People who met Jesus : 36 : Pilate
Jn 18:28,29 Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?”
Pontius Pilate does not read well in history. He is the Roman Governor in Jerusalem and he is backed by the might of Rome. He features strongly in these closing hours of Jesus’ life. While the name of Caiaphas is mentioned only 9 times in the Gospels, Pilate’s name appears 61 times. As the Roman Governor he is the final authority in Jerusalem and although Caiaphas may be the topmost man in Judaism, while Israel is under the dominion of Rome, Pilate is the man with ultimate authority.
He enters the story when Jesus is brought to him early on the Friday morning by the senior Jews who are seeking his death, for only Pilate has the authority to bring the judgment of death. When they come to Pilate he asks, what are the charges? They reply that Jesus is a criminal (Jn 18:30) and so he tells them to go and judge him by their own laws and they object that they have no right of execution (v.31). It is then that Pilate takes Jesus inside to interrogate him and he asks him if he is the king of the Jews (v.33) Now this may appear a strange diversion except Luke tells us what led to this: “And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.” (Lk 23:2) In their accusations they try to bring out things that would get Pilate’s interest.
Thus the conversation with Pilate now revolves around Jesus being a king which ends in Pilate feeling that he is harmless and so for the first time he declares him innocent: “Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.” (Lk 23:4) At which point they declare, “He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.” (Lk 23:5). This gives Pilate a way out: “On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.” (Lk 23:6,7). So, so far we have one declaration of innocence and one grabbing at a straw not to have to make a judgment.
Thus Jesus is sent to Herod who interrogates him – unsuccessfully – and sends him back to Pilate, so next we find, “Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him.” (Lk 23:13-16) Note: a second declaration of innocence and a further attempt at getting Jesus off from the death penalty.
Pilate then offers the choice of Jesus or Barabbas to be released as was the custom at the Passover (Mt 27:15) but the crowds call for Barabbas to be released. This further ploy to get Jesus off has not worked. So again we find, “For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” (Lk 23:22). Now the crowds get stirred on: “they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” (Mt 27:23) and at this point Pilate caves in: “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” (Mt 27:24) But Pilate, you can’t do that; it IS your responsibility! You alone have the power over death in this situation; merely washing your hands doesn’t absolve you of your responsibility!
Thus it was that Jesus was then taken away to be crucified. The man with the final authority had failed to use it. At least three times he had declared Jesus innocent. Several times he had sought to avoid making a judgment against Jesus, yet at the end of the day he condemned an innocent man by appearing to opt out – but he was in no position to opt out. He was Rome’s representative in Jerusalem. He could have done what the high priests feared and used the power of his legions against them – but it was easier not to and so an innocent man was condemned. What a travesty of justice!
Pilate screams across history at us, you cannot avoid your duty, if you are in positions of power, and expect to get away with it. You will go down in history as a coward and you will be answerable to God. Public figures have many perks that go with their positions but they also carry greater responsibility and will answerable to God when they fail to exercise it rightly. Pilate’s terrible failures to stand up and be counted for justice bring warning to all who hold similar positions of power. be warned, you are answerable to God.