“Suffered under Pontius Pilate”

Posted by R. Fowler White

We turn here to article four of the Apostles’ Creed, in which we confess our faith in Jesus Christ, who suffered under Pontius Pilate. Three times Pilate pronounced Jesus innocent of all charges against Him, yet Pilate had the authority to release an innocent man or to have him crucified. He was the one human being who had the most to do with Jesus’ crucifixion. He chose the latter to preserve his political career. In the Gospel of Matthew (ch. 27) the Evangelist gives a terse but vivid portrayal of Jesus as He suffered under Pilate and the soldiers in his charge. The details of our Lord’s suffering before He suffered on the cross are expressed in eight brief, heartbreaking statements. They provide a disturbing picture of unspeakable atrocity and unbearably sadistic torture. For they show us that under Pilate the King of Glory was in the hands of angry sinners. 

Despite Governor Pilate’s threefold finding of innocence, the official process of Jesus’ execution by crucifixion began. Now, for the first time, the Roman military had Jesus, the royal wannabe (as they saw Him), in their hands. They will proceed to act out a mock ceremony of coronation, mixing brutality with sarcastic barracks humor. Since Jesus was on His way to execution, nothing will curb their enjoyment of this opportunity to humiliate this King of the Jews, this ludicrous example of a Jew who, as they saw it, had dared to challenge the world’s super power. Like no one else, they would see to it that this one suffered under Pontius Pilate. Merciless soldiers were never more cruel or crude than they were with the King of Glory. 

Faced with the outcry of the unruly crowd in Jerusalem, Pilate caved in and decided to punish Jesus by having Him flogged in anticipation of crucifixion. So, first, they tore off the outer garments and undergarments of Jesus. Stripped of clothing, He endured the shame of public nakedness that Jewish persons in antiquity earnestly sought to avoid. Naked, He was most likely tied to a post or pillar with His hands secured tightly above Him; if not in that position, thrown to the ground would have worked too. Next, the military guards took their positions standing on either side of Him, brandishing the whip(s) made from cords of leather, with pieces of metal and bone braided into the leather strands. Then they flogged Him, repeatedly lashing his back, his chest, or both, likely leaving strips of flesh hanging from His wounds, perhaps exposing even bones or organs. While the Jews only allowed thirty-nine lashes, the Romans had no such limit. This gruesome assault was designed, if not to kill Jesus, at least to weaken His overall constitution before He was nailed to the cross, shortening the time it would take Him to die there.

The flogging left Jesus a pathetic sight: His appearance severely altered, His form marred beyond easy recognition, barely able to stand or walk, and certainly humanly powerless to resist. Putting His garments back on Him, the soldiers took Jesus into Pilate’s official residence and the military barracks housed there, and they gathered the whole battalion before Him. There stood a company of the 600 men normally stationed in Jerusalem at the fortress on the Temple Mount, reinforced by troops who accompanied Pilate to the Passover feast in case they were needed for riot control. They had Jesus to themselves inside their barracks, and it was time for a little macabre theater. Their mocking coronation play began, each new action a parody of a king’s regalia.

After they again stripped His garments off, leaving Him naked, the staring, chuckling battalion put a loose robe (a reddish-purple outer garment worn by soldiers and travelers) on Him, pretending He was a royal warrior. Arrayed in knockoff royal regalia, He needed a crown. After all, those who held national office wore crowns as a sign of their exalted status. The Roman victor’s crown was a bent twig or perhaps two twigs tied together. Often a single wreath of grass or one made of flowers and leaves was used to adorn the brow of the wearer. So, continuing their little coronation charade, the soldiers crowned Him with a crown all right. In their contemptuous, sadistic ridicule, they designed a crown of thorns to puncture and scrape His forehead and scalp. This was no sign of exalted standing. It was a derisive imitation of the crown worn by Rome’s rulers, a sign of utter disdain.

But their parody was not done yet. What else did a king need but a scepter, a monarch’s symbol of his authority and power? So, they placed a scepter in His right hand: in fact, an imitation of a scepter, a bamboo cane often used in military floggings. And still the ceremony for their cartoon king was not complete. It remained for them to show Him what homage they owed Him. They knelt before Him and mocked Him, pretending to recognize Jesus’ royal majesty and throwing in His face that sneering taunt, King of the Jews. Kneeling before Him was not enough, however: they spat on Him. Nothing of the expected kiss of homage (e.g., Ps 2:12) for this king, these soldiers repeated the insult that Jewish leaders had inflicted on Him earlier. And still the abuse continued as they ripped the fake scepter from His hand and beat Him about the head with it, every blow driving the thorns of His crown more deeply, more painfully into His forehead and scalp. Having shown Him what homage they owed Him, the torture of their coronation play was over. They stripped Him of His royal regalia, dressed Him again in His own garments, and led Him away to be crucified.

Ordinarily, as the person condemned to execution by crucifixion, Jesus would Himself have had to carry the thirty- to forty-pound horizontal beam of the cross on which He was to be nailed out to the site where the upright stake stood. But it was physically impossible for Him to do so. So, to carry the beam, the soldiers pressed into service Simon from Cyrene (roughly modern Libya), probably a Jewish pilgrim who had travelled to Jerusalem for Passover. Onward they would walk, until they arrived at the site on Calvary where the upright stake stood.

Thus do we confess Jesus Christ … suffered under Pontius Pilate.

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