JESUS REMAINS SILENT IN HIS TRIAL BEFORE PILATE DESPITE THE TRUMPED UP CHARGES BROUGHT BY THE SANHEDRIN
Grant Osborne: When we combine all four accounts of the trial, John 18:28 – 19:16 gives us the details of the dialogue between Jesus and Pilate inside the praetorium and of Pilate and the people outside, and Luke 23:6–12 tells of the interview with Herod (perhaps in the same palace, with the incident coming after Matt 27:14), while Matt 27:19 tells us of Pilate’s wife’s dream and 27:24–25 of Pilate’s claim to innocence and the people’s willingness to have Jesus’ blood on their heads. . .
At the outset, the charges are laid before Pilate by the prosecutors (here the Sanhedrin), and the leaders have by necessity twisted their own verdict from blasphemy to high treason by centering on the royal aspects of the messianic claim, thereby making Jesus “King of the Jews” (for this title see also the Magi in 2:2) to make it sound as if Jesus is plotting sedition against Rome (ironically, the very aspect he had denied). Their charge of blasphemy would satisfy a Jewish court but not a Roman court, since it would be considered a Jewish problem and of no concern to Rome.
R. T. France: While the hearing before the Sanhedrin established Jesus’ guilt in Jewish eyes and called for the death penalty, it is the Roman prefect who must actually implement that verdict, and this scene relates the formal trial and pronouncement of sentence. Yet that formal business takes up only a small part of the pericope, an apparently perfunctory examination by Pilate in vv. 11–14 and the sentencing in v. 26. The intervening verses focus not on the trial of Jesus as such but on Pilate’s abortive attempt to find a convenient way to avoid pronouncing the sentence demanded on a man he has apparently concluded is not guilty from a Roman point of view but who is clearly anathema to the Jewish establishment. The narrative will focus on the primary responsibility of the Jewish leaders and people for Jesus’ death, but Pilate does not come out of it well; first he tries to evade his official responsibility, then, despite his wife’s warning, he cynically gives orders for an admittedly guiltless man to be executed. His theatrical abdication of responsibility (v. 24) is not likely to convince anyone but himself. . .
Matthew notes three reasons for this reluctance to convict.
- First, Pilate is apparently impressed by Jesus’ silence under interrogation: his “surprise” probably indicates a favorable impression (see below).
- Second, he has correctly assessed that the Jewish leaders’ desire to eliminate Jesus stems not from concern for Roman law and order but from their own religio-political self-interest (v. 18).
- And third, his wife’s dream provides a supposedly supernatural attestation to Jesus’ innocence (v. 19).
Ray Fowler: And so today we come to Jesus on trial – part two. We saw that the first trial was marked by illegal proceedings, false witnesses and distorted testimony. Sadly, the second trial doesn’t fare much better. There was actually a third trial before Herod as well that we read about in the gospel of Luke (Luke 23:6-12), but Matthew doesn’t even bother recording that one. The focus here is on Jesus before Pilate.
And if you were hoping that Jesus would receive justice at this second trial, you will be sorely disappointed. The whole purpose of a trial is to clear the innocent and condemn the guilty. But in this particular trial, the innocent party is condemned while the guilty person is set free.
We saw at the beginning of this chapter how the Jewish leaders bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor. Although they proclaimed Jesus worthy of death at his first trial, they have no authority under Roman law to put him to death, so they bring him to Pilate. Remember, the first trial had a predetermined outcome because they were the ones in charge. But now Pilate’s in charge, so this trial will require a little more finesse.
Albert Mohler: Pilate’s suggestion that Jesus is the “king of the Jews” is an attempt to determine if Jesus is plotting treason and insurrection. Pilate asks Jesus to confirm the charge, but while Jesus’ answer affirms the question, it places the responsibility back on Pilate to discern properly what the question implies. The chief priests and elders continue to accuse Jesus, but Jesus has answered Pilate’s question. He recognizes that the trial is a sham, so he does not grace the charade with a reply. There is nothing more to say. Pilate has certainly heard of Jesus beforehand, but he is not prepared for the resolute silence Jesus maintains.
David Guzik: History shows us Pontius Pilate was a cruel and ruthless man, unkind to the Jews and contemptuous of almost everything but raw power. Here, he seems out of character in the way he treated Jesus. Jesus seems to have profoundly affected him.
I. (:11) GENERAL CHARGE – QUALIFIED ADMISSION
A. General Charge
“Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor questioned Him, saying,
‘Are You the King of the Jews?’”
B. Qualified Admission
“And Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you say.’”
Donald Hagner: The issue that concerns Pilate is whether Jesus was an insurrectionist who constituted a political threat to the Roman rule of Judea.
R. T. France: From the involvement of the crowd in most of this scene, it seems that the hearing took place in public; the bēma (see p. 1046, n. 5) was probably a raised platform in front of the governor’s residence. There Jesus stands before the seated governor (v. 19), an ironic reversal of the destined position of Jesus as the seated judge of the world (25:31). . .
Jesus’ reply (which, like the question, is the same in all four gospels, though John 18:37 adds “that I am a king”) is affirmative but qualified, as in 26:64. Jesus would not wish to deny his kingly role as Messiah of Israel; his arrival at the city had been designed to assert it. But what Pilate would naturally construe as a political claim is for Jesus a truth at a different level. When he used the same formula, “You have said it,” in response to Caiaphas, he went on to explain how his messianic vision differed from that of the Sanhedrin (26:64). This time, however, “You say it” is not followed by any explanation of why his “kingship” is no threat to Rome (for this see John 18:33–38). To try to explain the finer points of messianic theology to a pagan administrator would no doubt have been futile (as Paul found later with Festus, Acts 25:17–20; 26:24). At any rate, Jesus has clearly decided to let matters take their course; his enigmatic “You say it” is the last word Pilate will hear him utter.
Ray Fowler: The “you” in Pilate’s question is emphatic, perhaps even a little derisive. Pilate looks at this beat-up, bound prisoner before him and asks him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” It’s an interesting question that seems to come out of nowhere for us. But obviously it was proceeded by the Jewish leaders bringing their accusations against Jesus. You couldn’t bring someone to trial without an accusation.
The gospel of Luke tells us they brought three charges against Jesus. They accused him of subverting the nation, opposing payment of taxes to Caesar and claiming to be Christ, a king (Luke 23:2). Notice these are all new charges! At his first trial they accused him of blasphemy, but they know that Pilate won’t be interested in religious charges, so they bring these more politically oriented charges against him instead. Pilate focuses on the third charge, and so he asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Daniel Doriani: All four Gospels record Pilate’s question and Jesus’ response: “You say [it]” (Matt. 27:11). “You” is emphatic; Pilate is the one who says this. Further, “you say [it]” implies that Jesus is not a king in the sense that Pilate thinks. In John, Jesus clarifies, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest” (John 18:36).
D. A. Carson: Matthew’s report, in which Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” presupposes the background of Luke 23:2 and John 18:28–33. The Sanhedrin’s concern with Jesus’ “blasphemy” becomes his claim to kingship, a charge of treason with overtones of Zealot sedition, capped with a claim that Jesus refuses to pay taxes. In Roman trials, the magistrate normally heard the charges first, questioned the defendant and listened to his defense, sometimes permitted several such exchanges, and then retired with his advisers to decide on a verdict, which was then promptly carried out. The first step, the charge by the Jewish leaders, led to this particular formulation of Pilate’s question to Jesus. . .
Verse 11 is important theologically as well as historically. It stands behind the inscription on the cross (v.37) and prepares the way for Christianity, which rests on the conviction that Jesus of Nazareth, who rose from the dead, is indeed the promised Messiah, the King of the Jews—basic themes in Matthew even in the prologue. In other words, the vindicated Lord is the crucified Messiah.
II. (:12) SPECIFIC ACCUSATIONS – SURPRISING SILENCE
A. Specific Accusations
“And while He was being accused by the chief priests and elders,”
B. Surprising Silence
“He made no answer.”
Leon Morris: Now we come to the accusation that we would expect. The Jewish leaders kept accusing him (the present infinitive points to a continuous process); they could not, of course, hand a man over to the Romans without laying charges against him. Matthew does not bother to say what these charges were; he leaves his readers to reason from such facts as Jesus’ admission that he was the Messiah (26:63-64) and Pilate’s question whether he was a king. There is not much doubt about the nature of the Jewish accusations, and Matthew does not stay to spell them out. All the more so in that Jesus answered nothing. In all the accounts of his trial he remained silent at some stage. Matthew lets us see that he was not in the slightest concerned about the matters the members of the Sanhedrin raised. The specific allegations did not matter; they were determined to have him executed, and to refute their accusations was irrelevant. If those charges were shown to be false, they would raise others. They were not concerned with justice but with an execution. In the trial before the Sanhedrin Jesus was silent when a variety of allegations were made, but he spoke when the high priest put to him a question he was perfectly entitled to put by virtue of his office. Similarly, he responded to Pilate when the governor asked the question he was bound to ask because of his office. But when Pilate drew attention to the accusations of these Jewish officials it was another matter; he did not reply to Pilate then.
III. (:13-14) INTENSIFIED INTERROGATION – AMAZING SILENCE
A. (:13) Intensified Interrogation
“Then Pilate said to Him,
‘Do You not hear how many things they testify against You?’”
Homer Kent: Yet this silence was not taken by Pilate as admission of guilt, but as a most unusual composure, causing him to begin a series of attempts to release Jesus without antagonizing the Sanhedrin.
B. (:14) Amazing Silence
“And He did not answer him with regard to even a single charge,
so that the governor was quite amazed.”
Daniel Doriani: A typical Roman hearing before a procurator included charges, the governor’s questions, the prisoner’s self-defense, then a verdict. But Jesus did not defend himself. He knew he had come to the time appointed for his sacrifice. Besides, it was pointless: his accusers had no interest in the truth in his case. Therefore, “when he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer” (Matt. 27:12). Pilate was astonished; did Jesus not hear the charges? They threatened a death sentence (27:13). Still, “Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor” (27:14). Somehow, Jesus’ silence convinced Pilate that he was innocent, not guilty. Pilate saw no fault when Jesus said nothing. Perhaps we should conclude that a vigorous self-defense is not always necessary. Some accusations are simply absurd.
R. T. France: Jesus was not like other defendants, and Pilate was impressed.
David Thompson: What amazed Pilate was that Jesus did not answer one of their charges. The word “amaze” is one that means Pilate marveled, that is he considered it an amazing wonder that Jesus would listen to all of their charges and not respond. Now of course the real question is why didn’t Jesus respond? Why didn’t He offer a defense to Pilate? It would seem that Pilate was looking for any way to get out of condemning Christ. The reason is because Jesus had to die. He was allowing Himself to be led to the cross like a lamb to the slaughter.
Donald Hagner: The process whereby Jesus is “tried” continues toward its inexorable conclusion. Jesus now courageously faces the Roman interrogator who has the power of life or death (cf. John 19:10) in the settlement of the case. He quietly gives assent to the question whether he is the Jewish king but does not flinch in the face of his accusers’ charges. He keeps silent now, just as he did before the Jewish authorities. The dignity of that silence impresses even Pilate, who could not, however, have known that he was participating in a divine drama of such historical consequences that his own name would thereby be immortalized. Jesus’ commitment to the cross—the will of his Father—is firmly fixed. Nothing, no one, can turn Jesus away from that goal.
Ray Fowler: Pilate is stunned by Jesus’ silence. Pilate has presided over many trials. Most prisoners loudly protest their innocence, but Jesus doesn’t say a word. Charles Spurgeon comments: “He might have cleared himself of every accusation that was brought against him, but that would have left the load of guilt upon those whose place he came to take; so he answered never a word. Such silence was sublime.” (Charles Spurgeon; The Gospel of the Kingdom: An Exposition of the Gospel of Matthew)
Jesus stood silent before his accusers at his first trial, and now he does so again. He was innocent of all charges, yet he refused to defend himself. Jesus was willing to stand condemned so that you and I could be set free.
Charles Spurgeon: [Regarding what so amazed Pilate] He had seen in captured Jews the fierce courage of fanaticism; but there was no fanaticism in Christ. He had also seen in many prisoners the meanness which will do or say anything to escape from death; but he saw nothing of that about our Lord. He saw in him unusual gentleness and humility combined with majestic dignity. He beheld submission blended with innocence.