They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled . . . (John 18:28)
Everything was happening according to plan.
Jesus had been arrested in the dark of night, out of sight, away from the crowds with whom he was popular. After the arrest he had been taken to Annas and questioned. From there he had been marched to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest.
Plenty of scholars have carefully unpacked the trial of Jesus, following its sequence as narrated by the gospel writers and noting how it violated Jewish law. While all of that is interesting none of it changes the outcome. The Jerusalem religious establishment wanted Jesus dead and the only man with the authority to make that happen was Pilate. An appearance before him was the logical and necessary next step.
But there was a problem. To enter the headquarters of Pilate would render these Torah-observant accusers unclean. They would not be able to eat the Passover meal. In John’s gospel there is a remarkable moment in which those who are seeking to be rid of Jesus are suddenly very careful of being obedient to the law lest they be ceremonially unclean. In his excellent (and very thorough) commentary on John’s gospel, Dale Bruner notes the irony of staying pure for the Passover meal while handing over the true Passover lamb who would be slain for the sins of the world.
Perhaps this can’t be said often enough. Christianity is not the same thing as moral purity. Christianity is not the same thing as being attentive to religious practices. Being a Christian is about Jesus and the grace that is ours because of his death on the cross. None of us will stand before God with confidence because we carefully observed the practices of our religion. Our confidence is in Jesus, nothing else.
This week as we reflect on Jesus’s appearance before Pilate we will note how Pilate stood between the person of Jesus, the demands of some very religious people, the clamoring crowds in Jerusalem, and the power of Rome. He can’t find any fault or wrongdoing in Jesus, but he can’t please the crowds without giving him over.
We may look back on Pilate as a man who lack courage and conviction. But before we sit back and rest on some long-held conclusions, let’s face our own Pilate-like predicaments.
We too are often caught between the culture that surrounds us and the Christ that stands before us. We work hard to please people and meet the demands and expectations that come at us from all sides, while responding to what we know to be true in Jesus.
You may be standing in a Pilate-like predicament today. What voices in your life make it hard for you to deal seriously and honestly with who Jesus is?
We know how easy it is, O God, to work hard at being good rather than trusting in the grace that comes through the cross. And we know how hard it is to deal with Jesus in the midst of a clamoring culture. Help us to turn from empty religion and empty noise as we look to your son and him alone, the one in whose name we pray. Amen.