His name is Pilate, as in Pontius Pilate — P-i-l-a-t-e, not p-i-l-o-t — even though Pilate did manage to fly himself right into middle of a maelstrom of religious and political corruption and compromise with devastating consequences.
In this PODCAST, as we now approach Jesus’ impending crucifixion, the greatest irony of this entire sad saga is that the whole thing is motivated by one thing: self-interest.
As we learned in last week’s podcast, on the Jewish side of things, the entire motivation behind the High Priest Caiaphas and the 70-member Sanhedrin in wanting to kill Jesus was the realization that He posed an existential threat to their power, position, prestige, and possessions, all of them paid for with their obscene wealth and ill-gotten gains — the chief thieves, these religious leaders were, in a den of thieves. Which is what, on their watch, the Temple, The House, God’s House, “My Father’s House” (as Jesus called it), had become.
As we will learn this week, on Roman side of things, the spineless Pilate will collapse like the house of cards that he was because he feared losing his title and power as the Roman Governor of the province of Judea. All of this while killing a man who was utterly, totally, completely and absolutely selfless. Someone who had not one strand of the DNA of self-interest woven anywhere in the fabric of His sizable soul.
We’re talking their willingness to murder a gentle, peaceable, innocent man — not to mention their Messiah — if that’s what it took to maintain their coveted positions.
Make no mistake about this — Pilate KNEW that Jesus was absolutely innocent, and yet sentenced Him to die anyway, in the most unimaginably barbaric, brazenly humiliating, excruciatingly torturous death ever devised by man.
You talk about Jesus looking out over a vast multitude of precious people with overwhelming compassion in His heart, while lamenting that they were like sheep without a shepherd? Well, these were their shepherds.
Shepherds both religious (Caiphas) and political (Pilate). Unprincipled men who unconscionably used and abused their helpless little lambs for their own personal gain.
Just like they do today. Religiously and Politically. It is today as it was then.
Well, last week we met their religious shepherds.
The time has now come for us to meet their political shepherds. Most specifically, Pontius Pilate, the man who has lived long in infamy as the man who caved to political pressure and who, against own convictions, sentenced Jesus to death.
We’re in Luke chapter 23, as we make our way through the life of Jesus in chronological order. Next week, we will talk about the crucifixion itself.
Then the entire council took Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor. (Luke 23:1)
Did you know that Pilate is the only leader mentioned by name in the Apostle’s Creed? Not even Caiaphas nor Caesar are mentioned in this foundational document. Yet, as many Christians have studied, memorized and recited:
“I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…”
Ironically, most all of the Roman Governors before and after Pilate hated being stationed in Judea. They believed it was too distant from Rome, difficult to manage, not to mention dry and desolate. It was the outer fringes of the Roman Empire.
Yet, Pilate thrived in his position because it allowed him to abuse his Jewish subjects with impunity. And he loved that! Infuriating the Jews with the 5,000-plus Roman soldiers at his disposal became his hobby.
For example, on one occasion, he sent his soldiers into Jerusalem baring standards that had the Roman Emperor’s image engraved upon them. He knew that the Jews viewed this as idolatry and blasphemy, and there was no need at the time for them to go into Jerusalem, where the Temple was. They would have been better placed guarding Pilate’s home at the coast in Caesarea. The only reason he did it was to upset his Jewish subjects. And when they reacted, as he knew they would, he lured them into the stadium in Caesarea and threatened to kill them all there on the spot, unless they bowed before and pledged their allegiance to Caesar.
Yet, even as death faced them, they refused. And Pilate backed down and recanted.
After all, his job description only contained two line items: collect the taxes and keep the peace. Killing off the leaders of the Jewish population would have done everything but keep the peace throughout Judea.
While he couldn’t risk riots across the region, he still provoked the Jews over and over again… even though the Senate in Rome had made themselves abundantly clear that if Pilate couldn’t keep the peace, they would strip him of his office.
But that didn’t stop him from stealing from the Temple treasury in order to pay for an aqueduct he wanted built through the heart of Jerusalem. Even while Jesus was in the midst of His earthly ministry, Pilate was making himself known throughout Judea as murderous and blasphemous:
About this time Jesus was informed that Pilate had murdered some people from Galilee as they were offering sacrifices at the Temple. (Luke 23:1)
Pilate not only killed these people for sport, but also mixed their blood with the blood of their Temple sacrifices.
The great philosopher, Philo, got it right when he wrote of Pilate: that he was guilty
“He was guilty of corruptions, acts of insolence, violent seizures of private property, cruelty, continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity.”
This was the man who held Jesus’ life or death in the palms of his blood-stained hands.
Now, as I mentioned, Pilate was normally stationed in Caesarea, but annually, he would hold office in Jerusalem during Passover… to further oppress the Jewish pilgrims each year. Which is why he happened to be in town as Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin conspired to kill Jesus.
They wanted Jesus crucified, and it didn’t matter to them what lie they had to tell to make sure that happened. He was originally tried for blasphemy, but the religious leaders knew if they took that to Pilate, he wouldn’t care, and that would have only gotten Jesus stoned. So they had to come up with a different charge such as treason, rebellion, and threats to Cesar. Jews were able to carry out a death sentence as long as it was stoning, but Romans were the only ones that were able to carry out a crucifixion.
And, Just as we learned last week that there were three rapid-fire Jewish trials concerning Jesus spanning from Thursday evening to “Not-So-Good-Friday”, there were also three rapid-fire Roman trials in that span as well.
The first of Jesus’ trials before Pilate is chronicled in all four Gospels. Luke begins this way:
Then the entire council took Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor. (Luke 13:1)
John adds more details:
Then he was taken to the headquarters of the Roman governor. His accusers didn’t go inside because it would defile them, and they wouldn’t be allowed to celebrate the Passover. (John 18:28)
Oh, the irony! Wouldn’t you think that killing their Messiah would defile them and prohibit them from celebrating Passover? John continues:
So Pilate, the governor, went out to them and asked, “What is your charge against this man?” 30 “We wouldn’t have handed him over to you if he weren’t a criminal!” they retorted. 31 “Then take him away and judge him by your own law,” Pilate told them. (John 18:29-31)
Pilate was ruthless, but he wasn’t stupid or unaware. He knew what the religious leaders were up to and also knew that it was within their own religious laws to sentence someone to death… but only by stoning, not crucifixion.
If Jesus’ death was all they were interested in, Pilate gave them permission there in John 18:31 to stone him by their own law. But, the religious leaders volleyed:
“Only the Romans are permitted to execute someone,” the Jewish leaders replied.32 (This fulfilled Jesus’ prediction about the way He would die.) (John 18:31-32)
“Listen,” He said, “we’re going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence Him to die.19 Then they will hand Him over to the Romans to be mocked, flogged with a whip, and crucified.
But, keep in mind. Jesus was all man and all God. Jesus was not merely fulfilling his role in history’s script… He WROTE the script! Just as He said in John 10:18,
No one takes my life from me. I give it up willingly! I have the power to give it up and the power to receive it back again
He choreographed this whole scene… and He did it for YOU.
Now, the religious leaders knew Pilate’s two-fold job description as well as he did, so instead of coming before him accusing Jesus of blasphemy, they did this:
And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:2)
They accused Jesus of treason and tax evasion!
3 So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“You have said so,” Jesus replied.
4 Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.”
It’s as if Pilate looked upon this exhausted, beaten man and thought, “Look… if he claims to be your king, then he’s your problem! You take him and deal with him!”
Then they became insistent. “But he is causing riots by his teaching wherever he goes—all over Judea, from Galilee to Jerusalem!”
Remember, Pilate wanted desperately to release this man. He knew that Jesus was innocent. Not that killing innocent people was foreign to him. He did it for sport. But he knew Jesus was different. He wanted to calm the crowd, avoid a riot, but get rid of Jesus at the same time.
That’s when he picked up on the magic word uttered by the religious leaders: Galilee!
“Oh, is he a Galilean?” Pilate asked. 7 When they said that he was, Pilate sent him to Herod Antipas, because Galilee was under Herod’s jurisdiction, and Herod happened to be in Jerusalem at the time.
Herod was also in Jerusalem for Passover which offered Pilate the “out” he had longed for! So, here is Luke’s account of Jesus’ second legal trial:
Herod was delighted at the opportunity to see Jesus, because he had heard about Him and had been hoping for a long time to see Him perform a miracle. 9 He asked Jesus question after question, but Jesus refused to answer. 10 Meanwhile, the leading priests and the teachers of religious law stood there shouting their accusations. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers began mocking and ridiculing Jesus. Finally, they put a royal robe on Him and sent him back to Pilate. 12 (Herod and Pilate, who had been enemies before, became friends that day.)
I love that last little detail that Luke includes about Herod and Pilate.
So, Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate for His third legal trial… a moment Pilate was dreading.
Then Pilate called together the leading priests and other religious leaders, along with the people, 14 and he announced his verdict. “You brought this man to me, accusing him of leading a revolt. I have examined him thoroughly on this point in your presence and find him innocent. 15 Herod came to the same conclusion and sent him back to us. Nothing this man has done calls for the death penalty. (Luke 23:13-15)
I do sincerely believe that Pilate was honest when he said that he found Jesus innocent. Otherwise, why would he go through all of this? Plus, as I have mentioned, it wasn’t out of character for Pilate to kill innocent Jews, yet he was trying desperately to maintain the peace while keeping Jesus alive. Matthew’s Gospel offers us further insight into Pilate’s motivation for pronouncing Jesus’ innocence:
Just then, as Pilate was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him this message: “Leave that innocent man alone. I suffered through a terrible nightmare about him last night.” (Matthew 27:19)
So, back to Luke’s account:
16 So I will have him flogged, and then I will release him.”
18 Then a mighty roar rose from the crowd, and with one voice they shouted, “Kill him, and release Barabbas to us!” 19 (Barabbas was in prison for taking part in an insurrection in Jerusalem against the government, and for murder.) 20 Pilate argued with them, because he wanted to release Jesus. 21 But they kept shouting, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
22 For the third time he demanded, “Why? What crime has he committed? I have found no reason to sentence him to death. So I will have him flogged, and then I will release him.”
23 But the mob shouted louder and louder, demanding that Jesus be crucified, and their voices prevailed. (Luke 23:16-23)
John adds these fateful words, especially in regards to who specifically was shouting at Pilate:
“Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked.
“We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. (John 19:15)
So Pilate released Barabbas to them. He ordered Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip, then turned him over to the Roman soldiers to be crucified.
27 Some of the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into their headquarters and called out the entire regiment. 28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him. 29 They wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head, and they placed a reed stick in his right hand as a scepter. Then they knelt before him in mockery and taunted, “Hail! King of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:26-29)