Was Pilate Guilty or Innocent?

Pilate 1

Q. Thinking back to illustrations and children’s books from childhood, Pilate is often portrayed as a bad guy. Reading the scriptures now, it seems Herod was always out to get Jesus, but it was Pilate who tried to save Him. He tried to release Him, but in the end he gave into the crowd’s demand to release Barabbas instead. Was Pilate guilty for his actions (he was scared of the people and gave into what they wanted instead of standing up for Jesus) or ‘innocent’ (he was put in his role to fulfill God’s plan for Jesus to be crucified)?

A. Yes Pilate did try to acquit Jesus, five times as a matter of fact:

1. The first was after he interrogated Jesus: Jn 18:38 Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in Him.” This was also recorded in Lk 23:4
2. The second was after he sent Jesus to Herod: Lk 23:14-15 and said to them, “You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined Him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. No, nor has Herod, for he sent Him back to us; and behold, nothing deserving death has been done by Him.
3. The third time was after he had Jesus flogged: Jn 19:4 Pilate came out again and said to them, “Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.”
4. The fourth time was after the Jews chose to release Barabbas: Lk 23:22 And he said to them the third time, “Why, what evil has this man done? I have found in Him no guilt demanding death; therefore I will punish Him and release Him.”
5. The fifth time was when he finally gave up: Jn 19:6 So when the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out saying, “Crucify, crucify!” Pilate said to them, “Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.”

He even claimed innocence in sentencing Jesus to be crucified:
Mt 24:27 When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves.”

The first clue of something wrong is why punish Jesus when he found no guilt in Him? And after examining all the evidence, my opinion is that Pilate was guilty and responsible for his role, based on the following. First, his background.

Pilate was the Governor of Judea and Samaria from AD 26-36, answerable only to Emperor Tiberius, not the Jews. However, he had a checkered past in his relationship with the Jews as seen in his handling of:

1. Civil disturbances. Lk 13:1 Now on the same occasion there were some present who reported to Him [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. He was a ruthless man who did not hesitate to use force.
2. Taxes: To build aqueducts he used temple funds, which was strongly objected by the Jews.
3. People: He brought into the temple troops carrying shields and standards bearing the name of Tiberius, which the Jews considered sacrilegious and complained to Caesar.

Not counting the first incident, there were already two strikes against him. So even though he despised the Jews, he was careful to protect his own neck lest they complain to Caesar again, who would dismiss him.

When the Jews first brought Jesus to Pilate, he asked them what were the charges. The Jews tried to evade by saying if He were not an evildoer, they would not have delivered Jesus to him (Jn 18:30). Note that in the Jewish trial before Caiaphas the charge was blasphemy (Mt 26:65; Mk 14:64). But blasphemy was not a capital offense under Roman law, so they changed the charge to sedition:
Lk 23:2 And they began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this man (1) misleading our nation and (2) forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that (3) He Himself is Christ, a King.”
As governor Pilate’s job was to keep peace, to collect taxes, and to squelch any rival to Caesar, so naturally this aroused his attention.

The first accusation was an outright lie. (2) was exactly the opposite of what Jesus taught:
Mk 12:17 And Jesus said to them, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
(3) was true, but not in the political sense:
Jn 18:36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”
So when Pilate found that Jesus was not talking about a physical kingdom but a spiritual one, he wasn’t concerned and said in Jn 18:38 “What is truth?”

But Pilate was a seasoned politician and always looking for a way out, so when he learned that Jesus was a Galilean and under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod. He did not do things right with the Jews, as a result they had a hold against him. He then played the political game and tried to shift the responsibility to Herod. But why, after repeatedly finding Jesus innocent, did Pilate gave in?

I believe it’s because Pilate’s bottom-line was himself. As governor he was also the judge and required to be just, but he was on report already, and afraid of what this might do for his career. He had the army at his disposal, but if he set Jesus free, there might be a riot (Mt 27:24), or the people might report to Caesar, and he would be finished. In the end he chose political expediency over justice. He gave in to pressure and made the wrong choice; he lacked the courage to stand up for justice. He was afraid to stand up for Jesus because of self-interest, hence his guilt.

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