Jesus in Jerusalem (3) Before Pilate John 18 : 28 - 40
Today we remind ourselves of some of the last hours of our Lord Jesus. The story in today’s Gospel reading is familiar to everyone. So we have to try to learn something new from it if we can. The Roman General Pompey subjugated Judaea in 63BC. Throughout the empire Roman administration of local territories was in the hands of military officers who also had political authority. The first Roman governor of Palestine was Coponius and his title was procurator. This meant that he was an agent and manager, justice of the peace, collector of taxes and he led the army on behalf of the Roman Emperor. This man also had the power of life and death over the people in the province he ruled. At the same time, Romans took away from the Jewish authorities judgement on the right to take life.
The case of the first Christian martyr, Stephen, is interesting. He was illegally lynched by an organised mob but those who were guilty of his murder had broken the law and were liable to Roman judgement. There is no record that this ever happened. But this is why the Jews, angry and frustrated, took Jesus to Pilate. To get rid of him, they had to. Only Pilate had the power to sentence Jesus to death. If the Jews had had the power to execute Jesus it would have been by the same method they used with Stephen - that of stoning. Jesus would have been stoned to death. The Jews would never have crucified Jesus. Leviticus 24: 16 reads “And he who blasphemes the name of the Lord, shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him”. The witness who first testified to secure conviction was given the privilege of throwing the first stone. That is the background to Jesus’ words to the woman taken in adultery ‘Let anyone of you who is without sin cast the first stone’ (John 8:7). Jesus had predicted his death by crucifixion in John 12 : 32 “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth will draw all everyone to myself”. Here in 2019 we can safely say that that prophecy has come true. Scarcely anyone in the world is not aware that Jesus was crucified and hardly anyone has not looked on a picture or representation of the crucified Jesus.
Jews to this day are very uncomfortable with their characterisation in the Christian Gospels. They charge the Gospel accounts with antisemitism and ground the reasons for much of their troublous history in the descriptions of their conduct towards Jesus. It is a lasting embarrassment and humiliation to Jews that Christianity exists in the world and that Christians claim that Jesus was their Messiah and that they rejected him and had him judicially murdered. The spread of Christianity will remain a testimony against the Jews of the time of Jesus.
Their anger was a religious anger such as you see now from Muslims in some part of the world. Bitter and fanatical, they seem to have nothing better to do than parade down streets with blood-curdling cries for vengeance and death to infidels, Christians and Americans in particular. It was that kind of mentality that saw Jesus taken to Pilate. But the Jewish authorities did not go inside Pilate’s house. He was a gentile and his house was ceremonially unclean. In preparation for the Passover, Jews cleaned out their houses of any particles of yeast since it symbolised evil and sin. Pilate’s house would have been full of bread and rolls and cakes. They could not go there.
The problem we have in all this with nearly 2000 years of Christian perspective is what Jesus called “straining at gnats and swallowing camels”. Here were these mainly Saduceean Jews, following in detail aspects of their law on one hand and utterly breaking its spirit and intention on the other by seeking to take the life of Jesus whom they could not tolerate. To those who recognised only the first five books of the Bible, there was no scope for compromise with Jesus. Still - it is hard for us to understand how severe was their hatred for him and their willingness to hand over to the hated gentile colonialists one of their own sons. But in a cynical comment the High Priest Caiaphas had noted “It would be better if one man died for the people” (John 18:14). He was astute and could see that killing Jesus would probably save a riot if not a rebellion with multiple consequences in that tinderbox Passover crowded Jerusalem situation. That is human nature. William Wallace was betrayed to and handed over to the English by his fellow Scots. On 5 August 1305 John de Menteith, a Scottish knight loyal to Edward, turned Wallace over to English soldiers at Robroyston near Glasgow. And they did so knowing what fate would await Wallace in London. Wallace was a murderous man himself and not to be compared with Jesus. A freedom fighter of the time who had killed many he was nevertheless dishonourably betrayed by his own.
In Church life losing proper perspective is a way of life. Great arguments and fallings out occur of trivial matters and generations of bitterness can follow the simplest of misunderstandings. Often it is money and property over which people fall out and will not be reconciled. Or some minor insult results in unforgiving absence for the rest of life. It is not usually about the Bible because most Church people don’t know enough about the Bible to argue with much or any conviction.
The Jews knew that Pilate would not waste time or breath on any religious type of charge such as blasphemy. There was no such issue in Roman law deserving the death penalty. So they had to twist the charge to suit the governor’s interest. Any charge of rebellion or insurrection would have to be taken seriously. In other words, they had to move the charge into the political sphere for anything to be considered legally competent for the Roman governor to consider in his capacity as judge in the emperor’s name. And that is what they did.
Pilate is one of the great enigmas of history. He would never have been well known had it not been for Jesus. He does not present an attractive image. To explain his attitude to Jesus we need to look at his personal history. Pilate must have been well thought of in Rome or he would never have got the job as procurator of Palestine. Either that - or this particular posting was a poisoned chalice rather like being given the job of Northern Ireland secretary of state was in the 1970’s and 80’s. It was a middle ranking appointment to an impossible job. Palestine was a troubled area with acid religious sensitivities to be taken account of. Pilate was almost a dictator except that he was responsible to the emperor for all that he did. He was paid well and was not allowed to take bribes, gifts or presents. Pilate took office in 26AD. He left in 35AD. His was a bad appointment. He was full of contempt for the Jews and their religion.
There are three documented cases to support this.
i) On his first visit to Jerusalem he allowed his soldiers to carry their standards with small metal images of the emperor though this was offensive to Jews who regarded emperor worship as idolatrous. Some fanatical Jews followed him back to Caesarea to complain and to get an assurance that he would not do this again. He refused and threatened to kill them all there and then if they did not leave him in peace. They bared their necks saying they would rather die. He gave in.
ii) He wanted to build a new aqueduct to improve the water supply to Jerusalem. He took money from the temple to pay for this work. There was a popular riot. His soldiers killed and wounded many.
iii) Not having learned his lesson about the standards he had shields made for his soldiers with the emperor’s image on them. The Jews reported him to Tiberius the emperor and he was ordered to remove them.
Roman history records that in 35AD, 6 years after Jesus’ crucifixion there was a revolt in Samaria. Pilate’s over the top crushing with attendant merciless killing was reported to Rome and Pilate was recalled. He was never heard about again except in the Christian Gospels.
The Jews were able to blackmail Pilate when they brought Jesus to him. In John 19 : 12 we are told that the Jews threatened Pilate with the words “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar”. Pilate’s job was to keep order. Rome would judge him incompetent if he was reported. So - he was willing to give in to the Jews and their fanaticism to preserve his reputation and his job.
Pilate played with Jesus and he played with the Jews. He was both cruel and weak. But faced with such complete fanaticism, he could not win. A full scale revolt was going to take place. Jesus was just one person. So what! He did not have a sense of proper justice - that which his office demanded. He did not have the courage to acquit Jesus. He played his part along with Judas and the Jewish authorities and some of the local people in the death of Jesus. Pilate is not a figure of honour worthy of respect. He simply did not do his job properly or well. But if he had, Jesus would not have been crucified. What would have happened? The likelihood is that Jesus would have been lynched as Stephen was, probably stoned to death. Jesus would not have survived the hatred he had engendered among the Saducees of Jerusalem. He might have escaped back to Galilee and if he had lived a quiet life he might have survived. Jesus was the victim of human nature at its collective worst.
But - and here is the greatest consequence of all. From that degradation of life lived nevertheless in peace and justice Jesus rose in triumph. Jesus said to Pilate "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." (John 19:11). The first half of that word is worth remembering as we negotiate this troubled time in our history. The second half has been used as an excuse for centuries of persecution of Jews. But in Paul’s letter to the Christians in Rome, he spoke only of reconciliation with his fellow Jews.
Jesus led captivity captive. He was victorious even as he stood before Pilate. There was no contest. No-one can stand against the will and plan of the living God. And we are here today as witnesses to that spiritual truth and fact. And it is in His name that you and I can triumph over adversity in his life. In the power of Jesus’ resurrection you and I can live. And if you preserve within you your identity as a Christian, nothing can get there to harm you in your belonging to Christ. His life and power will sustain you all the days of your life and for eternity.