Matthew 27:24–25: “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” (ESV)
I appreciate it when people can find humor even in the midst of difficult times. One of the funniest comments I have heard so far is that Pontius Pilate would be the only survivor of the COVID-19 pandemic because he is the only one who washed his hands!
As the verses above indicate, Pilate washed his hands to indicate he would take no responsibility for the death of Jesus.
Pilate had tried valiantly to set Jesus free. He had questioned Jesus closely to see if there was anything he was teaching or doing that would justify putting him to death. He found nothing, just a bewildering assortment of Jewish accusations that Pilate felt were insignificant.
Then Pilate offered the Jews a choice between letting Jesus go or letting Barabbas go. Barabbas was a notorious prisoner who was in prison for insurrection and murder. The Jewish leaders convinced the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas.
Pilate had even had input from his wife. She had sent him a message: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.”
The one thing Pilate could not risk was letting a riot develop so that is what the Jews did. They got their way by starting a riot. If there is one thing rulers can’t handle is unrest. As history has shown time and again rulers never want to lose control of the people.
So Pilate gave in to their demands. But before he did so he pulled a little stunt with the water. He washed his hands in front of everyone and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.”
Unfortunately for Pilate, it’s not that simple. Leaders have to take responsibility for everything that happens while they are in power, even things that happen totally beyond their control like the outbreak of a worldwide pandemic or the appearance of a teacher who was rumored to be the Messiah. Pilate was the only one with the legal authority to give the crowd what they wanted; a death sentence for Jesus. So his little hand washing stunt did not eliminate his responsibility.
And this is reflected in the working of our Christian creeds:
“He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried” – Apostles’ Creed
“And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, he suffered and was buried” – Nicene Creed
No, Pilate does not get to avoid responsibility for Jesus’ death just by washing his hands. Pilate authorized Jesus’ crucifixion and his soldiers took over from there. First they mocked and abused Jesus. They crowned him with thorns, arrayed him in a scarlet robe, spit on him and pretended to honor him as the King of the Jews. Then they took him out to a place called Golgotha and crucified him.
Now with the COVID-19 pandemic we have all heard again and again that we should wash our hands and not touch out faces. Wear a mask out in public and keep social distancing. But none of these measures can keep us from being infected by sin. We are all infected.
But the innocent, sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross washes away all our sins. Our guilt and condemnation are all removed. God’s wrath over our sins is erased.
While he hung on the cross Jesus cried out, “Eli Eli, lema sabachthani,” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The reason Jesus was forsaken was because he was carrying our sins in his body. The holy, heavenly Father had no choice but to abandon his beloved Son.
And this was all for us, for our forgiveness and salvation. Even though the words, “His blood be on us and on our children,” were spoken by an angry mob that hated Jesus these words should be on the lips of every person. The only way for our sins and the sins of our children to be forgiven is for the blood of Jesus to be on us.
Jesus’ hands were nailed to the cross when he was crucified. The same hands that had been placed on sick people to heal them The same hands that had been placed on children to bless them. The very night before he died Jesus had used his hands to wash the feet of his disciples.
Later that same night he went to the Garden of Gethsemane where he folded his hands to pray. He prayed one of the greatest prayers of all: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:39, ESV)
Then solders came and tied up his hands. On the way out to crucify him Jesus’ hands became too weak to carry his cross so a man by the name of Simon was compelled to carry his cross. Nails were driven through his hands so that he could be lifted up on the cross to hang there until he died.
By the time Joseph of Arimathea had finished burying Jesus, most people believed that was the end of him. But three days later he was alive, risen with a glorified body never to die again. But that glorified body still had scars on it. His hands had marks where the nails had pierced them.
Jesus could have risen from the dead with no scars. Instead he used the scars on his hands to convince Doubting Thomas that the very same person who had died was now alive.
Now Jesus wants us to be his hands. Yes, certainly keep your hands clean to avoid infections but there are countless ways our hands can be used to help others in the name of Jesus. Many people are using their hands to sew masks for themselves and for others.
We can also fold our hands to pray for those on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19. Because of the nature of this disease those who are hospitalized cannot have visitors, even those who are dying. Consequently, many times our health care workers are not only having to care for those who are dying but also to be their family. Yes, they need our prayers.
When you are a leader, you have to take responsibility for the things that happen while you are in power. It does not matter if it is something bad that has happened because of your fault or something that is completely out of your control. Even though he washed his hands of his decision to condemn Jesus, Pontius Pilate legally will always be the one responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion.
Thank the Lord that, even though he had nothing to do with our fall into sin or our ongoing sinfulness, Jesus took responsibility for our sins by dying for us on the cross. Through the blood that he shed for us on the cross we are washed clean of all our sins and now use our hands to serve others in his holy name.