Where the world comes to study the Bible

Lesson 97: Friend of Caesar or of Christ? (John 19:12-16)

Related Media

June 21, 2015

It’s a common saying that you can’t choose your relatives, but you can choose your friends. And the friends you choose affect the direction of your life. In my fourth year of seminary, Dr. Howard Hendricks told us, “Two things will determine where you’re at ten years from now—the books you read and the friends you make.” After a pause to let that sink in, he added, “Choose them both very carefully!”

The best friend that anyone can have is the Lord Jesus Christ. But to be His friend, you must stand with Him against those who oppose Him. In John 19:12, Pilate had to make a choice between friends. The Jewish leaders who had brought Jesus to Pilate for judgment said, “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.” That cinched it for Pilate. When he heard these words, he brought Jesus out and handed Him over to the Jews to be crucified. Pilate chose friendship with Caesar over friendship with Christ. In going for that short-term gain, he lost his eternal soul. The lesson is:

If you choose to be the friend of Caesar, you’ll lose your soul; but if you choose Christ over Caesar, you’ll gain your soul.

When I talk about being the friend of Caesar, I’m not talking about being the friend of the President or of any other powerful political figure. Rather, by “Caesar,” I’m referring to all that he represents, namely, this present world system and all that it dangles in front of us to tempt us. As 1 John 2:15-17 warns,

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.

Or, as James 4:4 bluntly draws the line, “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” Or as Jesus said (Luke 16:13), “You cannot serve God and wealth,” where wealth (“Mammon”) represents the heart of the world system. So you’ve got to choose: Caesar or Christ? Pilate’s tragic story brings out five contrasts between being a friend of Caesar or a friend of Christ:

1. Friendship with Caesar results in compromising your integrity and a guilty conscience; friendship with Christ results in integrity and forgiveness.

One of Pilate’s glaring character flaws was that he compromised his integrity in a futile attempt to keep both Caesar and the Jews as his friends. As I explained in a previous message, Pilate made some serious blunders early in his rule over Judea that weakened his leadership. First, he had sent soldiers into the temple area with shields bearing images of Caesar. The Jews saw this as blasphemy and staged a major protest. Pilate threatened to slaughter them, but they didn’t back down. Politically, he couldn’t murder that many Jews so early in his term as governor, so he had to back down. Score: The Jews, 1; Pilate, 0.

Then, he built an aqueduct to bring water into Jerusalem, which was good. But he used temple funds to pay for the project. The Jews rioted and this time, Pilate did kill some of them. (Jesus may be referring to this incident in Luke 13:1-2.) The Jews complained to Caesar, who gave a scathing rebuke to Pilate. Score: The Jews, 2; Pilate, 0.

So by the time the Jews brought Jesus to Pilate for judgment, they held the advantage. When Pilate asks them (John 18:29) “What accusation do you bring against this Man?” they answered (John 18:30), “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him to you.” In other words, “We’re in charge here! You don’t need to question us or hold a trial. Just do as we say!”

After they joust back and forth and Pilate hears Jesus affirm that His kingdom is not of this world (and thus no threat to Roman rule), Pilate concludes (John 18:38), “I find no guilt in Him.” If Pilate had been a man of principle, that should have been the end of it. Pilate had the authority to acquit or condemn accused prisoners (John 19:10). If he believed that Jesus was innocent, he should have let Him go. But he was afraid of the Jews. If they sent another bad report to Caesar, Pilate’s career as governor and perhaps his life would be over.

So, to save his career and his neck, he compromised his integrity. Rather than doing the right thing (letting Jesus go), he offered the Jews the choice of releasing the notoriously violent prisoner Barabbas or Jesus. Pilate thought that they wouldn’t want a dangerous character like Barabbas out on the streets. Surely they’d pick Jesus. But Pilate was wrong. The Jews chose Barabbas.

His next ploy was to scourge Jesus, an innocent man, with the hope that the Jews would say, “He’s suffered enough. Let Him go.” But they cried out all the more for Jesus’ crucifixion. Twice more (John 19:4, 6) Pilate tells the Jews that he finds no guilt in Jesus. Obviously, if Jesus was innocent, Pilate shouldn’t have put Him forward as a prisoner to release and he shouldn’t have scourged Him. But when you compromise your integrity at one point, you often have to do it again to try to get out of the hole you’re in. But you’re only digging yourself in deeper.

Next, the Jews accuse Jesus of making Himself out to be the Son of God, which spooks Pilate (John 19:7-8). In Roman mythology, sometimes the gods came to earth. Pilate is worried that he has scourged a “god”! Adding to his anxiety, his wife sent word about her dream, warning Pilate to have nothing to do with “that righteous Man” (Matt. 27:19). So Pilate attempts again to get Jesus released, which leads the Jews to cry out (John 19:12), “If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.” At this point, Pilate feels trapped. He suppresses his conscience and condemns an innocent man to a cruel death.

But the conscience is not quieted so easily! Even though Pilate was a ruthless, self-seeking military man, who had killed many to get to where he was at, this victim was different. Pilate could tell that not only was Jesus innocent; He also spoke as no man spoke (John 7:46). This man claimed to have come into the world to testify to the truth (John 18:37). He spoke with calm authority, not with the desperation of a man trying to save Himself from execution. Pilate had condemned an innocent man who was not your run-of-the-mill prisoner. This was not Jesus’ condemnation, but Pilate’s. By choosing Caesar’s approval over God’s, he turned away from the light that he had. Pilate’s conscience must have nagged him.

Like ignoring the warning light on your dashboard, any time you compromise your integrity to follow the world, your conscience blinks and says, “You shouldn’t be doing this.” But the problem is, if you don’t fix the underlying problem, it keeps blinking for a while. If you keep ignoring it and doing what you know to be wrong, after a while your conscience becomes insensitive to sin, a fearful condition to be in (1 Tim. 4:2)!

If Pilate had responded to Christ’s invitation when He told him (John 18:37), “Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice,” he would have experienced forgiveness and a clean conscience. He would have had the strength to act with integrity because he would have been right with God and trusting in Christ (Acts 24:16).

By the way, even though Acts 4:27-28 says that Pilate, Herod, the Gentiles, and the Jews crucified Jesus because God predestined it to occur, they were not pre-programmed robots who had no choice in their sin. They were slaves of sin, as all unbelievers are, but being in bondage to sin does not exempt anyone from being accountable to God for their sin. Although we can’t totally understand it, God is sovereign but people are responsible for their sin.

2. Friendship with Caesar goes along with contempt for people who thwart your agenda; friendship with Christ results in compassion for people.

Pilate viewed the Jews as thwarting his career goals. They had already caused him some major headaches because of their religion and their complaints to Caesar about his heavy-handed leadership. And now, because of their religious self-righteousness, the Jews wouldn’t even set foot in his residence, so that they wouldn’t defile themselves during their religious festival (John 18:28)! It’s easy to see why Pilate felt nothing but contempt for the Jews! If you’ve ever been around people who make you feel like they’re “holier-than-thou” because of their religion, it doesn’t exactly warm your heart toward them! The tragedy is that God intended for the Jews to be a light to the Gentiles. Instead, all they did was make Pilate feel beneath them, so that in turn he felt contempt for them.

So part of Pilate’s contempt stemmed from the Jews’ self-righteous attitude toward him. But part of his contempt stemmed from the fact that his focus was to please Caesar so that he could advance his career, and the Jews were hindering his career. Those who are friends with Caesar use people to further their own aims. If people get in their way, they feel contempt for them.

But friends of Christ, like Him, feel compassion for people, even for those the world despises. Jesus felt compassion for the hurting people in Israel (Matt. 9:36; 14:14). His compassion extended an invitation to Judas to repent right to the end. Although He knew that the cross loomed ahead, He thought of His disciples’ needs and addressed those needs in the Upper Room discourse. He prayed for them in His high priestly prayer. He extended the invitation to Pilate to listen to the truth. As He hung on the cross, He granted mercy to the repentant thief and prayed for forgiveness for His persecutors. And He thought about His mother’s needs and entrusted her to John. Our Lord was always full of compassion for people. Those who are growing to be like Him will also look for the needs of others and seek to show them God’s compassion.

3. Friendship with Caesar puts you in bondage to fear and anxiety; friendship with Christ frees you from fear and gives peace with God.

Pilate was living in fear of the threat that the Jews would report something else to Rome, so he had to be careful not to offend or anger them, even though he despised them. This is why he didn’t just release Jesus, even though he knew that He was innocent. He was afraid of the Jews.

Also, when the Jews tell Pilate that Jesus should die “because He made Himself out to be the Son of God,” Pilate “was even more afraid” (John 19:7-8). Since there is not any mention of Pilate already being afraid, some commentators translate it, “he was very much afraid.” As I just explained, this was probably due to his Roman mythological beliefs, compounded by the warning from his wife not to have anything to do with “that righteous Man.” Pilate had just had Jesus scourged, even though he knew that He was innocent. That creates a guilty conscience, which always results in fear. What if Caesar finds out what he had done? What if Jesus really was a “god” who had come to earth?

So, when you’re living to please everyone and you violate your conscience so that you can get ahead, you’re always fearful. What if you offended that person? What if word gets back to the boss about how you lost that key client? What did that person think about what you said?

And then there’s the fear of God and judgment. Most unbelievers hope that they’re going to heaven, but there is that nagging fear that they may be wrong. They base their hope on the fact that they’re not as bad as terrorists, murderers, and child molesters. But what if God’s standard is straight A’s and they’re only B+? It’s like one guy said (Reader’s Digest, 9/89, p. 67), “My greatest fear is that I will be standing behind Mother Teresa in the final judgment line and I’ll hear God tell her, ‘You know, you should have done more.’” If you’re living to be friends with Caesar, you’ll always be anxious about how it will go with God at the final judgment.

But friends of Christ, those who have put their trust in Him as Savior and Lord, don’t need to fear people or God’s judgment. David, who had many enemies seeking his life, sang (Ps. 56:11), “In God I have put my trust, I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” Psalm 118:6 echoes this: “The Lord is for me; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” As friends of Christ, our concern is to please Him out of love, because He first loved us. If He is pleased, then whatever people may think about me is secondary.

Also, friends of Christ know that He has forgiven all their sins through His death on the cross and that they now enjoy peace with God. As Paul wrote (Rom. 5:1), “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Or again (Rom. 8:1), “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” We who are friends of Christ do not need to fear death, knowing that it ushers us into His loving presence forever (2 Cor. 5:1-8: Phil. 1:23; Heb. 2:14-15).

Thus friendship with Caesar (the world) results in compromising your integrity and a guilty conscience; friendship with Christ results in forgiveness and integrity. Friendship with Caesar goes along with contempt for people who thwart your agenda; friendship with Christ results in compassion for people. Friendship with Caesar puts you in bondage to fear and anxiety; friendship with Christ frees you from fear and gives peace with God.

4. Friendship with Caesar results in moral relativity and cynicism toward truth; friendship with Christ gives absolute moral standards and knowledge of the truth.

For Pilate, “right” was whatever advanced his career and got the Jews off his back. Sure, it was unfortunate that an innocent man got scourged and crucified, but sometimes you’ve got to do some unpleasant things to take care of business. He just wanted to be done with this messy trial and get on with his day. “Besides,” he could have rationalized, “if executing Jesus is right for the Jews, maybe it’s okay. That many Jews can’t all be wrong, can they?”

Pilate not only had relative moral standards, he also was cynical about knowing the truth about spiritual matters, if there even was such a thing as spiritual truth. Some people found that allegiance to one of the Roman gods worked for them, whereas others found help through following another god. Some believed in the Stoic philosophy; others found the Epicureans more to their liking. Who is to say that only one way is right? Who is to say that there is absolute truth in the spiritual realm? So when Jesus said (John 18:37), “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice,” Pilate scoffed, “What is truth?” and walked away.

A Barna Research Group survey from over a decade ago revealed that only 15 percent of those who did not claim to be born again Christians believed in absolute moral standards. But the shocking thing is that among those who said that they were born again, only 32 percent believed in absolute moral standards. The article reporting these statistics ( article/5-barna-update/67-Americans-are-most-likely-to-base-truth -on-feelings#.VXthxvlVhBc) said that in a public forum:

Barna noted that substantial numbers of Christians believe that activities such as abortion, gay sex, sexual fantasies, cohabitation, drunkenness and viewing pornography are morally acceptable. “Without some firm and compelling basis for suggesting that such acts are inappropriate, people are left with philosophies such as ‘if it feels good, do it,’ ‘everyone else is doing it’ or ‘as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else, it’s permissible.’ In fact, the alarmingly fast decline of moral foundations among our young people has culminated in a one-word worldview: ‘whatever.’”

But Jesus didn’t come to testify to “whatever”! He came to testify to the truth (John 18:37). God’s moral truth is not based on how you feel or what everyone else is doing or if it doesn’t hurt anyone else. As friends of Christ, we must obey what He commanded (John 15:14). His truth isn’t subjective or based on what the Supreme Court decides is right! His truth is in His Word (John 17:17), which shows us how to live distinctly from this world. When you become a friend of Christ, you know the truth and that truth doesn’t change with every cultural trend that comes along!

5. Friendship with Caesar gains a fickle friend who offers no hope for eternity; friendship with Christ gains a faithful friend for time and eternity.

Pilate decided to be the friend of Caesar and the Jews rather than the friend of this mocked, despised Galilean Jew. It was a bad choice! In AD 36, a Samaritan man claimed that he knew where Moses hid the golden objects from the tabernacle on Mt. Gerazim. Moses had never crossed the Jordan, so no one should have believed him. But he gained a following of armed people and tried to find the treasure. Pilate viewed it as a rebellion and sent troops to slaughter the Samaritans. The survivors complained to Pilate’s superior, who deposed him and ordered him to Rome to stand trial before Caesar. Fortunately for Pilate, Caesar died before he got there. The historical record beyond that is unclear, but probably he was banished to Gaul where he eventually committed suicide.

Even if Pilate had gained the favor of Caesar and even if he had become the next Caesar, Jesus’ words expose the folly of that course (Mark 8:36): “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?”

If Pilate had chosen Jesus over Caesar, he would have gained a faithful friend, who promises never to leave or forsake those who follow Him. Being a friend of Jesus doesn’t mean that He will protect you from trials. The disciples were His friends (John 15:13-15) and yet He promised them trials and persecution (John 15:20-21, 16:2). As He said (Matt. 5:10-12):

“Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

With the way things are going in America, friends of Jesus may soon experience insults and persecution when they stand for biblical standards of morality. Even now, if you say that homosexual marriage is an abomination in God’s sight, you will be called a homophobic bigot and you could likely lose your job. But even if you lose your life, you’ll be welcomed into the eternal presence of the best friend you can ever have, the Lord Jesus Christ!


During a Naval War College course known as Fundamentals of Command and Decision, the instructor was stressing the importance of being able to make sound decisions under pressure. A visiting officer from a small foreign navy spoke up. “Talk about decisions!” he said. “I was 700 miles out to sea in my destroyer when I received a dispatch from my base: ‘We have just had a revolution. Which side are you on?’” (Reader’s Digest [5/83])

Deciding to be on the side of Caesar or Christ isn’t that difficult! But you must decide: whose friend are you—Caesar’s or Christ’s? You can’t be a friend of the world and a friend of God at the same time (James 4:4). If you choose to be the friend of Caesar, you’ll lose your soul. That’s the default mode if you do nothing. But if you choose Christ over Caesar, you’ll gain your soul.

Application Questions

  1. What ways on the job or at school have you been tempted to compromise your integrity as a Christian? How can you be prepared to resist these temptations?
  2. Where is the balance (if there is one) between pleasing people and pleasing God? Consider 1 Cor. 10:31-33 in your answer.
  3. A critic says, “Polygamy was acceptable in the Old Testament, but is wrong now. So God’s moral standards do change. Maybe homosexuality is okay now.” Your reply?
  4. Are some careers out of bounds for Christians because they necessarily require moral compromise? Which ones?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christian Life, Fellowship

Report Inappropriate Ad