A Man Called Pilate
March 24, 1991
Here is yet another man we’d all like to meet. His is the story of a man caught in a terrible dilemma. No matter how many times we read his story, it is still not fully clear what he really thought and how he really felt. His name is Pontius Pilate. He is the man who handed Jesus over to be crucified.
We know this much of his background. The gospel writers call him the “governor” of Judea. His actual title was “prefect.” In the Roman system, prefects were men who came from the Equestrian class, the “Roman guard.” That meant they were middle-class men who owned a little bit of property. They were usually assigned to small territories that needed close watching.
Pilate was the fifth prefect of Judea. He had been personally appointed by the Emperor Tiberius in A.D. 26. He made his headquarters at the Roman city of Caesarea on the Mediterranean coast where Herod had built a large palace. But whenever the Jews had a large gathering in Jerusalem, he would travel there to make sure everything stayed under control.
That was the main job of the Roman provincial governors: To keep things under control, to collect taxes and keep the peace. In order to do that, the Romans usually let the local people keep their own religion and, as far as possible, manage their own affairs.
So it was that Pilate had come from Rome to Israel some seven years earlier. In one respect, at least, he was a typical Roman. When he arrived, he knew virtually nothing about the Jewish law and customs. The evidence suggests that he had done little to remedy that shortcoming. As a matter of fact, what we know about Pilate leads us to conclude that he despised the Jews and they returned the favor. Several unfortunate incidents had happened—some needless bloodshed, some provocative harassment—which made the Jews regard him as a cruel and heartless man.
Trouble In The Air
Now it is the Passover season and Pontius Pilate is in Jerusalem. No doubt he is staying in Herod’s Palace. Herod is in town, too, even though technically this is not his area. So is Annas, the old high priest, and Caiaphas, the current high priest. So are thousands of Jewish pilgrims who have come from all parts of Israel. Someone else is in town. Jesus is here with his disciples. All the players are assembled. The final drama has begun.
Exactly how much Pilate knew about Jesus is a question we cannot answer for certain. But we can assume he knew something. After all, that’s a governor’s job. He must have known of Jesus’ popularity with the people. He must have known that the chief priests and scribes had no use for him. He must have heard the rumors flying across the countryside. It is the job of a politician to know these things and, as we shall see, Pilate was a smart politician. He always knew which way the wind was blowing.
The gospel writers stress that Jesus’ trial took place early in the morning. It happened that way because Roman governors were like modern-day judges. They liked to start early, finish early and have time for some recreation in the afternoon.
Jesus had been arrested sometime around midnight on Thursday. He had a hearing before Annas, then before Caiaphas, and finally before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. They tried to pin a charge of blasphemy on him. Blasphemy was punishable by death, and that’s really what they wanted—an execution, not a fair trial. But there was only one hitch. The Jews could condemn a man to death but they couldn’t carry it out. The Romans had taken that right away from them. Before Jesus could be put to death, Pilate had to agree to it. Which is why early on Friday morning, they brought Jesus to the Praetorium.
The Praetorium was the judgment hall, the place where the governor would hear cases and render verdicts. It is now between six and seven in the morning. They are all there. The chief priests, the scribes, the Pharisees, all of them. And they had Jesus with them, bound up like a criminal.
The Romans followed a certain routine in all their trials. The presiding judge would ask for a formal statement of the charges. He would then question both the complainants and the defendants. Witnesses would come forward, give their testimony and be examined. After hearing all the testimony, the judge would retire, confer with his associates, and then return with his decision. The sentence would normally be carried out immediately. Pilate closely followed this procedure when Jesus was brought before him.
The record is clear about the events of that Friday morning. Pilate asked a few routine questions—things like, “What is the charge against this man?” John tells us that the Jews didn’t want to answer directly. The problem was that there was no Roman law against blasphemy. That was a Jewish matter. They couldn’t say, “This man claims to be the Messiah,” because Pilate would just wave his hand and that would be it. Pilate didn’t like the Jews, didn’t really understand their law, and didn’t want to be dragged into some infernal, nitpicking religious debate.
“What Is Truth?”
At length, he agrees to question Jesus. All four gospels agree on the first question Pilate asks—”Are you the king of the Jews?” That’s what the Jewish leaders were saying he said. It meant one thing to them but some-thing else to the Romans. Jesus’ answer is deliberately ambiguous, “It is as you say,” meaning, “Yes, I am a king but not the kind of king you are thinking of.”
Well, was he a king or not? Again, John gives some details the other writers omit. The problem was that to Pilate the title “King of the Jews” implied a military ruler, but to the Jews it meant the Messiah. The chief priests meant to confuse Pilate into thinking Jesus was some kind of revolutionary leader, and thus a threat to Rome. It didn’t work because Jesus told him, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” (John 18:36)
It is at this point that Pilate asks the question that earned him a place in history. When Jesus said, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me,” Pilate replied, “What is truth?” No one knows exactly what he meant. Was his question a wistful desire to know the truth? Was it philosophical cynicism? Was it a mocking joke or simply pure ignorance? Was he irritated or indifferent? Was he speaking from a deep need within? There is no way to know with certainty why Pilate asked that question. But this much we know. At that very moment, Pilate was standing closer to the truth than he had ever been before and closer than he would ever be again.
Barabbas Or Jesus?
The brief moment passed and the Jewish leaders began to accuse Jesus. The Bible says very plainly, “Jesus made no reply—to the great amazement of the governor.” (Matthew 27:14) That may be what makes us feel sorry for Pilate. Clearly, he wants no part of the whole mess. No anger, no threats, just amaze-ment and deep confusion. Who is this man? Why is he here? And why do the Jews want him killed?
What to do now? Pilate hits on an idea. A long shot, really, but it might get him out of a tight spot. There was a custom in that day for the governor to release one prisoner at the Passover each year. It was a great P.R. boost for the Romans. It was one of the few things Pilate did that the Jews actually liked. One can almost see the light going on in Pilate’s brain when the idea strikes him. Maybe he could declare this man Jesus guilty—just for the record—and then let him go. He could defuse the situation very nicely, with very little fuss.
Only one hitch. The people had to agree. It wasn’t his choice. So he offered them two men—Jesus and a notorious criminal named Barabbas. Barabbas was a thug. That’s about all you could say about him. He was a murderer, a terrorist, a man who could kill with no emotion at all. By ordinary standards, he was the last man the Jews would want out on the streets. Everyone would sleep a little better with Barabbas behind bars. But this was a strange and bizarre day when ordinary values turned upside down. Things didn’t turn out quite right. Pilate, hoping for an easy way out, asked the crowd a simple question: “Who do you want me to release—Barabbas or Jesus?”
Evidently the people didn’t answer quickly. They milled around for a moment, and in that instant came the strange message from Pilate’s wife that she had dreamed about Jesus and the dream had upset her. She sent word to her husband to do him no harm.
There is no reason to think Pilate’s wife had ever seen or heard Jesus. It is doubtful she knew much about him. That’s what makes the story so remarkable. In that tiny moment before the verdict came down, Pilate’s wife sent a message from God.
How much we wish we knew at this point. No doubt Pilate paused for a moment. Surely the message from his wife shook him up. Probably he stared into space for a few moments. Matthew gives the impression that Pilate just sat there transfixed. He had asked the question and in that instant the message came from his wife. Now he is thinking about it all.
But no man can think about Jesus forever. There comes a time when a decision must be made. Pilate didn’t have the luxury of thinking about it over the weekend. He had to decide right then. And like so many others have done, he did nothing at all.
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Down below, the leaders began to incite the crowd, to stir them to decisive action. Slowly the cries began, first low and slow, then louder and faster. “Give us Barabbas. We want Barabbas.”
The moment for decision had passed. The people had spoken. They wanted the guilty man set free. They wanted Jesus to die.
Surely Pilate was a troubled man. From the vantage point of 2,000 years, it is hard not to feel sorry for him. He never asked for this terrible situation. He never meant to set a murderer free. In his mind, he knows Jesus is innocent. He knows it. His wife has given him God’s message. But the people have asked for the murderer. One more time he tries. “What shall I do, then, with Jesus?” It is the act of a desperate man. He knows what he should do but is afraid to do it.
In fact, if you put the gospel accounts together, it appears that Pilate tried four times to avoid sentencing Jesus to death. First, he told the Jews to try the case themselves. Second, he sent the case to Herod. Third, he tried to placate the Jews by scourging Jesus instead of crucifying him. Fourth, he tried to make a deal but the people chose Barabbas instead.
It is precisely at this point that Pilate’s story becomes so fascinating. Time and again the gospel writers stress that he found Jesus innocent. But what’s a man to do? I think for all the pressure, Pilate would still have released Jesus with only a scourging except for one thing. The Jews played their trump card. They said to Pilate, “If you let him go, you are no friend of Caesar.” (John 19:12) Pilate knew exactly what they meant.
The Emperor Tiberius was sick, suspicious and often violent. He would not like receiving a bad report on one of his provincial governors. And Pilate had plenty of things to cover up. His past was finally catching up with him.
It was blackmail, pure and simple. And it worked. You see, if the choice were simply between Jesus and the Jews, Pilate would let Jesus go. But that’s not exactly how it was. The blackmail made it a choice between Jesus and Rome. A man will do many things to save his job. In the end, it came down to pure self-interest on Pilate’s part.
Washing Bloody Hands
Let me summarize the case as I see it. Pilate never really understood Jesus, but he never wanted to put him to death either. He wasn’t fooled by the Jews’ pious appeals to Roman law. And he knew Jesus was innocent. He said so over and over again.
Fundamentally, it came down to this: Pilate wanted to release Jesus but without any cost to him personally. He wanted to let him go, but without having to take a personal stand. He admired Jesus in a way, but not enough to believe in him. He yielded finally to private blackmail and public pressure. And so he sentenced Jesus to die.
But in the final act of a tortured conscience, he took a bowl of water and washed his hands. It was an act the Jews would understand because it came from the Old Testament. In fact, it comes from Deuteronomy 21 where the Lord laid down a ceremony for the case of an unsolved murder. It involved washing your hands over a heifer whose neck had been broken. The ceremony meant, “He is innocent and so am I.”
Now Pilate basically does the same thing. There is only one problem. Pilate is guilty. Not all the water in a thousand Niagaras could wash his guilt away. He is guilty of moral cowardice in the moment of crisis. He is guilty of selling out an innocent man to save his own job. He is guilty of condemning a man he knows to be innocent.
No, Pilate, it won’t work. Look, look, look at your hands. They are covered with innocent blood. You cruci-fied Jesus by your indecision, your vacillation, your cowardice, your selfishness. Though you live to be an old, old man, this memory will haunt you forever. The screams from Golgotha will ring in your ears until the day you die. And it will come to pass that your name will be a symbol for all the evil that was done to Jesus.
So it has happened. This very day, in hundreds of thousands of churches, Christians have recited the Apostle’s Creed. Only three personal names are found in that creed—Jesus, Mary and … It reads this way: “Born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Yet Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. He tried four times to release him—and said, “I find no fault in him.” That is the mystery and enigma of his story.
A Weak And Pitiful Man
He washed his hands but the blood wouldn’t come off. He passed the buck but it came back to him. He tried to make a deal but the deal fell through. He tried to compromise and ended up being blackmailed. In the end, Pilate seems pitiful, frightened, weak, unable to do what he knows is right.
Pilate, what did you say to your wife that night? How did you explain what you did? Did you wash your hands in front of her?
There are many tragedies of this story, but perhaps the greatest is this. Pilate never wanted to be involved. And he never hated Jesus. He just wanted to keep the peace, pour oil on troubled waters, keep everyone pacified.
He knew the truth, thought about it, and delayed too long. Pilate had his opportunity and didn’t take it. He said, “What is truth?”, when the Truth was standing three feet away from him. He couldn’t see it; he didn’t understand it; he wouldn’t believe it, and therefore, he didn’t follow it. He was close enough to reach out and touch the Truth, but he would not do it.
“What Shall I Do With Jesus?”
Pilate’s final question to the crowd still rings across the centuries: “What shall I do, then, with Jesus?” It the question of the ages and every person must eventually give an answer.
There are only two possible answers. I can crown him or I can crucify him. There is nothing else, no middle ground.
Let’s turn the question around and make it more personal: “What will you do with Jesus?” If he is the Son of God, then crown him the Lord of your life and give your heart to him. If he is a fraud, then by all means send him off to be crucified.
But I cannot decide that for you. No one can answer that question but you. The friends of Jesus cannot answer for you. Neither can his foes. Pilate tried to wash his hands, but water won’t wash off that kind of blood. You can’t claim neutrality. Either join those who crucified him or join those who follow him.
I ask the question once more: What will you do with Jesus? For once, there is no putting it off. Before long, each of us will leave this place having made a decision for Jesus or against him.
My last word to you is this: If you choose Jesus, you will never be sorry. One wonders what Pilate thought about the affairs of that Friday morning. As he looked back thirty years later, did he regret his indecision? Did he say to himself, “If only I had been stronger?” It is a good rule of life to live so you have nothing to regret later. That means following the truth when the Truth is standing before you.