“Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them; and after having Jesus flogged, he handed him over to be crucified.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
There are some characters without whom a particular story would simply not be the same. Now, of course the main characters are vital to the narrative, but I’m talking about the secondary characters. These are the men and women (or some other mythological or animal or alien creature) in supporting roles, but who play their role or are written into the role so well they make the story work. I’m thinking about characters like Samwise Gamgee from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Frodo is obviously the protagonist, but without Sam, he never would have completed his quest. The story simply wouldn’t have been the same. There’s a reason one of the main Oscar categories is best supporting actor and actress. Well, in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, Pilate plays this kind of a role. Let’s spend just a few minutes together this morning talking about him.
Pilate is an interesting character. Historically, he hated the Jews and did everything he could to try and antagonize them. He was ruthless with them as well. Pilate was originally appointed to his position in 26 A.D. His patron in the Roman Senate was a man named, Sejanus, who served as the commander of the Praetorian Guard. Sejanus was infamously anti-Semitic, and Pilate sought to follow in his mentor’s footsteps in his dealings with the Jews. It could be that Sejanus had Pilate appointed prefect of Judea so that he could harass the Jews from up close.
Pilate took to this role and the bias of his mentor almost immediately. One of his first major moves was to install figures of the emperor throughout the city of Jerusalem. Because of their commitment to the first and second commandments, the Jews were famously opposed to any images in their capital city and especially near the temple. This move, naturally, infuriated the Jews. They quickly appealed to Pilate’s regional manager in Caesarea to force him to remove the standards. Eventually, Pilate grew tired of this and sent a contingent of soldiers to blend in among the crowds gathered in protest of the images. At a prearranged signal, they all drew their swords to threaten the people. Pilate thought this would intimidate them into giving up their opposition, but he didn’t understand just how deeply rooted a belief this really was. The Jewish men in the crowd all bared their necks to the soldiers, boldly calling Pilate’s bluff. Their boldness worked, and Pilate backed down and removed the images.
Another time, Pilate raided temple funds in order to construct an aqueduct. When the people protested this move, he had soldiers hide among the crowds again, this time with clubs instead of swords. At a prearranged signal, they all drew their clubs and started beating the protestors, killing many of them.
As you can see, Pilate’s animosity toward the Jews ran deep. His antagonistic policies infuriated the locals which created a headache for the bureaucracy in Rome. But, as much as they may have wanted to get rid of Pilate, he was protected as long as Sejanus was living. When Tiberias had Sejanus executed in 31 A.D., however, Pilate was on his own. A subsequent attempt to curry some favor with Tiberias by placing shields with his name on them in Herod’s former palace in the city, backfired rather spectacularly. Tiberias was trying to undo the damage Sejanus’ anti-Semitism had done. Even though Pilate had made the placements as a means of honoring the emperor, the needless antagonism of it infuriated him, and when prominent Jews as well as Herod’s own children wrote to him about it, he commanded Pilate to remove the shields immediately.
Pilate’s lack of political cover after 31 A.D. likely explains the relative weakness and conciliatory posture he takes with the chief priests during Jesus’ trial probably in 33 A.D. This was especially true when the chief priests said that if he did not crucify Jesus he would be no friend of Caesar. We read that as a throwaway line, but it was actually a very calculated political threat on their part. Pilate was already treading on thin ice as far as the emperor was concerned. He didn’t need another letter complaining about his leadership to go on his permanent record. His dicey political situation is also likely why he sent Jesus to Herod who happened to be in town. If Herod was willing to deal with Him, then Pilate wouldn’t have to. Unfortunately, Herod didn’t want to play ball on this matter, but the move did cement a friendship between the two of them which smoothed over their disagreements of the past.
As you read the Gospel accounts of Pilate’s interactions with Jesus and the Jewish authorities, he almost comes off like a sympathetic figure who is being blown about by his circumstances and actually trying to do the right thing when it came to Jesus. At the same time, though, his having Jesus scourged was pretty awful. That may have been done to try and push the chief priests away from crucifixion by presenting His mangled body to elicit some sympathy from them. It failed, of course, but it seems at least that he tried.
In the end, Pilate is a complex character, but one without whom the crucifixion wouldn’t have happened. He features fairly prominently in every single retelling because he was ultimately the one who gave the command to do the terrible deed. The story wouldn’t have been the same without him. He was used by God in a critical way for the advancement of His plans for our salvation. And that, I think, is the real meat of the message here. God used someone who had no interest in Him whatsoever to accomplish His plans for the world. That’s how big our God is. That’s how sovereign He is over His creation. He can use anyone to accomplish His plans. He is not limited by anything. No circumstances hold Him back. No one can stand in His way. What He wills will come to pass. And He wills most for His glory and our good. He is a God worthy of our devotion and trust.