Pilate has failed to recognize that he should be seeking truth. He has failed to recognize truth when presented to him. And he has disregarded truth when it came knocking again. But the story is not finished. And we will see Pilate have several more opportunities to encounter truth, and we will see him come tantalizingly close to responding to truth. But in perhaps one of the saddest (and most easy for us to identify with) errors in all of Scripture, we will see Pilate turn away from truth.
We’re told that Pilate goes back out to the Jews and tells them, “I find no basis for a charge against him.” We would at first cheer Pilate in at least recognizing that Jesus didn’t deserve to die. But his next statement condemns him. “But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” The Jews respond, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Their bloodlust was such that they were willing to have a thief, an insurrectionist, a murderer, released into the populace again. But as we focus on Pilate, we see an abdication of duty. Jesus was clearly innocent of the charges against Him, and Pilate saw it. But instead of standing up to the mob, he tries to bribe them to do the right thing. He seeks the path of appeasement. Now, I don’t envy Pilate facing these crazed, bloodthirsty folks. But neither can I absolve him of guilt for caving to them.
We are given another tidbit of information in Matthew’s Gospel, where between Pilate’s offer to free Jesus and the people’s response to give them Barabbas instead, we’re told that his wife sends the following word to Pilate: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” Scripture gives us no indication as to how Pilate receives the news, but it doesn’t appear to stiffen his spine at all.
In John, we’re told that Pilate has Jesus flogged. This is perhaps the greatest understatement ever penned (aside from the description of the crucifixion). In reality, Pilate has Jesus’ body mutilated. After this, the soldiers place the crown of thorns on Jesus’ head and mock him, and we read that Pilate again goes out to the crowd and says, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” He then has Jesus brought out and says, “Here is the man!” Compare that with verse 14, where he says, “Here is your King.” I’ll touch on that more later, but for now, the distinction is that Pilate has dehumanized Jesus and now has Him stand before the crowd and refers to Him not as the King of the Jews but as a “man.” I think Pilate was again hoping that the chief priests, elders, and the mob would see the spectacle that Jesus’ body had become, be overtaken with pity—or that their bloodlust would be satisfied—and would relent. Pilate is torn here—he wants to free Jesus, but he doesn’t have the courage to do so. Truth has found its way into his heart and head, but will he accept it?
The Jews demand that Jesus be crucified, and tell Pilate, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” John records that “[w]hen Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid.” I mentioned earlier that Jesus’ statement about His kingdom being from a different place seems to affect Pilate. I think, at least on some level, Pilate recognizes that not only is Jesus not guilty of any crime, but also that he is somehow different from the average person on the street. I think he has a supernaturally-inspired fear, and when the Jews announce that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, that fear strikes home.
Pilate questions Jesus some more, asking “Where do you come from?” He is probing. This time, I think he is sincerely asking the question of Jesus. He has begun to respond to truth! But now Jesus, who previously spoke to Pilate more than to anyone else, is silent. We could speculate as to the reason, but it would be just that. So let’s focus on what Pilate says next. “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Pilate is still focused on power, and he dangles a carrot in front of Jesus. Were this an ordinary human—were Jesus not on a divine mission to lay down his life—he would jump at the chance to get out alive. But Jesus answers, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
Pilate plays his trump card—I have the power to save your life. And Jesus trumps it by telling Pilate that his authority is at the discretion of God. This response by Jesus is the type we might expect to incur a violent outburst from Pilate. But what happens next?
From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free. That is an interesting statement that gives us insight into Pilate’s state of mind. Remember what he just told Jesus, “I have authority to release you.” So why does John write that Pilate “tried” to set Him free? The answer comes in the latter part of the verse, but before we go there, let’s press pause and review what has happened so far. Christ has revealed Himself to Pilate, declaring Himself to be a king from another place and declaring—as reported to Pilate by the Jewish leaders—Himself to be the Son of God. Pilate’s wife has called Jesus an “innocent man.” And Pilate has three times protested to the Jews that Jesus is innocent. Now, the phrase “from then on,” suggests a turning point. Pilate has been confronted with truth, and he has turned toward it. He has not placed faith in Christ as his Savior or recognized Him as the Messiah, but an initial softening of his heart has taken place. He is being drawn to Jesus.
This presents a fascinating tangent for us to explore for a minute. As we read through the last half of John 18 and the first part of John 19, we cannot help see the Holy Spirit tugging at Pilate. He is presented time and time again with truth and with opportunity to respond. Clearly Jesus came to die on the cross—it was the mission He referred to repeatedly throughout the Gospels. We see how the events leading up to His death were prophesied centuries earlier and fulfilled in precise detail. It would seem that Pilate is destined to play the part of the villain. And yet, we cannot but infer that God is drawing him to the truth throughout these events. Which raises the obvious question of why?
I think there are two reasons. First, because God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” I think the case of Pilate is one of the strongest arguments supporting the idea that man does indeed have free will, and is capable of accepting or rejecting the salvation God has offered. In His omniscience, God could have worked out His purposes and plans had Pilate ultimately freed Jesus. God didn’t create Pilate, imbue him with a soul, and damn him to a role in the cosmic story that would send him to hell. Rather, before time began, God knew the ultimate decision of Pilate’s heart, and worked accordingly.
Second, I think God—knowing Pilate would ultimately not respond in faith—still revealed Himself, still drew the Roman governor, so that there could be absolutely no question of his guilt on the Day of Judgment. Neither Pilate nor anyone else will be able to stand before God and accuse Him of playing favorites, of not giving them their fair shot. Pilate clearly had it. And as we’ll see, he blew it.
Back to John 19. Pilate seeks to free Jesus, we’re told. [B]ut but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” The Jews now play their trump card. They hate Caesar. They hate Rome. The people have been longing for a Messiah, but not a spiritual one. They want a conquering hero to come and overthrow the oppressive Romans. To invoke the emperor must have nearly gagged them. But they know it will bend Pilate to their will.
We have seen repeatedly that Pilate is obsessed with power. And the one thing he would hate to lose, more than anything, is his position of power. Let word get back to Caesar that he’s tolerating a man who claims to be king, a usurper, and that position would be in danger. (Study the history of Rome—they pulled the trigger pretty quickly and dramatically when it came to regime change.) And the Jewish leaders knew this. Earlier, while plotting to kill Jesus, they said, “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” The high priest, Caiaphas, responded, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” They themselves fear the Roman hammer falling on them, and Pilate shares their fear.
He makes one last, desperate push. “Here is your king,” he says. Consider what he’s really saying: “Look at this guy. His body’s been ripped apart. He’s been mocked, ridiculed, spat upon, taunted. His ‘devoted’ followers all ran away. Look at him! This--THIS!—is the king you’re claiming is a threat to Caesar? Really?”
They are undeterred. They chant for Jesus to be crucified, and close their case with the words, “We have no king but Caesar.” It had to stick in their throats, but the fact that they would utter something so heinous to them tells Pilate they will follow through on their threat. If he lets this man claiming to be a king go free, they will make sure Caesar hears about it. And so while Pilate “tried” to free Jesus, he is unable to overcome his obsession with power, his fear of being unseated and losing his position. Truth was presented to him. And Truth began to win him over. But Truth was never paramount to Pilate, and in the end, He chooses his own god while sending the Son of God to His death.
Note: History doesn’t tell us what ultimately became of Pilate. According to the Romano-Jewish historian Josephus, he was deposed and sent to Rome few years later. Rumors exist that he was ultimately driven mad and committed suicide. If true, one could understand why.
 John 18:38
 John 18:39
 John 18:40
 Matthew 27:19
 See John 19:1
 John 19:4
 John 19:5
 John 19:14
 John 19:7
 John 19:8
 John 19:9
 John 19:10
 John 19:11
 John 19:12
 I Timothy 2:4, emphasis added; see also II Peter 3:9
 John 19:12
 John 11:47-50
 John 19:14
 John 19:15