The text of the sermon preached at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York on Pilate’s verdict is below. A couple things that I added this morning are in brackets. As always, the words with the strike-through are there for organizational purposes but aren’t said until later — if you are reading it, you would also benefit from skipping over those words. The sermon audio is available at this link.
Next Sunday’s message will be on Luke 23:26-49. For the first three Sundays of the season of Easter we will finish out the Gospel of Luke as follows: Luke 23:50-24:12, Luke 24:13-35, and Luke 24:36-53.
We all would like to think that if we were living in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus then we would not have called for the death of Jesus or gone along with it. It is a “what if” that we cannot possibly test. But if we know ourselves and are honest about ourselves, then the best that we could say is that we do not know what we would have done and we suspect the worst. After all, we should never underestimate the difference that Jesus has made on our lives such that we are a different person today than we would have been if we were living at that time. If you have been born again, you know that Jesus has profoundly changed you personally. But even unbelievers have been influenced by Him because His church has changed Western culture for good. For example, people no longer go to watch gladiators and cheer them on as they fight to the death or are killed by wild animals in arenas. But far more important than trying to guess what we might have done at that time is how we are going to respond to the Roman trial of Jesus today. So this morning we are going to think about our responses to that trial today in light of Luke’s report of how different people responded to the situation they found themselves in back then. We will look at the chief priests and scribes who insisted that Jesus had to die together with the crowds who shouted “crucify Him” at their instigation. And we will look at Herod and especially Pilate because Pilate says four times that he finds Jesus not guilty and yet he still hands Jesus over to be crucified. As you listen, see if you hear Pilate pronounce this verdict four times.
- The chief priests and scribes were so insistent that Jesus had to die that they did the very thing they were accusing Jesus of doing in order to see it done.
- The religious leaders of Israel were not going to take “no” for an answer. Luke says there in verse 5 and he repeats it again in verse 23: “but they were urgent.” They were insistent. Jesus needed to be crucified. It is for this reason that they brought political charges that would be attractive excuses for the Roman authorities to put Jesus to death. Back in verse 2 they began to accuse Him and the three charges that Luke reports are that Jesus was misleading the Jewish nation, forbidding the giving of tribute to Caesar, and claiming to be king. The first charge may simply be a summary statement of the charges – but the idea of misleading that they are getting at is the idea of political subversion. They were trying to convince Pilate that Jesus was a political threat to him. This is why they accuse Jesus of forbidding the giving of tribute and of claiming to be a king. But Pilate knows that something is up and he is not convinced. And so he does what we have come to know is common for government, he gave them the run-around. When he hears that Jesus is from Galilee he sends Jesus off to Herod for questioning. But the chief priests and scribes were not going to take no for an answer so they went and vehemently accused Jesus there before Herod. Herod, who also knows how to give them the run-around, sent Jesus back to Pilate dressed in a royal costume. Pilate understands that this means that Herod does not see Jesus as a political threat either. And three more times, starting in verse 13, Pilate addresses the religious authorities and the crowds expecting that the crowds would side with Jesus. But the chief priests and scribes were not going to take “no” for an answer and so they would do exactly what they accused Jesus of doing.
- The religious authorities had charged Jesus with political subversion but they were going to become politically subversive themselves in order to see the crucifixion of Jesus done. They had accused Jesus of stirring up the people, which was a false charge, but it was the very thing that they did at His trial. It is easy to get caught up in a political demonstration and to begin chanting along with the rest of the crowd some short slogan. One slogan that they got the crowd shouting was “Crucify, crucify Him!” And they even got the crowd to call for the release of Barabbas, a man whose name is Aramaic for “son of the Father,” but a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in Jerusalem and for murder. And it was not long before Pilate realized that the real political threat was not Jesus—it was the chief priests and scribes. They were so insistent on seeing Jesus crucified, Jesus who was the true son of the Father, that they did the very thing that they falsely accused Jesus of doing in order to see it done. Thus at the trial of Jesus the ones who are guilty of political subversion, the ones who took up the cause of a man who was truly dangerous – Barabbas, the ones who stirred up the crowds almost into a riot, were the religious authorities of Israel. They were guilty, but Jesus was found not guilty. (And so we have seen the responses of the religious leaders and the crowds to the trial of Jesus. What about Herod and Pilate?)
- Neither Herod nor Pilate wanted to choose sides between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel and yet to avoid choosing sides is ultimately to choose sides against Jesus.
- Herod and Pilate were politicians and like most politicians they wanted to find a compromise. This Herod was one of the sons of Herod the Great. Herod the Great you will remember from the Gospel of Matthew because after Jesus was born Herod the Great killed all of the infants under the age of 2 in the region of Bethlehem. Two of Herod the Great’s sons would rule in this part of the world. One ruled for a short time over Judea, Samaria, and Idumea (Idumea had been the nation of Edom in the Old Testament). That brother was so violent that he began his rule by having 3,000 prominent Judean citizens slaughtered. This is why Joseph didn’t take the little boy Jesus back to Bethlehem when they returned from Egypt. But because of what that Herod brother had done, Emperor Augustus removed him from power and took away the rule of Judea from the Herod family. The brother mentioned in our text was the ruler of Galilee. He was much more of a politician and therefore much more tolerant. He and Pilate had never gotten along most likely because Pilate was the prefect of Judea and Herod thought his family or even he himself should be ruling Judea. This Herod locked up John the Baptist in prison and later got tricked into having him beheaded. Later in Luke 9:9, Herod said that he wanted to see Jesus because of the wonders Jesus was doing and then in Luke 13:31 some Pharisees told Jesus to leave Galilee because Herod wanted to kill Jesus. Jesus told them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem (Luke 13:32-33). That must have been enough to placate Herod for he had cooled down by the time he met Jesus in Jerusalem. Now again Herod wanted to see Jesus because he wanted to see him cast out a demon or cure someone. But the chief priests and scribes were there vehemently accusing Jesus and Jesus was not entertaining Herod the way that he wanted. So Herod figured he and his soldiers would treat Jesus with contempt and mockery and clothe Jesus in the costume of a king. Why treat an innocent man this way? Herod was hoping that it would be enough to satisfy the chief priests and scribes. Pilate also wanted a compromise. He found Jesus not guilty and said so repeatedly – Luke repeats his words four times and implies that he said it at least one more time than that. And yet Pilate was going to punish Jesus by flogging Him and then release Him. Why flog an innocent man? Pilate hoped that a little bloodletting would be enough to satisfy the bloodthirsty chief priests and scribes. Neither Herod nor Pilate desired to crucify Jesus. In fact, Luke tells us expressly that Pilate desired to release Jesus.
- But just as they did not want to side with the religious authorities neither did they want to side with Jesus in what was really a religious debate. Neither Herod nor Pilate wanted to become disciples of Jesus. As we have seen, Herod wanted to be entertained by Jesus. Luke even stresses that Herod was glad when he saw Jesus and that “he had long desired to see him.” But Herod did not want to become a disciple of Jesus. And Pilate was not about to become Jesus’ disciple either. He had declared Jesus to be “not guilty,” but that did not mean that Pilate was looking to join the people following this religious reformer. And for Pilate, Jesus was innocent but He was also expendable. Pilate willingly sent Jesus to die as a sacrificial lamb to the slaughter so that Pilate would be able to survive physically and politically this situation that was blowing up right before his eyes. (Thus we’ve seen how the religious leaders of Israel and the crowds treated Jesus at His Roman trial and we’ve seen how Pilate the Roman prefect and how Herod the Roman puppet treated Jesus at His court trial. So how are we going to respond to the trial of Jesus today?)
- Our options for responding to the trial of Jesus today include going along with the crowd and falsely accusing Jesus with the religious leaders of Israel or to try not to take sides like Herod and Pilate—though not taking sides is ultimately to side against Jesus—[or (3) we can trust in Jesus].
- There are a number of people that you will meet that have the attitude of the chief priests and scribes. This is an in-your-face and warlike attitude toward Jesus and His church. It may be because of a prayer that they felt went unanswered and they are angry at God. It may be because they have seen or experienced horrible things and they are upset at God. It may be because they have a different plan than the one that God appears to be unfolding and they are doing everything they can to see their way prevail. But whatever the reason, this war-like in-your-face attitude is a fairly common response to Jesus and His church that is becoming more and more popular in our culture. And the best way to begin to share the gospel with people who respond to the trial of Jesus like this is to love them, bless them, and pray for them.
- But far more common and popular today are responses like that of Herod and Pilate. The people you share the gospel of Jesus with may be willing to become Jesus’ defense attorney—like Pilate basically did. Or they may even tell you that Jesus is their favorite philosopher or teacher and definitely among the top five people they would want to meet—like Herod long desired. But they are not ready to repent and believe in Jesus and join His church. One of the things that we need to say to those who respond this way to the trial of Jesus is that to not be with Jesus is to side against Jesus. Jesus said earlier in Luke, “Whoever is not with me is against me,” (Luke 11:23). And that is what happens at the trial of Jesus, Pilate and Herod were not with Jesus and so at the end of the day they were against Jesus. They were not going to become disciples of Jesus and follow Him, thus they were against Jesus. Challenge those who would be willing to defend Jesus and even willing to say that what happened to Him was one of the greatest injustices of criminal law in history. Challenge those who tell you that they would like to meet Jesus or those who seek to be entertained by Jesus – especially to see one of those neat miracles of healing they have heard He can do or to hear some of those neat stories he was famous for telling. Tell them that if they are not disciples of Jesus then they are disciples or followers of the evil one. There is no middle ground. (And, therefore these two responses to the trial of Jesus are not all that different from each other—both responses reject Jesus, but there is a third possible response.)
- The third possible response is to trust in Jesus for your salvation from guilt and sin and death. The religious leaders, the crowd, and the politicians in the text are not the only ones who have sinned. We also have blood on our hands. [We can’t pass this responsibility off onto others like Pilate tried to do by sending Jesus to Herod. Pilate sent Jesus to Herod so that he wouldn’t be the only one responsible for what happened to Jesus.] We can’t wash our hands of Jesus like we read in other Gospels that Pilate tried to do. And we can’t wash the blood off our hands. Of course, physically speaking if we get blood on our hands we can wash it off. But ceremonially speaking—before God, we can’t wash the blood off our hands for we cannot atone for our own sins. While we were still sinners—while we were only standing in the old age—we stood before God as guilty people and there was nothing we could do to change that status. Though Pilate decided Jesus was politically expendable, Jesus is not expendable. We cannot be saved without Him. Jesus died in the place of guilty sinners who couldn’t wash the blood off our own hands. As Paul said, “God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8). This is why Luke stresses the innocence of Jesus on the lips of Pilate and with the actions of Herod [and why Luke tells us Jesus would die instead of the murderous rebel Barabbas]. He is inviting you guilty sinners living in the present evil age to follow the innocent one into the new creation. This is not an invitation for you to listen to an interesting teacher who tells good stories It is not an invitation for you to see great miracles and exorcisms and other great prophetic signs. It is not even an invitation for you to meet Jesus because you have always wanted to meet him like some other historical figures. Luke is inviting you to become Jesus’ disciple. Jesus died in the place of guilty sinners. The innocent one died so that you who were guilty before God might live. Thanks be to God! Amen!