Pilate: Powerful, Pragmatic Pawn of Providence

Pontius Pilate is picture of worldly power. He is competent and calculating, he is pragmatic and self-preserving. But for all his shrewdness, his life demonstrates that the “Word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth.”1

Imagine a conversation over breakfast between Pilate and his wife, Procula, on the Sunday morning following Jesus’ crucifixion, just before they receive word that the tomb is empty.

“You’re quiet again this morning, Procula. Still brooding over the Galilean?”

“I can’t shake this ominous feeling that something is going to happen because he was executed. My dream was so disturbing, so vivid.”

“Well, I can’t govern by the superstitious dreams of women.”

“He was a righteous man. You should not have sentenced him to death.”

“I didn’t sentence him! The Sanhedrin sentenced him!”

“You pronounced the judgment.”

“Yes, and I didn’t have a choice, Procula! We’ve been over this. He broke a Jewish blasphemy law, they wanted him dead, they used me to do it. I did everything in my power to release him!”

Procula was soft-spoken in her persistence. “It was in your power to release him.”

Pilate pressed his palm against his forehead and clenched his jaw, suppressing his volatile temper.

“You know what I mean! I told them three times that I found no guilt in him. I tried to pass him off to Herod. I tried scourging him to pacify them. Nothing. They were dead-set. I even gave the crowd a choice between releasing a convicted murderer or Jesus, and whom did they choose? The murderer!”

Looking up at his wife Pilate said with exasperation, “What did you expect me to do?”

“Not condemn the righteous. Aren’t you supposed to administer justice from Rome’s tribunal?”

“No! I’m supposed to make sure that Judea poses no problems for Tiberius!”

“Even if that means ignoring the truth?”

“Truth,” Pilate scoffed. “Whose truth, Procula? The Sanhedrin’s? Tiberius’? Your dream’s? The Galilean’s? Truth is what got the Galilean killed. I gave him every chance to refute the accusations, but you know what he said to me? ‘For this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth.’2 And you know what his truth was? That he was a king of some kingdom outside of this world. Well, apparently the Sanhedrin seemed to think that his truth was a dangerous lie.”

“Do you think he was dangerous?”

Pilate sighed and sipped his wine. “I don’t know. He wasn’t like the Zionist zealots. There was no diatribe against Rome. He hardly said anything. He didn’t even seem angry. If he threatened anyone I think it was the Sanhedrin. I know a set-up when I see one. A midnight trial, a demand for immediate crucifixion. This wasn’t about their holy law. It was about power. Caiaphas was getting rid of a problem.”

“Were you getting rid of a problem?”

Pilate’s eyes flashed with anger. “Believe me, Procula, I have bigger problems than Jesus to worry about. My problem is Caesar. That mob would have turned into a riot if I had released Jesus. Riots in Jerusalem always lead to some Jew getting killed and I can’t risk any more Jewish blood on my hands right now without inviting Tiberius’ inquiry.

“And then I had the chief priests suddenly feigning loyalty to Caesar and publicly questioning mine. If I had released him, can you imagine their glee at reporting to Tiberius that I was unwilling to deal with a rival to Caesar? When all was said and done, my choice was between Caesar and a delusional Galilean. That choice was obvious to me.”

At that moment a servant stepped into the room. “What is it?” Pilate asked.

“Marcus Antonius is requesting to see you, sir.”

“Marcus? This early in the morning? That can’t be good. Send him in.”

The young officer strode in.

“What is it, Marcus?”

“The Galilean, sir. He’s disappeared.”

Pilate was a man of pragmatic worldly wisdom. He probably saw himself as a realist. Which was ironic, because he got reality dead wrong. He seemed to see Jesus as a disposable pawn in a political chess game, when in reality he himself was the pawn and Jesus the King.

And this is crucial to remember when, for Jesus’ sake, we find ourselves at the mercies of powerful earthly authorities (governing, vocational, familial, or religious) that “seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:21). Their selfish interests may even inflict evil upon us. But the Bible is clear: what they mean for evil, God means, and will turn, for our good (Genesis 50:20).

Remember Jesus’ word to Pilate: “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 19:11). The same is true of us. Those in authority over us are there by God’s decree, and they will give an account to him.

But for us “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

  1. From Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” 

  2. John 18:37