The Source of Pilate’s Authority

“Pilate said to [Jesus], ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin’ ” (vv. 10–11).

- John 19:6–11

Conscious of the history of Jewish uprisings against the Roman government, Pontius Pilate tried to placate the Jewish religious leaders’ desire to punish Jesus without crucifying an innocent man (John 18:28–40). Were Pilate to fail to meet the religious leaders’ demands altogether, they might have incited the Jewish Passover pilgrims to revolt, which would have made Pilate look bad before Caesar. Yet, Pilate was hesitant to execute Jesus, so he presented Him again to the authorities, apparently hoping that a light flogging would satisfy them and lead them to call for Jesus’ release (19:1–5).

The religious leaders did not change their minds, and they called again for Pilate to crucify Jesus. Pilate responded that they should crucify Jesus themselves (v. 6), but he was not really putting the right of execution into the hands of the Jewish leaders. Instead, Pilate spoke out of exasperation, sarcastically taunting the leaders to do what they were incapable of doing according to Roman law.

The actual charge the religious leaders initially levied against Jesus was that He claimed to be a king like Caesar (18:33), thus implying that Jesus was guilty of the capital crime of sedition against Rome. But as we see in today’s passage, the Jewish leaders later added to their accusations a charge that Jesus violated their law by claiming to be the “Son of God” (19:7). This could be a chargeable offense only if the religious leaders understood Jesus to be claiming deity for Himself (which would violate Lev. 24:16, according to their interpretation), so the authorities clearly knew that Jesus saw Himself as equal to God (John 5:18). But why would the Jewish leaders bring up this theological disagreement as a chargeable offense? Although Pilate cared little about the intricacies of Jewish theological debates, as a Roman official he was charged with enforcing the local laws of Roman subjects. Seeing that the charge of sedition was not going to be enough to sway Pilate, the religious leaders subtly reminded Pilate of his responsibility to enforce their law lest he fail in his duties as a Roman governor.

Although Pilate cared little for the details of Jewish law, like many Roman officials he had a superstitious streak, and the idea that he might have flogged a god frightened him (John 19:8). But he got no answer when he told Jesus to reveal His true identity, and reminding Jesus that he had the authority to preserve or take our Savior’s life did not get him any further (vv. 9–10). Jesus was confident, knowing that Pilate’s exercise of authority was fulfilling divine purposes (v. 11).

Coram Deo

Jesus said that the one who handed Him over to Pilate was guilty of greater sin in the matter of the crucifixion, not that Pilate was entirely free from sin (John 19:11). Pilate’s guilt was less because he did not initiate the proceedings, and he was not out to kill Jesus because of malice. But Pilate was still guilty because he did not stop evil when he could have. If we fail to stop sin when and where we can, we are guilty of sin.

Passages for Further Study

Daniel 2:20–21
Mark 14:21
Romans 13:1–7
James 4:17

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.