By Ken Yates
Politics has a bad reputation today. Our leaders are accused of not doing what is right, but simply letting their politics dictate their decisions. The approval rating of members of Congress is below 20%, and it has been as low as 9%. By comparison, 47% of Americans have a very favorable or mostly favorable view of the IRS.
Of course, it is not only people in the United States who feel this way about politicians. The detrimental effects of politics can be seen in every country around the world. It has always been that way. In the life of Jesus Christ, we can see glaring examples of what politics can do. One such occasion was when He stood trial before the most powerful politician in His country, a man named Pontius Pilate.
PILATE HAD A BAD REPUTATION
Pilate ruled over the Jews who lived around Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel. Understandably many did not like him. He was a foreigner, a Roman in particular, and the Romans had conquered the nation approximately 100 years before he assumed his position. Many would have naturally resented the fact that he was the face of their conquerors.
Part of his responsibilities included collecting taxes from the Jews. These taxes would be sent to Rome. Obviously, this was a bone of contention among the people. Citizens often resent paying taxes, and it would be so much worse if those taxes were sent to another country. Especially if that country was the home of their enemy.
Pilate had great authority over those he ruled. He had the power to sentence people to death and no doubt made many decisions of which the people did not approve. In Luke 13:1, we are told he actually killed some Jews who were practicing their religious obligations. As governor of Judea, he appointed the high priest of the Jews, even though Pilate was not even Jewish. Historians say this was a corrupt practice, with those having the ability to bribe the Romans with large amounts of money obtaining this supposedly holy position. Pilate also had control of the sacred clothes of the high priest, without which the high priest could not perform his God-appointed duties.
As a Roman, Pilate wanted to promote the worship of the Roman emperor, which was considered blasphemous to the Jews. There are accounts of him trying to introduce images of the emperor into Jerusalem, which was against Jewish sensibilities. Another report by historians describes how he took money set aside for religious purposes in the temple to pay for some of his building projects. When the Jews complained, he had some of them clubbed to death and others trampled to death by the horses of his soldiers.
All this paints a picture of a man who would not have been well liked by those he governed. But it is also clear that he was not overly concerned about what they thought of him. He was more than willing to flex the muscle of his power over the Jews. He had no problem even killing those who resisted him. He had a well-deserved reputation for cruelty.
But that was only part of the picture.
PILATE WAS ALSO A POLITICAL CREATURE
Even though Pilate had a great deal of power over the Jews he ruled, he could not simply do everything he might want to do to them. His position was a political one. He had been appointed by Rome, and he ultimately had to answer to them about how well he ruled over Judea. There was also his immediate political boss just north of him in Syria to whom he was responsible.
Both the Roman ruler in Syria and Caesar in Rome expected Pilate to keep the peace. They looked to him to do so, in order that the tax money would continue to flow into the capital of the Empire. Pilate could not make such terrible decisions that the Jews would revolt against Rome and quit paying taxes. While he may not have cared for the feelings of the Jews and treated them with disdain, he had to be somewhat cautious not to provoke them to the point that it would threaten his position. He knew that the Jewish leaders had already complained to his political superiors about some of his decisions and actions.
If the Jews complained too often, or if they caused problems in Judea regarding the smooth operation of the region, the political fortunes of Pilate might change. He could be removed from his position in Judea if the authorities in Rome thought someone else could do a better job.
POLITICS IN THE TRIAL OF THE LORD
When one looks at the trial of Jesus before Pilate, he sees what power politics has. All the Gospels record this trial. Never in the history of the world has there been a more unjust verdict. Jesus was declared guilty and sentenced to death, even though a more innocent man has never lived.
It is so strange to read about the trial. Pilate repeatedly says that Jesus is innocent. He tries everything he can to set Him free. He knows that the Jewish leaders are jealous of Him. His wife even tells him that the Lord is righteous and that Pilate should do no harm to Him. Even when he passes a guilty sentence, he tells those present that he washes his hands of the matter, showing them that he wanted to give a verdict of acquittal.
When one looks at the history of Pilate, he may ask himself why Pilate acted this way. In the past, he had often ruled with an iron hand, not caring what the Jews thought. But here he is, doing their bidding, even though he does not want to do so. He is seen as weak and imploring those he rules over to be reasonable and to let him do what is right. It seems so out of character.
The reason is simple: politics. Ancient historians tell us that right before the trial of Jesus, a powerful political ally of Pilate had been executed in Rome because that ally was seen as a traitor against Caesar. This man had evidently been responsible for Pilate being in his position. Pilate worried that Caesar might look upon him with suspicion as well.
When Pilate wanted to let Jesus go, the Jews said, “If you let this Man go, you are not Caesar’s friend. Whoever makes himself a king speaks against Caesar” (John 19:12). Jesus was accused by the Jewish leaders of claiming to be the King of the Jews. But Caesar claimed to be the king of the Jews. Pilate understood their threat. If he let Jesus go, the Jews would let Caesar know of his disloyalty to the authorities in Rome. His political position would be in serious jeopardy.
When Pilate heard this, he condemned Jesus to death. He even let Barabbas, an obviously guilty murderer, go free in order to satisfy the Jews. How corrupt could this verdict be? Once again, politics won and justice lost. And, it would seem, politics trumps everything.
POLITICS IS A TOOL IN THE HANDS OF GOD
The power that political concerns exercise over the affairs of mankind does not apply to God. In fact, He uses politics to accomplish His purposes. It was the will of the Father that His Son die for the sins of the world. This would allow the Son to give eternal life to all who believe in Him for it. God used the corruption of the political climate in first century Rome and Judea to bring about the sacrifice needed for His people. Pilate thought he was saving his political career when he put Jesus to death. God used it to save millions upon millions of people around the world.
That should be a great encouragement for every believer. We look around at the corrupt politics that govern our lives and feel that we can only shrug our shoulders and lament at the injustice and sin around us. But God is in control. He is preparing the world for the soon return of the King. He even uses the political intrigues we see to do that. He did it in the first century, and we can rest on the fact that He is doing it today.
Politics played a role in the King’s death. But that death was followed by His resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father. The politics of earth places men like Pilate in charge of people’s lives. But such things will not prevent Christ from taking His throne and ruling over everything when He returns.
Ken Yates is a retired Army chaplain (Lt. Col). He has many theological degrees, including a Ph.D. from D.T.S. in New Testament. He leads the GES international ministry, cohosts the daily podcast, and assists Bob in all aspects of the GES ministry. His new book, Elisabeth, is a powerful testimony to the power of God manifested in a Christ-centered family. He and his wife, Pam, live in Columbia, SC.