Q.

I heard somewhere that the trial of Christ before His death was illegal. Please comment.

A.
First, we should make the word “trial” plural because He had at least two—and up to six—trials, depending on how one looks at it. If you count each separate appearance, He had as many as six. And these could be divided into two basic ones—the Jewish ecclesiastical trial and the Roman civil trial.

When you ask about the illegality, you, of course, are referring to those things that were illegal regardless of who might have been tried in Jesus’ place—those violations of judicial law. In one sense Jesus’ trial was also illegal from the standpoint of Who He is and was, the fact that no human being has the right or ability, as a sinner, to judge and pass sentence on the sinless Son of God. In fact, the irony of Pilate was that he was not really the one judging; Christ was actually judging Pilate instead! And Pilate failed miserably.

John 18 gives us an account of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, and verse 13 gives us the first trial: “And led him away to Annas first; for he was father in law to Caiaphas, which was the high priest that same year.” This was illegal—they were holding someone without any charge against him. Also, Annas wasn’t the high priest; Caiaphas was. But you immediately see the cronyism of this bunch. Annas had been high priest, and apparently he still “pulled the strings.” He, according to historians, was one of the most crooked, sly politicians who had ever held the office of high priest. Perhaps he was the one who could best deal with the Roman government. Some go so far as to say that it was Annas who plotted the whole arrest of Jesus and the subsequent events.

It would seem, too, that they took Jesus to the private quarters of Annas, also something that might well be illegal. At any rate, Annas was an unofficial authority but a person who nevertheless carried a lot of weight—someone whose sanction and go-ahead was necessary.

So on they went with Jesus to the next trial, this time before Caiaphas (Matthew 26:57–68). Keep in mind that these Jews were not trying to find out whether or not some charges by someone against a particular individual were true. They were looking for charges themselves—things they could find that would result in giving Jesus the death sentence, things that would stick in a Roman court. The Romans had during those days allowed the Jews some self-government, but any person condemned to death by the Jews had to go before the Roman governor, who had the authority to confirm or revoke the sentence.

Jesus didn’t have a chance. Caiaphas and Annas were not only related, they were a part of the same plot. Several illegalities were present here. First, the trial was held at night, contrary to Jewish law. The reason they met at night was to hurry up and do their dirty work before the next day, which was, of all things, the Passover. Second, Christ had no defense attorney. Third, they brought in false witnesses. Verse 59 says they sought false witnesses so they could put Him to death. They didn’t succeed, as verse 60 tells us, except to find two who took Jesus out of context (vv. 60, 61). So we find here a prejudiced court, which was also illegal. Then, too, violence was present. Nothing was done against the illegal treatment of Jesus—the spittings, fists, and so forth. How hateful of God can the unregenerate man become!

Finally, the behavior of the high priest was totally illegal. He had the nerve to say, “What further need have we of witnesses?” (v. 65). Of course, he couldn’t be objective as a judge; he was part of the plot, and he had one goal—to get rid of Jesus. So they came up with the charge of blasphemy, based upon Jesus’ affirmation concerning Who He was. But in doing so they committed still another illegality—rendering a verdict on the same day as the trial.

The next morning we find the Sanhedrin—the entire 70-member council of the Jews—gathered together to legitimatize the whole affair (Luke 22:66–71). This would be the third trial. It was the Passover, and they led Jesus to Pilate for the next trial. Notice that the charge changes. Their charge was that Jesus claimed to be the Christ. They don’t tell that to Pilate. Instead their charge becomes that of stirring up the people, forbidding people to give tribute to Caesar, saying He is a king—all charges meant to put fear Pinto Pilate.

John 18:28–38 describes the fourth trial—before Pilate. Pilate came out, it says. This is because the Jews couldn’t enter a Gentile edifice on a holy day. See the hypocrisy. After all their illegalities, they were given to their minute rules!

Pilate began with a question: “What accusation bring ye against this man?” Right away they evaded his question with a rather sarcastic reply: “If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee” (v. 30). In other words, “Trust us.” But Pilate knew better than that. He replied, “Take ye him, and judge him according to your law” (v. 31). They were careful not to mention blasphemy, since that would be a theological matter they should handle. Instead they started to rattle off lies and misquotes about statements Jesus had made concerning Caesar, and so forth. Actually they were the real tax evaders; they hated Caesar, his taxes, and everything else about his rule. Also, they never once mentioned anything about tribute to Caesar in their own trials.

During the course of questioning, Pilate found out that Jesus was a Galilean. So the next trial was before Herod, who ruled over that area. Herod was in Jerusalem at the time (Luke 23:8–12). He was looking for some entertainment, so he had no concern for justice. After Jesus refused to perform miracles just for Herod’s enjoyment, he scourged Jesus and sent him back to Pilate. Pilate’s chance to get off the hook didn’t materialize.

The final trial of Jesus is portrayed in John 18:39—19:16. Ironically, Pilate, a heathen Gentile, gave Jesus a fairer trial than the religious leaders (John 19:11; 1 Timothy 6:13)! Unfortunately, although Pilate was extremely discerning, he didn’t have the character to withstand the mob. He knew that Jesus was innocent, yet he illegally sentenced an innocent man to death. It was also wrong for Pilate to offer to release Jesus based upon a custom rather than on an established basis of innocence. And it was illegal for him to accept the demand of the Jews for Jesus’ death before even bringing forward the charge. It was also wrong for him to allow the torture and suffering of Jesus, Whom he said was innocent. The key words of Pilate were, “Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him” (v. 6). What kind of justice was that—finding no fault in someone and in the same breath saying he should be crucified? And Pilate didn’t say this just once; he said it repeatedly. At one point (v. 10) he asked Jesus if He didn’t know he had the power to release Him. But if Pilate were correct, why didn’t he do it? After all, he had already pronounced Jesus innocent.

These are some of the points in the illegal trials of Jesus Christ. Thinking upon the suffering and death of our Savior should affect the way we live and cause us to give our lives to Him anew, enduring whatever comes our way in the process.

Do you have feedback or a Bible question to submit? Send to nolson@garbc.org or mail to Norman A. Olson in care of the Baptist Bulletin, 1300 N. Meacham Rd., Schaumburg, IL 60173-4806.

Reprinted from the Baptist Bulletin (April 1990).
© 1990 Regular Baptist Press. All rights reserved.
Used by permission.