. My friends, that’s a gross misunderstanding of what Matthew is saying. Remember this: Matthew is a Jew, writing to Jews who he wants to have eternal life. This is not an anti-Semitic statement, and we’ll talk about that in just a moment.

Pilate then in verse 26 has Jesus flogged and sent away for crucifixion. I want you to see two or three great things in this great passage. The first thing I want you to see is the weakness of Pilate in the face of injustice. That’s a negative of justice. That’s a negative example for us as Christians if we have an position of influence, whether it be in the legal system or in our society. Pilate was a man of influence and position and status and power who could have done something about this, and he refuses to do it. He acted pragmatically because of his own interests and not on the basis of principle. And I think there is a negative message in that for us in that. As Christians, whenever we have influence in society, God intends for us to act on principle and not merely on expedience.

But more than that, Matthew is showing us here the innocence of Christ in this section. He is showing us that Jesus’ betrayer has pronounced Him as innocent. Jesus’ judge pronounces Him as innocent. Jesus is utterly innocent of what He is being accused of. He is the righteous Lamb of God being led away to slaughter for sins that He has not committed. What is Matthew doing? He is building for you a theology of the death of Christ. He’s telling why the death of Christ occurred. Was it an accident? No. Was it out of control of the plan of God? No. Was it something whereby Jesus did something wrong, and He accidentally fell into this situation? No. Matthew is saying over and over this is an innocent man who is going to die. He is preparing you to understand the meaning of the death of Christ. And Matthew is showing you in that very difficult phrase in verse 25, he is showing you here that any Jew, or anyone for that matter, but any Jew especially he is speaking of – remember, he’s speaking in the context of Jews and Jewish Christians – any Jew who rejects the Lord Jesus Christ is calling down on his own head the curses of God. That’s Matthew’s point.

Now I want you to understand what Matthew is saying. Matthew is not making an anti-Semitic statement. So often the New Testament is accused to being anti-Semitic. I had a professor in seminary who was a converted Jew. He was brought up as an Orthodox Jew. He had gone to Hebrew school as a boy. He was a wonderful Old Testament professor, as you might imagine, and a great Hebrew teachers; one of the best language teachers that I ever had. But, in the town where I went to seminary, we had a very large university that had a very large Jewish student body. He was asked by the Rabbi and the student leaders of the Jewish fellowship on campus to come and give an address to their Jewish fellowship on the subject “Is the New Testament anti-Semitic?” And passages just like this are what they wanted him to address. And he said, “I’ll do it on one condition. That I can speak to you two times, not just once, and that the first time I get to speak on any subject that I want.” And so they said, “Okay, well, that’s a little strange, but that’s fine.” So, when he showed up for his first talk he said, “My topic for today is the Old Testament anti-Semitics.” And his point was this: If you look at the Old Testament, the condemnation of the Jewish people is put in much stronger terms in the Old Testament than it ever is in the New Testament. So if you want to accuse the New Testament of being anti-Semitic, you’ve got to accuse the Old Testament of being anti-Semitic. And the second thing he wanted to point out was both the Old and the New Testaments were written by Jews. And so if you want to accuse them of being anti-Semitic, you have to say it was Jewish anti-Semitism against Jews. And so he made it a beautiful case for showing that Matthew’s intention is not to bring stricture against an entire race of people. This is a religious assertion.

Now look, I understand that this assertion is not less controversial today. Let’s face it, our Southern Baptist friends have found themselves in a whole heap of trouble, because they were going to witness to Muslims and Hindus and Jews and others. And a member of Congress wrote a letter on Congressional stationary to every other member of the House of Representatives and sent it urging them to use their influence against the Southern Baptist Convention that was fostering a sense of intolerance through this campaign to convert Jews and Muslins and Hindus and people of other faiths. They wanted to stop the Southern Baptist campaign where they were going into the cities and doing blanket evangelism. Well, my friends, that is part and parcel with society that doesn’t believe in truth anymore, and it doesn’t want anybody to say, “I believe that this is truth, it’s absolute truth, and if you don’t believe it, you’re in trouble.”

You know, I don’t understand the rationale. If a Muslin friend, or a Roman Catholic friend, or a United Pentecostal friend, or a Mormon friend, or a Jehovah’s Witness friend came to me and told me something that they thought I needed to believe for eternal salvation, I would not believe that it was an act of violence against me, unless they had a sword in their hand. Sure, there are wrong ways about going about bearing witness, but when someone is speaking to you about ultimate matters of religious truth, I may not agree with those friends when they come to me and tell me what they say they think is necessary for salvation, but I don’t view it as an attack or an act of violence. Our society wants us to view evangelism in that way.

Let me just say Judaism was the first evangelistic religion. The Jews were sending other Jews through the Mediterranean world to do what? To convert pagan Romans long before the Christians were here. We’re just following in the way. No, my friend, there’s nothing anti-Semitic, or anti-Muslim or anti-Hindu about telling someone that if you do not embrace the Lord Jesus Christ you cannot find salvation. That is actually an act of love. Because if we really believe that you cannot see the face of God and enjoy fellowship with Him forever without embracing the Lord Jesus Christ, it would be the cruelest, it would be the most violent thing that we could possibly do to not tell people that. No, my friends, evangelism is an act of love. Desiring to see people converted is not an act of violence, it is an act of the heart which is convinced of God’s truth in His word.

And in this passage Matthew is simply straight with his people. He’s saying, look my dear friends, if you join that mob that called Jesus cursed, and ask for His blood to be visited on you, you will be cut off from God forever. Matthew is speaking in deadly earnest with the people he loved, and whom he longs to embrace the Lord Jesus Christ. He doesn’t hate them, he loves them with all his heart. And those whom we desire to seek Christ and to love Him and trust Him, we love them with all our hearts.

But my friends, finally in this passage Matthew is showing us the wounds which He bore for our transgressions. You remember Isaiah 53, verse 5? He was wounded for our transgressions; and the torture and the beating and the flogging which the Lord Jesus Christ received here, He received because He chose to receive them for you.

Let me just remind you again that if there’s ever an indication that Pilate wanted Jesus to talk Himself out of the charges, when Jesus refuses to talk Himself out of these charges, Jesus is as much saying, “I choose to be beaten, I choose to be scourged, I choose to be crucified for that man’s bitterness, for that woman’s anger, for that man’s rebellion against God, for that man’s estrangement from his wife and for that child’s disobedience. I choose to be scourged, beaten, flogged, crucified, dead and buried, because I wish to stand in the place of all who trust in Me so that they might never receive the just sentence of God. I receive this unjust sentence so that you might receive the sentence of grace.

Now, my friends that is a feast which is spread for every sinner. Let us come to that feast and eat. Let us pray.

Our Lord and our God, we cannot comprehend the depth of the love and the goodness of the Lord Jesus Christ. We pray that You would give us some inkling of it this day, and that we would embrace it truly by faith in Him. We ask it in His name, Amen.

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