Read John 19:1–16.
It’s just a single verse in the gospel of John, and maybe that’s for the best. When I read, “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged” (19:1), I want to look away from my Bible quickly, to turn my mind toward something else. Pilate doesn’t believe Jesus is guilty of anything the Jewish religious leaders have charged, yet He sends Jesus to endure a torture so cruel many of its victims do not survive the experience.
The Son of God is stripped naked and tied to a post. Then a soldier with a leather whip, outfitted with bits of bone, rock, and metal, excoriates His skin over and over again. Though the New Testament does not provide us with the gruesome details, it was not uncommon for this torment to continue until the victim’s bones or internal organs were visible. When it is decided that Jesus has had enough, the slice of the whip is silenced. Jesus is then dressed in a robe and crown designed to make Him look like a Gentile king. The crown, instead of being fashioned from soft garland, is twisted together from long, cruel thorns that must have pierced Jesus’ scalp. The robe is no doubt a red cloak from one of the soldier’s uniforms, faded purple from the sun.
Pilate’s hope, it seems, is to present Jesus back to the chief priests and other officials so beaten, bloody, and utterly humiliated that even they will have to admit Jesus has suffered enough. But at the grisly reveal, there is no such pity. “Crucify! Crucify!” they shout. They want Jesus dead.
On Good Friday, we contemplate Jesus on the cross, but it’s important to remember all He endured that day prior to the actual crucifixion. Have you been rejected? Jesus has. Humiliated? Jesus has been there too. Despised by the very people who should have welcomed you? Jesus knows what you’re going through. That morning in Herod the Great’s Jerusalem palace, which Pilate used while staying in the city, Jesus experienced the worst of what humans can do to one another.
The author of Hebrews tells us, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). We tend to think of these temptations as enticements to pleasure or pride, but there is another sort of temptation that seems righteous, and Jesus faced it that morning as Pilate’s unwelcome guest.
Jesus could have taken His eyes off of His Father and responded to His tormenters in kind, hurting Pilate, his soldiers, and the Jewish religious leaders just as they had hurt Him. Did the thought cross His mind? The Gospels do not tell us, but Hebrews does say He was “tempted in every way” (emphasis added). Certainly, there are times where we must stand up to bullies and wicked men, but there are other times when our obedience to God will mean rising above their cruelty and walking through the pain. It takes wisdom and an ear tuned to God’s voice to know the difference, and the same strength of faith Jesus displayed to follow through. But because of this episode recorded in John’s gospel, we know we are not alone when we must endure injustice. Jesus has already been there to show us the way.
Jesus stands between the Jewish religious authorities and Pontius Pilate, not as a mediator of peace but as an innocent victim caught in their respective crosshairs. Neither side is willing to back down. The governor presses his opponents, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him” (v. 6). Pilate knows that if they administer capital punishment themselves, they’ll be violating Roman law, and he’ll have justification to crush their rebellion. Not to be outdone, the priests and scribes tell Pilate, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (v. 12). Translation: “If you don’t do what we want and crucify Jesus of Nazareth, we’ll make sure Rome knows you’re a traitor.”
Checkmate. Pilate can’t risk more bad news about his governorship being delivered to Caesar’s palace. And so, “Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified” (v. 16).
From a merely human perspective, it was the delicate politics of imperial Rome that sealed Jesus’ fate. But in the story of redemption, it was the love of God and the faithfulness of the Son that brought Jesus to the cross. “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). He endured it all so that the slings and arrows you and I experience in this life do not get the final word. Because of the cross, we can find acceptance in the arms of the One whose opinion matters most.