Jesus Before Pilate: Failure of Justice
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
John 18:28 - 19:16
April 03, 2019

Jesus just can’t get a fair shake. He wasn’t treated fairly by His own people, who had the law and the testimony of the prophets; who witnessed the wonderful things He did. Now He is before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Pilate condemns Jesus to death, though for very different reasons. This outcome is a colossal miscarriage of justice. Jesus, of all people, cannot get a fair shake from any human court.

Maybe we think that Jesus would have faired better in an American court. At least there would have been guarantees of due process and freedom of religion. Maybe so. But there are many innocents who have perished in America as a result of judicial decision, not due to our worst ideals of justice, but due to our best ideals: individual liberty, privacy, equality. By these innocents I have in mind the unborn. Though God does a tremendous amount of good through civil government, why is it we can trace through history, time and time again, across a broad spectrum of the best cultures with the best ideals and ideologies, the fact that there are always the innocent ones who have been killed, precisely in the name of those best ideals and ideologies?  

The answer to the killing of the innocent ones in our country is not to throw away America’s best ideals of political and legal order. Rather, it is to make sure they serve life not death; to make sure they serve moral truth established by God; to make sure they serve true love, which finds its highest expression in protecting those who cannot protect themselves, in sacrificing for them.

The fact that Jesus died innocently at the hands of Pilate, means that Jesus, God the Son in the flesh, is identified in His death with all who have died innocently. He is not identified with those who have killed and sacrificed the innocent for the sake of any human ideals of justice, legality, and government. The answer again is not to throw away the best ideals of these things, but to make them serve God, human life, and the good.

Why the innocent ones must die, one way or another, in the name of the best ideals of humanly conceived justice, is perplexing and disturbing. How can human beings get it so wrong in what they think is the pursuit of the right? This question should lead to repentance, humility, and the fear of God.

In any event, what was going on with Pilate?

Clearly, Pilate thought Jesus was innocent of any charges brought against Him; any charges that Pilate could have had any jurisdiction over. He realized that Jesus was no threat to Roman power or jurisdiction. He knew that Jesus had not been guilty of murder during actual rebellion against Roman rule, unlike Barabbas.

Nevertheless, Pilate eventually acquiesced to the demands of the chief priests and elders of the people, and the people themselves. He delivered Jesus to be crucified. If it is wrong to execute the innocent, Pilate’s decision was very wrong.

Why did he do that? Was he afraid? The text says he was afraid in some sense (John 19:18). This fear was probably some sort of fear of conscience or of the unknown. In any other respects, why would he be afraid? It does not seem conceivable that any Jewish revolt could have been a threat to his personal safety.

In spite of any inklings of conscience, did he not believe? Jesus says He was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. Pilate says, “What is truth?” It appears evident that Pilate did not have faith. This, undoubtedly, contributed to his decision.

Pilate seems to be cynical or a skeptic. Why would he be cynical? Maybe it is because he saw firsthand how rule and power in Rome was exercised and imposed according to might makes right. Maybe it was because he was very familiar with the political intrigue, back stabbing, bribing, and undermining to get power that was prevalent in Roman politics. Maybe it was because he was familiar with how people tried to get what they wanted from him. One minute they are entreating Pilate’s favor in humility. The next they are trying to manipulate him with threats: “If you do not crucify Jesus, you are no friend of Caesar’s,” say the chief priests. The hypocrisy in this is evident. Jesus did not make himself out to be a king who could threaten Caesar. The chief priests did that. Now they use that to manipulate Pilate into condemning Jesus. Such things could make a person cynical.

Maybe he rejected notions of truth because of how awful the Roman pantheon of gods behaved in Roman mythology. Maybe he was a materialist, who could not accept the existence of God who is true and who could establish what is true and right for us humans.

These are all reasons that can make people cynical or skeptical. Pilate raised the same question many people today raise: “What is truth?”

In any event, Pilate did not seem to be a believer. He did not have faith, except in Rome itself and the political reasoning he knew. This was surely a contributing factor in Pilate’s decision to crucify Jesus, because it is difficult to overcome other, decisive factors if one does not believe in God and what God says is true and right.

We are identifying the decisive factors in Pilate’s decision by citing political expediency and loyalty to Rome. We can give a better name to political expediency. Let’s call it cost-benefit analysis. In Matthew’s Gospel, we are told that a riot by the citizens of Jerusalem was brewing over the fate of Jesus (Mat. 27:24). What is a cherished way for people in positions of governing responsibly in the civil realm to make decisions? Cost-benefit analysis; balancing tests, one interest or factor balanced against an opposing interest or factor. What is the goal? In Pilate’s case, it was keeping the peace, as far as possible.

What easier solution could there have been according to cost-benefit analysis but to sacrifice Jesus, one man, to keep the peace. The cost of condemning Jesus was much less than having to put down a riot. In a riot, many people could be killed, as well as Roman soldiers. This is an easy cost-benefit analysis.

Maybe we want to cry out: why couldn’t he just do what is right, no matter the cost to peace? Yet, is that how we would do it if we were in charge? Is that how we would want it done, if we were the ones affected by a decision? Are we prepared to go to war for the right, to have our sons and daughters go to war for the right? We know just how difficult these questions are. Apparently, Pilate was not prepared for armed conflict to save Jesus. On the one hand, we could understand why he would not go to war for Jesus. On the other hand, it is Jesus, the Author of Life (Acts 3:15) on trial. We would want Pilate to do the right thing by Him. But the human court appears to be simply incapable of doing the right thing by Jesus.

This breaks me, in a certain way. Some of the best ideals of justice and some of the best ways of reasoning through problems of governance can lead to innocent people being killed. In Pilate’s case, the best kind of reasoning ended up killing the Author of Life, the Lord of glory. And we are faced with a reality in which it probably could not have come out differently, not for Pilate, not under those circumstances.

But it is not as though Pilate is an example of the epitome of evil. He did not have any malice against Jesus. He was not motivated by hate. He was just trying to cope with what for him was turning out to be a difficult and precarious situation that was getting out of control.

What a mess humanity is.

The clincher for Pilate seemed to be loyalty to Rome. “Whoever makes himself a king is no friend of Caesar,” exclaim the chief priests. Pilate was probably sworn to serve Caesar. The chief priests knew how to make the convincing argument, though this argument had nothing to do with justice. It was as if Pilate had no choice but to give in to this argument, as the representative of Rome.

So, Jesus, the only truly innocent man who ever lived, the Author of Life, is condemned by the Roman governor to die by execution on a cross. The real threat to Rome, Barabbas, is set free. In one respect this is ancient history. On the other hand, since it is history that involves Jesus, we need to see what we can learn from it.

I offer five things.

First, since the trial of Jesus and history show that any ideal of justice or the best of reasoning in the civil realm can be used by humans to kill the innocent, no human ideal of justice or such reasoning in this world is absolute with respect to right and wrong, not with respect to God’s rule and authority in the civil realm.

Second, if Jesus was crucified in the name of loyalty to Caesar, then not even country is absolute. This teaches us to be patriots in humility and the fear of God.

Third, no kingdom of this world will ever be the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God comes only with Jesus, and Jesus’s kingdom does not derive any of its power, authority, values, and methods of success or failure from any kingdom of this world (John 18:36-37).

Fourth, here is the good news. God has a way of accomplishing his purposes in spite of the injustices of human courts, though we may have to wait for it. In that event, let us keep faith in Jesus and keep praying and working.

In the case of Jesus, Pilate unjustly delivered Him over to be crucified for the reasons we cited. God the Father and Jesus, however, were doing something different. They were accomplishing our redemption through His sacrificial death for us.

Here is a deep and mighty wonder. In Jesus’s death, there is a coming together of both the failures of human justice and God’s plan to pay the price for our sinful rebellion. God paid this price to redeem us out of our rebellion. Only the innocent Son could pay this price. For this we both mourn our sinful condition and rejoice in God’s amazing love and grace. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Rom. 11:33 ESV).

But we know how this story ends. On the third day, Jesus came back to life, indestructible life. He rose. Forgiveness is complete. Injustice and death are overcome. There is now hope for the existence we all want; freedom from sin and death, real freedom from injustice in God’s eternal kingdom. This kingdom is found only in Jesus, and Jesus Himself will bring it into full reality on that great and glorious day.

Fifth, as citizens ourselves, let us do what we can in humility and fear of God, and through faith in Jesus, to make the exercise of civil office serve the good, according to God the Father, for the benefit of those whom these offices are intended to serve.

Amen.