Suffered Under Pontius Pilate
Psalm 26:1-7 Matthew 27:11-26
There is a curious feature that occurs in the Apostles’ Creed. Three personal names are listed: They are Jesus, Mary & Pontius Pilate.
Two of those names are quite understandable. Jesus & Mary. They are enshrined forever as persons of great significance for the beginnings of the Church. But why mention Pilate?
Why should he get this kind of prominence? Why give him this notoriety? In fact why not blame the Jewish leaders like Annas & Caiphas who laid the plot and carried out the plans for his death? Why not blame Herod, or Judaism or the entire human race?
For when the fourfold story is told, Jesus, in the course of his several trials, suffered at the hands of several groups. The religious leaders of Judaism tried him and after they beat him up in a frenzy of outrage, had the temple soldiers beat him. Then when Herod tried him, he too made him suffer at the hands of his palace guard. When Pilate had delivered the sentence, the Roman soldiers also took personal liberties in beating him and deriding him. So why place the blame on Pilate?
1. The Actions of Pilate
For Pilate wasn’t much of a villain was he? Let’s look at the evidence. All four gospels spend considerable space on Pilate’s part in the death of Christ.
They all paint him as a coward in the face of the possibilities of doing the right thing.
- · He knows that Jesus has done nothing worthy of the death sentence.
- · He continually tries to get the case thrown out of court.
- · He also knows the motives of the accusers. He knows that they are motivated by envy.
- · He also knows that the accusations are trumped up charges.
- · In the course of that trial his conscience warns him, his wife who had dreamed a dream warns him.
But Pilate is a man between a rock and a hard place.
Pilate was caught up in circumstances of his own making that had painted him into a corner. In the ten years of his governorship, several times he had made foolish decisions that had caused him to be reported to his superiors.
He had caused riots in Jerusalem when he tried to bring images of Caesar into Jerusalem. Since Caesar was worshipped as a God throughout the Roman Empire, this was seen as idolatry by the Jews, and they hit the streets in an angry mob. Pilate had withdrawn the images but had lost face.
A short while later he wanted to decorate his court with decorative shields placed around the walls. But on each shield was the name of a Roman God. Once more the riots started, and Pilate backed down.
Then he decided to bring fresh water into the city of Jerusalem. Good idea! He built a water conduit. But when it came time to pay for the project he demanded that the money from the temple treasury be used. Once more there were riots. His soldiers went out of control and Jews were slaughtered in the streets.
And in each of these cases he was reported to the Emperor of Rome by delegations from Judea. He was building up a very poor track record and Rome did not take that lightly, and Pilate knew it.
Some years after the crucifixion he would take extreme measures against Samaria, precipitating another massacre, and would be removed by Caesar to stand trial in Rome.
So when he is about to make a decision about Jesus, the crowds yell, “You are no friend of Caesar’s.” Pilate knows that “truth must be sacrificed to job security,” and so calls for the most famous basin of water in history in which to wash his hands, has his soldiers flog Jesus, and then sends him off to be crucified.
2. The Official Execution.
But the question remains, why pick on Pilate? His sin is weakness, not wickedness. It is cowardice, not malice. It was the act of a trapped man.
But there is one factor that places him in a different camp than the others who brought about the death of Jesus. Pilate alone could render the official death penalty. His verdict alone made the death of Jesus a legal execution by the state. If the Jews had killed him, it would have been murder. When the state does it, then it is the execution of a criminal. It was an execution by a Roman Official, and that made the crimes of Jesus crimes against Caesar himself.
This very fact would make it difficult for the church during the next century because the death of Jesus Christ was viewed as Capital Punishment by a Roman court, not a mob decision. Jesus was not a martyr, the records would say, but a villain, who was put away by the justice of a Roman Court.
During its first three centuries the church would have to live out its life in the middle of a hostile Roman Empire. Its greatest enemy was the Roman Government. Then why advertise in its own creed, that the leader of the Christian church was executed by Roman authority? Why not simply say, “He suffered, was crucified, dead and buried,” and not point the finger of blame at Roman authority?
The reason is that the church of that day was no coward. They were intent on pointing out to every convert that joined the church that there is an irreconcilable difference between the Empire of Rome and the Kingdom of God. between Caesar and Christ. The creed was first written for new baptismal candidates, and the church cannot afford to hide the reality that to follow Christ, will be to put yourself into jeopardy with the Roman government.
It was the church’s way of underscoring the words of Jesus, “If anyone wishes to become my disciple he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”
3, The Two faces of Courage & Cowardice.
I find this act of the early church ironic. It will ask its new converts do take courage, by naming the Roman Executioner who showed only cowardice. It reveals the two faces of courage & cowardice in the very same account.
The Face of Cowardice: Pontius Pilate was a coward. He ruled a nation, but was ruled by everyone else.
Pilate was not a wicked man, who intended to perpetrate a great evil on the world. He is even sympathetic towards Jesus. The sin of Pilate was the sin of weakness, not wickedness. It was cowardice, not malice. It was the act of a man trapped between conscience and the crowd. And because he was a coward he went along with the majority voice.
But Pilate is not alone in this telling of the story.
- Peter is shown as an abysmal coward during his three brief tests at the fireside in the yard of the court that was condemning Jesus.
- The other apostles are also cowardly, as they desert their friend in his hour of need in Gethsemane.
The Face of Courage: In the face of so much cowardice, where can courage be found?
- The writers show us a Jesus showing remarkable courage in Gethsemane, and then in each of the three trials he faced.
- We will see that same courage in Joseph of Arimathea & Nicodemus who had been secret disciples of Jesus until his death, and then came out in the open as they asked for the body of Jesus, so he could be buried in honor.
- And we also see it in the early church after the resurrection. When they are put on trial time and time again, they prove to be men & women of uncommon courage.
- And to the new converts about to be baptized, they lay out the cost of discipleship, and in the moments of baptism, their face is slapped by the elder and told, to “endure hardness as a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” It takes courage to be a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.
In our own culture:
- Fear of ridicule often makes us mute on social and moral issues.
- Fear often makes us silent when the cause of Christ is in need of a witness.
- Fear will cause us to do what conscience says we shouldn’t, because our peers think the deed’s OK.
Joshua was facing the formidable task of succeeding Moses, God says to him at several junctures, “Be strong and of good courage.” The Psalmist is heard to say, “Wait on the Lord, Be strong and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord.”
For the great Philosopher Plato, courage is the first of all virtues.
But where does courage come from? It is a gift from the Holy Spirit who comes to empower those who feel their fears, and who ask that God would strengthen them with moral courage to do the right thing in the face of so many wrongs.