Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Sermon: Matthew 27: 11-26 Characters Around the Cross: Pilate

Through this Holy Week, we are considering the characters around the cross. Tonight, we’re looking at Pontius Pilate. Pilate’s name is so familiar to us, since we say it every time we use the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed. When we say that Jesus ‘suffered under Pontius Pilate’ and ‘For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate’ - what are we saying, and how it did come about?

The first thing to note is that every time we say the creeds we are affirming a historical fact. We don’t just believe in fairy tales, legends that have grown up through the mists of time. No, Pontius Pilate existed, he was the prefect of the Roman Province of Judea, and he oversaw the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ.

History tells us that Pilate had ‘vindictiveness and furious temper’ and was ‘naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness.’ (Philo). He was also insensitive to Jewish customs, causing offence time and time again, and brutally murdering protestors to get his own way.

We know him, though, because of his connection to the crucifixion of Jesus. It was under him and his authority that Jesus suffered and was crucified. So let’s consider Pilate for a few moments, from our reading in Matthew 27.

Jesus the prisoner is brought before him. Jesus has already been beaten, slapped, spat at. And now he stands before Caesar’s representative in Jerusalem. Pilate has the power of life or death. That’s why the religious leaders have brought Jesus to him - they reckon he deserves to die, but they don’t have the authority to enforce the death penalty any more. For that, they need Roman power. Hence, why Jesus stands before Pilate, with the religious leaders out for blood.

When Pilate asks a straight question, he gets a straight answer. ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘Yet, it is as you say.’ Jesus affirms that he is indeed the king of the Jews. But the other Jews who are there oppose him and accuse him. And notice that it isn’t any Jews - these are the top Jews, the chief priests and elders, the religious leaders. And they accuse him many times. But like a lamb led to the slaughter, Jesus is silent. He gives no answer, no reply, not even to a single charge.

Pilate intervenes to make sure he hears what they’re saying, and is greatly amazed that he doesn’t defend himself, doesn’t answer, doesn’t reply.

But then Pilate finds a possible escape route. Throughout his time in Jerusalem, he’s had a custom of releasing one prisoner chosen by the crowd. And so maybe he thinks he’ll be able to have Jesus released by the mechanism, to save him from having to make a decision about Jesus. And it appears that he is going to make it really easy for the crowd to decide between two prisoners.

On one hand, you have the notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. (Some versions even name him Jesus Barabbas). He had been involved in a rebellion, and was a murderer. And on the other hand, you have Jesus who is called Christ. Jesus who had healed the lame, gave the blind their sight, and even raised the dead to life. It should be a fairly easy decision, shouldn’t it? Do you want a murderer roaming the streets, or one who restores life? Would you prefer Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus Christ?

Matthew tells us that Pilate ‘knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.’ And so he makes it easy for the crowd to choose the right answer, free Jesus, and get on with his day, in whatever way Roman governors lived out their days.

While all this was going on - and remember, it was early in the morning, the cock has crowed signalling Peter’s denials, and Pilate’s wife sends him a message. ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’ (19)

Mrs Pilate recognises that Jesus is innocent. She urges Pilate to not have anything to do with Jesus. But that’s not going to happen. Unless the crowd go for his plan to release Jesus and keep Barabbas safely behind bars.

As we see in verse 20, though, that isn’t going to happen. The chief priests and elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas, and to have Jesus executed. So who do they want released? And they answer ‘Barabbas.’

‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?’ Pilate asked. And how do the crowd reply? ‘Crucify him!’ It’s not what Pilate expected, not what he wanted to hear. You can see that Pilate shares his wife’s opinion that Jesus is indeed innocent. Do you see his next question: ‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ (23)

Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent. In Luke’s account, he even says: ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man.’ (Lk 23:4) and later, ‘he has done nothing to deserve death.’ (Lk 23:15) But all sense of justice has gone by this stage. There are no reasoned arguments. Just a louder and louder shout of ‘Crucify him!’

Pilate was the governor, he should have been in control. But the peace of Jerusalem is threatened by the way this trial was going. As uproar was starting, and so the governor gives in to the mob’s demands. Instead of insisting on justice, he allows the mob to rule the day. He gives in to the crowd’s demands for crucifixion.

But did you see how he tried, even at the last minute, to get out of it? He has water brought, and washes his hands in front of the crowd. I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase to wash your hands of something - it’s to say that you’re not involved, that you’ve no part in it. And that’s what Pilate was trying to do here. He’s trying to distance himself from what is about to happen. He’s trying to say that he’s not responsible for the cross. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood. It is your responsibility.’ (24).

While the crowd here accept the responsibility, does that mean that Pilate has clean hands? Are we unfair to mention his name in the creeds? Does he get a raw deal? Not at all! He allowed Jesus to be crucified. It couldn’t have happened without his agreement. He had to decide what to do about Jesus.

He had asked the right question in verse 22: ‘What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?’ What shall I do with Jesus? So what did he do with Jesus? Ultimately, he decided against Jesus. In washing his hands of the matter, he tried to avoid making a decision. But he decided against Jesus (whether actively or passively).

You see, to make no decision about Jesus is to decide against Jesus. Perhaps you’ve heard all about the cross so many times before. You know all about Jesus. You know that you need to make a decision about Jesus - whether you will follow him or forget him. But to put it off, to defer it a little bit longer, to make no decision is to decide - against Jesus.

Please do ask yourself - what shall I do with Jesus? And don’t put it off - decide to follow the Jesus who died for you. He was innocent, had done no wrong. But he suffered under Pontius Pilate; he was crucified under his authority - so that you, the guilty one, could go free - just like Barabbas. Well could Barabbas say that first Good Friday evening ‘He died in my place.’

Can you say that as well? Can you look at the cross and see Jesus dying there for you, in your place, for your sins? He had done no wrong, but he died for you, so that your sins could be wiped away. Your slate wiped clean.

So what will you do with Jesus? Pilate tried to wash his hands of the whole thing. He tried to avoid making a decision. But to not make a decision is to decide against Jesus. And one day, each of us will stand on trial before the judge - not Pilate, but Jesus. Will you meet him as your Saviour, or your Judge?

What will you do with Jesus?
Neutral you cannot be;
someday your heart will be asking,
‘What will he do with me?’

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill in the Characters Around the Cross Holy Week series on Monday 15th April 2019.

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