Summary: An examination of the meeting of Jesus and Pontius Pilate and the lessons that can be gained from their encounter, concerning the nature of civil authority and our relationship to it.
The Jewish authorities wanted Jesus dead but were unwilling to kill Him themselves because they did not wish to lose favor with the common people who believed in Jesus. They wanted Rome to do it. They wanted Rome to take the blame. The evil Jewish authorities played Pontius Pilate like a fiddle to gain their aims.
Pontius Pilate was the fifth person to be procurator or governor of Judea, Samaria, and Idumea. He was appointed by Caesar Tiberius in the year 26 and he would retain his position for ten years. Up until Pilate, the procurator only possessed military power over the region while his superior, the Legate of Syria, took care of civil affairs. However, during the first six years of his tenure, Pilate possessed both military and civil powers due to the absence of the appointed Legate of Syria in Rome. Thus, Pilate was exercising his temporary civil authority when he was forced into considering the charges brought against Jesus.
Like Caesar Tiberius, Pontius Pilate did not have fond feelings for the Jewish people. The first portion of his rule was characterized by a complete contempt for Jewish religious scruples and customs.
At the beginning of his term, he attempted to have Roman standards brought into Jerusalem by night. These standards had pagan images on them and the Jews considered their presence as spiritually polluting their Holy City. Pilate refused to remove them and the Jews began to demonstrate. Pilate was about to kill the ring-leaders of the demonstrators but relinquished and had the standards removed to his headquarters in Caesarea.
Soon afterward, he stole money from the Temple to pay for an aqueduct from the Bethlehem area to Jerusalem. A large crowd appeared outside his Caesarean fortress to protest. Pilate ordered his soldiers to dress like Jews and infiltrate the crowd of demonstrators. When the soldiers had successfully done so, they pulled out clubs from beneath their robes and beat the protesters...many of them to death.
A couple years later, he began minting coins that contained Roman pagan symbols on one side.
In Luke 13:1, there is the mentioning of Pilate mixing the blood of Temple sacrifices with that of Galileans he had murdered. Again, this was a desecration of Jewish worship in addition to cruel brutality.
With such a horrible record, it is amazing to witness the morality and desire for justice in his handling of Jesus. It is absolutely clear that Pilate thought Jesus to be an innocent man undeserving of the death penalty so aggressively sought by the Jewish authorities. Several times, he attempted to save Jesus from the death penalty.
I am perfectly convinced that under different circumstances, Pilate would have freed Jesus. He would have defied the Jewish authorities and follow his conscience and convictions.
One must ask, if Pilate had been so willing to defy Jewish authorities in the past, why was he so unwilling to do so on this day?
I will share with you my opinion.
About six months before this, Pilate again attempted to decorate his Jerusalem residence with golden shields. Unlike at the first, this time they did not bear pagan images but they did bear inscriptions which promoted Caesar-worship.
King Herod Agrippa and the Jewish authorities formally protested this act directly to Caesar Tiberius. Tiberius, wishing to maintain the submission of the Jews to Roman authority, sent a blistering letter of rebuke to Pontius Pilate ordering him to remove the shields to Caesarea AND to up-hold all the religious and political customs of his Jewish subjects.
The message was clear - For his own survival, Pilate must not unnecessarily offend the Jewish ruling authorities and the people. Rome would be monitoring Pilate’s conduct closely. His rule would be under a magnifying glass.
The chief priests knew that Pilate’s position was fragile. They knew they had leverage over Pilate and they used it to achieve their evil aims. They successfully threatened Pilate into submission to their will.
Note in John 19 that the Jewish authorities pretended their loyalty to Caesar and called Pilate’s into question - verses 12-16:
"As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out saying, "If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.’’ Therefore when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha. Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, "Behold, your King!’’ So they cried out, "Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!’’ Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your King?’’ The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar.’’ So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified."