“From then on Pilate sought to release him…”
(John 19:12 ESV)
Pilate is one of the most vilified men in Scripture. After all, it was he who turned Jesus over to be crucified. It was under his authority that Jesus was put to death. And, for this reason, we remember this each time we confess our faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. We remember that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
However, what we find in the account of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion makes things a bit more complicated. We find that perhaps he wasn’t as evil as he often seems to us. In fact, we discover that we’re a lot like him.
We see that, as Jesus was brought to him, Pilate found no guilt in him. It did not seem fitting to Pilate that Jesus should be put to death. And when the Jews told him that Jesus made himself to be the Son of God, he was afraid.
So what convinced Pilate to crucify Jesus? Two things stand out. In John 19 we see that the Jews accused him. They told him that, if he released Jesus, he was no friend of Caesar. They said that everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.
The people were saying that, if Pilate released Jesus, he was a traitor. Pilate likely feared that the people would bring these charges against him. And, for this reason, he sought his own safety. He sought to preserve his position in the Empire, which was done by having Jesus put to death.
We find in Matthew 27 that Pilate only gave in to the crowd, he only gave the order that Jesus was to be crucified, when he saw that he was gaining nothing and that a riot was beginning. By releasing Jesus, he feared that there would be much more blood spilt. And, even though he had the Roman army at his disposal, he may have feared a more widespread rebellion.
As you read this, you may insist that these facts do not make Pilate seem less evil. He is a man who sought his own welfare rather than justice. You may insist that he should have done the right thing regardless of what it meant for himself.
If these are your thoughts, you are right in your assessment. He should not have ordered Jesus’ death. We do see, in this action, his self-interest and his corrupt nature. Yet, if this is our assessment of Pilate, we must also see the same qualities in ourselves.
Even if we are Christian, even if we have faith in Christ, how many of us have denied Jesus out of our own self-interest? How many of us have tried to hide our faith seeking to preserve our reputation among unbelievers? How many of us have given in to sin because we didn’t want to appear self-righteous before others?
I’m willing to guess that all of us have done this at one time or another. I know that it’s something I’ve done at various times in life. And this makes us just as guilty as Pilate.
As believers, we’re called to follow Christ no matter the cost. We’re called to testify about Christ, not fearing what man might do. We’re to carry out this calling knowing that no one can take from us the salvation that God has granted us through faith in Jesus.
This, you see, is cause for us to repent. We must confess our failure to God seeking his mercy, and we must turn from this sin. We must ask God for his strength that we might remain faithful, and that we might boldly proclaim the gospel.