Walk it backwards. Our Passion reading left us at the tomb, women watching while gentle hands laid Jesus’ body there. Just before, up the hill outside the city, loving hands had taken Jesus’ body down from the cross. On its beams he’d hung for hours and, before he died, received jeering at the hands of passersby and judgment from God’s hand on high. Beforehand, the soldiers had led him through the streets, his own hands carrying his cross to death. His parade had departed the soldiers’ torture grounds where Jesus had been flogged by their brutal hands. But, if we go back far enough, all that horror really began because Jesus’ legal case landed in the hands of Pontius Pilate.
I can probably guess what you remember most about Pontius Pilate – aside from that line we confess in the creed. And I bet it’s not what John recorded – that little, passing word: “From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free…” (Jn 19:12). I bet it’s not either what Peter would later say, that Pilate “had decided to let [Jesus] go” (Ac 3:13). All four gospels share details about the interaction between the King of the Jews and the governor of Judea. All four hint at what John said Pilate tried and what Peter said Pilate wanted. But don’t you remember most what Pilate did? Matthew alone records that memorable moment, what Pilate did before he handed Jesus over to be crucified. To protect his position, to proclaim his innocence, Pilate washed his hands.
Matthew 27:15-26 (NIV84)
15Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. 17So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.
19While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
20But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
21“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
22“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
23“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
24When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!”
25All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”
26Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Tonight, they’re Hands of Self-Preservation because, humanly speaking, it didn’t have to end this way. In fact, from the perspective of a human judge, Pilate had been given a long list of reasons to release Jesus. Jesus’ innocent silence at all the accusations had amazed Pilate. Jesus’ bold words – “My kingdom is not of this world. . . . the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. . . . you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (Jn 18:36,37; 19:11) – these helped Pilate to see something out of the ordinary was going on here. When his wife broke into court with a message about a dream – “Don’t have anything to do with that righteous man…” Pilate must have been unsettled a bit. And, after years of giving judgments, surely Pilate could see that the Jews were just jealous and that Jesus was no criminal.
It should have been an open-and-shut case. Pilate should have sent the Jewish leaders home and set Jesus free. He wanted to, but he didn’t. He tried many other things instead. First, he told the chief priests to judge Jesus according to their own law. That didn’t work. Then he sent Jesus to Herod, hoping that a Jewish court would handle the case. That didn’t work either. Finally, in a last ditch effort to protect himself and the innocent too, he offered a Passover custom to release a prisoner chosen by the people. He gambled that they wouldn’t choose Barabbas, a murderous criminal. But Pilate’s plan backfired when the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas’ release.
Pilate must have been at a loss for words when these desperate words came out of his mouth, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” (v. 22). The crowds immediately called for his crucifixion. And when Pilate tried to reason with them, it was too late. They kept shouting, “Crucify him!” (v. 23). Pilate’s job was to keep the peace, but his attempts to free Jesus had started a riot. He needed to do something. He needed to decide: “Do I do what I know is right or do I do what I think is best for me?” In the end, Pilate chose himself over Jesus. He sentenced the world’s only truly innocent man to die, while maintaining his own supposed innocence in the process. “He took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’” (v. 24).
But this is the truth – no matter what the crowds declared or Pilate proclaimed. Pilate was the law of the land. Pilate was the only person who could authorize Jesus’ execution. Pilate was responsible, and history has held him so. Two thousand years later this is what you remember. Our creeds still confess that Jesus “suffered and was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” And when you think of Pilate washing his hands, you know they’re still filthy, guilty, unclean in a way that no water could ever cleanse.
It was bad enough that Pilate condemned an innocent man. What made his actions even worse was that he condemned the sinless Son of God. It was bad enough that Pilate the judge blatantly disregarded justice. What made his actions even worse was that he was too much of a coward to admit his own cowardice. It doesn’t get any worse than that, or does it?
Pilate wasn’t a Christian. He was a pagan, an unbeliever. And his actions prove that protecting his power and authority was more important to him than anything else. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. In fact, we should probably expect that. What is surprising (and much more troubling) is when people who know better, people who know Jesus, people who call themselves Christians, follow Pilate’s example.
In the safety of this sanctuary, surrounded by the saints, it is so easy to sing God’s praises, but out there it’s a different story. When we’re out in the world of the Netflix streams and the social feeds, it’s not all good things we hear and see. When we’re with coworkers or classmates, when we get together with a group of friends, not all of them are Christians. And some of them can be pretty outspoken. They know what you believe. They aren’t afraid to question what I hold dear. More and more, what Jesus taught and we believe is called hate and openly mocked.
When you and I find ourselves in those situations, we know we should say something. But how often had we said the world’s things – gone woke about stuff that Jesus decries to appear righteous and cool or safe; proclaimed our allegiance to powers other than our Lord’s? How often have we just said nothing? And after the opportunity has passed, when we have time to think about it, when we are feeling guilty about it, we might try to come up with excuses for our words or our silence: “It wasn’t the right time . . . I didn’t want to get into an argument . . . I don’t want to lose my friends . . . I don’t want to lose my job.” But very often it was simply self-preservation…
And it has ramifications… On the Last Day, Pontius Pilate will have to answer for choosing himself over Jesus. But he didn’t believe in Jesus (as far as we know). I suppose you could say that was his excuse. We are Christians. We claim to be followers of Jesus. We have no excuse. And Jesus declares, “Whoever denies me before others, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 10:33 EHV). For our self-preserving sins, those condemning words are aimed at us.
But we’ve gathered to hear the truth here and, in all its fullness, it’s this… Pilate didn’t do what he could have (and should have) done on Good Friday, but he wasn’t the only person on the Stone Pavement who was in a position to take action. Jesus could have come to his own defense. Jesus could have called down legions of angels to destroy his enemies. Jesus possessed the divine power to do everything Pilate failed to do and more, but he chose not to use it.
It is good and right for Christians to praise our Savior God for everything he has done to save us, but it is also good and right to praise our Savior God for everything Jesus didn’t do and everything he allowed others to do to him to save us. He allowed his enemies to arrest him. He allowed the soldiers to mistreat him and humiliate him. He allowed a crooked court to convict him and a weak judge to wash his hands of him. He allowed himself to be numbered among the transgressors to fulfill prophecy and to pay for the world’s sins. Jesus allowed his own life to be taken from him so that we might live in his presence forever. Jesus did everything to save us. And he did nothing to stop the death that God has prescribed as payment for all our sins. He let nothing get in the way of his blood being poured out to wash us clean. For everything he didn’t do, for everything he allowed to happen for our salvation, for the forgiveness of our sins, praise be to God!
And therefore, it might be that the thing you remember about Pontius Pilate wasn’t his hand-washing, but his sign-posting. When Jesus was crucified, Pilate had a notice fastened to the top of his cross that read “THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Mt 27:37). We don’t know exactly what Pilate meant by that or if there was a part of Pilate that wanted to believe that, but we do know this: you and I do believe it. We believe that Jesus is a King. We believe that Jesus is our King. And we know the truth…
Our King’s rule extends all around the world, and yet his kingdom is not of this world. His rule is primarily spiritual. He has washed us clean by his precious blood shed at the cross. He claimed us to be his own through the washing of rebirth in baptism. And the gracious way Jesus loves us and leads us moves us. As his humble, grateful subjects, we want to follow him. We eagerly seek out opportunities know his love more and more and to speak his love more and more – to serve him. And as we pray for his kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth, we look forward to the day when we will reign with him in heaven. Amen.