Who was Pontius Pilate?

“He suffered under Pontius Pilate.” The Apostles’ Creed give the full name of the Roman governor who had Jesus tortured and crucified. Who was this man, and why is he so important?

In New Testament times, the Holy Land was part of the Roman Empire. Judea was a notoriously province: many Jews never accepted the Roman rule, and there were many insurrections. It was a chore to be prefect (governor) in the province of Judea; you had to be diplomatic, or you had a rebellion on your hands.

The office of prefect of Judea was assigned to Pontius Pilate in 26 AD. Historical accounts call Pilate as “naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness.” (Philo, Legatio, 301; see also F.F. Bruce, New Testament History, p. 34ff) His rule was offensive to the Jews. For instance, he brought military standard into Jerusalem that bore the image of the emperor—which the Jewish people thought of as an idol image. See also Luke 13:1 for another description of Pilate’s cruelty and disrespect for Jewish worship.

When the Jewish council (the Sanhedrin) had sentences Jesus for blasphemy, Jesus was brought to Pontius Pilate in the morning. Why? The Jews said they were not allowed to execute a death sentence on their own. (John 18:31) But the situation was more complicated: when Stephen was stoned to death a few years later, no permission was sought. Possibly, the Jewish leader thought it more diplomatic to bring Jesus up on charges of sedition. After all, he had claimed to be leader of a “Kingdom”—and the Romans had no patience with someone who set himself up as king in direct competition of the emperor.

The role of Pontius Pilate in Jesus’ execution is significant for three reasons.

First, he represented “the world” and its government. It was not just the Jews who condemned and killed Jesus. The world, represented by Pilate, conspired to get rid of him. The Jews did it out of hatred for the gospel; Pilate did it for diplomatic reasons; but all wanted to get rid of the Lord of glory.

Second, Pilate in his role as governor pronounced judgment over Jesus: “Innocent!” We celebrate Jesus’ death because he is the innocent one dying for our sins, so that sinners may be counted innocent in God’s judgment. (Heidelberg Catechism, q&a 38.)

Third, because of him, Jesus was not stoned but crucifiedIn the Mosaic law, hanging a criminal’s body on a stake was a clear proclamation of God’s curse. (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13) In spite of himself, Pilate was an instrument in God’s hand. When he had Jesus crucified, he wrote a sign: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. He meant it as a barb at the Jews, but that sign on Jesus’ cross proclaimed the gospel to all who walked by.

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