Much has been made of Pilate's seeming reluctance to crucify Christ in the gospels. We know he was a brutal military man who was not a very good politician and who did not get on well with the people he was supposed to govern. Philo, a contemporary Jewish writer, described Pilate as vindictive, “inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness,” with a “furious temper.” Some scholars figure he would have killed Jesus, a potential revolutionary, without a second thought. Why the hesitation we see in the gospels?
People act differently in different circumstances. And Pilate's behavior was influenced by his situation and by the people he interacted with. One person that probably is most responsible for Pilate's behavior in this case was Caiaphas, who was appointed High Priest by Pilate's predecessor. When Pilate first entered Jerusalem, he did not do what his predecessors did and remove the insignia and effigies from the army's standards. The Jews saw these as idols and staged demonstrations, asking they be removed. After 5 days' deliberation, Pilate had the demonstrators surrounded by his troops and threatened them with death. Which the Jews were willing to undergo rather than violate the 2nd Commandment. Eventually Pilate stood down. A similar incident later led to a reprimand from the Emperor Tiberius. Pilate had no love for the religious leader of the Jewish people.
It was quite likely, therefore, that when Caiaphas came early on the Day of Preparation for the Passover with a man he wanted Pilate to execute that very day, Pilate was suspicious. As High Priest, one would expect Caiaphas to be, not at the Antonia fortress, but at the Temple. And the crowd of Jews calling for Jesus' blood should have been there, too, having their lambs sacrificed for the feast. Obviously it was not a random gathering of Jewish citizens; the mob was probably made up of Caiaphas' supporters and his servants. So Pilate could see that Caiaphas wanted this execution badly. Since Caiaphas had never done Pilate a favor, Pilate would be reluctant to help him. In fact, if he could determine that Jesus was no insurrectionist, but merely a religious rival to the High Priest, he might release him just to serve as a thorn in Caiaphas' side. To him, Jesus was a pawn to use against a man Pilate hated.
Joseph Caiaphas was a consummate politician. He was High Priest before Pilate came and he remained High Priest for most of Pilate's term. When he heard that Jesus was growing popular and had raised Lazarus from the dead, his reaction was not to wonder if the Galilean carpenter was indeed the Messiah; he saw him as a potential threat. At Passover, Jerusalem filled with Jews from all over. It was a feast celebrating God liberating his people from Egypt. The parallel with the Roman Empire wasn't hard to make. Jesus had said nothing political but he had entered Jerusalem on a donkey, which could be seen as fulfillment of a prophesy in Zechariah 9:9. Jesus had driven out of the Temple the moneychangers, an easy target for discontent because of they enriched themselves using unfair exchange rates. The Sanhedrin, the supreme council of Jewish leaders, was already afraid of Jesus' popularity. They said, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will take away our place and our nation.” (John 11:48) But Caiaphas had done the cold-blooded calculation. “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:50) Caiaphas didn't care that Jesus was performing the same signs as a prophet. To him, Jesus was a problem to be eliminated.
In his effort to not do Caiaphas a favor, Pilate sends Jesus across town to Herod Antipas, who rules Galilee. After all, Jesus falls under his jurisdiction. Earlier Herod had been afraid that Jesus was somehow John the Baptist risen from the dead. Herod had arrested John for calling his marriage to his sister-in-law incestuous. He couldn't bring himself to kill John and listened to the captive prophet despite the way he made Herod squirm. Then Herod had been tricked by his spouse and adopted daughter into beheading John. Now he was finally getting the chance to see and hear Jesus for himself. But Jesus won't play along. Herod can see he is not John and has no interest in killing another popular religious figure. He is however grateful for the Roman governor recognizing his authority over Galilee and they become friends. To Herod, Jesus is a curiosity and more importantly, someone else's problem.
When Jesus gets kicked back to Pilate, the governor has one more trick up his sleeve. He has Jesus flogged as a punishment and shows the people this bloody, beaten man. Then he offers to pardon one prisoner for Passover. Who do they want—Barabbas, a real insurrectionist and murderer, or Jesus, whose followers, the Nazarene astutely points out, are not fighting to free him? To Pilate's surprise, the bogus crowd requests Barabbas. And they shout that since Jesus claims to be King of the Jews, if Pilate pardons him, he is no friend to Caesar. And Pilate may not survive another Imperial reprimand. So he washes his hands of the responsibility and lets Jesus be crucified.
Pilate was a military man playing politics badly. Caiaphas was a religious leader playing politics expertly. Herod was an unpopular puppet of the Empire. And then we have Jesus. Jesus was a king but his kingdom did not come from this world. You belong to one of the kingdoms from this world by simply being born into it. Or because your kingdom was conquered by another. But citizenship in the kingdom of God is totally voluntary. No one is there against his will. You have to be born again, born from above to be a part of it. You have to ask God to enter your life in order to enter his kingdom.
The kingdoms of the world were all established by spilling the blood of the conquered. And that blood and the death of soldiers and citizens benefited the king or emperor or premier or president.The kingdom of God is established on the spilt blood of its king, Jesus. And ultimately the death of Jesus benefited the lives of the citizens of God's kingdom. He gives up his life that we might have life eternal.
The kingdoms of this world all end. The pharaohs no longer rule Egypt. Assyria and Babylon are history. The Roman Empire fragmented and fell to barbarians. The kingdom of God is everlasting. The reigns of leaders of the kingdoms of this earth also come to an end. Pilate's patron, Sejanus, second in power only to the Emperor Tiberius, was arrested and executed. Pilate was removed from office after the Samaritans wrote to the Emperor protesting his violence against them. Caiaphas was removed as High Priest a year before Pilate's downfall. Herod Antipas was accused by his nephew of conspiracy against the Emperor Caligula and died in exile in Gaul.
Jesus was crucified, a punishment reserved for slaves and traitors. Yet God raised him on the third day and his name and his movement has spread throughout the world. These other 3 men are footnotes to history, known primarily because of their interactions with Jesus.
To Pilate, Caiaphas and Herod, Jesus was a problem to be dealt with. None of them cared who he really was. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” As Pilate cynically said, “What is truth?” They didn't care. They only cared about the political realities of the moment. The Son of God was not killed because of who he was or what he preached. He was killed because of other considerations.
What about you? Do you in times of crucial decisions take into account only what will benefit you and yours or do consider who Jesus is, what he has done for you and what your response should be? Do you try to sideline the Son of God so you can continue with business as usual in your life? Do you treat Jesus as an inconvenience or as your Lord, your Savior and your King now and forevermore?
Let us pray:
Lord God, Heavenly Father, King of the Universe, so often we confuse the ephemeral with the eternal, the trivial with the important and the important with the essential. Too often we put more emphasis on the things of this world than the matters of your kingdom. Change our perspective, Lord. Help us to see all things through your eyes and act accordingly, regardless of how it looks to the rest of the world. May we never be ashamed to show our allegiance to you and your Son, our Savior Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray and who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.