The Apostle's Creed: He Suffered Under Pontius Pilate
When you recite the Apostles’ Creed you join with Christians across time and space in affirming the basics of the Christian gospel. First appearing around AD 390 the creed is an apt summation of the history of creation, providence, and redemption and the trinitarian God who stands behind and upholds it. While it was not written by the apostles themselves it provides a faithful exposition of apostolic teaching (i.e., the New Testament). Traditionally divided into twelve articles (perhaps corresponding to the number of our Lord’s apostles), we are concerned with the fourth article (italicized and boldfaced below).
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to hell.
The third day he rose again from the dead.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
The Apostles’ Creed manifests the earthiness of the history of redemption. It occurred on this earth, in space and time. The gospel is not mythical or imaginary. It is not a version of some general truth. It is not philosophy for the man or woman on the street. The gospel is about what the only God who is has done for sinners in need of eternal rescue. The gospel is specific and it is datable. In particular, the fourth article gets to the heart of the matter. The Son of God, the second person of the Triune Godhead, took to himself a true body and a reasonable soul in order to save fallen human beings. He did it at a particular place and time. He did, as the apostle Paul reminds us, “in the fullness of time.”
The fourth article of the Apostles’ Creed deals with the atonement. That is, it deals with what was necessary for God to do to save fallen sinners consistent with his holy and righteous as well as merciful character. By noting that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, the creed ties Jesus’ passion to the first century of the Christian era (Anno Domini). Pilate was a real human being who ruled Palestine as the Roman governor. While the Jewish religio-political leadership instigated Jesus’ suffering, it was a Gentile politician and bureaucrat who had the power and authority to put Jesus to death. This he did all the while aware that the truth that stood before him was innocent of any wrong doing. Pilate, like so many petty officeholders before and since, lacked the courage of his convictions. He gave into the threats the Israelite powerbrokers who told him if he released Jesus back to society he was no friend of Caesar. Washing his hands in water, Pilate found that it was not so simple to remove the stains of a spineless politically correct murder from his hands.
What, exactly, did Jesus’ suffering entail? The creed mentions Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial. As a matter of historical factual narrative, this is a fine concise memorable description of what takes up quite a bit of space in each of the four gospels. The passion week includes Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, his teaching at the temple and confrontation with the religious leaders, his institution of the Lord’s Supper, the betrayal of Judas, the arrest and sham trial before the Sanhedrin, the denial of Peter, the appearances before Pilate, Herod, and Pilate again and Christ’s eventual scourging, crucifixion on a cross with nails through his hands and feet, Jesus’ commitment of his mother Mary to the apostle John, his giving up his spirit to the Father, his being pierced with a spear in the side, and his being taken down from the cross and buried in a borrowed tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.
More importantly we are reminded of the reason why Jesus came. He came to die for his own. He came to both obey the holy demands of divine law and to satisfy the equally holy demands of justice. Jesus perfectly kept God’s law in our place and he died in our place. Jesus took upon himself, sinless as he was, the punishment that would otherwise fall upon the sheep of his fold. Jesus didn’t experience this horrific set of circumstances because he had nothing better to do. Quite the contrary. The Son left the estate of eternal felicity of heaven and experienced the miseries of this fallen world. Jesus’ “utterly vile death of the cross” (to quote the church father Origen) was not merely a matter of demonstrating the seriousness of sin, although his death by crucifixion certainly does that. Nor does it only manifest of the love of God for sinners. It overwhelmingly does that too! But the death of Christ does these things because it is a death bearing the punishment for the sins of the elect in their place. Jesus was a substitute bearing the just penalty against the sin of those for whom he was substituted.
All of the foregoing is in the background of the Apostles’ Creed. It is the material which the creed summarizes. Thankfully the suffering of Jesus Christ is not the end of the story for either him or we who believe on him for our salvation. He was raised on the third day and ascended to the Father’s right hand from where he will return someday with all his glorious host. Between now and then we can recite the Apostles’ Creed and thereby join with brothers and sisters across the globe as we worship the Triune God through the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Won’t you join with us?
Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church. He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum. Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.