Religious, Yet Immoral
Prepared by Dr. John Marshall
John 18:28a (Holman) Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters.
The Jews had lost their right to inflict capital punishment. Sentencing in these cases had to be appealed to Roman officials. This was a bitter pill for the religious leaders to swallow, but they had to do it to be rid of Jesus, so off they went.
John 18:28b It was early morning. They did not enter the headquarters themselves; otherwise they would be defiled and unable to eat the Passover.
To enter a Gentile residence would have made the accusers ceremonially unclean, and hence unfit to eat the Passover. It is good these religious leaders stayed ceremonially clean; it was the only thing they could brag about.
What irony! Morally, they were murdering God’s Son; ceremonially, they were keeping themselves clean to worship God. They carried to excess their concern about lesser matters, but neglected details of higher importance.
They strained out a gnat yet gulped down a camel (Matt. 23:24)! God help us put first things first. We too often major on minors, and minor on majors.
These leaders carried more pollution in their hearts than they could ever receive by entering the Hall. In fact, they would have defiled it! These hypocrites were so full of pollution that they almost infected the air with an abominable smell.
They were like an adult with contagious and deadly smallpox refusing to enter a room full of children due to fear of catching measles from them. Don’t worry about the adult. Make him or her stay out for the children’s sake.
This incident provides a classic look at the problem inherent in ritualistic religions. The extent to which formalism and wickedness can go side by side is frightening. Ritualism and evil often make very compatible bed partners.
People very zealous about religiosity are sometimes remiss about morals. Some people go to church regularly, observe Lent, and fast, but feel no qualms about committing adultery or cursing. Some never miss a Sunday worship service, but also never miss a trip to a bar or an R-rated movie.
Sir Fowell Buxton once visited in prison a convicted murderer who was very religious, adhering strictly to the rituals of his particular denomination. This surprised Sir Buxton. Quizzing the murderer about his religious beliefs, Buxton learned the prisoner believed eating meat on Friday was a worse sin than murder.
John 18:29a Then Pilate came out to them . . .
Pilate was introduced in the story without background information. None was needed. The people of John’s day knew Pilate well.
Pilate served as the fifth Roman Governor of Judea, A.D. 26-35, during the reign of Tiberias. From the outset he never did well.
Pilate started on the wrong foot. He tried to introduce the ensigns of Caesar into Jerusalem. Since Caesar was counted a god, the Jews opposed these symbols of Rome as idols. The four previous governors had deferred to the Jews in this matter, and never brought Roman emblems into Jerusalem.
The Jewish leaders pleaded with Pilate to reconsider, but he was adamant. They followed him to Caesarea, where Pilate met with them in an amphitheater. He had his soldiers surround them, and threatened to kill them if they did not desist.
The leaders immediately bared their necks and challenged the soldiers to attack. Not even ruthless Pilate could order the massacre of defenseless peaceful men. Pilate was beaten, and he knew it. He gave in to their demands.
Pilate later built an aqueduct to bring water to Jerusalem. He paid for it by raiding the Temple treasury. This led to riots against him. Pilate retaliated by dressing his soldiers in plain clothes and mingling them among the crowd. At a given signal, the soldiers drew their concealed weapons and began killing people indiscriminately.
The people hated Pilate. Philo accused him of “bribery, violence, robbery, cruelty, insult, continual executions without semblance of justice, endless and unendurable atrocities.” Over time, Pilate became ever more ruthless in his handling of any form of opposition to himself.
He knew he was always in danger of being reported to his superiors. This is why the taunt “You are not Caesar’s friend” later proved to be effective. Finally, he was accused before his superiors, deposed, and sent to Rome to answer for his administration.
Tiberias died before Pilate arrived. According to tradition, Caligula banished him to Gaul, where he committed suicide.
John 18:29b-30 . . . and said, “What charge do you bring against this man?” They answered him, “If this man weren’t a criminal, we wouldn’t have handed Him over to you.”
Pilate asked for an indictment. He received instead a belligerent retort. The religious leaders were miffed at having to appeal to a foreign, pagan authority. They wanted Pilate to rubber-stamp their decision.
They felt he had no right to second-guess their ability to try and convict a criminal. Who was he to question their competence to condemn?
The leaders had a problem: Romans did not deem blasphemy a capital crime. The leaders had no legitimate accusation that warranted death.
The worst they could do was to label Jesus a criminal. His evil deeds were many: He cured painful diseases, drove out demons, made the lame walk, blessed little children, restored sight to the blind, and hearing to the deaf.
These were His crimes, an evildoer who had gone about doing nothing but good. The best of our race was branded as the worst of criminals.
John 18:31a So Pilate told them, “Take Him yourselves and judge Him according to your law.”
This was the first of several sarcastic jabs Pilate poked at the religious leaders during the trial of Jesus. There was no love lost between Pilate and the Sanhedrin. They galled each other.
Pilate responded to their proud taunt by encouraging them to handle the whole affair themselves. This forced them to swallow their pride. They were compelled to admit their subjection by confessing they did not have the authority to do what they wanted to do. Pilate had quickly brought them to their knees.
Pilate probably dreaded handling a theological case. He wanted to evade the responsibility of dealing with Jesus, but no one can do this. Each individual must deal with Jesus, and make a decision for or against.
John 18:31b-32 “It’s not legal for us to put anyone to death,” the Jews declared. They said this so that Jesus’ words might be fulfilled signifying what sort of death He was going to die.
This whole episode led to the fulfillment of what Jesus had predicted. He had told His disciples He would be delivered to the Gentiles to be mocked, scourged, and crucified. Roman authority had caused Jesus to be born at Bethlehem; Roman authority would cause Him to die by crucifixion.
The religious leaders were eager for Jesus to die a Roman death. They could have taken Jesus, with Pilate’s permission, and stoned Him. This was the Jewish mode of execution, but Caiaphas hoped to discredit Jesus, for “he that is hanged is accursed of God” (Deut. 21:23). Caiaphas felt an ignominious death would convincingly prove to all that Jesus was not God’s Blessed One, but rather a blaspheming imposter. Caiaphas not only wanted to bury Jesus’ body; he also wanted to sink His reputation forever.
Crucifixion was a terrible reproach, the most shameful of all deaths. It usually left an indelible mark of infamy on the reputation of the convict. But what Caiaphas intended as a curse, God turned into a blessing. “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Through His death we find life.