XVII THE SPIRIT OF GOD STRIVING
PONTIUS PILATE JUDGING THE LORD CHRIST JOHN xviii. 28 xix. 16; LUKE xxiii.; MATTHEW xxvii.
THE character of Pilate, as it is brought out in the scene
of our Lords trial, is an interesting study to those who would trace the
workings of natural conscience when it is brought into closer contact than
usual with the truth of God, or with Him who is the truth. We see, indeed,
little or no evidence of any saving, or even of any deeply serious impression.
But we see emotions of natural pity; and we see more - we see the convictions
and relentings, the compunction and hesitation, of a natural sense of duty, and
a natural feeling of remorse. He went farther, indeed, in this way than most of
the other princes of this world who, in their official capacity, had to deal,
not merely with the religion of Jesus (which is the common case now), but with
Jesus himself. Herod of Galilee, who had been first the Baptist's patron and
then his persecutor, for a long time desired to see Jesus; but when his desire
was gratified, and Jesus, sent by Pilate, stood before him on his trial, the
crafty "fox" evaded the question, and having carelessly insulted the Saviour,
as carelessly dismissed him. Felix, when Paul, arraigned as the prisoner, stood
as the preacher before him, and reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and
judgment to come trembled; but he sent him away till a more convenient season.
Agrippa, partly perhaps in courtly compliment to the unrivalled eloquence of
the defence to which he listened, partly in sincere admiration of the inspired
pleader, and partly also under a real impression of there being more in his
theme than he had before imagined, avowed himself almost persuaded to be a
Christian. But the workings of the mind of Pilate were surely deeper, at least
the history gives us a deeper insight into them. There is so much of apparent
honesty in the conflict of his soul, between his own evident reluctance to be
instrumental in so foul a deed, and the unrelenting importunity of those who
cruelly practised on his weakness, that we cannot refuse our compassion, and we
almost yield our sympathy. And, on the other hand, in what he saw of the holy
and awful majesty of the Lord Jesus, and in the solemn words which he heard
from his lips, as once and again, nay repeatedly, he conferred with him face to
face, away from the clamours of his Jewish accusers, in his own private hall of
audience, there is so close and cogent an application of the divine word, in
circumstances the most intensely affecting, to his whole moral nature, that we
cannot but regard it as one of the most remarkable cases on record of the
Spirit of the Lord striving with man.
What sort of man, either as an individual or as governor, Pilate was, we have scarcely any means of determining. Other historians, whether Jewish or Gentile, say very little either of his personal character or of his public administration; and, beyond their narrative of our Lord's trial before him, the sacred writers mention only one particular regarding him. In the Gospel by Luke (xiii. 1), allusion is made to his having perpetrated an act of cruelty on some Galileans, who, it is probable, having come up to Jerusalem to worship at one of the festivals, were slain by his orders in the very midst of the solemnity, so that their blood was mingled with their sacrifices. This severity may have been inflicted on some pretence of tumult or of political disaffection; for the Roman governors were jealous, and not without reason, of the great concourse of strangers from the country districts at such seasons to Jerusalem; and in particular, they had some cause to suspect the natives of Galilee of an inclination to be turbulent and seditious. Perhaps also the misunderstanding which, as we learn from subsequent events, prevailed between himself and Herod, by whom, as king or tetrarch, Galilee was then ruled, might make Pilate willing enough to take an opportunity of wreaking his vengeance on the subjects of his rival when they happened to come within his own government; although it is quite as probable that this very act of violence may have been itself the cause and not the consequence of the quarrel. It is said that on other occasions, both in Judea and in Samaria, Pilate committed great cruelties; and it is certain that he was a man who, in enforcing his authority and prosecuting his ends, held human life very cheap, and made no scruple of recklessly causing blood on a large scale to be shed.
Still there is no appearance of his having been wantonly cruel, either as a man or as a governor; nor even of his having been particularly oppressive or unjust. Most probably, indeed, he was very much like the other governors of the Roman provinces in those days, who, being for the most part noblemen of high rank and family, but of scanty or ruined fortunes, looked to such provincial appointments as means of retrieving or improving their affairs, and expected to enrich themselves by the spoils of the countries which they governed. Hence fines and favours, exactions and extortions of all kinds, formed an ordinary part of their administration, insomuch that it turned very much on the length of time during which a governor held office, at what rate the province should be pillaged. Frequent changes aggravated the evil; for each governor, ruling for a short period, must make the most of it for the purpose of satiating his rapacity; and the only chance of milder treatment lay in the lengthening of the period, so as to spread the demand over a greater number of years. So completely was the system understood, that in the case of this very Pilate and his predecessor in the government, the Emperor Tiberius is said sarcastically to have assigned this very reason for making their tenure of office longer than previously been the custom. Pilate, therefore, we may well believe, was not better in these respects - in respect of cruelty and rapacity - than the ordinary class of Roman governors of the day. Nor was he worse. The fact of its having fallen to him to judge our Lord, and of his having actually caused him to be crucified, is apt to leave on our minds an impression of this nature. Strongly condemning his treatment of the Saviour, we form exaggerated notions of the injustice and blood-thirstiness of his character, and conclude that he must have been a very monster so to deal with the Holy One. In this way the lesson which his conduct is fitted to teach is rendered far less pointed and profitable than it might be. It is not unlikely, that in the very trying predicament in which he found himself placed, Pilate acted better, and evinced more sensibility of heart and conscience, than the great majority of his compeers would have done; and moreover, it is not unlikely that in his circumstances some of us would have acted worse.
For, consider the position of Pilate when brought into contact with Jesus. He was a Roman, probably of good family; a soldier and senator of considerable rank, and accustomed to move in the best society. The tone of such society was not favourable to serious thought. It was abundantly frivolous and dissipated. The showy accomplishments and refinements of a luxurious age accorded well with the light spirit of the liberal and sceptical philosophy which was then in vogue. The ancient sternness and simplicity of the republican manners had been relaxed; the ancient depth and devout earnestness of character had given place to a shallow and flippant way of evading all grave consideration and decision of choice, and making light equally of all things. Trained in such a school, in the camp and at the court, a noble Roman might enter life, whether as a man of ambition or as a man of pleasure, with little fixed principle of any kind, - with little habit and little capacity of deep reflection - with a sort of gay and easy indifference of temper, likely enough to waft him buoyant over the waves of fortune, but giving him no hold of the element through which a more solid mind would pursue a steadier and more commanding course.
After passing the ordinary novitiate and routine either of fashionable idleness or of military parade (for the times were peaceful), or of perfunctory attendance on the forms of some civil or political calling, such a man might retire, for a season, to the government of a remote province, with whose people, having no connection, he could have no sympathy and of whose real interests, having little knowledge, he had still less care. There, living in dignified ease, and invested with very absolute and discretionary power - living, too, never as if he were at home, but always as an exile expecting to be recalled, he has every inducement to abandon himself to his own pleasure or his own profit, giving himself scarcely any real concern about what may be passing around him. Thus, if not tyrannical, he is very apt to prove like Gallio, governor of Achaia, who, when the whole city of Corinth was excited and convulsed by the agitation of religious controversy, took the matter very easily, and cared for none of these things.
Such, probably, might be Pilate's state of mind when, sitting quietly in his palace, he heard of the strange proceedings of that memorable paschal-week. And as tidings reached him of a singular procession, of one sitting on an ass, and attended by a countless throng, entering the city and the temple, like a moving forest of waving palms, amid shouts that filled the air; and again, as rumours circulated through his court of a remarkable commotion, first among the Jewish multitude resorting daily in crowds to the temple to see and hear this extraordinary person, and then among the Jewish authorities, all alive and on the alert respecting him; and still further, as the news of this mysterious individual being arrested, and the hasty convening of the Sanhedrim, and the hurried trial and condemnation before that tribunal, and the feverish excitement of the public mind which the affair was creating; as the news of these things passed around the circle of his attendants, the haughty Roman might listen with an air of real or affected unconcern, as to a mere idle breath of popular folly; and dwelling apart, as in some higher region of imperturbable repose, he might calmly put the subject away from him as beneath or beyond his notice; he might even find materials of courtly and philosophic pleasantry in what was turning the Jewish world upside down.
If so, he must have been somewhat startled when, most unexpectedly, the cause was suddenly transferred to his own judgment-seat, and the whole case brought under his own immediate cognisance. He must now entertain and dispose of a question which otherwise he might have regarded as altogether out of his way. He must meet with this Jewish teacher, who might be supposed to belong to an entirely different sphere from his own, and enter on a discussion which in his ordinary manner of life he would have little dreamed of. It is a somewhat strange position into which this great man is abruptly brought; and it is most interesting to observe how, in that position, he conducts himself. From the very outset he is embarrassed and uncomfortable, and all throughout the trial he makes successive attempts to evade decision of the matter. But before proceeding further, let us adjust the local scenery of this most tragic drama.
When the Jewish leaders brought Jesus to Pilate (John xviii. 28) they would not enter his house. They were at that time eating the Passover; that is, they were keeping the paschal-feast; for the expression is to be understood not merely of the first act of the solemnity - their killing and eating the paschal-lamb, which in the present case was probably over - but of all the subsequent rites and observances during the days of unleavened bread. That they might thus keep the feast acceptably, they must scrupulously, as they believed, abstain during the whole course of it, and especially on the day of preparation for the Sabbath, which this was, from going into a heathen dwelling, and so contracting defilement. In compliance with their scruples, however frivolous and superstitious he might think them, Pilate went out to them to the palace-gate, where, according to eastern custom, was his public seat of audience (chap. xix. 1 3). There, during the whole of this transaction, he conducted his intercourse with the Jews; but from time to time he took Jesus himself into his own house, or inner hall of judgment, for the purpose of more private trial and examination (chap, xviii. 33 ; xix. 9). It is necessary to bear this in memory, in attempting to bring before the mind"s eye the several incidents of the trial.
I. Meeting the Jews, then, at the door of his palace, Pilate asks what accusation they bring against the man whom they have in custody; and at first he will scarcely attend to the accusers. He is a malefactor, you say, else you would not have brought him here (chap, xviii. 30, 31). Be it so. It is some ordinary case of crime, some religious contention, or some breach of the peace, such as are now become too common for me to be troubled with them all. Decide it yourselves. "Take ye him, and judge him according to your law;" I give you full authority and warrant.'
Pilate, however, is not to get so easily off. This is a more serious matter than he thinks. It is a capital offence with which this criminal is charged', and 'it is not lawful for us to put any man to death' (ver. 31). His crime is treason against Caesar, and Caesar's deputy must look to it: "We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a king" (Luke xxiii. 2). Pilate, therefore, has no alternative; he must look into the accusation. He takes Jesus, accordingly, into the inner judgment-hall in his palace, thinking probably that a very short inquiry will suffice. And here first the barbed arrow enters his heart, which is to sink deep and remain fast, - the wound rankling and festering till it proves mortal.
If this man takes the title of King of the Jews, as his accusers allege, brief work may be made of his case. And he does acknowledge the title; but then he adds an explanation which opens up an entirely new view of the affair. He is a king; but his kingdom is not of this world. It does not therefore interfere with Caesar's (John xviii. 33-36). The Jews who accused him knew, or might have known, this; but they did not choose to make it known to Pilate, for it was necessary for their purpose that Jesus should be charged before Pilate with a political crime. Hence they did not bring him to Pilate's bar as a blasphemer, in which character they themselves, in their own spiritual court, had previously tried and condemned him. They were well aware that Pilate, a Gentile and an unbeliever, would not, as a civil magistrate, have dealt with that offence; at least not in that view of it which their religion might suggest. They accused Jesus, therefore, as a rebel and traitor, as claiming for himself royal rights and honours, and denying them to Caesar, the Roman emperor, whose authority Pilate must uphold. Nor would it have served their end to say, that he made himself a king in any spiritual or religious sense. They would have Pilate to believe that he sought political power inconsistent with that of Caesar. Jesus at once, and simply, removes this impression. There is no cause of alarm. He asserts no authority which can at all interfere with that of any lawful earthly government.
But, at the same time, he does assert an authority of a high and sacred character, and in a way which seems to strike his judge (ver. 37). "Thou art a king then?" "I am," is the Lord"s reply; "and I am more - I am a witness unto the truth." "What is truth?" says Pilate - jesting, perhaps, and not waiting for an answer, thinking by a jest to turn away the appeal which has already come too closely home to him. Now, he would fain persuade himself, he sees how the case stands. This is one of your sages, your contemplative dreamers, not made for this world, as this world is not made for them. He has got hold of some fragments of our wildest and most unearthly philosophy - a visionary king - himself his only kingdom - enamoured of some fond fancy which he chooses to call the truth! It might be curious, in some idle hour, to settle with him what this same truth may be. Meanwhile, he must be acquitted of any grave offence; at the least, he is clearly harmless. "I find in him no fault at all." Nay, but, vain man! This business is not so quickly or so cleverly managed as thou, in thy ingenious wit, art inclined to think. There is more in it than thou art likely soon to reach the end of. Thou hast seen for once another kind of sovereign than any thou hast hitherto met with. Thou hast heard of truth in a way not familiar. He who hath spoken to thee hath spoken as a king, - as one having authority; and, as one having authority, he hath proclaimed to thee that he witnesses to a truth, - to the truth. Yes, to thee, a careless, unfixed self-seeker - to thee, who hast neither reverence nor faith, one has appeared who claims authority, and bears witness to the truth; and thou canst not easily rid thyself of the surmise that it may be authority of which thou shouldest stand in awe, - that it may be truth which thou shouldest believe. Thou art brought into contact with things more serious than, in thy frivolous intercourse with a world of vain lies, thou hast been accustomed to deal with. Thou must have more to do with this same mysterious stranger, whom thou wouldst so summarily dismiss with a hasty and half contemptuous admission of his harmlessness.
The subsequent conduct of Pilate exhibits a melancholy picture. Whatever air of light-hearted levity he may assume or affect, and however he may try, in his rejoinder to the Lord, to turn the edge of the Spirit's sword, - the quick and powerful word so authoritatively spoken by Him whose word it is - we see plainly that he is not at his ease. To this extent, at least, he is now evidently in earnest, that he is most anxious to rescue Jesus out of the hands of his accusers. And the very anxiety of the Jews to obtain his blood only increases Pilate's desire to save him. He perceives that there is, that there must be, some high interest at stake, else these formal hypocrites would not be so eager and zealous in the matter. They are not in general such warm friends of Caesar and of Caesar's power, these rulers of the Jews. They are not commonly so sensitive in regard to treason against the emperor as to persist in an accusation so evidently groundless as this. There must be more at the bottom of this affair than at first sight appears." Thus from the very beginning of this strange trial, and all throughout, more and more, the pertinacity of the Jews tends to deepen the impression made on Pilate's mind, increases his concern, and makes him the more impatient for an adjustment.
II. When therefore the Jews, instead of acquiescing in his judgment of acquittal, reiterated the more impetuously their charge against Jesus as seditious, and by way of aggravation, referring to the extent of the mischief, spoke of his labours in Galilee - "And they were the more fierce, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place" (Luke xxiii. 5), Pilate eagerly catches the hint. He will send the case to Herod, within whose jurisdiction Galilee lies, and, fortunately, Herod happens to be at this time in Jerusalem: "When Pilate heard of Galilee, he asked whether the man were a Galilean. And as soon as he knew that he belonged unto Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who himself also was at Jerusalem at that time" (Luke xxiii. 6, 7). If there is any truth in the charge brought against Jesus as a subverter of the government, it is plainly in Galilee, the ordinary place of his ministrations, that the offence must have been chiefly committed, and not in Judea, which he has only occasionally visited. It belongs therefore to Herod, as tetrarch of Galilee, ruling that province under Caesar, to deal with this rival king; - and the rather because he knows such cases of old, having once been the admirer and follower of just such a prophet, - his friend and patron, entertaining him at his court, - his devoted disciple, hearing him gladly.
Thus Pilate thought that he might evade the necessity of coming to a decision in regard to Jesus and his claims. Let Herod be the judge; send the case, by all means, to Herod; he is on all accounts the proper person to dispose of it." But this expedient will not stand Pilate in stead. It is to prove a more troublesome business than he could have imagined, and he cannot easily divest himself of the responsibility connected with it. Jesus comes back to him, scourged, indeed, and buffeted, but not judged, neither absolved nor condemned. Herod mocks him and sets him at nought: "And Herod with his men of war set him at nought, and mocked him, and arrayed him in a gorgeous robe, and sent him again to Pilate" (Luke xxiii.11). But not in that way is the question to be set at rest. The cause is still undetermined, and Pilate has to determine it.
What, then, is to be done? The Jews will not be satisfied. They insist on a sentence. It avails not to tell them that neither Pilate nor Herod finds in Jesus any fault worthy of death. Will Pilate then at once discharge him, and so run the risk of being represented to the Roman emperor as shielding a traitor to his power? Or will he give him up, notwithstanding his impression of his innocence, to the doom of a convicted malefactor?
But yesterday, and in any other case, it would probably have cost Pilate scarce a moment's thought to decide on this latter alternative, and sacrifice an individual, however guiltless, to his own interests and the interests of his imperial master's authority. And even now, perhaps, he wonders at his own weakness. Whence this unwonted hesitation, these unprecedented scruples, in his mind? This is not the first instance, probably, in which he has been called upon to propitiate supporters, and to secure himself, by giving up an unconvicted man as a victim to his enemies, and justifying the doubtful step by reasons of state, thus making to himself friends not only of the Mammon, but of the Moloch, of unrighteousness. Why should he be so sensitive now? Can it be that this extraordinary criminal at the bar has virtually changed places with the judge, and marvellously gained an ascendency over him as his king and cited and sisted him at a higher bar as a witness of the truth to his conscience? Then why does Pilate not avow and follow out his convictions, whithersoever they may lead? Why, at least, does he not do justice to him in whom he finds no fault? Alas! He will attempt another compromise. He sees a way, as he fondly thinks, by which, without committing himself, he may deliver Jesus.
III. Resuming his place at the palace gate, amid much most painful perplexity - perplexity increased by the remarkable warning given him by his wife, who sent to him, saying, "Have thou nothing to do with that just man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him" (Matt, xxvii. 19); thus divided and distracted between his own and his wife's conscientious feelings and apprehensions on the one hand, and the unrelenting and persevering importunity of the Jews on the other, Pilate bethinks himself of an expedient.
He will take advantage of the custom of the feast to release a prisoner, and that prisoner shall be Jesus; "Ye have brought this man unto me, as one that perverteth the people; and, behold, I, having examined him before you, have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him: no, nor yet Herod: for I sent you to him." He proposes therefore to "chastise him, and release him." For he adds, "Ye have a custom, that I should release unto you one at the Passover: will ye therefore that I release unto you the King of the Jews?" (Luke xxiii. 13-17; John xviii. 39.)
Thus Pilate thinks to avoid the necessity of pronouncing judgment, and yet save Jesus. The Jews shall not have it in their power to say that he has acquitted a traitor. It is not to be a judicial sentence at all, but an act of grace and favour, the deliverance of a prisoner, customary at the season; on which, therefore, no imputation against his loyalty and fidelity in his government can be fairly or even plausibly founded. Thus there may be a sort of compromise between him and the Jews, and, instead of a judgment offending or endangering either part, there may be a measure of neutrality.
Miserable expedient! Most shallow device! Even this discretionary exercise of authority he cannot venture upon without consulting the Jews. They must have a choice, and they can compel him to consent to it. And though he selects one of the worst and most atrocious criminals then in custody, to be offered to them along with Jesus; and though, as Luke tells us, he three successive times most earnestly and pathetically beseeches the people to choose Jesus he has the deep mortification of hearing their reiterated and impatient cry, "Not this man, but Barabbas," although "Barabbas was a robber" (John xviii. 39, 40).
What is it that has come over the spirit of this Pilate, usually stern and decided enough in every act of his administration? If his leanings are really toward Jesus, why does he not think, why does he not act for himself! Is he ashamed - is he afraid to speak out? And does he really imagine that he clears himself from the guilt of partaking in this great sin of other men, by the pitiful ceremony of the washing of his hands, and the hollow protest of his lips, "I am innocent," he who had but to raise one finger of these hands, or to utter one breath of these lips, and not a single stroke would have fallen upon Jesus, not a hair of his head would have been touched?
Yet it is a characteristic circumstance this washing of his hands. It brings out in marked contrast the weakness of the judge and the violence of the accusers; and it throws light on the brief struggle that follows: "And the governor said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified. When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children" (Matt, xxvii. 23-25).
IV. Weary of resistance, Pilate seems reluctantly to have given over Jesus to be scourged, perhaps with some faint hope that this preliminary severity, which, according to the barbarous custom of that time, preceded the punishment of death, might satiate the cruelty of his persecutors; and that the people, moved by the spectacle of suffering and shame, might yet relent, and interpose to save him from the cross: "Then Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him. And the soldiers platted a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and they put on him a purple robe, and said, Hail, King of the Jews! and they smote him with their hands. Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith unto them, Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him. Then came Jesus forth wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!" (John xix. 1-5.)
The concession only stimulated the fury of his adversaries. So far from being melted to pity by an exhibition which Pilate might think enough to soften the very stones, the Jews were provoked the more by these repeated delays; and the sight of blood, streaming from under the crown of thorns down that holy head, served but to whet their appetite for more. "Behold the man!" says Pilate, pointing to that scourged and bleeding sufferer, whose meek endurance might have disarmed the very wrath of devils! But all the more "the chief priests and officers cried out, Crucify him, crucify him" (John xix.6).
And now, perceiving clearly the sort of man with whom they had to deal - emboldened by Pilate's evident distress, and presuming on his irresolution, the Jews lay aside all disguise and press at once to their point. They no longer consider it necessary to keep up so much as the form of an accusation of treason. They avow the real cause of their hostility. Not even professing to submit to Pilate's judgment, they seem to reckon confidently on his accommodating himself to theirs. Seeing that he has not firmness to decide according to his own views, they gather courage, and require him broadly and nakedly to decide according to theirs: "The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God." (John xix. 7).
V. But they had well-nigh overshot the mark. The expression which they let fall renewed all Pilate's scruples, and once more shook his purpose "He made himself the Son of God." Made himself! Can it be that he really is so? It may be, then" as Pilate from the first could not help surmising that this Jesus has authority, and witnesses truth." He has the authority of God; he witnesses the truth of God; for he is the Son of God. He said so. These Jews now tell Pilate that he said so; and they let out that it was because he said so that they hated and would crucify him. It turns out that their pretence of jealousy about Caesar"s prerogative is but a blind and false colour. Something far more awful is here really involved. Pilate sees this clearly now; and, seeing it, may he not even now stop short and retrace his steps? As it is, he once more pauses and resumes his examination.
O, that he had but given fair play to his own convictions! He might even yet have been saved and blessed. He has another precious opportunity. Once more, away from all Jewish clamours, in the inner hall of judgment, the judge confers with his prisoner. Jesus "is led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth." "When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he was the more afraid; and went again into the judgment hall, and saith unto Jesus, Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him no answer." (John xix. 8, 9). His silence is the silence, not of disrespect, but of awful, divine authority. He has met the charge already brought against him. He has explained what might give rise to the accusation of treason; and, in doing so, he has said enough to determine Pilate's decision, and Pilate is bound to decide. This new question, so earnestly put, is not necessary or relevant; it is not to the point, it is not to the purpose. "Whence art thou?" asks the trembling Roman Whence art thou, that thou shouldest make thyself the Son of God?"
Dost thou ask this, Pilate! as an inquirer? Wilt thou also be his disciple? If so, thou shalt not long be at a loss for an answer. Thou art not far from one even now. It is in thy heart already, if out of thy heart thou wouldst allow thy mouth to speak.
Meanwhile thy function as judge is not yet discharged. There is a case before thee to be disposed of, and there are all the elements for disposing of it. Do justice according to the dictates of thine own conscience, not according to the prejudices and passions of others. Till then Jesus is silent. Vexed by this silence, and provoked perhaps by the calm demeanour of the Lord, contrasting so painfully with his own agitation, Pilate suffers one flash of his natural impatience and the insolence of office to escape him, in a scene which has hitherto overawed him. He reminds the prisoner of his power over him, a power which, though subordinate to that of the emperor, was practically, in such cases and in that distant province, absolute and arbitrary: "Speakest thou not unto me? Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?" (John xix. 10.) It is an unworthy taunt against one in whom he himself acknowledges that he can find no fault. It marks a secret misgiving in regard to the equity of his procedure. Conscious of having no other ground to stand upon, he takes refuge in the last and worst argument of cowardly tyranny, - the argument of mere power.
Alas! This too is but a refuge of lies. There is no escaping from the searching glance of one who seems to pierce his very soul. Infatuated man! This power of which thou makest a boast, however practically irresponsible in so far as thy master on earth, the emperor, is concerned, is not so in reality. It is given thee from above, - it is of God. And wilt thou use it after thine own pleasure, when it is the Son of God, as thou hast reason to fear, who stands before thee? The sin of those who delivered me to thee is aggravated tenfold by their seeking thus to turn against the cause of God and his Son the very power that is ordained of God. Thy sin will not be the less if thou art moved to yield to their importunity. "Thou couldest have no power at all against me, except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin" (John xix.11). See Appendix).
But yield, after all, he did; although to the last all the more after this closing interview he would fain have delivered his prisoner. "From henceforth," more than ever, "Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, If thou let him go, thou art not Caesar's friend" (John xix. 1 2). The struggle becomes more desperate as it draws near its close. The claim of Jesus - his claim of sovereignty as a king, of truth as a witness, and now even of divinity as the Son of God - is pressing closer and closer on the conscience. But, alas, alas, the loud cry prevails, " If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend."
Ah! It had been well for Pilate if, at this eleventh hour, in this final crisis of his mental struggle, the Lord's appeal to his tremendous responsibility, as having no power but from above, had been effectual to make him feel that he had no discretion, - that he was shut up to the necessity of deciding for Jesus, and owning him as the King, the true Witness, the Son of God. It had been still better if, at the very first, when the idea of sovereignty and of truth, as not fictions but realities, took hold of his mind, he had learned to stand in awe, that he might not sin, - to believe, that he might be saved. If there be ground for the vague rumours of history, he had but little ease or peace in his future life, which he himself, it is said, in disgrace and in exile, terminated by a voluntary death. It is a solemn reflection to think how near the vacillating judge, the despairing suicide, may once have been to a believer. It is a most emphatic warning to all, to trifle with no convictions of their own, to yield to no solicitations of others, to let the word of God have free course in their hearts, and to offer no resistance to the strivings of his good Spirit.
Go To Chapter 18
SCRIPTURE CHARACTERS BY ROBERT S. CANDLISH, D.D., FREE
ST. GEORGE"S, EDINBURGH.
LONDON: T. NELSON AND SONS, PATERNOSTER ROW EDINBURGH; AND NEW YORK.
Home | Biography | Literature | Letters | Links | Photo-Wallet