Mark 15:1-15

He Suffered Under Pontius Pilate

Having been condemned by the Jewish ruling authorities Jesus is now handed over the Roman authorities, which in this case is led my one man, Pontius Pilate. Even for those who are not intimately familiar with the Bible, there is a good chance this name sounds familiar. That’s because for centuries Christians have recited the Apostles’ Creed, which not only reminds us of our core beliefs concerning the Trinity, but also includes the names of two people. We are reminded that Jesus was “born to the virgin Mary” and that he “suffered under Pontius Pilate.”  That Mary is included makes sense but why Pontius Pilate? There were some other people who could have been included. How about Jesus was “betrayed by Judas” or “denied by Peter” or “condemned by the Sanhedrin.” These are important as well but creed specifically wants us to remember the central role Pontius Pilate played in condemning Jesus to death by crucifixion. Today we will consider what it meant for Jesus to suffer under Pontius Pilate.


#1 Pilate’s Amazement

As morning (v.1) arrives there is further activity by the Sanhedrin who had earlier in the night found Jesus guilty of blasphemy and thus deserving of death. According to John 18:31 the Jewish Sanhedrin did not have the authority to put someone to death and hence the desire to hand him over the Roman authorities who could enact the death penalty. Upon being delivered over to the Romans, Jesus is asked by Pilate “Are you the King of the Jews (v.2)?” This gives us some insight into the charges that were now being brought against him. Remember the Jewish authorities had previously condemned him for blasphemy but Pilate would have had little concern for blasphemy. Apparently the chief priests are now charging Jesus with being some sort of political insurrectionist who is therefore a threat to Pilate and to Roman rule. Jesus responds to Pilate’s question with a simple statement, “You have said so (v.2).” The chief priests continue their “case” against Jesus but Jesus remains silent. This is a matter of life and death and through it all he remains silent. Apparently Pilate does not know what to make of his silence and is amazed (v.5).

Ephrem the Syrian, a theologian from the 4th century reflects on Jesus’ silence before Pilate:

“Others gain victory through making defenses, but our Lord gained victory through his silence…He kept silent so that his silence would make them shout louder, and so that his crown would be made more beautiful through all this clamor (Ancient Christian Commentary on Mark, p.212).”

Pilate is amazed at Jesus’ ability to remain silent amongst all the clamor going on around him. Amazement has been a common response to those who are close enough to Jesus to see what is actually going on although typically it is response to what had done not what he had not done.


#2 Pilate’s Insight

Although Mark leaves out many of the details which are included in the other gospel accounts, we do see Pilate’s keen insight into the situation. Pilate is smart enough to see what is actually going on. He knows Jesus has committed no real crime. Mark tells us that Pilate perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up (v.10). This is remarkable insight and helps us to understand as well what was the fuel that fed their fury against Jesus. From the other gospel accounts we see more of Pilate’s hesitation to join in their condemnation of Jesus.   In John’s account we are told Pilate first tried to hand Jesus back over to the chief priests. From Luke’s account we know he sent Jesus over to Herod apparently in the hope that Herod would deal with him. Matthew tells us that in the end Pilate concluded that Jesus was innocent and he “washed his hands” of the matter declaring that Jesus’ blood was on his accusers’ hands.

Knowing the real reason Jesus was handed over, Pilate attempts to curry political favor with the crowd by releasing Jesus.   This had been Pilate’s custom to release a prisoner during a feast (v.6), which in this case would have been Passover. Remember the that crowds of people in Jerusalem held Jesus in high esteem, hence the reason the Jewish authorities sought to arrest him under the cover of darkness for fear of inciting a mob. Pilate expected the crowd to want Jesus to be released, but the plan backfires because of the efforts of the chief priests who stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead (v.11). Barabbas, whose name means “son of the father,” was a known murderer and involved with a recent insurrection. Pilate at first resists asking what evil (v.14) Jesus had done. Pilate knows that Jesus is an innocent man.


#3 Pilate’s Decision

In the end Pilate gives in to the wishes of the crowd. A known murderer goes free and an innocent man goes to the cross. This of course is what lies at the very heart of the gospel. We who are sinners are set free because Jesus who was righteous died. 1 Peter 3:18: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” So where are we in this passage? We are Barabbas, the condemned sinner set free because Jesus took our place.

We are told that Pilate made this decision because he wished to satisfy the crowd (v.15). The most tragic decision in history was made to placate an angry crowd. Peter denied Jesus in part because of the fear of man and here Jesus is condemned to death due in part to the fear of man.

Pilate was known to be cruel dictator.  Philo, one of Pilate’s contemporaries describes Pilate’s “conduct as governor” as being “full of briberies, insults, robberies, outrages and wanton injuries, executions without trial constantly repeated, ceaseless and supremely grievous cruelty (Philo, The Embassy to Gaius, 302)

Pilate did not have to bend to the wishes of the crowd. Despite his insistence (recorded in the other gospel accounts) that he is free of Jesus’ blood, he is not. Pilate seems to have delighted in doing evil. The sentence handed to Jesus is not simply an execution but a crucifixion. The authors of the New Testament, and Mark here as well, do not sensationalize the suffering and death of Jesus. It is recorded for us as plain statement of facts, Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified (v.15). This scourging of Jesus that is barely mentioned was a horrific trial for Jesus to endure. History books tell us that the prisoner suffering this sentence would have been stripped naked, tied to a pole, and beaten with a leather whip that contained bits of bones or metal. This would not only strip the flesh but sometimes expose bones and other internal organs. Indeed, many who suffered this fate never made it to the crucifixion as they died at the scourging. This is what is meant when we confess in the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” It’s not just that he died, it’s that he suffered greatly at the hands of men as he purchased redemption for those who would put their faith in him.

Discussion Questions

  1. The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” From this passage what are the ways Jesus suffered at the hand of Pilate?
  2. What is the significance of Pilate asking Jesus if he is the King of the Jews?
  3. Why was Pilate amazed at Jesus?
  4. What insight does Pilate have as to the real reason Jesus was handed over to him? (v.10)
  5. In what way does the release of Barabbas and the condemnation of Jesus illustrate the gospel?
  6. What is the difference between Jesus being an example from God and Jesus being the power of God? Why do we need Jesus to be both?
  7. What is one thing you will do as result of studying this passage?