I Believe Jesus Suffered Under Pontius Pilate
Like a light in the night the name Pontius Pilate stands out in the Creed. A pagan Roman governor is mentioned by name. Before we consider how believing Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate drives our lives, we first must ask what do we mean by it.
You know from Bible study that the reason the Jewish leaders led Jesus to Pilate was so he would put Him to death. The Jewish leaders had already condemned Jesus as worthy of death for admitting He was the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One. But their power to execute had been taken away by the Romans. They expect Pilate to rubber stamp their judgment of death. They are surprised when Pilate asked about charges. When pressed for them they bring up 3: subversion of the Jewish nation; opposition to paying taxes to Caesar, and claiming to be Christ a king.
Pilate examines Jesus, and twice says formally, "I find no basis for a charge against Him." A third time after the Jewish King Herod had examined Jesus, Pilate says, "I have examined Him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against Him. Neither has Herod...; as you can see He has done nothing to deserve death."
So how is Pilate responsible for Jesus' suffering? He doesn't hit Jesus once as others did repeatedly. He doesn't spit on Jesus as others did. Unlike Herod who joined his soldiers in ridiculing and mocking Jesus, Pilate did not. So why hasn't the Church ever said, "I believe Jesus suffered under the Jews or the Sanhedrin?" In fact, isn't Pilate a hero of sorts? Three times he declared Jesus innocent in the face of hostile church leaders and a mob.
No, Pilate is no hero, and though he didn't lay a finger on Jesus, he's still responsible for His suffering. Secular history tell us this, and so does our text. Jesus was flogged because Pilate ordered it. Jesus was stripped naked, crowned with thorns, robed in purple and hit again and again because Pilate allowed it even though he knew Jesus was innocent. Pilate foolishly believed a blood thirsty crowd would be satisfied with a little blood. When they wouldn't, Pilate decided better Jesus future than his own be forfeited.
We confess to believe that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate because he was responsible. Second, we confess this because it roots our salvation in history at a precise point. Under a real man, at a real point in time Jesus was really hit, whipped, spit on, and worse. Under real ticks of a clock, Jesus suffered, cried, bled, and died. And though you and I didn't do it any more than Pilate did, we are responsible too because all this happens because of our sins. Here is the real cost of the sins we think but lightly of. His head is crowned with thorns because we entertain all manner of lewd thoughts in ours. His mouth is slapped because we say hurtful things to those we love. His back is cut to shreds with a whip because God Almighty was that infuriated, enraged, and outraged at us for our sins.
Believing that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate to redeem us, drives us away from an error which makes God even angrier: that our sufferings need to be added to those of Christ. This is the error of Catholic theology which teaches that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate to redeem us from original sin but not from actual sins. In the Augsburg Confession, we call this false teaching "an unprecedented novelty in church doctrine".
Can you see why we reject the teaching that Jesus' sufferings were not enough to redeem us from our actual sins? What could be lacking in His suffering? It's the suffering of God. What could be added to the suffering of God? Could your crying out under cancer's pain, under sin's weight, under guilts needles placate God, if the sufferings of the God/Man couldn't? And don't we have to admit that the sins we've done merit cancer, burdened consciences and the pain of guilt? So our suffering couldn't pay for our sins because it's not innocent but deserved. Sinful suffering for all eternity can't cover even one sin. But the suffering of God for just a moment is enough to pay for the sins of the world. Yet Jesus, the God/Man, suffered for hours on the cross to make you sure that your sins have been paid for.
Believing Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate for your sins, drives how you look at what's going on in your life. The hardships, illnesses, and tragedies you have or will experience in your life must always be brought back to the Passion of Christ. This is about the payment for your sins. This is about the wrath of God against sinners. This is about draining the cup of God's wrath against you. That means your conscience lies when it says your sickness, a loved one's death, or your chronic pain is to pay for your sins. That can't be. After Good Friday, there is no more "account receivable" for your sins. It has been paid in full and closed. And no, you don't open a new one by your sins of today. What God has closed for the sake of the suffering and death of His Son cannot be opened again by you or anyone else.
Here's where things get tricky. Your sufferings cannot be to pay for sins, so why do you have them? While I haven't suffered as much as many of you, I have seen more suffering than most of you. I have watched cancer eat several people alive and grief crush the life out of families. I see, almost everyday, people in chronic pain. And the question "why" screams through it all. Catholic theology's belief that suffering happens to pay for sins other than original does give meaning and purpose to suffering. But it does so at the expense of taking away from Christ's suffering and our certainty of salvation. So what is the real purpose and meaning of our suffering?
Before addressing this, we must look at the other error about suffering that people fall into. The Catholic error says suffering comes to Christians to pay for their actual sins. The Evangelical error says God doesn't want Christians to suffer. You recognize this when it comes at you crudely in health and wealth TV preachers. "Jesus doesn't want you to suffer. He came to give abundant life." But do you see the subtle form of this error in most Protestant theology that says suffering comes from the devil not from God. How weak this makes God! The devil can make me suffer though God doesn't really want it. Tell me; which one of you would stand by and allow your child to suffer just because some devil wanted it?
Stop looking at suffering from your suffering; look at it from Jesus suffering under Pontius Pilate to pay for all sins. From here we know that our sufferings can't be to pay, help pay, or make up for our sins. But from Christ suffering to pay for our sins, we can't conclude there will be no suffering in the Christian life. Indeed, Paul says, "All that live Godly in this life will suffer." Peter says, "Since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose."
In our Apology of the Augsburg Confession, we confess to believe this amazing truth, "We grant that in repentance there is punishment, but not as a payment." Our Confessions go on to look squarely at the cases where God forgives sins but the punishment remains. Think of Adam and Eve. He forgives their sin but they still die. Think of David and Bathsheba. God forgives their sin of adultery, and yet the child dies. Think of Moses striking the rock. God forgives his sin but still doesn't let him cross over to the promised land.
Think of you. Your sins are forgiven. Yet you will die. Your sins are forgiven, but some of you will go to your grave in chronic pain. Your sins are forgiven, but there will be suffering in your life because of them. The sufferings of Jesus under Pontius Pilate to pay for our sins forbid us to view any of our sufferings as payment, but the same suffering Jesus tells us that as He went so we will go. We will not be carried to heaven on flowery beds of ease. We will not escape God's judgment against sin in this fallen world which by virtue of our fallen flesh we participate in.
So how do our Confessions deal with this? They emphatically say, our sufferings are not signs of God's wrath. No, that cup was emptied by Jesus. Also our Confessions point to Hebrews 12 where God says every child that He receives He scourges. This is the same Greek word used in John 19:1, "Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him." Jesus was scourged to pay for our sins; we are scourged because our sins have been paid for, because we are God's children. The scourges striking us in this life don't make us God's children, Jesus' sufferings did that, but they mark us as such.
Here is the meaning of your suffering. It means you are a beloved son or daughter of Christ the crucified on the path to the glorious resurrection. You will suffer, but there is not one ounce of God's judgment, God's wrath, God's bill collecting in any of it. We're ever prone, like the sheep we are to stray. A good shepherd, I mean literal a one, has been known to break the leg of a sheep to keep it close to him. None to whom the Good Shepherd does this to will get to heaven and say the sufferings they endured because of their broken leg were not worth it. On the contrary, they'll get to heaven look back at their sufferings and say with St. Paul: those were only light and momentary compared to the heavy weight of glory I now know.
Believe that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate to pay for every sin you know, don't know and could ever imagine. Then spread your arms wide and let the nails of suffering that Jesus brings on you go deep into your flesh and know for certain with St. Paul that they only produce for you a far more eternal weight of glory. We are only able to think our suffering brings pain and just judgment for our sins, but God says we are to believe it brings glory. Why? Because Jesus suffered a long time ago under a Roman governor named Pontius Pilate to pay for our sins. Now, in Jesus, even that which hurts must be glorious. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek IV (3-2-05); Passion Reading IV