During the three and a half years of His ministry, Jesus was asked a total of 81 questions. These concerned all manner of topics big and small.
During the last week of His life, in Jerusalem, Jesus was asked 4 major questions. These concerned authority, politics, resurrection, and the greatest commandment.
During the last day of His life, while on trial, Jesus was asked 2 particular questions. These concerned His identity.
Two Very Different Questions
While on trial by the Sanhedrin and then by Pilate, Jesus was asked two very different questions. These questions reveal powerful motives, endemic suspicions, and very real-felt threats. They reveal the true concerns of both the religious and political establishments. They also reveal Jesus’ true identity, which threatens, still today, both religious darkness and political rebellion wherever they are found.
Jesus was betrayed and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, late in the night. Early the next morning (which would have been the same day according to Jewish reckoning; days began and ended at sunset), Jesus was judged both by the Jews and then by the Romans. Interestingly, the trial of Jesus was carried out in two parts, each of three sections. A harmony of Jesus’ trial from all four Gospels would look something like this (following the ESV Study Bible):
The sentencing of Jesus to crucifixion was a collaboration between the religious and political leaders of the day. Both parties had their concerns and these were manifested in the very different questions that Jesus was asked.
Are You the Son of God?
The question the Jews asked was, “Are you the Son of God?”
All four gospels are clear. What began as a startlingly new teaching with a few questionable practices, grew to a consistently audacious attitude toward tradition and the law, and culminated in a blasphemous claim, which, if not stated explicitly, was at least seriously implied. Jesus did with astonishing directness and intentionality what no other prophet had ever done. He set Himself above Abraham, Moses, Solomon, and Jonah (John 8:53-58; Matt. 5:21-48; Matt. 12:41-42) as “something more”. According to Mark, as early as chapter 3 of his gospel the Pharisees and Herodians were planning Jesus’ destruction because He relativized the Sabbath.
And again the amazing contrast should be noted: just an average man from Nazareth—from which nothing good could come—of inferior origin, from an insignificant family, followed by a group of young men and a couple of women, a man without education, money, office or dignity, not empowered by any authority, not authorized by an tradition, not backed by any party—and yet such an unparalleled claim. An innovator, putting Himself above law and temple, above Moses, king and prophet, using the word “I” with suspicious frequency… To this there correspond… both the “I say to you” of the Sermon on the Mount and the “Amen,” oddly used at the beginning of many sentences, implying a claim to an authority which goes beyond that of a rabbi or even a prophet.
–Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, p. 293
At a certain point, major conflict was unavoidable. The moment came only three and a half years into Jesus’ preaching. Upon entering Jerusalem for the last time, the Messianic anticipation reached a feverish pitch, with full-on prophetic fulfillment of Zechariah 9 and Psalm 118. Along with the excitement of the crowd, the indignation of the religious establishment peaked and led to that betrayal, secret arrest, and pressing question, “Are you the Son of God?”
Are You the King of the Jews?
The question Pilate asked was, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
From beginning to end, Jesus’ life, teaching, and very existence registered a substantial threat in the political realm. When the magi arrived in Jerusalem announcing the birth of the King of the Jews, Herod the Great was troubled and tried to eliminate any threat by massacring all the boys in the region from two years old and under (Matt. 2:2-16). During the years of Jesus’ active ministry, Herod Antipas wanted to kill him (Luke 13:31). Jesus Himself however was thoroughly unshaken by this threat and carried on with business as usual. Finally, Pilate too (John 19:7-12), and even his wife (Matt. 27:19), are profoundly shaken by the reality of who this Jesus really might be.
What does Pilate do? He does what politicians have more or less always done and what has always belonged to the actual achievement of politics in all times: he attempts to rescue and maintain order in Jerusalem and thereby at the same time to preserve his own position of power, by surrendering the clear law, for the protection of which he was actually installed. Remarkable contradiction! His duty is to decide upon right and wrong; that is his raison d’être; and in order to be able to stay in his position he, ‘from fear of the Jews’, renounced doing really the very thing he was bound to do: he gives away. True, he does not condemn Jesus—he cannot condemn Him, he finds Him not guilty—and yet he surrenders Him. In surrendering Jesus, he is surrendering himself… In the person of Pilate the State withdraws from the basis of its own existence and becomes a den of robbers, a gangster State, the ordering of an irresponsible clique.
–Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline, p. 111
What does all of this mean?
At the trial of Jesus, humanity’s most fundamental concerns surfaced. They surfaced in connection with the question, “Who is Jesus?”. The title “Son of God” represents all of our hopes for the hereafter. Only the Son of God can guarantee man’s eternal significance, man’s acquittal from sin, and man’s relationship with God. If Jesus is the Son of God, man’s life and humanity’s course are not utterly relative; they are imbued with a meaning and value that goes beyond the grave. The title “King of the Jews” represents all of our hopes for today. Jesus is not only interested in theological issues. He exists for the whole man, with his concrete needs and temporal trajectory. Jesus is a King, and despite issues of timing (Acts 1:6-7), He is intent on bringing God’s kingdom to the earth. Psalm 72 describes prophetically the blessed condition His reign will inaugurate. Jesus consolidates all of humanity’s needs and aspirations in His person. This was the crux of the issue at Jesus’ fateful trial. And tragically, all of humanity (represented by the three languages on the placard over the cross) rejected and condemned Him that morning.
The good news is that, under the sovereign operation of God, history’s most heinous act accomplished what God intended concerning the person of Christ and designated Him as the Son of God and inaugurated Him as Lord and Christ.
Who was designated the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness out of the resurrection of the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord. –Rom. 1:4
Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you have crucified. –Acts 2:36