I don’t know how much he enjoyed playing politics but Pilate was a politician nonetheless (Luke 3:1), and there was one occasion when Pilate was masterfully outplayed at his own game.
The apostle John records the political chess match in John 18 and John 19.
As he recounts Jesus’ trial, condemnation, chastisement and crucifixion, John allows his readers to know that it was going to be impossible for Jesus to get a fair trial (John 18:13-14).
Pilate’s inquiry begins by needing to meet the hypocritical accusers of Jesus outside thus allowing the situation to appear as if they are pious and innocent Jews in need of help with a criminal (John 18:29-30).
Pilate perceives an opportunity to dismiss the situation by saying if the man is a (Jewish) criminal then he should be dealt with according to the Jewish law. The Jews make the next political move by saying they lack the authority that only belongs to Pilate as the Roman governor (John 18:31).
Pilate proceeds with his investigation and, with no apparent physical or seditious threat from Jesus, he finds the issue to be a purely political one rather than criminal which introduces another opportunity for a political solution (John 18:33-39). After hearing about Pilate’s political peace-offering, the Jews choose to give the single offer of pardon to another convicted Jewish criminal already in custody (John 18:40).
Finding himself between a political rock-and-a-hard-place, Pilate decides to meet the politically motivated Jews halfway – he delivers Jesus to be scourged (John 19:1-3). With zero confession of criminal intent, Pilate brings a beaten, weakened and royally humiliated man before the people of Israel (John 19:4-6). The Jews counter Pilate’s attempt at stroking their ego and satisfying their sense of “justice” by demanding death and accusing Jesus, the announced man, of blasphemy due to his assertion of being the son of God (John 19:7).
As Pilate seemingly begins to realize the seriousness of the matter (see Matthew 27:19), he begins to question Jesus, and becoming more assured of Jesus’ innocence he becomes more desperate for a political opportunity to relieve himself of the situation by pleading with the people on Jesus’ behalf (John 19:8-12). Once the Jews realize how their accusation is falling apart on the deaf ears of Pilate, they remind him if he will not hear them, then Rome will hear about his deafness toward a political rival! (John 19:12)
With the political seriousness of the accusation now being laid against himself, Pilate attempts to do what every politician does – he tries to present his case one more time to the people only to be out-maneuvered by the priests of Israel who boldly denied their religious identity to gain a political victory via the pagan king of Rome (John 19:14-15).
With no other political moves left to be played, Pilate, the governing politician, finds himself outmatched as he casts the final vote and delivers Jesus over to be unjustly murdered as the innocent King of the Jews (John 19:16-19).
If we learn only one thing from Pilate’s political loss it’s that morality is often the cost of playing political games for both the loser and the winner! This is why doing the right thing must be done because it’s the right thing to do – not because of the favor one may gain by doing such.
“The king establishes the land by justice, but he who receives bribes overthrows it.” (Proverbs 29:4 NKJV)