Before confessing the actual death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, the Apostles’ Creed includes this historical detail about Jesus’ suffering under a Roman prefect who governed under Tiberius. Why? Since we tend to think of Jesus’ message during the course of His public ministry as “spiritual” rather than political, and since most of the conflicts between Jesus and His opponents in the gospels are between Jesus and the religious authorities, what is the importance of mentioning Pilate’s name in relation to the Passion of our Savior?
There is in fact great importance.
First, on a merely formal level, the gospel of John records Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate as a relatively climactic moment in John’s whole narrative. For this reason alone, we find some warrant for its inclusion in the Church’s central declarations about Jesus’ life. Second, though, behind and underneath the formal literary consideration of John’s gospel narrative, the theological import of this moment in history is incalculable. Before Pilate we see Jesus’ righteousness, power, and truth in stark contrast with the injustice, impotence, and falsehood of the world.
From one angle we see in the scene before Pilate the utter righteousness of Jesus Christ, both as He stands before a judge of the earth, and as He stands as judge of the world Himself. Throughout John’s gospel, the Son has come in one sense not to condemn the world but to save it; in another sense, “Now judgment is upon this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out” (Jn. 12:31). The coming of the Son, to establish the righteous kingdom of God upon the earth, constitutes God’s righteous judgment of the evil of the old order of Adam with all its corruption, violence, Satanic rebellion, schism, and decay.
Yet in order for this to be good news to the people of God who trust in the divine promises made to Abraham long ago, the Son had to enter into that old world and undergo in His own person the curse and judgment that was due to them. He had to undergo the negative covenant sanctions threatening the people who in Adam had first been exiled from Eden, scattered at Babel, and finally even exiled from the promised land of Canaan. “In our place condemned He stood” is not a theological abstraction, but a description of the history of the Son as the “new Israel” who came to lay down His life and redeem His friends, His people.
However, even Pilate recognized that in Himself, this man Jesus had done no wrong. “I find no guilt in Him” (Jn. 18:38b); “…Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him” (Jn. 19:4). In as much hardness of heart as cowardice, Pilate released the criminal Barabbas to the crowds at their behest rather than Jesus—a miniature portrait of penal substitution which is true on a grander scale for all believers in Christ—and handed Jesus over to them to be crucified as a criminal. Nevertheless it is noteworthy that officially, the heathen world had a more accurate appraisal of Jesus’ righteousness than His own kinsmen did at His circus of a trial (cf. Mk. 14:53-65). Not even Pilate could say, “This man deserves this.” God the Father agreed when He raised His Son from the dead, justifying Him (1 Tim. 3:16), and appointed Him king of heaven and earth (although the Father had also planned, allowed, and in some sense carried out the judgment of the cross: inasmuch as Jesus identified Himself with “sin,” and with cursed Israel, in order to save His people, it pleased God to crush Him [cf. Is. 53:10; Acts 4:2728; Rom. 8:3]).
So we see the righteousness of Jesus, even as He stands judged by His kin and by the world. Even though Pilate himself “clears” Jesus, we see the inefficacy of worldly judgments to bring about true justice in the earth. Pilate caves to political pressure when the crowds remind him of his duty to keep the peace under Caesar. This leads directly to the second angle of theological import.
In Jesus’ confrontation with Pilate, we see not only His justice but His power and authority. Against the backdrop of Pilate’s apparent worldly power, Jesus calmly and confidently asserts His own unique kingship and sovereign authority, but in a surprising way. Pilate asks Jesus about His kingship. “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’” (Jn. 18:36).
Many Christians misunderstand the implications of this statement of Jesus. Jesus is not saying that His kingdom has nothing to do with the socio-political and wider cultural institutions of the earth, or that it has no influence in or authority over such realities. Much to the contrary, the “rock” cut out of the mountain in Daniel’s interpretation of the vision in Daniel 2 actually crushes and displaces the kingdoms of the world represented by the iron, bronze, clay, silver, and gold (Dan. 2:34-35).
The contrast between the kingdoms of the world and the kingdom of Christ is not in their relative “earthiness” vs. “spirituality” in a dualistic sense; the contrast is between the absoluteness and the nature of the power in each case. Regarding absoluteness, Pilate’s authority is derivative and limited. Pilate warns Christ, boasting, “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You and authority to crucify You?” (Jn. 19:10). But Jesus responds, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (Jn. 19:11). Regarding the nature of the power, Pilate threatens with the “sword,” and Jesus characterizes the power of kingdoms “of this world” as involving the idea of hypothetical servants fighting for Him so that He would not be handed over to the Jews. By contrast, the power of Jesus’ true kingdom, in the context of redemption and this fallen world, is cruciform. Jesus does not defend Himself before Pilate, but ends up hanging on the cross apparently helpless and defeated with the inscription written above Him, “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews” (Jn. 19:19), wearing a crown of thorns. In that moment, by His very suffering and death, He defeats His people’s enemies and ensures the establishment of His kingdom forever.
Following in His stead, those who take up their crosses daily experience and exert upon the world the unstoppable power of the kingdom of God, by the help of the Spirit. The Beastly power of the world ends at the edge of the sword. But martyr-witnesses to the truth of Christ (whether they experience full martyrdom or milder forms of persecution) seed the soil of the earth for ecclesial growth in future generations. Daniel’s stone cut without hands grows into a great mountain that fills the whole earth. This leads to the third angle on the theological import of Jesus before Pilate.
Jesus tells Pilate that He has come into the world to testify (martyrēsō) to the truth, and that everyone who is “of the truth” hears His voice (Jn. 18:37). Pilate asks, skeptically, as many ask today, “What is truth?” (Jn. 18:38). John had already given the most profound answer to that question several chapters earlier, recording Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” (Jn. 14:6). Every word spoken by the mouth of Christ, the eschatological Prophet predicted by Moses (Deut. 18:18), is true by definition. But even more fundamentally, Jesus Himself is God’s final Word, and the ultimate reference point for all truth. Let God be found true, though every man—Pilate, high priest, Judas, each of us all too often—a liar.
So the scene with Jesus before Pilate is full of poignant theological truth. The righteous character and judgment of God and His Christ is contrasted with the corrupt judgment of the rulers of the earth; the power of self-sacrificial love and humility is contrasted with the ultimately impotent pomp and violence of tyrannical magistrates; and Truth Incarnate is contrasted with the folly and falsehood of man, even exposing the thinly veiled rebellion of his professed skepticism and relativism.
Knowing the details of the Passion narrative, we confess glorious realities when we say, “He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”