Beyond God’s Reach By Gary Clayton

Pontius Pilate is a complex character.

The historian, Josephus, says Pilate offended the Jewish people by bringing imperial standards bearing the emperor’s image into Jerusalem; used the temple treasury to pay for a new aqueduct; and ordered those who protested to be beaten with clubs. 

Later, when Pilate allowed his troops to slaughter a group of Samaritans near Mount Gerizim, he was recalled to Rome to face the emperor. 

He arrived in March 37AD and, although some say he was executed by Caligula or committed suicide, others believe that the case was either forgotten, put on hold or dismissed.

The four Gospels, however, tend to show the Roman governor as both wilful and easily intimidated.

The second century theologian, Tertullian, described Pilate as someone ‘who himself also in his own conscience had become a Christian’ – with the sixth century church father, Augustine, writing: ‘It could not… be torn from his heart that Jesus was the King of the Jews, but was fixed there, as in the superscription, by the truth itself.’ 

It was thanks to this and the appearance of various apocryphal manuscripts that a number of Coptic and Ethiopian Christians eventually believed that Pilate became a Christian.

The fourth century Gospel of Nicodemus portrays him as a convert who blamed the Jews for Jesus’ death, while the fifth century Paradosis Pilati shows Pilate being martyred for following Jesus. (A similar story appears in the medieval Gospel of Gamaliel and the Martyrium Pilati or Homily on the Death of Pilate.)

The fifth or sixth century Ethiopic Book of the Cock (or Rooster) shows Jesus curing Pilate’s allegedly deaf-mute daughters and forgiving the Roman governor for his part in Jesus’ crucifixion.

So, although the West eventually regarded him as a weak, capricious and cynical official who was probably punished for his sins, the Eastern Church tended to view Pilate more sympathetically.

Interestingly, according to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1835-1908), who some believed to be ‘the Promised Messiah and Mahdi’, Pontius Pilate ‘was actually a follower of Jesus’. The Islamic leader also wrote: ‘When Caesar of Rome came to know that Pilate the Governor had helped Jesus escape from death on the cross in a deceitful way… Pilate was thrown in prison… and then beheaded.’

Whatever the truth concerning the man who asked: “What is truth?”, the possibility of Pilate’s conversion – real or imagined – reminds us that no one is too far from Christ to receive God’s mercy.

The sympathetic 1961 film, Barabbas, even depicts its eponymous anti-hero as a reluctant convert – the rabblerouser, Bar Abbas (‘the son of the father’), apparently becoming a follower of Abba, our heavenly Father.

Perhaps there’s someone in your life who seems far from God or appears unyieldingly resistant to the Gospel. Maybe you’ve even despaired of a parent, sibling, child, spouse or close friend ever accepting Christ’s love.

The Bible reminds us ‘God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16).

Scripture is full of unlikely converts. Take Manasseh, the wicked king who erected shrines to Baal; made an Asherah pole; built altars to the starry hosts in the temple; bowed down and worshipped them; sacrificed his son in the fire; practised divination; and consulted mediums and spiritists (2 Kings 21:2-16).

Or what about Saul, who approved of Stephen’s stoning (Acts 7:55-8:1), and was determined to imprison the disciples (Acts 9:1-3)?

But Saul, as we know, later became known as the apostle Paul (Acts 13:9).

Manasseh, despite his evil practices, also had a happy ending. He eventually humbled himself; destroyed the altars to Baal; got rid of the image in the temple; restored the altar of the Lord; sacrificed fellowship and thank offerings to God; and told Judah to serve Him (2 Chronicles 33:12-16).

So let’s not give in or give up on our gospel witness and prayers. If God can call Manasseh or Saul to Himself, He can call anyone.

Although no one knows what really happened to Pilate, we do know that – for those who are still alive – there is hope.

The criminal in Luke 23:40-43 may possibly have spent a lifetime rebelling against God but, on the cross, he realised who Jesus was, and asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His Kingdom.

Let’s pray that Jesus’ response – “Today you will be with Me in paradise” – will apply to those we love who have yet to enter His Kingdom.

Gary Clayton is married to Julie, the father of Christopher (18) and Emma (15) and works for Mission Aviation Fellowship (MAF). To learn how MAF’s fleet of 120 light aircraft serve people in some of Africa’s remotest and most isolated areas, visit www.maf-uk.org

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