“Then Pilate said to him, ‘Won’t you talk to me? Don’t you realize that I have the authority to release you and I have the authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You have no authority over me apart from that which has been given to you from above. Because of this, the one who delivered me to you has a greater sin.’”
Authority is a sticky kind of thing because it does not reside within our persons. Authority must be given and similarly, authority can be taken away. Yet what makes it even stickier is that there are different levels of authority and thus those who give authority have first been given authority by something or someone that is outside of them. Thus, Pilate’s authority comes from the office that he fills and the authority of that office comes from Rome. But where does Rome get its authority? Their armies extend their authority, indeed, but in the end, it is God and God alone who gives authority to one nation to do this and for another nation to do that. Sometimes God does this with his direct ordination; sometimes God passively permits a course of action, but in the end, it is God and God alone who gives the authority to men to do what men do.
From whom does God get his authority? That is the wrong question to ask. The right question to ask is, “Why is authority given in this way?” The answer to this question answers both. First, authority is given this way because we are “contingent beings.” In other words, the fact that we have life and health and authority to do anything is contingent on the existence of a greater being or institution. Thus, Pilate’s role is contingent on the existence of the Roman Empire. Without it, there would have been no role for him in Judea. Even our lives themselves are contingent on the existence of the planet that houses and sustains us. Yet, God is the only non-contingent being. His existence is fixed — always has been, is, and always will be… And as a non-contingent being, not only does his existence reside within himself, but so does his authority.
Thus the authority that Pilate has is not absolute in any way. Kings and governors like to think of their authority as absolute, but it is still an authority that is permitted by God. And in specific, the authority that Pilate has over Jesus, to put him to death, is again an authority that has been granted to him not just by Caesar, but by God himself so that the promised redemption of the elect might take place through his son’s sacrifice on the cross. Jesus tells Pilate this not as a way of taking Pilate off of the hook, but as a way of cutting this prideful man back down to size.
Yet Jesus does make an interesting statement. He says that the ones responsible for handing him over to Pilate were guilty of a greater sin than Pilate. It is clear that Jesus is speaking of the Jewish authorities that have been contriving to put Jesus to death. They are guilty of a greater sin for their part in Jesus’ execution has been intentional and carefully planned out; Pilate has been a man trapped by powers outside of his influence.
Yet there is one who is ultimately responsible for Jesus’ death that is free from all sin…and that is God the Father who ordained from before the foundation of the world that he would send his Son to pay the righteous penalty for sin that we, as God’s chosen, owe. Indeed, in grace, it pleased the Father to crush his Son because of the redemption this would work for his own. This is the perfect mark of grace, a standard of redemption by which all things are measured…no sin as God’s perfect standard is demonstrated. From this point on, Jesus will remain silent before Pilate.