“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 is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).