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"Things do not happen. Things are made to happen."
—John F. Kennedy

09-Apr-04


Pontius Pilatus

For the majority of professing Christians, today is Good Friday, which commemorates the death of Jesus for humanity's sins. For a small minority of Christians, this day is simply the preparation day for the weekly Sabbath, since last Sunday evening's Passover service was the annual reminder of Christ's sacrifice for their redemption and forgiveness. As "After Three Days" shows, the Good Friday-Easter Sunday tradition has no biblical support.

Nevertheless, this time of the year provides the setting for the time of Jesus of Nazareth's death in Jerusalem as the Lamb of God "slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:8; see John 1:29). Through the intervening centuries, zealous yet misguided believers have attempted to pin the blame for His death on various parties, particularly upon the Jews and Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea at the time (Matthew 27:2; Luke 3:1). Though both of these were instrumental in Jesus' condemnation and execution, their guilt is substantially no greater than anyone else's before or since because every person's sin made His sacrificial death necessary. As has been said many times, if only one person in all of history had committed sin, the death of the Creator would still have been needed to pay for it. Yet, "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23).

If any points can be awarded for intentions, both the Jews and Pilate should receive a few for their desire to do what they felt was "right." The Jews, of course, were functioning under their mistaken belief that Jesus was a heretic and a troublemaker to boot. Certainly, they had political self-preservation in the forefront of their minds, but their actions are typical of human nature. In their places few of us would have done any better.

Pilate, an outsider, a Gentile, a Roman, and a military man, was ill-prepared for what faced him on that early Passover morning. Though he had been governor of Judea for about five years (since about AD 26), he had spent much of that time ruling the province from Caesarea, a Rome-like city, which had been built by Herod the Great in honor of Augustus Caesar. Apparently, Pilate came to volatile and exotic Jerusalem infrequently, and as a rule, only during the festival periods. Like most typical Romans, he disdained and avoided the Jews and their religion, making little or no effort to understand either—only as much as he needed to govern them effectively.

In addition, Pilate's political relationship with the Jews was precarious. One of his first official acts—rotating to the garrison in Jerusalem a new cohort of soldiers who sported an image of Tiberius on their standards—put him immediately at odds with his subjects. The scandal—the Jews called it sacrilege—was only solved when Pilate backed down, putting him in a position of weakness.

Not long thereafter, he convinced Caiaphas, the High Priest, to allow him to use the Temple treasury to pay for a thirty-mile-long aqueduct to Jerusalem, which, when the people heard of it, caused a riot that had to be suppressed violently. Another time, his troops had killed some rioters in Jerusalem near the Temple (Luke 13:1). Finally, he had gilt shields installed in his palace in Jerusalem in honor of Tiberius, to which the Jews objected because they bore "names of blasphemy." These missteps the Jews held over his head, threatening to take their case directly to Caesar if he should err again.

Thus, when the Jewish authorities brought Jesus before him, Pilate was in a bind. The gospel record is clear that he believed Jesus to be innocent (see John 18:38; 19:4, 6), and he tried every conceivable way to avoid having to pass judgment on Him. Sending Him for trial under Herod Antipas was an ingenious ploy, but it backfired when Jesus would not even speak to the tetrarch of Galilee (Luke 23:6-12). Then, Pilate tried to release Him as the traditional Passover pardon, but the Jews countered with asking for Barabbas (Matthew 27:15-23). Pilate tried scourging Him, hoping that it would be sufficient to quell the Jews' bloodthirsty shouting, but they would be satisfied with nothing less than His crucifixion (John 19:1-6). Finally, he took the politically expedient route and literally washed his hands of the matter (Matthew 27:24), giving in to the fanatic demands of the Jews, who threatened him with seeking to damage his standing with Caesar (John 19:12).

What Pilate did not realize is that God was working out His purpose. The Father was using this cynical Roman official to fulfill prophecy and provide redemption for the whole world—he could not have avoided passing the sentence of crucifixion even at the expense of his own life. As Jesus said so simply in His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before, "Nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done" (Luke 22:42).

History records little of the later life of Pilate, only that his governorship ended badly in about AD 36 after his troops fought a pitched battle against a group of Samaritan zealots. Whether he regretted his history-changing decision on that spring morning or if he ever understood just Whom he had condemned is not known. But wrapped in his toga, we would have done the same.


 


 
 

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