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Luke 23:13-16 meaning

Pilate's First Attempt to Release Jesus: When Jesus is returned from Herod to Pilate, the Roman governor summarizes the events of the civil trial thus far. He restates the verdicts. Jesus was not guilty of the charges as declared by both Pilate and Herod. Then in an extraordinary gesture to appease Jesus's accusers, Pilate offers to punish Jesus (despite his declarations of Him having no guilt) before he releases Him. This passage begins Luke's account of the third phase of Jesus's Civil Trial. This phase is called: "Pilate's Judgment."

There are no apparent parallels for this moment in the Gospels.

The happenings of this account of Pilate's judgement took place at the Praetorium, likely Herod's former palace and now Pilate's Jerusalem headquarters, which was built on the western side of the upper city along the city wall. This event happened while it was still morning, most likely sometime between 8:00 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. (Jesus is on the cross at 9:00 a.m.—Mark 15:24). According to the Jewish calendar, the date was likely Nisan 15—the first day of Unleavened Bread. By Roman reckoning, the day was probably a Friday.

To learn more about the timing and sequencing of these events, see The Bible Says' "Timeline: Jesus's Final 24 Hours."

Jesus's Civil Trial occurred over the course of three phases.

  1. Jesus's Arraignment before Pilate (Matthew 27:1-2, 11-14, Mark 15:1-5, Luke 23:1-7, John 18:28-38)
  2. Jesus's Audience before Herod Antipas (Luke 23:8-12)
  3. Pilate's Judgment (Matthew 27:15-26, Mark 15:6-15, Luke 23:13-25, John 18:38 - 19:16)

A Summary of the First Two Phases of Jesus's Civil Trial
The first two phases of Jesus's civil trial resulted in both Pilate and Herod Antipas finding Jesus not guilty. 

The first phase of Jesus's civil trial began when the chief priests and elders brought Jesus to Pilate the Roman governor of Judea early in the morning (Matthew 27:2, Mark 15:1, John 18:28). Initially they seemed unprepared to present their charges and evidence when Pilate asked them what their accusations were (John 18:29-30). Pilate seemed prepared to toss the case back to the Jewish authorities, when they reminded him that they were unable to try Jesus because Rome did not permit them to put anyone to death (John 18:31). Pilate appears to have given the chief priests another opportunity to state their accusations. 

They gave three charges:

  1. "We found this man misleading our nation…" (Luke 23:2a)
  2.  "and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar…" (Luke 23:2b)
  3. "and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King" (Luke 23:2c).

Pilate personally investigated these charges by interviewing Jesus (John 18:33a)—especially the charge of insurrection. In John's extended account of Pilate's investigative interview of Jesus, the Roman governor asked the defendant more than once, "Are You the King of the Jews?" (John 18:33b, John 18:37). Luke summarized Jesus's answer: "It is as you say" (Luke 23:3). 

Pilate then went out of the Praetorium and announced to the religious leaders hungry for His death, "I find no guilt in this man" (Luke 23:4). The chief priests, elders, and scribes (religious lawyers) railed more accusations against Him and vented their angry disappointment. Jesus said nothing (Matthew 27:12). Pilate marveled at His silent composure (Matthew 23:13-14, Mark 15:4-5), perhaps wishing Jesus would speak and say something that he could use to condemn Him or humiliate His accusers so the governor could pin the acquittal on them

But amidst the chaotic scene, Pilate heard an accuser mention that Jesus was from Galilee (Luke 23:5-6a). Pilate asked if this was true (Luke 26:6b). Once confirmed, the Roman politician eagerly sought to rid himself of unwanted responsibility and sent Jesus to Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, who also was conveniently in Jerusalem at that time of Passover (Luke 23:7). 

The first phase of Jesus's civil trial ended when Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, sent Jesus to Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, to judge.

The second phase of Jesus's civil trial was at Herod's court. 

Herod was initially excited to see Jesus, whom he had heard so much about. But Herod became disappointed when He would not perform a sign for him. He mocked Jesus, dressing Him in a gorgeous robe and returned Him to Pilate (Luke 23:11). The Greek term for "gorgeous robe" in Luke 23:11 indicates that it was a white robe which might be like the white garments an heir to the throne would wear. By dressing Jesus and returning Him to Pilate like this, it may have been a mocking way for Herod to share his verdict of not guilty—Jesus was not an insurrectionist as charged. Perhaps by dressing Jesus in the kingly robe, Herod intended to mock Him as merely being someone with an illusion of being a king.

Pilate's Growing Audience as Jesus's Civil Trial Returns to his Court
After Jesus had been returned to the governor, Pilate summoned the chief priests and the rulers and the people (v 13) to announce how he intended to bring this trial to an end.

Luke tells us that the crowd Pilate was addressing consisted of three groups. They were: the chief priests; and the rulers; and the people

The chief priests were members of the Sadducee party. As priests, they were responsible for the Temple and performing the sacrifices offered there. As chief priests, they sat on the Sanhedrin Council—the highest Jewish judicial body in the nation—the same body that had illegally conspired to condemn Jesus at His religious trial. 

Luke's account infers that the chief priests were the main ones leading the prosecution against Jesus in His civil trial. He indicates this by mentioning the chief priests three times (Luke 23:4, 10, 13), while only acknowledging or alluding to the role of the Pharisees and/or scribes twice (Luke 23:10, 13). Luke also mentions the chief priests by name and he mentions them first, but he never explicitly names the Pharisees or elders (like Luke did in Jesus's religious trials) during Jesus's civil trial. 

Additionally, to the degree in which any distinction between the roles of the chief priests and elders is made by the other Gospel writers, they all suggest that the chief priests were the religious group that assumed the leading role in prosecuting Jesus before Pilate (Matthew 27:1, 27:12, 27:20, Mark 15:1, John 18:35, 19:6, 19:15, 19:21). 

Perhaps because of the chief priests' relationship to Rome, which granted them authority in exchange for controlling the people, the chief priests were the natural Jewish group to negotiate with the Roman governor. (The chief priests/Sadducees allied with Rome. The Pharisees, on the other hand, championed Jewish culture and identity separate from Rome and lamented Rome's presence.)

Luke's expression and the rulers likely refers to the elders (Pharisees) and scribes (religious lawyers) who also sat on the Sanhedrin and helped condemn Jesus in His religious trials, and were now accusing Him in civil trial. 

Even though Luke never explicitly name elders or Pharisees as being present at Jesus's civil trial, he does say that everyone in the Sanhedrin who was present at Jesus's Sunrise Trial, which included Pharisees, brought Jesus to Pilate (Luke 23:1), and moreover, Matthew and Mark both explicitly state that the Pharisees were present to accuse Jesus to Pilate (Matthew 27:1, 27:12, 27:20, Mark 15:1). We know that some of the Pharisees on the Sanhedrin Council were not present for nor participants of the trials against Jesus. One Pharisee, Joseph of Arimathea, was a supporter of Jesus, and would bury Him (Luke 23:50-51). Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin, also admired Jesus and helped bury Him, so doubtless he was not a part of the Pharisees who prosecuted Jesus (John 3:1, 7:50, 19:39).

Luke's expression: and the rulers also may have included members of the Herodian party who followed the proceedings after Jesus was dismissed from Herod's court. 

The third group Luke identifies in the audience during this final phase of Jesus's civil trial was the people. The people are ordinary Jews of all walks of life who seem to have joined the trial as onlookers, after they noticed the angry proceedings that morning. Luke's mentioning of the people is the first, and perhaps only time that any of the Gospels explicitly state that ordinary people were present at or somehow involved in the religious/civil trials of Jesus. 

Luke's mention of the people indicates that the trial was becoming more widely known and more public the further into the morning it went. As with any ruckus, it seems the crowd was growing.

The main reasons the people were largely uninvolved and/or not present until now were as follows: 

  • The religious trial of Jesus was secret and sudden. It happened (probably without advanced planning) during the late night of Passover.
  • The first two phases of Jesus's civil trial were early (John 18:28). They mostly likely started sometime around 6:00 a.m. and concluded before 8:00 a.m. 
  • There was little to no opportunity for any of the people to even be aware, much less participate in, Jesus's trials until this time. 

Those of the people who did join at this time were likely informed about what was going on by Jesus's accusers, who obviously had strong motives to mislead the people about the true and sinister history of this case. 

The chief priests and the rulers were probably quick to falsely persuade the people how they themselves were the good guys and that Jesus was evil and must be condemned.

What Pilate Said to the Crowd after Jesus's Civil Trial Returned to his Court
The Roman governor said to them, "You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him (v 14).

The first thing Pilate said to them as Jesus's civil trial resumed at his court was to summarize its proceedings up until this point. 

The governor began by retelling the events from the first phase of Jesus's civil trial to the crowd. He told them how You brought Jesus to me and accused Him. Pilate summarizes their three charges (Luke 23:2) against Jesus as one who incites the people to rebellion

Pilate reminds them that he personally examined Him on these charges before You. Then the governor restates his verdict: I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. Earlier Pilate told the chief priests: "I find no guilt in this man" (Luke 23:4). The governor's opinion of Jesus and the allegations against Him had not changed. 

Pilate continued by telling them the results of the second phase of Jesus's civil trial:

No, nor has Herod, for he sent Him back to us; and behold, nothing deserving death has been done by Him. (v 15a). 

Pilate could accurately announce that two Roman officials—the governor of Judea and the tetrarch of Galilee (the district Jesus was from) had found that nothing deserving death has been done by Jesus. This recap is a third declaration of Jesus's innocence of the charges.

Following such an announcement, one would expect that Pilate would then release the now-acquitted defendant. This is what normally happens when a judge determines a person's innocence. But Pilate did not follow the usual or expected protocol at this point of the trial.

Instead of saying, "Therefore I will release defendant…", Pilate said: "Therefore I will punish Him and release Him" (v 16).

Luke is subtle as to what Pilate meant by his statement: I will punish Him. As citizens and subjects of the Roman Empire, Luke's readers would have understood Pilate's meaning. The governor was referring to having Jesus flogged in the Roman style. Indeed, Pilate will later have Jesus punished and flogged at least once (Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15, Luke 23:22, John 19:1).

The Jews used flogging as a type of punishment. It entailed using a whip with short leather lashes that put stripes on the wicked man's back according to his guilt. Jewish scourging was extremely painful, but never cruel and never deadly. 

To ensure that Jewish flogging was not cruel or deadly, Moses strictly commanded how this style of scourging was to be carried out:

"if the wicked man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall then make him lie down and be beaten in his presence with the number of stripes according to his guilt. He may beat him forty times but no more, so that he does not beat him with many more stripes than these and your brother is not degraded in your eyes."
(Deuteronomy 25:3)

The wicked person was made to "lie down" to ensure that only his back was whipped. And in case the person doing the counting made a mistake, Jewish tradition stopped lashing a wicked man after thirty-nine times as a safeguard to guarantee that Moses's limit of "no more than forty times" was not transgressed. The intent undergirding Moses's command (and the Jewish tradition surrounding it) was to punish the wicked man, but preserve his humanity as a fellow person made in God's image.

The Roman flogging intentionally stripped away a person's humanity along with their flesh. It was deliberately cruel and often deadly. There was no limit to how much a person could be lashed under Roman law—but because it was so brutal, victims might receive fewer than forty lashes if their abusers wanted them alive. 

Victims of Roman flogging were tied to a post and the whips they used had long leather lashes which could wrap about a person's entire body. The victim was usually stripped naked, exposing every inch of their body—including the groin and face. Attached to the leather lashes were metal beads to bruise the flesh, and sharp pieces of bone, metal, glass, or nails to rip flesh from the body. After only a few lashings, deep gashes would appear and profusely pour out blood. After several more lashes, the victim's back, ribs, stomach, chest, legs, and face were a ragged bleeding mess and their figure was hardly recognizable as  human.

The aftermath of the Roman scourging—where Jesus hardly looked human—was likely what Isaiah meant when he prophesied of the Messiah:

"So His appearance was marred more than any man
And His form more than the sons of men."
(Isaiah 52:14

Roman flogging as described above was what Pilate likely meant when he said: I will punish Him

The apparent reason Pilate said to the chief priests and rulers: "Therefore I will punish Him and release Him" despite Pilate and Herod's declarations that Jesus was not guilty, was because he wanted to appease the priests and rulers

Pilate recognized that they hated Jesus and badly wanted Him executed. But according to Roman law, Pilate was not to execute innocent people. Twice now, Jesus was found to be guiltless of the charges, therefore Pilate was legally bound to release Him unharmed. But as a conciliatory measure, Pilate was offering to have this innocent man severely punished with a Roman flogging to console them. It was an unusual gesture. 

Pilate's decision to punish an innocent man was also morally wrong and illegal. It was also not enough to appease the blood-thirst of Jesus's accusers. 

As extraordinary as Pilate's gesture was to punish Jesus despite His innocence, it would not be sufficient to satisfy the wishes of the chief priests and rulers who demanded that Pilate "Crucify Him!" (Luke 23:21). 

The governor's extraordinary gesture may have backfired and signaled to the chief priests and the other religious rulers that Pilate was willing to work around or even transgress ordinary judicial protocols. If he was willing to break this law, he might be willing to break others, if he was manipulated properly. Instead of rightfully ending the trial at this moment, Pilate's offer to illegally appease the people may have unintentionally encouraged the politically shrewd Jewish leaders to persist until he gave into their demand that Jesus be executed. 

This was Pilate's first attempt to release Jesus. 

Throughout the remainder of this final phase of Jesus's civil trial (Matthew 27:15-26, Mark 15:6-15, Luke 23:17-25, John 18:38b-19:16), Pilate will maintain that Jesus is innocent and repeatedly attempt to release Jesus without crucifying Him, while the chief priests and rulers will rebuff all his attempts, until finally the Roman politician caves to their deadly demands, all the while declaring Jesus's innocence (Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15, Luke 23:23-25, John 19:16). 

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