By Rev. Ronald Stelzer
Pontius Pilate Takes the Stand
I am Pon-tee-us Pee-lah-tus, Ponshus Pilate to you. Listen, I voted to impeach Jesus of Nazareth. Well, actually, to crucify him. But it wasn’t my idea. Or intention. Honestly, I didn’t want to. And I was very upset that I was even put in this position. Especially when it caused quite a strain in my relationship with my wife, Procula. But really, if you hear me out, you’ll understand the predicament I was in. I really had no choice.
Pilate Claims to be Judge, Jury & Executioner
The only reason I was even in Jerusalem was because it was the time of the annual Passover feast. Most of the time I am safely ensconced in my Roman provincial capital appropriately named Caesarea on the Mediterranean seacoast. But during Jewish festivals when the city of Jerusalem swells to many times its usual size and population, I need to let people know that Rome is present and people need to behave. It also gives me a chance to make some accumulated judicial decisions that require my attention. You see, I am judge, jury and executioner all in one.
Jewish Supreme Court
Thursday was a busy day. I sentenced two obviously guilty criminals to death by crucifixion. But Jewish law prohibits convicting and executing capital punishment cases on the same day or at night. So the crucifixions were scheduled for the next day, Friday. It had been a long day, so I was relieved when I could finally retire to my bed. But I was awakened at the crack of dawn on Friday. The messenger informed me that the Jewish leaders considered this an urgent matter that required my immediate attention – before breakfast and before most of the city would awake and discover what had happened the night before. The prophet Jesus of Nazareth had been arrested, tried and convicted by the Jewish Supreme Court, the seventy men of the Sanhedrin. But by the recently enacted Roman law, only the Roman procurator had authority to execute criminals. So, they insisted that I affirm their verdict and carry out the sentence as quickly as possible.
Pilate is Sent to Keep the Peace
But I am a Roman, and I am expected to see that there is some semblance of justice – that law is upheld – that people get a fair trial – that a conviction is deserved. I am not just some rubber stamp or lackey that does whatever the Jews tell me, no matter how loud and insistent they are.
Besides, I had heard about this fellow Jesus of Nazareth. He seemed to have quite a popular following, and he had done some pretty amazing things – miracles the people call them – but I am skeptical of such fantastic stories. My only concern is that he’s not trying to mobilize a revolution against Roman rule. The Jews can get very agitated given the right kind of agitator. And the emperor in Rome sent me here to keep the peace.
In the few years I have been in this position, it hasn’t been easy. Jewish laws are very particular about some things and uncompromising about enforcing them – rules and regulations that, frankly, to a Roman like myself, seem rather trivial. Like their rules against images or tributes to foreign emperors, especially if emperors fashion themselves to be quasi-divine, and especially if such symbols can be seen in their holy city of Jerusalem, even if they are discreetly concealed in our Roman fortress Antonia, which necessarily is adjacent to the Temple mount for surveillance purposes. The Temple courtyard is where crowds, I would call them mobs, will gather, and if there is going to be any trouble, that is where it will start or end.
Pilates Career is at Stake
On one occasion some Zealot rabble-rousers got out of control, and some of my soldiers shed some Jewish blood to restore peace. I was in Caesarea at the time, but I was held personally responsible by the Jews for the bloodshed. And King Herod Antipas is always quick to report any disturbances to the emperor. His goal is to add my jurisdiction over Judea and Samaria to his territorial jurisdiction over Galilee and the region east of the Jordan. Now I am under strict order from my supervisor to keep law and order without offending Jewish religious sensibilities. If I am not up to the task, I could ruin my career and any hope for a better assignment than this wretched place with these unreasonable and uncontrollable fanatics.
Jesus Accused of Breaking Religious Laws
Before me, they accused Jesus of being a Messiah King, a direct threat to Roman rule. It was an absurd claim on many fronts. First of all, I knew these accusers couldn’t care less about preserving Roman rule. And secondly, this Jesus was non-violent and commanded no political revolutionaries, armed or unarmed. Then I found out the reason they convicted him was for breaking one of their religious laws, so I told them it was none of my concern or business. But they insisted that I ratify their death sentence. They just wanted to be able to blame the Romans for the death of a popular prophet.
So, I am caught between a rock and a hard place. I am supposed to keep the Jewish leaders and populace pacified and avoid charges of being “no friend of Caesar” by not executing a self-described king. The Roman emperor knows no such thing as a king whose “kingdom is not of this world” and poses no threat to Roman rule. Neither do I.
Jesus Does Not Defend Himself
Jesus was obviously being framed by jealous haters. When they claimed he was disturbing the peace beginning in Galilee, I tried to pass the buck to Herod Antipas, the ruler of that region who was also in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival. That move helped my relationship with Herod, who was curious to see Jesus, but he didn’t want to pass sentence and further tarnish his image – adding another execution of a popular prophet to that of John the Baptist, which he had ordered against his will but according to his foolish oath to his dancing stepdaughter Salome. When Jesus wouldn’t or couldn’t perform a miracle to entertain him, Herod just mocked him, abused him, and sent him back to me. I thought it astonishing that Jesus wouldn’t defend himself, and no one else was around to defend him against these obviously unjust charges. He just said he was a king from a different world who came to bear witness to the truth.
What is Truth!
All my career truth has been anything I had to do or say to preserve or advance my position. Absolute Truth is of no concern to me, and it probably doesn’t even exist. You just do what you’ve got to do to accomplish what you have to accomplish. That’s how you survive politically. It’s the only way.
However, I do have a conscience. And I’m supposed to see that justice is done. And this Jesus makes me nervous. I’ve never dealt with anyone like him. He obviously is innocent, yet he doesn’t try to defend himself. And it didn’t help when my wife interrupted my interrogation and told me to not have anything to do with convicting this innocent man, for she had had a terrible nightmare about him. I’m not superstitious, but in Roman history sometimes terrible dreams preceded terrible events, like the assassination of Julius Caesar. And my wife, Procula, took this dream very seriously.
Jesus or Barabbas
But what choice did I have? My political career and quite possibly my life were on the line. I had another idea. It was customary at the Passover to forgive and release one prisoner of the Jews’ choice. I gave them the choice between Jesus and Barabbas, a murderous insurrectionist that no one felt safe around. Incredibly, the deranged mob shouted for the release of Barabbas.
I also tried giving Jesus a fearsome flogging in hopes that it would elicit some sympathy and satisfy their thirst for blood. I did no good. They just shouted all the louder: “CRUCIFY HIM! CRUCIFY HIM!”
Pilate Gives in To the Mob
I gave up. I gave in. To publicly absolved myself of a decision I never wanted to make. I had a basin of water brought out, and I washed my hands, declaring my innocence of this unjust execution. The mob called down curses on themselves, saying, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
I gave the order for him to be crucified. Not because I wanted to, but because I had to, to save myself, my job, my career, my life. Why should I sacrifice my life for someone who has sacrificed nothing for me and who doesn’t even seem to care that he’s going to be crucified. If he doesn’t do anything to save himself, why should I? My next task is patching up my relationship with my wife. I’m outta here.
Pastor’s Wrap Up:
Can you relate to Pontius Pilate? He is not the first nor the last to withhold what is due Christ in order to protect and promote his own interests and security. Jesus’ twelve disciples did the same thing: Judas sold out Jesus for thirty pieces of silver and the rest of them abandoned Christ to save their own skins.
Pontius Pilate is All of Us
Pontius Pilate is all mankind reduced to one – humanity wrapped up in one individual – like Adam. Pilate sacrificed Christ to save himself. Conversely, Jesus sacrificed himself to save us.
But Jesus didn’t intend that that’s where the story ends. It’s time for us to sacrifice for the One who gave himself for us. “He died for all, that they which live might henceforth not live for themselves, but for Him who died for them and rose again.”
Jesus has told us in His Word: “He who saves his life will lose it. He who loses his life for My sake will find it.”
Real living is not preserving and protecting and promoting our self, but in giving ourselves to Christ, to investing in His honor and Hiss purposes. With the Apostle Paul, few need to learn: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.”
And our death is our gain, because Christ’s Good Friday sacrifice of his life is our ticket to heaven, and our release from the consequences of our sinful, self-centered lives.
Pilate & The Virgin Mary Memorialized
There is historical evidence that Pilate’s wife Procula became a Christian, and there is a tradition that even Pilate himself became a believer in Christ in his later years. I suspect that’s true. The early church enshrined Pontius Pilate in the Apostles’ Creed: “born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Pilate and the Virgin Mary are the only ones so memorialized. They are both trophies of God’s grace. They give us assurance that we too can be recipients of God’s saving grace – heirs of “the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen”
The Impeachment Continues
Read #9: The Ongoing Impeachment of Christ
About the Author
Pastor: Rev. Ronald Stelzer is a 3rd generation minister in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and 2nd generation teacher and coach in Lutheran schools.
He was raised in a six-child family in Kansas and Indiana, graduated from St. Paul's Lutheran School and Concordia Lutheran High School in Fort Wayne, Davidson College in North Carolina and Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and Fort Wayne.
He and wife Margaret of 35 years have six grown children and six grandchildren. He has served two years in sports ministry with Athletes in Action, a year in youth missions with Ongoing Ambassadors for Christ, four years as chaplain/teacher/coach at his high school alma mater, and 35 years as pastor of Our Savior, where he helped found and lead Our Savior New American School 28 years ago.
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Pastor: Rev. Ronald W. Stelzer
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