The Passion and the People: Pilate

Pilate Washing His handsMatthew 27:11-14, 24-26


The Governor, Pontius Pilate.  Every week, we mention this man in the creeds, who caused our Savior to suffer, whom He crucified.  Still, who is this mystery man, who brought the weight of an Empire on our Savior’s shoulders?  Let’s begin with what we understand about Pontius Pilate from history.

The “Governor of the imperial province of Syria,” is his official title, which he held from 26 to 36 AD.  The Emperor, Tiberius, appointed him to keep Roman control over Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and other territories to the north.  A posting, tolerated by most, loved by few.  Most consider Judea an appalling assignment.  Why?

Many Judeans oppose foreign rule and will use terror tactics against their occupiers.  A group, the “Zealots,” attack foreign soldiers and rulers.  With sharp blades, they strike, cutting and bleeding unwanted outsiders.  Those who go to govern this unruly land, do so to pay their dues, hoping to earn an early promotion to something better.

So also with Pilate, who is a promising star on the rise.  A young Roman nobleman, he plans his time in Judea to be a step up, perhaps to serve in the Senate of Rome.  Such did not come to be.  For a series of crises and rioting mars his governorship.

Now, the blame doesn’t fall only on the Jews.  On arrival, he tries to place the imperial symbol, the eagle, on the walls of Jerusalem’s Temple.  Soon, everyone learns of this sacrilege.  For national symbols do not belong in God’s house, which is an outpost and embassy of heaven, not of any state or empire (Exodus 25:40, Hebrews 8:5).

An uprising ignites, and this Roman authority responds by removing the symbol of Rome from God’s Temple.  Later, to improve living conditions in Jerusalem, he proposes to build a 25-mile aqueduct to bring in fresh water from the mountains.  The problem begins when he proposes to use Temple funds to pay for the project.  Again, a violent riot results.

The governor lives in Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, where the climate is cool, peaceful.  Not so when the Jews celebrate their religious festivals.  For he soon learns he needs to be in Jerusalem.  For if trouble begins to brew, he wants to be in the epicenter, to preempt the storm before the biting winds of rebellion blow.

These Judeans are a hard to rule.  For they think themselves as God’s chosen people.  So, Pilate needs to keep his finger on the pulse of this rebellious bunch.  The week of Passover, perhaps 29 AD, is no different.  About 5 AM on Friday, a group of Jewish council members wakes up the Governor.  Listen to St. Mark.  “Early in the morning, the high priests called a meeting with the elders, scribes, and the whole Sanhedrin.  So, they bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate” (Mark 15:1).

No doubt, he curses these ill-mannered leaders under his breath, for they unsettle his sleep at such an ungodly hour.  So, he splashes some water on his face, puts on his clothes, and goes to find out what the clamor is all about.

In dignified silence, the accused stands before him.  To him, this suspect is not the poster boy of a revolt.  So, if he chooses to release this Jesus, will he gain popularity among the rank-and-file, reducing the chance of an uprising, gaining political points?

The council members become surly with him.  “Now, if this man did nothing wrong, we would not bring him to you.”  The blush of anger turns his face red.  “Take him yourselves and judge him by your law.”  So, they cry foul.  “The law doesn’t allow us to execute anyone” (John 18:30-32).  “This man forbids us to pay taxes to Caesar and claims to be the Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:1-2).

The Sanhedrin set their trap well—he must try the case.  Now, the Emperor’s appointed executor of justice understands—they spent half the night prejudging this prisoner.  How he hates their presumption!  For they only need him to rubber-stamp their verdict.  How he hates their hypocrisy!  For if this so-called king opposed paying taxes to Caesar, they would stand next to Him, urging Him on, not accusing Him.

Now, none of this matters.  The charge is treason!  So, if he refuses to try the case, he will be no friend of Caesar.  The Jewish leaders tell him as much—and if those words reach Caesar’s ears, he will be the dead man, not Jesus!  Oh, these snakes in Sanhedrin—he must try Jesus.  No representative of Rome can ignore such a threat.

So, Pilate interrogates Jesus, doing his duty, covering his hind end, hoping to dismiss the case.  The suspect remains silent.  How strange.  Most prisoners can’t wait to make a passionate plea to defend themselves.  Not so with this man.

“Are you the King of the Jews?”  “So you say,” is what leaves the lips of Jesus, which is a polite form of “yes.”  On His way to death, this Messiah honors the Empire’s authority, recognizing what he says.  So, Pilate responds.  “Aren’t you aware of these allegations?”  To the Governor’s surprise, He makes no reply, not to a single charge.

The Apostle John also writes about these proceedings.  The silent one now tells more to this man with governmental authority.  “My kingdom is not of this world.”  For He came as someone “to testify to the truth” (John 18:36-37).  A laughing scoff erupts in response.  “What is truth?”  For the Governor doesn’t believe in any firm, unmovable certainty.  For him, reality shifts as needed to serve his wishes.

Still, this Roman authority realizes this man is no threat to Rome.  This hearing is a sham, a devious plan for the leaders in Jerusalem to rid themselves of someone who threatens them, not the Emperor.  These are false, trumped-up charges.

So, he goes and speaks to the hand-picked gathering assembled outside.  The accused, Jesus, is not guilty.  The matter should now be over—but the crowd refuses.  Nothing less than death will satisfy them.  How strange, for he only finds himself defending Jesus.  Still, he needs to keep the mob from becoming violent.

No matter what he tries, everything fails.  Still, Pilate can pull out a couple of other administrative ploys.  So, he chooses to invoke the custom of releasing one prisoner during the Passover.  The people can decide between the murderer, Barabbas, or Jesus.  No one will want to release a feared killer over this innocent man, he thinks.  The Governor’s reading of the crowd backfires—and they call for Barabbas to go free.

Now, the beginnings of a riot begin to stir, and Pilate realizes all his efforts amount to nothing.  One more political play is left—he will appeal to the people’s sense of compassion.  So, he orders his soldiers to scourge Jesus.

The whip they use is a lashing of leather strips, with bits of bone or metal attached to the tips.  Each lash will flay the skin open and tear into the flesh.  Sometimes, a victim dies from the pain, shock, and loss of blood.

To top off the scourging, he will push a thorny crown on His head, making a mockery of His kingship.  A bloody mess of flesh, he will present to the people.  With their bloodlust satisfied, filled with pity, they will call for this man to be set free.

Still, the mob will only accept death.  Exasperated and frustrated, Pilate takes water and washes his hands.  In his years as Governor, he took the time to read the Jewish religious writings.  So, he uses their ritual to wash his guilt away for condemning an innocent man to die.  “Attend to this yourselves—I am innocent of this man’s blood!”  The killer goes free and, after flogging this so-called king, he hands Him over to death.

The years to follow are not kind to Pilate.  The time in Judea does not help his career.  Soon after, his profession as a politician falters.  To his shame, his wife, Procula, becomes a Christian, a religion soon illegal in the Empire.  Perhaps, he brooded, long and often, about our Lord’s trial and execution—and rumored resurrection.

Think about how this practical man will think of us today.  Perhaps, he might be astonished at how much we are like him.  For we find ourselves doing something wrong and, like him, we make excuses.  Like Pilate, the infection of pragmatism overrides the resolve to do what is right.

Of course, I realize what I plan to do is wrong.  Still, I can’t be in business if I don’t compromise my ethics.  How can I make money?  Oh, I will speak what I believe until the truth no longer serves me.  For if I do otherwise, my livelihood is at risk.

Stare within, and examine what is inside you.  For you are also willing to compromise principles to do what is expedient.  Yes, the disease of pragmatism lives in each of us.  Consider now, this part of the third stanza of our earlier, meditation hymn, “Jesus, I will ponder now.”  “For, I also and my sin, brought Your deep affliction; this, indeed, has been the cause of Your crucifixion” (composite translation).

The accused man, Jesus, died, but the tomb of death did not hold Him.  For, He is our Lord and King, with power over sin and death.  The governor, Pilate, did not realize or believe this.  Unlike him, we do.


By the Holy Spirit’s work, in Word and Sacrament, we believe in this man, Jesus.  Only He is our Messiah and King.  For what He did and does, saves us for eternal life.  What can compare?  Even the mighty Caesar, with his many legions, cannot wield such power.  Amen.