I’ve read the Passion account many times in my life. This year was the first time I focused on the person of Pontius Pilate. Maybe it’s because I’m preaching on it for the first time (usually the head pastor preaches on the high holy days on Holy Weekend; I almost always get Palm Sunday so the head pastor can have extra time to prepare for Easter weekend). Perhaps the preacher persona in me reads the text differently but I really started getting into the person of Pilate and how he responds to Jesus during that night. But more importantly, how Jesus responds to him.
In John 18–19, the Gospel text for our Good Friday Service this year, I couldn’t help but notice how gracious Jesus was to Pilate. I think in the past I’ve always understood the sign, “The King of the Jews” as a mocking sign — maybe it was to some degree — but I’m starting to wonder if there may be a hint of faith in there.
If I could annotate the entire text from John 18–19 here, I would. Perhaps one day I’ll arrange my thoughts topically but for now I’ll just list some highlights in sequence with the passage in hopes that you have that text side by side as I point out tidbits in this text regarding Pilate. Pilate enters the scene as they bring Jesus from Caiaphas’s house to the governor’s headquarters in John 18:28.
Pilate the errand boy
Immediately we find Pilate in a very uncomfortable position. He’s the governor, but gets roused in the middle of the night to deal with this uninvited squabble. But look at the detail introduced in verse 28: the religious leaders and officials stay outside his house (to maintain ritual purity) while they send Jesus inside (presumably with the soldiers; I guess they don’t expect him to make it to Passover so it won’t matter that he is defiled). This detail is important because not only does it underscore the religious leaders’ lethal intent, but it also sets Pilate up as an errand boy, constantly going inside and outside in order to speak with both Jesus and the leaders. John repeats this detail about Pilate’s necessary travel multiple times in this account. Jesus is brought before Pilate seemingly without explanation and without the prosecution physically present with Jesus, thus he must first go out to ask. If this were enacted in a play, it would be comical.
The unintentional confession
In the next paragraph (according to the ESV text), Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” But in response to his question, Jesus asks him if this came from himself or from others? Jesus is essentially inviting him to consider if this is true in his own heart rather than merely coming from the accusing lips of others. Jesus was inviting a Gentile in, but Pilate’s response at this moment is to see himself out on account of being a Gentile. In response to “What have you done?” Jesus answers that he came to bear witness of the truth. This hooks Pilate in; he asks, “What is truth?” This question resonates powerfully with the whole Johannine witness (where light and truth are anchors of belief); I think John was trying to redeem Pilate to some degree.
Pilate declares, “No guilt!”
The errand boy then goes back outside to tell the religious leaders he finds no guilt in Jesus. Maybe he hoped his declaration would have weight for the accusers and he floats the option to release him at Passover as per their custom (giving them an option to save face in this — according to Pilate — apparent false-arrest. But the leaders cried out for Barabbas instead! What he does next initially confounded me: Pilate allows Jesus to be flogged and humiliated.
My first read into this section imagined Pilate as a man who was conflicted and the actions of a conflicted man often do not make logical sense. My read was that the chaos within him was reflected in the actions he allowed outside himself. However, after discussing this passage with Rob (another minister), he proposed that maybe Pilate allowed Jesus to be flogged and humiliated as a lesser sentence, hoping that would satisfy the accusers. After some consideration, this may be a better interpretation. This flogging is sandwiched between two declarations of “I find no guilt in him.” (John 18:38 and 19:4). In the second instance, Jesus is brought out with a robe and a crown of thorns and Pilate declares to the accusers: “Behold the man!” (emphasis mine, but I think it’s important to note this now). Maybe Pilate wanted his accusers to relent and see that Jesus was merely a man and has been punished enough. “It’s just a religious offence, not a civil one! You do this according to your religious laws!” It’s clear in 19:6 that Pilate wanted nothing to do with the civic death sentence of an innocent man.
But then John informs us of a sudden turn in John 19:7–9:
⁷ The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” ⁸ When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. ⁹ He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?”
Fear upon fear
As a Roman citizen, recognizing the gods, I believe the seeds of enlightenment were starting to take root. His initial question, “What is truth?” had been working in his soul throughout this unexpected evening “trial.” Something was amiss, and he knew it — but he couldn’t figure out what. After humiliating Jesus before the Jewish leaders, perhaps Pilate was hoping for a quick end to the charade, but when he heard from the accusers that Jesus has made himself, not merely King of the Jews, but the Son of God, the stakes were changed. John records plainly in verse 8: “When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid.”
John tells us he became “more afraid” which means he was already afraid — somewhere within his soul — though as governor he would not show it, especially not to the leaders of the captive Jewish people. If the claim of Jesus as King of the Jews were true — or king of any nation or people for that matter — it would be of no consequence to Rome. The Roman Empire has already shown the world it’s power and dominance. But a Son of God was a different thing altogether. Between the fear in verse 8 and the response in verse 9, I imagine the inner monologue of Pilate exclaiming, “shit SHIT SHIIIT SHIIIIIT SHIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT!!! What have I done?!!!”
Jesus knows Pilate’s fear and predicament. He doesn’t answer Pilate’s origin question to confirm his fears. I suspect that was an act of mercy. So when Pilate plays the authority card, I believe Jesus answers him graciously. When Pilate takes upon himself the responsibility of release and crucifixion, Jesus correct him, essentially saying, “That authority is actually mine. I choose this.” And Jesus closes his response with this unexpectedly gracious addendum: “He who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” He’s not letting Pilate off the hook; Pilate clearly has to bear the weight of his actions. But Jesus says the weight of responsibility does not fall upon you.
Resolve and conflict
After that last encounter, John tells us that “from then on Pilate sought to release him.” This was Pilate’s desire. He brings Jesus out to Gabbatha at mid day (the sixth hour; a lot seems to happen at the sixth hour in John), a public space before the people. But notice how in verse 14, in contrast to verse 5, Pilate presents Jesus not as man, but as King. This is a marked development in Pilate’s public witness. In this encounter with the people we see him conflicted, personally convinced of Jesus’ innocence, but drawn by civic duty to keep the peace. The chaos of the scene is underscored by the ridiculous response by the chief priests, “We have no king but Caesar.” They hated their Roman overlords. I believe John wanted us to know how unbelievable this series of events was — especially for Pilate.
We often fault Pilate for choosing wrongly (John 19:16), yet most of us who have had to resolve difficult conflicts know we cannot claim any moral or ethical superiority over Pilate. We can only speculate regarding his inner state.
Pilate’s last stand
In the past I have always read Pilate’s inscription, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” as a mockery. However, I wonder if this was his last act of defiance against the unjust public mob that wanted to crucify Jesus. In response to Jewish objection, Pilate is resolute and answered them, “What I have written I have written.” And those are his last words recorded in John’s account.
I suspect John wanted to paint Pilate in a positive light. Only after this read did I discover that there is a tradition in some North African churches that recognize Pilate and his wife as early saints and martyrs. There isn’t much (not saying none, just not much) documented outside the Biblical documents concerning Pilate but I’m inclined to think the trajectory of belief that John outlines for Pilate points to his inclusion in the Church.
If this is true, it underscores a truth already apparent in the Gospel, that grace is always offered to those who repent and return to God — even for Pilate. No doubt all of us have chosen wrongly in our relationship with the one who continues to show us grace. “If you, O, Lord would mark our iniquities, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness that you may be feared.” I’m now inclined to believe Pilate ultimately “hoped in the Lord” with that psalmist, and found grace.