All the Way to Calvary: Provoking Titles

Pilate still felt he had another option available, however desperate it might be. Perhaps if the Jewish authorities saw a severely punished Jesus, the pathetic sight might cause them to relent. “Pilate therefore took Jesus, and scourged him” (Joh 19:1).[1] Pilate’s soldiers probably performed the gruesome task, their whips reinforced with bone and metal to cut open a victim’s body. The Savior’s outer garment was removed and, refusing to turn away, he “gave [his] back to the smiters” (Isa 50:6).

But the scourging was not enough for the soldiers. They would sickeningly have fun with this One called “King of the Jews.”

King of the Jews – A Mocked Title

If this Man were truly a king, they would treat him like one, but in a mocking, painful manner. They hurriedly crafted a crown of thorns and set it on His head. They dressed Him in a purple robe and placed a staff as a mock scepter in His hand. Then they took turns with punches to His face and blows to His head with the staff. They even stooped to the despicable act of spitting, and amazingly, Jesus hid not His face from it (Isa 50:6). Someone called out, “Hail, King of the Jews!” (Joh 19:3) and the soldiers were thus provoked to repeat the reprehensible process again and again.[2] Eventually, their “entertainment” ended as Pilate was ready for his next move.

Just before Jesus was dramatically presented, Pilate approached the leaders of Israel again: “Behold, I bring him forth to you, that ye may know that I find no fault in him” (Joh 19:4). Pilate gave the signal: “Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man!” (v5). A very different looking Jesus was standing before them. Try to imagine what a sight our Savior must have been. He had been deprived of sleep. He was beaten and abused by the leaders of His nation and now scourged, mocked, spit upon and pummeled repeatedly by men whose business it was to inflict pain. Indeed, “his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men” (Isa 52:14).

It wasn’t enough. Rather than this spectacle eliciting sympathy, it aroused further demands for His death. “When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him” (Joh 19:6). Their blood lust would not be extinguished. Then Pilate heard from their lips a title of which he was unaware concerning Jesus.

Son of God – A Troubling Title

After listening to their demands for Jesus’ death, Pilate made a dare. “You take him and crucify him! Certainly I find no reason for an accusation against him!” (v6 NET). Would they dare to usurp the Roman authorities and exercise the death penalty themselves? The Jewish leaders dropped another charge, one that Pilate had yet to hear: “We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God” (v7). Son of God? Did Pilate hear that correctly? Could Jesus have come down from the gods?

“When Pilate heard what they said, he was more afraid than ever” (v8 NET). This insight shares with us the reality that Pilate was already afraid during the whole proceeding. But this title triggered Pilate to be more afraid than ever! Perhaps the details of his wife’s dream flashed through his mind again. He tried to compose himself and decided to ask Jesus another question: “Where are you from?” Romans like Pilate did tend to believe in human deities. Jesus’ origin would be important if He did indeed come down from the gods. Pilate’s curiosity would not be satisfied: “Jesus gave him no answer” (v9).

A new emotion mingled with his fear. Afraid and now angry, “Pilate said, ‘Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you know I have the authority to release you, and to crucify you?’ Jesus replied, ‘You would have no authority over me at all, unless it was given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of greater sin’” (vv10-11 NET). Christ made it clear to Pilate that he was claiming an authority he did not really have. God was in control![3] But God’s being in control never removes personal responsibility. Although Caiaphas was guilty of a “greater sin” by handing over his nation’s Messiah and King to the Romans for execution, Pilate would still bear guilt himself for Jesus’ death. So do I. So do you.

But Pilate still believed Jesus’ death could be avoided. “And from thenceforth Pilate sought to release him: but the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar’s friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar” (v12).

Caesar’s Friend – A Coveted Title

To hear the leaders of Israel speak about Caesar in a favorable way was the height of hypocrisy. Their hatred for the Roman ruler was known by all; their hatred for Jesus was obviously greater. But their tactic was both shrewd and successful. Receiving or maintaining the status of “Caesar’s friend” (amicus Caesaris) was a title too valuable to jeopardize and only Rome’s most loyal subjects carried such a prestigious label. If Pilate released a man guilty of sedition, his position with Caesar would be threatened.[4]

Pilate sat down on his judgment seat and made a final appeal to the Jewish authorities: “Behold your King! But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar” (vv14-15). Men representing a nation who confessed God alone as their king claimed, “We have no king but Caesar.” Their statement, while dripping with cynicism, was quite accurate – someone (or something) other than God had their allegiance.

With that, Pilate finally surrendered and gave the order: “Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away” (v16). The purple robe was removed and His own outer garment was placed upon Jesus’ bleeding back. We never read that they removed the crown of thorns.

Perhaps Pilate successfully retained the title “Caesar’s friend.” If so, the keeping of it came at the highest price for him. Meanwhile, the One who bears the titles “King of the Jews” and “Son of God” continued His harrowing journey all the way to Calvary to pay the highest price for us.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.

[2] The verb tenses of “said” and “smote” in John 19:3 are imperfect and indicate repeated action.

[3] Philip W. Comfort and Wendell C. Hawley, Opening John’s Gospel and Epistles (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2009), 238.

[4] Ironically, Pilate had just released Barabbas, a man charged with sedition (Luk 23:25).