We have here an account of Christ’s arraignment before Pilate, the Roman governor, in the praetorium (a Latin word made Greek), the praetor’s house, or hall of judgment; thither they hurried him, to get him condemned in the Roman court, and executed by the Roman power. Being resolved on his death, they took this course, 1. That he might be put to death the more legally and regularly, according to the present constitution of their government, since they became a province of the empire; not stoned in a popular tumult, as Stephen, but put to death with the present formalities of justice. Thus he was treated as a malefactor, being made sin for us. 2. That he might be put to death the more safely. If they could engage the Roman government in the matter, which the people stood in awe of, there would be little danger of an uproar. 3. That he might be put to death with more reproach to himself. The death of the cross, which the Romans commonly used, being of all deaths the most ignominious, they were desirous by it to put an indelible mark of infamy upon him, and so to sink his reputation for ever. This therefore they harped upon, Crucify him. 4. That he might be put to death with less reproach to them. It was an invidious thing to put one to death that had done so much good in the world, and therefore they were willing to throw the odium upon the Roman government, to make that the less acceptable to the people, and save themselves from the reproach. Thus many are more afraid of the scandal of a bad action than of the sin of it. See Acts 5:28. Two things are here observed concerning the prosecution:—(1.) Their policy and industry in the prosecution: It was early; some think about two or three in the morning, others about five or six, when most people were in their beds; and so there would be the less danger of opposition from the people that were for Christ; while, at the same time, they had their agents about, to call those together whom they could influence to cry out against him. See how much their heart was upon it, and how violent they were in the prosecution. Now that they had him in their hands, they would lose no time till they had him upon the cross, but denied themselves their natural rest, to push on this matter. See Mic. 2:1. (2.) Their superstition and vile hypocrisy: The chief priests and elders, though they came along with the prisoner, that the thing might be done effectually, went not into the judgment-hall, because it was the house of an uncircumcised Gentile, lest they should be defiled, but kept out of doors, that they might eat the passover, not the paschal lamb (that was eaten the night before) but the passover-feast, upon the sacrifices which were offered on the fifteenth day, the Chagigah, as they called it, the passover-bullocks spoken of Deut. 16:2; 2 Chron. 30:24; 35:8, 9. These they were to eat of, and therefore would not go into the court, for fear of touching a Gentile, and thereby contracting, not a legal, but only a traditional pollution. This they scrupled, but made no scruple of breaking through all the laws of equity to persecute Christ to the death. They strained at a gnat, and swallowed a camel. Let us now see what passed at the judgment-hall. Here is,
I. Pilate’s conference with the prosecutors. They were called first, and stated what they had to say against the prisoner, as was very fit, John 18:29-32.
1. The judge calls for the indictment. Because they would not come into the hall, he went out to them into the court before the house, to talk with them. Looking upon Pilate as a magistrate, that we may give every one his due, here are three things commendable in him:—(1.) His diligent and close application to business. If it had been upon a good occasion, it had been very well that he was willing to be called up early to the judgment-seat. Men in public trusts must not love their ease. (2.) His condescending to the humour of the people, and receding from the honour of his place to gratify their scruples. He might have said, “If they be so nice as not to come in to me, let them go home as they came;” by the same rule as we might say, “If the complainant scruple to take off his hat to the magistrate, let not his complaint be heard;” but Pilate insists not upon it, bears with them, and goes out to them; for, when it is for good, we should become all things to all men. (3.) His adherence to the rule of justice, in demanding the accusation, suspecting the prosecution to be malicious: “What accusation bring you against this man?” What is the crime you charge him with, and what proof have you of it? It was a law of nature, before Valerius Publicola made it a Roman law, Neh. quis indicta causa condemnetur—No man should be condemned unheard. See Acts 25:16, 17. It is unreasonable to commit a man, without alleging some cause in the warrant, and much more to arraign a man when there is no bill of indictment found against him.
2. The prosecutors demand judgment against him upon a general surmise that he was a criminal, not alleging, much less proving, any thing in particular worthy of death or of bonds (John 18:30): If he were not a malefactor, or evildoer, we would not have delivered him to thee to be condemned. This bespeaks them, (1.) Very rude and uncivil to Pilate, a company of ill-natured men, that affected to despise dominion. When Pilate was so complaisant to them as to come out to treat with them, yet they were to the highest degree out of humour with him. He put the most reasonable question to them that could be; but, if it had been the most absurd, they could not have answered him with more disdain. (2.) Very spiteful and malicious towards our Lord Jesus: right or wrong, they will have him to be a malefactor, and treated as one. We are to presume a man innocent till he is proved guilty, but they will presume him guilty who could prove himself innocent. They cannot say, “He is a traitor, a murderer, a felon, a breaker of the peace,” but they say, “He is an evil-doer.” He an evil-doer who went about doing good! Let those be called whom he had cured, and fed, and taught; whom he has rescued from devils, and raised from death; and let them be asked whether he be an evil-doer or no. Note, It is no new thing for the best of benefactors to be branded and run down as the worst of malefactors. (3.) Very proud and conceited of themselves, and their own judgment and justice, as if their delivering a man up, under the general character of a malefactor, were sufficient for the civil magistrate to ground a judicial sentence upon, than which what could be more haughty?
3. The judge remands him to their own court (John 18:31): “Take you him, and judge him according to your own law, and do not trouble me with him.” Now, (1.) Some think Pilate herein complimented them, acknowledging the remains of their power, and allowing them to exert it. Corporal punishment they might inflict, as scourging in their synagogues; whether capital or no is uncertain. “But,” saith Pilate, “go as far as your law will allow you, and, if you go further, it shall be connived at.” This he said, willing to do the Jews a pleasure, but unwilling to do them the service they required. (2.) Others think he bantered them, and upbraided them with their present state of weakness and subjection. They would be the sole judges of the guilt. “Pray,” saith Pilate, “if you will be so, go on as you have begun; you have found him guilty by your own law, condemn him, if you dare, by your own law, to carry on the humour.” Nothing is more absurd, nor more deserves to be exposed, than for those to pretend to dictate, and boast of their wisdom, who are weak and in subordinate stations, and whose lot it is to be dictated to. Some think Pilate here reflects upon the law of Moses, as if it allowed them what the Roman law would by no means allow—the judging of a man unheard. “It may be your law will suffer such a thing, but ours will not.” Thus, through their corruptions, the law of God was blasphemed; and so is his gospel too.
4. They disown any authority as judges, and (since it must be so) are content to be prosecutors. They now grow less insolent and more submissive, and own, “It is not lawful for us to put any man to death, whatever less punishment we may inflict, and this is a malefactor whom we would have the blood of.”
(1.) Some think they had lost their power to give judgment in matters of life and death only by their own carelessness, and cowardly yielding to the darling iniquities of the age; so Dr. Lightfoot ouk exesti—It is not in our power to pass sentence of death upon any, if we do, we shall have the mob about us immediately.
(2.) Others think their power was taken from them by the Romans, because they had not used it well, or because it was thought too great a trust to be lodged in the hands of a conquered and yet an unsubdued people. Their acknowledgement of this they designed for a compliment to Pilate, and to atone for their rudeness (John 18:30), but it amounts to a full evidence that the sceptre was departed from Judah, and therefore that now the Messiah was come, Gen. 49:10. If the Jews have no power to put any man to death, where is the sceptre? Yet they ask not, Where is the Shiloh?
(3.) However, there was a providence in it, that either they should have not power to put any man to death, or should decline the exercise of it upon this occasion, That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spoke, signifying what death he should die, John 18:32. Observe, [1.] In general, that even those who designed the defeating of Christ’s sayings were, beyond their intention, made serviceable to the fulfilling of them by an overruling hand of God. No word of Christ shall fall to the ground; he can never either deceive or be deceived. Even the chief priests, while they persecuted him as a deceiver, had their spirit so directed as to help to prove him true, when we should think that by taking other measures they might have defeated his predictions. Howbeit, they meant not so, Isa. 10:7. [2.] Those sayings of Christ in particular were fulfilled which he had spoken concerning his own death. Two sayings of Christ concerning his death were fulfilled, by the Jews declining to judge him according to their law. First, He had said that he should be delivered to the Gentiles, and that they should put him to death (Matt. 20:19; Mark 10:33; Luke 18:32, 33), and hereby that saying was fulfilled. Secondly, He had said that he should be crucified (Matt. 20:19; 26:2), lifted up, John 3:14; 12:32. Now, if they had judged him by their law, he had been stoned; burning, strangling, and beheading, were in some cases used among the Jews, but never crucifying. It was therefore necessary that Christ should be put to death by the Romans, that, being hanged upon a tree, he might be made a curse for us (Gal. 3:13), and his hands and feet might be pierced. As the Roman power had brought him to be born at Bethlehem, so now to die upon a cross, and both according to the scriptures. It is likewise determined concerning us, though not discovered to us, what death we shall die, which should free us from all disquieting cares about that matter. “Lord, what, and when, and how thou hast appointed.”
II. Here is Pilate’s conference with the prisoner, John 18:33; where we have,
1. The prisoner set to the bar. Pilate, after he had conferred with the chief priests at his door, entered into the hall, and called for Jesus to be brought in. He would not examine him in the crowd, where he might be disturbed by the noise, but ordered him to be brought into the hall; for he made no difficulty of going in among the Gentiles. We by sin were become liable to the judgment of God, and were to be brought before his bar; therefore Christ, being made sin and a curse for us, was arraigned as a criminal. Pilate entered into judgment with him, that God might not enter into judgment with us.
2. His examination. The other evangelists tell us that his accusers had laid it to his charge that he perverted the nation, forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, and upon this he is examined.
(1.) Here is a question put to him, with a design to ensnare him and to find out something upon which to ground an accusation: “Art thou the king of the Jews? ho basileus—that king of the Jews who has been so much talked of and so long expected—Messiah the prince, art thou he? Dost thou pretend to be he? Dost thou call thyself, and wouldest thou be thought so?” For he was far from imagining that really he was so, or making a question of that. Some think Pilate asked this with an air of scorn and contempt: “What! art thou a king, who makest so mean a figure? Art thou the king of the Jews, by whom thou art thus hated and persecuted? Art thou king de jure—of right, while the emperor is only king de facto—in fact?” Since it could not be proved he ever said it, he would constrain him to say it now, that he might proceed upon his own confession.
(2.) Christ answers this question with another; not for evasion, but as an intimation to Pilate to consider what he did, and upon what grounds he went (John 18:34): “Sayest thou this thing of thyself, from a suspicion arising in thy own breast, or did others tell it thee of me, and dost thou ask it only to oblige them?” [1.] “It is plain that thou hast no reason to say this of thyself.” Pilate was bound by his office to take care of the interests of the Roman government, but he could not say that this was in any danger, or suffered any damage, from any thing our Lord Jesus had ever said or done. He never appeared in worldly pomp, never assumed any secular power, never acted as a judge or divider; never were any traitorous principles or practices objected to him, nor any thing that might give the least shadow of suspicion. [2.] “If others tell it thee of me, to incense thee against me, thou oughtest to consider who they are, and upon what principles they go, and whether those who represent me as an enemy to Caesar are not really such themselves, and therefore use this only as a pretence to cover their malice, for, if so, the matter ought to be well weighed by a judge that would do justice.” Nay, if Pilate had been as inquisitive as he ought to have been in this matter, he would have found that the true reason why the chief priests were outrageous against Jesus was because he did not set up a temporal kingdom in opposition to the Roman power; if he would have done this, and would have wrought miracles to bring the Jews out of the Roman bondage, as Moses did to bring them out of the Egyptian, they would have been so far from siding with the Romans against him that they would have made him their king, and have fought under him against the Romans; but, not answering this expectation of theirs, they charged that upon him of which they were themselves most notoriously guilty-disaffection to and design against the present government; and was such an information as this fit to be countenanced?
(3.) Pilate resents Christ’s answer, and takes it very ill, John 18:35. This is a direct answer to Christ’s question, John 18:34. [1.] Christ had asked him whether he spoke of himself. “No,” says he; “am I a Jew, that thou suspectest me to be in the plot against thee? I know nothing of the Messiah, nor desire to know, and therefore interest not myself in the dispute who is the Messiah and who not; the dispute who is the Messiah and who not; it is all alike to me.” Observe with what disdain Pilate asks, Amos I a Jew? The Jews were, upon many accounts, an honourable people; but, having corrupted the covenant of their God, he made them contemptible and base before all the people (Mal. 2:8, 9), so that a man of sense and honour reckoned it a scandal to be counted a Jew. Thus good names often suffer for the sake of the bad men that wear them. It is sad that when a Turk is suspected of dishonesty he should ask, “What! do you take me for a Christian?” [2.] Christ had asked him whether others told him. “Yes,” says he, “and those thine own people, who, one would think would be biased in favour of thee, and the priests, whose testimony, in verbum sacerdotis—on the word of a priest, ought to be regarded; and therefore I have nothing to do but to proceed upon their information.” Thus Christ, in his religion, still suffers by those that are of his own nation, even the priests, that profess relation to him, but do not live up to their profession. [3.] Christ had declined answering that question, Art thou the king of the Jews? And therefore Pilate puts another question to him more general, “What hast thou done? What provocation hast thou given to thy own nation, and particularly the priests, to be so violent against thee? Surely there cannot be all this smoke without some fire, what is it?”
(4.) Christ, in his next reply, gives a more full and direct answer to Pilate’s former question, Art thou a king? explaining in what sense he was a king, but not such a king as was any ways dangerous to the Roman government, not a secular king, for his interest was not supported by secular methods, John 18:36. Observe,
[1.] An account of the nature and constitution of Christ’s kingdom: It is not of this world. It is expressed negatively to rectify the present mistakes concerning it; but the positive is implied, it is the kingdom of heaven, and belongs to another world. Christ is a king, and has a kingdom, but not of this world. First Its rise is not from this world; the kingdoms of men arise out of the sea and the earth (Dan. 7:3; Rev. 13:1, 11); but the holy city comes from God out of heaven, Rev. 22:2. His kingdom is not by succession, election, or conquest, but by the immediate and special designation of the divine will and counsel. Secondly, Its nature is not worldly; it is a kingdom within men (Luke 16:21), set up in their hearts and consciences (Rom. 14:17), its riches spiritual, its powers spiritual, and all its glory within. The ministers of state in Christ’s kingdom have not the spirit of the world, 1 Cor. 2:12. Thirdly, Its guards and supports are not worldly; its weapons are spiritual. It neither needed nor used secular force to maintain and advance it, nor was it carried on in a way hurtful to kings or provinces; it did not in the least interfere with the prerogatives of princes nor the property of their subjects; it tended not to alter any national establishment in secular things, nor opposed any kingdom but that of sin and Satan. Fourthly, Its tendency and design are not worldly. Christ neither aimed nor would allow his disciples to aim at the pomp and power of the great men of the earth. Fifthly, Its subjects, though they are in the world, yet are not of the world; they are called and chosen out of the world, are born from, and bound for, another world; they are neither the world’s pupils nor its darlings, neither governed by its wisdom nor enriched with its wealth.
[2.] An evidence of the spiritual nature of Christ’s kingdom produced. If he had designed an opposition to the government, he would have fought them at their own weapons, and would have repelled force with force of the same nature; but he did not take this course: If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews, and my kingdom be ruined by them. But, First, His followers did not offer to fight; there was no uproar, no attempt to rescue him, though the town was now full of Galileans, his friends and countrymen, and they were generally armed; but the peaceable behaviour of his disciples on this occasion was enough to put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. Secondly, He did not order them to fight; nay, he forbade them, which was an evidence both that he did not depend upon worldly aids (for he could have summoned legions of angels into his service, which showed that his kingdom was from above), and also that he did not dread worldly opposition, for he was very willing to be delivered to the Jews, as knowing that what would have been the destruction of any worldly kingdom would be the advancement and establishment of his; justly therefore does he conclude, Now you may see my kingdom is not from hence; in the world but not of it.
(5.) In answer to Pilate’s further query, he replies yet more directly, John 18:37; where we have, [1.] Pilate’s plain question: “Art thou a king then? Thou speakest of a kingdom thou hast; art thou then, in any sense, a king? And what colour hast thou for such a claim? Explain thyself.” [2.] The good confession which our Lord Jesus witnessed before Pontius Pilate, in answer to this (1 Tim. 6:13): Thou sayest that I am a king, that is, It is as thou sayest, I am a king; for I came to bear witness of the truth. First, He grants himself to be a king, though not in the sense that Pilate meant. The Messiah was expected under the character of a king, Messiah the prince; and therefore, having owned to Caiaphas that he was the Christ, he would not disown to Pilate that he was king, lest he should seem inconsistent with himself. Note, Though Christ took upon him the form of a servant, yet even then he justly claimed the honour and authority of a king. Secondly, He explains himself, and shows how he is a king, as he came to bear witness of the truth; he rules in the minds of men by the power of truth. If he had meant to declare himself a temporal prince, he would have said, For this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, to rule the nations, to conquer kings, and to take possession of kingdoms; no, he came to be a witness, a witness for the God that made the world, and against sin that ruins the world, and by this word of his testimony he sets up, and keeps up, his kingdom. It was foretold that he should be a witness to the people, and, as such, a leader and commander to the people, Isa. 55:4. Christ’s kingdom was not of this world, in which truth faileth (Isa. 59:15; Qui nescit dissimulare, nescit regnare—He that cannot dissemble knows not how to reign), but of that world in which truth reigns eternally. Christ’s errand into the world, and his business in the world, were to bear witness to the truth. 1. To reveal it, to discover to the world that which otherwise could not have been known concerning God and his will and good-will to men, John 1:18; 17:26. 2. To confirm it, Rom. 15:8. By his miracles he bore witness to the truth of religion, the truth of divine revelation, and of God’s perfections and providence, and the truth of his promise and covenant, that all men through him might believe. Now by doing this he is a king, and sets up a kingdom. (1.) The foundation and power, the spirit and genius, of Christ’s kingdom, is truth, divine truth. When he said, I am the truth, he said, in effect, I am a king. He conquers by the convincing evidence of truth; he rules by the commanding power of truth, and in his majesty rides prosperously, because of truth, Ps. 45:4. It is with his truth that he shall judge the people, Ps. 96:13. It is the sceptre of his kingdom; he draws with the cords of a man, with truth revealed to us, and received by us in the love of it; and thus he brings thoughts into obedience. He came a light into the world, and rules as the sun by day. (2.) The subjects of this kingdom are those that are of the truth. All that by the grace of God are rescued from under the power of the father of lies, and are disposed to receive the truth and submit to the power and influence of it, will hear Christ’s voice, will become his subjects, and will bear faith and true allegiance to him. Every one that has any real sense of true religion will entertain the Christian religion, and they belong to his kingdom; by the power of truth he makes them willing, Ps. 90:3. All that are in love with truth will hear the voice of Christ, for greater, better, surer, sweeter truths can nowhere be found than are found in Christ, by whom grace and truth came; so that, by hearing Christ’s voice, we know that we are of the truth, 1 John 3:19.
(6.) Pilate, hereupon, puts a good question to him, but does not stay for an answer, John 18:38. He said, What is truth? and immediately went out again.
[1.] It is certain that this was a good question, and could not be put to one that was better able to answer it. Truth is that pearl of great price which the human understanding has a desire for and is in quest of; for it cannot rest but in that which is, or at least is apprehended to be, truth. When we search the scriptures, and attend the ministry of the word, it must be with this enquiry, What is truth? and with this prayer, Lead me in thy truth, into all truth. But many put this question that have not patience and constancy enough to persevere in their search after truth, or not humility and sincerity enough to receive it when they have found it, 2 Tim. 3:7. Thus many deal with their own consciences; they ask them those needful questions, “What am I?” “What have I done?” but will not take time for an answer.
[2.] It is uncertain with what design Pilate asked this question. First, Perhaps he spoke it as a learner, as one that began to think well of Christ, and to look upon him with some respect, and desired to be informed what new notions he advanced and what improvements he pretended to in religion and learning. But while he desired to hear some new truth from him, as Herod to see some miracle, the clamour and outrage of the priests’ mob at his gate obliged him abruptly to let fall the discourse. Secondly, Some think he spoke it as a judge, enquiring further into the cause now brought before him: “Let me into this mystery, and tell me what the truth of it is, the true state of this matter.” Thirdly, Others think he spoke it as a scoffer, in a jeering way: “Thou talkest of truth; canst thou tell what truth is, or give me a definition of it?” Thus he makes a jest of the everlasting gospel, that great truth which the chief priests hated and persecuted, and which Christ was now witnessing to and suffering for; and like men of no religion, who take a pleasure in bantering all religions, he ridicules both sides; and therefore Christ made him no reply. Answer not a fool according to his folly; cast not pearls before swine. But, though Christ would not tell Pilate what is truth, he has told his disciples, and by them has told us, John 14:6.
III. The result of both these conferences with the prosecutors and the prisoner (John 18:38-40), in two things:—
1. The judge appeared his friend, and favourable to him, for,
(1.) He publicly declared him innocent, John 18:38. Upon the whole matter, I find in him no fault at all. He supposes there might be some controversy in religion between him and them, wherein he was as likely to be in the right as they; but nothing criminal appears against him. This solemn declaration of Christ’s innocency was, [1.] For the justification and honour of the Lord Jesus. By this it appears that though he was treated as the worst of malefactors he had never merited such treatment. [2.] For explaining the design and intention of his death, that he did not die for any sin of his own, even in the judgement of the judge himself, and therefore he died as a sacrifice for our sins, and that, even in the judgment of the prosecutors themselves, one man should die for the people, John 11:50. This is he that did no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth (Isa. 53:9), who was to be cut off, but not for himself, Dan. 9:26. [3.] For aggravating the sin of the Jews that prosecuted him with so much violence. If a prisoner has had a fair trial, and has been acquitted by those that are proper judges of the crime, especially if there be no cause to suspect them partial in his favour, he must be believed innocent, and his accusers are bound to acquiesce. But our Lord Jesus, though brought in not guilty, is still run down as a malefactor, and his blood thirsted for.
(2.) He proposed an expedient for his discharge (John 18:39): You have a custom, that I should release to you a prisoner at the passover; shall it be this king of the Jews? He proposed this, not to the chief priests (he knew they would never agree to it), but to the multitude; it was an appeal to the people, as appears, Matt. 27:15. Probably he had heard how this Jesus had been attended but the other day with the hosannas of the common people; he therefore looked upon him to be the darling of the multitude, and the envy only of the rulers, and therefore he made no doubt but they would demand the release of Jesus, and this would stop the mouth of the prosecutors, and all would be well. [1.] He allows their custom, for which, perhaps, they had had a long prescription, in honour of the passover, which was a memorial of their release. But it was adding to God’s words, as if he had not instituted enough for the due commemoration of that deliverance, and, though an act of mercy, might be injustice to the public, Prov. 17:15. [2.] He offers to release Jesus to them, according to the custom. If Pilate had had the honesty and courage that became a judge, he would not have named an innocent person to be competitor with a notorious criminal for this favour; if he found no fault in him, he was bound in conscience to discharge him. But he was willing to trim the matter, and please all sides, being governed more by worldly wisdom than by the rules of equity.
2. The people appeared his enemies, and implacable against him (John 18:40): They cried all again and again, Not this man, let not him be released, but Barabbas. Observe, (1.) How fierce and outrageous they were. Pilate proposed the thing to them calmly, as worthy their mature consideration, but they resolved it in a heat, and gave in their resolution with clamour and noise, and in the utmost confusion. Note, The enemies of Christ’s holy religion cry it down, and so hope to run it down; witness the outcry at Ephesus, Acts 19:34. But those who think the worse of things or persons merely for their being thus exclaimed against have a very small share of constancy and consideration. Nay, there is cause to suspect a deficiency of reason and justice on that side which calls in the assistance of popular tumult. (2.) How foolish and absurd they were, as is intimated in the short account here given of the other candidate: Now Barabbas was a robber, and therefore, [1.] A breaker of the law of God; and yet he shall be spared, rather than one who reproved the pride, avarice, and tyranny of the priests and elders. Though Barabbas be a robber, he will not rob them of Moses’s seat, nor of their traditions, and then no matter. [2.] He was an enemy to the public safety and personal property. The clamour of the town is wont to be against robbers (Job 30:5; Men cried after them as after a thief), yet here it is for one. Thus those do who prefer their sins before Christ. Sin is a robber, every base lust is a robber, and yet foolishly chosen rather than Christ, who would truly enrich us.