Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”
Pilate was trapped by his own scheming. He had miscalculated. But his stubborn character still came through. He was caught, but he did not want to be defeated by the Jews religious rulers whom he obviously despised. He was defeated, but he did not give up. “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ” he demanded.
“Crucify him!” they answered.
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. He understood very well that Jesus had done nothing at all to merit punishment, certainly not a crucifixion.
They had no answer. There was none. All they could do was cry louder: “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Matthew indicates that the situation was getting out of hand, that “an uproar was starting” (v. 24). The leaders were stirring it up, of course. It was part of their plan. It was the thing that Pilate had to avoid at all costs. But the leaders were doing something else too, according to John’s version of the story. They were badgering Pilate with the threat of an unfavorable report of his conduct to Caesar. “If you let this mango, you are no friend of Caesar.” “Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar,” they said (John 19:12). That tipped the scales, of course. For although Pilate may actually have feared Jesus a bit—perhaps Jesus was a kind of god (the ancients believed in such things) and might actually do him harm—and although Pilate feared the hatred of the religious leaders and the fickleness of the crowds even more, Pilate feared the emperor most of all and dared not risk his disfavor. So at last he called for water and washed his hands before the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said, “It is your responsibility” (v. 24).
How ironic! Innocent? That is precisely what Pilate was not. All the water in the world could not wash the guilt of Jesus Christ’s blood from his hands, as countless generations since have realized, no more than washing could absolve the guilt of Lord and Lady Macbeth.
There was another great irony too. When Pilate told the Jews, “It is your responsibility,” he was saying precisely what they had said to Judas earlier: “What is that to us? That’s your responsibility” (v.4). They had not escaped their guilt by passing it off on Judas, and neither could Pilate escape his guilt by passing it off on them. They were all guilty. And so are we! But though we cannot wash away the stains of Christ’s blood by any acts of our own or by ceremonial washings, it is by the blood of Christ that we can indeed be cleansed. It is his death that takes away our sins.
“What can wash away my sin?” It is a searching question to which there is only one answer: “Nothing but the blood of Jesus!”