The final three trials that Jesus endured were political, at the hands of the Romans. After Jesus was illegally tried and illegally sentence to death by the Jewish religious hierarchy, He was sent to Pilate, the local Roman governor, because the Jews could not carry out the death penalty without the permission and assistance of the Romans. There were two trial sessions before Pilate, interrupted by another before Herod. (Matthew 27:2, 11-14, Mark 15:1-5, Luke 23:1-5; John 18:28-38)
Lucius Pontius Pilate was a Spaniard, born in the city of Seville, probably about the time of the birth of Christ. We never would have heard of him, except by a unique set of events that made him one of the most recognized men in history. Pilate was the judge that approved the death sentence upon Jesus Christ.
In 6 B.C., Judea was made a Roman province under the rulership of procurators (governors). Pontius Pilate was the sixth of these procurators. The procurators were personally appointed by the emperor, and were sent out from Rome as his personal representatives. Judea was considered one of the most difficult of the provinces to rule at this time and it is somewhat surprising that it was given to a man as inexperienced as Pilate.
The predecessors of Pilate had been careful to avoid offense to the Jews because of their religious ideas, but of this Pilate cared little. Proud and tactless, Pilate defied the religious beliefs of those whom he had been sent to govern, until the emperor himself had to step in, at the appeal of the people, and personally require Pilate to retract some of his more headstrong ways. All of these experiences served only to deepen Pilate's hatred of the Jews, and their hatred of him.
The Jews had become embittered because of the loss of their kingly and judicial authority, and seething with continual discontent that a foreign power ruled them. These feelings seemed to run highest during their national gatherings. Josephus, the first century historian, estimated the number attending a single Passover at 2,700,000, including the population of Jerusalem. And so on such occasions the governor made sure he was in Jerusalem and accompanied by a small army.
Before his death in 4 B.C., Herod the Great had built an ornate fortress-palace in Jerusalem, and during his visits to the city, Pilate stayed there. One of the wings of the palace contained an assembly room in which Roman court trials were held. This was the Praetorium of Mark 15:16, the common hall of Matthew 27:27, the hall of judgment of John 18:28, and the judgment hall of John 18:28,33; 19:9, and Acts 23:35.
Upon reaching this assembly room, the Jews, along with Jesus halted. Passover preparation had already begun and defilement was sure to be theirs if they entered this “heathen” building. Gradually the crowd increased, and with it the noise. They were so aroused Pilate knew he had better get out there right away. And so it was that part of the Roman trial of Christ took place outside the Praetorium. This was the first of several illegalities that occurred during that trial.
Stepping outside, Pilate immediately directed his attention toward the priests, and called out, "What accusation do you bring against this man?" In reply came an evasive answer, "If He were not an evildoer we would not have delivered Him up to you." Pilate was used to this kind of reply from these men. "Take Him, and judge Him according to your law." "We can't do it ourselves, for we want the death sentence!" Now Pilate spoke, and demanded a formal charge against the prisoner. (John 18:28-40)
"We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that He Himself is Christ a King." A political charge was needed, and so three were given (perverting the nation, failure to give tribute to Caesar and saying that He was a King). And each one, though without a foundation in fact, was a charge of treason against the government of Rome.
The Jews had authority to hold court trials, but the Romans forbade them from executing the death sentence. For this reason they had to have the Roman government confirm their sentence as correct. When holding a trial against a provincial citizen, a procurator could use either Roman law or the laws of the national who was being judged. But if the charge was treason, only Roman law could be applied. And so it was Roman law that Pilate had to follow.
Roman court law was the law used in court trials at Rome, and it was required that it be applied the same way in the provinces. Because of this we know that the Roman trial of Jesus before Pilate was illegal in several instances. Here are some of them:
After a brief hearing outside, Pilate finally entered the Praetorium where the trial was supposed to be held. The conversation can be read in John 18:33-38. At a time when Jesus (humanly speaking) should not have acknowledged that He was a King, He told Pilate three times in this interview that He was. And each time He also told him that His kingdom was not of this world. But more than information or settlement of a court trial, it was truth that Pilate needed. Pilate needed salvation and Jesus was more concerned that Pilate hear truth, than that His own life be spared.
Pilate was convinced now that Jesus was thoroughly innocent. Reaching the gate, Pilate rendered his official decision in the case as the presiding Roman judge, "I find in Him no fault at all." With eager anticipation the Jewish leaders awaited the return of Pilate. When he appeared and declared the man innocent, it was too much. The Jews leaders shouted, "He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place." The Jews were trying to reopen the case that Pilate had just closed, and Pilate should not have permitted it. He had already rendered a verdict of innocence, and the trial was actually over, the case dismissed.
It was a rule of Roman law that "no man shall be put twice in jeopardy." This principle of double jeopardy is an important one, even in modern law. A man cannot be tried in a court of law twice on the same charge. But instead of reacting to this offense to the Roman system of law, Pilate used it as an excuse for an easier way out of it all. Rather than stand by Roman law now that the trial had been concluded, Pilate reopened the case and sent Jesus to Herod. When everything was settled, Pilate had opened it up again as a way to solve it.
Herod (Antipas) happened to be in Jerusalem for the weekend, and when Pilate heard mention of "Galilee" he thought that perhaps he could transfer jurisdiction in this case to Herod. The residence of Herod when in Jerusalem was in the same quarter of the city as was the palace of Herod.
Upon learning that Jesus had been sent to him, he demanded that He be immediately brought into his assembly room. He was hoping for grand entertainment, and ordered the sick and the lame to be brought in that he might see them healed. But finally the silence of Jesus brought the patience of Herod to an end. "And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Him with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe, and sent Him back to Pilate." (Luke 23:11)
Herod refused to pronounce sentence in the case, and this was the equivalent of an acquittal. And Pilate acknowledged it as such upon the return of Jesus. "You have brought this Man unto me as One who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in the Man regarding the charges which you make against Him. No, nor yet Herod, for he sent Him back to us; and behold, nothing deserving of death has been done by Him." (Luke 23:14-15)
For a second time Pilate had rendered a verdict of not guilty. But instead of releasing Jesus, he said he would have Him beaten before freeing Him. Immediately there went up a crying and shouting for Jesus' death. Gradually it subsided as Pilate proposed something new.
It was a Jewish custom that one criminal be freed at each yearly Passover. Pilate now graciously offered to let Jesus be the one set at liberty. Placing Jesus before the people next to Barabbas, a hardened criminal, he appealed to their sympathies, and asked them which man they wanted released. "Whom do you want me to release for you?" The contrast between the two men was unmistakable. Pilate was certain the crowd would choose Jesus. But Pilate was wrong. With a roar, the reply was "Barabbas, Barabbas release unto us Barabbas." "What then shall I do with Jesus Who is called Christ?" Pilate shouted. "Let Him be crucified!" was the answer. Jesus Christ exhibited strength of character unlike any human being in history and it is this same strength of character (integrity) that He expects us to exhibit as His representatives.