I am in the apparently small category of men unconcerned with the Roman Empire. I could probably describe key events in the reigns of three to five of its rulers, but not much more. And when it comes to recalling this kind of detail, I suspect I’m not alone. All but a handful of these ancient leaders have vanished from the public imagination. They struggled, fought, murdered, and schemed their way to supremacy only to be forgotten.

The same is true of American presidents, despite their greater proximity. I know the exceptionally good and bad, but others who held the highest office in the land do not register. Such are the vicissitudes of history. In our vanity, we humans want to etch our names in the record—only for the next generation to arrive well stocked with erasers.

But Pontius Pilate, the first-century governor of the Roman province of Judea, did succeed in being memorable. At Easter, unruly young boys will bound into churches decked in homemade Roman military garb playing the role of Pilate. He’s a central character in the dramatic reenactments of every Holy Week.

He is mentioned in the Nicene Creed, a central confession of our faith. The name Pontius Pilate has been recited countless times, Sunday after Sunday over the last millennia and half since that creed’s ratification, giving him one of the most recognizable names in the world. The creed refers to his role in the death of Jesus with characteristic brevity: “he was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” The words have been said by billions, but who was this provincial governor, and what does he have to teach us about the perils of significance?

Pilate was from the upper crust of Roman society. He’d been given governorship of Judea, an unstable region prone to uprising and rebellion. He likely saw his time there as a steppingstone to something grander, such as oversight of a more appealing part of the empire.

In this, Pilate was like many careerists who have been in one place on the way to somewhere else. Ambition is common to humanity. Many of us have a goal of building a résumé and finally getting to whatever position we believe is necessary to make a name for ourselves. We have an innate desire to do something special, to be memorable.

It is in this context that Pilate meets Jesus. In Matthew’s gospel, by the time Jesus arrives at Pilate’s step, he has already been arrested and questioned by the Sanhedrin (Matt. 26:57–68). It is Friday morning, and Pilate initially poses one direct question to Jesus: “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matt. 27:11). For the Jewish people, this was a theological question related to the fulfillment of messianic prophecy and the hope of God’s rescue. For Pilate, it was none of those things. For Pilate, the issue was whether Jesus claimed a kingship that might threaten the Pax Romana.

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Christians remember Jesus’ pending death at the hands of Pilate as part of the gospel story, but for Pilate, the question was largely political and personal: Would it be better for Pilate’s career aspirations in the empire if Jesus were to die? Despite his apparent realization that Jesus is innocent of the political charges against him (Luke 23:13–16), Pilate ultimately answers in the affirmative and sentences Jesus to death.

In this, Pilate represents all the moral compromises we make to achieve what society tells us we should desire. In the US, throughout our republic, there is widespread consensus that leaders in both major parties have so often made this kind of compromise that the only guiding principle in our politics is the acquisition of more power.

This suspicion has spread beyond government to include the media, banks, and even religious institutions—to the point that we may wonder whether it’s worth struggling against this pervasive corruption at all. The church itself is corrupt, we may think. Love doesn’t last. Our employers only want to take advantage of us. Politicians don’t have our interests in mind. Why not despair?

If so many of our leaders and institutions are out for themselves, why not create our own fiefdoms by any means necessary? We see it all around us: Our school board meetings, church gatherings, and interpersonal and online interactions can be just as toxic as our national discourse. Must we become cruel to survive these dark times we inhabit? Did Pilate get it right?

There’s a danger in thus adopting the moral posture of the empire to get ahead. It’s possible to arrive at the job of our dreams and regret the kind of person we became to get there. There is a reason Jesus asked what it profits a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul (Mark 8:36).

By the time he hands down the final sentence, the gospels don’t depict Pilate as having pangs of conscience over condemning Jesus to death. Perhaps such things had ceased to bother him, for the danger of moral compromise is that the more we do it, the easier it becomes.

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Pilate is remembered as the paradigmatic example of moral compromise and its corruption of the human heart. It seems that when he came into the presence of someone truly good and beautiful—the very son of God—he failed to recognize it. He viewed Jesus as an obstacle to ambition to be overcome.

This is a warning to us all. When true goodness stands before us, even if it is beaten and bloody, can we still see it for what it is?

I worry that, as the church, we have ceased to see Jesus and his way as good news. I do not refer to wanting to receive the saving benefits of his death and resurrection, but whether his life and way of being still capture our imagination. Does Jesus’ call to care for the least of these (Matt. 25:40) and pursue personal holiness (Matt. 5–7) still have a hold on our hearts? Does the cross as power in weakness (1 Cor. 1:18) still inform how we engage the world? Or do we want power to bend the wills of men and women?

Pilate was wrong—he wanted the wrong things, and, if we are honest, so do we. The central question of human existence is not, How do I acquire significance so as to be remembered? The question is, Can I recognize and follow the Way of truth and goodness when I encounter it?

After Jesus was crucified, he rose again. This is the message of Easter. Pilate’s dismissal of beauty was overruled, his error becoming a footnote in redemptive history.

Nonetheless, the resurrection is about more than proving Pilate wrong. The resurrection confirms the things Jesus said about himself—that he is the Son of God. It vindicates and solidifies Jesus’ whole life as miracle and offers a different way of being human, a way not defined by the pursuit of power and significance at the expense of character.

Love for God and neighbor, concern for the oppressed, and sacrifice for others are not folly. Holiness is still right. Maybe this is why the creed has the audacity to say Pilate’s name: to remind us that there are more important things than being remembered for our power.

Esau McCaulley is an associate professor of New Testament at Wheaton College and the author of How Far to the Promised Land: One Black Family’s Story of Hope and Survival in the American South and the forthcoming children’s book Andy Johnson and the March for Justice. He is currently on sabbatical at Yarnton Manor and Wycliffe Hall in Oxford.

[ This article is also available in Português. ]