A Little Talk With Pilate

Matthew 27:11-31, Mark 15:1-20, Luke 23:1-25, John 18:28-19:16


Ryan Goodwin




          After His betrayal and His appearance before Caiaphas, Jesus is taken to the dwelling place of the governor of Judea, a man named Pontius Pilate. With a crowd of Jews outside the Praetorium, Pilate finds no fault in the life of Jesus and attempts to petition for His release. Given the choice between releasing Jesus or a terrorist named Barabbas, the Jews plead for the criminal and cry for the crucifixion of Jesus.


When Pilate and Jesus Meet


          Because of its unique and expansive content, the account in John’s gospel will be our primary text for this lesson. Details from the other three accounts will be referred to occasionally. “Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover” (John 18:28). Notice the hypocrisy of the Jews as they are leading Jesus to the governor:


·        While they consider entering the Praetorium a deed leading to defilement, and therefore unworthiness to partake of the Passover, calling for the slaughter of an innocent mad is not.

·        Questioning the multitude, Pilate asks if there are any real accusations to be brought against Jesus – admire Pilate for his staunch refusal to give in to pressure, at least at first. He is a trained, professional politician with no interest in rabble-rousing religious fanatics and their quibbles.

·        Indignantly, the Jews respond to Pilate’s inquiries by saying, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death…” (18:31).

·        Do we ever try to get out of responsibility for our sin’s on a technicality? It seems that the logic of the Jews is that as long they are not the ones performing the actual deed, then they are not accountable.

·        This should cause all of us to reconsider it when we want to “turn a blind eye” to the sins of others. By allowing evil things to happen, we unwittingly become partakers in the same.


          In John 18:33-40, we find a conversation between Jesus and Pilate that helps open our eyes to the inner machinations of this peculiar governor and his motivation. While history shows that Pilate was a man of cruelty for much of his administration, something seems to lead him to believe that Jesus’ life is worth attempting to save. “Pilate is a type of the worldly man, knowing the right and anxious to do it so far as it can be done without personal sacrifice of any kind, but yielding easily to pressure from those whose interest it is that he should act otherwise. He would gladly have acquitted Christ, and even made serious efforts in that direction, but gave way at once when his own position was threatened” (http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12083c.htm). Perhaps Pilate speaks on behalf of Jesus because of the exhortation of his wife as he is sitting on the judgment seat. She pleads with him in Matthew 27:19 to “have nothing to do with that righteous man” because of a nightmare she had had that night about Him.


Christ’s Kingdom?


          In any case, consider a few noteworthy points in the conversation between Jesus and Pilate.


·        First, Pilate asks Him directly whether or not He is the King of Jews. In response, Jesus inquires as to why he asked the question – had he heard about Jesus from other people, or had he been genuinely curious about Jesus’ role as King of the Jews?

·        “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You to me; what have You done?” (John 18:35). The answer to this question is one that puts to rest all claims that Jesus came into this world to establish an earthly kingdom.

·        For any Jehovah’s Witness or Premillenialist, John 18:36 should be the silencing verse every time. “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” Can it be stated any more simply than that? Jesus Christ, with His own mouth, admits that He did not come for earthly power, but to establish a kingdom consisting of spiritual citizens. Indeed, if His kingdom had been worldly, then it is very true that His servants would have come and rescued Him. So what is His kingdom? Where is it? Who is in it? Truly, His kingdom is the spiritual nation of saved people.


          “‘So You are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truths hears My voice’” (John 18:37). What does this say about citizenship in the kingdom? Clearly, one cannot be a citizen of the kingdom of Jesus Christ without accepting His Word on all matters. If He came to testify to the truth, then everything He said was truth, and we must live with it and love it.


“What is Truth?”


          “Pilate said to Him, ‘What is truth?’” (18:38). It seems like Pilate is the consummate skeptic. He is a man who refuses to play games with the religious fanatics of his day, and is left dismayed and awe struck by the boldness of Jesus Christ. Rather than confront the logic of Christ’s assertions, as well as His boldness and sincerity of faith, Pilate simply dismisses the whole matter, arguing that truth is relative and it is pointless to assert one’s own view of truth onto another.

          The Bible, however, commands us to put our feet down on matters of truth. First, truth is a tangible thing – not anything like what Pilate asserts. “And you shall know the truth…” (John 8:32). Rather than truth being some amorphous concept that we all determine on our own, it is a firm idea that is determined by God (1 John 5:7, John 17:17). Truth is found in the Gospel (2 Corinthians 6:7, John 16:13, Ephesians 1:13).


Scourging the Innocent


          After hearing Christ’s response to all of his questions, Pilate concludes that no wrongdoing is present, and pleads with the Jews to drop the matter (18:38-40). All they are interested in, though, is putting Jesus to death and seeking the release of Barabbas. After releasing Barabbas (Luke 23:23-25), Pilate takes Jesus into the building and scourges Him, which means that He was beaten brutally with sticks and whips by the Roman soldiers. This punishment would have been enough to make most men cry for mercy, but Isaiah 53:7 states that the Messiah would be silent in the face of His punishers. In the same chapter, we see clear prophecies fulfilled by Jesus in the Gospels. “The chastening of our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

          After the scourging, Pilate reveals the other side to his character – the cruel one. The governor seems to be a man with conflicting interests, for he spends such a great amount of time and energy trying to release Jesus, yet seems to fall so quickly when he is unable. Perhaps Pilate reverses his kindness so quickly because of frustration with the Jews; if they are going to be so unwilling to cooperate, he would have nothing more to do than to grant their wishes to the extreme. Another theory about the scourging is that Pilate may have believed that a thorough beating would be enough to satisfy the bloodlust of the Jewish mob. If Jesus was an innocent man, Pilate may have thought, then it would be better to beat Him and appease the crowd than to execute Him. Of course, this does not work because we see that the crowds cried all the more, “Crucify, crucify!” (John 19:6). When Pilate suggests that they go crucify Him themselves, they accuse Jesus of claiming to be the Son of God, which puts yet another  layer of fear into Pilate’s heart.


Washing our hands does not undo evil


          The hand washing of Pilate is interesting, but just because Pilate washes his hands and proclaims his own innocence in the matter, does that absolve him of all responsibility and sin? While some would argue that it does, consider a few things about this scenario. First, Pilate had the authority to release Jesus at any time (John 19:10), so why did he not do it? If he honestly believed that He was free of any wrongdoing, then why give in to the multitudes and do what is obviously wrong? There were other Roman officials who remained stalwart in their determination to ignore the raucous affairs of the Jewish crowds, such as Gallio, proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12-17). Second, just because we disassociate ourselves from a crime, yet still commit it, does not mean we are free from responsibility!


·        Jesus still died, and Pilate had an opportunity to do something about it.

·        Despite the fact that Pilate is viewed in slightly sympathetic terms in John’s account, Jesus still reaffirms that what Pilate did was a sin (John 19:11).

·        We do the same thing today with doctrinal debates. Instead of picking sides and standing for something, we metaphorically wash our hands by not participating in a fight, or not showing up for a controversy.

·        Being a witness to sin is just as bad as being the sinner (Romans 1:32, Proverbs 29:24).


Pilate’s Authority and God’s Authority


          “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). Just as the idea is confirmed in Romans 13, the governments of this world are established by God for the fulfillment of His purposes. Pilate’s authority came from God, in spite of the fact that Pilate did some terrible deeds in his lifetime. The modern application would be that we need to be subject to the government, even when said government is not always righteous. Also, notice the phrase at the end of the verse. Some have viewed this as proof that there are degrees of punishment for sins – since Pilate’s sin was not as bad as the Jews’ sin, he will not be punished as much for it. But that is missing the point, and it is illogical to assume such things. From other passages (Romans 1:28-32), it is clear that all sins are lumped together as equally punishable. Furthermore, just because the Jews’ sin was greater than Pilate’s, that does not somehow mean his sin was good! Some will go to such an extreme, but we have to realize that Pilate’s sin may have only been slightly less horrible than the Jews’ sin.

          The final argument made by the Jews is that if Pilate does not execute Jesus, he will be causing his own political demise. The argument is that Caesar is the only valid king in the land, and it is treason for Jesus to claim any authority. In the end, the Jews explain that Caesar is their only king (John 19:15). What a transition from their previous mentality! At one point, many of the Jews were eagerly seeking to crown Jesus king and now they wanted to crucify Him. Even more interesting is the idea that the Pharisees, as well as many of the Jewish elders, hated Roman rule. It irritated the Jews that they had to pay taxes to an occupying government. But it is true that for the cause of sin, sinners will say and do almost anything to get their way!