It was 2004…
My wife and I were able to go watch the film with a group of people from our church. The power of the movie was evident, especially the scenes depicting the Roman’s treatment of Jesus after they captured Him–His torture and His crucifixion. However, I was viewing the film in a theatre with other people, in a public place.
The full impact of the film did not manifest itself until I was able to view it by myself at my home several years later. That’s when the full impact struck me. When Jesus’ Roman tormentors began to beat Him, I began to cry and I asked them to stop. Crying uncontrollably is one thing but talking to the screen is another. Of course I got even more emotional as I watched Jesus drag His cross to Golgotha and die upon the cross.
The film was Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.
In this discussion, I will concentrate on responsibility for the death of Jesus and this first perspective will deal with those most immediately responsible, the Roman soldiers and Pilate.
R. W. Stott* feels that Jesus’ treatment came about due to “personal moral factors” which influenced the leaders who carried out Roman and Jewish law. Pilate suffered a moral collapse due to his “dark passions” which overruled his sense of right and wrong.
One might turn to the Bible and read accounts of the crucifixion in the Gospels, but details of the gruesome death are vague. We are told “They crucified Him” and Jesus kept praying out loud, “Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” One can turn to Gibson’s Passion and see a very accurate portrayal of what usually happened at a crucifixion. “The prisoner would first be publicly humiliated by being stripped naked. He was then laid on his back on the ground, while his hands were either nailed or roped to the horizontal wooden beam (the patibulum) and his feet to the vertical pole. The cross was then hoisted to an upright position and dropped into a socket which had been dug for it in the ground. Usually a peg or rudimentary seat was provided to take some of the weight of the victim’s body and prevent it from being torn loose. But there it would hang, helplessly exposed to intense physical pain, public ridicule, daytime heat and nighttime cold” [Martin Hengel’s Crucifixion as quoted in Stott].
There are few if any details to suggest how the Roman soldiers felt about their duty. Was crucifixion just normal duty for them to carry out? Did they enjoy it? Since this was Jesus, were they more cruel and sadistic than usual? There was some information about the state of Jesus before He began His walk to Golgatha; He was dressed in a purple robe, given a crown of thorns, spat upon, struck on the head and slapped. But when He arrived at Golgotha, there is no reference to a hammer, nails, pain or blood.
Pilate was in charge of the crucifixion; he ordered it and handed Jesus over to his soldiers to take charge of the task. Stott points out that he certainly was culpable, even showing up in our Christian creed which declares that Jesus was “crucified under Pontius Pilate” but why did he do this to a Jewish rabbi?
Pilate had been appointed procurator (governor) of the border province of Judea by Tiberius, where he served for about ten years. He had a reputation as an able administrator and was known as a man who had a sense of right and wrong. However, he had great contempt for the Jewish people as we will see later. His overarching goal as governor was to maintain law and order and keep the troublesome Jews under control.
Was Jesus really a threat to his power?
Stott writes that “Pilate was convinced of Jesus’ innocence.” Three times he declared publicly that he could find no grounds for charging Jesus of any crime. Even Pilate’s wife stated that Pilate should leave Jesus alone because “I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of Him” [Matthew 27].
So why didn’t Pilate let Jesus go? The short answer is that he did not want to exonerate Him because the Jewish leaders believed He was guilty.
He shuffled responsibility off to Herod in order to get him to declare Jesus guilty of something. That did not work. Herod sent Jesus back unsentenced.
He tried “half-measures,” scourging or whipping Jesus with a leather whip with imbedded metal. His hope was that the crowd would be happy that He was punished enough as soon as they saw His lacerated back.
Third, he tried to do the right thing (release Jesus) for the wrong reason. It was his custom to grant amnesty to a prisoner on Passover and he hoped Jesus would be the one released. He did not anticipate that the crowd would want to release Barabbas.
Finally, he took water and washed his hands of the whole episode in front of the crowd. In Matthew 27 it is recorded that he said “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”
My pastor reads Scripture to our church every Sunday and a technique she often uses is asking this question about the Scripture: “Where are you in the story?” Stott declares that we are in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion; we are Pilate. His devious behavior is something we can all relate to. Too often we are anxious to avoid whole-hearted commitment to Christ, so we search for ways to avoid declaring our feelings. We may have a half-hearted commitment. We may think of Jesus as a wonderful teacher but don’t want to admit that He is Lord. We have even been known to make public affirmations when we are really denying Him in our hearts.
What causes this man to cave into the crowd’s demands? What caused him to ignore his instincts and let the Jews have their way?
John 19: 12: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be king opposes Caesar.” This Scripture was Pilate’s turning point.
Pilate was an ambitious man and he did not want to be assigned to Judea all his life. He wanted an assignment closer to Rome or he wanted to be in Rome itself. He could have obeyed his sense of honor and let Jesus go, but he calculated that the best move for his future was to turn Him over to be killed. The most expedient thing was just to let the crucifixion happen. The more correct and principled thing to do was to let Jesus go.
Pilate had already drawn negative attention from Tiberius due to his posting of Roman standards for rule all over Jerusalem. This was deemed a very provocative act by the Jewish leadership. Historians also recount the misappropriation of Temple money for the building of an aqueduct. Pilate also put down a rebellion of the Jews who did not want to pay Roman tribute. Not only did he slay the rebels but he was said to have mixed their blood with the blood of the Passover lambs. Was he concerned that more attention could ruin his career? Possibly.
Pilate was a man who could have saved Jesus but he did not. Many would argue that it was God’s plan for this man to be in charge. His behavior allowed Jesus to die upon the cross which was God’s plan all along. His “dark passions” overruled his sense of right and wrong and that triggered Jesus’ sentence.
Stott summarizes Pilate and his responsibility with these two sentences: “His conscience was drowned out by the loud voices of rationalization. He compromised because he was a coward” [Stott, 56].
*author of The Cross of Christ