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Jesus Before Pilate

Mark 15:2 (ESV) … “And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.”

To understand the dynamics of this rejection, we must know something about Pilate. His career before coming to Judea as procurator is unknown, except that he undoubtedly served in a series of civil and military appointments. Some, on the basis of tradition, think that his marriage to Claudia Procula may have gained the position for him. What we do know from ancient historians and Scripture is not inviting. He was an inept and heavy-handed administrator. He insulted the Jews by having his soldiers bring flags bearing images of Caesar into Jerusalem, almost causing open rebellion (Josephus Ant., III, 1; War, II, IX, 2, 3).

Another time he raided the sacred Corban treasury of the Temple (a treasure to be used only for service to God) to pay for building an aqueduct. Those who objected were beaten by plainclothes soldiers (Ant., XVIII, III, 2; War, II, IX, 4). Again, he provoked the Jews over an alleged idolatry incident (Philo, Legatio ad Caium, XXXVIII). And ultimately he lost his job when he ordered his calvary to attack Samaritans who were assembled at Mt. Gerizim in a religious quest (Ant., XXXVIII, IV, 1, 2). The fourth-century historian Eusebius records that from there on life went so bad for Pilate, he took his own life (Ecclesiastical History, II, VII).

Pontius Pilate was a man who lusted for celebrity and status, who put his career before everything, including people and principle. When he finally lost his position, his life was not worth living. He lacked the traditional Roman virtues of honor and integrity. He lived for his career—in short, for self.

As Jesus stood before Pilate, the Sanhedrin’s representatives made their charge of high treason—“This man would be King!” We observe an ascending curiosity on Pilate’s part as the exchanges began: “‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ asked Pilate. ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied” (v. 2). Jesus had responded affirmatively, but evidently the impersonal wording and his tone of voice conveyed, “Yes, but not the way you think.” Then “[t]he chief priests,” says Mark, “accused him of many things” (v. 3). Luke explains more fully: “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 Christ, a king’” (Luke 23:2).

When they saw that Pilate was skeptical, Luke adds, “they insisted, ‘He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching’” (Luke 23:5). “So again Pilate asked him,” says Mark in verses 4 and 5, “‘Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.’ But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.” Jesus’ silence was a most eloquent answer. Pilate was used to loud protests, but there was only silence. “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). Pilate was convinced of his innocence.

The other Gospels fill in the details. Luke says Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, where Jesus again kept his regal silence. Herod sent him back, saying that he had done nothing deserving death (Luke 23:15). John records that Pilate took Jesus back inside the palace and questioned him personally. Jesus told him, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36; cf. vv. 33–38). Pilate saw it all for what it was: Jesus was no blood-letting revolutionary. He was a victim of establishment envy. So, “[w]ith this he went out again to the Jews and said, ‘I find no basis for a charge against him’” (John 18:38).

The Sanhedrin was in an uproar, and Pilate was in a spot. He had been warned by Rome before about his heavy-handedness, and an insurrection would not look good on his record. Then came a great idea, he thought. There was a custom at Passover of granting amnesty to a prisoner of the people’s choice. He had in custody a notorious criminal, who was a murderer and a bandit. He would give the crowd a choice. Of course they would chose to grant amnesty to this harmless Jesus.

Pilate was dumbfounded by their response:

“Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, knowing it was out of envy that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead. “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” they shouted. “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged.… (vv.9–15)

Pilate’s tactical blunder left him no choice, for the riotous crowd was almost out of control. In order to placate them, he released Barabbas.

It looked like Pilate would have to condemn this innocent Jesus, but he had one remaining idea which would perhaps gain the sympathy of the people. To this end he delivered Jesus to be flogged. Though Mark places this at the end of the trial, it is really the penultimate event:

The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then wove a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they worshipped him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him. (vv. 16–20)

The scourging was done by the dread flagellum whip, consisting of throngs plaited with pieces of bone and lead. Eusebius tells of martyrs who “were torn by scourges down to deep seated veins and arteries, so that the hidden contents of the recesses of their bodies, their entrails and organs, were exposed to sight” (Ecclesiastical History, IV, XV, 3–5). Josephus describes this in similar terms (War, II, XXI 5, VI, V.3). The flagellum left Jesus with bone and cartilage showing. “ … his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness” (Isaiah 52:14). His brow wore the mocking crown of thorns. A faded purple robe, crimson with blood, hung dripping from his shoulders.

The horror completed, Pilate brought Jesus out and announced, “Behold, the man! (Ecce Homo!).” This is not the unmarked Ecce Homo by Richard Westall which hangs behind the pulpit of All Souls in London. The true scene, if reproduced here, would cause some of us to faint. Pilate was saying, Behold “the poor creature.” Have pity on him.

Was there any pity? “From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jews kept shouting, ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar’” (John 19:12). At this, Pontius Pilate, the one man who could have stopped it all, caved in! Why? Because his social position was everything to him. He had done his duty in the legions, and he was not going to take the chance of sacrificing his career for this Jesus.

What a type of the modern man Pilate is! Thousands have rejected Christ to protect position or promotion or scholarly respect. We may even be tempted ourselves. “Oh, you don’t mean that you take the Bible literally? A tambourine-banger! I can’t believe it!”

How many have gone only so far with Christ, and then stepped back because of a sarcastic smile or a leering silence. We need to be Pauline before the world and shout: “I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Romans 1:16, 17). That’s the way to face a hostile world! [1]

[1] Hughes, R. K. (1989). Mark: Jesus, servant and savior (Vol. 2, pp. 190–193). Westchester, IL: Crossway Books.


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