Pilate must have known it wasn’t going to be a good day. How could it be, when pompous religious leaders are demanding an audience so early in the morning?
Maintaining order during Passover week was always a hassle and Pilate knew the visitors brought trouble. What had gone wrong now?
Pilate only had the job as governor of Judea because one of Herod’s son’s had been so violent, the Romans had fired him. The man simply couldn’t keep the peace. From Rome’s point of view, keeping the peace was paramount. The leader of Jerusalem could, of course, use force. But whatever he did, he’d have to answer to Rome for his actions.
Pilate was the man in charge on that particular Friday morning. If he wanted to keep his job, he would take the concerns of these religious men seriously.
Although seriously, who in his right mind actually thought of them as holy men?
In the beginning, the High Priest was a man after God’s own heart. From Aaron forward, the priests of the Temple took their jobs seriously for several generations.
But in Pilate’s Jerusalem, what had once been the holiest job in Judaism was no more than a political position. Herod the Great had set the tone two generations back. He simply appointed the high priest he desired, and that was the end of pretended holiness at the Temple. By now, a politically savvy priest could work his way up the ladder. If he was successful, he would join the wealthiest and most powerful group of Jewish citizens in the land. It would not matter if he was a religious man. It only mattered whether or not he was willing to play the game.
The political shenanigans caused a great deal of confusion. Even now, two men vied for the title of “high priest.” Annas had been appointed by one emperor and fired by another. Even so, he still wielded a great deal of influence through his sons and his son-in-law Caiaphas, who currently held the office.
By the time Jesus was turning over tables in the Temple, there wasn’t a hint of spirituality or biblical integrity in the Temple leadership. There was no fear of the Holy. These men had traded righteousness for personal wealth.
John the Baptizer had called them vipers. The Pharisees despised them. Eventually, even Judas wouldn’t take their money!
It’s little surprise that these Sadducees had decided that Jesus must die.
Jesus had caused one uproar too many. Annas and Caiaphas decided they would kill the upstart rabbi at the first opportunity. When Judas told them when and where they could find Jesus away from the crowds, they arrested him with lightning speed and under the cover of darkness.
Now, as dawn was breaking over the city, the men were banging on Pilate’s door, demanding that he execute their prisoner. They needed it done quickly, before most people in Jerusalem were even stirring.
Pilate and these men in black were engaged in a high-stakes game. Clearly, Pilate wanted to set Jesus free. The religious leaders demanded his death. They claimed Jesus was leading a revolt. Jesus, the priests claimed, wanted to be King!
Pilate knew the charge was without merit.
The priests raised the stakes. “Did you know, dear Pilate, that this Jesus likes to call himself the ‘Son of God?'”
According to John 19:8, “When Pilate heard this, he was more frightened than ever.”
Why would Pilate be frightened of a rabbi from the country who claimed such a lofty title for himself?
Because “Son of God” is the same title the Roman emperor used for himself!
No kidding. Ever since Julius Caesar allowed that he was a “son of the gods,” emperor worship had come to be a part of life in the Roman Empire. There were at least four temples to the divine emperor standing in prominent positions in Israel, even.
If this Jesus claimed the title only the emperor could hold, that would indeed be a problem.
Still, Pilate wavered. In his heart, he knew Jesus was no military threat. His eyes saw no reason to be alarmed. His heart told him Jesus was innocent.
But his ears heard the rumble of trouble.
“Then Pilate tried to release him,” John writes in John 19:12, “but the Jewish leaders shouted, ‘If you release this man, you are no “friend of Caesar.” Anyone who declares himself a king is a rebel against Caesar.’”
They were threatening a riot on Passover. The price for peace? Kill one man.
All the while, the small crowd in the courtyard was getting larger … and louder.
So Pilate signed off on the worst execution decision in history.
The religious leaders were finally happy. They could return to their duties in and around the Temple. They could return to their lavish homes. Perhaps they would soon have a late brunch and raise a toast to their own power. The problem rabbi had been neutralized. They had yanked Pilate around as if he were a dog on a leash.
They had gotten their way.
Pilate, however, wasn’t quite finished.
The governor ordered a sign made. Those who saw him on a cross deserved to know why Jesus was dying.
What had the priests claimed? Jesus, they had said, was threatening to become the Jewish Messiah. A rabbi who wanted to be “King of the Jews.”
Pilate had the sign written in three languages … not as a charge … but as a title.
When the sign was hung, the priests were furious. They rushed back to Pilate. “Let it say, ‘He claimed to be the King of the Jews!'”
“What I’ve written, I have written,” came the curt reply from Pilate.
That’s how a sign proclaiming Jesus to be the King of the Jews hung over his head for his entire crucifixion. Written in Greek, Latin and Hebrew, no one missed it.
“Here,” the sign proclaimed, “is your Messiah.”
Payback. A political stab in the back. A sick joke.
The sign hung there until Jesus was dead. It would take some time before his followers realized the irony.
Of all the things Pilate could have written that day, he’d written the one thing no one had expected for a man dying a slow, horrible death on a cross.
He’d written the truth.