Jesus: Suffered Under Pontius Pilate
by Dave Wilkinson
January 6, 2002
My least favorite Christmas song used to be "The Twelve Days of Christmas." Imagine getting all that stuff each day from Christmas through Epiphany. But the song isnít just silly. Itís boring. Boooring!
Well "The Twelve Days" has moved up a notch in my estimation. Itís still way down there but itís no longer dead last. Part of this is because of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer". But the main reason is that I learned there is actually a secret code contained in the Twelve Days.
Secret codes are cool. This particular code was written by Catholics in England during the Reformation to pass on core teachings of their faith.
The Partridge, for example, symbolizes Jesus. He is presented as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings. The Four Calling Birds are the four Gospels. The gift of this 12th day is the Twelve Drummers which represent twelve statements in the Apostleís Creed. These Drummers "set the pace," as reminders of what we believe.
We are looking on these communion Sundays at the Apostleís Creed. Today we come to the phrase which declares that Jesus "suffered under Pontius Pilate"
This is how the Creed summarize Jesusí entire 33 years of life and ministry. It doesnít say that He was a great teacher, miracle worker or healer. No. The creed says, "He suffered." For that is the word which best summarizes His entire life.
Christ's sufferings did not start on the cross They started at Christmas. Jesus, who had dwelt in heaven in the glory of His godhood, made himself nothing. He came to live in the squalor of a world spoiled by sin.
He was born in poverty Tradition has it that Jesus was born in a stable, perhaps a cave behind the inn. It is equally likely that the manger was out in the courtyard and that the birth took place surrounded by other weary travelers and their horses, donkeys and camels. What a start for the new-born King of the Jews!
It was Herod the Great who sought to slay Jesus at his birth, resulting in the slaughter of the innocents. Jesus began life as a refugee. after Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to escape Herod's wrath.
He was rejected by his own people. Those who recognized him as the carpenter could not accept him as a preacher, let alone as a Messiah. "íIsn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?í And they took offence at him." Mark 6:3
Jesus was betrayed by a friend. He was denied by one of his "inner circle", Peter who, in the time of Jesus' greatest need, denied him three times. The third time Jesus was there to hear Peter back up his denial with foul language.
So why does the Creed focus just on Pilate? Why is He the only human named in the Apostles' Creed? It was Herod's son, Antipas, who put Jesus' kinsman John the Baptist to death.
It was the Pharisees who sought to trap Jesus into unwise statements. It was the High Priest who arraigned Jesus before Pilate charged with offences against Caesar. Pilate, we know, even tried to release Jesus and wanted nothing to do with Jesus' death.
So why focus on Pilate? Because it was Pilate's decision which had to count and Pilate put the safety of his own career before what he was convinced was just. Pilate was Caesar's representative. His was the final decision (humanly speaking) to take Jesus' life.
I said, "humanly speaking" because it was Jesusí decision before it was Pilateís. Jesus said: "No one takes My life from Me. I lay it down of my own accord."
Jesus chose the suffering.
You remember September 11 and Todd Beamer, the passenger who said "Let's roll" as he led the charge against the terrorists who had hijacked United Flight 93 -- the one, you will remember, that crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside. The whole world knows how brave Beamer and his fellow passengers were on September 11. But later we learned more fully what buttressed that bravery -- faith in Jesus Christ. Todd died as he lived, a faithful believer.
In an article titled "The Real Story of Flight 93," Newsweek revealed gripping new details from the cockpit voice recorder.
After passengers were herded to the back of the jet, Beamer called the GTE Customer Center in Oakbrook, Illinois. He told supervisor Lisa Jefferson about the hijacking. The passengers were planning to jump the terrorists, he said. And then he asked her to pray with him.
As Newsweek relates, "Beamer kept a Lord's Prayer bookmark in his Tom Clancy novel, but he didn't need any prompting. He began to recite the ancient litany, and Jefferson joined him: "Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name."
As they finished, Beamer added, "Jesus, help me." And then, Beamer and his fellow passengers prayed a prayer that has comforted millions down through the centuries -- the prayer that David wrote in a time of great anguish: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." And then the famous last words: "Are you guys ready? Let's roll."
We now know from the cockpit voice recorder that Beamer and other passengers wrestled with the hijackers and forced the plane to crash into the ground, killing themselves but foiling what was believed to have been the hijackers' plan to fly Flight 93 into the Capitol or the White House.
It wasn't Todd Beamer's job to fight terrorists. He was just a passenger who foiled a terrible evil that might have been done to his country. Todd Beamer could not have known that his quiet prayers would ultimately be heard by millions-that the story of his last acts on earth would be a witness to the Lord he loved and served and a lasting example of true heroism.
Todd Beamer and his companions gave us a great gift. The difference with Jesus is Jesus boarded the plane knowing what it would cost. He did that for us.
In the powerful movie "Saving Private Ryan" is the scene where Tom Hankís as the dying Captain Miller grabs the arm of Private Ryan who was saved at a great cos. He grabs Ryan and tells him: "earn this."
That impressed me greatly. But then I read a letter from a man who had actually served as a Ranger in the war. He said that no Ranger would have said "earn this" because the Ranger motto was "I choose this." Whatever the Rangers did was their choice -- not Ryanís obligation.
In the same way, Jesus chose the suffering -- not Pilate. He knew that to confront the money changers in the temple would be to bring suffering. He knew that to oppose the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the religious leaders would bring suffering. And Jesus chose the suffering so that He is able to identify with us in our suffering. That's the scandal of our faith. Almighty God chose to experience human suffering.
As Hebrews 4:15 tells us, Jesus knew suffering from the beginning to the end of his life. And because He knows suffering we have a High Priest who understands our sufferings and knows how to intercede for us before the Father.
So how did Pontius Pilate make it into the Creed like, as Karl Barth phrases it, "a dog into a nice room?"
He was not a particularly important person in the Roman system.
Pontius Pilate is in the Creed simply becausíe he was there. His mention by name underlines the historical nature of Jesusí life, suffering and death -- just as we might say something happened when Pete Wilson was Governor of California. It as definite and concrete as that.
The point in the Creed is that the suffering of Christ and His crucifixion happened at a certain place at a certain time under the authority of a government functionary who would have been swallowed up on the dust bin of history were it not for his involvement in the Gospel.
The Creed tells us that the Gospel is not a myth. The Gospel is not a bigger and better story with a bigger and better moral. Thatís important because sin and death are real and need to be defeated by something equally real The Creed assures us that what I needed to happen in history actually happened in history. In the words of Dorothy Sayers, it is "the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when He submitted to the conditions He had laid down and became a man, like the men He had made, and the men He had made broke Him and killed Him."
Come and take this meal and know again that the Christ of faith is the Christ of history. Jesus who suffered under Pontius Pilate is here to help you deal with your real history. Jesus who suffered knows your suffering and wants to help you in yours. He doesnít promise to take us out of suffering but to be with us always.