This past weekend, I taught on the 2nd Article of the Creed at a confirmation retreat. In preparation, I was given a nifty booklet with the whole lay-out of the lesson. Since I only had an hour to teach, I had to skip a few details. So I tried to emphasize some of the main points. The booklet separated the various parts of the 2nd Article. After beginning with “And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord,” it continued with “who was conceived by the Holy Spirit;” the next one said, “born of the Virgin Mary,” and so on. Each of these parts included historical explanations for why they were significant to mention in the Creed. The booklet mentioned the Gnostics who claimed that Jesus was not the Christ until His baptism, but then the Christ left Him before He was crucified. I found these all very useful and interesting to teach the kids. When I got to the part, “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” I read the familiar explanation that it shows that our faith is grounded in history. This is something I had learned before, and again, I thought it was useful. But then it hit me. The fact that the Creed mentions Pontius Pilate expresses yet another great significance.
Pontius Pilate was the governor of Judaea, prefect for Tiberius. He was the legal representative of the Roman emperor. So he was the representative of the law. Jesus’ suffering and death was therefore a legal suffering and death. When Pilate says to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have the authority to release you and authority to crucify you,” Jesus answers, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:10-11)
Jesus does not belittle Pilate’s authority. Rather, He affirms it. It has come from God. And as Luther points out, “He submits to it because this was pleasing to His Father (AE 30:78).” Jesus affirmed that God had raised up Pilate to carry out His will. This was because Pilate was God’s instrument for justice, just as Paul writes of all temporal authorities:
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For 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. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. (Romans 13:1-4)
God would not carry out his justice in a mob. This is why Jesus disappeared whenever a mob tried to unlawfully kill Him (Luke 4:28-30; John 8:59). If Jesus would have simply been stoned to death or lynched, that could not have been justice. Jesus needed to suffer under the law to redeem those under the law (Gal 4:4-5). Jesus was not a free spirited individual with strong social convictions who rebelled against the oppressive institutions of society and was then assassinated for His cause. No, Jesus made Himself of no reputation. He submitted to His mother and earthly father. That was justice. Having love in His heart for His earthly parents would have meant nothing if Jesus had not subjected Himself to their authority according to the order of God’s creation. And He could not be assassinated. Jesus was forensically punished and crucified under Pontius Pilate. God used His instrument of wrath and justice to smite His sinless Son with the punishment we all deserve. It is as we sing in the hymn Stricken Smitten, and Afflicted:
Many hands were raised to wound Him
None would interpose to save;
But the deepest stroke that pierced Him
Was the stroke that Justice gave. (TLH 153)
God worked through Pontius Pilate to carry out His justice on Christ, and thus on the whole world. As The Apostle Paul says, “One died for all. Therefore all have died (2nd Cor 5:14).” Through baptism, we also die the righteous death, and we therefore rise victoriously with Christ (Rom 6:3-11). That official act of judgment and justice which is grounded in history is credited to us through faith in the one who died and rose again (Rom 4:24-25).
The fact that Pilate declared Jesus faultless yet continued to hand Him over to crucifixion was not just an irony. It was what needed to happen. By His Divine Tribunal, God declares us righteous for the sake of his Son’s holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death.
So when we confess that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, we should not only keep in mind that Jesus’ death is grounded in history. We should also be reminded that Jesus’ death was a righteous judgment that God carried out through His temporal servant. It was the justice needed because of our sin, and God accepted such justice. We continue to confess it in the creed. God proved that it was truly justice when He raised Jesus from the dead. Jesus’ legally ordered death gave God justice; it propitiated Him; it appeased Him. So through faith in Jesus’ righteous suffering and death, God forensically imputes to you Jesus’ obedience, declaring you fully righteous for His sake.