Cross Road: No Exit
To put it mildly, Pontius Pilate was on the spot. Was he ever! He was caught between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” He didn’t want to render judgment in the case of Jesus Christ. He wanted to find a way out. So he began a series of evasive tactics.
Initially, he suggested that the Jewish authorities put Jesus to death themselves. But that would not work. You see, it was Passover time, and for the Jewish authorities to have anything to do with death would have rendered them ritually unclean, and thus unable to celebrate the Passover. That way out for Pilate was blocked. No exit.
Next, Pilate suggested that since Jesus was a Galilean, Herod ought to render judgment. However, Herod played his cruel games with Jesus and sent him right back to Pilate. Another way out for Pilate was blocked. No exit.
Finally, Pilate suggested that in keeping with an old Passover custom, he would permit the crowd to select a prisoner to be released. Pilate, in order to be sure that Jesus would be selected, set up as the alternative a back-alley thief and killer named Barabbas. Pilate was sure the crowd would choose Jesus for release. What Pilate failed to take into account was that it was early in the day. The crowd which had assembled was not a crowd of people from the streets. It was a crowd of people who had come from the palace of the high priest. They were nothing more than ecclesiastical vigilantes stirred to mob action by their leader, Caiaphas. So when the choice was put to them, they chose Barabbas for release. Another way out was blocked. No exit.
So Pilate was still on the spot, and he knew it. There was no way out. No exit. Now let’s at least say one thing good about Pontius Pilate. I’ll admit there’s not much good to mention, but there is at least one thing. Pontius Pilate tried to head off the crucifixion of Jesus. He really tried. It’s interesting to know that the Coptic Christian Church of Egypt, one of the most ancient of Christian communities, centuries ago declared Pontius Pilate to be a Christian saint. They based it on Pilate’s statement, “I find no fault in this man.” Slim basis for sainthood, to be sure, but it does underscore the fact that Pilate apparently saw something in Jesus that would not let him write Jesus off casually. He is at least to be commended for that if nothing else.
Of course, that’s what put him between the rock and the hard place. Here he was confronted with the most difficult decision of his whole life. Here he was on the spot. You can almost hear the anguish in his voice as he cries: “What shall I do with this Jesus?” Having found no way out, no exit, he had to rule.
Pilate’s first ruling was this: “I will have Jesus beaten and this will settle the matter.” It was an act of compromise.
You may wonder why Pilate didn’t just release Jesus. He had the authority to do that. But he didn’t do it for a reason. You see, Pilate had been in trouble with the Jewish religious authorities before—three times in fact. It started on the first day of his term as governor. When he rode into the city of Jerusalem, his soldiers carried on their standards a picture of the Roman Emperor. The Jewish people regarded the Roman Emperor as being a false god, and thus to display his picture in public was an act of desecration. It set off a mass protest demonstration. It wasn’t long thereafter that in order to alleviate a water shortage in Jerusalem, Pilate took money from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct. The aqueduct solved the water problem, but Pilate’s heavy-handed methods set off another riot. This one was put down only after considerable bloodshed. Then—you think that he would have learned, but he hadn’t—Pilate ordered huge gold plaques carrying an inscription to the Emperor be displayed around his headquarters building. That was the last straw. The Jewish authorities lodged a formal protest in Rome, and the Emperor sent word to Pilate that further unrest would not be tolerated. So Pilate was already in hot water in Rome, and he wasn’t anxious to do anything to create more trouble.
Just five months after his rebuke from the Emperor Pilate was faced with the Jesus case. When the religious authorities began to say to Pilate: “Anyone who does not crucify this Jesus is no friend of Caesar’s”—that, my friends, was a not so subtle form of blackmail in light of Pilate’s previous troubles. The pressure on Pilate was intense. It was then that he tried to compromise. He said: “I’ll order Jesus to be beaten—that should be sufficient. “ Of course, even that was unjust. Pilate himself had already declared Jesus innocent. He didn’t deserve death, and he didn’t deserve a beating either. Yet Pilate, in order to strike a compromise, was willing to lay the nine—tailed last across the back of the Master. He was trying to compromise with Jesus Christ.
We can understand that, can’t we? We know some of the same pressure in our lives. We know what it means to try to compromise with Jesus. That man who stands up in church on Sunday and sings “O Jesus I have promised to serve Thee to the end”, and then on Monday hears the name of Jesus Christ profaned and neither protests nor prays—that man is compromising. The fellow who teaches in the youth department of the Sunday School and who knows that his company is engaging in illegal business practices, but he is afraid to say so—that fellow is compromising. The mother who says that she will offer her home to Jesus Christ and then loses herself in a whole rash of minor concerts so that her children never come to the deep knowledge of Jesus Christ they so desperately need—she is compromising. The teenager who fills out the blank on a summer job application asking for religious preference with the word “Presbyterian”, and then cheats on exams or plays fast and loose with morality—that teenager is compromising with Christ.
Let’s have something clear. No one compromises with the Lord successfully. Do you remember the dramatic scene in the Old Testament when Saul has conquered the Amalekites and he is ordered to slay them all? He compromises. He lets some of them live. Later on, having been abandoned by God because of his many sins, Saul is wounded on the battlefield at Gilboa. He asks a man standing nearby to help to kill him. The man does. Then the man takes from Saul’s head the crown of royalty and from his arms the bracelet of sovereignty. Do you know that the man who took from Saul the symbols of his royalty was an Amalekite? There’s a parable in that. If we try to compromise with the matter of faith, that compromise will chase us and ultimately it will kill us. We cannot compromise with God in Jesus Christ. Jesus wants us all or He wants us not at all. We cannot compromise with Christ. Many have tried, none have succeeded. Pilate didn’t either.
When Pilate’s first ruling didn’t work, he offered a second ruling. He said: “I wash my hands of the whole affair, see to it yourselves.” It was an act of cowardice.
The religious leaders weren’t satisfied with the beating, as terrible as it was. They began to chant “Crucify Him!”—and the more they chanted, the more fearful Pilate became. Consumed then with his own cowardice, he called for a basin of water to wash his hands. Remember that was not a Roman act, it was a Jewish act. He wanted them to know that he did not wish to be held responsible for what was happening. He did not want the judgment to fall upon him. So he washed his hands. But Pilate could have washed his hands until the skin was gone and it would not have altered the fact that he was responsible.
The author, Anatole France, has a short story in which in the central scene, Pilate, now retired and living in Rome, is entertaining some guests. One of the guests says to him: “Sir, back when you were the Governor of the Palestine Province, there was a rabble-rouser from Galilee, an artisan, I believe, named Jesus—can you tell us anything of him?” And in the story, Pilate responds: “No, I don’t seem to remember the name.” Well, I may not be sure of many things in this life, but of this I am certain—Pontius Pilate never forgot Jesus of Nazareth. And if there are words of literature to describe the way that Pilate felt across all the succeeding years, they are not the words of Anatole France, but the words of William Shakespeare: “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash the blood clean from my hand? No, rather this my hand shall all the multitudinous seas incarnadine, turning the green sea red.”
Pontius Pilate could no more escape the judgment of Jesus Christ than any of us can. True, we live in a day when we are loathe to speak of judgment, a day when we try to soft-soap and sugar-coat the Gospel, a day when we try to develop theologies which declare that everyone will be saved, regardless. It sounds so nice. But the Bible will not let us accept Jesus Christ and deny His judgment. Jesus Himself spoke of that judgment. This same Jesus who took the little children into His arms and who opened the eyes of those who were blind and who wept over the tomb of His closest friend and who said words of such kindness and gentleness and love and mercy—this same Jesus spoke again and again of that judgment. He said: “God will gather the wheat into His barns but the chaff He will burn with an unquenchable fire.” He said: “The Son of Man shall come and reward each according to his own works.” He said: “Depart from me, you who work evil.” That’s what Jesus said. It’s almost as if He knew that the day would come when people would try to ignore the reality of judgment, when people would try to shirk their responsibility before God. He wanted it understood that we are responsible before God. One day we are going to have to render account for the things we have done and the things we haven’t done in this life. It’s going to happen. There is no way to avoid it. There is no escape. There is no exit.
Daniel Webster was once attending a banquet at the Hotel Astor in New York. He was asked: “What is the greatest thought ever to cross your mind?” Webster said: “The greatest thought ever to cross my mind”—and what a mind was Daniel Webster’s—”the greatest thought ever to cross my mind was that of my individual responsibility before God.”
Sir James Simpson, the discoverer of chloroform and other anesthetics, was asked once to name his greatest discovery. Do you know what he said? He said: “The greatest discovery of my life has been that I am a sinner but that Jesus is my Saviour.”
Have you made that discovery? Have you discovered that we are sinners before God—that there is no ocean on earth large enough to wash away our guilt—that we shall have to render account for the living of our days—and that in that moment nothing but the amazing grace of Jesus Christ will be able to save us? There is a great desperation in my heart that you know this—that you should confess to Jesus Christ every sin which is yours—that you should seek from Him the forgiveness which He alone can give—that you should commit yourself to Him today and forever—and that in that act of commitment you should come to know the freedom of being forgiven and redeemed by Jesus Christ. We have in Him life here and now, and life for all eternity.
You will want to know what happened to Pontius Pilate. Believe it or not, a few years later, 36 A.D., he angered the Jewish authorities again. He was recalled to Rome. He was stripped of his office. He lived out his days in disgrace. There is the slightest shred of historical evidence that Pilate eventually became a Christian, but we don’t know about that. We are relatively certain that his wife did, but we don’t know about him. Tradition has it that finally in total misery, he committed suicide. A number of legends have sprung up about what happened then. It is said that his body was thrown into the Tiber River, but evil spirits so disturbed the water that he body had to be removed. It was then taken to the Rhone River in France—same thing happened. At last it was taken away up into the Swiss Alps, up to the top of a towering peak and there it was cast away. The legend says that that mountaintop shall be enshrouded in clouds forever. You can see that cloud—capped mountain peak in Switzerland today. It’s called Mt. Pilatus.
But that is legend. We don’t know what happened to Pilate. Yet that’s not really important anyway. What is important is what about you and me? We know so much more about Jesus than Pilate did. We have the testimony of the Gospels. We have the witness of the Christian Church down through the ages. We can see what happens to those who try to evade Jesus Christ today—we see the destructive forces at work in their lives. And we can see what happens to those who call Jesus Christ “Lord and Saviour”—we see His peace and pardon and power at work in their lives.
We know so much more than Pilate. Yet strange to say, the question he had to face is the same question we have to face. It’s the most important question of our lives, just as it was the most important question of his life. There is no way for us to escape it, just as there was no way for him to escape it. The same question—the very same question—Pilate asked, we must ask and we must answer.
What shall I do with this Jesus?
What shall I do with Him?