In our last essay we studied Luke 22:39-65 in which we saw Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer, his arrest, Peter’s denial, and the abuse of Jesus. In this essay we are studying Luke 22:66-23:25. The council mentioned in verse 66 would have been the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin was a group of Jewish elders, priests, and scribes to whom the Romans gave authority to rule over religious matters in Israel. Notice in verse 66 that Luke says the Sanhedrin met at dawn, a common time to begin the business day in that culture. Some scholars, because of Mark’s account, suggest that the Sanhedrin met twice, once during the night at the house of Caiaphas, and once at dawn in their official meeting place. Mark mentions the council (Mk. 14: 55) and describes a formal hearing with the calling of witnesses. Luke does not give any such details. According to this theory, since the Sanhedrin was not permitted to do official business during the night, they met a second time at dawn to make official what they had decided during the night. Others, like Howard Marshall, believe that the Sanhedrin probably only met once at dawn. I lean toward the two meetings theory.
Luke records only the key exchanges between the Sanhedrin and Jesus. They asked him if he was the Messiah, the Christ. And he countered that they would not believe him if he told them. He also told them that they would not answer his questions, because that had been his experience in previous encounters with the Jewish authorities. In other words, honest dialogue was not possible.
Then Jesus, using his favorite self-designation, Son of Man, declared that he would soon be seated at the “right hand of the power of God.” So they asked him if he was the Son of God, and he replied vaguely, “You say that I am.” However, Greek and Hebrew scholars say that the Rabbinic language that underlies this statement suggests an agreement with the content of the question asked. That is to say, the expression affirms the content of the question. In other words Jesus was agreeing that he is the Son of God. Verse 71 indicates the truth of this, because the Sanhedrin understood his answer that way: “What further testimony do we need?” they responded. “We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.”
Next, the Jewish authorities took Jesus to Pilate, the Roman Procurator. As I noted earlier, the Sanhedrin had jurisdiction only over religious matters. And the worst punishment they could hand out was expulsion from the synagogue or flogging. Only the Romans could impose the death penalty, which was what the Sanhedrin leaders wanted. So as we see in 23:1-5, they brought Jesus to Pilate with trumped up charges in order to secure a judgment of death. All the Gospels indicate that crowds accompanied the Sanhedrin to the Praetorium. Whether they gathered spontaneously, or were stirred up by the religious authorities is not clear. In Luke the crowds are mentioned in verse four.
Luke tells us that the Sanhedrin’s charges were threefold. First, they claimed that Jesus was perverting their nation. What they meant by that is not explained, but the word translated “perverting” also means to “mislead.” The idea seems to be that Jesus was leading the nation in a wrong direction, that he was undermining her in some underhanded way. Of course that was not true.
Second, they accused Jesus of forbidding Jews to pay taxes to Rome. We know from chapter 20, verses 20-26, that this charge was an outright lie. In a direct answer to a question about taxes, Jesus had taught that they should “give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (v. 25).
Third, they accused Jesus of claiming he was “Messiah, a king.” It also could be translated “an anointed king.” Of course it was the king part that the Jews wanted Pilate to hear. They wanted him to think that Jesus was setting himself up as a rival to the Roman emperor.
Pilate was not impressed by any of these charges. Luke tells us only one thing that Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” And he answered with the same kind of language he had used when he was before the Sanhedrin, “You say so.”
In verse five the Sanhedrin implied that Jesus was a revolutionary by reminding Pilate that he began his movement in Galilee and brought it to the gates of Jerusalem, which had been the pattern of previous revolutionary movements.
Verses 6-12 are found only in Luke. Therefore he is the only Gospel writer who tells us about Jesus’ hearing before Herod. Luke tells us that when Pilate heard that Jesus had begun his movement in Galilee, he asked if Jesus was a Galilean. As you know Jesus was born in Judea, but he grew up in Galilee, and much of his ministry took place there. When it was confirmed that Jesus was a Galilean, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, one of the sons of Herod the Great, whom the Romans had made king of Galilee and Perea. Herod conveniently happened to be in Jerusalem for the Jewish feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread. And Pilate wanted Herod’s opinion of the situation.
Verse 10 tells us that the Jewish religious authorities accompanied Jesus to his hearing before Herod, and continued to make accusations. Herod was glad to oblige Pilate, because he had wanted to see Jesus for a long time. He had heard about Jesus’ ministry, and he especially hoped to see Jesus perform a miracle (v. 8). But Herod was disappointed. Jesus not only did not perform a miracle, he refused to answer Herod’s questions (v. 9). So Herod and his soldiers mocked Jesus and sent him back to Pilate (v. 11). Notice that Herod did not accept the charges against Jesus. He thought him only worthy of mockery.
In verses 13-25 we see that after Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate, Pilate called the Jewish authorities together to render his verdict. He tells to them that neither he nor Herod found Jesus guilty of the charges they had made against him. Then he announced his intention to have Jesus flogged and released (vv. 13-17).
But the Jews rejected that decision! They demanded that Pilate release Barabbas instead. Now Barabbas was an insurrectionist and murderer. But they wanted Barabbas released instead of the innocent Jesus (vv. 18-19).
Mark and Matthew give us more details. They tell us that the governor customarily released a prisoner during the feast. Although Jesus should have been released simply because he was innocent, it seems that Pilate thought the people might be less resistant if they thought he was releasing Jesus as though he were guilty. So Pilate suggested that Jesus be the one released to celebrate the feast. But that was not acceptable. The Jewish leaders stirred up the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas (Mk. 15:6-11; Mt. 27:27:1-21).
In verse 20 Pilate told the crowd again that Jesus was innocent and that he wanted to release Jesus. But again the crowd shouted, “Crucify, crucify him.” In verse 22, Pilate tried a third time to reason with the crowd. Once again he pronounced Jesus’ innocence and announced his intention to flog and release him. But once again the crowd shouted loudly that they wanted Jesus crucified. And as Luke notes at the end of verse 23, “their voices prevailed.” So Pilate caved in. He released Barabbas and handed Jesus over for crucifixion.
The Gospel of John, in John 19:28-19:16, gives us many more details regarding the interaction between Pilate, Jesus and the Jews. We won’t take time to look closely at John’s account, but we want to get the main things, which agree with the Synoptic accounts. According to John, Pilate examined Jesus inside the Praetorium, while the Jews stayed outside (18:28). And Pilate went back and forth between the outside and inside, between the Jews and Jesus. In that process of going back and forth, Pilate three times declared to the Jews that he found no case against Jesus (vv. 18:38; 19:4; 19:6). And when the Jews began to demand the release of Barabbas, Pilate had Jesus flogged, as he had said he would (19:1). But in the end, for political reasons Pilate caved into the demands of the crowds and the Jewish leaders, (19:12-16).
Now John and history tell us a bit about those political reasons. Unfortunately for Pilate he already was in some political “hot water” with Rome due to some earlier decisions he had made. For example, on his very first visit to Jerusalem as prefect he came with the usual Roman standards, that is banners. Now the Roman flagpoles had little busts of the emperor on top. The idea was to promote the idea that the emperor was divine. Now one of the concessions the Romans had made to Jewish religious sensibilities was to remove the little busts from their flagpoles on such occasions so that the Jews would not be scandalized by the Roman standards. But Pilate, on that first visit, refused to remove the busts. Therefore he got off on the wrong foot with the Jews, and they reported him to Rome.
Later on Pilate did a similar thing that created another mess. He had honorary shields made for his soldiers that honored the emperor as a god, and then he had the soldiers display the shields. Why that was so important to Pilate I don’t know; but he got into a conflict with the Jews about it. And he stubbornly refused to relent. In the end Rome had to order Pilate to remove the shields.
On another occasion Pilate, in order to improve the water supply in Jerusalem, took money from the Jewish temple to help finance a new aqueduct. That was not a good decision. The Jews made a big stink about that all the way to Rome.
So Pilate already was in trouble with Rome. The Jews knew that, and they parlayed it into getting their way with Jesus. They threatened to tell Rome that Pilate was refusing to take action against a man who was claiming to be king in place of Caesar. Therefore Pilate crumbled, and gave them what they wanted.