“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the wilderness. And he went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”Luke 3:1–3, ESV
Luke, in his gospel, makes the first mention of Pontius Pilate in all of the four gospels. Luke was detail-oriented in all of his writings. All of the gospels place Jesus within historical contexts, but Luke gives us specificity that is easy for us to overlook. I cannot deny that I have read the above passage many times and almost glossed over the names written. However, if we take all of Scripture seriously if all of it is inspired, then to overlook the details is a mistake. This is not to say that every verse in the Bible presents some deep doctrinal significance. The popular use of proof-texting is an example of such a mistake.
Another example is the failure of those who do not study the whole Word of God. Again, I admit that I have avoided whole books, especially in preaching, that are considered either boring or inappropriate. Leviticus and the Song of Solomon come to mind. The mindset is to focus on the “important” books, like Romans, Ephesians, or in the past few decades, the Revelation of Jesus Christ. It takes a deliberate effort to seek the truth on every page of the Scriptures.
So, I found this mention of Pilate and others at the beginning of John’s ministry preparing the way of Christ. Yes, it gives us a good indication of the time John began preaching repentance for sins. However, it also presents the main players in the life, ministry, trial, and death of Jesus. I also find it intriguing that this group of Roman rulers is listed in the context of John proclaiming repentance. There are probably no better examples of sinners in need of the humility of penitence and forgiveness than these. And, they include Jew and Gentile alike.
Luke points to one of these men later in the gospel displaying the depravity of sin.
“There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.’”Luke 13:1–5, ESV
Joel McDurmon writes of this passage, “
The people then immediately prove that they have eyes but see not, and ears but hear not. They do this by pretending they have indeed discerned the times: “There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). These people were up on current events. They knew the times! They knew that the evil Roman Empire was murdering innocent Jews—and defiling their religious rituals, too! (McDurmon, Joel. Jesus v. Jerusalem: A Commentary on Luke 9:51–20:26, Jesus’ Lawsuit Against Israel. Powder Springs, GA: American Vision, 2011, p. 38.)
What he does with this passage is first and foremost to place it within the previous context when Jesus tells of his coming in the final judgment (the ending of the Old Covenant making way for the new. This was accomplished in 70 A.D.). Jesus is not simply replying to the desecration of the Jews and their religious rites. What he does is to compare those around him to the Galilean sinners. Jesus focuses on the need for all to repent, or they too will perish. In the end, we know Pilate as a man without a conscience.
We can begin to see why the Creed mentions Christ’s suffering under Pontius Pilate instead of his torment by the Jewish leaders. All of the gospel writers make clear that the crucifixion lies at the Jew’s feet. But they could not kill Jesus. They needed the support of the Roman governor. In addition, Pilate finds no guilt in Jesus worthy of death. What kind of leader is Pilate to condemn Christ to beatings, torture, mockery, and crucifixion despite his innocence? He was the man at the right place in the right time.
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law…”Galatians 4:4, ESV
Such is the work of God. He uses whatever means he chooses to accomplish his purpose. He also prepares those through whom he uses to produce his design. Like many others before him and even more after him, Pontius Pilate is a key link in the chain that fulfills God’s salvation of his people. That does not mitigate Pilate’s general depravity or his particular sins. Throughout Scripture, when God utilizes sinners to bring judgment, they are also judged by God. With one interesting exception. God used the zeal of Saul to disperse those in the church at Jerusalem into the world. However, he then calls Paul to salvation and has him take the gospel to the Gentiles. God can curse, and God can bless. Everyone deserves God’s judgment for their sin. But some are called from their bondage to sin to be freed and cleansed by the one who died on the cross.
The gospel is precisely this good news. How can we keep silent?