Read John 18:28–40.
What we can glean about Pilate from extrabiblical sources paints a picture of a calculating but ultimately inept leader. One time, he looted the temple treasury to pay for a new aqueduct system that would bring water into Jerusalem. It was something the city desperately needed, but the Jewish people knew that money belonged to God and had been given to serve the operation of the temple. They were more than a little upset with Pilate’s plan.
The next time Pilate came to Jerusalem, the people were in a lather. So Pilate did what any terrible, cruel, vindictive person would do. He ordered his soldiers to dress as civilians and sow themselves into the crowds. Then, at his signal, he ordered his men to beat the people with clubs. Many Jews died from this cruel tactic, while many more were trampled to death in the ensuing chaos. Needless to say, this strategy did nothing to quell the Jewish people’s hatred for Rome.
That’s just one track from the greatest hits collection of Pilate’s tenure as governor of Judea. Rather than keeping the peace, Pilate’s terrible judgment served to stir up animus. In the end, he was such a miserable failure at the job, he was called back to Rome and, near as we can tell, spent the remainder of his days in exile in the wilds of France.
When the Jewish ruling council brought Jesus to Pilate, the air was thick with tension. Pilate despised the chief priest and his compatriots. Annas, Caiaphas, and the lot returned the favor. Jesus stood in the middle, not as a mediator but as a pawn in their ongoing battle.
From one perspective, Pilate held all the power. The Sanhedrin was not allowed to put a person to death; Rome had stripped them of that right, even though the law of Moses prescribed death by stoning for several offenses. To keep everything nice and legal, they needed Pilate to kill Jesus for them. On the other hand, Pilate knew the Jewish religious leaders could create problems for him. The crowds responded to them. If he wasn’t careful, he could have a full-scale riot on his hands. And with the population of Jerusalem swelled beyond all proper proportions because of the Passover Festival, word of such trouble would certainly make it back to Rome.
Pilate’s position is precarious, but Jesus is right where He wants to be—smack-dab in the Father’s will. He is willingly standing before the governor of Judea, being questioned and judged. At any moment He can end the ordeal, but for the sake of love He stands there.
“Are you the king of the Jews” Pilate asks Him (John 18:33). Jesus is that—the promised Messiah and Son of David—and so much more. He confirms His kingdom but tells Pilate it’s “not of this world.” He says, “If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest” (v. 36).
That one line puts Pilate in a tough spot. Had Jesus simply said, “Yes, I am a king, and my supporters are ready to fight for me,” He would have been challenging the rule of Caesar. Pilate, then, could have established the charge of treason brought to him by the Jewish leaders and ended the matter. On the other hand, had Jesus said, “No, I’m not a king at all,” Pilate would not be able to give Caiaphas what he wants without appearing weak and inept—and he knows weakness will only invite more challenges from the Jewish ruling council.
Pilate wants to satisfy the Sanhedrin; he doesn’t want a riot in the streets. But he also can’t appear to do as he’s told. He needs to assert his authority on this matter. So he presses Jesus, hoping to find something that will provide him a path to please the Jewish leaders or silence their accusations. Jesus, however, isn’t interested in Pilate’s chess game with the Jewish high council; His whole life has been about one thing: the truth. He tells Pilate, “You say that I am a king. In fact, 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” (v. 37).
Pilate’s famous retort, “What is truth?” (v. 38), is difficult to decode. Was it an honest, philosophical question or a snide and cynical comeback—or some mangled combination of the two? Pilate has been around long enough to know that truth does not always win out. Power can crush those who speak truth just as quickly as those who spread lies. Rome did not care about truth, only maintaining the delicate peace that serves the empire’s ends. In his experience, the truth is whatever Rome says it is. And so he goes outside once again to address the high priest and his mob. He thinks he has a plan that will maintain his authority and end their protests.
Every year at the Passover Festival, Pilate releases a prisoner. It’s a PR move to show he isn’t all crucifixions and taxes. He assumes that with Jesus’ otherwise clean record, the people will choose to release Him. In this way, Pilate won’t be denying the Jewish leaders’ claims about Jesus outright, but he also won’t be executing an innocent man simply because they want Him dead. It’s a power move designed to make him look benevolent while revealing Annas and Caiaphas to be monsters. It’s brilliant—except for one thing: it doesn’t work. Pilate has underestimated the power that the Jewish religious leaders hold over the crowds (see Matthew 27:20). Given the choice between Jesus and a hardened criminal, the people choose the criminal.
In the moment, it seems truth has lost: Jesus is innocent, and yet He will be condemned in Barabbas’ place. However, Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, so the truth He’s fighting for is bigger than mere guilt or innocence. The deeper truth will do nothing less than make the guilty innocent, for the truth is that humanity needs a Savior, and Jesus is going to suffer and die to set many people free from the curse of sin and death.
In answer to Pilate’s famous question, “What is truth?” Jesus will lay down His life, because the truth is this: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
P. S. It’s not too early for Christmas! The new edition of my Advent devotional book, The Promise of Christmas, is available now!