Theme: God in the Dock
In this week’s lessons we look at Pilate’s role in Jesus’ crucifixion, and learn about our need as Christians to take a stand when righteousness is at stake.
Scripture: Matthew 27:11-26
I have titled this study “Jesus and Pilate: God in the Dock.” That word dock is a British term which refers to the box in which the accused stands during the conduct of his trial in a British court. So “God in the Dock” means that God has subjected himself to human judgment.
C. S. Lewis used that as the title of one of his books, which was a collection of essays. You see the significance of this. There was one time in the entire history of the human race when God actually placed himself within the power of fallible men and women and so subjected himself to their judgment, and he was condemned.
You know sometimes when we talk about human sin and what that has done to us and how it’s made us hostile to God, so that we have become his enemies and would destroy him if we could, people often raise up in objection to this. They say, “You are greatly slandering the human race. We’re not like that. We are humane people. Why, we wouldn’t treat God that way, even if we had a chance.” But of course when we did have a chance, which happened in the time of Jesus Christ, we condemned him to death. And we would do it again today if Jesus were among us.
Now that brings us to Pilate himself, who is the dominant figure in the Roman trial. It was the small portion, as I indicated, in which Jesus appeared before Herod, which was not an actual trial in a court. It was really Pilate who tried Jesus on the Roman side and has to bear the blame for the outcome.
What can we say about Pilate? Well, the first thing is that he was not a very praiseworthy character. As a matter of fact, he was exactly the opposite. He had a very shady past. Pilate was born in Spain, and enlisted in the legions under the great Roman general Germanicus. He came to Rome early in his career where he met Claudia Procula, who was the daughter of Julia, who was the daughter of Augustus the emperor. Now, from the human point of view that was a very wise move to marry into the royal family, as it were. It was a sure way to find preferment to move up in the ranks, which, of course, is what Pilate did.
But morally it was a disgrace. Julia, the daughter of Augustus, was so depraved in her morals, even in a very depraved culture as Rome was in that day, that she was notorious for her offenses, primarily her sexual libertinism. Augustus, her father, said on one occasion, “Would that I were wifeless or had childless died,” so ashamed was he of his daughter. And his daughter’s daughter, Procula, whom Pilate married, was much the same.
Because of his connections he came to Jerusalem as the sixth Roman procurator of Judah in AD 26, some time before the trial of Christ. Now we know from the history of the time, primarily from the writings of Josephus, that he conducted himself in a very insensitive way during these years. He began to offend the Jews the very first moment he arrived.
When he arrived at Caesarea on the coast he sent his troops into Jerusalem bearing the ensigns of the Roman legions. Now those were the standards that were borne before the troops, and because they had gods on them, the very presence of ensigns within the city of Jerusalem was regarded as sacrilege of the holy sights. The Jews had objected to this, and under the previous Roman administrations the Romans had been very careful, sensitive to Jewish feelings, not to bring the ensigns into the holy city. But nevertheless, Pilate did it. He did it by night, which shows that he had some anticipation of the trouble he was causing, no doubt out of arrogance. It seems that he did it, as we would say, to show these poor Jews who was boss.
He raised such an uproar that the Jews came thundering down to Pilate in Caesarea to protest. He thought he would exert the show of force. So he surrounded the amphitheater with his troops, but instead of terrifying them, the Jews dropped down on the ground, pulled out their knives, and said, baring their throats, “Here. Cut our throats. We would rather die than see our city desecrated.” And on that occasion he had to back down.
Sometime later in a similar show of insensitivity, as the story is told by Josephus, Pilate needed money to build an aqueduct to carry water from the pool of Siloam into Jerusalem. He didn’t have money to do it, but knowing that the Jews had money in the temple treasury in the corban account he took the money and used it to build the aqueduct. It would be bad enough to take the Jew’s money to build a Roman project, even if it was to benefit the Jews, but the corban treasury was a sacred trust. Corban is what the Jews would say when they wanted to indicate that a bit of money had been dedicated to the Lord. This was money that devout Jews had dedicated to God’s service, and Pilate just took it.
On this occasion the Jewish leaders were so upset they sent a delegation to Rome to protest before the Emperor what had happened. It was wrong and unjust. It was stealing. The Emperor rightly upheld the Jewish case, and Pilate eventually had to restore the money. That’s the kind of man Pilate was. Eventually he was moved from his office and died in Gaul as an exile.
Now the interesting thing, in spite of what we know about him, is that when we come to the Gospels and the account they give us of Christ’s trial, we find not what we would expect to find in the person of Pilate. Rather, so far as the conduct of the trial is concerned, he acts as a Roman representative who is, until the final moment, absolutely above reproach. In other words, we find a Roman who knows how to conduct a legal case and who is determined to do his duty. He must have surprised the Jews by doing this. They must have expected a rather cut-and-dried confirmation by the Roman authorities of the judgment they had already taken. They expected Pilate merely to pronounce his judgment and have Jesus crucified. The whole thing would be over and done with by that evening, and then they could go on and observe their feast, which was coming. But instead of this, Pilate surprised them initially by reopening the case.
This isn’t quite as evident in the section in Matthew that we’re reading, but it becomes very evident in John’s account, which is longer. Pilate says to them as they present him, “What evil has he done?” And because they’re taken off guard they reply, “Why, if he hadn’t done something bad we wouldn’t have brought him to you.” What kind of an answer is that to give in a formal court of law? They should have had the accusation all ready. It indicates that they expected Pilate merely to say, “Did you find him guilty? Yes, well all right then, we’ll have him crucified.” He did nothing of the sort. He began an investigation, which is reported in all of the Gospels.
What does the British word dock mean? In what way can we speak of God as having been put in the dock?
What do we know of Pilate outside of the Bible?
What were the Jews expecting Pilate to do, and how did he surprise them?
Reflection: How do you think your typical unsaved neighbor, friend, or family member views God? Do they consider themselves to be people who believe in God and Jesus Christ and therefore think that God is generally pleased with them and how they live? Are there obvious inconsistencies in their lifestyles with what they claim? Pray for opportunities to talk with them about what the Bible really teaches and what it really means to be a Christian.