Pontius Pilate & the Narrative of the Cross

24 So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25 And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified. (Matthew 27:24-26)

Pontius Pilate is an interesting character study. We don’t know a lot about him from history but what we do know points to a former Roman military man who was said to be firm, strong, and insensitive as the governor of Judea, a position he held from AD 26-36. Pilate kept doing things that upset the Jews (which was a common problem of just about every Roman official who tried to govern that area) and in AD 32 he was even strongly rebuked by the emperor Tiberius for one of his missteps. That is one reason why many Bible scholars believe Christ was crucified in AD 33. It would explain how this firm, strong military man suddenly seemed weak and vacillating. After Tiberius’ rebuke in AD 32 and the execution of one of Pilate’s political friends (Sejanus) for treason in AD 31, Pilate was suddenly in a very precarious position. Another incident in Judea and Pilate could not only be replaced but also possibly executed by an increasingly paranoid Tiberius.

So with the trial of Jesus suddenly placed in his lap, Pilate was caught between the proverbial rock and hard place. He found no cause for Jesus’ execution and even tried his best to release Him (cf. John 19:12) but the religious leaders and the crowd were insistent and a riot was developing. Pilate could either stand his ground and risk political failure or give in to the crowd and save his hide. He chose the latter.

But as a final way of absolving himself, Pilate washed his hands before the crowd.

“I am innocent of this man’s blood. See to it yourselves.”

That last phrase is the exact same one the religious leaders told Judas when he came to them and said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood!” To which, they replied, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.”

In other words, we are not responsible. This one is entirely on you.

Both Pilate and the religious leaders tried to put the blame elsewhere. Neither wanted to feel responsible for their actions. Sounds like human nature, doesn’t it? Sounds like Genesis 3. We tend to look for an out when it comes to our own fears, failures, and sin. And the best out is to find someone else to blame.

Interestingly, the crowd does accept the blame. They cry out, “His blood be on us and our children!”There’s the flip side of the coin. Sometimes we feel guilty and try to wash our hands by blaming others. Sometimes we blatantly numb our conscience, stiffen our necks, and say, “Yes, I did it and I don’t care. Put it all on me.”

You see, in our sin, all of us are somewhere in this narrative. The disciples who fail Him. Peter who denies Him. Judas who betrays Him. The religious leaders who reject Him. Pilate who washes his hands of Him. The crowd who chooses a political revolutionary over Him. All of us have a part in Jesus’ death.

Isaiah makes this prophetically clear.

He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

The disciples of Jesus wrote the Gospel accounts not to cast themselves as heroes who valiantly stood by the Lord while everyone else mistreated Him and killed Him. It was not “us against them.” It was “us against Him.” And yet, while we were still sinners–still forsakers, betrayers, avoiders, haters, and deniers of God–God proved His love in that Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

Hallelujah! What a Savior!

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