With Friends Like Pontius Pilate—A Lenten Reflection

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“Pontius Pilate sought to release Jesus.” —John 19:12

Think about that for a second.It has been years since I observed a proper Lenten Season.  But the activities in New Orleans on the news are telling me Lent has begun.  Lent, this year, converges with a sermon series I’m working on dealing with the final week of Jesus’ life.  So as parts of my study for those messages present themselves as well suited for blog posts, I’ll bring them to the Rabbit Room in this span of time leading up to Easter.

Today I can’t seem to shake the implications of John’s little statement above about Pontius Pilate.  Doesn’t it sound loaded with implication?  It sure does to me.

Though Pontius Pilate ultimately became the man who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion, there were several points along the way where his actions were intended to prevent Jesus’ death.

Consider the following instances:

—Pilate vocally objected to the credibility of the charges against Jesus many times over: “I find no basis for the charges against this man.” (Mk 15:14, Lk 23:4 14-16, 22, Jn 18:38, 19:4)

—Pilate questioned Jesus privately, away from the Chief Priests, giving Jesus a chance to defend Himself against the charges. (Jn 18:33, 19:9-11)

—Pilate sent Jesus to Herod after finding no basis for the charges against him.  Pilate wouldn’t have done this had he thought Herod would disagree.  That would have been politically embarrasing.  Also, it might have made him appear like a poor judge in the eyes of his superiors.  Pilate was certain Herod would agree with him, resulting in a concensus that Jesus didn’t deserve to die.  And he was right.  Herod agreed. (Lk 23:6-15)  This, Pilate hoped, would end the momentum of Jesus’ accusers.

—Pilate invoked his tradition of releasing a Jewish prisoner during Passover—giving the people a choice between Jesus and Barabbas, a known murderer, thief and insurrectionist.  Pilate thought the contrast between these two would leave the decision to release Jesus ironically in the hands of the mob who brought him there.  Surely given this choice, the people would free the non-murderer.  He was wrong. (Mt 27:15-22, Jn 18:39-40)

—Pilate had Jesus publicly flogged.  This may not sound like an attempt to release Jesus, but the thinking was that maybe Pilate could satisfy the mob by taking Jesus to a point close to death without having to actually kill him.  Then, Jesus could live out the remainder of His days bearing on His body the marks of the Roman flogging and in His mind, the memory of the crowd as they cheered for this.  Maybe that would suffice. (Lk 23:16, Jn  19:1)  Wrong again.

You might say Pontius Pilate was Jesus’ most ardent defender during these few short hours they had together.But with friends like this, who needs enemies, right?

I don’t mean to foster sympathy for Pilate here.  And I certainly don’t wish to defend his cowardly, wicked acts.  Ultimately it was Pilate who held the civil authority to order a death by crucifixion—and this is what he did.

I do want to say this though.  Pontius Pilate was no hero, but neither was he the consummate bad guy with the thin mustache sneering through the wispy trails of smoke rising from the “Cruella De Vil” cigarette in his hand. (Sorry Buechner.)

Pontius Pilate was a middle-management Governor—basically a mayor with soldiers. He hoped, as any mid-level politician would, that his stock was rising. Judea was a stop along the way to the power, stature and respect he hoped to one day possess. He was a godless man motivated by a desire for the outcome of this unrest to be one that played to his favor.

And for all of us, when it comes to this part of the Easter story, we have not understood the Cross until we have understood that, left alone, we are vastly more like Pilate than we are like Jesus.Pontius Pilate didn’t want to release Jesus for Jesus’ sake, but for his own.  He’d rather not have to explain to his superiors why a religious dispute required him to have a man under his authority executed.

He’d rather not have to feel like a puppet at the hands of powerful and influential religious leaders.  He’d prefer for this matter to end with everyone alive and happy. But not really for the sake of anyone’s life or happiness except his own.

This intrigues me because it raises questions:

How many of my actions which appear noble and for the good of others are really more for the sake of making my own life easier?  And what does that say about what really drives me to act nobly?

Appropriate questions to consider leading up to Easter?  What about you?  What in your own motivations of the heart testify to your need for the Cross and the Empty Tomb.

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


6 Comments

  1. Steve Narrow

    Russ, What a masterful insight into a part of the story that I often overlook. Thank you for your post.

    #2 “What in your own motivations of the heart testify to your need for the Cross and the Empty Tomb.” My answer is, everything. Such is my condition of humanness. I don’t think that this need will ever leave until I’m able to take off the flesh and finally live without it’s limitations and faults.

    #1 “How many of my actions which appear noble and for the good of others are really more for the sake of making my own life easier? And what does that say about what really drives me to act nobly?” Again, starting from the end; I think there is often nobility in my actions, more often than I would give myself credit for. The cmpromise comes in the glory I seek for myself after the noble deed is complete. I’m not sure that I seek to make my life easier as much as I seek the approval of others in what I do. Especially if I view the act as noble or good. Rarely do I act as I presume Jesus would and leave the action anonymous or unnoticed; I must tell someone. Too often the telling is to seek approval or praise.

    I want, very badly in fact, to give without recognition, to love without return, to serve without reward, but, alas, my flesh usually wins out. But, by the cross and empty tomb, I am aware of that shortcoming and can (and do) submit it to the blood of Jesus to be once again, and as as often as I need, made clean.

  2. Tony Heringer

    Russ,

    I concur with Steve and will add my own two cents!

    “Appropriate questions to consider leading up to Easter?” Yes sir and amen! Great look at the life of Pilate, a comically tragic figure. He also had the admonition from his wife who was haunted by her dream. I’m sure that freaked him out kind of like Jack’s reaction to John Locke’s message from Jack’s dad last night on LOST.

    “What in your own motivations of the heart testify to your need for the Cross and the Empty Tomb?”

    I think that is what draws me to the liturgical calendar. Even though it is not a tradition I was brought up with, it is a constant reminder of the real story in this secular culture. A story that would bring a harden atheist like Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller to get all weepy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7JHS8adO3hM (Thanks to Ben Crawford for posting that link on Facebook).

    The season of Lent brings us face to face with our mortality. I missed out on Ash Wednesday service yesterday, but am always moved by the point in that service where you hear again and again “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This service starts an eight week journey of reflection, as you noted, on the Cross and what Jesus has done on our behalf. That He has removed the sting of death by overcoming the grave!

    This season, I’m committing to rise 30 minutes earlier than I’ve been of late to spend more time in prayer and meditation. Our church gave us this resource to use during Lent: http://www.waymakers.org/?p=sgftc

    My favorite part is the daily prayer focus for the nations of the world. I used this guide last year too and it really opens my eyes to how little I think about the people of the world. Ever pray for Anguilla? Me either, but there are approximately 13,500 people on that spit of land in the Caribbean and that makes me think of the countless numbers of other folks in these obscure places that God knows and cares for. It is certainly a humbling time when you consider how much God loves us and cares for His people scattered far and wide.

  3. Wm Edmunds

    One more point that you could add was that Pilate’s wife urged him not to harm the man, Jesus. Pilate risk offending his own wife by his action. Some believe that she came to faith soon afterward.
    What is also left out is Pilate’s political connection with Lucius Aelius Sejanus, the former Commander of the Praetorian guard in Rome. Tiberius learned of his overly ambitious effort to seize power while the Emperor sought haven in Capri. Tiberius had him executed and then mounted a blood bath purge of all of those who supported or allied themselves to him. Pilate was appointed governor of Judaea by Tiberius at Sejanus’ suggestion. Why did he not suffer the same fate as so many others? Perhaps his marriage to to Claudia Procula, the grandaughter of Emperor Augustus and the illegitimate daughter of Tiberius’ third wife holds the answer.
    Regardless, Pilate was a man caught in the middle of both political and religious intrigue. This is the line of logic I follow in “All Roads Lead to Zion,”
    available through Strategic Book Publishers. You might want to compare it with your own conclusions. ISBN: 978-1-60693-016-8

  4. Melissa Bent

    Russ,

    Thanks for sharing this. I have not thought of this in quite so much detail, but I have often thought, when reading the recount of the events leading up to the crucifixion, that Pilate was ever attempting to get out of being the one who made the order to kill Jesus.

    It certainly seems that through his acts, moving from speaking out to the crowd and escalating from there, that he acted the perfect bureaucrat, testing the resolve of the crowd.

    But I had never thought to view the flogging of Jesus as a part of that. I had simple organized it in my mind as preparation for the actual crucifixion.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    Melissa
    (Boise, Idaho)

  5. J.D.

    A fascinating, in-depth take on Pilate is Ann Wroe’s book, _Pontius Pilate_. She points out two prior confrontations between Pilate and a Jewish mob, once in Caesaria and once outside the Antonia Fortress. In each case he backed down–as with the case of Jesus.

    The word I would use to describe him is “craven.”

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