We recently studied Pontius Pilate. While the story of the man himself is instructive, one aspect of the story that really stands out to me is how readily he is swayed by the mob. The historical record offers some pretty strong clues as to why this is, but even without those the Bible makes it clear that a) he knew Jesus was innocent; b) he knew the mob was both dangerous and fickle; and c) he based his decision, not on justice, but on whatever would appease the crowd. It is with disapproval that the earliest Christians remember his part in the story. While acknowledging that his role had been to further “whatever [God’s] hand and [God’s] plan had predestined to take place” (Ac 4.28), they portray Pilate as one of the Gentiles who raged, plotted in vain, and “gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed” (vv25-26, citing Ps 2.1-2).
The mob is even worse, of course. Jesus tells Pilate “he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (Jn 19.11b). They are the driving force, not Jesus, and not Pilate. Yet even they had been hijacked by a small cadre of ideologues who bent the mob to their own will. As Mark tells us, the greater part of the crowd had gathered, not to demand Jesus’ execution, but to request the release of a prisoner, because “at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked” (Mk 15.6). Perhaps it’s Pilate’s naïveté showing through, but more likely he knows enough about Jesus and his following that he simply assumes they will be asking for this harmless, innocent teacher, suggesting to them in verse 9, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?”
But no—the society’s supposed moral betters had already gotten to them. “The chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas” (v11), a rebel, “who had committed murder in the insurrection” (15.7). Note that Mark doesn’t say he was suspected of committing murder, or that he was awaiting trial for murder, but that was in fact guilty of that offense. Yet, having been primed by these self-righteous snakes, the mob goes right along in asking that he be put back on the streets of Jerusalem, among their wives, children, friends, and businesses. It’s obviously not in their own best interests even from a fleshly perspective, but they made the mistake of listening to the lies spread by those who supposedly stood for justice and righteousness.
“So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified” (Mk 15.15). He knows justice is not being served. He knows this is due to the “envy” (v10) of an elite few. Still, he bows to the mob, and gives them what they think they want. Pilate was not a God-fearing man, but was appointed by God for a purpose:
There is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. (Ro 13.1b-4a)
Jesus says the same to Pilate’s face, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19.11a). Pilate failed in this purpose, and while he preserved his political power for a while, he also made himself guilty, by going along with the mob.
I suppose it’s obvious why I’ve been thinking about these events a lot lately, and perhaps as you read it you’re trying to determine what is my political angle. I don’t know that I have one—I just can’t get past the moral catastrophe that has unfolded in every major American city over the last two weeks. There’s been so much rotten behavior, from so many sources, fueled by pent-up stress and cabin fever after we all locked ourselves away for two months, and fanned into flame—figuratively, by the same sort of self-righteous, cynical snobs as those who smugly celebrated after murdering Jesus; and literally, by a morally bankrupt mob, devoid of the conscience that would have barred most of the individuals from such acts, if only they weren’t egged on by truly reprehensible instigators.
I’ve been very saddened to see so many lives destroyed, so many people who worked hard and did their best to build something, suffered through the economic drought of the pandemic, and then watched all their labor go up in smoke, or out the door in the hands of thieves, or simply dashed in pieces because a mob was angry and they happened to be the closest target. It’s tough to watch. Every element of the story, from the incident that provided the spark, to the smoldering ruins, breaks my heart to see. But it’s not the first time this has happened, even in this country, and although it may get much, much worse, it may also get much, much better. That’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves.
There are other mob scenes in the Bible, and they’re all instructive as we try to process this and move forward. But I’d like to wrap up with the one that occurred in Ephesus, led by a group of people who felt their economic fortunes were looking bleak, and exacerbated by racial hatred between Gentiles and Jews. Eventually, a nameless, low-ranking public official steps in and addresses the crowd. He soothes the specific fears of the instigators, and then closes:
“If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.
Every town should have such a clerk. This guy isn’t even a Christian, but he shows a basic awareness of right and wrong, practical foresight, and the guts to put his own life on the line for what’s right, and for the common good. How much better could you do?
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