Suffered under Pontius Pilate

In 1961, a group of Italian archaeologists excavating the ruins of a sports stadium in Caesarea, on the coast 130kms from Jerusalem, discovered a scrap of limestone. On it was a strangely familiar name.

That name was that of Pontius Pilate who was the fifth governor of Judaea, from 26 – 36 AD.

Pilate would become known in the historical record for his clumsy and insensitive dealings with the Jews who he was sent to govern. His methods were brutal when they needed to be, and the Jews were a troublesome lot.

When he sat down in retirement to write up his memoirs, as old men do, would he have even recalled the crucifixion of one of the Jewish upstarts who caused him trouble?

He was not to know that his name would be forever inscribed in the Christian creeds, and said by millions of Christians week by week. Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, truly God and truly man, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried, and descended to the dead.

It may seem odd that, of all the people in the story of the New Testament, this not particularly impressive Roman should get his name in the creeds.

Why him?

What the name of Pilate shows is that in the creed we are not in the realm of myth, but in the realm of brute historical reality – with verifiable dates, and events.

As the English novelist Dorothy Sayers once wrote:
Jesus Christ is unique – unique among gods and men. There have been incarnate gods a-plenty, and slain-and-resurrected gods not a few; but He is the only God who has a date in history.

And what history was that?

The Lord by whom and for whom the worlds were made, appeared in a time and at a place. But what happened in that history?

He suffered, was crucified, and was buried.

It was under Pilate’s authority that Jesus was exposed to a trial on trumped up charges of blasphemy. Pilate in the end protested that he find no wrong in Jesus; and yet, because he feared an uprising, he handed him over to be beaten with whips, humiliated, and put to death by crucifixion.

The human genius for torture knows no bounds. The thing about crucifixion is that its goal is not simply to extinguish the life of the victim. It is the complete bodily degradation and humiliation of a human person, in a most public way. Everyone can see it. It’s a slow death that unfolds over hours, and even sometimes days, and usually the end came through exhaustion or exposure.

There is no doubt that Jesus died in agony on the cross. Sometimes people have alleged that Jesus didn’t really die, but that he simply swooned, and recovered later in the cool of the tomb. But this could not have happened. The Romans knew what they were doing. And there are no historical records of anyone actually surviving crucifixion unless the process was interrupted in some way.

He was crucified, he died, and then, as the gospels tell us: he was buried.

So: when it came to the clash between the Emperor of Rome, and this one the Christians call ‘our Lord’, who won?

What happened in his death was not a mistake. His death was not in that sense a tragedy, a moment of thinking ‘what could have been achieved if he had stayed alive?

There appears to be no doubt as to who won. It was, surely, Pontius Pilate and the empire he represented. The stone on the tomb is like a big full stop on the story of Jesus Christ – the lowest point of his descent from throne room of heaven resounding with the songs of the angels to the stony silence of the tomb.

But though Jesus enters into the events of history, history itself is not enough to tell us the full story. On the surface of things, it is true that an insignificant Nazarene teacher was destroyed, and his movement nipped in the bud.

But that’s only the surface reading.

Because, as the creed declares to us, the one who suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and buried was God’s only Son, our Lord.

What happened in his death was not a mistake. His death was not in that sense a tragedy, a moment of thinking ‘what could have been achieved if he had stayed alive?


No: his death was precisely the reason he came.

You know it’s a fascinating thing about the gospels: they are biographies, but they spend a hugely disproportionate time talking about the last days of Jesus’s life. About 40% of each gospel is taken up with his death.
We get nothing about his appearance; hardly anything about his childhood; nothing about his trade, or anything in his life before he starts his ministry.

But about his death: the record is painstaking.

Clearly, the gospel writers thought that Jesus’s death was not just a tragic but accidental end, but actually the focus of his mission. Jesus himself taught this, as our reading from John’s gospel tells us. Jesus says:
‘And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’

And then John comments:
He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

In his death was not the termination but the fulfilment of his mission.

Our text from 1 Peter 3 gives us some more information. From vs 18:
…Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.
Christ’s suffering under Pontius Pilate was not a meaningless cruelty, though Pilate intended it to be.

It was a suffering for sins, once for all. Though the world conspired to dispose of Jesus, the divine plan was different.

It was a death for sins. That means that it’s a death that pays the debt that was accrued by human beings on account of our refusal to live our lives as a gift from God.

And Peter says, it was a substitutionary sacrifice: it was the righteous in the place of the unrighteous.

Jesus dies in place of us, as one sufficiently the same as us, but also as one crucially different. He is fully man, born of Mary, and as such, is a mortal. He shares our life. But remember: this is the one that the creed says is conceived by the Holy Spirit. He is the eternal Son of God, and is righteous where we are not. When he goes to his death, he is qualified to bear upon himself the weight of our sin. Peter says earlier in his letter:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross

As the great English preacher John Stott wrote in his classic book Basic Christianity:
The accumulated sins of the whole world and of all history were laid upon Him. Voluntarily he bore them in his own body. He made them his own. He shouldered full responsibility for them.

There are two things for us to do here.

The first is: to stop and wonder at it.

So many of the best hymns on the cross ask us to do exactly this:
And when I think that God, His Son not sparing,
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

These words are inviting us to the simple reaction of awe and amazement – that the news about us, that apparently looks very bad, in actuality is wonderfully good.

And so: have you really given yourself to consider the extraordinary thing that happened when Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate? If you’ve ever gazed into the night sky with amazement and considered all the works of God’s hand, have you also come to the Lord’s Table and let yourself feel the same sense of gratitude and wonder – and more, because on the cross of Christ not just general evil, but your sins and mine were paid.

The cross of Christ is the centre of Christianity. It tells me that Christianity is not an ethical system, or a set of values, or a philosophy, or a spiritual guide.

If it were those things, we’d all be stuffed.

No: Christianity is about the death of Jesus Christ for sin, which turns out to be our only hope and salvation.
But the second thing for us to do is to live it.

The cross is definition and the shape of the Christian life.

I keep getting ads that tell me I should aim to have a six-pack, and that even men over 40 can have one.
For Christians, the ideal shape of life is not a six-pack, but the cross. It is the shape and pattern of the life we should now live. It is the essence of Christian values.

What does this mean? It means that at the heart of the Christian life is costly love. It means being willing to do the right thing even when it may result in suffering. Instead of responding to evil with evil, we are called to overcome evil with good. This is not just neighbour love, but enemy love. It’s the love shown by the Good Samaritan to his enemy the Jewish man. And it is worth thinking about on Anzac Day, when we are reflecting on the terrible wars that have marked our times.
This is the six-pack of the Christian life: the desirable and distinctive shape of it. But it is an uncomfortable challenge. It involves not grasping at significance; but following Jesus Christ through the thickets of this life. As you stand and retell the story of the death of Jesus, you say: I, like him, pursue the love that costs, and risks, and even hurts.

How cross-shaped then is your life? When you consider those about you that you fear most, or loath the most, or that grieve you most, whether they be individuals, or a cultural group: what am I doing for them that looks cross-shaped? What can I do, in even a small way, that would echo the death of Jesus Christ?

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books

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