Great Conversations: Jesus and Pilate

Great Conversations_Jesus and pilate

It has been my conviction shared in many conversations that Jesus did not directly confront the Roman empire. Instead, his focus was on Israel, their failure to repent and follow God, and the judgment they were under, thus Rome.

Consider this famous passage in Mark 12

13 Later they sent some of the Pharisees and Herodians to Jesus to catch him in his words. 
14 They came to him and said, “Teacher, we know that you are a man of integrity. You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not? 
15 Should we pay or shouldn’t we?” But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. “Why are you trying to trap me?” he asked. “Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.” 
16 They brought the coin, and he asked them, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?”“Caesar’s,” they replied. 
17 Then Jesus said to them, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”And they were amazed at him.
Sermons should be developed just based on the flattery they bestow upon Jesus before asking him their “question.” I wonder if our opinion of Jesus often matches theirs. If so, we are missing the point, as His answer demonstrates.
The way I see it Jesus is once again calling them into account for not properly responding to God. The reason they are having to pay the Imperial Tax at all is because they are under judgment. In essence His two-fold answer is pointed in the same direction: Submit to Caesar as he is an instrument in God’s justice and in doing so, submit to God and the work He is doing in the world  (which will entail repentance and new living).
Be that as it may be, although Jesus is not directly confronting Roman rule and any abuse committed by Rome as he answers this question, He is definitely confronting them and their politics which are keeping them from properly responding to God and His rule.

This is why Jesus conversation with Pilate is so interesting. Finally. The showdown between Rome, the height of worldly empires, and God’s King, His ambassador, and His Kingdom.
John 18:
33 Pilate went back into the palace and called for Jesus. He said, “Are you the ‘King of the Jews’?” 
34 Jesus answered, “Are you saying this on your own, or did others tell you this about me?” 
35 Pilate said, “Do I look like a Jew? Your people and your high priests turned you over to me. What did you do?” 
36 “My kingdom,” said Jesus, “doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king.”
37 Then Pilate said, “So, are you a king or not?” Jesus answered, “You tell me. Because I am King, I was born and entered the world so that I could witness to the truth. Everyone who cares for truth, who has any feeling for the truth, recognizes my voice.” 
38 Pilate said, “What is truth?” Then he went back out to the Jews and told them, “I find nothing wrong in this man.” 
39 It’s your custom that I pardon one prisoner at Passover. Do you want me to pardon the ‘King of the Jews’?” 
40 They shouted back, “Not this one, but Barabbas!” Barabbas was a Jewish freedom fighter.

The conflict of two Kingdoms

First I love how Jesus frames the discussion. “What exactly are we talking about here? Is this your idea or did others talk to you about me?”
We all have to make a personal decision about Jesus. It is never enough to just go on the opinion of others. This includes the opinion of church tradition and centuries of Christendom. It will not do to have an unexamined “Christian” life. First hand knowledge is available don’t settle for only what others say about Jesus.
“My Kingdom,” Jesus says, “does not come from this world.”
It is not born out of this world but out of somewhere else. The only proof Jesus offers may be tailor made to catch Pilate’s attention, a Roman baptized in violence and power — if it were from here, my followers would be fighting to free me. As Christ’s kingdom does not originate on/through worldly systems, it does not use the violence of the world to defend itself.
It is the meek who inherit the earth in Jesus’ Kingdom.
Not the powerful.
Not the mighty and violent.
This is the pivotal truth that is so necessary in our western, American culture. Violence and power may be used to establish democracy around the world (uhm, or  not, the jury’s still out on that one but it’s not looking good), they can not be used to establish the Kingdom of God.
To understand what Jesus is saying here, we have to examine what He means by the Kingdom of God. I have been strongly influenced by NT Wright in these discussions.
My summary is that Jesus is talking about God’s rightful rule over creation now taking place, now coming to fruition, as evidenced by Jesus and His arrival on the scene and the works that He was doing. This is the beginning of God re-creating the world — righting the wrongs of the world’s system bound under the curse of sin — and writing His law on our hearts.
Jesus then forms a band of followers to help him continue the work of Kingdom building in and throughout the world through the process of mentoring  and teaching others as He mentored and taught them. They do this through the power of God’s Spirit who enables them to live out sacrificial love and authority over the kingdom of darkness just as Jesus demonstrated.

What is Truth?

As Ravi Zaccharias says, it’s a shame Pilate didn’t wait for the answer. I for one would have liked to hear what Jesus said in response.

Here’s how I interpret Jesus’ response: truth is bound up in Jesus, the incarnation, and His mission. The two are inseparable. To properly understand truth we have to understand the mission and purpose of Jesus’ life.

Truth is not created but discovered as we pursue Christ and join Him in the great mission — the mission of restoring the world to God’s created order setting what’s wrong to right, and being willing to sacrifice in the process. I am fully persuaded that if you listen to Jesus’ voice, you too will come to know this truth.

Give us Barabbas, the freedom fighter.

In their pursuit of freedom, in their pursuit of throwing off Roman oppression, in their pursuit of being the people God called them to be, they were more than willing to sacrifice Jesus.

Give us the freedom fighter—the one trying to establish God’s kingdom through violence. That is the choice they made.

Are we still making that choice?
If so, know this, Jesus and His followers will continue to choose the cross that swallows up violence, the cross that publicly shames the principalities and powers. The cross that turns the world upside down.
But if you insist on that choice, you will still be trapped inside the world system that is being judged.

Make a choice.

Jesus or the freedom fighter. You can’t have both.



Check out these other posts about great conversations in the Bible.

Great Conversations: God and Moses

Great Conversations: Jesus and the Successful Young Leader



4 thoughts on “Great Conversations: Jesus and Pilate

  1. You’re right that Jesus didn’t take up arms, but spoke truth to power. His way of interacting with Pilate shows a remarkable lack of deference – as if Pilate is nobody special. He apparently did the same thing with Caiaphas the high priest, which got him a blow to the face. Sometimes Christians in America take “meekness” to mean that you never speak out at all about injustice and just go around meekly obeying every authority, instead of, you know, staging a demonstration in the temple. On that note, I like Richard Horsley’s interpretation of the coin: “What belongs to God” in the end is everything–leaving Caesar nothing at all.

    1. Thanks, Jon, for the thoughts and perspective.
      Agreed that meekness is too often misunderstood. I love the thought that Jesus teaches us how to speak truth to power. He doesn’t hold back. There is no fear present. Meekness, though it’s not a concept we promote, is not passive or timid because of fear, nor is it aggressive or violent in getting it’s own way or agenda.

      Perhaps that’s why it is not a virtue we promote.

      I thought you might be coming after me about Jesus not directly confronting Rome. I perhaps said that too strongly. What I meant was that He didn’t pursue a confrontation as the focus of his ministry—didn’t travel to Rome or picket outside the palace.
      Hopefully that doesn’t negate the fact that most of his teaching (as it is about God’s Kingdom) is a direct confrontation of the world’s system that Rome is a part of.

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