Pilate: A Conflicted Man

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar’ ~ John 19:12

When Pilate, the Roman Governor, meets an accused afflicted man, he becomes conflicted. At first, he wants nothing to do with the case because it involves Jewish customs. And their customs were too many for him to be bothered in the first place. He was a Roman ruling over the Jews, an exclusive community who believed that their God is the only true God, and would save them from the Roman rule and affliction. But Pilate cared less because he, a Roman, still exerted rule over them. Where was their God anyway? Though he himself believed in the many Roman gods, he found the Jews exhaustingly religious. For instance, when presenting the accused to him, ‘The Jews did not enter the palace, lest they should be defiled; but they wanted to be able to eat the Passover’ (John 18:28). ‘So Pilate came out to them’ (v29), and asks what charges were being presented to him. He asks not to really know, because he had come to learn not to get involved with petty Jewish accusations that related to their peculiar customs. So, he tells them, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law’ (v31).

But the Jews insist that the case belongs to his docket as they have ‘no right to execute anyone’ (v31). At this point, Pilate’s interest is sparked because the Jews have already drawn a verdict on the accused man, rendering him guilty. So, he brings the accused into his palace to find out what crime he had committed. He asks him, ‘Are you king of the Jews?’ (v33), to which the accused replies, ‘Is that your own idea or did others talk to you about me?’ (v34). Pilate is struck at such a response. The man does not seem fearful at all, but at the same time, he does not accept or deny the charges. He is even not afraid to question him as Governor, and so Pilate responds, ‘Am I a Jew? It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?’ (v35). The accused then responds, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place’ (v36). Pilate somehow puts two and two together and remarks, ‘You are a king then!’ (v37). The accused firmly responds, ‘You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me’ (v37). Pilate never believed in absolute truth because to him, it was a grey area. Truth was relative, as propagated by the existing philosophy, prompting his reply, ‘What is truth?’ (v38).

Without further questions, Pilate goes out to the Jews eagerly waiting, and tells them, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him. But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release the King of the Jews?’ (v39). Pilate cannot understand why he is tender-hearted towards the accused, because it was always his delight to rule with an iron fist. But this time round, he is even going against popular opinion, even though he always sought favour with the Jews. But now, he is protecting a man he knows nothing about. However, the Jews insist that another prisoner who had taken part in a rebellion and murder to be released instead. To avoid another revolt, Pilate sends the accused to Herod because he learns that he is a Galilean and so ‘under Herod’s jurisdiction’ (Luke 23:6). When the accused is presented before Herod, he does not utter a word. After getting no response from him, ‘Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate’ (v11). Pilate again presents the man to the Jews, insisting that he finds no basis for a charge against him. He asserts, ‘Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see he has done nothing to deserve death’ (v15). Again, he is surprised that he is not the only one clearing the accused in the presence of the masses, but that the brutal Herod is too. And so from ‘that day Herod and Pilate become friends – before they had been enemies’ (v12). What was happening to them?

The Jews, however, still have a different view and insist that Pilate crucify him, but he answers, ‘You take him and crucify him: for I find no fault in him’ (John 19:6). The next statement from the Jews even shocks Pilate further, for they insist, ‘We have a law, and according to the law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God’ (v7). And when Pilate hears this, ‘he was even more afraid’ (v7). As a Roman Governor, he had no fear of anything or anyone, but this time, when he hears that an alleged Son of God is before him, a fear grips his heart. Not a normal fear, but a reverential awe that leads him to want to gain more understanding on the matter. So he goes back inside the palace and probes the accused, ‘Where do you come from?’ (v9). It is as if the accused knows that something is brewing inside Pilate, because he gives him no answer. The accused does not satiate his curiosity and so Pilate threatens, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realize that I have power to either free you or crucify you?’ (v10). Finally, the accused speaks, ‘You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of greater sin’ (v11). Pilate relates to the accused words because he can tell there is some extraordinary power working in him, way greater than the gods of their myths he knew. And as if the accused read his mind, he clears his conscience by saying that those who handed him over are the ones guilty.

From then on, ‘Pilate sought to release him’ (v12), but the Jews would not have it. They even threatened to invoke the authority of Caesar if Pilate would not comply. Caving in, Pilate then sits ‘on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement’ (v13) to execute judgement. Though his conscience is still partly seared, he does not want to usurp the authority of Caesar. But he soon realizes that the greater power is at work. ‘While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don’t have anything to do with the that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him’ (Matthew 27:19). This confirms to Pilate that a higher power is really at work and is protecting him. He then ‘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’ (v24). The masses finally accept saying, ‘Let his blood belong to our children!’ (v25). At this, Pilate hands him over to their will, but decides to honour the accused one final way. ‘Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS . . . the sign was written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek’ (John 19:19,20). But when the Jews insist that the sign reads wrong and that, ‘this man claimed to be king of the Jews’ (v21), Pilate affirms, ‘What I have written, I have written’ (v22). At this point, Pilate is fully convinced of the power, he is no longer a conflicted man. A few hours later, he even grants permission to some men to bury the accused after his death, ‘in accordance with Jewish burial customs’ (v40).

Pilate, however, was yet to discover the extent of the power. In three days’ time, he would fully understand what the accused man, Jesus Christ, was all about. He would also realize that he unknowingly spread the Gospel, simply by having a notice on the cross announcing the King of Kings in three languages, reaching three nationalities. Pilate would finally understand why the accused would not fully give him an explanation of who he was, because ‘unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces much fruit’ (12:v24). Pilate would realize that unless Jesus died, Gentiles (non-Jews) like him would never enjoy the full power he had a taste of. That was why Jesus did not explain to him about the truth, as His time to be revealed to the Gentiles had not yet come. It was only after He died and resurrected that Jesus would be ‘a light to the gentiles, that (he) may bring salvation to the ends of the earth’ (Isaiah 49:6). And at that time, ‘Foreigners who bind themselves to the Lord to serve him, to love the name of the Lord, and to worship him, all who keep my Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer’ (56:v6-7). Unknown to him, Pilate saw God face to face, and was no longer a conflicted man.

‘I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me; I was found by those who did not seek me’ ~ Isaiah 65:1

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