Thursday, April 5, 2007

He stood innocently

John 18:28-40

They led Jesus therefore from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium in order that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover. Pilate therefore went out to them, and said, "What accusation do you bring against this Man?" They answered and said to him, "If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him up to you." Pilate therefore said to them, "Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law." The Jews said to him, "We are not permitted to put anyone to death," that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which He spoke, signifying by what kind of death He was about to die. Pilate therefore entered again into the Praetorium, and summoned Jesus, and said to Him, "Are You the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?" Pilate answered, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests delivered You up to me; what have You done?" Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm." Pilate therefore said to Him, "So You are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice." Pilate said to Him, "What is truth?" And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews, and said to them, "I find no guilt in Him. "But you have a custom, that I should release someone for you at the Passover; do you wish then that I release for you the King of the Jews?" Therefore they cried out again, saying, "Not this Man, but Barabbas." Now Barabbas was a robber.
I think this might be the most ironic sentence in the Bible, at least in the top ten: “And they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium in order that they might not be defiled, but might eat the Passover.” It’s ironic because the Jews were offering up the real Passover Lamb, of whom their supper was but a shadow or copy. Christ was about to be sacrificed, not to shoo away the angel of death from the children of Israel, but to sprinkle all nations with his blood and deliver all mankind from sin. The Jews were turning the Lord’s Messiah over to pagan authorities to be executed. They were flatly rejecting their God. Yet such was their hypocrisy that they didn’t want to defile themselves, to become ceremonially unclean by setting foot inside a Gentile establishment. After thus disposing of God’s Son, heaven forbid they should miss the Passover!

The ironies grow thick on the ground. These people had tried to stone Jesus earlier, had long sought a way to kill him. But now when Pilate tells them to deal with him themselves, they protest: “We are not permitted to put anyone to death,” that is, only the government can impose capital punishment. The Jews protest too much! What they really wanted was to lay the blame for Jesus’ death on the Romans. That way the chief priests and scribes and elders could escape blame when the people found out this gifted and popular preacher had been destroyed. They were looking for a way to dispose of Jesus without being in danger from their own people. What better scapegoat than the Roman government, which as far as the Jews were concerned could do nothing right! Let Pilate be the villain!

More irony: given the choice between Jesus, who had done nothing, and Barabbas, a robber, insurrectionist, and murderer, they chose to set Barabbas free. So badly did they want Jesus dead, they preferred to have a real criminal turned loose than to spare the innocent man’s life. When Pilate tried to set Jesus free, the Jews threatened him, saying, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar, for everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.” And later, when Pilate said, “Shall I crucify your king?” they wailed, “We have no king but Caesar!” They were singing a different tune now. These people had resisted Roman rule all along, considering it idolatry to pay honor and taxes to Caesar. Now they wanted so badly to get rid of this “King of the Jews,” they would rather swear loyalty to Caesar than be stuck with Jesus.

Thanks to such ironies, it isn’t so easy to blame Pilate for all that happened to Jesus. The Jews wanted Jesus dead and they wanted it bad. And they more or less blackmailed Pilate into doing it. He was scared. He was confused. And he was worn down from the Jews pestering him to crucify Jesus. But let’s not be too quick to let Pilate off the hook. For he knew the man before him stood innocently accused. Twice he said, “I find no guilt in Him.” Yet even while insisting there was no evidence against Jesus, he had the man flogged within an inch of his life, mocked and knocked around by his guards. He didn’t hear a single piece of evidence against Jesus, only shaky arguments like, “If he weren’t an evildoer, we wouldn’t have brought him to you,” and, “If you release this man, you’re no friend of Caesar.” None of these arguments proved anything; basically, when Pilate asked them what Jesus had done wrong, their answer was: “He deserves death. Just take our word for it.”

So he stood innocently, and Pilate knew it. But he didn’t do the right thing. First he hoped the Jews would just take Jesus and do what they wanted, but they weren’t about to let Pilate off that easy. So at last Pilate gave up trying to get Jesus set free. He washed his hands of the affair and let them take Jesus away and crucify him. He gave them a governor’s death warrant for a man who, to his knowledge, had done nothing wrong.

Pilate had an important role to play. Even as the Jews used him to accomplish what they wanted without suffering the consequences, at the same time God used both their evil and Pilate’s cowardice for His own purpose. Remember what John says, when the Jews protest, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death,” that the word of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spoke signifying by what kind of death He was about to die. Both the Old Testament and Jesus Himself had predicted he would be crucified. In one place Jesus said, “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in Him may have eternal life.” And again, “The Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death, and will deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and scourge and crucify, and on the third day He will be raised up.” The Psalms and prophets describe the Messiah suffering and dying in a manner that seems like crucifixion, as in Psalm 22 for example. All these predictions came true when the Jews insisted on having Jesus executed under Roman law. For it was the Romans, not the Jews, who practiced crucifixion, though it was the Jews, not the Romans, who wanted him dead.

You see? Jesus stood innocently while Jews called for his crucifixion, and Pilate dithered around and finally gave in to their demands. Yet the one who was really in charge was Jesus, so the word he had spoken—both in person, and through the prophets—should be fulfilled. This raises the story well beyond a miscarriage of justice. This is more than the tragedy of an innocent man railroaded into an early grave. Those predictions were set in place for this purpose, that one Man and only one Man could fulfill them and show himself to be more than a mere Man.

This is the Messiah, God’s beloved Son made flesh, the one promised through the Law and prophets and Psalms. He has appeared, and as he stands innocently before Pilate he is doing the work he came to do. He dies not just for himself, or for crimes he supposedly committed, or because of the anger of the Jews. He dies to restore mankind to God’s good graces. He dies to atone for sins. He dies in the place of you and you and you, and me, and Annas, and Caiaphas, and Pilate, and everyone. In seeming defeat, we have a champion who sacrificed his life to rescue us from hell and to earn for us salvation and eternal life.

Pilate asks two fateful questions: “Am I a Jew?” and “What is truth?” The first question takes the good old pagan point of view: “Hey buddy, whatever works for you! If you believe that, good for you. I happen to believe something else, which is good for me. Perhaps we’re all looking for the same truth, and hopefully we’ll all make it to the same place.” That pagan point of view, as in, “Am I a Jew?” is very evident in our world today. One religion is considered as good as another; so let’s all keep our shirts on and get along. The other question, “What is truth?” approaches it from a more secular point of view. There’s no absolute truth, the thinking goes. We all make it up our own reality as we go along. The wisdom of the age, to this day, follows Pilate’s philosophy: it’s foolish, if not dangerous, to be stuck on one particular set of beliefs as though that’s the truth, whether anyone believes it or not. Whether God exists doesn’t even matter; it’s all in your own mind.

Well, against that philosophy, Jesus says: “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” And the truth is, the man who stood before Pilate isn’t just an unfortunate victim of circumstance. He’s not just a guy who had the bad luck to cross the wrong Jews, he’s not just a sentimental hero we should shed tears for because they done him wrong. He is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but through Him.

Jesus stood innocently accused, and he went innocently to his death, but as God he was in charge of what was happening. He made use of the evil of his times to accomplish the highest good for mankind: he redeemed us from sin, death, and the devil. Everything is in the palm of his hand, so when he went to the cross he went on purpose. And his purpose was, to put it plainly, your salvation. His innocent suffering and death were the cost he willingly paid to deliver you from the guilt of your sin and everlasting punishment. So that tragic defeat for truth, justice, and right was in fact, the ultimate victory. And that is the truth, the only truth, by which all who believe it will be saved.

How’s that for irony?

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