Matthew 27:24 When Pilate saw that he could not prevail at all, but rather that a tumult was rising, he took water and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, "I am innocent of the blood of this just Person. You see to it."
Dear friends, this evening our study centers on our fourth eye-witness, Pontius Pilate. Pilate was the Roman governor of Israel during the time of Christ and therefore he was the one in charge of cases of capital punishment. There is much to be learned from Pilate’s dealings with Christ. In many ways, his attitude mirrors the skeptics of our modern day, who place their confidence and hope in their reason. Jesus was crucified in the year AD 33. Pilate left office three years after. He was sentenced back to Rome because he viciously persecuted a group of Samaritans. This was the final act in a long line of tyranny from the reign of Pilate. Not much is known about his life after he left Israel. Some claim that the sentencing of Jesus plagued him so much later in life that he eventually became a Christian. In the Ethiopian church, Pilate is considered a saint to this day. However, there is no credible evidence that Pilate ever came to faith in Jesus. What is certain is that at the time of Christ’s trial Pilate was definitely not a believer. Keep this in mind as we hear from his in the form of a fictitious letter written sometime between the death of Christ and Pilate’s expulsion from Israel.
To the most excellent, Vitellius, Roman governor of Syria. Greetings in the name of our esteemed emperor, Tiberius.
I write to you to inform you about some strange happenings in the region of Israel, particularly in the city of Jerusalem. It all centers on this individual named Jesus, who supposedly was a prophet and a king of the Hebrews. The whole story perplexes me greatly, which is why I seek your advice. You are the closest Roman governor to my region; therefore I find it to be imperative that you are aware of the situation. There’s no doubt that if you haven’t yet dealt with these followers of Jesus, you soon will.
They are a determined group, seemingly even more dedicated to their beliefs than their Jewish brethren, which isn’t surprising since many of their converts are Jewish. Their entire faith is founded on Jesus and recent events that took place in Jerusalem. I write this to you from my home in Caesarea. As you know, I prefer to stay away from Jerusalem since there always seems to be thoughts of revolt among the people there. Yet, just recently, I had to be present in the capital city because of the Jewish Passover feast. Tiberius expects me to be present at times of festival in order to keep the peace. But what transpired was beyond my control.
I have served as governor in this region for nearly 10 years, and I have seen a lot. But I have never seen such fervor and chaos as I did at the last Passover in Jerusalem. The Jews, the very people this Jesus supposedly served; begged, pleaded, and demanded His death. I know that news of this event has already reached your court, yet I must try to describe it for you. It was truly something to behold; no mere letter can contain the full extent of what I witnessed.
Prior to the Passover, I knew of a few happenings surrounding Jesus. But as with most headlines, I left it to my secretaries to keep track of. All I knew about Jesus was that He was popular among the common people and that there were rumors about His ability for the supernatural. Up until that point, I assumed that only the Jews could believe such nonsense. I have never understood their religion and why it is such an important part of their culture. I fear this is one thing that our Emperor simply does not understand. It is near impossible to govern a people who are so attached to religion.
I have tried to rule with authority, exercising punishment and force, to keep the people in line. You know of my swift dealings with Galileans who refused to submit to Roman law. You would think they would fall in line when blood was shed. But, despite what they may say, I haven’t been unjustly cruel. I have also tried subtler methods. My command to display the image of our Emperor in the cities was not meant as a sign of disrespect, but a reminder of Roman authority in this land. Yet, the foolish Jews took it as sacrilege; as blatant idolatry. Would they rather I ruled with the sword? There seems to be no logic with these people. I still wonder how they can submit to Caesar without offending their ideology.
You know how we were trained, Vitellius. The rule of law comes first. It is above all else. Without it, everything crumbles. Religion is certainly important. Even I offer prayers to our many gods. But the Hebrews are different. They put religion above all else. This religious pride pinnacled at the Passover in Jerusalem. I was expecting a relatively peaceful proceedings, and I allowed the people to exercise their rituals unheeded. But then their leaders brought Jesus before me. I expected the evidence to be insurmountable given their hatred against the Man. They spoke about Him as if He were the vilest of all offenders.
Yet, when it came evidence, it all pointed to Jesus’ innocence. I feel that voices across the empire are conspiring against me because I condemned Him. It’s easy to summarize and say that I sentenced an innocent man to death. But the reality of it all clouds the matter. Jesus was no Roman. I tried to reason with the Jews but there was no order to be had. They knew what they wanted, regardless of the truth. I could have stood defiantly in their way and said no to their demands, but to what end? So that one of their own, masquerading as a king, could go free again, only to be lynched later on by his own kind? So that the mob could revolt under my rule once again and make me look weak before the Emperor?
Sometimes the rule of law is hard to put into practice. I regret that I had to sentence Jesus to death. But if His own people didn’t want Him, what was the value of His life anyway? And yet, it still bothers me that justice was not upheld that day. I was cornered into a decision, no doubt, but what good is a representative of Rome if he does not uphold justice? I feel as if I neglected my responsibility but I also feel as if I had no choice. I did all I could to appease my conscience. I ceremoniously washed my hands as an act of defiance to those wicked Jews. Yet, I cannot shake the guilty feeling from my conscience. I should have listened to my wife and dismissed the case entirely.
I ask you, Vitellius, what are we mere mortals to do when given such great responsibility yet faced with such difficult circumstances? I really tried to help Jesus even though I know His followers hold me responsible for His death. When the first witnesses tried to condemn Him for insurrection, I told them they had no evidence. I abruptly denied their request because I could tell that their stories were in contradiction. After they still wouldn’t relent, I offered to execute Barabbas instead. If blood was what they wanted, they could have it; and from someone who deserved to die. But they still cried for Jesus.
In final desperation I turned to the accused Himself. What did Jesus have to say about these accusations? Could He give me anything to help with His own defense? I was willing to listen. But, He remained silent. I could not believe i! Never before had I seen a man so willingly give Himself up to those who hated Him, and without just cause! It was as if He cared for them even after everything they did to Him. When Jesus finally decided to speak, it was near impossible to hold back the mob. And He didn’t exactly help His situation. They accused Him of being a king, and He didn’t deny it; though His words gave me pause. I still remember what He said, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here."
What kind of king freely claims His authority yet in the same breath so willingly gives it up? And what was the purpose of dying for a kingdom that didn’t exist on this earth? I am still perplexed by such logic. The Jewish leaders seemed to think this kingdom was bound up in their historic promise of Messiah figure. It was clear that Jesus claimed to be this Messiah, but to what end? His opponents tirelessly tried to persuade me that Jesus’ intent was against Rome. But if so, why was there no record of rebellion in His past? If so, how come not one credible witness could come forward? All evidence pointed to the fact that Jesus was a respectable, law-abiding citizen. I could certainly pin more political crimes to the Sadducees than I could to Him.
There was also an indescribable calm about Jesus as He sat there on trial. His was not the demeanor of rebel. Most men would have lost their wits under far less scrutiny. Part of the reason I scourged Him was to see if He would break down or if His enemies would be satisfied. His innocence was never in question. I cringed having to punish Him that way but if it could spare His life in the end would that not have been just?
Yet, through everything that transpired: the false testimony, the heinous insults, the painful beatings and mockery, Jesus remained calm and resolute. I ask you, Vitellius, have you ever heard of such a thing? It’s almost as if Jesus knew He was going to die. Almost as if, dare I say, He wanted to die. If He was not the Messiah that the Jews wanted, I wonder who else in the history of mankind could live up to such a standard. To act with such grace and patience in the midst of such hostility, is truly something I presume I may never see again.
If that’s where the story ended, I might eventually have peace. But, as you know, the fame of Jesus endures to this day, and in fact has grown. Many even claim that the Man Himself still lives. Before you discount me entirely, good Vitellius, consider this. On the night of His death, the very Jews that killed Jesus requested that His tomb be sealed. Of all things, they were fearful of His claim that He would come back from the dead. Supposedly He had promised that very thing. Whether they all believed this or not is beyond me; indeed some were worried about a plot by his disciples to promote a false resurrection.
I thought the fear was unwarranted. His closest followers had all but abandoned Him. There were a few at the cross, some others who requested His body after death, but none so bold as to die in His name for a cause that never materialized. If anything, the Jews should have been reveling in their victory. The time of Jesus as king had come and gone. Yet, because of their incessant complaining I gave them two guards and allowed them to seal the tomb. I wanted some semblance of rest during my remaining time in Jerusalem.
It’s at this point that I wonder. For not more than three days later, the tomb was broken into and is now empty. Where the body of Jesus is I do not know, but it is not in the tomb. The guards are an absolute wreck. No one knows for sure what to believe. When I examined them, they couldn’t remember what had happened. Yet, I also have it on good authority that they both received large sums of money from the Sanhedrin. Even that very afternoon, a courier from the temple arrived at my quarters and requested that I meet with the Sanhedrin. I refused, and I have no plans to reconsider. I washed my hands of Jesus once, I don’t want any more to do with Him.
But I fear that despite my efforts to ignore Him, He will eventually be the cause of my fall. His final words to me burn in my mind, night and day: "You could have no power at all against Me unless it had been given you from above." No one had ever so defiantly spoke against my authority, and yet of all those who would, it was an innocent Man condemned to death. Who says such a thing to a leader who is control of whether He lives or dies? What did He mean by “power from above?” Could that be where His kingdom is? I know how foolish this sounds, Vitellius, but one must consider the possibility, especially now that the Man’s dead body is unaccounted for.
Has Jesus gone to be with God or the gods, whoever they may be? The Jews certainly would have me believe not. They choose to accept that Jesus’ disciples stole His body away in the middle of the night. But how? These disciples are uneducated commoners; not master thieves. They not only lack the cognition to pull off such a heist, but they also have no manpower or resources. On top of this, no Roman soldier would allow it. No Jew, friend or foe of Jesus, could attack a Roman soldier without word spreading. And furthermore, we know the Jews to be liars already. Shall we now trust them? As reasonable men we must consider the most reasonable explanation. Is a resurrection really less plausible than someone stealing His body without anyone knowing and managing to cover it up all this time?
This is why I cannot help but continually think of Jesus. Everything I witnessed about His life ran contrary to what others expected. Could it be the same of his death as well? If the resurrection is not to be treated as credible then what of the followers of Jesus? To this day, they continue to grow. I know you have already had to deal with their presence in Syria. They’ve established churches in: Jerusalem, Damascus, Caesarea, and even as far north as Antioch. I’ve even heard rumors of a movement in our beloved Capitol, Rome. If Jesus really was nothing, why would He be so popular, even after His death? His followers are fearless, yet moral.
Yes, it seems clear that the idea of a resurrection is the very basis of this new faith in Jesus. Without it, everything falls apart. If Jesus really was an imposter like the Jews say, it shouldn’t be difficult to prove the resurrection to be a lie. But then why do Jesus’ followers so confidently declare it to be true? Why can’t anyone refute it? Why have even Roman soldiers joined the faith of Jesus? Why must the Jewish leaders bribe others to keep silent? Where is the body? Perplexing questions that I think about every day.
If Jesus is somehow alive, what does that mean for me? Surely if He wanted vengeance, I would have defense. Would He come for me? Or would He show me the same kind of grace and kindness He showed the Jews? Would He forgive? Who could? I know what logic says, but then again, everything about Jesus is different.
I ask for your guidance and support in these strange days, good Vitellius. May this letter find you in good health. Perhaps next time we meet it will be on better terms.
Isaiah 53:3-7 He is despised and rejected by men, A Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned, every one, to his own way; And the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth.
Jesus was the Son of God, and had to silently endure the pains and torments of the cross, and everyone’s sins, to pay the world’s way to forgiveness.
Isaiah began these words with the simple question, “Who has believed our report?” Sadly, to our knowledge Pilate was one who refused to believe this message. Yet, we can hope that there was a day when Pilate heard these words, or others like them from the Bible, and received the answer that perplexed him so much during and after Jesus’ trial. What He witnessed surely stuck with him for live. We thank the Lord for opening our ears and hearts to the beautiful words of forgiveness and life in Jesus Christ. May we always treasure it above all else. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.