Dear Rehoboth Church Family and Friends,
I wanted to share something special with you on this Easter Sunday. Years ago I heard Ravi Zacharias read a portion of a sermon by Fredrick Speakman entitled “What Pilate Said One Midnight” regarding a fictitious conversation between Pontius Pilate and Gaius a fellow Roman officer. This is one of the most creative and arresting sermons I have ever read, and think that you would find it well worth the time it takes to read it. I’m struck with how deeply Pilate was affected by relatively short time he spent with Jesus, and the depth of his remorse having forfeited the opportunity to do what was right regarding “The King of the Jews”.
God Bless You and Happy Easter/Resurrection Day,
Matthew 28:6 (KJV) 6 He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.
What Pilate Said to Gaius One Midnight
I am glad you stayed after the others retired, Gaius. I want to talk. I’m not at all certain what I want to say, but I want to talk. It was a wretched dinner, wasn’t it? No, don’t rally your fine patrician manners and protest that you enjoyed it. It’s too late in the night for even courteous lies. Lies use up so much strength. Past midnight there’s only enough strength left for truth.
What? No, I’m all right. It’s that word I used, that word “truth.” It slips up on me. I use it before I think. And then wince always, as if I had jabbed that old spear scar on my thigh. But full apologies for the dinner, Gaius. You’ve never heard Pontius Pilate apologize before?
Yes, I know the food was good. This is the best resort in all Helvetia. And the air here in the Alps should whet an appetite like Damascene dagger. But you didn’t eat, nor did any of the other guests. And they excused themselves noticeably early for holidaying Romans. Because of me. Because I can no longer entertain. Because I poison the air with both my silences and my remarks, with a restlessness of eye, yet a vinegar of words that blisters even Roman hides. But I want to know why, Gaius. Because I know you’ll head back to Rome when the summer heat subsides there. And you’ll cover it’s seven hills with your gossip within a week. There won’t be a cloistered, intimate salon along all the Appian way in which you won’t have served up the rarebit of your news – that you saw me, Pilate, at Lucerne this summer. That it’s true that I’ve lost my grip. That I’ve aged twenty years in the few that have sped by since I lost my post in Judaea. That I spend my self-imposed exile gnawing the bleeding knuckles of melancholy, while Claudia looks on and pleads and weeps and babbles about the Gods.
Oh, come, I can hear you, Gaius! How all the bleary eyes of your friends, and the jades they call their wives, will flock to you to hear a report that so suits their hopes. But whatever you tell them, I wanted you to know. Because – oh, because we once were close, before my failures isolated me. Or because, perhaps, confession needs no reason after midnight, since a burned-out heart must now and then blow its smoke in a different face. So here it is, Gaius. Let the slave fill your glass, and clutch it tight! I didn’t just lose my post in Judaea. That in itself would have been release from prison. It was something else I did, and what maddens me is that I don’t know what I did. But you might get an inkling if I say that I may have killed Caesar!
Oh, not our Caesar. No, I was serving him. The day I married Claudia, Gaius, Caesar said to me with that divine smirk, “Congratulations, Pontius. To marry a woman of royal blood is the best training for statesmanship that Rome can offer her sons.” That’s why I was so determined to rule well over the Jews. When the appointment came and the senate sneered knowingly, “Family connections,” I had to show them I was something other than a career soldier from the wrong side of the Tiber. And Claudia was with me. Imagine her going! What other provincial governor do you know whose wife shared his whole term of office? That isn’t the pattern Caesar encourages. Wives stay in Rome, vegetating luxuriously and pretending to pine, while the husband is abroad squeezing enough tax and graft from the provinces to come home and retire on.
Don’t squirm so, Gaius. Yes, the slaves can hear, but it isn’t news to them that I mutter treason.
We were to be the royal pair. Claudia and I. But you don’t rule the priests of Jewry. You bluff authority and they bluff humility, and each knows the other’s lying. You scheme and plan and awaken one morning to find yourself a child at cunning. And you lose dignity, and you lose respect, and you fear for your job, and you hate.
Here’s just one sample of how my record ran. I found no images of Caesar in Jerusalem. So I put them up. Placed them on the garrison of Antonia, overlooking the Jewish temple. The priests said nothing. But that night six thousand Jews surrounded the palace with a roar of prayer and chanting that went on night and day. I threatened a massacre and they bared their necks and chanted louder, six thousand of them, waiting for the sword. I removed Caesar’s image, and back home the Emperor whined that he’d lost face!
That began it, and your busy ears have heard long since how it went. Every feast day a threat of revolt. Every revolt more blood. Every throat that was cut for Caesar bringing a sharper rebuke from Caesar. We built a summer place in their north country. We ate their sickening buttered quail. we conspired with their native rulers. But there was no avoiding trouble, and I grew sullen and Claudia had her dreams. Her dreams and her Gods.
Suppose it helps, Gaius, to believe that there’s more to the world that you can see there? Does it help to endure what you do see there? I’d always boasted in the Roman code – if you can’t see it or touch it or use it or spend it or wear it, then it isn’t real, it doesn’t exist. But not Claudia. She had a Jewish hairdresser who talked to her of the Jewish God. One God, mind you! Which struck me as a sensible economy till I heard what He was like. An interfering God, one I’m afraid wouldn’t leave room in His kind of world for Rome. And it was from this Jewish servant girl we first heard of this Nazarene. I don’t know what He was. If I did – But I checked Him with spies. He seemed a harmless kind of travelling teacher such as thrive in that climate. And I couldn’t understand why the Jews were so upset by Him. Claudia heard Him twice when He was in the city, convinced me that His quarrel was with the Jews, not with us.
Well, we had just arrived in Jerusalem that night. It was the time of the great feast, and the air reeked as thick of revolt as it did of pilgrims. And toward morning I was hauled from bed by their high priest, a certain Caiaphas, my nominee for the prince of Rats. How our Roman senate could have used him! He’d managed to get me heavily in debt to him. Temple funds he had loaned me that he knew I didn’t intend to repay. And he had grown quite bold with his personal demands, and I was sick of it. Late this night he rouses me, all secrecy, all very much the sinister conspirator, to announce to me they had arrested this Nazarene, by night, mind you! Had tried Him at a hurried, trumped-up session of their Jewish court. Had convicted Him of blasphemy, a charge I just don’t understand. Somehow, it’s all tied up with their monopoly on God. But they were bringing Him to me at dawn, to be condemned to death by Roman law for sedition.
The high priest’s warnings were always well-staged. Never spelled out, but plain as the knifelike nose of his holy face that either I convict this Man or there’d be trouble with the Jews at feast time, the brand of trouble I couldn’t afford. I couldn’t sleep after he left. I paced those hot corridors. I finally dressed, full an hour before the dawn. It suddenly closed in on me Gaius, the impact of how trapped I was. The proud arm of Rome with all its boast of justice was to be but a dirty dagger in the pudgy hands of the priests. I was waiting in the room, Gaius, the one I use for court, officially enthroned with cloak and guard when they let this Jesus in. Well, Gaius, don’t smile at this, as you value your jaw, but I have had no peace since the day he walked into my judgment hall. It’s been years but these scenes I read from the back of my eyelids every night.
You have seen Caesar, haven’t you? When he was young inspecting the legion. His arrogant manner was child-like compared to that of the Nazarene. He didn’t have to strut, you see. He walked toward my throne; arms bound but with a strident mastery and control that by its very audacity silenced the room for an instant and left me trembling with an insane desire to stand up and salute.
The clerk began reading the absurd list of charges. The priestly delegations punctuating these with the palm-rubbings, the beard-strokings, the eye-rollings, and the pious gut-rolls by now which I had learned to ignore, but I more felt it, Gaius, than heard it.
I questioned him mechanically and he answered very little. But what he said and the way he said it, it was as if his level gaze had pulled up my naked soul right up into my eyes and was probing it there. And a voice kept saying in my ears, “why, you’re on trial Pilate!” And the man wasn’t even listening to the charges. You’d have sworn he had just come in out of friendly interest to see what was going to happen to me. And the very pressure of his standing there had grown unbearable when a slave rushed in all a tremble, interrupting court bringing a message from Claudia; she had stabbed at the stylus in that childish way that she does when she’s distraught, “don’t judge this amazing man Pilate” she wrote, “I was haunted in dreams by him this night”.
Gaius, I tried to free him. From that moment on I tried and I’ll always think he knew it. I declared him out of my jurisdiction being a Galilean, but the native King Herod discovered he was born in Judea and sent him right back to me. I appealed to the crowd hoping that they would be his sympathizers. But Caiaphas had stationed agitators to whip up the beasts that cry for blood, and you know how in this town here any citizen loves the blood of another person just after breakfast and screams for another’s blood.
I had him beaten Gaius, a thorough barracks room beating. I’m still not sure why, to appease the crowd I guess, but do we Romans really need any reason for beatings? Isn’t that the code for anything we don’t understand? Well, it didn’t work Gaius, the crowd roared like some slavering beast when I brought him back. If only you could have watched him. They had thrown some rags of mock-purple over his bleeding shoulders; they had jammed a chaplet of thorns down on his forehead and it fitted. It all fitted Gaius! He stood there, watching them from my balcony, lamed from weakness by now, but royal I tell you. Not just pain but pity shining from his eyes. And I kept thinking: somehow this is monstrous, this is upside-down, that purple is real, that crown is real, and somehow these animal noises the crowd is shrieking should be praise! And then Caiaphas played his master-stroke on me: He announced there in public that this Jesus claimed the crown and that was treason to Caesar. And the guards began to glance at one another quickly, and that mob of spineless filth began to shout, “Hail Caesar! Hail Caesar!” And Gaius, I knew I was beaten; I gave the order.
I couldn’t look at him. Then I did a childish thing: I called for water. And there on the balcony, I washed my hands of that whole affair. But as they led him away Gaius, I did look up and he turned and looked at me, no smile, no pity, just glanced at my hands, and I’ll feel the weight of his eyes on them from now on.
But you’re yawning Gaius; I’ve kept you up. And the fact of the matter is you are in need of some rest and some holidays. Claudia will be asleep by now. Rows of lighted lamps line her couch; she can’t sleep in the dark anymore; no, not since that afternoon. You see Gaius, the sun went out when my guards executed him; that’s exactly what I said. I don’t know how; I don’t know what; I only know that I was there and though it was the middle of the day it turned as black as the tunnels of hell in that miserable city. And while I tried to compose Claudia and explain how I had been trapped, she railed at me with a dream and she’s had that dream ever since when she sleeps in the dark, some form of it, that there was to have been a new Caesar and that I, her husband, had killed him.
Oh, we’ve been to Egypt; to their seers and magicians. We’ve listened by the hour to the oracles in the musty temples of Greece chattering their inanities. We’ve called it an oriental curse that we’re under and we’ve tried to break it a thousand ways Gaius, but there’s no breaking it.
But you know why I have kept going, Gaius? Deeper than the curse is the haunting driving certainty that he is still somewhere near, and that I have some unfinished business with him, and that now and then as I walk by the lake he’s following me. And much as that strikes terror Gaius, I wonder if that isn’t the only hope. You see, if I could walk up to him and this time salute and tell him that now I know that whoever else he is he was the only man worthy of his name in all Judea that day; tell him I know I wasn’t trapped; that I trapped myself; tell him here is one Roman who wishes he really were Caesar, I believe that would do it Gaius wouldn’t it? I believe he’d listen and know I meant it, and at last I’d see him smile.
Yes, quiet tonight. Not a breeze stirring Gaius. Goodnight, you’d better run along. No no, would you please waken the slave outside the door and tell him to bring me my cloak, my heavy one, please. I believe I’ll walk by the lake.
Yes, it’s dark there Gaius, but I won’t be alone. I really haven’t ever been alone; not since that day. Yes, goodnight Gaius.
Heavenly Father our hearts are tendered and humbled by this powerful message. How grateful we are that the circumstances of our encounters with Christ were not so overwhelming that instead of rejoicing in our resurrected Savior, we have to (like Pilate) live on in the misery of uncertainty and the eventual consequences of unbelief. Bless us with renewed hope, witness and praise for our resurrected and soon returning King of Glory for it is in His name we pray, Amen.