Bible Heroes & Villains

Pilate: The Love of Power

Throughout Pilate’s actions that Passover, his craving for power—and his fears of losing power—guided him.

The stakes were high.

Jerusalem overflowed with pilgrims, visiting to celebrate Passover. Pontius Pilate knew he had to be at the top of his game. You never knew when something might go wrong.

Sure enough, Pilate awakened to vexing tidings. The religious leaders in charge of Jerusalem’s magnificent temple were bringing him a rabble rouser for execution. Someone called Jesus of Nazareth.

Spies and informers undoubtedly fed Pilate information—and disinformation—about everything in Jerusalem, including the activities and teachings of Jesus. If so, Pilate knew a number of disturbing things.

Jesus began the week by entering Jerusalem on a colt. Some people welcomed him by shouting lines from the Bible—prophetic passages that kept alive the dangerous Jewish hope that God would send a king (called the anointed one, the Messiah) to free Israel from Roman military occupation. (Mark 11:1-11).

A day later, this same Jesus stirred things up in the temple itself, tossing out the business people—some called them little better than thieves and extortionists. (Mark 11-12,15-17). These greedy merchants overcharged people who bought animals that the priests would sacrifice at the temple.

In the following days, Jesus taught among the crowds in the temple. He cleverly avoided religious and political traps that his enemies laid for him.

For example, his enemies—who wanted to get Jesus killed—tried to get Jesus to urge people not to pay taxes to the hated Romans. Aware that his enemies were trying to trap him in treason, Jesus asked for a coin. Holding it up, he asked whose inscription was on the coin. The answer? Caesar’s! Jesus told the crowd: “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:13-17).

The spies and informers also heard Jesus say something about giving back to God what is God’s. (Mark 12:17). No matter. As the Roman Governor of Judea, the highest ranking Roman official in Jerusalem, Pilate cared very much about collecting taxes for Rome. Pilate cared about financing the Roman occupation and Roman glory. But he also cared about getting rich by keeping a portion of the taxes to line his own pockets. He cared not at all about these Jewish religious arguments. Except if they threatened his wealth. Or his power!

Power! Yes, Pilate loved money. But even more, this crafty politician loved—he craved—power!

Throughout Pilate’s actions that Passover, his craving for power—and his fears of losing power—guided him.

To maintain his power and Rome’s control of Jerusalem, Pilate maintained an uneasy relationship with the wealthy, powerful religious leaders. He kept them wealthy and powerful, but only so long as they kept him wealthy and powerful.

In order to observe Passover by entering the temple, the religious leaders had to stay ceremonially pure by not entering the palace of a non-Jew such as Pilate. To accommodate their religious scruples, Pilate went outside to meet these anxious puppets of the Roman Empire (John 18:28-29).

Pilate asked what Jesus had done or taught that justified the death sentence—cruel crucifixion. They told him, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes paying taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.” (Luke 23:2).

Pilate would not have cared if Jesus was undermining the Jewish nation. Indeed, the weaker the local Jewish patriots became, the stronger Rome became! Rome could tighten its stranglehold on Jerusalem even more! This charge against Jesus would not have upset Pilate.

The charge that Jesus opposed paying taxes to the Emperor of the Roman Empire (referred to as “Caesar”) was another matter. This charge would have upset Pilate greatly. Oppose paying taxes to Caesar? This would never do. Rome and Pilate loved money!

The final charge was even more alarming. Anyone claiming to be king was opposing the power of Caesar. Oppose Roman power? Oppose Pilate’s power? This would never do. Rome and Pilate loved power!

Pilate urgently interrogated the prisoner, Jesus: “Are you the king?” (John 18:33). “What is it you have done?” (John 18:35).

In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus’ answer is edited in a way that makes Pilate’s next words puzzling. For example, in the gospel of Luke, Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” and Jesus replies, “You have said so.” (Luke 23:3). Pilate then announced, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.” (Luke 23:4).

I’ve heard the meaning of Jesus’ reply to Pilate explained two ways. Even in English the answer depends on the context and the tone of voice.

What if two diehard Yankee fans are sitting together at Yankee Stadium? Both attest their loyalty to the Yankees by wearing classic Yankee jerseys from the era of Babe Ruth. One Yankee fan says, “The Yankees are the greatest baseball team in the history of the game!” The other Yankee fan replies, “You said it!” This emphasis on certain words and the context in which they’re spoken, means that the other Yankee fan agrees that the Yankees are the greatest baseball franchise ever.

But what if a diehard Yankee fan visiting Fenway baseball stadium in Boston says to a diehard Boston Red Sox fan (dressed in a Red Sox jersey with a Red Sox baseball cap), “The Yankees are the greatest baseball franchise in the history of the game!” The Red Sox fan answers, “That’s what you said!” This emphasis on certain words and the context in which they’re spoken, means that the Boston baseball fan completely disagrees with the Yankee fan.

If Jesus said, “You have said so.” in the way one Yankee fan agrees with another Yankee fan, Jesus would have been saying, “Yes! I am the king of the Jews!”. Such a clear statement that he was the king of the Jews would have confirmed the charges brought by the religious leaders. Pilate would have immediately found Jesus guilty of rebellion against Rome and crucified him. He would never have said, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Luke 23:4).

But Pilate’s words and actions in response to Jesus’ answer show that Pilate understood that Jesus disagreed emphatically with the charges of the religious leaders. Jesus disagreed with the religious leaders the way a Boston Red Sox fan would disagree with any assertion by a Yankees fan. Pilate undoubtedly believed that Jesus was not the king of the Jews. That was why Pilate announced to the religious leaders: “I find no basis for a charge against this man.” (Luke 23:4).

Fortunately, the Gospel of John has a much more detailed of this critical exchange between Jesus and Pilate. Therefore, I’ll use John’s account of the words that Jesus said to Pilate, what Jesus meant by his words, and how Pilate understood what Jesus was saying.

Before questioning Jesus, Pilate wanted to find out what Jesus was being charged with. He asked the religious leaders, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” (John 18:29).

They evaded his question. They wanted the governor to respect how powerful they were and take their word that Jesus deserved to be executed. They told Pilate: “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” (John 18:30). Why bother with a lengthy trial during such a busy time of year?

Jesus himself was remaining silent in the face of the outrageous accusations of the religious leaders and the disrespectful badgering by Pilate. (Matthew 27:12-14).

Eventually, however, Pilate asked Jesus a question in a way that drew a response from Jesus. Pilate asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responded by asking Pilate a question: “Is that your own idea, or did others talk to you about me?” John 18:33-34).

This was a shrewd question by Jesus in two respects.

First, it would help Jesus determine what evidence Pilate had against him. Was it merely malicious gossip fomented by the religious leaders? Or had Pilate gotten this idea from his own spies and informers?

Second, the meaning of the word “king” would be very different to a Roman governor than to a religious leader.

Indeed, this confrontation among Jesus, Pilate and the religious leaders quickly shifted to what Jesus, Pilate and the religious leaders understood by the idea that Jesus was a “king.”

Pilate did not answer Jesus’ question. Instead, he deflected it, saying, “Am I a Jew?”. (John 18:35). In addition to deflecting Jesus’ question, Pilate deflected taking responsibility for what was happening. He said, “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me.” (John 18:35).

Pilate again asked that Jesus explain himself: “What is it you have done?”. (John 18:35).

“My kingdom is not of this world . . . my kingdom is from another place,” Jesus said. (John 18:36). Pilate taunted him, “You are a king, then!” (John 18:37).

Jesus again denied he was a “king.” Jesus did not love money or power. He loved his Heavenly Father. He loved the truth. Like the LORD, Jesus could say, “My thoughts are not your thoughts. My ways are not your ways. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9).

The kingdoms of this world rule by wielding the money and power that is loved by people such as Pilate. In contrast, the kingdom of God rules by wielding the Truth that is loved by people who follow the Way of Jesus.

Jesus rules from this place of Truth. He tried to explain to Pilate: “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” (John 18:37).

“What is truth,” snarled Pilate! (John 18:38). Obviously, Pilate was not on the side of truth and would not listen to Jesus.

Nevertheless, Pilate wanted to show that he was cleverer and more powerful than these religious leaders who were tryIng to manipulate him. Jesus was a thorn in their flesh, constantly proclaiming their hypocrisy. Let Jesus keep humiliating them. Undermining their power. After all, Jesus taught people to pay taxes to Rome! Why would Pilate want to silence such a teacher?

Instead, Pilate tried again and again that day to thwart the plan of the religious leaders to silence this rabbi who told people to pay taxes to Rome.

At first, Pilate tried to show how clever he was. He transferred the case to Herod on the grounds that Jesus was from Galilee where Herod ruled. Herod enjoyed satisfying his curiosity by meeting Jesus. The religious leaders stood there, vehemently accusing him. Jesus remained silent, ignoring this rigged proceeding. Herod mocked Jesus and sent him back to Pilate. (Luke 23:6-12).

Pilate tried another clever maneuver. He offered to follow his custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover (Matthew 27:15-18), foreshadowing the custom of American presidents who pardon a turkey at Thanksgiving.

A crowd was gathering. Jesus had shown his popularity with crowds earlier that week when he entered Jerusalem to cries of “Hosannah!”. (Matthew 21:1-11). But those crowds of Jesus’ supporters were not yet mobilized at this early morning hour. Or, perhaps they were too busy observing Passover to observe evil manifesting itself that very day in Jerusalem.

The religious leaders moved too quickly for the crowds of Jesus’ supporters. The crowd outside Pilate’s house this morning was packed with lackeys of the religious leaders. They yelled for Pilate to release the other prisoner. As for Jesus, they cried, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”. (Luke 23:20-21).

Pilate was having a very bad day. Then his wife added to the stress. While Pilate “was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘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’s efforts to appear clever and powerful crumbled. As a Roman, Pilate was familiar with stories about gods taking human form to walk among us and even have sexual relations with mortals. Playing upon such Roman superstitions, the religious leaders told Pilate that Jesus “‘claimed to be the Son of God.’ When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. ‘Where do you come from?’ he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer.” (John 19:7-9).

Desperate for an answer—for a way out of this mess—Pilate angrily threatened Jesus. “‘Do you refuse to speak to me?’ Pilate said. ‘Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?’” (John 19:10).

Jesus stayed calm. He was not desperate or angry. He knew his Heavenly Father was in control. And he knew his Heavenly Father loved him. Jesus replied, “You would have no power over me if it were not given you from above.” (John 19:11).

Pilate tried again to set Jesus free. But the religious leaders were more clever. They figured out how to gain power over Pilate. They lied! They threatened him: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” (John 19:12).

Now, Pilate was the one who had to worry about being executed. If the Emperor heard that Pilate was reluctant to execute those opposed to the Emperor, Pilate would lose his lucrative position of power. And very likely lose his head!

These charges against Pilate were lies. All lies! But as a politician, Pilate knew “What is truth?”. Especially when your clever, powerful enemies shout lies about you.

Indeed, the crowd “shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’”. (Matthew 27:23). As a typical politician, Pilate tried to have it both ways.

“When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. . . . Then he had Jesus flogged and handed him over to be crucified.” (Matthew 27:24).

Pilate made one final effort to show he was more powerful than the religious leaders. The sign over the cross of Jesus said, “The king of the Jews.” The religious leaders wanted the sign to say, “He said he was the king of the Jews.” Pilate showed far more backbone defending his sign than defending the life of an innocent man. Pilate told the religious leaders, “What I have written, I have written.” (John 19:19-22).

In contrast, Pilate saw the wisdom of the next request by the religious leaders—make the tomb of Jesus as secure as possible to prevent anyone stealing Jesus’ body. If that happened, his followers might claim that he had risen from the dead after three days, as Jesus had prophesied on numerous occasions. (Matthew 27:62-66).

To the horror of Pilate and the religious leaders, they learned that truth ultimately triumphs over all lies. His empty tomb proved that Jesus and his Heavenly Father were far cleverer and far more powerful than Pilate or the religious leaders.

After Pilate’s wife heard about the empty tomb—about the resurrection of Jesus—I’m sure she nagged Pilate for the rest of his days: “I told you so!”.

Served him right!

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This blog is based on pages 277-285 and 298-300 of my book, Hoping in the LORD. Notes related to this blog can be found in my book, Hoping in the LORD.