I just read John 18:1 – 19:16. It’s really pathetic, in these chapters, to watch Pilate try to avoid crucifying Jesus but still placate the Jewish officials.
He says to Jesus, “Don’t you realize that I have the power either to free you or to crucify you?” (John 19:10), but in fact, Pilate doesn’t have any power at all.
The book Who Moved the Stone? makes a strong case, from hints in the text and other historical evidence, that Pilate had received an emergency visit from someone, perhaps the High Priest himself, the night before. The priests had just arrested Jesus, and the meeting went something like this: “We have this criminal whom we really need condemned. If we bring him to you tomorrow morning, before Passover, will you just quickly condemn him for us so we can get that out of the way? In exchange, of course, for our ongoing support.”
Pilate had agreed to this reasonable request. But the next morning, things started to go off. Pilate’s wife, who perhaps was there for the 11 p.m. meeting, had a nightmare about Jesus which she took as prophetic, and sent her husband a note saying, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man.” (Matt. 27:19) Also, the Jews hadn’t brought any clear charge against Jesus for which Pilate could execute him.
Pilate tried to get rid of the problem by sending Jesus to Herod (Luke 23:5 – 12), but to his dismay, the problem came right back to him. He then tried to placate the council by having Jesus flogged. He kept arguing with them, saying, “I find him not guilty.” They were shocked and dismayed that he was going back on his word of the night before (John 18:29 – 31). They started threatening that if Pilate did not condemn Jesus to death, they would turn him in as being in rebellion against Caesar (John 19:12). Things had not been going great politically for Pilate. If there were a riot, or if he were accused of being anti-Caesar, it would be the end for him. Best case scenario, he would lose his job, but more probably he would lose his life.
In short, Pilate could not avoid crucifying Jesus without losing everything. He was trapped.
Jesus, of course, was trapped too, but the difference was that He had walked into the trap. More accurately, Jesus was not trapped. He could have summoned twelve legions of angels (Matt. 26:53) at any moment to vindicate and free Him. He was going to His death freely. He was not trapped by His own fears and desires. Pilate, on the other hand, was trapped by his own fears and desires. His options were extremely limited because he was not willing to lose everything.
Consider, then these two men, as they stand in the palace looking at each other. One is a governor, wearing the robe of a governor, standing in his own palace, making what should be a routine decision about what to do with a prisoner. “Don’t you realize that I have the power?” he says, but in fact this man has no power or agency in this situation. This man is terrified.
The other has been up all night. He has been interrogated at least three times. He has already been beaten once by the high priest’s guards, again by Herod’s guards, and he has just been flogged by Pilate’s guards. His back is flayed. His nose may be broken. When he speaks, he cannot manage very long sentences. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says. “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” This is the man who is actually in charge of the situation. Despite appearances, this man is truly free.
In Luke 9:23 – 24, Jesus said, “If anyone wants to be my disciple, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.” This sounds like a hard saying – and it is—but what Jesus was giving us here was the secret of how to be free. If Pilate had been willing to lose everything, he would have had more options. Jesus was willing to lose everything, which allowed him to do exactly what, on a deeper level, he wanted to do, which was to work the Father’s plan.