Pontius Pilate was caught in a trap. He had been given the unenviable task of governing the Roman province of Judea. No proud people ever love being subjugated by a foreign power, but the Jews had a reputation for being even more difficult than many other oppressed people, in that not only had they political objections to foreign rule they also had strong religious objections. They worshipped the one true God, and were not prepared to tolerate the worship of other gods in their own land, even if such worship was engaged in by non-Jews. Judea and Jerusalem was a poisoned chalice to any Gentile governor. Pilate did not help himself, however, in that he was an arrogant and immensely cruel despot who, in the end, caused so much trouble and unrest in Judea that he was eventually re-called to Rome and sent to govern elsewhere.
Pilate was essential to Jewish plans to eliminate Jesus of Nazareth. Although attempts had been made in the past to push our Lord over the cliff, or even to stone Him to death because of His perceived blasphemy in ‘making Himself equal with God’, the Sanhedrim, at the instigation of the high priest Caiaphas, had decided that the most effective way in which to eliminate this preacher and prevent any god-fearing Jew from following Him, was to crucify Him, for ‘cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree’.1 However, in order to have this Jesus crucified, the Jews needed to have Pilate on-board. He was the only one who could have passed such a sentence upon Jesus, so our Lord was taken first of all to Pilate, then to Herod (at Pilate’s insistence), and finally back to Pilate again. The first charge laid against our Lord was a political one. ‘We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a King’, Luke 23. 2. Pilate, however cruel and arrogant he may have been, was an astute man, and realized that there were other reasons for this arrest. He did not want to be involved in matters relating to the Jewish faith; that was none of his concern. Having established that Jesus was no political threat to Rome,2 Pilate deduced that it was for envy the Sanhedrim had delivered up Jesus to him, Matt. 27. 18, and he tried time and time again to release this Jesus of Nazareth, reporting to the Jewish authorities, ‘I find no fault in this man’,3 However, he was put under immense pressure by the chief priests and others to condemn our Lord to an unjust death.
What do we make of the fact that Pilate’s wife had a dream about our Lord at just this time? Was God warning Pilate, so that any decision he made was one made deliberately but clearly in the wrong, one from which he could not absolve himself by saying he did not realize the innocence of his victim? The drama and high tension of a courtroom scene, packed with soldiers, Roman officials, and all the pomp and circumstance of a hurried trial is suddenly domesticated when a message is delivered to Pilate from his wife! ‘Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him’, Matt. 27. 19. The timing of the dream, and the immediate message from his wife, does make us wonder whether it was not just his wife who was warning Pilate, but God Himself. We do see warnings delivered by our Lord in the Upper Room to Judas, too, before he went out into the night to betray our Lord. Yet Judas, as well as Pilate, chose to ignore them.
Initially, Pilate does his utmost to heed this warning and even to go with his own instincts on the matter. He remembered a tradition that allowed him some wriggle-room. It was apparently his custom to release one prisoner on death row at these Passover feasts, and the choice of whom to release was given to the people. So he called up from the cells Barabbas, a convicted murderer and terrorist, hoping that the crowds of people gathered before his palace would be persuaded to release Jesus and crucify the murderer. This would surely get Pilate off the hook. The chief priests, however, bullied the crowds into choosing Barabbas for release, to Pilate’s evident consternation. ‘Why, what evil hath he done?’4 He had also ordered our Lord to be whipped, hoping that this unjust sentence would draw out the sympathy of the crowds. ‘Behold the man!’5 he called out, as our Lord was brought forth, unjustly beaten. But the sight of blood only caused the crowd to cry out all the more for His crucifixion. The final blow for Pilate was when the Jews put him under extreme political pressure. This was, in fact, nothing short of blackmail. When they saw Pilate wavering, struggling to acquit Jesus of Nazareth and to let Him go, they said, ‘If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar’, John 19. 12. Since when had the Jews ever sought to be Caesar’s friends? But Pilate saw his career coming to an end if the Jews sent a deputation to Rome complaining that he had acquitted a would-be pretender to Caesar’s rule, and he buckled. He made a choice. If it was career or Christ it would have to be career. ‘Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified’, v. 16.
Even non-church goers, unbelievers, have heard of the expression ‘I wash my hands of it’. In a very cynical move, Pilate made it perfectly clear to all that he had been compelled to make a political decision in condemning Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified, although he knew him to be innocent of all the charges the Jews had laid against Him. So, in front of all the people, Pilate ordered a bowl of water to be brought and he publicly washed his hands in front of them all, saying ‘I am innocent of the blood of this just person; see ye to it’, Matt. 27. 24. Was this a deliberate referral to the law of Moses recorded in Deuteronomy chapter 21, where God instructed His people to do their utmost to discover the identity of a murderer? If the elders of the city in which a body had been found had done their best to solve the crime, identify and sentence the murderer to death, they would not be held guilty of the murder themselves. Having done all they could to further justice, God told them they could wash their hands of the matter by sacrificing an heifer. They were then to say, ‘Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Be merciful, O Lord … lay not innocent blood unto thy people of Israel’s charge’, as they washed their hands over the heifer, Deut. 21. 1-9. The response of the people to Pilate is most instructive. They reply, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’, Matt. 27. 25.
God, of course, did not accept Pilate’s claim to innocence. The book of the Acts of the Apostles records, ‘Against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together’, Acts 4. 27. That day and that occasion brought Herod and Pilate into a friendship that had never existed before. In standing against Christ, in mocking Him, beating Him and condemning Him, he found something in common with others who had done the same. Pilate attempted to stand apart from the crime of condemning our Lord to death, but God would not let him do so.
We do not know from the scriptures what happened to Pilate after this debacle. History, however, tells us he went on to offend the Jews time and time again with his cruelty and arrogance, until he was re-called to Rome to answer for his vicious ways, in particular in putting to death many Samaritans. Who can say how much his encounter with our Lord, and his comment/question, ‘What is truth?’ remained with him all his days? There is surely little doubt that his encounter with our Lord left Pilate uneasy. Pilate was afraid when he heard our Lord claimed to be the Son of God; he was disturbed when he heard our Lord dismiss Pilate’s claim to have greater authority over Him, ‘Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above’;6 I have little doubt that he could never have forgotten that our Lord had clearly told him what he was about to do was sin. ‘He that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin’, John 19. 11. Yet despite all of this he chose to save himself.
Is there anything we can learn from this tragic man, Pilate? First of all, let us remind ourselves of the many warnings God, and His people, have given us over the years. How often have we been clearly told, either by godly friends or relatives, by the word of God through a preacher, or by the Holy Spirit and our conscience, that something we were about to do was wrong. Yet we have disregarded their warnings and gone on, willingly, to disobey God and His word. What a serious matter this is! Deliberately to sin against God, His word and our consciences is a serious matter. Many can claim ignorance of God’s word, but His rebellious people cannot. Then again, have we ever made wrong choices in our Christian lives? We may have been put under extreme pressure, from circumstances, from friends, from family, but that does not change the fact that our choices were wrong. Career or Christ, family or the Lord, hobbies or His work, the pleasures of sin for a season or the reproach of Christ; these choices will be constantly before us in our Christian life. Let us do all we can, by the grace of God, to choose the right, and not the wrong. And let us remember that God does hold us responsible for the decisions we make, even though we may attempt to wash our hands of them. And finally, there is one telling phrase about Pilate of which we must all be aware, and careful that we are not pressured into repeating. Pilate did what he knew to be wrong because he was ‘willing to content the people’, Mark 15. 15. Doing what is wrong will content unbelievers, and may even make us friends with them, but it will never bring us peace with God.