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Justinian, the servant of Pontius Pilate, rose in the middle of the night to accompany his master to the private baths belonging to the Ponti family. He was used to Pilate not being able to sleep. It began sometime before Tiberius recalled him in anger from the Province of Syria over the Samaritan fiasco. It did not surprise Justinian when Pilate’s sleep problems continued here in Rome, even though Tiberius had died before they reached the capital. The hot bath waters often calmed Pilate enough to allow him to sleep some.
Torches were still lit in the bath house when they arrived. Probably another servant had left them burning in case Pilate came in the night. The fires heating the water were never allowed to go out. Pilate handed his towel to his servant as he eased himself into the steaming pool. When he was settled, Justinian sat down beside him with his tired feet in the water.
After a time of silence, Pilate looked up at Justinian, and the servant sensed that he was about to hear an ominous confidence. “Justinian, you have been with me all these years. And you know I have not been myself for some time.” Justinian was noncommittal in spite of the familiarity of his master’s tone. Pilate continued. “I need to talk about what has been bothering me. But you must promise that you will not utter a word of what I say, even if Caligula carries out Tiberius’s intention to put me to death.”
“You know that you can confide in me, Sir. I have been with you since your youth.”
“I know that. And I suspect you may already guess much of what I have to say. But you could not yet understand the seriousness of what I need to tell someone. And as the gods are my witness, if you reveal even a hint of it, you will wish you could have died a thousand times before you let anything slip.”
“Is it the same thing that has been plaguing your wife?” Justinian ventured.
Pilate winced and nodded. “I suppose it is. But even she does not know the extent of what I have been dealing with. I suppose you have discerned that the disturbance in my mind has little to do with the trouble in my career. I cannot stop thinking about that Galilean prophet.”
“Jesus of Nazareth, The King of The Jews.” Justinian quoted the title his master had fixed to the cross of the condemned man.
Pilate continued, “I had been observing him for some time. He puzzled me from the start. He basically ignored Rome even though attacking their conquerors would have made him more popular with the common people if that were possible. I sent many spies, some of them actually Jewish, to learn what he was about. They came back with the most preposterous stories of miracles that he had done. And yet he seemed to remain a simple man of the people, at least as far as I could see. He even did several things to keep his fame from spreading. Can you imagine that?
“Until that morning when the Priests brought him to me, I had never seen him face to face. You may not believe this, Justinian, but I was shocked at his visage. He had an amazing dignity even after being flogged and mocked. He possessed innate authority like no one I have ever met. He was certainly the first prisoner I had encountered who did not beg me to spare his life. He seemed to be at peace with everything that was happening to him. I have worked with men, soldiers, and others, all my life. I never saw anyone who struck me like that man. I don’t know how many crucifixions I have witnessed since I first received my commission, and you were a common soldier. No one ever reacted to death like this Jesus. It did not even bother him that the priests had brought him to me because they were jealous. They could not have been around him without feeling they were inferior men. I certainly felt his superiority.”
At this Justinian sputtered a silent protest. Pilate ignored him in his reverie. “Even when the soldiers mocked him by plaiting the crown of thorns, and put on him with a royal robe, he looked majestic. While he was still preaching in Galilee, I told my wife that he was the natural ruler of the Jews. He embodied the righteousness they claimed to admire. When he was brought before me, I asked if he were really the King of the Jews. He asked if that was my conclusion or if I had heard it from others. I had never had a prisoner question me, yet I felt that I had to give him an answer. I had to defend myself before a condemned prisoner! ‘Am I a Jew?’ I asked. ‘Your own people delivered you over to me. What evil thing have you done?’
“He said his kingdom was not of this world. ‘So, you are a king,’ I said. He answered, ‘You have been calling me a king. I was born and I came into the world to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to me.’ I need to tell you, that gave me pause. I thought about truth as opposed to expediency before Rome. I threw up my cynical defense, bitterly asking if anyone knew what the truth was.”
With this Pilate stirred in the bath and seemed to change the subject abruptly. “Do you believe in the gods, Justinian?”
“I am an old soldier, Sir. And I have become cynical of much that I have heard about them. But I suppose I believe in something beyond us, beyond the world.”
Pilate looked at his servant in silence for a moment. Then he looked away and said, “Through the years I seldom gave thought to the gods, or to truth for that matter. I was ambitious and practical, so I paid the expected homage. Of course, I would say, and I suppose I believed, the Roman gods were the true deities, even knowing that we stole them from the Greeks. I despised the petty gods of the provinces where I served. That was no less true in Syria. There I was disgusted with the hypocrisy of the Jews even though I eventually came to understand something of the depth of their laws.
“But when I went back out and declared to the man’s accusers that I found no guilt in him, they said something that stopped me in my tracks. One of the priests stepped forward and said, ‘According to our law, this man ought to die because he has made himself out to be the Son of God.’ Combined with everything else I had seen, this scared me. I went back into the praetorium and asked him where he had come from. And believe this or not, he refused to answer me. “I said, ‘Don’t you know that I have authority to crucify or to release you?’
“He said, ‘You would have no authority over me at all, if it were not given you from above.’ He was not referring to Tiberius. He was talking about his God! After that, I tried to release him. But there was no way I could do it. And I am haunted by the thought that I crucified the Truth. Nothing else has seemed important or even true since that terrible day.”
This story was drawn from Pilate’s encounter with Jesus in John 19:1-22.
Father, we ask you to bring us face to face with Jesus, your eternal truth.
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