Ambushed by Ambition

John 19:1-16

Around the same time that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, another boy was born on the faraway untamed Iberian Peninsula (which we call Spain and Portugal today).[1] He was an ordinary countryside boy who dreamed of grander things. Perhaps he played with little toy soldiers in the dirt outside his home or perhaps he admired the Roman soldiers when they marched through the streets of his village or battled on the outlying hills.

As a young man, he enlisted as one of many among the throngs of Roman armies. He was a legionnaire who fought bravely and served the Republic with loyalty, who eventually arrived at Rome, that fabled city of seven hills. Through careful maneuvering and a bit of luck, he advanced his position and married the granddaughter of the emperor himself, Augustus Caesar.

Following this union, Caesar assigned him to a prestigious position in Jerusalem as the Procurator of Judea. Today we know this man as Pontius Pilate, the little-known country boy who achieved political power. By the world’s measure, he was a model of success, a self-made man who climbed from the fringes of society to a seat of power and influence.

Yet one day he met Jesus, the Son of God, and a different story emerged. This encounter with Christ revealed a fatal flaw in Pilate’s achievements. It exposed the deathly grip that his ambitions held upon his soul. Through this encounter, Pilate would engage in the greatest battle of his military and political career – a clash between the boyhood ambitions of his heart and the truth about Jesus. Through this struggle, he would discover that the truth about Jesus reveals the cruelty of worldly ambitions.

Ambition is a powerful motivator. Dictionary.com defines it as “an earnest desire for some type of achievement or distinction, such as power, honor, fame or wealth.” This desire drives men and women to achieve all sorts of things, some good and some bad. Yet the greatest problem with ambition is not whether it will lead you to accomplish something bad, but whether it will cause you to refuse something better.

Consider Pilate, for instance. What likely began as a harmless desire to serve his empire in a prestigious and influential way – to do something significant with his life – pushed him so far and grasped him so tightly that he refused to pursue something better. Somewhere in his transition from boy to man, student to soldier, and enlisted man to commanding officer, he crossed the line of no return. He traded away his soul for a temporary experience of limited and illusory power.

Pilate affirmed the innocence of Jesus but succumbed to the political pressure of the Jews instead.

Roman soldiers and government officials did not enjoy virtuous reputations. From foul language to brutality and from dishonesty to immorality, they embodied corruption in every way. Knowing this, you would not have been surprised if Pilate had sentenced Jesus to death after his first round of interrogation. To Pilate, Jesus was just another Jewish casualty threatening peace within the empire. Yet despite this man’s depravity and his lack of personal concern for Jesus, he recognized the innocence of Jesus.

What evil had he done? What crime had he committed? None that Pilate could tell. Though the Jews had accused him of planning a revolt against Rome, Pilate found no evidence to support this claim. That is why he announced, “I find no fault in him at all” (John 18:38). This announcement risked a peaceful alliance with the residents of Jerusalem, and maintaining this peace was the primary purpose of his role as the Procurator of Judea. So to make this announcement demonstrated the profound impression which Jesus had made on this man.

Moving forward, Pilate would go on to make this declaration two more times. Once again, he would say, “I find no fault in him” (John 19:4). Then again, he would say, “I find no fault in him” (John 19:6). Contrary to strong accusations and intense pressure from Jewish authorities, Pilate insisted on the innocence of Christ. This insistence revealed a serious conflict in his soul and he allowed this conflict to bleed out into his public actions. Yet even so, he did not allow them to affect him strongly enough.

Though Pilate affirmed the innocence of Jesus three times, he gradually succumbed to the political pressure which the Jewish leaders placed upon him. Rather than make a firm declaration of innocence, Pilate added a measure of compromise to his first announcement. When he offered the people a choice between Jesus the innocent man and Barabbas the convicted criminal, the people chose Barabbas (John 19:39-40).

In response to this stunning reply, Pilate turned Jesus over to some Roman soldiers for a round of painful and humiliating torture (John 19:1-3). John tells us that they “scourged” him. “In this form of punishment the victim was forcefully brutalized with rods or whips that frequently contained leather thongs fitted with spikes, bones, or scraps of metal. When used, these whips tore pieces of flesh from the victim’s body.”[2]

The soldiers also mocked the charges against Jesus, pushing a painful crown of thorns onto his head and throwing a robe around him which was purple in color, symbolizing royalty in sarcastic fashion. In doing this, the soldiers mocked not only him but also the Jewish people.

After this excruciating ordeal, Pilate presented Jesus to the Jewish people a second time, hoping that this brutal treatment and bloodied appearance would pacify their resentment. For second time, he affirmed the innocence of Jesus – only this time knowing that he had ordered the beating of an innocent man as a political ploy.

Once again, the Jewish people rejected his offer, calling for his crucifixion instead (John 19:6). In response to their bloodthirsty request, Pilate declared the innocence of Jesus a third time and insisted that the Jewish people perform the crucifixion instead. This claim should surprise you because both Jewish law and Roman tradition forbade the Jews from performing crucifixions. However, Pilate wished so strongly to be done with this case that he departed from the standards of Roman law. He would rather violate his standards of Roman jurisprudence than crucify an innocent man, but the Jewish people refused to accept his offer once again.

Pilate grew increasingly afraid but grasped onto the illusion of political power anyway.

After Pilate affirmed the innocence of Jesus for a third time, the Jewish leaders changed the terms of their accusation. They revealed their true, underlying reason for requesting Jesus’ crucifixion. It was a religious reason, not a political one. According to Leviticus 24:16, anyone who blasphemed the name of the LORD should be put to death. In his public teaching, Jesus had claimed to be equal with God and never denied this description of himself (John 5:18, 10:33). Instead of believing on him as God and Savior, the Jews had chosen to reject him as a man who was blaspheming God by claiming to be God when he was nothing more than a man.

When the Jews announced this accusation, Pilate became increasingly afraid (John 19:8). To be sure, he was not afraid because he believed that Jesus was his God and Savior. He had no interest in matters of Jewish religion or biblical truth. He was afraid for other reasons.

First, he – like any loyal Roman – would have held superstitious beliefs about the pantheon of gods whom they worshiped and feared. Stories of Roman gods and goddesses, or of human children of the gods, or even of humans endowed with special divine powers filled their mythological stories and traditions. What’s more, Pilate’s wife had suffered a nightmare related to Jesus the night before (Matt 27:19). In addition to these factors, Pilate’s fears would have been magnified because he had already ordered the brutal beating of Jesus moments before.

If Jesus were indeed some kind of mythological character in human form, then this would place Pilate under threat of retaliation from the Roman gods. That is why he asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” (John 19:9). He was not asking if Jesus was the Messiah promised by the one true God of the Old Testament. He was asking if Jesus had come from the realm of the mythological gods and goddesses. To this question Jesus gave no answer. He had already told Pilate beforehand that his kingdom was not from this world (John 18:36) and that he had come from another place into this world (John 18:37).

When he had explained these things before, Pilate showed no spiritual interest whatsoever. Out of political expedience he had responded sarcastically, “What is truth?” (John 18:38). Once again, Pilate’s questions revealed superstitious and political concerns, not genuinely spiritual ones. But even so, the silence of Jesus made Pilate uneasy.

Beyond such mythological superstitions, Pilate was also growing more afraid because the Jewish people were threatening to riot over his inaction. Whether Jesus was innocent or not, the only thing the Caesar of Rome truly cared about was whether Pilate was able to maintain peace in the province of Judea. If the Jews staged a riot over his handling of Jesus and word of this unrest reached Caesar’s ears, then Pilate’s job would stand in jeopardy. That’s why the increased restlessness of the Jewish crowd struck fear in Pilate’s heart. He was losing control over the situation. His boyhood dreams were threatening to disappear.

Pilate valued his earthly ambitions more than the truth about Jesus and God’s eternal kingdom.

This moment is where the account of Christ’s trial before Pilate reaches its climax. In fact, in a strange twist of fate (or indeed, of providence), it appears that this is not a trial of Christ before Pilate at all. For a moment it appears to be a trial of Pilate before Christ instead.

In response to the silence of Jesus, Pilate spoke like one whose power was slipping away like water through a sieve and like sand through a person’s outstretched fingers. He said, “Do you not know that I have power to crucify you, and power to release you?” (John 19:10). At first glance, this appears to be a powerful statement of authority; but at second glance, it appears to be the opposite – a statement of a man with no real power at all. On one hand, this man was so powerless that he can do nothing to stop the Jewish mob from staging a riot, forcing the crucifixion of an innocent man, and ruining his own career. On the other hand, he had no power at all unless the Caesar or Rome allows it – and that permission was certainly in question. Knowing these things, the words of Pilate were nothing more than the gasp for air of a drowning man.

To increase the irony of this sad situation, we must also observe that the only “free” men in this story is the prisoner himself. Jesus continued to speak and act as he pleased, even accepting torture at the hands of the Roman soldiers. Meanwhile, powerful Pontius Pilate was imprisoned in his political cage and ambushed by his personal ambitions. Though Pilate claimed to have the power to release Jesus from this trial, his power was elusive. Though this power belonged to him in theory, he had already demonstrated his inability to use this power from the outset. If he truly had this power, then why didn’t he already use it to free this innocent man?

To this sorry claim to power, Jesus provided an insightful answer: “You could have no power at all against me unless it had been given you from above. Therefore the one who delivered me to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). The one who delivered Jesus to Pilate was Caiaphas the Jewish high priest, at whose feet Jesus laid the greater blame for this shameful trial. At the same time, he did not absolve Pilate from his cowardly behavior. Jesus revealed that whatever power Pilate enjoyed was due to God the Father in heaven, not to the Caesar of Rome and not to Pilate’s personal ability to outfox and outmaneuver his political adversaries for his own personal advantage.

After Christ’s remarks, Pilate responded just has he had responded before, by ending the conversation abruptly. Ironically, despite his claim to have ultimate power to release Jesus, he could find no way to use this power for that purpose (John 19:12). He tried to release Jesus, but he could not. Though he was powerful in theory, he was powerless in real life.

What the Jews said next revealed the primary concern of Pilate’s heart. Despite his persistent awareness of the innocence of Jesus, a just outcome to this trial was not his final concern. Though we should appreciate the way he affirmed the innocence of Christ three times, we should recognize his deeper, underlying priority. When the Jews threatened to sabotage his relationship with Caesar, he finally rested his case (John 19:12). Rather than use his authority to release Jesus, he brought Jesus out and sat down in the judgment seat to announce a final verdict (John 19:13). He handed Jesus over to die (John 19:16).

From this turning point we discover that the truth about Jesus reveals the cruelty of worldly ambitions. Knowing that Jesus was innocent and hearing what Jesus taught about himself and his spiritual kingdom, Pilate had attempted to defend the innocence of Jesus while preserving his ambitions for prominence and prestige in the world at the same time. But as Jesus himself had taught, “no one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other” (Matt 6:24). No matter how sincerely Pilate wanted to defend the innocence of Christ, he ultimately chose to defend what he loved the most – his boyhood ambitions which had wrapped their ghostly tentacles around his heart.

Remarkably, without even knowing it, Pilate sentenced Jesus to crucifixion at the very time in the Passover schedule when the Jews were preparing their sacrificial lambs for an offering – on “the Preparation Day” at “about the sixth hour” (John 19:14). Neither Pilate nor Rome, the rabbis nor the Jewish mob was in actual control of this climactic outcome, regardless of how much power any of these believed that they possessed.

God himself presided over this outcome. Jesus himself, the divine Son of God – the King of the Jews and the king of all people – would willingly hand himself over to be slain as the Lamb of God, given for the sins of the world and fulfilling ancient prophecies from the Old Testament.

In the end, all the “powerful” characters of this tumultuous trial would come to ruin. Caesar would soon remove Pilate from his position anyway, placing him in exile, during which he would commit suicide.[3] Caesar himself would eventually die, and not long after, another emperor would ransack the city of Jerusalem, along with its Temple and religious leaders.

In stark contrast however, though Jesus was crucified unjustly as a result of this difficult political power struggle, he resurrected from the grave three days later and returned to heaven victoriously, where he sits in full authority over all things unto this day, and we know that his kingdom will “stand forever” (Dan 2:44).

From the example of Pilate, can you see the sinister trap of human ambition? When the truth about Jesus confronted him, Pilate was unable to respond the right way because he was ensnared by his own ambition to become an important figure in the world.

When you face the truth about Jesus, you experience the same dilemma. As John would later explain, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world – [including] the pride of life — is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:15-17).

What personal ambition prevents you from following Christ?

The “pride of life” is a desire to achieve success, to gain power, or to become influential or well-known. For Pilate, this boyhood ambition to become an important person in the Roman empire prevented him from responding to the love of God, and it prevented him from loving God as well. But what is the “pride of life” for you? What are your ambitions in life? Have you allowed them rather than Jesus to dictate the direction of your life, setting up your own demise? Is worldly ambition preventing you from following Jesus?

Before you choose to pursue worldly ambitions instead of Jesus, please read the fine print first. All the ambitions you may chase after in this life are nothing more than transitory experiences on a sinking ship that is sailing fast towards destruction. In the end, Pilate lost his governorship despite his efforts to retain it, and whatever you seek will slip through your fingers into the eternal abyss as well.

But whoever does the will of the Father in this life will remain forever. True life, eternal life – the kind of life that truly satisfies and that lasts forever – begins by making Jesus Christ your first ambition. That is why Jesus taught, “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Believe on him as your God and Savior, then passionately pursue his will for the rest of your earthly life. You will never regret that choice and your joy will last forever. If you do not make that choice, then your dreams and ambitions will treat you just as cruelly as they treated Pilate in the end.
[1] R. Kent Hughes, John: That You May Believe, Preaching the Word (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1999), 433-44.
[2] Gerald L. Borchert, John 12-21, vol. 25B, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 246.
[3] A. Sherwin-White, “Pilate, Pontius,” ISBE, 3.867-69

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