March 20, 1994

PILATE’S PROBLEM

“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. Matthew 27:22

There it is again, right in front of her–that face.  The woman is full of terror, she’s been trying to run away, but no matter what direction she flees, that same face looms in front of her.  She stops running and shrinks back from the face.  The world seems to be collapsing in on her.  A single word booms and then reverberates:  “Innocent, innocent, innocent, innocent …”

The woman screams, and suddenly she finds herself lying in bed.  What a relief!  Just a nightmare.  She rolls over and reaches across the bed.  Her husband isn’t there.  Where is he?  Oh, that’s right.  She vaguely remembers being awakened by whispers in the dark.  It was her husband’s assistant calling him out of bed.  An emergency session with those bothersome priests.  Something about a rabble-rouser who’d just come to Jerusalem from Nazareth and was stirring up trouble.  After her husband got up, Mrs. Pilate drifted off to sleep, and the nightmares began.

The prisoner!  That’s it!  The face in the dream belongs to the prisoner from Nazareth.  Somehow, she is sure of it.  The nightmare echoes again in her mind, “Innocent, innocent…”  Her nightmare is over, and yet it’s not over.

Mrs. Pilate throws on a robe, scribbles hastily on a piece of paper, and hands it to a servant. The servant hurries off to where Pontius Pilate is holding court.

Pilate scowls at the interruption.  Can’t the man see he’s busy?  Oh, a message from his wife.  Better be something urgent. She knows better than to bother him when he’s conducting official business.  Pilate scans the note:  “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (Matthew 27:19).  Pilate glances over at the prisoner, then reads the note again.  He hesitates, his features folded in a frown.  Then he crumples the note and dismisses the messenger.

What a bizarre situation.  Here he has a life and death decision to make, and what does he have to go on?  A wife who wants him to base his decision on some crazy nightmare she’s had;  and a prisoner who refuses to argue in his own defense, who talks only in riddles when he does open his mouth, who doesn’t seem to realize that Pilate has the power to kill him or release him.   How’s he supposed to make sense of all this?  What is truth, anyway?  Pilate hears the crowd outside getting louder.  He’s got a decision to make, and he’d better do it soon.

Pilate has been weighing the various factors.  In spite of the weirder aspects of the case, Pilate is sure of one thing:  this Jesus is not guilty of any capital crime under Roman law.  The man from Nazareth seems a bit odd, but you don’t give someone the death penalty for being odd.  Besides, Pilate can’t shake the feeling that Jesus isn’t just another weirdo, that there’s more to him than meets the eye.  He talks about being a king from another world, and his enemies accuse him of saying he’s the Son of God.  Normally, of course, you’d write such a man off as insane, but in this case, Pilate has the eerie feeling that it’s not quite that simple.  At any rate, one thing’s for sure:  Jesus isn’t guilty of any crime.

Pilate knows this, and being a shrewd politician and judge of secret motives, he also knows the real reason the religious leaders have asked for the death penalty.  He knows they’ve handed Jesus over out of envy.  They don’t want some upstart rabbi from the backwaters of Galilee stealing their thunder and winning the loyalty of the crowds.  They want Jesus dead because they want to eliminate the competition.  So despite the various complications and questions about the case, Pilate knows that the right thing to do is to rule in favor of Jesus.

Unfortunately, though, the decision isn’t that simple.  He can’t just consider what’s true and what’s right;  he’s also got to consider what’s practical.  He has to think about the effect on his career.  Pilate can’t just look at the Person involved.  He also has to think about the politics involved.  And that’s what makes it such a messy situation and such a hard decision.

Already in his term as governor, Pilate has made some serious political blunders.  Once he set up Roman standards in Jerusalem’s temple area, where no images were permitted.  Mobs of enraged people soon gathered, and there was a tense standoff between the crowds and Pilate’s troops for several days until Pilate finally gave in and ordered the standards to be withdrawn.  Another time, Pilate thought he would do the people a favor by upgrading the city’s water system.  He ordered the building of a new aqueduct, but he financed it with donations made to the temple.  This infuriated the people.  They didn’t want religious contributions paying for city water.  On still another occasion, some of Pilate’s troops killed pilgrims from Galilee right while they were offering sacrifices in the temple.

Because of these blunders, the people and the religious leaders have become very hostile toward Pilate, and complaints of Pilate’s incompetence already reached the ears of the emperor.  Tiberius Caesar appointed Pilate to office, and he can just as easily fire him if things seem to be getting out of hand in Judea.

So it’s not just Jesus that’s on the line here.  Pilate’s career is also on the line.  It would be a serious risk to choose in favor of Jesus.  Pilate can hear a demonstration going on outside.  A lot of people want the Nazarene dead.  With Pilate’s popularity rating already so low, the last thing he wants to do is provoke the demonstrators or upset their leaders.  Ruling in favor of Jesus might be the right thing to do, but it doesn’t look like the smart thing to do. Pilate desperately wishes he didn’t have to make the decision at all.

But how can he avoid it?  Hey, there’s an idea!  Did somebody say the prisoner is from up north in Galilee?  Pilate may be able to escape responsibility, after all.  King Herod happens to be in town, and Herod has jurisdiction over the region of Galilee.  Since Jesus is originally from there, why not hand the responsibility to the ruler of Galilee and let Herod decide his fate?  It’s worth a try.  So Pilate sends Jesus to the place Herod is staying.  Herod and his men have some fun at Jesus’ expense, but in the end, Herod sends the prisoner back to Pilate and dumps the problem right back in his lap.

Then Pilate has another idea.  Each year at Passover time, there’s a tradition of granting amnesty to one prisoner chosen by the crowd.  Why can’t Jesus be that prisoner?  If Pilate handles it right, he’ll be able to get the demonstrators themselves to call for Jesus’ release.  All he’s got to do is offer them the most unsavory convict imaginable as the only other alternative, and they’ll almost have to choose Jesus.  What was the name of that terrorist again?  Barbarous, or something…  Barabbas, that’s it.  The man is a menace.  Barabbas had been convicted of insurrection and murder and who knows what else.  Nobody concerned about law and order and public safety could possibly want a guy like that back on the street.

So Pilate calls to the crowd, “Who do you want me to release to you:  Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?”  A murmur ripples through the crowd as the people discuss this unexpected choice.  Pilate smiles to himself and waits.  No way are they going to ask for bloodthirsty Barabbas.  He’ll be able to turn the Galilean loose and execute the terrorist, and the mob will have no choice but to go home.  Yes, indeed, this is a stroke of genius.  He can do the right thing and avoid political damage at the same time.

But gradually Pilate’s smile twists into a frown.  He sees some of the religious leaders moving among the people, whispering and gesturing.  Then a few voices start to call, “Barabbas.  We want Barabbas.”  And soon the whole mob is chanting, “Barabbas.”

Pilate stares in disbelief.  He asks, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus, who is called Christ?”  He’s back to his original problem.  No matter how he tries, he can’t avoid the question, “What shall I do with Jesus?”  And the moment he asks the question, his ears are roaring with the crowd’s answer, “Crucify him!”

“Why?  What crime has he committed?” asks Pilate.

But they shout all the louder, “Crucify him!”  Pilate hesitates, but the crowd keeps howling, and some of the ringleaders, knowing Pilate’s dilemma, start crying out, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar.”

That settles it for Pilate.  He knows that the ultimate question in all the world is simply this:  What will Caesar think?   Pilate remembers Jesus telling him, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”  That’s one statement the governor can agree with.  He knows all too well that he would have no power if it were not given to him from higher up.  Of course, his power comes from higher up–from Caesar!  Caesar rules the world.  He’s the ultimate power.  He’s the one Pilate must answer to.  If Caesar hears even a rumor that the governor is disloyal, Pilate will be finished.

And besides, is it all that serious if one Jewish peasant dies?  Within a few days, nobody but his closest friends will even remember what happened.  True, the peasant seems like an unusual man, he’s got a mysterious way of talking, and it’s a little spooky to hear that he claims to be the Son of God.  But this is no time to be superstitious.  It’s time for common sense.  Forget abstract questions about morality and truth.  Caesar is lord, he controls the destiny of people and nations, and so Pilate’s got to do what he’s got to do in order to maintain his position.

Still, there’s that bothersome little thing called a conscience, and Pilate doesn’t want the blood of an innocent man on his hands.  When he sees that he’s getting nowhere, but instead, an uproar is starting, he takes water and washes his hands in front of the crowd.  “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he says.  “It is your responsibility.”

Pilate excuses himself the way many politicians do.  He says, “Personally, I oppose this killing, but I’m not going to force my convictions on you.  It’s your choice.”  Pilate wants everyone to know that he isn’t pro-crucifixion–not at all!  He’s simply pro-choice.  He’ll let the people kill Jesus if that’s what they choose, but he washes his hands of the whole mess.

So Pilate permits a killing he could have prevented.  He even gives the necessary order and provides government manpower to carry out the execution.  He doesn’t like it, he’s not in favor of the killing, but what else can he do?

His basic problem boils down to one question:  “What shall I do with Jesus?”  No matter how he tries, he can’t escape the question, and he can’t find any neutral ground.  He either has to rule in favor of Jesus, or he has to do away with him.  Those are his only choices, and he can’t choose in favor of Jesus unless he’s willing to let go of his own ambitions.

The next day it’s all over.  Jesus is dead and buried.  When Pilate’s wife asks him about the case, Pilate brushes the questions aside.  Pilate’s problem is gone.  He wants to put the whole episode behind him and forget the carpenter from Galilee.

But just then his assistant comes and tells him that the priests and elders are once again outside his door, waiting to talk with him.  “What now?”  Pilate grumbles to himself.  He sees a group of men wearing worried scowls.  “Sir,” they say to Pilate, “we remember that when he was still alive, that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’  So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day.  Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead.  This last deception will be worse than the first.”

These conniving power brokers are nothing if not thorough.  First, they push Pilate to have Jesus killed, then they want the governor to make sure he stays dead.  Wearily, Pilate says, “Take a guard detail.  Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.”  Pilate figures that if this is what it takes to keep these paranoid priests out of his hair, then so be it.  Let them post a security detail and do anything else they can think of to keep things from getting lively in the cemetery.

Once the third day has passed, Pilate’s problem will be gone for sure.  Jesus’ disciples will realize he’s a lost cause, Jesus’ enemies will stop worrying about him, and Pilate can get on with his career as governor.  So for the time being, just put an official government seal on the tomb, have some soldiers sit near it with weapons in plain sight, and nobody’s going to mess with anything.  That body isn’t going anywhere.  Right?

Except that this grave robbery is an inside job.  The Person inside the tomb is the one who pulls it off.  Pilate says, “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.”  And how secure is that?  Can a bazooka stop the sunrise?

That Sunday, despite all the precautions, the soldiers are in shock, the tomb is empty, and reports are spreading that Jesus has risen.  The man who claimed to be the Son of God is on the loose once again.  The Lord Jesus Christ is alive and he won’t be ignored.  And since that day every last person on planet earth has to deal with Pilate’s problem and face the very same question:  “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?”  And we have to deal with that question in light of an even greater question:  “What will Jesus Christ do with me?”

The Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, allowed himself to be crucified under Pontius Pilate in order to pay the terrible penalty for our sins, but now he lives, and he calls you and me to believe in him, to have our sins washed away by his blood, and to join the flock of which he himself is the Good Shepherd.  We must come to Christ in faith and stake our lives on him.  If we refuse his call, the only other possibility is to reject Jesus utterly and to be utterly rejected by him.

Pilate’s problem is also your problem and mine:  What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?

It’s a question we can’t avoid.

Pilate tried to avoid it.  He didn’t want to be for Jesus, and he didn’t want to be against him.  He wanted to remain neutral, to sit on the fence and avoid the issue.  That’s why he first sent Jesus off to Herod and then told the crowd to decide between Jesus and Barabbas.  But no matter what he tried, Pilate couldn’t avoid the question.  Pilate had to decide, either in favor of Jesus or else against him.

Likewise, you and I can’t avoid the question or try to be neutral.  You must either be for Jesus or against him.  You must either trust him fully, or reject him completely.  There is no middle ground.  When Pilate pretended to be neutral, he ended up authorizing the murder of Jesus;  and when you pretend to be neutral, you’re really spurning Jesus and rejecting his claims.  Jesus himself said, “He who is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23).

If you say that you’re not really against Jesus but you’re not for him either, you’re saying, whether you realize it or not, that Jesus has no claim on your life, that you don’t recognize him as Lord and God.  You’re saying that you don’t want his love, that you don’t need his blood to cover your sin, that you can get along without his resurrection life.  The Bible says, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3 KJV)  Neglecting his salvation is no better than rejecting his salvation.  When you try to be neutral toward the Lord Jesus Christ, when, like Pilate, you try to avoid going one way or the other, what you’re really doing is rejecting him and destroying yourself in the bargain.

What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?  It’s a question we can’t avoid or be neutral about, and it’s also a question that won’t allow us to plead ignorance.

Life seems awfully complex sometimes, especially when it comes to religion.  What if we just don’t know enough?  What if we don’t have all the information we’d like in order to make up our minds about Jesus?  Shouldn’t we remain undecided until all the information is in, and all our unanswered questions have been answered to our satisfaction?

Pilate wanted to plead ignorance.  At one point, Jesus said to him, “I came into the world to testify to the truth.  Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  Pilate responded, “What is truth?”  Pilate wanted to think he didn’t know enough about Jesus, that he needed more information to make a good decision.  Pilate was frustrated when Jesus kept his mouth shut when he was asked to answer the various charges against him.

Well, there may have been much that Pilate didn’t know, but he knew enough to make the right choice.  He knew that Jesus was innocent, he knew the religious leaders handed him over out of envy, he knew about Mrs. Pilate’s terrifying dream, he knew that Jesus claim to be a king from another world, and he knew that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God.  So whatever Pilate didn’t know or understand, he knew enough to stand up for Jesus.  But he chose to rule against him instead.

Are you tempted to plead ignorance?  Maybe there are things in the Bible that puzzle you, or experiences that you just can’t figure out or make sense of.  You may wonder, “What is truth?”  But in reality, even if you don’t know everything you’d like to know, you know enough.  You know even more than Pilate knew.  You’ve been told that Jesus died to pay the price of sin and that he rose again to conquer the power of death.  If you don’t respond in faith to those great truths, why should God reveal any other truth to you?  Truth isn’t just a matter of knowing the right facts;  it’s a matter of whose side you’re on.  As Jesus told Pilate,  “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

So before you try to answer all your other questions, first answer this one:  “What shall I do with Jesus, who called Christ?”  Before you seek to know all the things you’re curious about, first respond to the gospel truths you’ve already heard.  Repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, the Son of God, and the Lord of the universe.

You may hesitate because of what it could cost you.  Pilate was afraid that if he stood up for Jesus, he would lose his position.  You may have similar fears.  If you started living for Jesus, your new way of life and your refusal to make moral compromises might hurt you in your employment.  You might run into new problems in some of your personal relationships.  A commitment to Christ could cost you.

If, like Pilate, you put your own success first, you’ll turn away from Jesus.  If you base your response to Jesus on how you think it will affect your immediate future, you’ll end up siding with evil, and in the long-term future, you’ll lose your soul eternally.  As Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.  What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”  (Matthew 16:25-26).

If, like Pilate, you refuse to make a personal commitment, if you wash your hands of Jesus and just go along with whatever the crowd tells you to do, you will lose your only hope of salvation.  Jesus wasn’t on trial before Pilate.  Pilate was on trial before Jesus.  And so are you.  Your response to him reveals your destiny.  God’s Word says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).

What will you do with Jesus?

Neutral you cannot be.

Some day your soul will be asking,

“What will he do with me.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.