The Corruptibility of Political Power

John 18: 33 – 39; John 19: 1 – 15.

The Apostle John was the only one, among the four gospel writers, who mentioned at some length the interrogation of Jesus by Pontius Pilate. The interview with the Roman Prefect or Governor of Judaea stood out as one of the critical Passion accounts that attempted to address the Lord’s guilt against the blasphemy charge by the Jewish Sanhedrin. Pilate’s authority was not to be trifled with, as he represented Rome, the most significant political power at the time, and had absolute freedom to decide Jesus’ future. Following Pilate’s line of inquiry, his initial question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” was to ascertain Jesus’ political leanings; was He a political leader whose intent was to revolt against Roman hegemony (John 18:1-37). The protracted conversation between them provides some interesting insights into Jesus’ reading of Pilate’s posturing of his political dominance, once Pilate clarified his legal jurisdiction over the case. Jesus’ curious enquiry, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” was discriminating and differentiating, parsing between officious protocol and spiritual blindness. Was this a divine opportunity extended from a caring God to one who deemed himself far superior to Him? Pilate missed the cue, being caught up in the immediacy of the Jewish fracas and the political-cum-religious decision before him. Jesus’ response was determinately ambiguous, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews. … I have come into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” The verbal implication went well beyond the spurious reason He was before Pilate. Although Jesus is a king, He had nothing to do with the power politics in this world. And furthermore, His people do not wage war in His Name. His kingdom, being an otherworldly entity, do not embrace coercive political authority. As king of a different realm, the truth of what He preaches will fundamentally change people and the way they will live.

Pilate retorted, “What is truth?” Once he got his assurance that Jesus was not a threat to the Roman occupation of Palestine, his legal responsibility became clearer. He walked away; he was not interested in Jesus’ reply, and the retort was left unanswered. Another divine opportunity sidestepped. The Roman Governor in Jerusalem was the only person who had the authority to execute a criminal; Pilate could have set Jesus free. But he finally succumbed to the political power-play of the Sanhedrin, abusing his influence, and became complicit in the crucifixion of the Lord. Political power, no matter how well-intentioned and benign it was being positioned, is ultimately corruptible. In the nature of corruptibility, it is not unusual for pride and arrogance to overwhelm one’s judgment in any political arena, with its proponent remaining primarily blindsided by its abuse. As was the case with Pilate, absolute power corrupts! Jesus was exceptionally clear that redemptive analogy for any political system and power do not exist this side of eternity, and that power under any guise cannot replace God’s own incorruptible Presence filling the void in our hearts.

After releasing Barabbas, Pilate had Jesus tortured and humiliated by the Praetorium’s guards. Then he brought Him out to the Jews, perhaps thinking that Jesus’ mortified demeanour would be sufficient to pacify them for His release. Instead, they immediately demanded His crucifixion (John 18:38-19:12), on the pretext that Jesus’ blasphemous claim to be the Son of God demanded the death penalty. Fearful of his deteriorating relationship with the religious leaders, accompanied by mob violence, Pilate sought to discover which city Jesus came from, desperately seeking a way to have jurisdiction over this knotty case transferred to someone else. Jesus’ silence was profound. It implied that God’s plan will be implemented and no amount of human vacillation can prevent it; hence, to know that He came from Nazareth was inconsequential to the outcome. In an ironic twist, Pilate then postured his absolute political clout to intimidate Jesus: “Do you not know that I have authority to release You and I have authority to crucify You?” It was the height of human insolence to imagine that his puny political power could despoil God’s eternal design for the salvation of man. On four occasions, Pilate attempted to have Jesus discharged from his accusers, but on each occasion, he reneged. He eventually acquiesced with the Jewish leaders; permitting the tenacious hold on his own power to decisively govern his conscience. He remained culpable with the Jewish leaders of his day in the murder of the Saviour.

Jesus’ answer displayed the paradox of God’s will, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above…” It may have appeared that evil had triumphed at Golgotha, but the very opposite resulted from Jesus’ death; it was God’s triumph over sin and death itself for eternity.