Mark 15:1-20. He opened not his mouth.

And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole Council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” And the chief priests accused him of many things. And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.

And the soldiers led him away inside the palace that is, the governor’s headquarters, and they called together the whole battalion. And they clothed him in a purple cloak, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on him. And they began to salute him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” And they were striking his head with a reed and spitting on him and kneeling down in homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. And they led him out to crucify him.”

In the previous chapter, Jesus has been tried before the Sanhedrin. They have gone to the trouble of seeking out liars to bring false accusations against Jesus, but the weakness of the case against him has been embarrassingly obvious. The so-called witnesses have contradicted one another in their testimony. Trying to get Jesus to convict himself, the High Priest has asked him, “Are you the Christ?” Jesus has said that he is and that the Sanhedrin will see him glorified. The High Priest has then torn his clothes and declared Jesus guilty of blasphemy. Perhaps not all the members of the Sanhedrin are there, and perhaps some who are present have secret misgivings, but they all consent to the guilty verdict.

  1. As soon as morning comes, the chief priests consult the elders, scribes, and the whole Sanhedrin (v1). But haven’t the Sanhedrin already met, held a trial, and reached a verdict? Why this continued meeting?

  2. Pilate asks Jesus whether he is the King of the Jews (v2). Why should Pilate ask this? What does he understand the title to mean?

  3. The chief priests spew out a flood of accusations (v3). Why doesn’t Jesus answer, and what is the significance of Pilate’s amazement at his silence (v5)?

  4. According to custom, there is a Passover amnesty whereby the Roman prefect releases one prisoner each year. Pilate offers Jesus to the crowd. What is he trying to do here?

  5. What is the point of the soldiers’ mockery of Jesus?

  6. Mark puts the trials of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate next to one another, and we are supposed to see the parallels and differences between them. What is Mark’s point in the juxtaposition?

  7. What are we supposed to see about Jesus from this passage?

 

  1. As soon as morning comes, the chief priests consult the elders, scribes, and the whole Sanhedrin (v1). But haven’t the Sanhedrin already met, held a trial, and reached a verdict? Why this continued meeting?

The Sanhedrin consult again early in the morning, probably later in the same meeting, even though they’d reached a verdict earlier that day (the morning would be the same day by the Jewish reckoning- there is evening, and then there is morning, and that is a day). They’ve already condemned Jesus to death, but there is still work to do. They’ve agreed that Jesus is guilty of blasphemy, a capital crime, which means that they have a legal veil under which to hide the murder they wanted to do all along. But they still have two problems.

Firstly, they are not sovereign in Jerusalem. Judea is an occupied territory, under the power of Rome, and Rome is particularly jealous about the death penalty. Though she often allows conquered peoples to maintain their own customs and legal structures, she reserves the death penalty for herself. Only Rome has that authority; and in Judea, Rome’s authority is vested in Pilate, the Prefect. Pilate is in Jerusalem- he lived in Caesarea normally, but it is customary for the Roman Prefect to be present in Jerusalem for the religious festivals. This makes it very awkward for the chief priests; if they put Jesus to death under Pilate’s nose, it could well be taken as a calculated insult. Pilate and the chief priests do not get on well- Philo quotes Agrippa calling Pilate “inflexible, merciless, and obstinate”, and Josephus isn’t complimentary either. Pilate is painted as a cruel obnoxious man who did all he could to annoy the Jewish rulers. But Pilate is ultimately the boss, and the priests can’t afford to flout his authority quite so blatantly as to carry out the death penalty without his say-so, especially not in his presence. Of course, it wasn’t unknown for the Jewish leaders to kill undesirables and to let the Romans worry about it afterwards- they would later kill Stephen without any official permission from Rome. But at Passover time, the governor himself was present, the city was well supplied with auxiliary Roman troops, and the Jewish crowds were swollen with non-Jerusalem dwellers. So Pilate’s rubber stamp over the decision must be obtained. It’s safer to do things by the book.

The second problem is downstream of that first problem. It is the charge of blasphemy on which they have convicted Jesus. Blasphemy is a capital offence under Jewish law, but “Blasphemy against the God of Israel” is by no means an offence under Roman law. The Sanhedrin can tell the Jews, “We’ve tried him, and we’ve heard him utter the most horrible blasphemies”, and they will be believed enough to let them get away with it. Pilate is a different matter. The Sanhedrin knows he despises them, and knows that he might be uncooperative just for kicks. If they come to him with a charge of blasphemy, they are almost inviting him to throw it out of the Roman court, telling them that it is a Jewish religious question, and that they can give Jesus some lesser punishment. They need to spin this to Pilate so that he will find the case against Jesus compelling. For preference, they would like a way to get Pilate over a barrel so that he can’t get out of having Jesus executed. So they continue plotting and scheming. They want to thrash out a strategy for their case to Pilate. They are moving extremely fast and making policy on the hoof. It can’t be more than a handful of hours since Judas tipped them off. Jesus’ death is not yet a certainty. They lay their plans, and then they bring Jesus to Pilate early in the morning, first thing in his day.

 

  1. Pilate asks Jesus whether he is the King of the Jews (v2). Why should Pilate ask this? What does he understand the title to mean?

The question Pilate asks shows us the line the chief priests have spun him. The outcome of their meeting has obviously been a tactical decision. They will come to Pilate and try to make out that Jesus is a political danger to Rome. They have condemned Jesus under a charge of blasphemy, but that isn’t something which will bother Pilate in the slightest. So the priests alter the charges against him, and frame them in terms of rebellion against Rome. Jesus has claimed to be the Messiah- he has admitted to being the Christ (14:62) – and the chief priests “translate” that for Pilate, making Jesus out to be a potential rebel against Caesar. If they can do this successfully, then they will leave Pilate little option but to meet their demands for the death sentence. Pilate won’t want to risk letting Jesus go if he thinks that Jesus might be a focal point for anti-Roman sentiment among the population. If news of such a thing were to get back to Rome (and the chief priests could make sure that it did), then Pilate’s superiors would not be happy.

Mark has a strong sense of irony, and this is tremendously ironic. The Jewish leaders condemn Jesus for being the ruler they know he isn’t. They don’t think of rebellion against Caesar as a crime at all, and they know that Jesus isn’t guilty of it anyway. It is especially ironic that having rejected Jesus and branded him a blasphemer because he did not match up to their expectations of a national ruler, the Sanhedrin now condemn him for being that ruler. They hate him because he isn’t the sort of king they want, but they accuse him of being that sort of king. They have rejected him as their Messiah, but it is as “King of the Jews” that they have him condemned.

These are clearly not the same charges as they made against him in their own trial. To be “King of the Jews” is not exactly the same thing as being the Messiah, and is a long way removed from charges of blasphemy. The Sanhedrin knows that Pilate will understand the title differently from the way they understand it. There is no reason why the title should resonate with him the way it does with Jewish folk. Pilate will hear “King of the Jews”, and think of a rebel leader who wants to be king. Jesus knows that his kingship must be understood in different terms altogether, but even the Sanhedrin put far more behind the concept of a Messiah than a mere head of a rebellion. They know that they are not being honest when they alter the charges against Jesus. But they are dishonest men, and they don’t mind breaking any number of God’s commandments concerning truth and justice, as long as they can get Jesus killed.

If we look at the way Pilate uses the term, we can see that he understands it simply to mean “a king”. Pilate uses the phrase three times, and the last time he tells us that it is the Jews themselves who call Jesus this. He’s heard it from the priests or from other Jewish sources. He seems to be using it almost as a mockery of all things Jewish- when he offers to release the “King of the Jews”, Jesus is standing there, and is not looking like Pilate’s idea of a king. Jesus must look a real mess. He has been kept awake and on his feet all night. He’s been spat on, has had a bag put over his head, and has been beaten around the face. He’ll be bleary eyed and bloodied. Pilate calls him “King”, but the idea is to say, “This pathetic figure is your king, is he? Nice King, Jews. Don’t you think he looks a bit ragged and defenceless? Good example of your vain hopes in the face of mighty Rome.” Interestingly, when Jewish folk use this title, it is the “King of Israel” (v32), not “King of the Jews.” But whichever form of the title the priests gave Pilate, they have referred to Jesus in this way in order to make him a danger in Pilate’s eyes as a pretender to the throne.

 

  1. The chief priests spew out a flood of accusations (v3). Why doesn’t Jesus answer, and what is the significance of Pilate’s amazement at his silence (v5)?

Pilate asks Jesus directly- does he plead guilty to the charges against him? “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus reply is not straightforward. There has been much debate over what exactly Jesus meant by saying “You have said so”– with some arguing that it is an affirmation- “You are right to have said so” , some taking it as a denial- “That’s what you say, not what I say”, and others arguing for anything between the two. Context shows us at least that it can’t be an unqualified affirmation. If Jesus had said “Yes, dead right I am”, then Pilate would probably have convicted him on the spot. But it is unlikely to be a flat denial either. Jesus knows that he is the king of the Jews, even if he is not anything like what Pilate means by the title. Jesus’ answer likely means something like, “Well, if you want to put it like that…”. The effect of it is to throw the onus for the decision back onto Pilate. Pilate is made to dig a little deeper.

The priests immediately come in with a raft of other accusations, accusing him of “many things”. They don’t want to give Pilate time to think about whether Jesus is guilty or not- they try to overwhelm him with volume of smears. Maybe this is stuff like “He rode into the city on a donkey, and we Jews know that that is a claim to be a king”, or “He smashed the Temple up- he’s a disruptive influence”. Mark leaves these other accusations vague- presumably they are either not serious or not substantiated. It is plain enough in any case that the tactic fails. Pilate won’t be railroaded like that; he gives Jesus time to answer. And in the end, Pilate does not seem to think that Jesus is in any way guilty of law-breaking.

Pilate asks Jesus again if he admits guilt in these matters. But Jesus makes no reply at all, refusing to defend himself. Pilate knows that the chief priests are acting in bad faith (v10), and he would probably be inclined to believe any defence Jesus might make. But Jesus refuses to avoid his sentence. Jesus is aware that a refusal to defend himself will result in his death, but he is quite content to go to his death, knowing that this is the Father’s plan for him. We know, and Jesus knew, that this silence was in deliberate fulfilment of scripture (Psalm 38:13 and Isa 53:7). Jesus sees himself as the suffering servant of Isaiah- the one obedient to God and unjustly treated by men, whose soul makes an offering for sin and who shall see his offspring. Jesus knows that he is endpoint of Psalm 38, the man whose enemies hate him, and who suffers God’s righteous anger, yet who calls out to God for salvation. So Jesus does the appropriate thing, and keeps silence in the face of unjust accusations from those who hate him.

Pilate is amazed at Jesus’ silence. Pilate would not have known the scriptures well enough to know the Isaiah passage about the sheep dumb before the shearers, and the servant opening not his mouth. He’s not shaken because he sees the prophecies coming to pass. He is shaken simply because he has never seen a prisoner quite like this. Pilate, as we’ve said, is a real piece of work. If reports are to be believed, he’s vicious, cold, and brutal. But Jesus has an impact on him. Other prisoners Pilate has seen have been gibbering with fear, or begging for mercy, or hotly defending themselves. Jesus does none of those things. He is different. His life is at stake, but he is calm, self-possessed. Something about him hits Pilate hard- maybe there is a deliberate echo of Isa 52:15, where kings shut their mouths because of the suffering servant.

Other people have been amazed in Mark’s Gospel- the Jews in Galilee, on seeing Jesus cast out unclean spirits, 1:27; the people of the Decapolis, again after the casting out of demons, 5:20; the disciples at Jesus’ words when he told them that it would be hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, 10:24; the twelve again when it becomes clear that Jesus is headed for Jerusalem, 10:32. When Jesus does something that shows his power and his destiny, and those around him can’t understand it, they marvel.

 

  1. According to custom, there is a Passover amnesty whereby the Roman prefect releases one prisoner each year. Pilate offers Jesus to the crowd. What is he trying to do here?

Pilate has not been fooled by the Sanhedrin’s tricks. He did not think that Jesus was guilty of any crime, and did not think that he was a serious danger to Caesar either. But rather than throw the case out, he seems to have decided to try and get Jesus off by amnesty. It was traditional at Passover for the Prefect to release a prisoner at the request of the Jewish people. Pilate had a pretty efficient network of informers. It is likely that he had heard about the recent disturbances in the Temple (and probably filed them under “do nothing”- why should he worry if one Jew disagreed with the others in their own Temple?). He’ll have known that Jesus enjoyed popular support. He could see that the Sanhedrin hated him out of envy- Jesus was the sort of teacher they wanted to be but weren’t. Jesus had the authority and the respect, and even the love of the people, that they coveted. So Pilate saw a golden opportunity opening up for him to kill three birds with one stone. He could use up the amnesty without having to release a genuine troublemaker, he could release the innocent man in front of him now, and he could really annoy the Sanhedrin, all in one stroke. Win win win. So Pilate offered Jesus to the crowd with every reason to think that the crowd would gladly accept Jesus as their released prisoner. He seems to have expected Jesus to be released and the Sanhedrin thwarted.

But things don’t go according to Pilate’s plan. The Sanhedrin had come to Pilate at daybreak, at first light. The trial has taken perhaps an hour, so it is still early in the morning. But by this time, a crowd has assembled, and has begun to ask for the release of a prisoner, as was the custom. Pilate offers the assembled crowd his choice. He offers them Jesus, the “King of the Jews”, confident that they will accept. So sure is he that he is even mocking them with that phrase, as he offers them the release of this prisoner. But this crowd have someone else in mind. They ask for the man Barabbas. The crowd before Pilate is probably not identical to the crowds around the Temple, those who supported Jesus enough to make the priests fear to arrest him in public. The people here may not have anything against Jesus, but they are probably strong supporters of Barabbas. These people have gathered in the early morning, delaying any other business of the day, in order to ask for a prisoner to be released. They very likely had someone in mind, and wanted to get in first, and secure his release. And the chief priests are active in the crowd, stirring up support for anybody other than Jesus. Pro-Barabbas feeling would be easy to encourage, since Barabbas seems to have been some kind of a Zealot hero. His crime was to have killed somebody during an apparently well-known insurrection against the Roman oppressors. So Pilate’s plans and expectations were overturned. It was never going to be hard for the Sanhedrin to get the support of a crowd who would always trust them over the hated Roman Prefect. If the people are given one choice by Pilate and another by the Sanhedrin, then they’ll go with their own leaders- especially given that some of them will have come with Barabbas’ release as their big agendum.

Pilate is playing political games. He thinks he can outwit the Sanhedrin and score off them. But he finds himself outmanoeuvred, and he spins out of control. He starts making serious tactical blunders. When the crowd call for Barabbas, Pilate is surprised, and he asks the crowd what they want done with Jesus. That’s a big mistake. Maybe he expects them to ask for Jesus’ release too, or maybe he expects them to call for a mild punishment for him. But their reply is callous- crucify him, they shout. Maybe the priests have already been spreading the story that Jesus is a blasphemer. Pilate tries to reason with them, telling them that Jesus has done no evil, but they won’t listen to the Roman Prefect. By asking the crowd what they want, Pilate has created the dangerous situation where the crowd is in control. Having lost his game of getting Jesus off on amnesty, he should have released Barabbas and taken Jesus back inside to continue the trial. Release under a Passover amnesty did not imply guilt and prior conviction- it was an abolitio, not an indulgentia. So the fact that Jesus had been offered for release did not imply that his trial was over and he had been found guilty. But now the crowd are calling for Jesus’ blood, and Pilate has painted himself into a corner. He faces a riot if he ends up releasing Jesus now. He’s lost all control of the situation.

So he has Jesus flogged -the flogging would be with the Roman flagellum, leather thongs plaited with pieces of bone or metal. It could easily expose the bones with repeated strokes, and it was not uncommon for men to die from a flogging like this- and hands him over to be crucified, washing his hands of the affair.

Responsibility of the Jews is stressed all the way through, and we find the same in Acts as well. In Acts, Pilate is seen as the representative Gentile, conspiring together with Herod and the Jews against Jesus (4:27); but he is also defended as the one who would have released Jesus if there had been no pressure to do otherwise (3:13). Pilate does realise that the Sanhedrin’s charges are trumpery. Maybe he genuinely wants to do the right thing, but only if it is cost-free. When it becomes difficult, he has no qualms about punishing the innocent. Pilate is a callous man in the end. He doesn’t care very much what happens to Jesus as long as his own power isn’t threatened. He’d rather sentence an innocent man to death than risk civil unrest in his province. He has publicly declared Jesus to be innocent, but he allows him to be killed as a criminal anyway.

 

  1. What is the point of the soldiers’ mockery of Jesus?

Soldiers lead Jesus to the governor’s headquarters. These will be the governor’s troops; auxiliaries, not proper legionaries. A cohort of them would be about 300 men. Jesus is in the middle of a large mob of soldiers. These are violent brutal men- they have to be, to do their job. They are paid to fight and kill. People can be very disciplined in one sense, and let all that discipline evaporate when they don’t think it is needed. And people can be cruel. Jesus is a pitiable figure by now. He has just been scourged, and is almost dead. But these men bully Jesus, because they can. Children throw stones at cats because they can, and they find it fun. You’ve probably seen groups of bullies intimidate people at school- maybe you’ve been bullied. Sinful people enjoy exercising power over others, and an obvious way to prove that someone is in your power is to hurt and humiliate them, and prove that they can’t do anything to retaliate. The cat can’t throw stones back. The victim can’t fight the bullies. Human nature is brutal and cruel. Jesus is delivered over to these men and they abuse him, because they’ve nothing better to do, and they enjoy it, and because he’s a prisoner and can’t do anything to get them back.

They don’t understand this, but Jesus does have power. He could call down legions of angels to rescue him. But he won’t. He is willingly suffering- the shepherd in the place of the sheep. “Normal” human nature would be to take revenge- and a bit more than revenge as well. The OT law of “an eye for an eye” was given not only to ensure punishment was given for crimes, but also to limit revenge- an eye for an eye, not two eyes and part of an ear for an eye. Most people, when someone hits them, want to hit back as hard- for justice- and a little bit harder. That is why bullying is a demonstration of power. The bully bullies because it gives him a feeling of power, which he needs because he is inadequate in all sorts of ways, and he only gets that feeling of power because he knows his victims would hit him back if they weren’t too scared of him. They want to retaliate, but they fear what would happen to them if they did. If they didn’t want to retaliate, then not hitting back wouldn’t demonstrate the bully’s power.

Jesus could hit back. It wouldn’t matter how many soldiers there were, how big they were, or how many swords they had- Jesus’ power is in a different league altogether. But he doesn’t hit back. He is perfectly obedient, and perfectly humble. He doesn’t react with wounded pride, doesn’t react to defend himself. Instead, he suffers for others.

One aspect of the soldiers’ mockery is very specific. They strike his head with a reed and spit on him, but before that, they put a purple cloak on him, and jam a crown of thorns onto his head. The purple dye in those days was extracted from shellfish, and was very expensive to obtain. Only important people, such as royalty, wore purple clothes. The soldiers put it on Jesus to make fun of his claim to be a king. The crown of thorns would be painful, but the main point of it wasn’t to cause physical pain, but to mock. It is a fake crown for a fake king. Jesus is dressed up as a mockery of a king. Christian readers will see the Genesis 3 symbolism here- the ground is cursed because of the man, and it will bring forth thorns. Jesus wears the curse. The king who was supposed to bathe in the blood of grapes will instead go crowned with thorns to his death. The soldiers don’t do that intentionally. For them, they are just dressing Jesus up as a clown-king. They salute him as if he were a commander of some sort, and say “Hail, King of the Jews”. Roman troops would salute the emperor, “Ave, Caesar”. They adapt that cry to mock Jesus. They do him mock obeisance, kneeling before him and chortling at how funny the idea is. Jesus is being executed as the King of the Jews, that is the charge against him on the Roman sheet, and the Romans mock his kingly status. He is clearly not a king in their eyes. He is battered, bruised, dirty, bloody, and defeated. He is about to be killed as a criminal, and they are free to do as they like to him. He does not cut a kingly figure in their minds. So they sneer.

 

  1. Mark puts the trials of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate next to one another, and we are supposed to see the plain parallels and differences between them. What is Mark’s point in the juxtaposition?

Mark tells us about one trial after the other, and he subtly highlights similarities for us. There are several parallels in this passage to the earlier trial in 14:55-65.

  • Both the High Priest in 14:61, and Pilate in 15:2, unwittingly announce the truth in their question. Both judges ask Jesus if he is who he really is- but both men already have their own ideas about what Jesus’ answer means.

  • Both the High Priest in 14:60, and Pilate in 15:4, ask Jesus the same question; “Have you no answer to make?

  • In both trials, Jesus is silent before false accusations.

  • Jesus is mocked after both trials, spat on after both trials, and beaten after both trials.

Mark has a polemic here- comparing the Jewish leaders to Pilate and to the soldiers- they are all equally ruthless, amoral, merciless, and ignorant. Neither trial is a proper trial- there is no concern for truth and justice at either. There is a desperate need for a real king to administer justice- but where will one be found?

The difference between the two trials, seen perhaps most clearly in the mockery at the end, is the particular irony involved. The charges are different, and the emphasis of the mockery is different. In the Jewish trial, the charge is one of being the Christ, the Son of God, and Jesus is mocked as a prophet. In the Roman trial, it is as King that Jesus stands accused and is mocked.

 

  1. What are we supposed to see about Jesus from this passage?

We are supposed to see the thing to which everybody in the narrative is blind. Jesus really is a king, and really is a prophet, and he is going deliberately to his own death. He is in control throughout.

Jesus is the innocent condemned. Pilate knew that he was innocent. The priests knew their trial was a sham. The crowd could not tell Pilate what Jesus had done wrong. But Jesus was found guilty anyway. Why?- the answer lies in what Jesus had already told his disciples- these things must happen to the Son of Man (Mk 8:31). The just must die for the unjust, to reconcile the unjust to God. The chief priests, Pilate, and Barabbas are all part of a tapestry of grace for the guilty.

Barabbas really is guilty of rebellion, the sort of violent rebellion for which the Sanhedrin tries to make out that Jesus wants to perpetrate. Jesus is condemned, and a wider truth is enacted. Barabbas, though guilty is freed. Jesus, though innocent is condemned.

Why doesn’t Jesus defend himself? He doesn’t defend himself because he is the substitute. He is not guilty in his own actions-far from it, he alone is pure. But he is silent because he stands there for his people, and they would have to be silent. There is nothing that any of us can say in our defence before God. We are rightly condemned. But Jesus was in the place of his people, the just for the unjust as Peter puts it (1 Peter 3:18). He didn’t defend himself because he wanted to die for his people. He didn’t defend himself, because his people were guilty.

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