John 18:15 - 19:15 The Trial

John's Gospel Commentary by Robert Brow ( 2000

From reading the other Gospels we would not have known that the first stage of Jesus' trial was before Annas, the high priest who had been deposed by the Roman authorities. For the past twelve years the high priest's administrative functions had been transferred to Caiphas who was Annas' son in law. He was presumably more subservient to the Romans (see comment on 11:49-50, 18:14). But Annas was still viewed by Jewish people as the rightful high priest. He had been appointed twenty-five years before in the year 6 AD, so by now he was an old man, and was still respected for his spiritual oversight of the temple and the priests that served in it (see Luke 1:5-9). This is perhaps why Luke named Annas and Caiphas as joint high priests when John the Baptist began his ministry (Luke 3:2).

By comparing the accounts given in the Synoptic Gospels, and the way John very carefully fills in the details, we can reconstruct the course of that long night. After the last supper Jesus went out to the Garden of Gethsemane (probably in the light of the full moon), and was arrested say about ten that night. He was taken to the house of Annas (the properly appointed high priest) for a preliminary questioning. It ended just before the cock crowed say about two or three in the morning. The Sanhedrin was convened early that morning, and decided to have Jesus crucified by the Roman governor. The crucifixion would have begun soon after noon on the Day of Preparation (See note on 19:14) and been completed by three in the afternoon. And by Jewish tradition Jesus had to be buried before sundown (19:31).

The manuscripts followed by the NRSV of Mark's Gospel suggest that the crucifixion began at nine in the morning (Mark 15:25). This cannot be right. There would not have been time for the Sanhedrin to meet early that morning followed by the trial before Pilate, then before Herod, and back to Pilate for the final decision. John makes it clear that Jesus was crucified just after noon (19:14, as in Matthew 27:45, Luke 23:44). We should therefore follow the manuscripts that reflect this and read the sixth hour (midday) rather than the third hour or nine in the morning (Mark 15:25).

All four Gospels record the darkness that descended when Jesus was taken to be crucified (Matthew 27:45, Mark 15:33, Luke 23:44, John 19:14). As we will see in the next chapter, one can imagine the confusion in the city as people were hurrying here and there in the darkness trying to get their Passover lambs killed and making final preparations for the Passover meal that would begin after sundown.

18:15-18  Matthew and Mark did not make clear that before the official trial, "where the scribes and the elders had gathered" (Matthew 26:58, Mark 14:53-54) there had been a preliminary trial at the home of the deposed high priest Annas. So John gives us the actual sequence of events, and again leaves his signature (as in John 13:23) by adding that he was "known to the high priest." And as a result he was able to go right into the high priest Annas' courtyard.

He also explains that he was able to obtain permission for Peter to come in, and it was the woman who guarded the entrance who recognized Peter. To John's horror Peter, the leader of Jesus' disciples, denied he had ever been a disciple. John remembers that it was a very cold night. All these are obvious signs that John the author of our Gospel was writing as an eye witness of these traumatic events.

18:19 John then gives us an account of how Annas (the properly appointed, but deposed high priest) carefully "questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching." This is in sharp contrast to the very confrontational trial with false witnesses that Matthew and Mark describe when Jesus appeared early the next morning before the supreme court of the sanhedrin (Matthews 26:59-67, Mark 14:55-65).

18:20 As Jesus made clear to Annas, there is no trace of secret teaching only for the initiates, as was usual in the mystery religions of the day. Jesus taught openly in the open air, in the sabbath day synagogue services, and when he came to Jerusalem in the temple courts.

18:21-22 Annas must have asked whether Jesus' teaching was that simple, and Jesus said he could question his disciples and others who had heard him. This was taken as an insult by one of the temple guards, and "he struck Jesus on the face." We wonder whether Jesus followed his own teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also" (Matthew 5:39).

18:23 Jesus did claim the right to a proper hearing, as Paul did when the newly appointed high priest Ananias at that time (48 AD) had Paul struck on the mouth. On that occasion Paul claimed his right to a fair trial without being assaulted during the proceedings (Acts 23:3-4), and also rejected Ananias' right to function as high priest (Acts 23:3).

18:24 Unable to find fault in Jesus' account of his work, Annas now sends Jesus to his son in law Caiaphas, who had by then gathered the Sanhedrin together for a plenary assembly. It was certainly an unusual if not illegal gathering as it was the Day of Preparation for the Passover (see comments on 13:1, 18:28, 19:31).

18:25-27 John records that, after Jesus was taken away from the house of Annas for his trial before the Sanhedrin, Peter twice more denied being a disciple. Having failed to distinguish the hearing before Annas and the trial before Caiphas, the other Gospels tell the story of Peter's denial after the trial before Caiaphas. John makes clear that the denial at the house of Annas was before "the cock crowed" which would have been a couple of hours before daybreak. The other three Gospels tell us that when the cock crowed Peter broke down and wept bitterly (Matthew 26:75, Mark 14:72, Luke 22:62). But with great creative skill John decided to deal with Peter's repentance in his account of the post-resurrection breakfast by the Sea of Galilee (21:15-23).

18:28-29 John probably did not attend the sanhedrin proceedings, and he deliberately omits these because they were already chronicled by the other Gospel writers (Matthew 26:59-67, Mark 14:55-65, Luke 22:66-71). But he notes that the trial had begun "early in the morning" (also mentioned in Matthew 27:1, Mark 15:1).

The text uses the Latin word praetorium (rather than headquarters, as in the NRSV) which referred to the residence of a provincial governor. It was still "early in the morning" for Pilate, which would not have pleased him. And for the Jewish religious leaders this was the solemn Day of Preparation (19:14, 31, 42, Matthew 26:5, 27:62, Mark 14:2, Luke 23:54 ). We can imagine Pilate's disdain when he found they both wanted to have their Messiah crucified and to be themselves ritually clean for the Passover meal which would begin after sundown that day (This kind of religious hypocrisy is described in Matthew 23:23-36). So Pilate had to go outside his own house on a cold morning and listen to them in the courtyard.

18:30-31 Instead of presenting a case, they rudely prejudged the issue. "If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you." Pilate could see all they wanted was his rubber stamp, so he told them to deal with the case according to their own law. But they wanted the death penalty which only he could assign (see the compromise he made in 19:16).

18:32 John refers back to the prophecy where Jesus had said he would be handed over to the Gentiles "to be mocked and flogged and crucified (Matthew 20:19).

18:33-35 Pilate went back inside his residence (praetorium as in 18:28) leaving the religious leaders outside. Then he had Jesus marched in before him, and asked him if he was the King of the Jews (Luke 23:3). This was because one of the accusations they had brought was "We have found this man perverting our nation, and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king" (Luke 23:2).

Jesus had certainly claimed to be the Messiah (Anointed King), Son of God of the Old Testament (4:25-26, 7:26-31, 9:22, 10:24-25, see Matthew 16:16-17, Mark 8:29, Luke 9:20). But he did not want to be made king in any earthly sense (6:15, see 18:36). That is why Jesus asked Pilate what he had heard about the nature of his kingship. This irritated Pilate. He was not a Jew and had no interest in such questions. But Jesus' "own nation and the chief priests" had brought Jesus to be tried by him, and he wanted to know what he might have done wrong.

18:36 Jesus then made clear that "My kingdom is not from this world." His reign as Messiah king is in the hearts of his disciples, and behind the scenes among the nations. If he had wanted to be an earthly king, he would have gathered an army to fight for him against his Jewish enemies.

18:37-38 Pilate therefore wanted to clarify what kind of a king he claimed to be. And Jesus explains that he is a King sent into the world to "testify to the truth" of God. Hearing the word "Truth" Pilate asked the perennial philosophical question, "What is truth?" But he did not wait for an answer. A discussion of Greek philosophy would have been of no concern to a Roman Governor functioning as judge in a criminal case. So he went out into the courtyard and told the assembled religious leaders that there was no case against Jesus by Roman law (Luke 23:4). They shouted out many accusations, but to Pilate's astonishment Jesus refused to answer them (Matthew 27:12-14, Mark 15:3).

Luke tells us that it was at this point, when Pilate was perplexed about what to do, that he heard Jesus had come Galilee, which belonged to Herod's jurisdiction. So he had Jesus taken to where Herod was staying during a visit to Jersusalem. Herod tried to question him, and the religious leaders also came and made their accusations, but Jesus refused to defend himself before Herod. So Herod had him dressed in a royal robe, mocked him, and sent him back to Pilate (Luke 23:6-16).

Pilate then called "the chief priests, the leaders, and the people" together again and told them that neither he nor Herod found Jesus guilty of the charges against him (Luke 23:13-15).

18:39-40 That should have been the end of the trial. But things were looking ugly in the city, and fearing a riot, Pilate remembered his practice of pardoning a notorious prisoner at Passover time. So he made the mistake of giving them a choice of releasing Jesus or Barabbas the notorious leader of an insurrection in which he had committed murder (Mark 15:7, Luke 23:18-19). At that point Pilate got a message from his wife saying she had a dream about Jesus, and warning him not to have him condemned (Matthew 27:19).

19:1-6 But things were already out of hand, and Pilate thought he might just save the situation by having Jesus publicly flogged, dressed as a king with a crown of thorns on his head, and mocked. But this did not move them, and they demanded Jesus' crucifixion. He again told them Jesus was innocent by Roman law, and he gave them permission to take him and crucify him themselves.

19:7 But they refused to do this, and insisted Pilate must use his own soldiers to do the deed. And his crime was that he had "claimed to be the Son of God."

19:8-9 Perhaps remembering his wife's dream, he called for Jesus to be brought away from the angry crowd into the quiet of his house. He tried to question him, but Jesus refused to answer, presumably because Pilate had already declared him innocent, and still decided to have him be crucified.

19:10-11 When Pilate asked "Do you not know I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?" Jesus gave the mysterious answer that Pilate had no power over him unless it had been given to him "from above." It is as if Pilate was the instrument for what was already in the plan of God. Jesus also added that "the one who handed me over to you is guilty of the greater sin." He was presumably referring to the puppet high priest, Caiaphas (see 11:49-50) who presided at the meeting of the Sanhedrin and had condemned Jesus to be handed over to Roman justice (Matthew 27:1-2, Mark 15:1, Luke 23:1).

19:12-14 Hearing that, Pilate tried desperately to set Jesus free, but the shouts of the crowd outside were deafening. And he heard the ominous words "If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor." So Pilate went back outside to the courtyard, where they set up his judgment throne. And John gives us the exact date, the Day of Preparation, and the time at twelve midday.

19:15 In the middle of what looked like a very dangerous riot, and by the light of torches in the surrounding darkness, he made one last appeal "Here is your King" and the answer came back "We have no king but the emperor."

So Pilate called for a basin "took some water and washed his hands before the crowd." "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves," and again the answer came back "His blood be on us and on our children" (Matthew 27:25-25). In his Gospel Matthew noted the implication of those terrible words in the parable of the vineyard (Matthew 21:38-41, 23:35-36, and the resultant destruction of the city, 24:1-2).

19:16 The religious leaders had tried to get Jesus condemned and crucified by the Roman authorities (see 18:30-31), but Pilate finally refused to condemn Jesus by Roman law. John makes clear he compromised by handing Jesus over "to them" (the chief priests) to supervise the execution but with the help of his own Roman soldiers. Pilate also insisted on having a title put on Jesus' cross, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King (Messiah) of the Jews" (19:19-22).

So ended one of the many unjust trials in human history. But John tells the story directly and without sentimentality. We are not encouraged to think "Oh how terrible for my poor Jesus." The Messiah was throughout in total control of the situation. And as the eternal Lamb of God (see note on 1:29) he was willing to die at the same time as the Passover lambs being killed in the temple that day.

19:16-30 Crucifixion