The most interesting and complex person we meet in the story of that terrible Friday (besides Jesus himself) is the Roman governor Pilate. Having decided that Jesus must die, the religious leaders looked to the Romans to come to the same conclusion and/or to carry out their will regardless. Pilate is the man. Though clearly unwilling, he sends Jesus to his death.
What Herod the Great had been unable to accomplish (see Matthew 2), Pilate seems unable to avoid.
It's far too easy to read motives, character, and emotions into the stories of scripture even in places where they are silent about these things. Yet Jesus seems to let him off the hook.
“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.”
King of the Jews
Though tolerant of the Jews, Pilate is not one of them. Even so it is this title “King of the Jews” though which he recognizes Jesus, persistently holding on to this understanding - much to the horror of the Jewish leaders.
Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, "Are you the king of the Jews?"
"Is that your own idea," Jesus asked, "or did others talk to you about me?"
"Am I a Jew?" Pilate replied. "It was your people and your chief priests who 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 Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place."
"You are a king, then!" said Pilate.
Jesus answered, "You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me."
Pilate seems convinced. Unless he's just being sarcastic. That's a possibility. Again, tone of voice is not something the gospel writers provide for us very often. But here's what John says.
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."
When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge's seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of Passover Week, about the sixth hour.
"Here is your king," Pilate said to the Jews.
But they shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!"
"Shall I crucify your king?" Pilate asked.
"We have no king but Caesar," the chief priests answered.
Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
Pilate had claimed power to make the decision about setting Jesus free or crucifying him, but his decision does not carry the day. He seems to recognize that his own rule and authority are shaky, not absolute.
Even now, Pilate does not give up on this “king of the Jews” idea.
Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, "Do not write 'The King of the Jews,' but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews."
Pilate answered, "What I have written, I have written."
I wonder if I behave like Pilate – convinced about Christ and his kingdom, testifying to that truth and working to advance it, yet still accepting that the ways of the world or forces of darkness must have their sway. Is that what Pilate was doing?
What do you make of Pilate? Was he justified in behaving as he did, in a sense, since the crucifixion was something that the Scriptures show us “had to happen”?
In my life, I think I respond to the evil and injustice of others the same way; I treat it as inevitable. About what we should expect in this world we live in. Is that a good response, an acceptable response, or a poor response – or does it depend?