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Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Crucifixion." To view all parts, click the link below.
Jesus had spoken to Pilate earlier when asked about His Kingdom and His claim to the throne (John 18:33-36); but later, when Pilate asked Him about the actual charges against Him (i.e., being the Son of God), Jesus remained silent. John 19:10, 11 says,
10 So Pilate said to Him, “You do not speak to me? Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” 11 Jesus answered, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.”
Jesus did not mind speaking to Pilate, but He limited the conversation so as not to cause Pilate to release Him. He could have played upon Pilate’s fear of executing the Son of God. He could have proved His heavenly origin with words or deeds. In fact, He could have turned Pilate into a staunch believer then and there. But He was determined to be “lifted up” in order to draw all men to Himself, as He had prophesied earlier.
Pilate was empowered by Rome, but Rome was empowered by a Higher Power. Rome did not exercise sovereignty but only authority under God. Jesus did not recognize Rome’s “free will” to do as its officials pleased. Rome had not had the revelation of the Messiah, nor did it know that the Son of God was to die for the sin of the world—even the Roman world.
Herein we see the relationship between sin and one’s level of knowledge. Jesus told Pilate that “he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” In other words, accountability increases with one’s level of knowledge and authority. It is related to the principle found in James 4:17,
17 Therefore, to one who knows the right thing to do and does it not, to him it is sin.
Ignorance does not completely negate liability to sin, however, because Romans 1:18, 19 says,
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
Not only do all have an inherent revelation of God, but also “the heavens are telling of the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1). The silent witness of the stars and the signs of the constellations were known before the Bible was written. The witness of God had been encrusted by fleshly desires from within and by false messiahs attempting to fulfill the known prophecies written in the heavens, but this lost knowledge only reduced men’s liability as time passed.
By the time Jesus appeared before Pilate, He had performed seven major signs proving that He was the Son of God. The chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees had seen or heard about all of these signs and no doubt had discussed them thoroughly in their inner circles. Yet they had rejected Jesus as the Messiah and had condemned Him for claiming what His signs had proven.
For this reason, Jesus attributed more liability for sin to those who had delivered Him up to Pilate than to Pilate or even to Rome itself. Those who try to shift liability from the Jews to Rome are either ignoring the witness of the gospel writers or are complicit in their sin. In the end, of course, God Himself is responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion, because He alone is sovereign, He alone has “free will,” and all others exercise mere authority, each on their own level.
Furthermore, the laws of sacrifice give authority to the priests alone to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people. Common people were not given that authority, and certainly no Romans were authorized to make such sacrifices. Jesus fulfilled all such sacrifices, and so the law demanded that the chief priests should offer up the Son of God as the true Sacrifice for sin. If, as some say, the Romans crucified Jesus, then He died in vain, for the law would have been broken.
Pilate’s liability for Jesus’ crucifixion was therefore subordinate to that of the chief priests who knew that He was the Messiah and yet condemned Him and even demanded His crucifixion. They were blind in that they did not realize that even in their sin they were fulfilling prophecy by the sovereign will of God. Hence, in the end, God took full responsibility for the sin of the world, thereby making it necessary for Him to save all mankind, including those who crucified Jesus.
The sovereignty of God, then, is the basis of universal salvation. While this does not prevent God from judging sin, it does mean that His judgment is temporary and must ultimately be corrective in nature. The grace in the law of Jubilee does not really cancel sin-debt but transfers liability to God Himself, thereby recognizing His sovereignty.
John 19:12 says,
12 As a result of this, Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out saying, “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.”
Those who the Roman emperor favored had been declared to be Amicus Caesaris, a technical term reserved for a few of the senators, knights, and administrators. To lose such a title was to lose favor with the emperor, along with one’s position. An example of this is seen in 26 B.C., when Gallus lost his standing as Amicus Caesaris under Augustus.
Hence, the Jewish leaders were threatening Pilate by saying, “you are no friend of Caesar.” There was more to this threat than most people realize. Pilate had been a friend of Sejanus, who was Tiberius Caesar’s most trusted official and spokesman. Seven years earlier (26 A.D.) Sejanus, preying on the emperor’s fear of assassination and revolt, had induced Tiberius to retire to the island of Capri, leaving Sejanus as his agent.
Sejanus was also the Prefect, that is, the head of the Praetorian Guard, which guarded the emperor, much like the Secret Service guards the American presidents today.
Tiberius later realized that Sejanus had essentially taken over as emperor, and he executed Sejanus in October of 31 A.D. Many of Sejanus’ friends and supporters were executed as well. One of Sejanus’ friends was Pilate, but he had escaped the purge because he had been Procurator of Judea since 26 A.D. and had therefore not been directly involved in the plot against Tiberius.
But when the Jews threatened him, saying, “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar,” it must have sent a chill through Pilate, for it implied that they knew of Pilate’s connection to Sejanus and were using this knowledge to blackmail him. Pilate then knew that he had lost the battle. He knew that if he released Jesus they would accuse him before Tiberius and that he would lose his status as Amicus Caesaris. In fact, Pilate did lose his status in 36 A.D. and was exiled to Switzerland, where he later committed suicide by casting himself off the cliff. That mountain is known to this day as Mount Pilatus.
On a side note, the Jewish threat against Pilate also helps us to date Jesus’ crucifixion, because the threat would have been meaningless prior to Sejanus’ execution in October of 31 A.D. If Jesus had been crucified in 30 A.D., as some believe, this would have taken place while Sejanus was at the height of power in Rome. Hence, this threat dates the crucifixion no earlier than Passover of 32 A.D., but I believe from other evidence that it took place actually in 33 A.D.
Pilate Bows to Pressure
John 19:13 says,
13 Therefore when Pilate heard these words [i.e., their threat], he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat [bema] at a place called The Pavement [lithoststrotos, “stone mosaic”], but in Hebrew Gabbatha [“platform”].
The scene took place on the porch of the Praetorium which was paved with a mosaic of small stones. The judgment seat (bema) of the tribunal stood on a raised stone platform. When Pilate sat down on this judgment seat, it indicated that he was ready to render the final decision.
John 19:14 says,
14 Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Behold, your King!” [quoting Zechariah 9:9]
This is perhaps one of the most disputed verses in the entire New Testament, due to the multitude of viewpoints about the timing of Christ’s crucifixion. Yet John makes it clear that Jesus was sentenced and crucified on “the day of preparation for the Passover,” i.e., Abib 14, showing that He died as the Passover lambs were being killed in the early afternoon of the 14th.
Secondly, Pilate sentenced him “about the sixth hour.” Dr. Bullinger insists that John was using Hebrew reckoning, where each day began at sunset. Hence, to him, “the sixth hour” was midnight. However, this is highly unlikely, seeing that the Last Supper took place that evening and that Jesus was in no hurry to go to Gethsemane. After His arrest, the trial before Annas and Caiaphas did not conclude until “it was day” (Luke 22:66, 67). Only then did they send Jesus to Pilate to ratify their sentence of death.
Hence, Bullinger is surely incorrect in his assumption that Pilate condemned Jesus at midnight. The sixth hour in this case was the sixth hour of the day, or noon.
Decades later, Ignatius of Antioch wrote in his Letter to the Trallians,
“On the day of the preparation, then, at the third hour, He received the sentence from Pilate, the Father permitting that to happen; at the sixth hour He was crucified; at the ninth hour He gave up the ghost; and before sunset He was buried.”
Ignatius was John’s disciple, and so the discrepancy is strange. John says Pilate sentenced Jesus at the sixth hour, while Ignatius says the sentencing took place at the third hour. It seems most likely that Ignatius meant that Jesus was presented to Pilate at the third hour, or about 9:00 a.m., and that shortly thereafter, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod. Herod then sent Jesus back to Pilate after, say, two hours. Then Pilate’s final sentence was rendered shortly before the sixth hour, so that He could be put on the cross at noon.
This seems to be the only way to account for all of the events from Gethsemane to the cross.
John 19:15-18 concludes,
15 So they cried out, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16 So he [Pilate] then handed Him over to them [the chief priests] to be crucified. 17 They [chief priests] took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross, to the place called the Place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. 18 There they [the chief priests] crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between.
John makes it clear that Pilate reluctantly consented to the Jew’s demand and “handed Him over to them to be crucified.” John follows through with this statement by telling us that it was the Jews themselves—not the Roman soldiers—who crucified Jesus. This is important because it proves that the law was indeed fulfilled, which gave the Aaronic priests the authority to kill the sacrifices.
Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Crucifixion." To view all parts, click the link below.