I find the case of Pontius Pilate quite sad.
Not that I want to make a hero out of the man. He repeatedly angered the Jews, and went out of his way to antagonize them. His conduct was often self-serving and brutal, his regime reputedly corrupt. And the gospels portray him as a man who knowingly executed an innocent man.
Not much heroic there.
But what we know of his story is tragic in its own way. Here was a man who knew the right thing to do but felt forced to do otherwise, struggling to find ways to pin the responsibility on someone else. Here was a man who seemed to lament cynically that “truth” was a mere abstraction, a matter of convenience, when Truth itself stood before him, proclaiming the one kingdom that really mattered. All Pilate cared about was surviving in the harsh hierarchy of the empire; ancient records say that he committed suicide sometime after being called to Rome to answer for some of his actions.
Still, Jesus must have made an impression on him. Swimming against the social current, Pilate tried to get Jesus released:
[Pilate] returned to the Jewish leaders and said, “I find no grounds for any charge against him. You have a custom that I release one prisoner for you at Passover. Do you want me to release for you the king of the Jews?” They shouted, “Not this man! Give us Barabbas!” (Barabbas was an outlaw.) (John 18:38-40, CEB)
Pilate essentially declared Jesus innocent of any crime against Rome. But he didn’t release him immediately, which would have required the courage of his convictions. Instead, he tried to manipulate the crowd into asking for Jesus’ release. He didn’t care a whit about Jesus being a so-called “king,” but probably hoped that calling him “king of the Jews” would make it difficult for the crowd to refuse his offer.
Little did he know, as Mark 15:11 tells us, that the chief priests, anticipating Pilate’s move, had already stirred up the crowds to clamor for a prisoner named Barabbas, who may have been popular with some of the people. As we’ll see in John’s next chapter, Pilate kept trying to manage the situation, flustered with a crowd that could call for the death of their king. When a riot began to brew, Pilate gave in. He declared himself innocent of Jesus’ blood, handed him over to be flogged and crucified, and gave them Barabbas instead (Matt 27:24-26).
“What is truth?” Pilate had asked. The facts of the case showed Jesus to be an innocent man, and Pilate knew it. But what did it matter? The truth of the Jewish leaders was that Jesus deserved to die — or perhaps had to die, whether he deserved it or not. The truth of Rome was that “peace” would be preserved at any price.
And the truth of Jesus, for anyone who had eyes to see and ears to hear, was that a divinely sovereign King could willingly sacrifice himself in love for a sinful world. That could make no sense to the people around him who were maneuvering to control the outcome, who were operating under the illusion that they had control in the first place.
John gives us a portrait of a Jesus who calmly and confidently did what he came into the world to do, despite the chaos around him. He declared the truth of God’s loving nature through his words and deeds, through the way he lived…and the way he died.
That’s the truth.