If it were one day selected at random, it would be unfair. But some days are so crucial that they are a fair basis to judge an individual. There are days of great opportunity and great temptation. Sometimes a single day is a window into the very soul of a man. This day was such a day. We can see Pilate's attitude toward Christ, his attitude toward himself, and his attitude toward the future. If you know that about a man you know a lot.
The ultimate judging of humanity is based on one's attitude toward Christ. When Pilate asked "What shall I do with Jesus?" he asked a crucial question. His answer to it is instructive. Your answer to that question is also instructive.
Much about Pilate is positive. Of the four rulers before whom Jesus was tried that night, only Pilate treated Him with respect; only Pilate showed any pity or any tenderness. That was not true of Caiaphas, Annas, or Herod. Pilate treated Jesus differently and he deserves to be given credit for it.
Also, if you study all these trials, you will discover that Jesus had only one witness for the defense, and that was Pilate. Pilate and Pilate alone testified in His favor. Pilate did ten positive things to help Jesus avoid execution. He permitted Him to speak for himself. He examined Him privately, away from His accusers. He sent Him to Herod to avoid the problem. He said, "I find no fault in Him." He said, "Herod finds no fault in Him." He said, "He is a just man." He said, "Behold the man!" He made a real attempt to release Jesus. When that failed he tried to substitute Barabbas. When that failed he had Jesus whipped. He thought that would induce pity and the crowd would no longer demand His execution.
Yet when all of that was done, Pilate had Him crucified. Why? It was not out of friendship for the Jews who demanded Jesus death. Roman governors had been sensitive to Jewish feelings. The Romans carried on their flagstaff an eagle, symbol of the emperor. They said that that emperor was divine. That offended the Jews because they said it was an idol. Those before Pilate had taken it off when the troops marched into Jerusalem. Pilate said, "No! Leave it on the standard!" It offended the Jews.
When he wanted to build an aqueduct and put in a city water system, he took money from the temple treasury to pay for it. That enraged the Jews. They hated Pilate. Pilate responded in kind. He didn't do it out of friendship for the Jews.
He didn't do it because he believed the charge of treason they brought against Jesus. Nor was it that Pilate cared for the charge of blasphemy they raised against Jesus. Why then did Pilate crucify Jesus, whom he had so vigorously defended?
The answer lies in a decision Pilate had made a long time before. He had decided that his life would be ruled by one thing: ambition. He resolved that nothing and nobody was going to stand in the way of his progress. Having made that decision long before, now on the basis of it he sent Jesus to be crucified. While we are puzzling over that, let us recall that we, like Pilate, have said some very nice things about Jesus and then crucified Him. The Bible says that when we Christians sin we crucify Jesus afresh.
What was Pilate's attitude toward himself? What was Pilate's verdict on Pilate? "I am innocent," he said. Only a few have ever believed him. In Africa the Abyssinian church said that Pilate became a Christian. They made him a saint. In Egypt the Coptic church said that not only did he become a Christian, but that he died for his faith. They made him a martyr. Most of the Christian world has not agreed with that opinion. Scripture certainly does not picture Pilate as innocent. The apostle's creed is the oldest creed in Christendom. It does not picture Pilate as innocent. Jewish history, written by Josephus, does not picture Pilate as innocent.
No, here is a man who had convictions but no courage. If we fear a man without convictions, we ought to fear equally the man with convictions who lacks the courage to carry them out.
Pilate is like many others when he delivered this verdict on himself. "I am innocent," he said. That's what Adam and Eve said in the garden of Eden. That s what every arrested criminal says.
I knew of a county sheriff who had transported many to the state prison. He said that he never took a man to state prison who did not claim to be innocent.
"Society is to blame!" people say.
"My parents are to blame!" people say.
"My Irish temper is to blame."
''The schools are to blame."
"The churches are to blame."
"My psychiatrist is to blame!" (Recently a man sued his psychiatrist because his psychiatrist didn't prevent him from committing a crime!)
Often we hear a person pronounce this verdict on himself: "I am innocent." But it is something you will never hear a Christian say!
When my Catholic neighbor went to confession he used to say in Latin, "Mea Culpa - I am to blame." And that's right. Once I appeared on a panel with a rabbi. He kept talking about Christians blaming the Jews for the crucifixion. I said to him, "I've been in the church all my life and I was never taught that the Jews were to blame for the crucifixion of Jesus. I was taught that I was to blame."
In the upper room when Jesus gave us the Lord's supper He said, "One of you will betray me." Each of the twelve asked, "Lord, is it I?" Ever since, Christians coming about the Lord's table have said the same words, but in a different order. For those first disciples it was a question. For us, it is a confession. They asked, "Lord, is it I?" We say, "Lord, it is I."
Then we see Pilate's attitude toward the future. Pilate was a man who lived for today. We are constantly being urged to do that. And up to a point that's all right. There is a point beyond which that's all wrong. The person who lives only for today will never slave to get an education. The person who lives only for today will never save for retirement. The person who lives only for today will never prepare for the judgment. And that lay in Pilate's future!
All that we know of Pilate comes from this story in the Bible, those two stones, one page in history, and a legend. History says that there was an uprising in Jerusalem. Pilate quelled it with excessive force and the Jews complained to Rome. He was summoned to Rome to appear before the emperor, Tiberius, but on his way the emperor died. He never did have to account for his deeds. In Rome he was caught up in the bureaucratic shuffle and posted to some insignificant part of the empire. Here he disappears from history.
But legend takes up where history leaves off. Legend says that when Pilate died they threw his body into the Tiber River. Such a storm erupted that they had to fish it out. Then they threw his body into the Rhone River. Such a storm erupted that they had to fish it out. Then they threw it into the lake of Lucerne, where it remains to this day. And the mountain that rises above Lucerne is still called Mt. Pilatus. But that's all legend!
It is true, though, that he was summoned to Rome to appear before the emperor. It is true that the emperor died before he got there, and Pilate did not have to stand trial before Caesar. He did, of course, stand trial. He stood trial in a higher court than Caesar's; in the highest court of all. This time Jesus was the judge and Pilate the prisoner in the dock.
The Bible assures us that Jesus is indeed the judge of all people. Acts 10:42 says that He has been appointed judge of the living and the dead. Acts 17:31 says that God has appointed a day in which He will judge the world by that man whom He has ordained. John 5:22 says that the Father has given judgment to the Son. 2 Timothy 4:1 says that Jesus will judge the living and the dead. All of us, small and great, will stand before God in that judgment, just as Pilate did.
And what of Jesus? His case was appealed to a higher court. It was appealed to the highest court of all. God exonerated Jesus by the resurrection. It proved He was who He claimed to be. God exonerated Jesus in the ascension. It proved that He was accepted by God. God exonerated Jesus when He had Him sit at His own right hand.
Jesus' case was also taken to another court:
the court of human opinion. What's the verdict there? Daniel
Webster said, "He is a superhuman Savior." Renan, the French historian,
said, "He is the cornerstone of history." Wells wrote, "He was too
large for our small hearts." So say they all! So say I! What
say you? For you, ladies and gentlemen, are the jury. You must
bring in a verdict on Jesus. What say you?