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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 6 - Back to Pilate

By James Stalker


      The sending of Jesus to Herod had not, as Pilate had hoped, finished the case, and so the Prisoner was brought back to the imperial palace.

      Herod had affected to treat Jesus with disdain; but in reality, as we are now aware, he had himself been tried and exposed. And Jesus returned to do the same thing for Pilate--to make manifest what manner of spirit he was of; though Pilate had no conception that this was going to happen: he was only annoyed that a case of which he thought he had got rid was thrown on his hands again. He had reluctantly to resume it, and he carried it through to the end; but, before this point was reached, his character was revealed, down to its very foundations, in the light of Christ.

      Herod's spirit was that of frivolous worldliness--the worldliness which tries to turn the whole of life into a pastime or a joke; Pilate's was that of strenuous worldliness--the worldliness which makes self its aim and subordinates everything to success. Of the two this is perhaps the more common; and, therefore, it will be both interesting and instructive to watch its self-revelation under the search-light of Christ's proximity.

      I.

      Pilate might perhaps have been justified in suspending the release of Jesus till after he received Him back from Herod; because, although he had himself found no fault in Him, his ignorance of Jewish laws and customs might have made him hesitate about his own judgment and wish, before absolutely settling the case, to obtain the opinion of an expert. When, however, he learned that the opinion of Herod coincided with his own, there was no further excuse for delay.

      Accordingly he plainly informed the Jews[1] that he had examined the Prisoner and found no fault in Him; he had also sent Him to Herod with a like result. "Therefore," he continued. Therefore--what? "Therefore," you expect to hear, "I dismiss Him from the bar acquitted, and I will protect Him, if need be, from all violence." This would have been the only conclusion in accordance with logic and justice. Pilate's conclusion was the extraordinary one: "Therefore I will chastise Him and release Him." He would inflict the severe punishment of scourging as a sop to their rage, and then release Him as a tribute to justice.

      Was a more unjust proposal ever made? Yet it was thoroughly characteristic of the man who made it as well as of the system which he represented. The spirit of imperial Rome was the spirit of compromise, manoeuvre and expediency; as the spirit of government has too often been elsewhere, not only in the State but also in the Church. Pilate had settled scores of cases on the same principle--or no principle; scores of officials were conducting their administration throughout the vast Roman empire in the same way at that very time. Only to Pilate fell the sinister distinction of putting the base system in operation in the case where its true character was exposed in the light of history.

      But ought we not to believe that in all other cases, however obscure the victims, the spirit manifested by Pilate has been equally displeasing to God? In our Lord's picture of the Last Judgment one striking trait is that all are astonished at the reasons assigned for their destiny. Those on the right hand are credited with feeding Christ when He was hungry, giving Him drink when He was thirsty, and so forth; and they ask in surprise, Lord, when saw we Thee hungry and fed Thee, or thirsty and gave Thee drink? In like manner those on the left are accused of seeing Christ hungry but neglecting to feed Him, of seeing Him thirsty and refusing to give Him drink, and so forth; and they ask, Lord, when saw we Thee hungry or thirsty and ministered not to Thee? You perhaps think they say so to conceal the sins of which they are conscious? Not at all. They are really astonished: they think their identity has been mistaken and that they are about to be punished for sins they have never committed. They are only aware of having neglected a few children or old women not worth thinking about. But Christ says, Each of these stood for Me, and, when you neglected or injured them, you were doing it unto Me. Thus may all life at the last prove far more high and solemn than we now imagine. Take care how you touch your brother man; you may be touching the apple of God's eye: take care how you do an injustice even to a child; you may find out at the last that it is Christ you have been assailing.

      II.

      Pilate had cut himself loose from principle when he declared Jesus to be innocent and yet ordered Him to be chastised. He thought, however, that he could guide his course safely enough to the point at which he aimed. We are to see how completely he failed and at last suffered total shipwreck. Hands were stretched out towards him, as he advanced, some to save him, some to do the reverse; but the impulse of his own false beginning carried him on to the fatal issue.

      The first hand stretched out to him was a loving and helpful one: it was the hand of his wife. She sent to tell him of a dream she had had about his Prisoner and to warn him to have nothing to do with "that just man."

      Difficulties have been made as to how she could know about Christ; but there is no real difficulty. Probably, while Jesus was away at Herod's, Pilate had entered the palace and told his wife about the singular trial and about the impression which Jesus had made upon his mind. When he left her, she had fallen asleep and dreamed about it; for, though our version makes her say, "This night I have dreamed about Him," the literal translation is "this day"; and of course there might be many causes why a lady should fall asleep in the daytime. Her dream had been such as to fill her with a vague sense of alarm, and her message to her husband was the result.

      This incident has taken a strong hold of the Christian imagination and given rise to all kinds of guesses. Tradition has handed down the name of Pilate's wife as Claudia Procula; and it is said that she was a proselyte of the Jewish religion; as high-toned heathen ladies in that age not infrequently became when circumstances brought the Old Testament into their hands. The Greek Church has gone so far as to canonise her, supposing that she became a Christian. Poets and artists have tried to reproduce her dream. Many will remember the picture of it in the Dore Gallery in London. The dreaming woman is represented standing in a balcony and looking up an ascending valley, which is crowded with figures. It is the vale of years or centuries, and the figures are the generations of the Church of Christ yet to be. Immediately in front of her is the Saviour Himself, bearing His cross; behind and around Him are His twelve apostles and the crowds of their converts; behind these the Church of the early centuries, with the great fathers, Polycarp and Tertullian, Athanasius and Gregory, Chrysostom and Augustine; further back the Church of the Middle Ages, with the majestic forms and warlike accoutrements of the Crusaders rising from its midst; behind these the Church of modern times, with its heroes; then multitudes upon multitudes that no man can number pressing forward in broadening ranks, till far aloft, in the white and shining heavens, lo, tier on tier and circle upon circle, with the angels of God hovering above them and on their flanks; and in the midst, transfigured to the brightness of a star, the cross, which in its rough reality He is bearing wearily below.

      Of course these are but fancies. In the woman's anxiety that no evil should befall the Innocent we may, with greater certainty, trace the vestiges of the ancient Roman justice as it may have dwelt in the noble matrons, like Volumnia and Cornelia, whose names adorn the pristine annals of her race; while the wife's solicitude to save her husband from a deed of sin associates her with the still nobler women of all ages who have walked like guardian angels by the side of men immersed in the world and liable to be coarsened by its contact, to warn them of the higher laws and the unseen powers. We can hardly doubt that the hand of God was in this dream, or that it was outstretched to save Pilate from the doom to which he was hastening.

      III.

      Another hand, however, was now stretched out to him; and he grasped it eagerly, thinking it was going to save him; when it suddenly pushed him down towards the abyss. It was the hand of the mob of Jerusalem.

      Up to this point the actors assembled on the stage of Christ's trial were comparatively few. It had been the express desire of the Jewish authorities to hurry the case through before the populace of the city and the crowds of Passover strangers got wind of it. The proceedings had accordingly gone forward all night; and it was still early morning. As Jesus was led through the streets to Herod and back, accompanied by so many of the principal citizens, no doubt a considerable number must have gathered. But now circumstances brought a great multitude on the scene.

      It was the custom of the Roman governor, on the Passover morning, to release a prisoner to the people. As there were generally plenty of political prisoners on hand, rebels against the detested Roman yoke, but, for that very reason, favourites and heroes of the Jewish populace, this was a privilege not to be forgotten; and, while the trial of Jesus was proceeding in the open air, the mob of the city came pouring through the palace gates and up the avenue, shouting for their annual gift.

      For once their demand was welcome to Pilate, for he thought he saw in it a way of escape from his own difficulty. He would offer them Jesus, who had a few days before been the hero of a popular demonstration, and as an aspirant to the Messiahship would, he imagined, be the very person they should want.

      It was an utterly unjust thing to do; because, first, it was treating Jesus as if He were already a condemned man, whereas Pilate had himself a few minutes before declared Him innocent; and, secondly, it was staking the life of an innocent man on a guess, which might be mistaken, as to the fancy of the mob. No doubt, however, Pilate considered it kind, as he felt sure of the disposition of the populace; and, at all events, the chance of extricating himself was too good to lose.

      The minds of the mob it turned out, however, were pre-occupied with a favourite of their own. Singularly enough his name also appears to have been Jesus: "Jesus Barabbas" is the name he bears in some of the best manuscripts of the gospel of St. Matthew.[2] He was "a notable prisoner," who had been guilty of insurrection in the city, in which blood had been spilt, and was now lying in jail with the associates whose ringleader he had been. A bandit, half robber half insurrectionary leader, is a figure which easily lays hold of the popular imagination. They hesitated, however, when Pilate proposed Jesus; and Pilate seems to have sent for the other prisoner, that they might see the two side by side; for they could not, he thought, hesitate for a moment, if they had the opportunity of observing the contrast.

      But this brief interval was utilised by the Sanhedrists to persuade the multitude. It must be remembered that this was not the Galilean crowd by which Jesus had been brought in triumph into the city a few days before, but the mob of Jerusalem, with whom the ecclesiastical authorities had influence.[3] The priests and scribes, then, mingled among them and used every artifice they could think of. Probably their most effective argument was to whisper that Jesus was obviously the choice of Pilate, and therefore should not be theirs.

      If Pilate actually placed the two Jesuses side by side on his platform, what a sight it was! The political desperado, stained with murder, there; the Healer and Teacher, who had gone about continually doing good, the Son of man, the Son of God, here. Now which will you have--Jesus or Barabbas? And the cry came ringing from ten thousand throats, "Barabbas!"

      To Jesus what must that have meant! These were the inhabitants of Jerusalem, whom He had longed to gather as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings; they were the hearers of His words, the subjects of His miracles, the objects of His love; and they prefer to Him a murderer and a robber.

      This scene has often been alleged as the self-condemnation of democracy. Vox populi vox Dei, its flatterers have said; but look yonder: when the multitude has to choose between Jesus and Barabbas, it chooses Barabbas. If this be so, the scene is equally decisive against aristocracy. Did the priests, scribes and nobles behave better than the mob? It was by their advice that the mob chose.

      It is poor sport, on either side, to pelt opponents with such reproaches. It is better far to learn holy fear from such a scene in reference to ourselves, to our own party and to our country. What are we to admire? Whom are we to follow? In what are we to seek salvation? Certainly there are great questions awaiting the democracy. Whom will it choose--the revolutionist or the regenerator? And to what will it trust--cleverness or character? What spirit will it adopt as its own--that of violence or that of love? Which means will it employ--those which work from without inwards, or those which work from within outwards? What end will it seek--the kingdom of meat and drink, or the kingdom which is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost? But such questions are not for the democracy alone. All classes, all parties, every generation and every country have, from time to time, to face them. And so has the individual. Perhaps all the great choices of life ultimately resolve themselves into this one--Jesus or Barabbas?

      IV.

      To Pilate the choice of Barabbas must have been not only a surprise, but a staggering blow. "What then," he asked, "shall I do with Jesus?" Probably he expected the answer, Give us Him too; and there can be little doubt that he would willingly have complied with such a request. But, instead of this, there came, quick as echo, the reply, "Crucify Him!" and it was more a command than a request.

      He was now made sensible that what he had considered a loophole of escape was a noose into which he had thrust his head. He might, indeed, have intimated that he had only given them the prerogative to save one of the two lives, not to take either of them away. But virtually he had put both prisoners at their disposal. In this way, at all events, the mob interpreted the situation; and he did not venture to contradict them.

      He was, however, deeply moved, and he did a very unusual thing: calling for a basin of water, he washed his hands before them all and said, "I am innocent from the blood of this just Person; see ye to it." This was an impressive act; yet its impressiveness was too theatrical. He washed his hands when he ought to have exerted them. And blood does not come off so easily. He could not abnegate his responsibility and cast it upon others. Public men frequently think they can do so: they say that they bow to the force of public opinion, but wash their hands of the deed. But if their position, like Pilate's, demands that they should decide for themselves and take the consequences, the guilt of sinful action clings to them and cannot be transferred. This whole scene, indeed, is a mirror for magistrates, to show them down what dark paths they may be pushed if they resign themselves to be the mere tools of the popular will. Pilate ought to have opposed the popular will at whatever risk and refused to do the deed of which he disapproved. But such a course would have involved loss to himself; and this was the real reason for his conduct.

      The populace felt their triumph, and in reply to his solemn dissociation of himself from Christ's death sent back the insulting cry, "His blood be on us and on our children." Pilate was afraid of the guilt, but they were not. Well might the heavens have blackened above them at that word, and the earth shuddered beneath their feet! Profaner cry was never uttered. But they were mad with rage and reckless of everything but victory in the contest in which they were engaged. Still, their words were not forgotten in the quarter to which they were directed; and it was not long before the curse which they had invoked descended on their city and their race. Meanwhile they gained their end: the will of Pilate was breaking down before their well-directed persistency.

      [1] "On the return of Jesus from Herod, the Sanhedrists do not seem to have been present. Pilate had to call them together, presumably from the temple."--EDERSHEIM.

      [2] See Keim's note. Westcott and Hort reject it. Some have further seen an impressive coincidence in the name Barabbas, interpreting it "son of the father." Jesus was by no means a rare name.

      [3] Hence the contrast, common in popular preaching, between the multitude crying "Hosanna" and the same multitude crying "Crucify" is incorrect.

Back to James Stalker index.

See Also:
   Preface
   Chapter 1 - The Arrest
   Chapter 2 - The Ecclesiastical Trial
   Chapter 3 - The Great Denial
   Chapter 4 - The Civil Trial
   Chapter 5 - Jesus and Herod
   Chapter 6 - Back to Pilate
   Chapter 7 - The Crown of Thorns
   Chapter 8 - The Shipwreck of Pilate
   Chapter 9 - Judas Iscariot
   Chapter 10 - Via Dolorosa
   Chapter 11 - The Daughters of Jerusalem
   Chapter 12 - Calvary
   Chapter 13 - The Groups Round the Cross
   Chapter 14 - The First Word from the Cross
   Chapter 15 - The Second Word from the Cross
   Chapter 16 - The Third Word from the Cross
   Chapter 17 - The Fourth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 18 - The Fifth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 19 - The Sixth Word from the Cross
   Chapter 20 - The Seventh Word from the Cross
   Chapter 21 - The Signs
   Chapter 22 - The Dead Christ
   Chapter 23 - The Burial

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