We have here an account of what passed in Pilate’s judgment–hall, when the blessed Jesus was brought thither betimes in the morning. Though it was no court–day, Pilate immediately took his case before him. We have there,
I. The trial Christ had before Pilate.
1. His arraignment; Jesus stood before the governor, as the prisoner before the judge. We could not stand before God because of our sins, nor lift up our face in his presence, if Christ had not been thus made sin for us. He was arraigned that we might be discharged. Some think that this bespeaks his courage and boldness; he stood undaunted, unmoved by all their rage. He thus stood in this judgment, that we might stand in God’s judgment. He stood for a spectacle, as Naboth, when he was arraigned, was set on high among the people.
2. His indictment; Art thou the king of the Jews? The Jews were now not only under the government, but under the very jealous inspection, of the Roman powers, which they were themselves to the highest degree disaffected to, and yet now pretended a concern for, to serve this turn; accusing Jesus as an Enemy to Caesar (Luke 23:2), which they could produce no other proof of, than that he himself had newly owned he was the Christ. Now they thought that whoever was the Christ, must be the king of the Jews, and must deliver them from the Roman power, and restore to them a temporal dominion, and enable them to trample upon all their neighbours. According to this chimera of their own, they accused our Lord Jesus, as making himself king of the Jews, in opposition to the Roman yoke; whereas, though he said that he was the Christ, he meant not such a Christ as this. Note, Many oppose Christ’s holy religion, upon a mistake of the nature of it; they dress it up in false colours, and then fight against it. They assuring the governor that, if he made himself Christ, he made himself king of the Jews, the governor takes it for granted, that he goes about to pervert the nation, and subvert the government. Art thou a king? It was plain that he was not so de facto—actually; “But dost thou lay any claim to the government, or pretend a right to rule the Jews?” Note, It has often been the hard fate of Christ’s holy religion, unjustly to fall under the suspicions of the civil powers, as if it were hurtful to kings and provinces, whereas it tends mightily to the benefit of both.
3. His plea; Jesus said unto him, “Thou sayest. It is as thou sayest, though not as thou meanest; I am a king, but not such a king as thou dost suspect me to be.” Thus before Pilate he witnessed a good confession, and was not ashamed to own himself a king, though it looked ridiculous, nor afraid, though at this time it was dangerous.
4. The evidence (Matt. 27:12); He was accused of the chief priests. Pilate found no fault in him; whatever was said, nothing was proved, and therefore what was wanting in matter they made up in noise and violence, and followed him with repeated accusations, the same as they had given in before; but by the repetition they thought to force a belief from the governor. They had learned, not only calumniari—to calumniate, but fortiter calumniari—to calumniate stoutly. The best men have often been accused of the worst crimes.
5. The prisoner’s silence as to the prosecutors’ accusations; He answered nothing, (1.) Because there was no occasion; nothing was alleged but what carried its own confutation along with it. (2.) He was now taken up with the great concern that lay between him and his Father, to whom he was offering up himself a Sacrifice, to answer the demands of his justice, which he was so intent upon, that he minded not what they said against him. (3.) His hour was come, and he submitted to his Father’s will; Not as I will, but as thou wilt. He knew what his Father’s will was, and therefore silently committed himself to him that judgeth righteously. We must not thus by our silence throw away our lives, because we are not lords of our lives, as Christ was of his; nor can we know, as he did, when our hour is come. But hence we must learn, not to render railing for railing, 1Pet. 2:23.
Now, [1.] Pilate pressed him to make some reply (Matt. 27:13); Hearest thou not how many things they witness against thee? What these things were, may be gathered from Luke 23:3, 5, and John 19:7. Pilate, having no malice at all against him, was desirous he should clear himself, urges him to it, and believes he could do it; Hearest thou not? Yes, he did hear; and still he hears all that is witnessed unjustly against his truths and ways; but he keeps silence, because it is the day of his patience, and doth not answer, as he will shortly, Ps. 1:3. [2.] He wondered at his silence; which was not interpreted so much into a contempt of the court, as a contempt of himself. And therefore Pilate is not said to be angry at it, but to have marvelled greatly at it, as a thing very unusual. He believed him to be innocent, and had heard perhaps that never man spake like him; and therefore he thought it strange that he had not one word to say for himself. We have,
II. The outrage and violence of the people, in pressing the governor to crucify Christ. The chief priests had a great interest in the people, they called them Rabbi, Rabbi, made idols of them, and oracles of all they said; and they made use of this to incense them against him, and by the power of the mob gained the point which they could not otherwise carry. Now here are two instances of their outrage.
1. Their preferring Barabbas before him, and choosing to have him released rather than Jesus.
(1.) It seems it was grown into a custom with the Roman governors, for the honouring of the Jews, to grace the feast of the passover with the release of a prisoner, Matt. 27:15. This, they thought, did honour to the feast, and was agreeable to the commemoration of their deliverance; but it was an invention of their own, and no divine institution; though some think that it was ancient, and kept up by the Jewish princes, before they became a province of the empire. However, it was a bad custom, an obstruction to justice, and an encouragement to wickedness. But our gospel–passover is celebrated with the release of prisoners, by him who hath power on earth to forgive sins.
(2.) The prisoner put in competition with our Lord Jesus was Barabbas; he is here called a notable prisoner (Matt. 27:16); either because by birth and breeding he was of some note and quality, or because he had signalized himself by something remarkable in his crimes; whether he was so notable as to recommend himself the more to the favours of the people, and so the more likely to be interceded for, or whether so notable as to make himself more liable to their age, is uncertain. Some think the latter, and therefore Pilate mentioned him, as taking it for granted that they would have desired any one’s release rather than his. Treason, murder, and felony, are the three most enormous crimes that are usually punished by the sword of justice; and Barabbas was guilty of all three, Luke 23:19; John 18:40. A notable prisoner indeed, whose crimes were so complicated.
(3.) The proposal was made by Pilate the governor (Matt. 27:17); Whom will ye that I release unto you? It is probable that the judge had the nomination of two, one of which the people were to choose. Pilate proposed to them to have Jesus released; he was convinced of his innocency, and that the prosecution was malicious; yet had not the courage to acquit him, as he ought to have done, by his own power, but would have him released by the people’s election, and so he hoped to satisfy both his own conscience, and the people too; whereas, finding no fault in him, he ought not to have put him upon the country, or brought him into peril of his life. But such little tricks and artifices as these, to trim the matter, and to keep in with conscience and the world too, are the common practice of those that seek more to please men than God. What shall I do then, saith Pilate, with Jesus, who is called Christ? He puts the people in mind of this, that this Jesus, whose release he proposed, was looked upon by some among them as the Messiah, and had given pregnant proofs of his being so; “Do not reject one of whom your nation has professed such an expectation.”
The reason why Pilate laboured thus to get Jesus discharged was because he knew that for envy the chief priests had delivered him up (Matt. 27:18); that it was not his guilt, but his goodness, that they were provoked at; and for this reason he hoped to bring him off by the people’s act, and that they would be for his release. When David was envied by Saul, he was the darling of the people; and any one that heard the hosannas with which Christ was but a few days ago brought into Jerusalem, would have thought that he had been so, and that Pilate might safely have referred this matter to the commonalty, especially when so notorious a rogue was set up as a rival with him for their favours. But it proved otherwise.
(4.) While Pilate was thus labouring the matter, he was confirmed in his unwillingness to condemn Jesus, by a message sent him from his wife (Matt. 27:19), by way of caution; Have thou nothing to do with that just man (together with the reason), for I have suffered many things this day in a cream because of him. Probably, this message was delivered to Pilate publicly, in the hearing of all that were present, for it was intended to be a warning not to him only, but to the prosecutors. Observe,
[1.] The special providence of God, in sending this dream to Pilate’s wife; it is not likely that she had heard any thing, before, concerning Christ, at least not so as to occasion her dreaming of him, but it was immediately from God: perhaps she was one of the devout and honourable women, and had some sense of religion; yet God revealed himself by dreams to some that had not, as to Nebuchadnezzar. She suffered many things in this dream; whether she dreamed of the cruel usage of an innocent person, or of the judgments that would fall upon those that had any hand in his death, or both, it seems that it was a frightful dream, and her thoughts troubled her, as Dan. 2:1; 4:5. Note, The Father of spirits has many ways of access to the spirits of men, and can seal their instruction in a dream, or vision of the night, Job 33:15, 16. Yet to those who have the written word, God more ordinarily speaks by conscience on a waking bed, than by dreams, when deep sleep falls upon men.
[2.] The tenderness and care of Pilate’s wife, in sending this caution, thereupon, to her husband; Have nothing to do with that just man. First, This was an honourable testimony to our Lord Jesus, witnessing for him that he was a just man, even then when he was persecuted as the worst of malefactors: when his friends were afraid to appear in defence of him, God made even those that were strangers and enemies, to speak in his favour; when Peter denied him, Judas confessed him; when the chief priests pronounced him guilty of death, Pilate declared he found no fault in him; when the women that loved him stood afar off, Pilate’s wife, who knew little of him, showed a concern for him. Note, God will not leave himself without witnesses to the truth and equity of his cause, even when it seems to be most spitefully run down by its enemies, and most shamefully deserted by its friends. Secondly, It was a fair warning to Pilate; Have nothing to do with him. Note, God has many ways of giving checks to sinners in their sinful pursuits, and it is a great mercy to have such checks from Providence, from faithful friends, and from our own consciences; it is also our great duty to hearken to them. O do not this abominable thing which the Lord hates, is what we may hear said to us, when we are entering into temptation, if we will but regard it. Pilate’s lady sent him this warning, out of the love she had to him; she feared not a rebuke from him for meddling with that which belonged not to her; but, let him take it how he would, she would give him the caution. Note, It is an instance of true love to our friends and relations, to do what we can to keep them from sin; and the nearer any are to us, and the greater affection we have for them, the more solicitous we should be not to suffer sin to come or lie upon them, Lev. 19:17. The best friendship is friendship to the soul. We are not told how Pilate turned this off, probably with a jest; but by his proceeding against the just man it appears that he did not regard it. Thus faithful admonitions are made light of, when they are given as warnings against sin, but will not be so easily made light of, when they shall be reflected upon as aggravations of sin.
(5.) The chief priests and the elders were busy, all this while, to influence the people in favour of Barabbas, Matt. 27:20. They persuaded the multitude, both by themselves and their emissaries, whom they sent abroad among them, that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus; suggesting that this Jesus was a deceiver, in league with Satan, an enemy to their church and temple; that, if he were let alone, the Romans would come, and take away their place and nation; that Barabbas, though a bad man, yet, having not the interest that Jesus had, could not do so much mischief. Thus they managed the mob, who otherwise were well affected to Jesus, and, if they had not been so much at the beck of their priests, would never have done such a preposterous thing as to prefer Barabbas before Jesus. Here, [1.] We cannot but look upon these wicked priests with indignation; by the law, in matters of controversy between blood and blood, the people were to be guided by the priests, and to do as they informed them, Deut. 17:8, 9. This great power put into their hands they wretchedly abused, and the leaders of the people caused them to err. [2.] We cannot but look upon the deluded people with pity; I have compassion on the multitude, to see them hurried thus violently to so great wickedness, to see them thus priest–ridden, and falling in the ditch with their blind leaders.
(6.) Being thus over–ruled by the priests, at length they made their choice, Matt. 27:21. Whether of the twain (saith Pilate) will ye that I release unto you? He hoped that he had gained his point, to have Jesus released. But, to his great surprise, they said Barabbas; as if his crimes were less, and therefore he less deserved to die; or as if his merits were greater, and therefore he better deserved to live. The cry for Barabbas was so universal, one and all, that there was no colour to demand a poll between the candidates. Be astonished, O heavens, at this, and, thou earth, be horribly afraid! Were ever men that pretended to reason or religion, guilty of such prodigious madness, such horrid wickedness! This was it that Peter charged so home upon them (Acts 3:14); Ye desired a murderer to be granted to you; yet multitudes who choose the world, rather than God, for their ruler and portion, thus choose their own delusions.
2. Their pressing earnestly to have Jesus crucified, Matt. 27:22, 23. Pilate, being amazed at their choice of Barabbas, was willing to hope that it was rather from a fondness for him than from an enmity to Jesus; and therefore he puts it to them, “What shall I do then with Jesus? Shall I release him likewise, for the greater honour of your feast, or will you leave it to me?” No, they all said, Let him be crucified. That death they desired he might die, because it was looked upon as the most scandalous and ignominious; and they hoped thereby to make his followers ashamed to own him, and their relation to him. It was absurd for them to prescribe to the judge what sentence he should pass; but their malice and rage made them forget all rules of order and decency, and turned a court of justice into a riotous, tumultuous, and seditious assembly. Now was truth fallen in the street, and equity could not enter; where one looked for judgment, behold, oppression, the worst kind of oppression; for righteousness, behold, a cry, the worse cry that ever was, Crucify, crucify the Lord of glory. Though they that cried thus, perhaps, were not the same persons that the other day cried Hosanna, yet see what a change was made upon the mind of the populace in a little time: when he rode in triumph into Jerusalem, so general were the acclamations of praise, that one would have thought he had no enemies; but now when he was led in triumph to Pilate’s judgment–seat, so general were the outcries of enmity, that one would think he had no friends. Such revolutions are there in this changeable world, through which our way to heaven lies, as our Master’s did, by honour and dishonour, by evil report, and good report, counter–changed (2Cor. 6:8); that we may not be lifted up by honour, as if, when we were applauded and caressed, we had made our nest among the stars, and should die in that nest; nor yet be dejected or discouraged by dishonour, as if, when we were trodden to the lowest hell, from which there is no redemption. Bides tu istos qui te laudant; omnes aut sunt hostes, aut (quod in aequo est) esse possunt—You observe those who applaud you; either they are all your enemies, or, which is equivalent, they may become so. Seneca de Vita Beat.
Now, as to this demand, we are further told,
(1.) How Pilate objected against it; Why, what evil hath he done? A proper question to ask before we censure any in common discourse, much more for a judge to ask before he pass a sentence of death. Note, It is much for the honour of the Lord Jesus, that, though he suffered as an evil–doer, yet neither his judge nor his prosecutors could find that he had done any evil. Had he done any evil against God? No, he always did those things that pleased him. Had he done any evil against the civil government? No, as he did himself, so he taught others, to render to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s. Had he done any evil against the public peace? No, he did not strive or cry, nor did his kingdom come with observation. Had he done any evil to particular persons? Whose ox had he taken, or whom had he defrauded? No, so far from that, that he went about doing good. This repeated assertion of his unspotted innocency, plainly intimates that he died to satisfy for the sins of others; for if it had not been for our transgressions that he was thus wounded, and for our offences that he was delivered up, and that upon his own voluntary undertaking to atone for them, I see not how these extraordinary sufferings of a person that had never thought, said, or done, any thing amiss, could be reconciled with the justice and equity of that providence that governs the world, and at least permitted this to be done in it.
(2.) How they insisted upon it; They cried out the more, Let him be crucified. They do not go about to show any evil he had done, but, right or wrong, he must be crucified. Quitting all pretensions to the proof of the premises, they resolve to hold the conclusion, and what was wanting in evidence to make up in clamour; this unjust judge was wearied by importunity into an unjust sentence, as he in the parable into a just one (Luke 18:4, 5), and the cause carried purely by noise.
III. Here is the devolving of the guilt of Christ’s blood upon the people and priests.
1. Pilate endeavours to transfer it from himself, Matt. 27:24.
(1.) He sees it to no purpose to contend. What he said, [1.] Would do no good; he could prevail nothing; he could not convince them what an unjust unreasonable thing it was for him to condemn a man whom he believed innocent, and whom they could not prove guilty. See how strong the stream of lust and rage sometimes is; neither authority nor reason will prevail to give check to it. Nay, [2.] It was more likely to do hurt; he saw that rather a tumult was made. This rude and brutish people fell to high words, and began to threaten Pilate what they would do if he did not gratify them; and how great a matter might this fire kindle, especially when the priests, those great incendiaries, blew the coals! Now this turbulent tumultuous temper of the Jews, by which Pilate was awed to condemn Christ against his conscience, contributed more than any thing to the ruin of that nation not long after; for their frequent insurrections provoked the Romans to destroy them, though they had reduced them, and their inveterate quarrels among themselves made them an easy prey to the common enemy. Thus their sin was their ruin.
Observe how easily we may be mistaken in the inclination of the common people; the priests were apprehensive that their endeavours to seize Christ would have caused an uproar, especially on the feast day; but it proved that Pilate’s endeavour to save him, caused an uproar, and that on the feast day; so uncertain are the sentiments of the crowd.
(2.) This puts him into a great strait, betwixt the peace of his own mind, and the peace of the city; he is loth to condemn an innocent man, and yet loth to disoblige the people, and raise a devil that would not be soon laid. Had he steadily and resolutely adhered to the sacred laws of justice, as a judge ought to do, he had not been in any perplexity; the matter was plain and past dispute, that a man in whom was found no faulty, ought not to be crucified, upon any pretence whatsoever, nor must an unjust thing be done, to gratify any man or company of men in the world; the cause is soon decided; Let justice be done, though heaven and earth come together—Fiat justitia, ruat coelum. If wickedness proceed from the wicked, though they be priests, yet my hand shall not be upon him.
(3.) Pilate thinks to trim the matter, and to pacify both the people and his own conscience too, by doing it, and yet disowning it, acting the thing, and yet acquitting himself from it at the same time. Such absurdities and self–contradictions do they run upon, whose convictions are strong, but their corruptions stronger. Happy is he (saith the apostle, Rom. 14:22) that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth; or, which is all one, that allows not himself in that thing which he condemns.
Now Pilate endeavours to clear himself from the guilt,
[1.] By a sign; He took water, and washed his hands before the multitude; not as if he thought thereby to cleanse himself from any guilt contracted before God, but to acquit himself before the people, from so much as contracting any guilt in this matter; as if he had said, “If it be done, bear witness that it is none of my doing.” He borrowed the ceremony from that law which appointed it to be used for the clearing of the country from the guilt of an undiscovered murder (Deut. 21:6, 7); and he used it the more to affect the people with the conviction he was under of the prisoner’s innocency; and, probably, such was the noise of the rabble, that, if he had not used some such surprising sign, in the view of them all, he could not have been heard.
[2.] By a saying; in which, First, He clears himself; I am innocent of the blood of this just person. What nonsense was this, to condemn him, and yet protest that he was innocent of his blood! For men to protest against a thing, and yet to practise it, is only to proclaim that they sin against their consciences. Though Pilate professed his innocency, God charges him with guilt, Acts 4:27. Some think to justify themselves, by pleading that their hands were not in the sin; but David kills by the sword of the children of Ammon, and Ahab by the elders of Jezreel. Pilate here thinks to justify himself, by pleading that his heart was not in the action; but this is an averment which will never be admitted. Protestatio non valet contra factum—In vain does he protest against the deed which at the same time he perpetrates. Secondly, He casts it upon the priests and people; “See ye to it; if it must be done, I cannot help it, do you answer it before God and the world.” Note, Sin is a brat that nobody is willing to own; and many deceive themselves with this, that they shall bear no blame if they can but find any to lay the blame upon; but it is not so easy a thing to transfer the guilt of sin as many think it is. The condition of him that is infected with the plague is not the less dangerous, either for his catching the infection from others, or his communicating the infection to others; we may be tempted to sin, but cannot be forced. The priests threw it upon Judas; See thou to it; and now Pilate throws it upon them; See ye to it; for with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you.
2. The priests and people consented to take the guilt upon themselves; they all said, “His blood be on us, and one our children; we are so well assured that there is neither sin nor danger in putting him to death, that we are willing to run the hazard of it;” as if the guilt would do no harm to them or theirs. They saw that it was the dread of guilt that made Pilate hesitate, and that he was getting over this difficulty by a fancy of transferring it; to prevent the return of his hesitation, and to confirm him in that fancy, they, in the heat of their rage, agreed to it, rather than lose the prey they had in their hands, and cried, His blood be upon us. Now,
(1.) By this they designed to indemnify Pilate, that is, to make him think himself indemnified, by becoming bound to divine justice, to save him harmless. But those that are themselves bankrupts and beggars will never be admitted security for others, nor taken as a bail for them. None could bear the sin of others, except him that had none of his own to answer for; it is a bold undertaking, and too big for any creature, to become bound for a sinner to Almighty God.
(2.) But they did really imprecate wrath and vengeance upon themselves and their posterity. What a desperate word was this, and how little did they think what as the direful import of it, or to what an abyss of misery it would bring them and theirs! Christ had lately told them, that upon them would come all the righteous blood shed upon the earth, from that of the righteous Abel; but as if that were too little, they here imprecate upon themselves the guilt of that blood which was more precious than all the rest, and the guilt of which would lie heavier. O the daring presumption of wilful sinners, that run upon God, upon his neck, and defy his justice! Job 15:25, 26. Observe,
[1.] How cruel they were in their imprecation. They imprecated the punishment of this sin, not only upon themselves, but upon their children too, even those that were yet unborn, without so much as limiting the entail of the curse, as God himself had been pleased to limit it, to the third and fourth generation. It was madness to pull it upon themselves, but the height of barbarity to entail it on their posterity. Surely they were like the ostrich; they were hardened against their young ones, as though they were not theirs. What a dreadful conveyance was this of guilt and wrath to them and their heirs for ever, and this delivered by joint consent, nemine contradicents—unanimously, as their own act and deed; which certainly amounted to a forfeiture and defeasance of that ancient charter, I will be a God to thee, and to thy seed. Their entailing the curse of the Messiah’s blood upon their nation, cut off the entail of the blessings of that blood from their families, that, according to another promise made to Abraham, in him all the families of the earth might be blessed. See what enemies wicked men are to their own children and families; those that damn their own souls, care not how many they take to hell with them.
[2.] How righteous God was, in his retribution according to this imprecation; they said, His blood be on us, and on our children; and God said Amen to it, so shall thy doom be; as they loved cursing, so it came upon them. The wretched remains of that abandoned people feel it to this day; from the time they imprecated this blood upon them, they were followed with one judgment after another, till they were quite laid waste, and made an astonishment, a hissing, and a byword; yet on some of them, and some of theirs, this blood came, not to condemn them, but to save them; divine mercy, upon their repenting and believing, cut off this entail, and then the promise was again to them, and to their children. God is better to us and ours than we are.