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The Trial and Death of Jesus Christ: Chapter 8 - The Shipwreck of Pilate

By James Stalker

      We have lingered long at the judgment-seat of Pilate. Far too long. Pilate has detained us. He knew perfectly well, the first glance he bestowed on the case, what it was his duty to do. But, instead of acting at once on his conviction, he put off. Of such delay good seldom comes. Pilate gave temptation time to assail him. He resisted it, indeed; he fought hard and long against it; but he ought never to have given it the chance. And he miserably succumbed in the end.


      When Pilate delivered Jesus over to be scourged, it looked as if he had surrendered Him to the cross; and so in all probability the Jews thought, because scourging was the usual preliminary to crucifixion. He, however, had not yet abandoned the hope of saving Jesus: he was still secretly adhering to the proposal he had made, to chastise Him and then let Him go. Perhaps, if he retired into the palace while the scourging was taking place, his wife may have urged him to make a further effort on behalf of that Just Man.

      At all events he came out on the platform, round which the Jews were still standing, and informed them that the case was not finished; and, as Jesus, whose scourging was now over, came forward, he turned round and, pointing to Him, exclaimed with deep emotion, "Behold the Man."

      It was an involuntary expression of commiseration,[1] an appeal to the Jews to recognize the unreasonableness of proceeding further: Jesus was so obviously not such an one as they had tried to make Him out to be; at all events He had suffered enough.

      But the Christian mind has in all ages felt in these words a sense deeper than Pilate intended. As Caiaphas was uttering a greater truth than he knew when he said it was expedient that one should die for the whole people, so in uttering this exclamation the governor was an unconscious prophet. Preachers in every subsequent age have adopted his words and, pointing to Jesus, cried, "Behold the Man!" Painters have chosen this moment, when Jesus came forth, bleeding from the cruel stripes and wearing the purple robe and crown of thorns, as the one in which to portray the Man of Sorrows; and many a priceless canvas bears the title Ecce Homo.

      From Pilate's lips there fell two words which the world will never forget--the question, "What is truth?" and this exclamation, "Behold the Man!" And the one may be taken as the answer to the other. When the question, "What is truth?" is put with deep earnestness, what does it mean but this?--Who will make God known to us? who will clear up the mystery of existence? who will reveal to man his own destiny? And to these questions is there any answer but this; "Behold the Man"? He has shown to the sons of men what they ought to be; His is the perfect life, after which every human life ought to be fashioned; He has opened the gates of immortality and revealed the secrets of the other world. And, what is far more important, He has not only shown us what our life here and hereafter ought to be, but how the ideal may be realised. He is not only the image of perfection but the Saviour from sin. Therefore ought the world to turn to Him and "behold the Man."


      Pilate hoped that the sight of the sufferings of Jesus would move the hard hearts of His persecutors, as it had moved his own. But the only response to his appeal was, "Crucify Him, crucify Him." It is to be noted, however, that these cruel words now came from "the chief priests and officers." Apparently the common people were moved: they might have yielded, if their superiors had allowed them. But nothing could move those hard hearts; indeed, the sight of blood only inflamed them the more; and they felt certain that by sheer persistence they could break down Pilate's opposition.

      He was at his wits' end and replied to them angrily, "Take ye Him and crucify Him; for I find no fault in Him"; meaning probably, that he was willing to yield the Prisoner up to their will, if they would take the responsibility of executing Him; if, indeed, he had in his mind any clear meaning and was not merely uttering an exclamation of annoyance.

      They perceived that the critical moment had arrived, and at last they let out the true reason for which they desired His death: "We have a law, and by our law He ought to die, because He made Himself the Son of God."

      This was the ground on which they had condemned Him themselves, though up to this point they had kept it concealed. They had not mentioned it, because they thought that Pilate would jeer at it. It had on him, however, a very different effect. All the morning he had been feeling uneasy; and the more he saw of Jesus the more he disliked the part he was playing. But now at length the mention of His claim to be the Son of God caused his fears to take a definite and alarming shape. It revived in his mind the stories, with which his own pagan religion was rife, of gods or sons of the gods who had sometimes appeared on earth in disguise. It was dangerous to have to do with them; for any injury inflicted on them, even unconsciously, might be terribly avenged. He had discerned in Jesus something mysterious and inexplicable: what if He were the son of Jehovah, the native deity of Palestine, as Castor and Pollux were sons of Jupiter? and might not Jehovah, if He were injured, blast the man who wronged Him with a curse? Such was the terror that flashed through his mind; and, taking Jesus once more inside the palace, he asked Him, with a mixture of awe and curiosity, "Whence art Thou?"

      Jesus gave him no answer, but again retired into the majestic silence which at three points already had marked His trial. In the whole conduct of the Saviour in His sufferings there is nothing more sublime than these pauses; but it is not easy at every point to gauge the state of mind to which they were due. Why was Jesus silent at this point? Some have said, because it was impossible to answer the question. He could not have said either Yes or No; for, if He had said that God was His Father, Pilate would have understood the statement in a grossly pagan sense; and yet, to avoid this, He could not say that He was not the Son of God. So it was best to say nothing.

      The true explanation, however, is simpler. Jesus would say nothing about whether He was the Son of God or not, because He did not wish to be released on this ground. Not as a son of God, but as an innocent man, which Pilate had again and again acknowledged Him to be, was He entitled to be set free; and His silence called upon Pilate to act on this acknowledgment.

      The judge was more than ever astonished; and he was irritated a little at being thus treated. "Speakest Thou not unto me?" he asked, flushing; "knowest Thou not that I have power to crucify Thee and have power to release Thee?" Poor man! it was to be seen before many minutes had passed how much power he had. And what was this power of which he boasted? He spoke as if he had arbitrary discretion to do whatever he pleased. No just judge would make such a claim: justice takes from him the power to follow his own inclination if it be unjust. It was of this Jesus reminded him when He now answered with quiet dignity, "Thou couldest have no power at all against Me, unless it were given thee from above." [2] He reminds him that the power he wields is delegated by Heaven, and therefore not to be used according to his own caprice, but according to the dictates of justice. Yet He added, "Therefore he that delivered Me unto thee hath the greater sin." He acknowledged that Pilate was in a position in which he was compelled to try the case: he had not taken it up at his own hand, as the Jewish authorities had done.

      Thus Jesus recognised all the difficulties of His judge's position and was willing to make for him every allowance. This was He whom Pilate had, a few minutes before, given over to torture. Was there ever such sublime and unselfish clemency? Could there have been a more complete triumph over resentment and irritation? If the silence of Christ was sublime, no less sublime, when He did speak, were His words.


      Pilate felt the greatness and the magnanimity of his Prisoner, and came forth determined at all hazards to set Him free. The Jews saw it in his face. And at length they brought out their last weapon, which they had been keeping in reserve and Pilate had been fearing all the time: they threatened to complain against him to the emperor; for this was the meaning of what they now cried: "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar."

      There was nothing which a Roman provincial governor so much dreaded as a complaint lodged against him at Rome. And in Pilate's case such an accusation, for more reasons than one, would have been specially perilous. The imperial throne was occupied at the time by one who was a most suspicious master. Tiberius seemed to delight in humiliating and disgracing his subordinates. Besides, at this very period he was peculiarly dangerous. A diseased body, the punishment of vices long indulged, had made his mind gloomy and savage; in fact, he was little better than a madman--morose, suspicious and malicious. Nor was any charge so likely to inflame him as the one which they proposed to lay against Pilate. It was well known at Rome that the hope of a Messiah was spread throughout the East; and any provincial governor supposed to be favouring or even conniving at the claims of such a pretender would certainly be recalled, probably exiled, and possibly executed. Amicus Caesaris, "Caesar's friend," was one of the most coveted titles of a man in Pilate's position; and to be accused of acting as no friend of Caesar's could act was the most serious of all dangers.

      But there was something else which lent point to the threat of the Jewish authorities: Pilate well knew that his administration could not bear the light of an investigation such as would inevitably follow a complaint from his subjects. It is a curious thing that in a secular writer of that age we find an account of another occasion on which this same threat was held over Pilate; and the writer who mentions it adds: "He was afraid that if a Jewish embassy were sent to Rome, they might discuss the many maladministrations of his government, his extortions, his unjust decrees, his inhuman punishments." [3] Such had been the character of Pilate's past life; and now, when he was going to do a humane and righteous act, it stayed his hand. There is nothing which so frustrates good resolutions and paralyzes noble efforts as the dead weight of past sins. Those who are acquainted with secret and discreditable chapters of a man's history are able, wielding this knowledge over his head, to say, Thou shalt not do this good act which thou wishest to do, or, Thou shalt do this evil and shameful thing which we bid thee. There are companies in which men cannot utter the fine, high-sounding things they would say elsewhere, because there are present those who know how their lives have contradicted them. What is it that mocks the generous thought rising in our minds, that silences the noble word on our lips, that paralyzes the forming energy of our actions? Is it not the internal whisper, Remember how you have failed before? This is the curse of past sin: it will not let us do the good we would.

      But, if a man has thus committed himself by an evil past, what is he to do? What ought Pilate to have done? There is only one course. It is to summon together the resources of his manhood, defy consequences, and do the right forthwith, come what may. One step taken in loyalty to conscience, one word of confession spoken, and in a moment the power of the tyranny is broken, and the spellbound man is free to issue forth from the inglorious prison of the past.

      Alas, Pilate was not equal to any such effort. For the sake of righteousness, for the sake of this impressive and innocent but obscure and friendless Galilean, to face a complaint at Rome and run the risk of exile and poverty--the man of the world's philosophy could not rise to any such height. He belonged to the world, whose fashion and favour, pleasures and comforts were the breath of his nostrils; and, when he heard the menace of his subjects, he surrendered at discretion.

      Thus Jewish passion and persistency triumphed. Pilate resisted, but he was forced to yield inch by inch. He wished to do right; he felt the spell of Jesus; and it irritated him to have to go against his conscience, but his subjects compelled him to obey their wicked will. Yet the true reason of his failure was in himself--in the shallowness and worldliness of his own character, which this occasion laid bare to the very foundations.[4]


      There was little more to do. The mind of Pilate was very savage and his heart very sore. He had been beaten and humiliated; and he would gladly inflict some humiliation on his opponents, if he could find a way. He ascended the judgment-seat, "in a place that is called the Pavement, but in the Hebrew Gabbatha"--an act similar in significance, I suppose, with our judges' habit, before pronouncing a death sentence, of putting on the black cap. Pointing to Jesus, he exclaimed, "Behold your King!" It was as much as to say that he believed this really to be their Messiah--this poor, bleeding, mishandled Man. He was trying to cut them with a taunt. And he succeeded: smarting with pain they shouted, "Away with Him! away with Him! crucify Him!" "What," he proceeded, "shall I crucify your King?" And, borne away with fury, they responded, "We have no king but Caesar." What a word to come from the representatives of a nation to which pertained "the adoption and the glory and the covenants and the giving of the law and the service of God and the promises!" It was the renouncement of their birthright, the abandonment of their destiny. Pilate well knew what it had cost their proud hearts thus to forswear the hopes of their fathers and acknowledge the right of their conqueror; but to compel them to swallow this bitter draught was some compensation for the cup of humiliation they had compelled him to drink. And he took them at their word.

      [1] Perhaps also of admiration. Pilate had never before seen so impressive a specimen of humanity; and the contrast between the sweetness and majesty of His appearance and the indignities which He had suffered drew from him this involuntary exclamation. One recalls Shakespeare's words about Brutus:

      "His life was gentle, and the elements So mixed in him, that nature might stand up And say to all the world, This was a Man!"

      [2] We are much tempted on account of the "therefore" to explain "from above" as referring to the Jewish tribunal.

      [3] Philo.

      [4] It is a striking illustration of the irony of history that Pilate was overtaken by the very fate to escape which he abandoned Jesus. Soon after the Crucifixion his subjects lodged a complaint against him at Rome. He was recalled from his province and never returned. Ultimately, it is said, he terminated his existence with his own hand, "wearied out with miseries." Many legends in subsequent centuries clustered about his name. Several spots were supposed to be haunted by his restless and despairing spirit, notably a spring in Switzerland on the top of Mount Pilatus, which was thought to have derived its name from him; but this is more than doubtful.

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See Also:
   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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