In this episode we are looking at Jesus’ trial before Pilate. The basic plot is that the Jewish leaders, having captured Jesus, drag him before the Roman governor not only to get the death penalty they, in an occupied territory, can’t legally exact for themselves, but also because in their eyes a Messianic claimant who gets killed by the Romans should be thoroughly discredited. Pilate for various reasons refuses just to rubber-stamp their demand and actually examines the case and declares Jesus to be innocent as far as he’s concerned. The High Priests and the Jerusalem ‘Rent-a-mob’ thwart Pilate’s efforts to free Jesus by a combination of political arm-twisting and by choosing the robber Barabbas for amnesty, following which Pilate orders the crucifixion but makes his opinion clear by the gesture of ‘washing his hands’ of the affair[i].
For Jesus to fulfil his role as a sacrifice for sin it was necessary for him to be innocent. In relation to the Jewish charge of blasphemy, he appeared guilty in his claim to divinity but was innocent because those claims were true and were vindicated by the resurrection. Appropriately he was unjustly put to death for what is really the root or basic sin of men, that we try to be our own gods, effectively stealing our lives from God; from that fundamental selfishness flow all our other sins, both the obviously evil and also sins like those of the Pharisees, superficially good but proud and self-righteous.
It tends to be overlooked that having been handed over to the Romans, Jesus needed also to be innocent and unjustly executed in Roman terms, which is why the gospel writers make such a point of Pilate’s verdict of innocence. This mattered in two ways – firstly if Jesus was truly guilty in Roman terms, at the very least it confuses the issue of whether he died an undeserved death, and secondly a Jesus justly executed in Roman eyes would not be an easy ‘sell’ in the Roman Empire and would mean that Christians in turn would be deservedly persecuted by Rome for following a rebel. This confusion and persecution of the Christians could still arise if you tried to make the case – as a more conventional messianic claimant might – that Jesus had been unjustly executed because the Roman law itself was unjust. Pilate’s verdict of innocence followed by him crucifying an innocent for reasons of expedience avoids all such ambiguity. Christians could claim that Jesus had died an innocent death in every respect and that persecuting them for Jesus’ claims would also be unjust.
But – how on earth did Jesus secure a verdict of innocence from Pilate of all people? Pilate was a tough guy who had quite happily ‘mingled the blood of Galileans with their own sacrifices’, and executing messianic claimants was part of the job description for the governor of Palestine. For Jesus to convince this tyrant would need exceptional circumstances.
I do suspect that the Holy Spirit did a bit of ‘overtime’ here to ensure that Pilate actually listened to Jesus rather than cursorily rubber-stamp the death sentence; but even so, Jesus would have to provide a credible argument for his innocence. The answer, I believe, is to be found in the exchange between Jesus and Pilate recorded in John’s gospel[ii]
Then Pilate entered the palace again and summoned Jesus, whom he asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Jesus replied, “Do you say this of your own accord, or have others told you about me?”
Pilate answered him, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my attendants would have struggled to prevent my being delivered to the Jews. But really the source of my kingdom is not here.”
Pilate then said to him, “You are a king, then?”
To which Jesus replied, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this I entered the world, that I might testify to the truth. Everyone who loves the truth listens to my voice.”
Pilate remarked to him, “What is truth?” With these words he went outside again to the Jews and told them, “I find him not guilty at all….”
The key sentence here is ‘My kingdom is not of this world’. In many bible commentaries this is almost passed over as a bit of airy-fairy spirituality or vague philosophising; but come on, this is not a casual conversation between friends at a Socratic symposium; this is a trial on a capital charge requiring the accused to give hard-as-nails answers to the judge! Yes, Jesus has said, I’m a king – BUT… I’m not the kind of king that concerns you, Pilate, not the kind of king who threatens your Roman rule with military rebellion and strife. I’m a different kind of king, seeking a different kind of following, disciples who will act very differently from those of the usual ‘messiah’. My followers won’t be fighting to save me from you; indeed if you check you will find that when one young hothead did draw a sword I stopped him and even healed the wound he had inflicted. My kingdom is not one of armies and weapons, but of people who recognise the truth I proclaim and follow that truth.
Now Pilate may be a bit scornful of this, as his rhetorical “What is truth?” suggests; but it is clear that he believes Jesus, that he accepts that Jesus is not the usual violent rebel messiah, and he is at least willing to make some effort to avoid what he realises is an injustice, though not to the point of putting his career at risk. As a result, the important point is made – Jesus is innocent and his crucifixion unjust.
What does this mean for the scriptural teaching about ‘established churches’ and ‘Christian countries’? Well Jesus was on trial for trying to set up the most direct form of Christian country, with himself as king rebelling against Rome; and he disclaims any such intention. Is it credible he intended his disciples later to set up such kingdoms in his name? And in any case, if he would approve of his followers setting up Christian states, that would be just as bad in Pilate’s eyes as Jesus setting himself up as king.
Try a thought experiment; nearly 300 years later, Constantine took over the Roman Empire by force, conquering ‘in the sign of the cross’ and supposedly in the name of Jesus. Imagine Jesus by a miracle showing Pilate that future episode and then saying that he approved of Constantine – could Pilate approve? Or indeed imagine Jesus showing Pilate the English Civil War and telling Pilate he approved of his followers behaving like that in his name!! I can’t see Pilate responding to that any other way than “If that’s the kind of ‘king’ you are … guilty as charged – to the cross with him!”
Take a modern example. I found a book called ‘A Higher Throne – evangelicals and public theology’ which originated as papers at Oak Hill College’s Annual School of Theology. In an essay advocating ‘Christian confessional states’ (with a marked lack of scriptural evidence for the proposal), one David Field cited with approval the Puritan Samuel Rutherford’s ‘defence of armed resistance against the tyrant’. Again, what would Pilate say to that? Surely his response would be, “Oh you messiahs and your followers always justify your rebellions that way! Get the cross ready!”
That’s the problem; those who advocate ‘Christian countries’ are advocating exactly the kind of ‘kingdom very much of this world’ that Jesus rejected – and there would have been a verdict of guilty against him if he hadn’t rejected it! A kingdom that may be set up by force rebelling against the existing government, and then defended by force. A kingdom that might invade its neighbours in a holy war to impose the faith upon them, or externally encourage subversion and foment rebellion in the neighbours for that purpose.
In advocating a ‘Christian state’ such people think they are honouring Jesus, but in fact they are contradicting him at the key point of his declaration of innocence when on trial for his life. If you think about it either they are saying
- “Jesus meant what he said to Pilate about his kingdom not being of this world; but we know better what kind of kingdom Jesus should have”. Or they are saying
- “Jesus intended kingdoms-of-this-world/Christian-states all along; but he misled Pilate about his intentions”. Effectively they accuse Jesus of lying, yet of course can’t explain why Jesus would do so.
I’m not sure which of these options is worse. The arrogance of claiming to know better than their Lord the Son of God, or the sheer blasphemy of accusing the Lord, the Son of God, of lying. Perhaps the second, because although others are misled as a result, the arrogance in the first case mostly affects the moral position of the arrogant themselves; accusing Jesus of lying threatens the atonement itself, because if Jesus were a liar that would make Him a sinner and therefore unable to die as an innocent sacrifice!
But what is arguably worse still is that the advocates of Christian states are generally not consciously saying either of these terrible things; rather, they so take for granted the idea of a Christian state that they have never thought through this issue at all, they have blinded themselves to it.
Pilate took Jesus seriously, that his kingdom is not of this world, and declared Jesus innocent. The advocates of the ‘Christian state’ do not take Jesus seriously, and end up saying that Pilate should have found Jesus guilty!! For faith in an innocent Jesus who can therefore save you, follow Jesus as Lord and follow what he said on this issue, and reject the ‘Christian state’ lobby!
[i] And of course ‘the Jews’ should not be held responsible for ever for the actions of a few leaders and what was effectively a ‘Rent-a-mob’. Modern Jews are no more ‘responsible for the crucifixion’ than any Gentile unbeliever. And in any case as Christians we are meant to follow the example of Paul who, far from wanting to persecute his fellow-Jews, said that if it was possible he would be prepared to lose his own salvation to save them!!
[ii] interestingly, a case where we very likely have more than usual ‘the actual words’, since the Koine Greek ‘trader language’ of the New Testament would be the common language of Roman Pilate and Galilean Jesus, whereas most of Jesus’ teaching would have been in the Aramaic usually spoken among the Jews at that time, which Pilate would not have known.