Who’s in the Dock? A Lawyer looks at the Trial of Jesus

Tale of Two Trials

A Few Good Men. The Practice. To Kill a Mockingbird. Hollywood sure does have a lot to answer for my former career as a lawyer. Sadly, my legal career was spent mostly in cramped windowless offices as opposed to the courtroom. The one time I did enter a courtroom though during work experience in Year 10, the one thing I was told repeatedly was to bow to the judge. Even as a 15 year old, it was very clear who was the judge in the courtroom and who was on trial.

The tragedy of these chapters is that his courtroom accusers do not even realise they are the ones on trial.

As we come to chapters 18-19 of John’s gospel and the trial of Jesus, it appears very clear who is the judge in the courtroom and who is on trial. However, as the story unfolds, John wants us as readers to realise that in fact there is another trial taking place. The tragedy of these chapters is not Jesus of Nazareth being summarily tried and sentenced to death by a kangaroo court, but that his courtroom accusers do not even realise they are the ones on trial.

The question for us as readers is where do we sit in that courtroom—beside Jesus or alongside those in the dock?

The Defendants

 1. Before Caiaphas

Jesus’ trial begins in John 18 as he is brought before Caiaphas the high priest. When being questioned about his disciples and his teaching, Jesus curiously replies:

I have spoken openly to the world. I have said nothing in secret.” (John 18:20)

All the way back in chapter 7, Jesus had been chastised by his own brothers for the exact opposite—doing too much in secret:

For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly.” (John 7:4)

Jesus’ brothers wanted Jesus to go global and for the world to become a stage for his ministry. What they didn’t realise was that Jesus’ global stage is in fact a courtroom and he is the star witness. Thus, by the time of Jesus’ trial, the secret is now well and truly out as revealed by Jesus—the world and its works are evil (John 7:7) and its ultimate evil is hating the one who testifies against it.

2. Before Pilate

The trial continues in v33 where Jesus is brought before Pilate. After a lot of back and forth as to whether Jesus is a king or not, Jesus throws a curveball:

You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.” (John 18:37)

This may well seem to us like an odd mission statement for Jesus—and it apparently seemed that way to Pilate too, given his puzzled reply in v38: “What is truth?”

The ‘truth’ is the collective testimony of the witnesses assembled against the world: the Old Testament Scriptures, John the Baptist … Jesus himself with his mighty works and words.

When we see that word “truth” in John’s gospel, we should not be thinking in terms of a true or false question in a pub quiz but more like a witness swearing in court that they will tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth so help me God. That is, the “truth” is the collective testimony of the witnesses assembled against the world: the Old Testament Scriptures, John the Baptist, John the apostle in his gospel or Jesus himself with his mighty works and words. The “truth” is that all these witnesses point to the identity and purpose of Jesus. The truth” is sadly that Pilate, like so many in the world today, embraces a false narrative—that he is not in fact under his kingship.

After many machinations, Pilate concludes Jesus’ trial:

So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgement seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. (John 19:13)

There is quite a bit of scholarly debate as to what is going on here exactly given the grammar of the word “sat down”: was it Pilate who sat down on the judgement seat or was he being sat down by Jesus? At the very least John wants us to see the irony going on—as Jesus’ fate is being decided on one judgement seat, Pilate’s fate has been sealed on another judgement seat.

3. Before the Cross

Pilate has one last cameo in chapter 19:

Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” Many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and it was written in Aramaic, in Latin, and in Greek.
(John 19:19–20)

The sign is written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek—the lingua francas of the day. Everyone who walked past that sign would have been able to read and understand. The titulus is the final nail in the coffin in this trial publicly declaring Jesus’ kingship—both vindicating Jesus and condemning the world for rejecting its king.

What about Us? 

Where do we sit as we read this trial scene play out over these two chapters? If Jesus is judge, jury and executioner so to speak, then what is our role in this trial?

1. In the Dock

It might seem as if it’s getting crowded in the dock at this stage. But there is still plenty of space: space for for those who reject the authority of the courtroom altogether—“I’m my own boss … At least if I go to hell, I’ll have lots of mates there”; space for those who think they’ll be able to plea-bargain their way out of trouble—“I’ve given to charity … I’ve tried to be a good person.”

To such defendants, Jesus’ words in chapter 18 act either as a potential defence or as definitive inculpatory evidence: “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). Choosing to listen to Jesus in our life will mean lining up alongside Jesus and his truthful witnesses. Choosing to not listen to Jesus is choosing to seal your own fate.

2. On the Witness Stand

If there is room for more defendants, there is room for more witnesses too. We—just like John the Baptist, John the apostle, and the prophets of the OT—have been called into the stand to speak about Jesus’ works and words. Our role is to testify as to who Jesus is. Evangelism means speaking the truth about Jesus—countering the false testimony of those who would prosecute him, and defending him who defended us with his life.

I am indebted to the work of Andrew Lincoln in his seminal piece Truth on Trial; Andrew T. Lincoln Truth on Trial, The Lawsuit Motif in the Gospel of John (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000), and am grateful for his consent to publication of this article.