In a sense it is remarkable that Pontius Pilate’s name is so well-known. Of course, he is famous (or infamous) for all the wrong reasons. He is known for playing a primary role in the crucifixion of Christ. Sinclair Ferguson writes that he was “a man whom history would have well-nigh forgotten were it not for his part in this drama” (Let’s Study Mark, p.255).
Not only is Pilate’s name mentioned repeatedly in all four (4) Gospels, but it also appears three times in the book of Acts (Acts 3:13, 4:27, 13:28) and once in 1 Timothy 6:13 as well.
Pilate’s name is even included in the Apostles’ Creed, which, in speaking of the sufferings and death of Christ for our salvation, it calls us to confess as an essential part of the Christian faith:
“He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”
Likewise the Nicene Creed also states that “for us men and for our salvation,” the Lord Jesus Christ: “was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.”
But why does it matter that Jesus specifically suffered under Pontius Pilate? Have you ever wondered why that is? Why did He have to suffer and die in that particular way (i.e. the cross)?
In the 1541 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin includes an extended exposition of sorts of the Apostles’ Creed. In his comments on Christ’s sufferings under Pontius Pilate he notes:
For since by Christ’s death sins had to be wiped away and the condemnation which they deserved removed, it would not have been enough for him to suffer a different kind of death. To duly fulfil [sic] every part of our redemption, it was necessary to choose death in a form which allowed him to take upon himself our condemnation and the payment owed to God’s wrath, and so deliver us from both.” (p.246)
In other words, the Lord Jesus Christ’s death had to be a judicial death, a death involving the passing of a sentence of condemnation and death.
Calvin goes on to say,
“If thieves had cut his throat, if he had been murdered in an affray by the hands of individuals, there would have been no semblance of satisfaction [i.e. atonement or payment for sin] in such a death. But in that he was brought as an accused before a court of law, was denounced by witnesses and condemned by the mouth of the judge, we recognize that he appeared as a criminal.” (ibid)
And so for our Lord to be the Savior of sinners, He could not just die as a mere victim or even a martyr – He had to die as a criminal, one convicted and sentenced to death. For this very reason He was crucified between two robbers (Mark 15:27), and so the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled which said that He was “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
Not only that, but in suffering under Pontius Pilate, it was sure to come to pass that the method of execution (i.e. capital punishment) employed in His death would specifically be that of crucifixion – “death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8).
“The cross was accursed not only in the opinion of men but by decree of God’s law (Deut. 21:23). By being nailed to the cross Christ makes himself subject to a curse. This had to happen so that the curse merited by our sins and made ready for them should be transferred to him, that we might go free.” (p.247)
Deuteronomy 21:23 specifically states that “a hanged man is cursed by God” (ESV). And so for Christ Jesus to be executed in that way was to demonstrate that He underwent the curse of God in our place – the very curse that we deserve because of our sins.
These are some of the more important reasons why we confess (in reciting the Apostles’ Creed) that “he suffered under Pontius Pilate.”