Pilate finds his place in the historic records of the New Testament, and by threefold reference in the Acts of the Apostles. We see him most clearly in the Gospel of John. He owes his fame, such as it is, to contact with Christ. Had it not been for this contact, we should probably have known nothing of him. He is placed in contemporary history, and we learn little concerning him from this source. He is named as procurator of Judea. We know that he occupied that position for about ten years, during the whole of the ministry of John the Baptist, to the ministry of our Lord, and at the beginnings of the Christian movement. He was the representative of the Roman government. As procurator, he held civil and military authority, which means, of course, that as representing Rome, the power of life and death was vested in him. When Pilate spoke in that area, Caesar spoke through him.
We now turn to the New Testament revelation of him found in the references already referred to. As we do so we discover that the revelation exactly coincides with the statements concerning him made in history outside the New Testament. He was a man known everywhere as of haughty disposition, fully realizing his authority, and glorying in it. His whole bearing towards Judea and the Jews was that of scorn, and indeed, that of hatred. In his exercise of authority he was cold and dispassionate, and quite calm by scenes of blood or riot. We have one glimpse of him incidentally in the New Testament in that regard. Some came and told Jesus of certain Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. (Luke 13:1) That statement can, of course, quite easily be filled in. The Galileans were hot-headed. They constituted the greatest political trouble to the authority of Rome in that area. Evidently somewhere, in their religious practices, they had been offering sacrifice after some political outburst. While they were so occupied Pilate sent down a punitive expedition, and slew them. The man is revealed in that account.
He was, moreover, a contemptuous man. That is proven by his attitude towards the Jewish priests. The first thing that he asked them when they brought Jesus to him was evidently a question marking his contempt for them. "What accusation bring ye against this man?"
The question in itself may not suggest his contempt, but it is revealed in the answer which the priests made to him: "If this Man were not an evil-doer, we should not have delivered Him up unto thee."
The answer reveals the very tone in which Pilate had asked his question. The final evidence of the same attitude is discovered when with his own hand, he wrote the accusation to be placed over the head of the crucified Jesus: "JESUS OF NAZARETH, THE KING OF THE JEWS."
It is impossible to read this without seeing his contempt for the Jews, and especially for the priests.
When we examine the account carefully we find that Pilate was actuated by a sense of justice. We are perfectly familiar with the fact that in that regard he utterly broke down. The whole account, however, reveals that his attempt was to be just. He had a passion for justice, a Roman passion, a passion for the observance of Roman law. He did everything he could, except the one final thing, to save Jesus. I have sometimes, perhaps a little daringly, said what I still believe to be true, that Pilate would have much preferred to crucify Caiaphas than to crucify Christ.
Yet once more it is impossible to read the account, and arrive at the moment when, after the brutal and bloody scourging which Pilate had been compelled to watch, for it was the law that he should do so, and not to believe that when he led Jesus forth and showed Him to the people, exclaiming, "Behold, the Man," that he himself was moved with a sense of pity, and desired if possible to inspire that feeling in the crowd.
Yet again, he was a man of questioning mind; a man attempting to investigate things. The question which we so clearly remember that he asked Jesus, "What is truth?" utterly reveals this. To that we shall return next. But we hear him asking questions throughout. "Art Thou the King of the Jews?" "Art Thou a King then?" "Whence art Thou?"
All these things being observed it yet stands out clearly that the one over-mastering characteristic of Pilate was that of a self-centered diplomatist, an astute politician. A man, naturally cold, haughty, oppressive, contemptuous, having a sense of justice, a capacity for pity, and a spirit of question; but all these subservient to the one fact that he was a diplomat, a politician.
Here it may be asked as to whether diplomacy is in itself, wrong, and whether politicians are to be looked upon with contempt or suspicion. Let it immediately be said there is nothing wrong in diplomacy, and nothing wrong in being a politician, unless the diplomat or the politician is self-centered, and all the forces of personality are employed in the Interest of self.
Now let us turn to see him in contact with Christ. The first appearance of Jesus before him, possibly the first time he had ever seen Jesus, was in the early morning. The procurator thus disturbed, met the situation with the question of the priests to which we have already referred: "What accusation bring ye against this Man?"
With the authority of Rome vested in him, he was compelled by Roman law to appear when a prisoner was brought to him. His first glance was not so much for Jesus, though he saw Him, as for these troublesome Jews. Hence his question. When they, evidently recognizing his annoyance, replied: "If this Man were not an evil-doer, we should not have delivered Him up unto thee." He yet further manifested his annoyance and contempt, as he said: "Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law." It was then that Pilate heard these priests say something which revealed the situation in a clearer light. They said: "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death."
In a moment Pilate saw that with them it was not a question of seeking for justice but an attempt to encompass a death. They had made their minds up that He must die. I think it was at that point that he began seriously to look at Jesus, and I believe he was startled and arrested. Often enough they had brought someone to him for a decision in the civil courts that would have no validity in the priestly courts.
That he was arrested and even startled is proven by the fact of the private interview between him and Jesus that immediately followed. Pilate took Jesus into the Praetorium or palace, and we have a graphic description of what there took place in general. When they were thus alone Pilate said to Him, "Art Thou the King of the Jews?" and Jesus replied to him with that very searching question: "Sayest thou this of thyself, or did others tell it thee concerning Me?"
Now if we read that with real care we immediately recognize that it was a curious question. Let us remember that up to this point they had not yet told him what was the accusation they were bringing against Jesus. It is quite evident, however, from Pilate's question that he had heard something. The question of Jesus was as to whether he was asking this question as the result of some private information that he had received, or was he indeed asking the question out of his own personal wonder. The subject is full of interest, and may have many applications which it is not now our business to make. We may say, however, that it is a question that Christ always asks in the presence of questioning unbelief. He has no answer to a second-hand agnosticism.
It is quite evident that the question somewhat annoyed Pilate as he said in reply: "Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests delivered Thee unto me; what hast Thou done?"
Thus dismissing the subject he asked Jesus Himself to state the reason why He was arraigned before him. "What hast Thou done?"
To this our Lord replied: "My Kingdom is not of this world; if My Kingdom were of this world, then would My servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now is My Kingdom not from hence."
Again Pilate found himself confronted by a remarkable statement, involving a claim to Kingship on the part of Jesus. This drew from Pilate the question, "Art Thou a King then?" At first he had asked Him, "Art Thou the King of the Jews?" Now recognizing a claim to Kingship in some form came the simpler question, "Art Thou a King then?"
"Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a King. To this end have I been born, and to this end am I come into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Everyone that is of the truth heareth My voice."
Thus in reply to Pilate's question our Lord claimed Kingship in the realm of truth, and affirmed that His purpose in the world was that of witness to truth.
When Pilate heard this, he exclaimed, "What is truth?" Bacon in his essay on Truth commences what is certainly a great writing, with the words: "What is truth?" said the jesting Pilate, and did not wait for an answer."
Admitting the greatness of Bacon's essay, I join issue entirely with the suggestion of that opening sentence. Pilate never felt less like jesting than when he asked that question. It was a cry wrung out of the center of his personality. He was conscious that he was living in a world largely under the domination of that which was untrue, perhaps there was a touch of mockery in this question, but it was a wail rather than a jest.
It was at this point that he sent Jesus to Herod. He desired to be rid of Him. He was seeking to shirk all responsibility. That first interview had shaken him to the foundations of his life. He would gladly wipe his hands of the whole business, and therefore sent Him to Herod. Herod could do nothing, and sent Him back to Pilate. I think it was at this point that he received a message from his wife: "Have thou nothing to do with that righteous Man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of Him."
We are not told of any effect produced upon Pilate by this message, but we do see him in difficulty and in turmoil, created by the strangeness of the Prisoner arraigned before him.
Now Pilate proposed to chastise Him and let Him go. It was an irregular and illegal proposition. Nevertheless he carried it out so far as the scourging was concerned. He had given the people a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. In doing that he had been attempting to find a way to release Jesus. He was offering them a choice between a man who had been the scourge of the countryside and One Who had been going about everywhere doing good. When instructed by the priests, the crowd clamored for Barabbas, Pilate said: "What, then, shall I do unto Jesus which is called Christ?" and the answer came: "Let Him be crucified."
That is the point at which the ultimate crisis arose for Pilate He had found and publicly uttered his verdict, for the words; "I find no crime in Him," constituted a legal verdict.
The priests later said to him: "If thou release this Man, thou art not Caesar's friend." That unquestionably was in his mind in this hour of crisis. He realized that these priests might report him to Rome, and charge him with setting at liberty One claiming to be a King. Eventually, the priests definitely said, "We have no king but Caesar," thus revealing their determination to secure the death of Jesus, even though they made an acknowledgment of loyalty to Caesar, which they by no means felt.
As things proceeded, Pilate called for water and dipping his hands in the water, said: "I am innocent of the blood of this righteous Man; see ye to it."
There was yet another private interview between Pilate and Jesus. In that interview, strangely perplexed unquestionably, Pilate asked Him, "Whence art Thou?" To that question our Lord uttered no reply. When Pilate, astonished at His silence, said to him: "Speakest Thou not unto me? knowest Thou not that I have power to release Thee, and have power to crucify Thee?"
To this our Lord replied with a dignity that is almost appalling: "Thou wouldest have no power against Me, except it were given thee from above; therefore, he that delivereth Me unto thee hath greater sin."
At last, in answer to the machinations of the priests and the clamor of the crowd, he violated justice as he delivered Jesus to be crucified.
Thus we see Pilate arrested by the purity of Jesus, by the patience of Jesus, by the power of Jesus, in strange perplexity, not knowing which way to turn. I watch the processes of his mind. First, his contempt for the priests and for any prisoner they brought before him; then a sudden arrest in the Prisoner Whom he had to face; then a growing fear as to who it was Who was thus arraigned before him. Finally we see him driven to choose between obedience to conscience and a sense of right, and expedience in the interest of policy. He made the fatal choice. He then attempted to relieve the anger of his mind as he wrote the superscription: "THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS."
Two other, who were malefactors, were crucified with Him. When presently those in charge of the crucifixion came to Pilate to ask permission, according to Roman law, to break the legs of the crucified, he granted them their request. When, however, they came to the three crosses, they found Jesus was dead already.
Soon there came to Pilate those who begged the body of Jesus, and he granted them their request. After that the rulers came and asked for a guard to be set over the tomb, for they declared that they desired to make it certain that no one should steal the body, and so assert that Jesus was risen. We can hear the infinite scorn and anger of Pilate as he said to them: "Ye have a guard; go your way, make it as sure as ye can."
There would seem to have been lurking in his own mind a suspicion that there was about this Prisoner something supernatural, and that it would prove itself stronger than all their hostility.
As we survey this whole account of the contact of Pilate with Jesus we see that in its process the bad in Pilate was weakened and the good strengthened for a time. He was a man of swift brutality, but he did not manifest it towards Jesus. He was a man of haughty indifference, but he was not indifferent in the presence of Jesus. He was a man exercising an arrogant authority, but there is no arrogance manifested in his dealing with Jesus. His sense of justice was roused, and became active. His pity for pain overwhelmed him, and made him present Jesus to the clamoring crowd, bruised and wounded, in the hope that the vision might appeal to their pity. His desire for right drove him to the employment of sundry expedients, some questionable, and yet all pointing to his desire to set Jesus free. Thus our Lord, to use a modern literary illustration, in the case of Pilate put Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde face to face, and made them look at each other.
When Matthew records the account he says, "Jesus stood before the governor." It is a perfectly accurate legal announcement. Actually, spiritually, morally, finally, we may say that the governor stood before Jesus. In the last analysis not Jesus but Pilate, was on trial. Through all the processes of that eventful day a choice was being forced upon him. Through all the tempest of those stormy hours there was one clear issue before him, and he himself expressed it when he said: "What then shall I do unto Jesus?"
Not to dwell upon it at length here and now we may nevertheless declare that in that day the whole Roman Empire stood arraigned before Jesus. Religion was arraigned there also in the person of the priests, and democracy had come to judgment in the crowds. It is true that He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth; but He was the Arbiter, the Judge, and compelled the making of a definite choice.
As to the ultimate history of Pilate everything is shrouded in mystery. It has been declared that he committed suicide. On the other hand there is a legend that presently in Rome, after he had been deposed from power, he found himself in the Catacombs where Christians were gathering together, and yielded himself to the Lord. It is a legend only. One thing we know, and that is that if it be true, he was received and pardoned by Christ.
I think one of the most terrible accounts I know in literature is that of Anatole France in his "Mother of Pearl," where he attempts a picture of Pilate at the end, which is purely imaginary, and yet profoundly philosophic. He depicts him living in lust and luxury in a villa on the shores of Italy. Many years had passed when one day a visitor from Rome, conversing with him said to him, "By the way, Pilate, were you not procurator in Judaea when they put to death that Man Jesus?" Anatole France makes Pilate look at this visitor through bleary eyes and say, "Jesus, Jesus, I don't remember the name!"
I am not saying that this is history but it is a terrible revelation of what may happen to a man who violates his conscience. The whole thing may seem to leave no mark behind, and he may even forget the hour when it took place.
Certain it is that contact with Christ always creates an issue. We have never been able to analyze and finally classify Christ, but He always analyses and classifies us.
Thus we learn from the account that the battle between expedience and obedience is the utterest foolishness. To lose the central principle of loyalty to conscience is sooner or later to find the whole superstructure of life living in ruins.
From the account we also learn that responsibility cannot be transferred. Pilate attempted to transfer it to the priests and then to Herod, but the personal element in his question, "What shall I do with Jesus?" was utmost.
"Though some of you, with Pilate, wash your hands,
Showing an outward pity, yet you Pilates
Have here delivered me to my sour cross,
And water cannot wash away your sin."
So also did Russell Lowell when in a couplet which may lack elegance, but has the element of eternal truth, he wrote:
"An' you've gut to git up airly
Ef you want to take in God."
No man will ever be up early enough for that.