READ : Mark 15:2, 12, 26
And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so” … And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?” … And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.”
Mark 15:2,12,26 rsv
Have you ever heard of Pontius Pilate? In one way, it would be quite surprising if you had, considering the man that he was.
Pilate was a ruler of sorts, but never on a grand scale. He was a kind of middle management official in the vast structure of the first-century Roman Empire. His title was “procurator of Judea.” That made him the head man – but over a modest domain. He was Rome’s governor in a troublesome out-of-the-way province, a post that few would have coveted. There was nothing in his political career that seemed to mark him out for greatness or lasting renown.
There was certainly nothing memorable about his character. Historians of that time tell us that Pilate as a ruler was uncommonly obstinate and insensitive. He did not hesitate to do things that he knew would offend his subjects deeply. For example, the Jews under his jurisdiction had long felt that images of the Roman emperor were abominable. But Pilate had his troops carry ensigns into Jerusalem bearing those very images.
He was also merciless. Annoyed with some Galileans who had been offering sacrifices in Jerusalem, Pilate had them killed, mingling their own blood with that of the sacrifices they had brought.
And, if you consider how a man’s life ends, there is nothing that would make you think highly of Pontius Pilate. His cruelties were so barbarous that he was finally appealed against to Rome and relieved of his command. Banished to the south of France, he died in shame and seclusion, by his own hand.
Why then would you and I be expected to remember Pontius Pilate? For only one reason: the role he played in executing Jesus of Nazareth.
Perhaps you have heard, at some time in your life, of the ancient Christian statement of belief called the Apostles’ Creed. There are only three human persons mentioned in that famous document: Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary and yes, Pontius Pilate. Here’s how it goes: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
Isn’t that remarkable? Here are Jesus, His godly mother and Pilate! This less-than-worthy Roman official is spoken of by name wherever Christians rise to confess their faith. Why?
The Christian gospel has a unique relationship to history. It is not simply a body of doctrines to be believed and a code of ethics to be followed, although belief and practice are tremendously important to Christians. The gospel of Jesus Christ is primarily and basically concerned with events. According to the Holy Scriptures, certain things have happened in history on which our hope and salvation depend. God became man in the birth of Jesus. He lived among us, went about doing good, and preaching good news. He suffered and died in Jerusalem for our sins, and rose again from the dead. Those tremendous events constitute the heart of the Christian faith.
The Apostles’ Creed is a recitation of these great happenings and others. The phrase “suffered under Pontius Pilate” serves to anchor the Christian faith in the history of this world. It testifies that God’s work for our salvation happened at a specific time and place under a particular political regime, headed by a human leader named Pontius Pilate.
KING OF THE JEWS
I’m interested especially now in what Pilate said about Jesus. In the 15th chapter of Mark’s gospel, the procurator of Judea refers to Jesus of Nazareth on four different occasions as “the King of the Jews.” First, he asked him the direct question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” When the issue came up about one prisoner to be released at Passover time, Pilate asked the crowd, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” Then, when they demanded the criminal named Barabbas, Pilate said, “What shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?” Finally, when the crowds had clamored for Jesus’ crucifixion, Pilate consented, but had these words inscribed, red on white, atop the cross: “The King of the Jews.”
We don’t know exactly what that term meant to Pilate or whether he believed it to be accurate. It was clearly presented to him as a charge against Jesus by Israel’s religious authorities. They wanted him to believe that this was a political claim made by Jesus.
Under Roman rule, no Jewish court had the power of life and death. Only a Roman official could decree an execution. If his enemies then wanted to get rid of Jesus, they had to persuade Pilate that he was a threat to imperial Rome. They accused Him of having claimed royal power, setting Himself up as a rival to Caesar. On that basis Pilate would have to condemn Him to death as a revolutionary, a dangerous enemy of the state.
Pilate wasn’t sure about this. He knew that the leaders in Jerusalem feared Jesus, envied Him, hated Him. He felt and resented their attempt to manipulate Him into condemning Jesus. Yet he knew that if Jesus had no defense against this serious charge, execution was inevitable. So he asked the prisoner directly, “Are you the King of Jews?” In other words, “Is their accusation true? Did you make this claim?”
We sense a note of incredulity in what he asked. The very idea seemed ridiculous to Pilate. Jesus had no arms, no body guards, no fighting men. There had been no reports about Him of violence or intrigue. He seemed harmless, almost pathetically so. Pilate probably expected Jesus to deny the accusation.
But the answer came back, “You have said so.” That seemed puzzling, cryptic, neither an admission nor a denial. Then the religious authorities present accused Him of all kinds of crimes. But when Pilate wanted Jesus to respond to these charges, He said nothing. Not a word. Only that original, mysterious, “You have said so.”
The whole experience left Pilate shaking his head. He didn’t know what to make of this. He had never had a prisoner before him like Jesus. He marveled at the way He listened to all the damning accusations against Him, but gave no answer. Silence.
Pilate felt more uncomfortable than ever. Why were these leaders so intent on killing Jesus? And why didn’t He say anything in His own defense? Didn’t the man realize that silence would seal His doom?
The procurator looked for a way out. It was his custom at the Passover feast to release to the people one prisoner whom they selected. When they called for this privilege, Pilate suggested Jesus. “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” If he expected some popular support to surface for the Galilean, he was quickly disappointed. They roared instead for Barabbas, a man who clearly had been a revolutionary, who had even taken lives in an armed uprising.
“Well, what about Jesus, then?” Pilate wanted to know. “What shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews”? They screamed “Crucify him.” When Pilate asked why, no reason was given. Only another cry for blood.
Pilate was shrewd enough to know that politically, he had no options left. Serious charges had been made, and no defense offered. The crowd didn’t want Jesus free – He seemed to have no advocates at all. What could Pilate do? Jesus was probably innocent. The ruler suspected that. But here was a point at which he could placate an unruly crowd with little risk. He did the expedient thing. He declared Jesus guilty, had Him whipped, and gave Him over to the executioners.
But Pilate wasn’t through with these obnoxious subjects of his. He was smarting at the way they had pressured him, forced him into a corner. He thought of a way to get even. He had an inscription written and affixed to Jesus’ cross. It proclaimed for all to see, in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, “The King of the Jews.”
Pilate knew that this would make the leaders furious. Technically, there was reason for such an inscription. It simply recorded the charge made against Jesus. But it was mainly an insult to the people. It said, in effect, “All right, you rebellious subjects, this is your king. Here is what we think of Him – and of you. Here’s what we do to anyone who dares to challenge our rule.”
It wasn’t only Pilate who used this term. When the chief priests and scribes were mocking the crucified One, they jeered, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross….”
They knew, of course, that Jesus had never made a bid for political power. They had trumped up that charge for Pilate’s benefit. But they knew that He had spoken of Himself as the son of David, the anointed of God, Israel’s Messiah. That’s what they were referring to when they ridiculed Him on the cross. That’s why they hated Him so bitterly. He was a threat not to Pilate but to them. He was a challenge to their leadership: too controversial in His views, too disturbing in the things He did, altogether too popular with the masses. He wasn’t the Messiah they were looking for, and if they didn’t stop Him, He might soon ruin everything. Now at last, they had Him where they wanted Him. “Let’s see some miracles now,” they mocked, “if you really are the King of Israel.”
Even the soldiers who guarded Jesus picked up the idea. They had heard about the charges against Him. It all seemed to them a huge joke. “This helpless prisoner – a king! Sure! Tell me about it!” Since they had the task of flogging Him, getting Him ready for crucifixion, they decided to make some sport out of it. They threw around Him a purple robe – mock royalty. They made a crown for His head – out of thorns. And they cried out, in a laughing pretense of allegiance, “Hail, King of the Jews.”
IS JESUS REALLY KING?
For these soldiers, the political claim he was supposed to have made was ridiculous. The religious pretensions were meaningless. He was nobody, a nothing, to them. They could pretend to be His loyal followers, but they had no intention of serving Him. If He was a king at all, He was certainly not theirs. Their job was simply to get rid of Him and forget about it.
So that’s what they all said about Jesus – Pilate, the high priests and scribes, the common foot-soldiers, those who inscribed the placard on the cross: “The King of the Jews.” But none of them, as far as we know, really believed that. It was evident that if Jesus was one at all, He was a different kind of king than they had in mind.
His kingdom, apparently, was not of this world. His servants, even the most loyal of them, did not fight in His defense. When He was accused, there were no indignant denials on His part. When He was mocked, no answering contempt. When Jesus was cruelly tortured, no oaths, no threats. Only this: “Father, forgive them.”
Pilate didn’t want Jesus to rule over him. He already had Caesar. The thought of another king was treasonous, dangerous. The rulers of Israel didn’t want Jesus as their king. He had challenged their authority and called them to repentance. And the soldiers surely wanted no condemned victim to be their sovereign.
Now, in the light of Easter morning, the empty tomb, the risen Lord, we can see things in a new way. The Cross was not weakness and defeat but a marvelous victory of self-giving love. The Resurrection was God’s turning of the tables, vindicating Jesus His Son. The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner. Now Jesus is exalted as Lord over all.
Pilate was no prophet, but in this instance he spoke better than he knew. Jesus was and is Israel’s Messiah, King of the Jews. He was and is King of Kings, Lord of all the Caesars, Lord of everyone. He is the Almighty come in person to redeem us and reign over us. He’s worthy today of your allegiance and mine, waiting for us to say, in the words of that hymn, “King of my life, I crown Thee now, Thine shall the glory be….!”
PRAYER: Father, we give praise today for Jesus Christ our rightful king. May we, beholding Him suffering, dying, rising for us, crown Him Lord of all. Amen.