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Catechism Class: LD15 Q38 Pilate – the Cowardly Judge


Pontius Pilate – the Cowardly Judge

LORD’S DAY 15, Q38

We have been looking at Lord’s Day 15, and now we arrive at Q38, – Q.38 Why did he suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge? Though innocent, Christ was condemned by an earthly judge,  and so he freed us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us.  We are confronted with a question that might almost seem, at first glance, like a distraction.  We are asked, “Why did he suffer UNDER PONTIUS PILATE?”  And why is it so important for us to know the reason?  The answer to this question gets right to the heart of the sheer injustice of the trial and suffering of our Saviour, but in order for us to fully understand it, the first step would be to actually find out who Pontius Pilate was and what part he played at the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.   

In the Roman Empire, governors were appointed by Rome to administer the empire’s affairs in that region.  So, in the province of Judaea, from AD26-37, the governor was one Marcus Pontius Pilate, serving under the emperor Tiberius.  Probably if he had not been instrumental in the death of Jesus, no-one would ever have heard of him.  We know him because he gets mentioned, not only in the Gospels, but in the Nicene Creed, as well as in the Apostle’s Creed, which is why our catechist brings him to our attention here in Q38.  He was the fifth governor of Judaea, and probably belonged to a prominent family in Rome, – the ‘Pontii,’ but no-one knows anything about his life prior to his appointment as governor, or about how he was awarded the position.  We have secular conformation of his historicity, because of the so-called Pilate Stone, and some extant coins with his inscription, and his mentions in the secular history of Josephus and Tacitus, the Roman historian.   Pilate was not liked by the Jews.  Look up Luke 13:1 Pilate had no respect whatsoever for their religious and cultural sensibilities either.   

Josephus tells us in his book that Pilate was recalled to Rome, after he violently suppressed an armed rebellion by Samaritans at Mount Gerizim.  He was due to report on his actions before Tiberius Caesar, but the emperor died before Pilate arrived there.  Nothing more was heard of him.

But without doubt, Pilate’s infamy, his notoriety lies in the part he played in the trial, condemnation and crucifixion of Christ.  Let’s briefly recall those events.   Jesus had appeared before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, and had as expected, been condemned.  But there the Jews could do no more.  Only the Roman authorities could carry out an execution, so the case had to be brought before the Roman governor, and that was Pilate.  In claiming to be the Messiah, Jesus had claimed ‘kingship’ and that was an offence under Roman law, – claiming to be equal with the emperor.   Remember that the cock had crowed,   and morning had dawned, and the Roman court would begin first thing in the morning.  It was time for Jesus to appear in pilate’s judgement hall.  The Jews dragged their prisoner to the governor’s palace, – known as ‘the praetorium.’  Interestingly, it is the the Passover, and it would render these Jews ceremonially unclean if they enter a gentile house!   So, Pilate came out of the court to meet them in the open air.  John 18:28-29  How absurd!  The jews were fanatical about external purity, and yet their hearts were full of black hatred of the One who was sinless! Pilate returned into the palace, where Jesus has now been taken, to question the prisoner.  He asked Jesus if he was the King of the Jews.  Jesus told him that His kingdom was not of this world.  Pilate returns to the Jews and makes an historic, and important statement in John 18:38-40  

 In John 19, we read that Pilate had Jesus flogged.  Now, Pilate was a low ranking official – a ‘procurator’ – and as such he would not have been attended by ‘lictors,’ those ceremonial rod-bears who would usually have carried out such beatings.  So Jesus was scourged by soldiers.  It would have been brutal.  Not only was he physically beaten, but he was mocked, by these rough men, taking their fun at the expense of a defenceless and harmless man.  They put a crown of thorns on his head and they put a purple robe on him and they mocked him, punching him with their fists.  

Still, even at the point, Pilate tried to have Jesus acquitted.  In fact he tried four times to convince the Jews that Jesus was innocent in John 18:28 to John 19:16.  Not just the verse I read a moment ago, but on another three occasions in John 19:4, 6 & 9.  It may have been that last jibe that convinced Pilate that he had no choice.  The last thing he wanted was for a rumour to get back to Rome that he had allowed even the slightest disrespect of Caesar.  In a selfish act of self-preservation, Pilate would order the crucifixion.  Pilate detested the Jews, but confronted by the Son of God and convinced of his innocence, he could find no fault in him, and that would haunt him.  

Herod may have had a plan B.  He discovered that Jesus was from Gallilee, and it just so happened that the Herod Antipas, was in town for the passover. One of Herod the Great’s four sons, this Herod was a ruler in Galilee and Perea He reigned for forty-two years, from 4 BC to AD 39. Also known as “Herod the Tetrarch.” The incident is told in Luke 23:7-12.  And seems to fit in around John 19:2, for Luke records that it was actually Herod’s soldier’s who placed the robe on Jesus before sending him back to Pilate.  

And that brings me to another player in this story.  Pilate had a wife, allegedly known as Claudia Procula, the granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus. Some extra biblical texts suggest that she was a convert to Judaism, but there’s no actual proof of that.  But she had a bad feeling about the events in Jerusalem that day.  Isn’t it strange, that the only person who spoke up for Jesus in those long hours of torture, was this woman?  Again notice in the text that she declares his righteousness, – ‘this JUST man…’ Matthew 27:19   Pilate had a choice.   He returned to the pavement outside the palace, to make his final pleas to the Jews in John 19:14-16.

Two more interventions by Pilate are recorded.  He wrote and placed an inscription above the cross, which read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”  We shall look more closely in a minute or two. But the chief priests were irate.  Denying his messiahship, they petitioned Pilate to change the wording to ‘This man said I am the King of the Jews.’  That would have implied that Jesus was a liar, a criminal, a traitor to Rome, an insurrectionist.   Pilate was in no mood to acquiesce to their wishes.  John 19:21-22  After the death of Jesus, Pilate gave permission for Joseph of Arimathea to remove the body from the cross, and with the help of Nicodemus, to lay it in his own private tomb.

So, Jesus – God’s Only Begotten Son, the Saviour of the World and The Messiah of Israel has died at the hands of Pontius Pilate.  Why would that fact be included in the Apostle’s Creed, and taken up for us by the catechist?  What is so important about the fact that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate? Here’s one or two issues that come to our attention in the condemnation of Jesus by Pilate:-

1. Jesus was Declared to be Innocent. Though innocent, Christ was condemned by an earthly judge, and so he freed us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us

 This was a PUBLIC declaration of innocence.  That’s important. There is a maxim, that justice must not only be done, but it must be seen to be done.  God’s justice must be seen to be done too, so it would not do for the Jews to have hatched some secret plot against the Saviour, and take his life somewhere in the darkness, nor to have him killed during a riot or insurrection at Jerusalem.  This declaration of innocence and subsequent perversion of justice must be seen by all men, in all generations, in every nation, until the end of time.  So, Pilate the representative of earthly authority, having examined Jesus, can find no fault no him, no earthly reason for him to be punished, to be tortured, much less to be executed.  Pilate would have gratefully handed him back to the Jews, whether the chief priests or Herod Antipas, to deal with him under their own laws, – which could not include execution.  John 18:31 But he must die, and so, even though he declared, over and over again to be innocent of any crime or fault, he is condemned.  

Now, contrast that we us, with sinners, who deserve to be condemned.  If we were to stand before our eternal judge in our sins, justice would demand that we be utterly and fulsomely condemned.  But the sinless Jesus was condemned by Pilate – one of us – in the place of sinful men and women.  

2. Jesus was Declared to be the King!  It was Pilate’s doing that the inscription above the cross was written, even he didn’t actually write it himself, but ordered it to be written and erected .  See what it declared.

  • That Jesus’ death was the fulfilment of prophesy.  There was an ancient prophecy which was recalled in Matthew 2:23.  Pilate’s inscription – perhaps unwittingly – was telling out that Jesus is the Messiah. Prophesied in the Old Testament, the one whom Isaiah described as ‘a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’  Isaiah 53:4-5.  
  • That Jesus’ death was the death of the KING.  Pilate wrote that he is the King of the Jews.  Some commentators will point out that Pilate was simply being sarcastic, or that he was deliberately provoking the Jews. Regardless, he made it known that the death of Christ was the death of the Messiah, the King of the Jews.  But his kingdom was not of this world.  Pilate had already ascertained this.  Jesus was no threat to Caesar, he came to conquer sin and death and hell, and that’s a different kingdom altogether.
  • That Jesus’ death was for the whole world.  That inscription was in three languages.  In Hebrew (probably Aramaic, the vernacular language of the Jews) in latin, the official language of the Roman Empire, and in Greek, – for everyone spoke Greek – it was the international language of trade and commerce.  No-one would miss the message that the Messiah was crucified, that he died on the cross for Jews, for Gentiles, for every class and strata in society.  
  • That Jesus death was for you and me.  That inscription includes no criminal charge.  Usually such an inscription would indicate the crime for which the criminal was being executed. It would be a deterrent to other potential criminals.  ‘Murderer,’ ‘Thief,’ ‘Adulterer.’  Etc etc.  That’s what made the Jews so mad.  An innocent man was being put to death for the sins he did not commit – the very sins that we commit daily, and the Jews didn’t want it to be known. 

Lastly, Pilate’s involvement in the death of the Saviour proves that:

2. God’s Will was Done.  Have you noticed how many times Jesus was ‘handed over.’  He was identified by Judas and handed over to the mob of temple police, sent to arrest him.  They handed him over to the chief priests, who handed him over to Pilate, who handed him to King Herod Antipas, who handed him back to Pilate, who handed him over to the soldiers to be crucified…. But be aware…

  • It was GOD who ‘handed his own son over – for us.  Paul described it, in Romans 8:32    It was God himself who delivered up his son for us.   It was the will of God, from the foundation of the world, that the Lamb of God should be slain.  Revelation 13:8.  
  • Let us not fear the secular authorities!  It was God who ordained that Jesus should come into this world when he did, it was no accident that Rome was the conquering power, that Judah was occupied, that the Jews wold reject their Saviour, that Pilate would be the governor, and that crucifixion would be the method of death by execution.   It was all God-ordained.  Romans 13:1  Galatians 4:4   It is GOD who controls the entire universe, and no matter what happens, we trust in his providence, his sovereignty and his plan.  In the actions of Pilate, we see the ultimate truth of Romans 8:28  

So, we have learned who Pilate was, and what he did, and why he did it.  We have even drawn some simple application from it.  We know nothing of his later life.  It’s pure speculation, but some commentators have noted that the Gospel accounts are actually quite lenient with Pilate – they cite Pilate’s reluctance to condemn, and his refusal to change the subscription, and his willingness to permit a decent burial.  In later, non-canonical writings this leniency was more pronounced.  The eastern Church of Abyssinia regards Pilate as a saint, believing that he was so moved and convicted by guilt that he repented and believed, trusted in Christ.  His ‘Saint’s Day’ is 25th June. The Greek Orthodox Church assigns Pilate’s wife St. Claudia a feast on October 27 each year.  There’s no evidence of this conversion whatsoever.  But Christ’s death is sufficient for every sinner, from the uttermost to the guttermost, and Pilate was certainly in the gutter of humanity, but no-one is beyond the reach of God’s grace.  Wouldn’t it be both interesting and glorifying to God, if we meet Pilate in heaven.

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