In his 1529 exposition on John 19:12, Luther comments on how the crowd pressured Pilate, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend.” Luther goes on to explain how it was much easier for Pilate then to hand Jesus over to be crucified. He did not want to make his superior an enemy. His temporal safety meant too much to him, even if it meant doing Jesus the gravest injustice.
It reminded me much of the collective reaction to the Wuhan virus. To be “Caesar’s Friend” has been a very high priority for most congregations. Luther reminds us well here. It would be much easier to follow Pilate’s example and be Caesar’s friend. That is the way which the world would have us go. Then, when we can even find Bible passages which would seem to justify blind obedience to the governing authorities, the choice becomes doubly easy. But as Christians we also live under the cross, and we follow Jesus on the narrow way. When faced with the choice between personal safety and faithfulness, we remember that Jesus is our best friend, not a Caesar who does not even know your name. Being faithful to Jesus and his institutions is never a wrong decision—not now, not ever.
On John 19:12
By Martin Luther
So it happens in the world concerning the words, “You are not Caesar’s friend.” People end up falling from the truth as the leaves from the trees in the fall. For flesh and blood cannot bear to have Caesar as an enemy, just as Pilate was blinded by these words. For our house, home, wife, child, and everything we have is under Caesar’s protection. When Caesar is our enemy, house, home, wife, child, and everything we have is in danger. Therefore, to have Caesar as an enemy means nothing else than to put body and life, goods and honor, at risk. Now human nature is inclined to have Caesar as a friend rather than an enemy, so that it may keep body, life, goods, and honor. Therefore this was not a small and insignificant blow for Pilate. If he were to let Christ go, he would not be Caesar’s friend. These are not small and insignificant words which the devil speaks to us: “If you want to have the Gospel, you will be hated by all people! What will you do then?” Christ has proclaimed this warning that it will be this way. But the devil will do his best to make people fall away from the Gospel. So Pilate fell and let the innocent Christ be crucified. Pilate did this that he may not risk body and good, but keep Caesar as his friend.
Just as Pilate held onto his body, goods, and honor, and kept Caesar as his friend, although he knew that Christ was being done an injustice, so it happens among many people in our day. They think of themselves as good Christians, but they do not believe the Gospel is worth hanging onto, if they must put their body, life, goods, and honor at risk for the sake of the Gospel. So they follow Pilate. For Pilate has many children on earth, who let go of Christ and his Gospel for the sake of temporal life, goods, and honor. The Evangelist indicated this well with Pilate. When Pilate heard those words, he questioned Christ no more and closed his eyes and ears. He let judgment and sentence pass on the innocent. For he thought it better that one man suffer than that everyone and everything which we have be put at risk and come to ruin.
Pilate also indicates what human holiness and righteousness is, what its basis is, and how firmly entrenched it remains when the body suffers harm or is put at risk. As long as power, honor, and goods remain, so also human righteousness and holiness remain. But when honor, goods, and power cease, so also human righteousness and holiness pass away just as quickly. This is worldly righteousness. It passes away and has its end with those who possess it. So it is with the heathen, who worship such worldly piety. They will not give it up. Only when life, power, and honor cease does their virtue also cease. This is how they operate, and they cannot do it any other way. Therefore we call this a temporal, worldly righteousness. (St. L. VIII: 940-941. trans. Ryan Loeslie.)