Pilate before Jesus


The whole exchange between Jesus and Pilate, the Roman governor to whom the Jewish authorities brought Jesus, is a revealing one. In it, Pilate — a representative of the ruling government of the Roman Empire under the rule of the king, Caesar — meets up with another king, Jesus, supposed King of the Jews. Pilate initially thinks Jesus may be the king, not of the Jews, but of a small uprising.

Pilate begins this interrogation as if he was bothered by this apparent insurrection of the Jewish sect that has gotten a lot of his subjects riled up. He hopes to be done with this thing in short order, but he is about to run into the power, not of the empire, or even an insurrection in the empire, but a much greater power, the power of truth and the power of God over all things. In most of our Bibles, this part of the story is subtitled: “Jesus before Pilate.” It really should be: “Pilate before Jesus.”

“Are you the king of the Jews?”

“Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?” (John 18:33-34)

Wait a minute. Who’s questioning who here? Pilate has his hands full. He’s starting to get nervous. This is why people said of Jesus all along, “No one ever spoke like this man.”

“Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

“You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” retorted Pilate. (John 18:35-38)

Indeed, Pilate is asking the right question, it’s just that he, in his present state of unbelief, would not be able to understand the answer if it was given to him.

What a picture this is. Jesus, the Son of God, is in chains in front of a middle-manager who thinks he has the power of the empire behind him, but he is just a little man caught between worlds, and he, like everybody else right then, doesn’t have a clue what’s really going on.

Jesus was there to be judged as one claiming to be the King of the Jews, but He is not just King of the Jews, nor did He ever claim to be. He is the King of the world. King of the cosmos. King of the universe. KING OF ALL KINGS. But nobody knows that. Pilate doesn’t know it. The Jews don’t know it. The disciples and the followers of Jesus don’t know it, at least not yet. Oh, they’ve had glimpses of it in the way Jesus has commanded the wind and the waves, the demons, the carriers of disease, and even death itself. All have come under His power. They’ve seen this, but they haven’t put it all together yet — they don’t get it until after the resurrection when they have had time to figure out who they’ve really been with for the last three years, Right then, it’s all happening too fast for anyone to figure out.

“Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”

Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”

From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free. (John 19:8-12)

This is the big power question. Pilate tries to establish his power to free or crucify Jesus, and Jesus makes it clear that there is something far greater than the vested power of Pilate’s position which he assumes is the highest in the land. There is something far higher than all of that. He is but a pawn in a much bigger game he can’t see or understand.

Poor Pilate. He is a very nervous man caught between two worlds. He runs out to the people and back to Jesus, and out to the people and back to Jesus. No wonder his only resolve is to wash his hands of the whole thing.

God is using the Jewish leaders, the people they are stirring up, the whole Roman Empire, and Pilate himself to crucify His only begotten Son for the sins of the whole world, and nobody gets it. That’s what is truly amazing about this whole story.

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15 Responses to Pilate before Jesus

  1. Mark D Seguin says:

    Fantastic read… Loved the sentence Today’s Catch ended with: “That’s what is truly amazing about this whole story.”

  2. Tom Faletti says:

    I love the way you describe how the tables are turned and Pilate is the one on trial, not Jesus.
    I am, however, troubled by your penultimate statement, where you say that God is using the leaders and crowds to crucify his Son. God is not crucifying Jesus, and he is not using them with the goal of crucifying Jesus. God is handing his Son over to be crucified, because that is the inevitable end of Jesus’s stand for the truth. But if the world had repented, God would not have crucified Jesus anyway. The clear message of both the Old and New Testaments is that God does not do evil, and there is no way to call the crucifixion anything other than evil, even though God used it for good. It is not God’s will that Jesus be crucified; it is God’s will that the world be saved. The world chose to rebel and crucify Jesus, and God allowed it to happen because he had a plan to achieve his salvific ends through it. But I think it is a mischaracterization of God, and totally contrary to everything we know of the character of God, to suggest that God is using the humans around Jesus with the intention of crucifying Jesus.

    • jwfisch says:

      I don’t know, Tom. What about the “wrath of God?” The judgment of God meted out against all unrighteousness is a big part of His character. God used the nation of Israel to wipe out whole cultures of Canaanites because of their wickedness. What about the flood? What about the judgment of God poured out in the last days? How can it not be God’s will to crucify Jesus? Wasn’t that the whole point? For Jesus to take the wrath of God in our place? To pour our His wrath against the sin of the world on Jesus so that He didn’t have to pour it out on us?

    • Mark D Seguin says:

      Excuse me I could be wrong I often am, yet this leaves me a bit dumbfounded Tom in what you wrote: “..if the world had repented, God would not have crucified Jesus anyway.” What?

      The World doesn’t what to repent now, even though Jesus has been crucified. Love to know what makes you think “the World” would have if God didn’t let Him suffer & die on the cross for our sins?

      • Tom Faletti says:

        Thanks, Mark. I appreciate the dialogue. I did not claim that the world would indeed repent, but rather that God would not have poured out his judgment on a repentant world (see Abraham’s conversation with God regarding Sodom, God’s relenting of the judgment on Babylon when that city responded to Jonah’s preaching, Jesus’s refusal to countenance the Old Testament carrying out of the sentence of stoning on the woman caught in adultery [and she had not even clearly repented at that point]). I agree with your language and distinguish it from John’s. You wrote, “God . . . ***let*** Him suffer….” John implied that God directly and intentionally caused Jesus’s suffering. Since the world is not perfect and God knew it, He knew that the end result of coming to live among us is that He would be killed by us. He accepted that and did not let it stop His mission to bring us to Himself. I see no reason to turn God’s awareness of what would happen into a statement about God’s intention and action to make it happen independent of our making it necessary by our embracing of evil. I recognize that not everyone may see it this way. But I accept your language.

  3. Dan says:

    Understood, and this is what I learned under dispensationalists like the Brethren, though that may not be where you stand. But if you believe Jesus’ statement that John’s writing about here – that Pilate had no power that wasn’t given him “from above,” from the Father – then the point that the Father is sending the Son to His death is true. At this point the Messiah has already been rejected. As Jesus said in the garden, Not my will but Yours (death on the cross) be done. All just to say I can believe the Father slew the son on the cross without thinking the Father evil. Respectfully,

    • jwfisch says:

      Yes. The judgment of God is not evil.

      • Dan again says:

        Now, now, ease back there. Your PBC heritage is showing. Tom didn’t say the judgement of God is evil. He is saying the crucifixion was a human evil preveniently used by God, if I’m using that word right. 🙂

      • Tom Faletti says:

        I’m really trying to wrap my head around this. I think you take too literally the “wrath of God,” as though God were by nature wrathful. God, as your namesake reminds us, is by his very nature love. The Christian morality I embrace says that it is never permissible to do evil to achieve good. The ends never justify the means. One may do an act that has both good and evil effects but only if (1) the act is not, in and of itself, evil; (2) the evil is not intended as an end in itself; and (3) the evil cannot be avoided as a byproduct of the good. If God is all good, I don’t see how he can violate the basic moral principle, which comes from him, that the ends never justify the means.

        In my attempt to characterize the crucifixion, Jesus gave his life for us and God allowed his Son to die for us. From Jesus’s perspective, Jesus’s act of submission is not evil and he did not accept crucifixion for the purpose or end of being crucified, but rather for the purpose or end of saving us and showing us the way to the Father. The evil could not be avoided if the good was to be achieved. Therefore, accepting the crucifixion was a moral act. From the Father’s perspective, the Father allowed his Son to be crucified. Allowing the Son the free choice to die for others was not evil. Allowing it was not for the purpose of killing his Son, which would be an evil act, but rather for the purpose of saving us, and the good could not be achieved without accepting the evil. So allowing his Son to die was a moral act.

        But in your attempt to characterize the crucifixion, the Father crucified/tortured/murdered his Son to achieve a greater good. This is accepting that the ends justify the means, and I cannot do that.

        I, who am far inferior to God in living a life of love, have let my children suffer things at the hands of others because others have acted sinfully toward them; but I hope I have never actively done evil to them as a means of bringing some greater purpose out of the evil treatment they have suffered.

        I appreciate the dialogue and I understand if we have to agree to disagree. But I struggle with what appears to me to be a contradiction in having a God who would violate the ends/means rule. Rather than seeing God as the perpetrator of the crucifixion, I see him loving us so much that he was willing to let us perpetrate it upon him, so that we could be saved and become like him.

  4. Sandie says:

    Were talking about things we can’t wrap our finite minds around. Scripture says that before the foundation of the world was laid, God’s plan for salvation was already in place and in force. His eternal character is unfathomable to us. He is all-knowing, yet He gave us free will, knowing we would sin. I just have to accept it with the faith He gives me.
    The reason for, and the means of Christ’s sacrifice, were foretold through the prophets. And all through his life, He showed how a man could live obeying God. Though tempted (as we are), He never used His free will to sin, or ultimately, to escape the horror that lay before Him.
    For those hours He suffered, He not only carried the burden of our sins, He became Sin personified. Because of that, His death had to be. Because God is sinless and perfect, He cannot allow sin to exist, so He personally sacrificed His Son. Because He is God, His judgement and justice are perfect and unquestionable. Jesus willingly suffered what we can escape if we believe in Him – total separation from God and the total wrath of God.
    When He died, His cry of “It is finished!” was not one of defeat, but rather total victory. Finished means complete; perfected.
    I cannot fathom the mind and heart of God; I cannot fathom that kind of love. I can only bow my head and with tears flowing, accept it.
    I know my poor description in words falls short; Holy Spirit, please take up the slack.

  5. John says:

    I’m fascinated that the passage begins with Pilate claiming to hold the power to free Jesus or have him executed. Then it ends with him trying to exercise that power by freeing Jesus, but finding himself powerless. He learns the truth of Jesus’ words. Pilate has no power except that which is granted from above. Pilate is a powerless pawn unable to stop the plan of God where Jesus would endure God’s justice so we could enjoy His mercy.

    • Tom Faletti says:

      Pilate was “a pawn in the game” (to quote a song-writer I know and love!). He has power from above, given to him by God, as is the power given to all magistrates, to free a man he declares to have been unjustly accused (Luke 23:4, 14) (a man who happens to be the Son of God — but he doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to know, that). He chooses not to use the power he has been given from above, and thereby becomes bound and powerless because of his sin.
      Your last sentence is fascinating. Was the plan that Jesus would endure God’s justice so that we could enjoy God’s mercy? Or was the plan that Jesus would endure our injustice (see Acts 8:33: Jesus was denied justice) so that we could enjoy His mercy?

      • jwfisch says:

        Great discussion. I love this. Tom, I think your last sentence points out the differences here. I think Tom wants to look at the crucifixion as the injustice and evil of man upon Jesus. I think I want to look at it as the wrath (justice) of God upon Jesus in our place. The wrath is actually upon sin, but Jesus became sin in our place so it was ultimately meted out upon what was a very sinful Jesus at that point.

        Perhaps a thorough study on the wrath of God as laid out in scripture would lend some light on this discussion.

      • John says:

        A couple comments.

        1. I was commenting specifically on verses 8-12 which start out with Pilate bragging about the power to kill or free Jesus, and end with Pilate trying to set Jesus free. But Pilate was not as powerful as he thought. His only power was that granted by God, and the plan of God was that Christ would be crucified for the sin of the world.

        2. I agree that what men did to Jesus was evil and unjust. I think that is what the passage in Acts is referring to. I think Romans 3:25-26 gives God’s perspective. “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

        There are many things about the cross I don’t fully understand. The notion that God’s justice required blood to be shed to pay for our sin, and God chose to shed His own blood to meet the requirement is both beautiful and incomprehensible. Then again, if we could fully understand it, there would be no room for faith.

        Faith is believing
        That God wanted to forgive us
        But couldn’t
        Until we compounded our guilt
        By killing His innocent Son

        That a holy God demanded
        Blood be spilled
        Then spilled His own
        To satisfy that demand

        Faith is knowing
        I will never understand it
        I have to take it
        On faith

  6. Tom Faletti says:

    This is a follow-up to your comment that a study of the word “wrath” might be fruitful.

    I did a bit of New Testament investigation into the word “wrath.” In the sense you are talking about here, it is used in the New Testament almost exclusively by Paul and John the Baptist.

    According to Strong’s, the meaning of the word is, properly, desire, as in reaching for or longing for something; by analogy, violent passion, ire, or abhorrence; and, by implication, punishment. Vine’s Expository Dictionary claims that the word “suggests a more settled or abiding condition of mind, frequently with a view to taking revenge“ (see ANGER, Note 1).

    Since almost none of these attributes could properly be assigned to God, who is not a human subject to human emotions, we have to dig deeper.

    One of the most important principles of Biblical interpretation is that it is very important to interpret Scripture in the light of the rest of Scripture. And what the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament tell me is that the abiding “passion” of God is the passion of love for his creatures, not wrath against sin. God is not primarily against; he is for. We do not need to appease an angry God; we need to unite ourselves with a loving God. Jesus teaches that there is a judgment, but it is a judgment that is the logical outcome of the decisions and actions humans have taken, not a punishment by an angry God (Matthew 25; etc.)

    So what does “wrath” mean in Paul’s Letter to the Romans? Paul does not explain what he means by “wrath.” The closest he comes is in Romans 2:5, where he refers to “the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.” But again, that does not mean that the judgment is God imposing punishment. Rather, in the broader context of Romans, I would suggest that it is God allowing humans to experience the fruits of their choices:

    Paul first talks about the “wrath” of God in Romans 1. It is “revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness.” Paul proceeds to describe fallen, sinful humanity, saying that God “gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity” (Rom. 1:24), to “a debased mind” (Rom. 1:28), to “lives filled with every kind of wickedness” (Rom. 1:29). On “the day of wrath” there will be “wrath and fury, anguish and distress for everyone who does evil” (Rom. 2:8-9). Those who do not repent will experience fully the future without God that they have chosen: full of anguish and distress because that is the outcome of a life governed by lust, a debased mind, and wickedness.

    None of this requires the idea that God crucified Jesus because of his wrath against sin.

    It’s not like God can’t handle being around sin. He’s not a sissy. He sent his Son to live fully in the presence of sin. He fills a sinful world with his grace and presence every day. He even fills the hearts and souls of his believers with his very Spirit, even though none of those believers is free from sin. God’s biggest concern is not punishing sin but rather rescuing people from the outcomes they will reap if they do not embrace him and his ways.

    So I’m curious where you got this idea that God’s primary focus is to protect his holiness by pouring out his wrath against sin. That seems to be the theological structure upon which you have constructed (or acquired) the idea that God decided to crucify his Son. Was he exacting payment for the sins he knew, even before he created them, that his creatures would commit? Did those sins make him so angry/wrathful that it was necessary to kill his Son as payment? Are we to interpret the word “wrath” literally? Or is it a metaphor?

    Because of what we know of God in the rest of Scripture, I would lean toward the metaphor. Sin is its own punishment. At the judgment, we suffer the consequences of our choices, for sin or for righteousness. If we have chosen sin, the consequences will feel like “wrath.” But we will have chosen it for ourselves, and, to the extent any human emotion can be applied to God, God will be weeping at our choice, not wrathfully punishing it.

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