To ‘wash one’s hands of a matter’ popularly refers to the wish to have nothing to do with or to abdicate all responsibility for something.
The expression suggests you are ‘clean’ of a matter and not stained and soiled with ‘guilt on your hands’.
An exasperated parent may thus threaten a rebellious teenager with the words, ‘I’m sick and tired of telling you to do your homework. I won’t tell you again. Now it’s up to you whether you pass or fail your exams. I wash my hands of it all’.
The expression ‘to wash your hands of the matter’ originates from the trial of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Jewish authorities were anxious to put Jesus to death, but lacked the authority to do so. This was vested in the Roman government of the day, and specifically in Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.
Pilate personally did not wish to see Jesus crucified, as he knew he was guilty of no crime. But Pilate caved in to the popular demand.
Wishing to exonerate himself, the Bible records, ‘when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd saying, I am innocent of this man’s blood, see to it yourselves … Then … having scourged Jesus, [he] delivered him to be crucified’ (Matthew 27:24-26).
Pilate here comes over as a somewhat cowardly man, lacking the courage of his convictions. He ‘washed his hands’ of Jesus, symbolically protesting he was innocent of his murder.
Yet his protest was merely symbolic and not actual. He could have prevented Jesus’ crucifixion, but didn’t. If the Jews had rioted, the Roman Emperor might have removed Pilate from office for failing to keep order. So Pilate looked after ‘number one’ and succumbed to popular demand for Jesus’ crucifixion.
In so doing, he kept in with both the Jews and the Emperor, and gained an infamous place in world history.
Are there any spiritual lessons to be gained from Pilate’s famous ‘washing of his hands’? Yes, there are.
Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor or ‘procurator’ in Judea from AD 26-37. The evidence for this is contained both within and outside the Bible. Pilate was a contemporary of the Son of God and held office during that epochal time of world history.
This meeting between Christ and Pilate reminds us then of the historical reality of the Christian faith. The saving acts of God in Christ actually occurred in time and space. The Christian faith is no mere artistic invention but a matter of truth.
Christianity is based on historical facts, not mythological fables. Peter wrote: ‘For we did not follow cleverly devised myths, when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty’ (2 Peter 1:16).
Both Pilate and his wife were convinced of the absolute innocence of the Lord Jesus. Christ had committed no crime deserving of capital punishment. Even so, Pilate sentenced him to death.
Yet Pilate’s wife had said to her husband, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream’ (Matthew 27:19). Pilate himself protested to the Jews, ‘What evil has he done?’ (Matthew 27:23) and ‘I find no crime in him’ (John 18:38).
This begs the question, why then was Jesus put to death? Because of Pilate’s weakness? Yes. But the deeper reason, according to the Bible, is that Jesus died not for his own sins, for he had none; he died for the sins of others.
He died as the sinner’s substitute, to save them from the wrath of God which is their just due. It is because Jesus died in the sinner’s place that God is able to both punish sin and pardon the believing sinner — to be just and to justify all who put their faith in Jesus.
The substitutionary death of Jesus at Calvary takes us to the very heart of the gospel. He ‘was put to death for our trespasses’ (Romans 4:25); ‘he was wounded for our transgressions’ (Isaiah 53:5).
Then, Pontius Pilate’s hand-washing informs us of the absolute sovereignty of God and his all-embracing providence.
God has his eternal plan of salvation to save a people for himself and his glory. Central to this plan was the atoning sacrifice of Christ at Calvary.
How did God actually execute his plan in time and space? Through the instrumentality of Pontius Pilate. God’s providence ensured that Jesus would die at Calvary. Calvary was ultimately God’s act.
Even human wickedness — the malice of the mob and the weakness of Pilate — were weaved into serving God’s greater purpose. It was the wickedness of man which brought about the blessing of God.
Jesus was ‘delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God … crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men’ (Acts 2:23). Bishop J. C. Ryle once wrote: ‘The wickedest enemies of God are only axes and saws and hammers in his hands, and are ignorantly his instruments for doing his work in the world’.
This was most certainly the case when Pontius Pilate ‘washed his hands of Jesus’ and handed him over to be crucified.
‘I wash my hands of the matter’ is a biblical expression, which in the mouth of Pilate reminds us that whatever is going on in our tumultuous world, God is always in control. He ‘accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11).
This is my Father’s world
And may I ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems e’er so strong
God is the ruler yet.
Picture shows limestone block discovered in 1961 with Pilate’s tribute in Latin to Tiberius. The words TIVS PILATVS can be clearly seen on its second line.