The name Pontius Pilate is one of the most notorious names in history. If his name was announced at a baseball game, the crowd would “boo”. Pilate is usually viewed as the great villain in the story of our Savior’s death. However, I’m afraid that by dismissing Pilate so quickly we may miss the lessons we can learn from his story.
A Procurator (which is what Pilate’s job was) was a man that reported directly to the Emperor. It was a prestigious position. You had to be at least 27 years old before you could be appointed and the position was given to those who had “paid their dues” through faithful service in the past. So, Pilate was no bumbling idiot.
From sources outside of the Bible we learn that Pilate and the Jews did not get along very well. Pilate had made many decisions in the past which angered the Jews. One would have to think that his position was somewhat fragile since Rome wanted peace, not conflict.
It seems strange then, that Pilate plays such an integral part of the Passion account. We are told that the reason the leaders went to Pilate was because he was the only one who had the power to sentence someone to death. But what made these men think that Pilate would go alone with their request?
Frank Morrison in his wonderful book, WHO MOVED THE STONE suggests that Pilate had been contacted before Jesus was ever arrested. His arguments are quite convincing. Among the arguments are these:
- The religious leaders could little afford a public debate during Passover. Swiftness was their best weapon. They would not have arrested Jesus if they had not been assured the trial would be dealt with before Passover.
- Normally Pilate would not have heard a capital case at Festival time. He certainly would not have heard the case this early in the morning. The fact that he did so argues for a pre-arrangement.
- Pilate allows the accusers to stay outside so they wouldn’t be defiled. Pilate was not a man known for his concessions.
- Pilate’s request for specific charges (v. 29,30) seems to startle . . . and anger the Jews. It is a perfectly reasonable and normal request . . . unless they were expecting him to “sign off”.
- Pilate’s wife’s dream raises questions: Why was she dreaming about Jesus.(Matthew 27) Why the urgency at this early hour to warn her husband. The answer: she knew who was being tried and she knew what was going to happen because her husband had told her of the plan.
A major story of corruption or not…when Pilate was confronted with the actual prisoner, He saw something he didn’t expect. He saw an innocence that made him want to renege on his deal. Pilate’s hesitancy brings about the attack on him as one who is “no friend of Caesar.”
But our account is much more than a story of intrigue and conspiracy. It is an account that contains some important lessons. Let me share five things we need to “see”:
We See an Important Warning
We read, “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.” (V. 28) These religious leaders were greatly concerned to maintain their external purity while they were in the process of seeking the execution of the Son of God! Does this seem a little incongruent to you?
Earlier Jesus had rebuked the religious leaders with these words, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices–mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matt. 23:23) These men were careful about minor issues while ignoring the major issues!
How easy this can happen. We concentrate on superficial elements of faith while neglecting the primary issues of the heart. We can major on minors and minor on majors.
- We are diligent to worship weekly but Christ has no affect on our daily living.
- We can be uncompromising in maintaining a daily quiet time but never apply what we are reading.
- We can talk in spiritual “lingo” and “look spiritual”, but are still indifferent and unloving to the hurting around us
- We can smile and talk about loving one another yet rip one another apart when we are outside the environs of the Church.
- We can talk about the importance of putting God first in our lives but never even consider God’s will in our decision making.
It’s so easy to do. So important to resist.
We See a Vital Testimony
Pilate says it several times, “”I find no basis for a charge against him.” (V. 38). Pilate, under great pressure to find some “loop hole” to convict Jesus, finds nothing. Pilate realizes that Jesus is an innocent man.
The writer to the Hebrews makes the claim clearly, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.” (4:15)
Jesus was not sinless because He didn’t have opportunity to sin. He was tempted by ALL the things that make us stumble. He certainly faced sexual temptations; he was tempted to cut corners; to compromise truth to maintain peace; However, He chose God’s way while we generally choose the way of expediency.
Do you understand how important this fact is? It was necessary for the Savior to be sinless before He could be our substitute. Suppose you had been condemned to death row for some heinous crime. If another death row prisoner said, “I am willing to take this man’s place . . . charge his sin to my account”, would there be any possibility that this would happen? Not a chance. Why? Because he had his own crime to pay for. The only possible substitute would be an innocent man.
The same is true in regard to our sin. Only one who had obeyed God’s law perfectly could “pay” for our transgression. Jesus can be our substitute. His righteousness (or right standing and living before God) can be applied to our “account” and our sin is applied to him. We are not saved because of OUR goodness but because of HIS.
Jesus was not merely a GOOD man. (One who generally did nice things.) He was a sinless man!
We See a Sobering Reminder of Worldly Thinking
Pilate asks an important question, “What is truth?” (v. 38) We don’t know what the spirit of the question was. Was Pilate simply engaging in the rhetoric of philosophy? Was he being sarcastic? Was he asking a sincere question? I don’t know what was behind the question but it is a question that our society has great difficulty answering.
Charles Colson in his book, BODY LIFE describes characteristics of the contemporary approach to truth,
- Contemporary Society is Secular. It has no thought about things eternal . . the focus is only on the “here and now”. Even our religion is focused on what it can do for me NOW. R.C. Sproul says, “Contemporary people are betting everything on the fact that this life is the only thing there is….that there is no judgment.”
- Prevailing Society believes all nature is equal in value. The animals should have the same “rights” as humans. Earth Day gets more attention than Easter. The result is that we live in a world where people are poisoned to protest the alleged inhumane treatment of rats. And ecological terrorists booby trap loggers in the Northwest to protect the owl. The idea that man alone is created in God’s image is dismissed.
- Our contemporary Society believes in the basic innocence of mankind. They believe man is good and in time is only getting better. The problem, of course is “how do we explain the evil things that are done.” The answers are simple: 1) deny that those things are really wrong; (immoral sexual mores are not really wrong….those standards are imposed on us by a less “enlightened” time. 2) or . . . we blame them on some outside source (sickness or someone else’s influence). The result is a society filled with victims. The murderer is no longer guilty of a crime . . .they are a victim of a bad home life. The drug dealer is not guilty of peddling death for profit, he is a victim of an oppressive government. The chorus is familiar . . . it’s somebody else’s fault. What’s needed is not repentance or discipline but more government handouts as a corrective for evil society.
- The prevailing Society is Pragmatic. Today we would love to hear someone honestly ask, “What is truth?” But today the only question is: “Does it work?” Does it make me feel good? Does it get me what I want? Do you see how Christians are beginning to buy into this mentality? The Promise Keeper Rally in Washington is an example. Some will say, anything that can get that many men together to think about their responsibilities has to be a good thing. NO, NO, NO! The rally in the mall is a good thing because it was based on Biblical truth . . . not because of the number of people that showed up. A church is a good church not because of the “feelings it produces” or the “people that show up”, a truth is “good” because it proclaims and stands on the truth.
The standard of truth (God’s Word) has been replaced by the standard of personal preference and whim. The result is an entire generation of people chasing the wind. If you want to stand in the storms you must have an anchor . . . that anchor is unchanging truth.
Pilate asks the right question. It’s a question we need to ask as well. What is our standard of truth? How do we determine what is right and wrong? Is the Bible truly our standard of truth? Or is that just what we profess? Do we look to Jesus as our Master and leader or do we steadfastly refuse to give anyone a position of authority in our lives?
We See a Poignant Reminder: Excuses Do Not Negate Responsibility
You must give Pilate some credit: He tried to set Jesus free. Four times He tried to avoid sentencing Him to death: 1) When he tried to give Him back to the Jewish authorities 2) When he sent Him to Herod 3) When He offered them a choice of Jesus or Barabbus 4) When he washed his hands of the situation. However, Pilate still signed the death warrant. All the excuses and rationalizations cannot change the fact that He DIDN’T set him free but condemned him to die.
Maybe Pilate felt backed into a corner. Maybe the peer pressure wore Him down. Maybe he was afraid he would lose his job with another poor report to Rome. These things make us more sympathetic but doesn’t make him any less guilty. Maybe we need to remember this when we,
- Are quick to excuse our abusive behavior
- Rationalize our absence from weekly worship
- Explain why we didn’t share our faith
- Seek to justify our marital affair
- Tell why we didn’t help the person in need
- Explain why we lost our temper
- Share why we played on someone’s emotions
Pilate reminds us that no excuses are accepted. We are responsible for our own actions. We cannot hide behind our family background, our physical yearnings, our tough breaks. WE are responsible for what WE do. Here’s a key principle . . .don’t miss it! . . . we must accept responsibility for our actions before we can become a recipient of grace.
Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I’m not saying we have to FIX our problems before we can receive grace (then we wouldn’t NEED grace). We must admit, acknowledge, confess our problems before we can receive grace. We say it over and over . . . we are here not because we are good . . .but because we are not. We do not sit in this place pretending to have no problems. We’re here confessing we have problems. It is only then that we are ready to receive God’s help.
When a child is working on a project you cannot help them until they are ready to admit that they need help. It is difficult to save someone who is drowning who is unwilling to admit that they have a problem. The principle is the same: acknowledgment of need is the pre-requisite of grace.
We See a Critical Decision to Be Made
Pilate asks a pertinent question: “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” It is the same question that every one of us has to answer. What will we do with this one who claims to be God in human form? What do we do with the one who claims to be able to cleanse our sin-stained hearts? What do we do with the one who tells us that He can mend the brokenness we carry inside us? What do we do with the one who calls us to renounce all others and follow Him.
Max Lucado, as he often does, says it well:
Perhaps you, like Pilate, are curious about this one called Jesus. You, like Pilate, are puzzled by his claims and stirred by his passions. You have heard the stories: God descending the stars, cocooning in flesh, placing a stake of truth in the globe. You, like Pilate, have heard the others speak, now you would like for him to speak.
What do you do with a man who claims to be God, yet hates religion? What do you do with a man who calls himself the Savior, yet condemns systems? What do you do with a man who knows the place and time of his death, yet goes there anyway?
Pilate’s question is your. “What will I do with this man, Jesus?”
You have two choices.
You can reject him. That is an option. You can, as have many, decide that the idea of God becoming a carpenter is too bizarre – and walk away.
Or you can accept him. You can journey with him. You can listen for his voice amidst the hundreds of voices and follow him.
Pilate could have. He heard many voices that day-he could have heard Christ’s. Had Pilate chosen to respond to this bruised Messiah his story would have been different.
Pilate vacillates. He is a puppy hearing two voices. He steps toward one, then stops, and steps toward the other.
So many voices. The voice of compromise. The voice of expedience. The voice of politics. The voice of conscience.
Jesus’ voice is distinct. Unique. He doesn’t cajole or plead. He just states the case.
Pilate thought He could avoid making a choice. He washed his hands of Jesus. He climbed on the fence and sat down.
But in not making a choice, Pilate made a choice.
Rather than ask for God’s grace, he asked for a bowl. Rather than invite Jesus to stay, he sent him away. Rather than hear Christ’s voice, he heard the voice of the people. [And the Angels Were Silent p. 161,162]
But in truth, the story today is not at all about Pilate . . . . His story is written. . . . it’s your story that hangs in the balance. The question Pilate struggled with is the one you must address as well. What will YOU do with Jesus?
For some it is a question of salvation: Will I turn to Him for forgiveness and new life?
For others it is a question of discipleship: Will I do what He said or trust my own judgment?
For still others it is a question about healing: Will I trust Him to heal the scars and bring me back to the road of joy?
The situations may be different . . . but the question is the same: What will you do with Jesus?
We’ve watched with eagerness as a Jeopardy contestant writes their answer to Final Jeopardy. Winning and losing hangs in the balance. We’ve been asked important questions in interviews. And our job or promotion hung on how we answered the question. We’ve been asked in public ceremonies: “do you promise . . . “. And the answer determined whether we were declared husband and wife or not….or whether we were called a citizen.
But of all the questions in the world, none is more significant than this one question: What shall I do with Jesus? On this question hangs your eternal destiny. The answer to this question will determine whether you will live beyond the grave in unimaginable splendor or unending torment. Your answer will determine whether you live with hope or despair. It will determine whether life has meaning or whether it is meaningless. It is the most significant question of all.
I wish I could make it easy, I wish I could silence the competing voices, but I can’t. This is one question you will have to answer on your own.