Before I read our text this morning, a word on last week’s sermon. I said, last week, as you may remember, that Judas’ conscience did him a service. He died a less wicked man than he might otherwise have been for having condemned himself and punished himself for his sin against Christ. I would not want anyone to conclude from that fact that suicide would, in some instances, be an act of righteousness, or that somehow one might secure a better situation in the world to come by taking his own life. Fact is, if Judas had committed suicide in order to secure a better result for himself in the judgment to come, he would not have. His suicide would have been regarded as a selfish act in addition to its being the crime against God that it always is. No one can do evil that good may come. That is forbidden in the Word of God and God knows our hearts and so knows our motives. We cannot fool him.
Now to our text.
After the interlude that narrated Judas’ fate, we return to the account of the Lord’s trial, begun in the palace of the high priest and now continued in the palace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. The religious leaders wanted Pilate to do their dirty work for them and the narrative makes it clear that he fully understood that. But the political situation of a Roman governor was not simple. He would be expected to put down insurrection without mercy, but he could be punished for dealing too severely with his subjects. Pilate would eventually lose his governorship because he dealt too ruthlessly with what was probably an innocent gathering of people in Samaria.
v.11 The Jews of Judea despised the governor – he had on several occasions showed himself highly insensitive to their religious scruples and did not hesitate to use force to compel them to submit to his will – but the Gospel writers do not vilify him as do Jewish writers of the period such as Josephus and Philo. He was no more a monster than were the Jewish men who clamored for the Lord’s death. But, knowing Pilate, we can well imagine that his question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” was spoken contemptuously. Pilate meant something else by “king” than Jesus did, and so Jesus gave only qualified assent. His reply is literally something like “So you say.” In any case, Pilate would already have known about Jesus of Nazareth and already have known that he had no army and had shown no inclination to amass political power.
v.14 Pilate was amazed because he was not used to silence from his Jewish defendants and because silence was a judicial embarrassment, as Roman judges disliked sentencing undefended men. [France, 389]
v.18 Barrabas was, we learn elsewhere, a Zealot insurgent [Bruce, NT History, 203] and thus represented, with Jesus, “the two irreconcilable reactions to the Roman occupation: attack and non-resistance.” It is no surprise that the people chose Barabbas. Pilate seemed to feel that the people would have chosen Jesus, and made the offer as a means of seeing to Jesus’ release. In any case, Pilate miscalculated.
The other Gospel writers concur that Pilate knew very well that it was envy that was motivating the Jewish leadership. He knew, in other words, that the charges brought against Jesus were trumped up.
v.19 A Gentile woman can see Jesus’ innocence, a fact that makes the Jews’ determination to execute him all the more inexcusable.
v.20 Pilate may have been right, and had not the leadership intervened, the crowd might have called for the release of Jesus. But the people were easily enough persuaded.
v.22 On Jewish lips the call for Jesus’ crucifixion is striking, because the Jews ordinarily found crucifixion, a Roman punishment, repellent. But it was necessary because crucifixion was the Roman’s preferred punishment for provincial rebels.
v.25 Matthew’s “all the people” lays the groundwork for the end of the Jews’ privileged place in the kingdom of God. Their rejection of the Messiah would lead to their rejection by the Lord God. Not a final rejection, of course, a point the Apostle Paul will make in Romans 11.
v.26 This severe flogging, often flaying to the bone, was a standard preparation for crucifixion. It was itself sometimes fatal.
v.27 These soldiers were not Roman legionnaires but auxiliaries recruited from non-Jewish elements of society. They loathed the Jews and found pleasure in the sadistic treatment of them when they fell into their hands, a “king of the Jews” even more so. This was an opportunity not to be missed and so the entire company was present for the sport. The mockery and humiliation is what is accented here.
Since the earliest days of the church it has been an important part of her confession of faith that her Savior suffered under Pontius Pilate before he was crucified, dead, and buried. It is an interesting and important question: why should that statement have the importance that it does, that it is found in the Apostles’ Creed and other early Christian creeds? The Apostles’ Creed passes over in silence the Lord’s ministry, his teaching, his miracles, but is careful to say that he suffered under Pontius Pilate. It is a question the Scripture itself poses.
In the weeks before the Passion Week, the Lord, as you remember, frequently predicted to his disciples his impending death. He was careful to tell them, as we read in Matt. 20:18-19:
“We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified.
Here we are given to understand that it was God’s plan all along that Jesus would be sentenced and executed by Pontius Pilate – the Roman governor, who alone had the power to order such an execution – not murdered by an unruly mob, not stoned to death as a blasphemer by Jewish clerics and scholars, but judged, condemned, sentenced and executed by the Roman legal authority in Judea.
Why was that part of the plan of God that Jesus was commissioned to fulfill and which he intended to fulfill and which he finally did perfectly fulfill? Why was it God’s plan that Jesus should be handed over to Pilate, the Roman proconsul or governor of Judea? It is a weighty question with important answers. I think, as we examine the matter, we will see that the Lord’s being put into the hands of Pilate was an important moment in our redemption and a demonstration of the perfection of the divine plan for our salvation.
- In the first place, Christ’s trial at the hands of Pontius Pilate is unquestionably one of the ways in which testimony is borne to the ages of the historicity of the Gospel accounts of the Lord’s death.
John Warwick Montgomery, in one of his books defending the historicity of the biblical account of the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth tells of a French scholar, one Dr. Couchoud, who declared “I believe everything in the Apostles’ Creed except the phrase: ‘He suffered under Pontius Pilate.’” This 20th century Gnostic was not bothered by what he regarded as the true spiritual message of Christianity; only the claim that the Christian story was history in the ordinary sense of the term bothered him. And making the Lord’s crucifixion the decision of a particular Roman proconsul, he recognized, turned a spiritual message into an historical event, an historical fact.
But the Bible and Christians following it are interested in what actually happened. We are not concerned with the idea of Christ’s sacrifice of himself for sinners, as though a fictional account would do as well. No, all of this must actually have happened! And nothing goes so far to bear witness to the facticity of this account, to his historical integrity, as does the name, the place, and the part of Pontius Pilate in this history. As Calvin says in his Institutes [II, xvi, 5, 509], Pilate is mentioned to affirm the faithfulness of the history.
We know the name Pontius Pilate from other sources (just as we know the name of Caiaphas, the high priest from other sources). We know when he was governor of Judea; we know something of his previous career and what he did subsequent to his term of service in Palestine. What is more, we know a good bit about the duties and powers of Roman proconsuls and their role in legal proceedings. Indeed, the account of the trial of Jesus before Pilate has been subjected to close scrutiny by scholars of Roman jurisprudence and has been pronounced faithful to what is known of legal proceedings before provincial governors in the empire at this time. Pilate roots all of these events in flesh and blood history. Had you a camera and a tape recorder you could have caught it all.
- Second, Pilate’s presence and role in this history serves to demonstrate the completeness of our Lord’s rejection and humiliation; how utterly he was despised and rejected by men and became as one from whom men hide their faces.
Pilate was, of course, a Roman governor and so a Gentile. This is the point the Lord made, you remember, when he predicted all of these things weeks and months beforehand. He told his disciples that he would be handed over to the Gentiles. His own people would so completely repudiate him that they would hand him over to be condemned and executed by outsiders, foreigners, aliens.
“He came to his own and his own received him not,” is John’s summary. But, to tell the whole terrible truth, they not only did not receive him, they cast him out, they disowned him, they hurled him into the hands of the hated Roman conquerors, the unclean pagans under whose boot they lay in bitter hatred. They gladly threw Jesus, their own flesh and blood and the best Jew who had ever lived – the perfect fulfillment and embodiment of their ancient faith – into the unclean hands of their mortal enemies.
Matthew makes a point of making us see this in his shorter account of this miserable excuse for a trial. These fine, upstanding, moral folk, under the terrible pressure of their jealousy of Jesus – how perceptive Pilate is – clamor ever more loudly for an execution that everyone knew Jesus did not deserve. Even the crowds who had been so enthusiastic for Jesus just days before: he had disappointed them and now he would pay.
And so, finally, he is taken off their hands and they are done with him, or so they think. He is finally in the hands of Pilate’s soldiery to kill him as only they know how to do. Here is the penultimate humiliation of our Savior, the last great step but one that he had to take along his via dolorosa. For a loyal and faithful Jew, as Jesus was, who loved his people and had given himself to them without reservation, who had loved his nation and his heritage as no Jew before or since, surely this was bitter gall: to finish his life in the hands of Gentile pagans because his own countrymen had rejected and betrayed him. Only one abandonment remained, and that alone could be worse than this.
- Third, and still more important, Pilate takes an important place in this history because he was a judge and condemned Jesus as a judge.
Pontius Pilate, as the Roman proconsul of Judea, was the supreme judge in that Roman province. He had other responsibilities of a more political and military nature, but when he was sitting on his judge’s seat, as Matthew calls it in v.19, he was a judge and the highest in the land. He was a Roman judge, an officer of the Roman system of jurisprudence that prided itself on its justice, its evenhandedness, and the sophistication of its procedures.
The trial itself, as recorded in the four Gospels, was typical of Roman legal proceedings of the day. The process involved the formulation of charges and penalties, the hearing of a formal accusation with evidence, and the judgment of the case by the judge or proconsul. Indeed, even in small details, Pilate’s behavior conforms precisely to Roman legal custom. For example, we read in Luke 23:16 that early on in his consideration of the case, Pilate, finding no cause for the death penalty, proposed to have Jesus beaten and let him go. That was a typical sentence for lesser crimes. The same sentence was meted out to Paul in Philippi.
Not to excuse Pilate, his position was made more complicated by the fact that Jesus offered no defense. You may remember from Acts 25:16 that Festus, another Roman governor, said that he had replied to Paul’s accusers, “I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges.” In Jesus’ case, as A.N. Sherwin-White, an expert on the Roman legal system, points out: “the accusers allege the facts and the judge decides what to make of them. Since there was no defense, Pilate had no option but to convict. That was the essence of the system.”
But the tremendously important point here is precisely that Jesus was convicted in a court by a judge. And, what is more, he was convicted by a judge who knew and who declared that the man he condemned was innocent of the charges brought against him.
It was an essential part of Christ’s being made sin for us that he be condemned by a judge and an essential part of the demonstration that he was being punished for the sins of others and not for his own that he was condemned, sentenced, and executed by a judge who knew full well that he was innocent! Calvin, again with a deep insight, puts it this way:
“To take away our condemnation, it was not enough for him to suffer any kind of death: to make satisfaction for our redemption a form of death had to be chosen in which he might free us both by transferring our condemnation to himself and by taking our guilt upon himself. If he had been murdered by thieves or slain in an insurrection by a raging mob, in such a death there would have been no evidence of satisfaction. But when he was arraigned before the judgment seat as a criminal, accused and pressed by testimony, and condemned by the mouth of a judge to die – we know by these proofs that he took the role of a guilty man and evildoer.” [II, xvi, 5, 509]
When the prophets foretold that he would be numbered among the transgressors [Isa. 53:12], they were telling us that our Savior would die the death not of an innocent victim but of a guilty man. On the other hand, when we hear Pilate acquitting him with the same lips that condemned him to death, we see the fulfillment of another ancient prophecy:
“He was assigned a grave with the wicked…even though he had done no violence nor was any deceit in his mouth.” [Isa. 53:9]
Pilate’s great role in this history is to provide public demonstration of the fact that Christ’s death was a death for sin, but not his own sin; it was judgment for crimes, but the crimes were not his! For this, for all of his sniveling cowardice, his arrogance, and his dereliction of duty, we have Pontius Pilate, the Roman proconsul, to thank.
- Finally, Pilate serves an important role in this history and in the divine plan of Christ’s suffering and death for our salvation, because he and he alone could order the Lord to be executed by crucifixion.
What is implicit in v. 2 of Matthew 27 is made explicit in John’s account of the same history. The Jews needed Pilate to execute Jesus; they could not do it themselves. The historians of the empire tell us that in the conquered territories of the empire, such as Judea, the power of the sword, the right to execute criminals, was kept firmly in Roman hands. While local governments were permitted a wide exercise of power over local matters – as the Sanhedrin was in Judea – they were not permitted to execute criminals. This was, understandably, in large part due to the fact that local governments in places like Jerusalem, where Roman occupation was a source of bitter resentment, if allowed to execute criminals, would, in all likelihood, want to execute especially those who cooperated with the Roman authorities.
This rule was sometimes violated – usually as a result of mob violence – as it was in the case of Stephen later, but ordinarily executions had to be ordered and carried out by the Romans and any violation of this rule was severely punished.
In the plan of God it was important for Jesus to be executed by the Romans because their favored method of capital punishment was crucifixion and crucifixion perfectly suited the nature and the character of Christ’s death as a death for sin, as a death that resulted from his being cursed by God. You remember the statute of the law of Moses as we find it in Deut. 21:22-23:
“If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree over night. Be sure to bury him the same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.”
In Galatians 3:13, after the event, the Apostle Paul clarifies the significance of Christ’s death by pointing back to the manner of it, citing those verses from Deut. 21.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’”
By dying in this way – hung as a criminal on a cross (a kind of tree) – the Lord made clear to us and to all that he was dying as one accursed of God, under the curse of God’s law for sin – not his own sin, of course, but for the sin of his people that he was bearing on their behalf.
So think about Pontius Pilate, that time serving, cowardly, hypocrite of a Roman governor and consider what an important place he fills in the sacred history of our Savior’s passion and of our own salvation. His very name bears witness to the fact that the Lord’s death was an event of history, real history; it happened on a long ago April Friday, sometime between A.D. 26 and 36, the years of Pilate’s service as provincial governor. That it should be this Pilate who condemned and crucified Jesus is evidence of how completely the Lord had been rejected by his own people and that the death he died was the death of a criminal, even though Pilate himself publicly declared Jesus to be an innocent man. What more impressive way could be imagined than to demonstrate that Jesus in dying was dying as a guilty man but not for his own guilt but that of others. And so it had finally to be Pilate, because in that time and place only he could place Jesus on a tree and so, however unbeknownst to him, declare to the ages that Jesus was accursed of God because God was laying on him the iniquity of us all.
How different the appearance from the reality! It seems that the Lord has fallen helpless into the hands of wicked men, that his enemies have succeeded in making him a pathetic, a ridiculous figure. But the eye of faith sees the hand of the Almighty orchestrating all of these events. The Lord Christ is not seeing his life snatched from him; he is surrendering himself to the punishment our sins deserved that we might have life and have it to the full.
“A prisoner who had wanted to be king. Look! He is a ridiculously pathetic figure. …Just notice. Over there someone is already fetching him a scarlet robe. The garment is probably a worn-out, badly faded and dirty one, whose color – purple or a kind of crimson – could hardly be recognized. Yes, this coarse soldier’s uniform makes a rather good imitation of a king’s robes.
“Come to think of it, though, a king must have a crown too! Where to get the crown? No difficulty about that! The neighborhood afforded reeds having barbs on them which would serve the purpose beautifully…. From these reeds one of those present – be careful man, you might hurt your finger – begins weaving a crown. It is put; it is jammed on Jesus’ head.
“The rest of the fun now begins. Look, the soldiers are standing at attention, giving their mock salutes, bowing their heads as they march by the ‘King of the Jews. ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ They shout and laugh at the same time… [K. Schilder, Christ on Trial, 528]
A ridiculous and pathetic figure? Not to anyone who understands what is afoot here, what is being done and why, and what is being accomplished for so many by these terribly small men who had no idea that in their unmanly cruelty they were contributing to the salvation of the world. They were laying on Jesus’ back the stripes by which vast multitudes of sinners are healed. They were crushing him – or, better, he was allowing them to crush him – for our iniquities. It was, the prophet said long before, the Lord’s will to crush him and to cause him to suffer, these men were only instruments of the divine will, God using their sin sinlessly to conquer sin once and for all. And really, no Christian views this scene and still thinks much at all about the little men who populate it — the religious leaders, the crowd, Pilate, his soldiers–, who surround Jesus and take pleasure from hurting him. It was not they: it was I and it was we.
You caused all this pain;
Know well it was your deed,
The insult, mockery, disdain,
The crown of thorns, the reed.
It was because he suffered under Pontius Pilate that Christians sing:
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.