Pilate’s Golden Opportunity


From a historical perspective, Pilate was an interesting personality. Someone once quipped:

Small men are fussy.

Pilate was a small man, if not in stature then in personality and character; how he treated Jesus proves this. But Pilate had a career long before he met Jesus Christ. According sources that include the writings of Philo, Josephus, and Eusebius, Pilate was the fifth procurator of Samaria and Judea. In a letter from Agrippa I to Caligula, Pilate is described this way:

This man is inflexible, merciless, and obstinate.

In fact, Pilate’s cruelty was well-known; so well-known that other barbarians of the day considered him to be a “saint!” He was particularly fond of annoying the Jews every chance he could. For example, he once raided the temple treasury to fund an ambitious building project. He even went so far as to defile the temple by hanging golden shields inscribed with the images and names of the gods of Rome on its walls.

Pilate was indeed a small man. According to the Gospels, he was proud and cruel. He was superstitious and likely henpecked by his wife. He was the stereotypical self-seeker who said things and did things to gain his superior’s approval. He hated the Jews for no other reason than they bugged him merely by existing. Oddly enough, there is some evidence that Pilate did respect and exercise justice as best he could.

Pilate was a not a good man. But as bad as he was, he wasn’t as bad a Annas and Caiaphas, the Jewish religious leaders who delivered Jesus to Pilate.

“Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you understand? I have the power to set you free or to nail you to a cross.”

Jesus answered, “You were given power from heaven. If you weren’t, you would have no power over me. So the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (John 19:10, 11 NIrV)

On the other hand, we have Jesus, whose character was completely the opposite to that of Pilate. They are so different, it reminds us of an old verse:

The waves of the world’s sea may surge, But the blue sky above is calm.

In Mark 15, we read about the night Jesus was hauled before this man Pilate, and in their exchanges and by observing their behavior, we can see just how calm Jesus was, in contrast to the restlessness of Pilate. Jesus, not Pilate, is seen the One in charge of the situation. Pilate is seen as a “small, fussy man” when compared to the calmness of our Lord.

Pilate was just one man, yet he forever remains mankind’s example of how so many people today treat Jesus Christ and His Gospel.

Pilate had Jesus handed to him

It was very early in the morning. The chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law, and the whole Sanhedrin, made a decision. They tied Jesus up and led him away. Then they handed him over to Pilate. (Mark 15:1 NIrV)

Knowing how much Pilate disliked the Jews, and how much he preferred political expediency, we can understand why the religious leaders pawned Jesus off on him. The Sanhedren had condemned Jesus to death but that’s about all they could do. There were no teeth behind their condemnation because they had no authority to carry out a death sentence. Only Rome could do that, and Pilate represented Rome and Roman justice.

But look at this situation more closely. The paths of Pilate and Jesus would have never crossed had the Sanhedren not foisted Jesus in front of him. Do you realize the golden opportunity presented to Pilate? There was virtually no chance Pilate would have met the Savior. None. Here was Pilate’s one chance to justify himself by justifying Jesus.

But Pilate’s golden opportunity is really the opportunity presented to ever single sinner who is privileged to hear the Gospel of salvation, either from a preacher or a neighbor. When you share your faith with the lost, you are, in a sense, delivering Jesus to them! They can either accept Him or reject Him.

Pilate grasped the truth about Jesus

“Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate. (Mark 15:2 NIrV)

I don’t think Pilate is mocking Jesus with this question. He’s asking a serious question of our Lord because, in Pilate’s mind, it could very well be true. Remember, Pilate was keenly interested in justice. In Pilate’s mind, the truth about Jesus was taken seriously, if not assented to. How many people in your neighborhood intellectually know the truth about Jesus but have never placed their faith in Him? How many unsaved people have heard the Gospel, can quote John 3:16, understand the message of salvation, yet have never made the decision to give their lives to Christ?

The world is full of people just like Pilate. They’ve heard about Jesus, they know the words about Him, but they don’t know Him. In a very real sense, today’s unbelieving friend or neighbor isn’t all that far removed from Pilate, who himself wasn’t too far removed from Agrippa. Paul had testified before him in Acts 26, and when the apostle had said his piece, this happened:

King Agrippa, believest thou the prophets? I know that thou believest. Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian. (Acts 26:27, 28 AV)

“Almost persuaded.” How many Americans think those are just the words of a country song first recorded by David Houston back in 1966. Of course, it was also hymn written by Philip Bliss. But it was pagan King Agrippa who first said them to Paul, shortly before he died a horrible death. Being “almost persuaded” doesn’t cut it. Nor does intellectually understanding who Jesus was, as Pilate did.

Pilate was amazed with Jesus

That’s what the record says in Mark 15:5 –

Pilate was amazed. (Mark 15:5 NIrV)

Jesus amazed Pilate. Some other versions use the word “marveled.” However you translate it, Pilate was taken with our Lord. He didn’t dismiss him out of hand. Pilate marveled at Christ’s character, His “majestic serenity” in the way He responded, or didn’t respond, to questioning.

Jesus amazes a lot of people, by the way. But being amazed or intrigued by our Lord does not equal a confession of faith in Him.

No wonder Pilate was amazed with Jesus. Jesus continually remained silent in the face of the ridiculous accusations heaped upon Him by the high priests. Pilate was puzzled and amazed at the same time because it was obvious to him that Jesus was innocent.

Although probably coined by the ancient Egyptians, it was Thomas Carlyle who translated this well-known phrase from the German work Sartor Resartus in 1831, in which a character says this about speech and silence:

Speech too is great, but not the greatest. As the Swiss Inscription says: Sprecfien ist silbern, Schweigen ist golden (Speech is silver, Silence is golden); or as I might rather express it: Speech is of Time, Silence is of Eternity.”

Sometimes silence spells tragedy. It was so for Israel during the days of Amos:

“The days are coming when I will send hunger through the land. But people will not be hungry for food. They will not be thirsty for water. Instead, they will be hungry to hear a message from me. People will wander from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean. They will travel from north to east. They will look for a message from me. But they will not find it.” (Amos 8:11 NIrV)

And so it was with Pilate. Pilate had a chance, but that chance was slipping away from him fast.

Pilate was sympathetic toward Jesus

“Do you want me to let the king of the Jews go free?” asked Pilate. He knew that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him because they were jealous. (Mark 15:9, 10 NIrV)

As noted previously, Pilate seemed to know the truth about Jesus. At the very least, this Roman procurator wasn’t violently opposed to our Lord. He had no desire to see Jesus hurt in any way. And, in fact, he actually wanted to set Jesus free. To do our Lord a favor, as it were. “Finding no fault” in Jesus is barely the starting point, though!

But again, being nice to Jesus or even treating Him with respect isn’t the same thing as submitting to Him as Lord and Savior. There are a great many people in the world and in the church today who are highly respectful of Jesus. They may even take His Sermon on the Mount seriously. But that’s not having saving faith in Him. That’s not becoming one of His disciples.

Over in John’s Gospel, we have this event from a slightly different perspective. In John’s more lengthy account, we read this:

“So you are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You are right to say I am a king. In fact, that’s the reason I was born. I came into the world to give witness to the truth. Everyone who is on the side of truth listens to me.”

“What is truth?” Pilate asked. Then Pilate went out again to the Jews. He said, “I find no basis for any charge against him.” (John 18:37, 38 NIrV)

Pilate understood the moral truth of Jesus’ situation. Deep in his heart of hearts he knew Jesus was just an innocent schlub caught up in yet another religious controversy in Jerusalem. But the spiritual truth of Jesus eluded Pilate.

Pilate was concerned with what others thought

Jesus, the Truth, was standing right in front of Him, but instead of doing what he knew to be right, Pilate listened to what others thought.

“Then what should I do with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. (Mark 15:12 NIrV)

How sad that this man who was so interested in justice being served had such a vacillating spirit that he would choose to deal with Jesus, not according to his conscience, but according to what that fickle and perverse crowd wanted.

“Then what should I do with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them. “Crucify him!” the crowd shouted. (Mark 15:12, 13 NIrV)

Prodded by his conscience, but eager to test the resolve of the public, he laid his heart bare:

“Why? What wrong has he done?” asked Pilate. (Mark 15:14 NIrV)

Of course, Jesus had done no wrong, and Pilate knew it. And it was within Pilate’s power to set Jesus free. But the resounding shout of “Crucify Him, crucify Him” swayed him more than Jesus’ words of truth. In the end, Pilate made his decision as a mere political opportunist. A morally weak man, completely devoid of any integrity.

Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd. So he let Barabbas go free. He ordered that Jesus be whipped. Then he handed him over to be nailed to a cross. (Mark 15:15 NIrV)

Jesus had been handed over to Pilate for judgment, and for the sake of history, Pilate judged Jesus correctly: Jesus Christ was an innocent man. But that’s all Pilate did. In the end, just as Jesus had been handed over to him, he in turn handed Jesus over to others as quickly as he could so that they would do with Him as they would. The paths of Pilate and Jesus will cross again, but at the great tribunal of the future, it won’t be Jesus on trial. It will be Pilate.

History hasn’t been kind to Pilate. Even non-believers look at him scornfully, putting him in the same league as Judas Iscariot. With the exception of the Abyssinian Church which canonized Pilate because he believed in the innocence of Jesus and the Greek church who gave his wife similar recognition, Christians shake their collective heads at Pilate and wonder how he could have been so cold as to let Jesus be crucified. Pilate should have released Jesus. The Jews should have received Him. Both have experienced the heavy hand of God’s judgment. The Jews are still spiritually blinded, and what happened to Pilate? His history is very scant, but what we do know is that he was regarded as a bumbling, inept ruler who was always running afoul of the Roman government for one reason or another. Ultimately, he was deposed and recalled to Rome, about five years after the events of Mark 15. According to a 4th century A.D. historian, Eusebius, he finally “fell into such calamities that he was forced to become his own murderer.”

If you are reading this and you are not a Christian, understand that Jesus has been delivered by God for you and in the Word of God to you. Don’t be like Pilate, anxious to get rid of Him; anxious to go along with the crowd. Pilate had been given a golden, once in a lifetime opportunity: Jesus had been brought right in front of him, yet he profited nothing from that encounter. How many times have you been given the opportunity to choose Jesus? Make the most of the opportunity. Choose wisely.

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