Crucified Under Pontius Pilate | Daily Office Devotional 2021/9/1

As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.

Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead.

Mark 15:1-11

Every week when we recite the Apostles’ Creed, we come across this phrase: “crucified under Pontius Pilate.” No doubt, most of us would find it strange that the Creed includes the name of the Roman prefect who sanctioned Jesus’ execution—what role did this man play in salvation history so as to be remembered in the our Creed? In his commentary on the Creed, the Reformed theologian Karl Barth expresses how awkward and unwelcome the insertion of the name is to Christians: “How does Pontius Pilate come into the Creed? Somewhat coarsely and bitingly, the answer might first of all be: like a dog into a nice room! In the way in which politics get into the human life and then in one form or another into the Church also!”

One mustn’t imagine Pontius Pilate to be a righteous governor who was forced to execute Jesus by the Jewish mob. According to history, he was an impetuous man who had a disdain for the Jews, often commanding his soldiers to perform acts that offended their sensibilities. (Luke 13 briefly records for us one such incident involving the slaughter of some Galileans.) He was even reprimanded by the emperor after the Jews complained to Rome about him. As a governor, he was in charge of the proper execution of justice in Judea. So, when he realised that Jesus had done no wrong and that the Jewish leaders were jealous of Jesus and simply using him to do their dirty deed, he sought to release Jesus. He didn’t fancy himself a pawn in the hands of the Jewish leaders.

However, the mob was roused to a frenzy calling for Jesus’ execution and Pilate feared the protest might descend into armed rebellion. To sate the mob, curry favour with the Jewish leaders, and save himself from potential trouble, he gave in to their demands and “handed [Jesus] over to be crucified.” There was nothing honourable in knowingly delivering a guiltless to death. Here, Pilate represents the evil inherent in worldly politics. Barth writes, “What does Pilate do? He does what politicians have more or less always done and what has always belonged to the actual achievement of politics in all times.” Pilate surrendered his duty of rightly executing justice, of protecting the innocent, in order to preserve his position of power. That is the politics of the world.

Yet, it’s precisely through worldly politics that salvation came into the world! While the Jewish leaders sought to get rid of Jesus through political pressure, and Pilate acquiesced to preserve his political power, God triumphed over their wickedness by making the cross the power of salvation. In the end, the one who holds all political power in the world isn’t Pilate nor the Jewish leaders, but Jesus, who is now seated “at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” Perhaps, the inclusion of Pontius Pilate in the Creed is to remind us that no matter how oppressed the church might be by those who hold political power, God will eventually triumph over them. The plight of our brothers and sisters in Afghanistan should loom large in our consciousness, but God won’t let the politics of the world have the last word.

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