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Are you Pilate?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 27:11–14

Fishermen recently caught a sixteen-foot, 3,000-pound great white shark off the coast of South Carolina. Or, I should say, the shark caught them.

The owner of the fishing charter told reporters, “A 3,000 pound animal is massive. People don’t realize just one wag of the tail can pool a 26-foot boat at that kind of clip. After we started fighting this thing we kind of realized that it was just too much.”

So he called for backup. Other fishermen arrived to help. They were finally able to get the shark to the side of the boat, tag her, and send her on her way.

Sin works the same way. We think we can control it, but it ends up controlling us. It always takes us further than we wanted to go, keeps us longer than we wanted to stay, and costs us more than we wanted to pay.

What is the secret or shame which lives in your past, the guilt that haunts your thoughts, the skeletons in your soul this morning?

Resurrection Sunday is in five Sundays. As we journey to the cross and empty tomb, each week we will explore a different character in the drama of the ages. Along the way, we’ll ask what we can learn from their story. And we’ll find ways to share the Easter story with our culture today.

We begin with the legal proceedings that led to Jesus’ crucifixion. It’s a fascinating story, one most Christians don’t really know. We’ll ask this morning why these authorities condemned Jesus to die. And we’ll learn what to do when our sins condemn us in the same way.

Condemned by Caiaphas

Our Lord’s legal trials began before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme court. It was made of seventy-one members from the scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and elders of the people, its sessions led by the High Priest. A quorum for a trial such as this was twenty-three.

Like nearly all legal courtrooms, the Sanhedrin operated by strict legal standards:

No criminal cases could be tried during the Passover season.

All criminal cases must be conducted during daytime and completed during daytime.

Only if the verdict was “not guilty” could the case be finished during the day in which it began. Otherwise a night must intervene before sentencing, so feelings of mercy could arise within the judges.

No decision was valid unless the Sanhedrin met in its designated meeting place, the Hall of Hewn Stone in the temple precincts.

All evidence must be guaranteed by two independent witnesses who were interviewed separately and showed no evidence of contact with each other. False witness was punishable by death.

The accused could not be made to testify against himself. He had the same rights against self-incrimination as our Fifth Amendment provides today. And he was permitted to bring all evidence of his innocence before the court before any evidence of guilt could be heard.

Now Jesus of Nazareth came before the court. And the Sanhedrin violated each of its regulations in condemning him to die. This was the Passover season; the trial took place at night; the court met in the home of the High Priest, not at its designated Hall; witnesses were all demonstrated to be false; Jesus was permitted no opportunity to speak in his own defense. The guilt was all on the court, none on the accused.

Finally, in desperation, Caiaphas pled with Jesus to incriminate himself: “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63). Jesus answered the High Priest’s question: “Yes, it is as you say” (v. 64). He then quoted Daniel 7:13, clearly claiming to be the Messiah and the Son of God.

He knew the court would consider his claim to be blasphemy. And he knew the penalty for such: “Anyone who blasphemes the name of the Lord must be put to death” (Leviticus 24:16). Unless it isn’t blasphemy. Unless the person truly is the Son of God.

Violating its regulations, the court moved immediately to the sentence of death, and began to carry it out that same night with their own physical abuse against Jesus. Now, who was guilty in the Jewish trial—Jesus or Caiaphas?

Tried by Pilate

The Jews were not permitted by Rome to inflict the death penalty. The ius gladii, the “right of the sword,” could be pronounced only by the Roman governor, and carried out only by the Roman authorities. So, they took their convict to Pilate.

They knew that the Roman governor would give no attention to their theological charge of blasphemy. So, before Pilate they changed their charges completely, claiming that Jesus had incited rebellion against Rome, taught the people not to pay their taxes to Rome; and claimed to be a King (Luke 23:2). These were accusations which their own court had not heard or proven, showing further the illegality of their actions.

Why did Pilate consider their false charges? The gospel writers and their readers all knew the story, in the same way Watergate is familiar to us. But you may not know what they knew. Here’s the sordid tale.

Pilate was by title the “procurator” of the province of Israel; we would call him the governor. He became procurator in AD 26, and held the office until AD 35, when he was recalled by the Emperor.

From the start, Pilate was contemptuous of the Jews and their traditions. His initial visit to Jerusalem set the stage for all that would follow. The Roman capital of the region was at Caesarea. When Pilate marched into Jerusalem with his detachment of soldiers, he ordered them to carry military standards—long poles on top of which were affixed small statues of the Roman emperor.

Now the Jews considered such to be idolatry. And so, each governor before Pilate understood their religious objections and deferred to them; but Pilate refused. The people revolted. Pilate threatened to kill them. They bared their necks to the Roman swords. Not even Pilate could order such a massacre. He was beaten, and ordered the standards withdrawn. Such was his beginning as governor of the Jews.

Later he stole money from the Temple treasury to improve the water supply in Jerusalem. Again, the people rioted. His soldiers killed many of them. His rule was endangered.

The third incident was worst of all. On one visit to Jerusalem, Pilate had shields made on which were inscribed the name of Tiberius the Emperor. The people rebelled; Pilate’s own advisors counseled him to remove the names from the shields; but Pilate refused. The Jews reported the matter to Emperor Tiberius, and he ordered Pilate to remove his name from his shields.

So now Pilate was on record in Rome as an incompetent administrator. One more protest from the Jewish authorities could well mean his removal or even worse. His job and future were on the line here, and everyone knew it. When Jesus stood before him, who was the guilty party?

Condemned by Pilate

When Jesus was brought before the Roman governor, Pilate examined him privately (John 18:33). At the conclusion of his investigation he announced: “I find no basis for a charge against him” (v. 38). No basis whatsoever for any kind of charge. This is a full and complete exoneration, beyond which there should have been no further process. When the governor pardons you, you cannot be accused of that crime again.

Three more times Pilate would render the same ruling: “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 19:4); “As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him” (19:6b); “From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free” (19:12). John saw it all happen, and gives proof that Jesus was innocent of all charges.

But the Jewish authorities were equally adamant that this man must be convicted and crucified. How will Pilate pacify them and keep his job? And how will he at the same time be just to this innocent man?

He tried several strategies.

First, he attempted to evade the entire matter, telling the Jews to judge him themselves and then sending him to Herod. But both refused.

Next, he tried to use the custom of releasing a prisoner to the people during the Passover. But the authorities incited the crowd to ask for Barabbas instead of Jesus.

Now he attempted compromise. He had Jesus scourged, a horrific act of torture. Now surely the Jewish authorities would consider the man punished sufficiently and would allow Pilate to set him free. But no: they shouted all the more, “Crucify! Crucify!” (John 19:6).

Once more he appealed to them: “From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free” (v. 12a). Then the authorities played their trump card: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (v. 12b).

Here was their threat: if you release this man, you have released a rebel, a threat to the Empire. This was the most egregious failure Pilate could be accused of committing. He would instantly be recalled by Rome and could face his own execution as a traitor. It came to Jesus or Pilate. And we know who he chose.

So, who was guilty in the Roman trial—Jesus or Pilate?

Conclusion

Why did the authorities execute Jesus? If he was guilty as charged, his death could pay no one’s debt but his own. So, remember the illegality of the Jewish trials. Remember Pilate’s four proclamations of his innocence. Here’s the one point of this morning’s message: Jesus died not because he was guilty, but because we are.

Some years ago, I was speaking in Huntsville, Texas, where I met Warden Joe Fernall, a brilliant and godly man. He showed me the prison, and its execution chamber. I stood where prisoners are strapped to the gurney and lethal injections end their lives. I’ll never forget that blue-green brick walled little room where those convicted of capital offenses pay for their crimes.

In the execution room of first-century Jerusalem, Jesus of Nazareth died. Not to pay for his crimes, but for ours. Not because he was guilty, but because we are.

Before his death he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Because his death paid the debt for the crimes we have committed against God, his Father could. And he still does.

Now, think back to that secret sin which won’t release your heart, that shame which won’t let go. Don’t try to pay for it yourself, by punishing yourself with guilt. Instead, confess it to your Father. Claim the forgiveness for which his Son prayed. The next time your guilt attacks you again, claim that forgiveness again. And again, and again, until it lets you go.

And it will.