Mark 15:1–15

Of all the people who were involved in the suffering and death of Jesus, why is Pontius Pilate specifically mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed? In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Mark’s gospel to take a close look at the Roman governor who condemned the King of kings to die.


This morning, we will begin a new chapter in the gospel of Mark, chapter 15. Contrary to what is listed in the bulletin, I will be reading from Mark 15:1–15. I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:

Immediately, in the morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council; and they bound Jesus, led Him away, and delivered Him to Pilate. Then Pilate asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?”

He answered and said to him, “It is as you say.”

And the chief priests accused Him of many things, but He answered nothing. Then Pilate asked Him again, saying, “Do You answer nothing? See how many things they testify against You!” But Jesus still answered nothing, so that Pilate marveled.

Now at the feast he was accustomed to releasing one prisoner to them, whomever they requested. And there was one named Barabbas, who was chained with his fellow rebels; they had committed murder in the rebellion. Then the multitude, crying aloud, began to ask him to do just as he had always done for them. But Pilate answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” For he knew that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy.

But the chief priests stirred up the crowd, so that he should rather release Barabbas to them. Pilate answered and said to them again, “What then do you want me to do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?”

So they cried out again, “Crucify Him!”

Then Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has He done?”

But they cried out all the more, “Crucify Him!”

So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd, released Barabbas to them; and he delivered Jesus, after he had scourged Him, to be crucified.

This is a record of one of the most wicked events in all human history, and that record comes to us this morning by the authority, superintendence, and inspiration of God the Holy Spirit Himself. If you have ears to hear it, then hear it. Please be seated. Let us pray.

O Lord, how many times have we heard this narrative in one form or another, so often perhaps that our hearts have become calloused to the full weight of the matter. By Your Spirit, let it be for us this day as the very first time we have contemplated this infamy. Grant to us a spirit of repentance for all our involvement in the necessity of the atoning death of Jesus. For we ask it in His name. Amen.

Suffered under Pontius Pilate

Earlier this morning in our worship, we gave our affirmation of faith by reciting together the words of the Apostles’ Creed. In the creed, all three persons of the Trinity are mentioned, but apart from them, two others make it into the creed. We are told that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, and immediately after that affirmation of His entrance into this world through His mother Mary, the creed says that He “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

Have you ever wondered why, in the course of history and the early centuries of Christianity, when the church formulated this symbol of faith, they were inclined to include the name of Pontius Pilate? It could just as well have been “betrayed by Judas Iscariot,” or “denied by Simon Peter,” or “delivered by the high priest Caiaphas.” Instead, it is simply “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

Why should Pontius Pilate, a third-rate Roman politician, be elevated to such a level of importance in the history of the church? The immediate and simple reason is that he was the presiding officer, the supreme judge in that earthly court that condemned Jesus to death. In that role, as church historians and theologians agree, he functioned not merely as a local prefect of Rome but as a publicus persona—that is, a public person who issued a judgment far more significant historically than his own opinion.

The record of Jesus before Pilate is filled with irony, and I will mention some of those ironies in the next few moments. As is his custom, Mark gives us an extremely brief summary of the discussion between Jesus and Pilate, if it is even proper to call it a discussion. Both Mark’s gospel and the other Gospels highlight some things regarding Jesus’ time before Pilate. But first, let me give a little background about the man before whom Jesus stood on trial for His life.

The Despised Prefect

Pontius Pilate was appointed by the Roman government to be prefect over the conquered land of Palestine. The custom in the ancient Roman Empire was that whatever lands were conquered by the Roman legions, that are would then be ruled by a representative of the senate of Rome in that locale.

In terms of history, Pilate was the fifth such prefect over Palestine, and his tenure of office was from AD 26 to AD 37, eleven years. It may not seem like a long time, but one of the ironies of history is that Pontius Pilate had the longest tenure of any prefect of Rome in the land of Palestine. That might sound like a compliment of Pilate’s administrative capacity and gifts as a ruler, but on the contrary, to be posted by Rome to Palestine was anything but a political plum. It was perhaps the lowest land on the imperial totem pole for a young, aspiring Roman administrator to find his stripes. To stay in that outpost for eleven years was not so much a sign of success as a sign of failure. When others were posted in Palestine, as the prefects did well, they would quickly advance in the Roman system and be transferred to a better venue. But Pilate was stuck for eleven years dealing with the very unhappy Jewish nation.

Pilate’s tenure finally ended not when he received a promotion but when he was fired and banished from government by the emperor Caligula. You may recall that Caligula, second only to Nero, was one of the worst of all the Roman emperors, so failing to impress Caligula gives further evidence of what a dreadful administrator Pontius Pilate was.

We not only have the record of the New Testament about Pilate, but we also have allusions to his tenure by the historian Philo and the Jewish historian Josephus. Both agree that Pilate was inflexible, stubborn, and cruel. He was finally banished because of those characteristics in his personal behavior.

During his reign in Palestine, Pilate was involved in several ghastly, bloody episodes when he put down insurrections, protests, and rebellions by the Jewish people. There were times he deliberately provoked them. For example, he invited the legions of Rome to enter into the temple area in Jerusalem with banners picturing the bust of the Roman Caesar, which was seen as blasphemous to the Jewish people.

On another occasion, Pilate was engaged in a public works project that one would think the Jews would celebrate. He built an aqueduct that ran for twenty-three miles, following the Roman architecture, bringing water and refreshment into Jerusalem. That was the good news. The bad news was that to finance it, he confiscated money from the temple. So, there was a sense in which the Jews despised even the water that Pontius Pilate brought to the city.

The Question of Being a King

More important than Pilate’s stubborn brutality and cruelty are the points discussed in his brief meeting with Jesus. In all four of Gospels, we see that there were basically four things in their discussion, and I want to look at each of those briefly this morning.

First, there was the question of Jesus being a king. That was front and center in the discussion. Second, there was the discussion of Jesus’ guilt or innocence. Third, there was the discussion recorded by the Apostle John about Jesus’ understanding of truth. Finally, there was the question of amnesty that Mark records in his gospel.

So, in the first instance, we see that the charge brought by the Sanhedrin to Pilate was that Jesus claimed to be the King of the Jews. As I mentioned before, any statements in the Roman Empire regarding someone being king other than Caesar would indeed provoke a political crisis. We remember how, when Jesus was born and the wise men came from afar to bring gifts and worship Him, they asked in Jerusalem, “Where is He who was born King of the Jews?” Herod the Great heard that, and all Jerusalem was troubled, and Herod said: “Where is this newborn King? Tell me where He is so that I can go and worship Him too.” That took place immediately prior to Herod’s decree to kill all the newborn male babies.

Herod had no interest in paying homage to Jesus; he was only interested in protecting his own authority by killing any pretender to the throne. Pilate had a similar concern to protect his own office, and the Jewish authorities knew that.

Killed Outside the Camp

Notice in the text that immediately after Jesus was brought before the authorities of the Jewish nation, the Sanhedrin held a consultation and bound Jesus. If you recall when we looked at the narrative of His arrest, Jesus said to the soldiers: “Why did you come here with clubs and spears and swords? Do you think I’m a criminal or robber?” Jesus willingly went with them quietly. There was no need whatsoever to tie Him up.

The New Testament account of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus is not about pain or violence. What it is about, beloved, is shame and mockery. They were doing everything in their power to humiliate Jesus. They took Him bound to Pilate, and Pilate would hear cases like this in the morning. So, it was early in the morning when they brought Him before Pilate in ropes or chains, whichever they may have used. Scripture says, “And they delivered Him to Pilate.”

The Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah was that He would be betrayed and handed over, delivered to the gentiles for judgment. It was critical that the Messiah, our Savior, would have to be judged and killed outside the camp, just as in the Old Testament, when the sins of the people were imputed to the back of the scapegoat, the goat was driven outside the camp, into the wilderness and the outer darkness, symbolizing being sent out from the presence of God.

A Transcendent Kingdom

The living Lamb of God was sent out of the Jewish law court and given over into the hands of the gentiles, represented by Pilate, with the charges that He claimed to be king. Pilate asked Jesus: “Is it true? Are You the King of the Jews?” In the terse record we have from Mark, Jesus’ reply was very simple: “You say that it is so.”

I think every translation that seeks to render this text in English has a problem because the real force of Jesus’ reply would be something like this: “You said it.” He was not just saying: “You may say that. I don’t say that.” Rather, Jesus was saying: “What you say, Pilate, is the truth. Yes, I am a king.”

As we read from the other accounts, Jesus qualified His statement by saying: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were of this world, My subjects would rise up right now and free Me from the mob. But that’s not the kind of king I am. In other words, you have nothing to fear from Me in terms of your political power or the Roman government with Caesar. My kingdom is not of this world. It’s a transcendent kingdom.”

Jesus could have gone on to say: “My kingdom, Pilate, is higher than the kingdom of Rome. My kingdom is the ultimate kingdom because I am the King of the kings. I am the Lord of the lords. Pilate, every governor, prince, king, and prefect will someday stand before My judgment.” He did not say that, but He could have said it. Nevertheless, He acknowledged that He is a king.

Witness to the Truth

I am going change the order of the four points I gave you a moment ago. According to John, when Jesus answered Pilate’s question, “Are You the King of the Jews?” Jesus introduced another discussion. He said, “For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (John 18:37). Is it not interesting that in the middle of this discussion of kingship, Jesus changed the focus and said to Pilate: “Do you want to know what I’m about? Do you want to know what My mission is? Do you know why I came into the world?”

Beloved, you need to hear this. Any time we ask the question, “What was Jesus about? What was His mission? Why did He come?” we ought not speculate about that and tender our best guesses. We ought to ask Him: “Why are You here? Why did You come?”

Jesus did not always give the same answer to that question. Sometimes He said, “I have come that they might have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Earlier in Mark’s gospel, He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). But on this occasion, when He was on trial for His life, He said, “I came to bear witness to the truth.” Jesus said the reason He came was to bear witness to the truth.

I do not know any time in the history of the Christian church where the church was less interested in truth than it is today. There is a disparaging attitude toward doctrine and theology. People say: “Doctrine divides. I don’t want to hear debates about correct doctrine. It’s all about personal relationships.” No, it is not. In fact, you cannot even define what a good personal relationship is without first having some understanding and foundation of truth.

The history of the Old Testament prophets of Israel was a history of warfare between speakers of truth and false prophets who lied. When the false prophets got the upper hand in Israel, it was said that truth was slain in the streets. That is where we are today. We listen to sound bites. We are concerned about impressions. But is anybody asking, “What is the truth?”

What Is Truth?

When Pilate was before Jesus, and Jesus said, “I came to bear witness to the truth,” Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” We looked at that when we studied the gospel of John, and I remember saying that this was one of those occasions where we read the printed word but have no description of Pilate’s facial expression. There is no description of the tone of voice he used when he said that to Jesus.

Knowing how cynical and what a corrupt politician Pilate was, he was probably the last person on the planet who was concerned about truth, but he asked Jesus, “What is truth?” How did he ask Him? With sarcasm dripping from his lips? Did he say: “Truth, eh? What’s that?” Maybe, but I do not think so.

I think, for one moment in his life at least, when the Son of God was standing right in front of him, Pilate was sober and asked Jesus, “What is truth?” How ironic was that question when the truth incarnate was standing right in front of him? Remember that Jesus said: “I came to bear witness to the truth, and all who are of the truth hear My voice.”

I cannot read anybody’s heart. I cannot even read my own. So, I do not know who is in Christ and who is not, but we are always told that the church in every age and in every place is a mixed body. There will be people in church who are unconverted, unregenerate, and who do not hear the voice of Jesus because they are not of the truth.

This is a good time to ask yourself about the state of your soul. Do you hear the words of Christ? Do you delight in the words of Jesus? Or do the words of Jesus bore you? Perhaps they offend you. If that is the case, then you need to say, “Maybe I’m not of the truth,” because Jesus said that everyone who is of the truth, who is a genuine, authentic truth seeker, hears His voice.

No Fault in Him

What did Pilate say next? He gave his verdict: “I find no fault in this Man” (Luke 23:4). Matthew’s account tells of Pilate’s wife having a disturbing dream, and after Pilate made this pronouncement of the innocence of Jesus, he washed his hands publicly: “I wash my hands of this matter. I find no fault in Him. You want me to crucify Him, but why? What evil has He done?” (see Matt. 27:19–24).

Never in his whole life had Pilate more accurately spoken the truth than when he, as the judge of Jesus in this public role, said: “I find no fault in Him. Ecce homo, behold the man, the man without a blemish, the man without a fault.” Why could Pilate not find any fault in Jesus? Was it because he did not look hard enough? No. There was simply no fault to find. You cannot find what does not exist, and there was no fault, there was no blemish in this man.

Condemned by Envy

After the discussion of truth, the discussion of the kingdom, and Pilate’s pronouncement of the innocence of Jesus, we come to the fourth aspect of this meeting, which perhaps has more irony than any. The subject of amnesty comes up. It is a subject that people in America are very much aware of these days.

Pilate had a tradition that during the Passover festival, he would give the Jews a prisoner with full amnesty to be released. That prisoner would be made completely free. Pilate was troubled by the fact that the Jewish leaders had tried to manipulate him to punish Jesus, whom he felt was innocent of any guilt. He realized that they had delivered Him to Pilate because of envy, one of the cardinal sins of fallen humanity.

Do you know how many miscarriages of justice, how many slanders, how much vandalism, how much violence, how much theft, how much murder, how much war has been waged on account of those three words, “because of envy”? It was envy that led to the death of Christ. Instead of fallen humanity rejoicing that the perfect Redeemer had come, their envy blinded them to His greatness.

Pilate was aware of their envy. He saw the dynamics. He knew what was happening. He read the minds of the Jewish leaders. He said: “They’ve only brought this Man here because they’re jealous of Him. But I can’t see that He’s done anything wrong. I know how to let Him off the hook. I’ll offer Him to the people. I’ll offer amnesty.” So, he told them: “I’ll release this Man to you. Which one do you want me to release? A murderer, or your King?” Pilate completely misread the mob. They cried out, “Give us Barabbas.”

A Different Jesus

Who was Barabbas? Barabbas was his last name. It was not his first name. Do you know what his first name was, according to the gospel of Matthew? Jesus. You see, the option for amnesty was Jesus Barabbas or Jesus of Nazareth, and Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want?”

Let us take that irony a step further. What does the name Barabbas mean? The Spirit enables us to address God as Father, by which we say, “Abba, Father.” Jesus was called Jesus Bar-Joseph. We know of Simon Bar-Jonah. Bar means “son of.” Barabbas means “son of the father.” Here was a murderer standing before them, and Pilate said, “Do you want Jesus, son of the Father, Jesus Barabbas, or do you want this other Jesus?”

The irony is that the real Barabbas was the one they rejected, because Jesus of Nazareth was Jesus Bar-Abba, Son of the Father, the only begotten of the Father, not the son of the earthly father Joseph, but the Son of the heavenly Father. He was the real Barabbas. But they did not want the heavenly Son. They wanted a different Jesus, a Jesus they could live with, a Jesus for whom there was no envy, a Jesus who would not make them feel guilty, a Jesus of this world.

For two thousand years, the world has cried for a different Jesus, and the church has cried for a different Jesus. We want a Jesus more like ourselves, one for whom we have no envy and no hatred.

It was not like the choice of the crowd was so close that Pilate had to poll the audience. The vote was decided by acclamation, “Give us Barabbas.” Pilate answered, “Alright, what do I do with the King of the Jews?” The crowd responded: “That’s easy, crucify Him! Give us Barabbas. Kill Jesus.” Twice they cried out, “Crucify Him!” Pilate asked: “Why, what evil has He done?” The third time, they cried out all the more, “Crucify Him!”

Verse 15 says it all: “So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd, released Barabbas to them; and he delivered Jesus, after he had scourged Him, to be crucified.” After he had beaten Jesus, after he had mocked Him, after he had shamed the very One he pronounced innocent, he gave Him to the crowd to pacify them.

Do you think Pilate was the last person in history to do that? Pilate read the crowd and asked one of his assistants: “What’s the latest Gallup poll? What do you think would be the politically correct thing to do here? Keep the people happy?” He attempted to keep them happy at the price of justice.

Pilate delivered Jesus to be crucified. What a travesty of shame. But the good news is, even in that very moment, Pilate was putty in the hands of God, being used to bring about the redemption that God had ordained from all eternity.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.