Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, in whose house the scribes and the elders had gathered. But Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest; and going inside, he sat with the guards in order to see how this would end.Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for false testimony against Jesus so that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’” The high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. Then the high priest said to him, “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?” They answered, “He deserves death.”Then they spat in his face and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who is it that struck you?”
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant-girl came to him and said, “You also were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before all of them, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he went out to the porch, another servant-girl saw him, and she said to the bystanders, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” Again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” After a little while the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Certainly you are also one of them, for your accent betrays you.” Then he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know the man!” At that moment the cock crowed. Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: “Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death. They bound him, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” After conferring together, they used them to buy the potter’s field as a place to bury foreigners. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of the one on whom a price had been set, on whom some of the people of Israel had set a price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. Now at the festival the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. So after they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” All of them said, “Let him be crucified!” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”
So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard.” So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled.” All of them deserted him and fled.
A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.
They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and
‘you will see the Son of ManThen the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, “You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth.” But he denied it, saying, “I do not know or understand what you are talking about.” And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, “This man is one of them.” But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, “Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.” But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, “I do not know this man you are talking about.” At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, “Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” And he broke down and wept.
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He answered him, “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom.Then he answered them, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, “Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?”They shouted back, “Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him!” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus. Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take.
While he was still speaking, suddenly a crowd came, and the one called Judas, one of the twelve, was leading them. He approached Jesus to kiss him; but Jesus said to him, “Judas, is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man?” When those who were around him saw what was coming, they asked, “Lord, should we strike with the sword?” Then one of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, “No more of this!” And he touched his ear and healed him.Then Jesus said to the chief priests, the officers of the temple police, and the elders who had come for him, “Have you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this is your hour, and the power of darkness!”
Then they seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance. When they had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and sat down together, Peter sat among them. Then a servant-girl, seeing him in the firelight, stared at him and said, “This man also was with him.” But he denied it, saying, “Woman, I do not know him.” A little later someone else, on seeing him, said, “You also are one of them.” But Peter said, “Man, I am not!” Then about an hour later still another kept insisting, “Surely this man also was with him; for he is a Galilean.” But Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are talking about!” At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. The Lord turned and looked at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
Now the men who were holding Jesus began to mock him and beat him;they also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” They kept heaping many other insults on him. When day came, the assembly of the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, gathered together, and they brought him to their council. They said, “If you are the Messiah, tell us.” He replied, “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I question you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” All of them asked, “Are you, then, the Son of God?” He said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!”
Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” Then Pilate asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” He answered, “You say so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no basis for an accusation against this man.” But they were insistent and said, “He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.”When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.
Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people,and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. I will therefore have him flogged and release him.” Then they all shouted out together, “Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!” (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; but they kept shouting, “Crucify, crucify him!” A third time he said to them, “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.” But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted.He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.
So the soldiers, their officer, and the Jewish police arrested Jesus and bound him.First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year. Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people. Simon Peter and another disciple followed Jesus. Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter was standing outside at the gate. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out, spoke to the woman who guarded the gate, and brought Peter in. The woman said to Peter, “You are not also one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.” Now the slaves and the police had made a charcoal fire because it was cold, and they were standing around it and warming themselves. Peter also was standing with them and warming himself. Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” Then Annas sent him bound to Caiaphas the high priest. Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. They asked him, “You are not also one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” One of the slaves of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.
Then they took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?”They answered, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him according to your law.” The Jews replied, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” (This was to fulfill what Jesus had said when he indicated the kind of death he was to die.) Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again and told them, “I find no case against him. But you have a custom that I release someone for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit.
Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. And the soldiers wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they dressed him in a purple robe. They kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face. Pilate went out again and said to them, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no case against him.” So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” When the chief priests and the police saw him, they shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him; I find no case against him.” The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” Now when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever. He entered his headquarters again and asked Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. Pilate therefore said to him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” From then on Pilate tried to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation for the Passover; and it was about noon. He said to the Jews, “Here is your King!” They cried out, “Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!” Pilate asked them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but the emperor.”
Then he handed him over to them to be crucified.
We are nearing the close of Mark's account of the life of our Lord, this marvelous servant who came to rule among men, this ruler who came to serve. The fifteenth chapter of Mark's gospel is the account of our Lord's appearance before Pilate. The events around the cross are more than simple narratives told by the gospel writers. You can read them that way: the simple tragic story of a man who laid down his life on behalf of a cause. But if you read the gospel accounts carefully you will see that there are very strange and marvelous forces at work behind the scenes. We sometimes sing a hymn, "God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform." I do not think anything makes that more clear than these gospel accounts. In First Corinthians 2:7, the Apostle Paul says, "But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God..." (1 Corinthians 2:7a RSV). "None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had they would not have crucified the Lord of glory," (1 Corinthians 2:8 RSV). So there is something going on behind the scenes in this account, and I hope we will be able to see something of it in this study.
The cross has amazing power in our lives. It seems to be a simple story; yet what it does to us is radical and revolutionary. In Chapter 14, Jesus appeared before the priests, and the issue was whether or not he was the prophet that was to come, the Messiah, who would come from God to set things right within the nation. This indeed was what the high priest asked him, "Are you the prophet? Are you the Messiah, the Christ, Son of the living God?" (Mark 14:61). And Jesus answered, "I am," (Mark 14:62 RSV). When the priests mocked him and ridiculed him, they covered his face and then hit him, saying, "Prophesy!" For that was the great issue: was he the predicted one?
But the account today has to do with Jesus' appearance before Pilate, and the issue is, "Is he the King of the Jews?" That question is foremost throughout this portion of Scripture. Yet underneath are currents that indicate something much deeper is going on, something of mystery.
I would like you to be thinking of four questions as we read this account: The first one is, why did Pilate marvel at the silence of Jesus? Second, Why did the crowd choose Barabbas instead of Jesus? Third, Why did Pilate scourge Jesus before his crucifixion? And fourth, Why did the soldiers mock him with such passion and cruelty?
Now be alert to these as we read this account, because as we seek to answer these questions, we will get at the story behind the story. The first question is raised in Chapter 15, Verse 1:
We do not know how our Lord spent the hours between his late evening appearance before the priests and his appearance here before Pilate the next morning. There were probably five or six hours in between. It's hard to say whether he was able to get a few hours' sleep after that momentous night when he had been betrayed and arrested, brought before the high priests and condemned by them in an illegal night meeting. But early the next morning he is brought before them again, and the priests hold a consultation with the entire Sanhedrin. Their meeting at night was illegal. In order to justify their actions, they have to hold a meeting in the daytime. So early in the morning, as soon as it is light, they gather together to hold this meeting.
The reason they had to consult together was because they knew that the charge on which they had condemned Jesus would never stand before the Roman governor. They condemned Jesus for blasphemy. They said that he claimed to be God, so he was worthy of death. But the Romans would pay no attention to that charge, so they had to come up with something else before they sent him to Pilate. Luke tells us that they levied three charges against him: First, he was charged with perverting the nation, that is, arousing troublemakers, creating riots and dissension. Second, he was charged with forbidding the payment of tribute to Rome, teaching people to not pay their taxes. Third, he was charged with wanting to be king instead of Caesar. Now it is this last charge that Pilate seized upon as being the only important one of the three.
Some of you have been to the Tower of Antonio, overlooking the temple area in Jerusalem. It was probably to this Roman fortress that Jesus was taken to appear before Pilate, and Pilate seized the occasion to say to him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Now Jesus' answer has puzzled a lot of people. He did not say, as he had previously said to the priests, "I am." He said, "You have said so," or "So you say." Many have been troubled by that, for it is neither an affirmation nor a denial, but simply, "That is what you say. Am I the King of the Jews? According to your way of thinking, you would call me King of the Jews." Why was he not more positive? I think the answer is clear in John's gospel. John 18:36, 37 says Jesus went on to say, "My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, ..." He makes clear to Pilate that his kingship is no threat to Rome whatsoever. I think it is very clear that Pilate understood it that way and was relieved of any fear that Jesus was indeed trying to foment a revolution against Rome.
If we read between the lines here we can see the priests began to see that Pilate understood that Jesus was not challenging the authority of Rome and their case was beginning to fall apart. They are angry, Mark tells us, and begin to accuse him of many things. They heap on all the accusations they can think of to show Pilate that they want the death of this man. If we skip to Verse 10, there is a very revealing verse that says Pilate "perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up." Now Pilate was no fool. He was a cruel and rapacious governor, but he was no fool. He saw through all these empty charges and understood what the priests were trying to do and why. Now "to envy" means that you want something that someone else has. You are jealous of it; if you cannot have it yourself, you do not want the other person to have it either. What the priests wanted was Jesus' power and authority with the people. "He spoke as no other man spoke" (John 7:46), and they knew that. Again and again they had tried to gainsay what he said, and to trap him with his own words, but they could never catch him. He always had a word, a simple word, that utterly demolished them and all their schemes. Such craft and power made them angry and envious.
Now to all these additional charges that the priests heaped upon him, Jesus remained absolutely silent. He just stood there. Pilate was amazed at this, and tried to encourage him to answer. I think that is what we have to see in Pilate's words, "Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you." Once again the Lord stood without uttering a word. He did not even reply to Pilate. So it is recorded here that Pilate marveled that our Lord remained silent. Now why did Jesus remain silent, and why was the governor so struck by this silence of Jesus?
If you read further in the chapter you find that some hours later, when Jesus was hanging on the cross, the chief priests and others were standing around, taunting him and mocking him. Verse 29:
When they made that statement, they were wrong. They thought that he could not save himself, but he could have. I think that here, before Pilate, it was quite possible for Jesus to save himself from the cross. For it was evident to him that Pilate knew he was innocent and wanted to deliver him and was seeking some way to do so. If he had replied to Pilate in any way, the governor would have used his words to dismiss the charge and free him immediately. It is obvious that Pilate's sympathy at this point is with Jesus, not with the priests. He knows what they are trying to do, that they are trying to railroad Jesus. He knows that the man is innocent, and is no real threat to Rome, and wants to set him free. But he marveled because Jesus would not cooperate. He did not say a word, and gave Pilate no grounds on which to free him. Thus the silence of Jesus effectively exposed the true enmity of these priests. It effectively stripped away all their disguise, and they had to come out and openly reveal that what was eating them was nothing more than the jealousy of their own hearts.
That is what I mean when I say the cross has a remarkable way of working with us. It strips us of all pretense. It is God's great plowshare, ripping through the hypocrisy of our lives, laying us bare for all to see, including ourselves. This is what you see happening here. As Jesus remains silent before these priests, they are forced to make clear the enmity of their own hearts against him.
The second movement of this story begins in the incident with Barabbas. The other gospel accounts tell us that at this point Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, and Herod, who was considered king of the Jews, tried to make sport of Jesus, and tried to get him to work a miracle. Mark does not record any of that. But Jesus remained utterly silent before Herod, and never opened his mouth once. So Herod sent him back to Pilate, and here Mark takes up the narrative in Verse 6:
All the gospel writers tell us of Barabbas. He was a bloodthirsty revolutionary, a member of the first-century edition of the Symbionese Liberation Army; hard-nosed, bloody-handed, he was a murderer, Luke tells us. The interesting thing about him is his name, which means "son of the father." And in a most dramatic historic coincidence, according to some old manuscripts, there is some evidence that his name probably was Jesus Barabbas: Jesus, son of the father. I do not see how we could read and understand that without knowing that this is again God's subtle teaching, that "hidden and secret wisdom of God" Paul speaks of (1 Corinthians 2:7 RSV), that is silently guiding events behind the scene, bringing things to light that otherwise would never be known. For this crowd is not confronted with choosing between Jesus, the son of the father, who rules by force, and makes his living by his wits; and Jesus, the Son of the Father, who rules by love, and is ready to sacrifice himself.
Now I think we have to ask the question, Why did they choose Barabbas? The answer seems to be that they were disappointed with Jesus. This was the crowd which, just a few days before, had welcomed him into Jerusalem. The city was filled with people Jesus had healed. The eyes of the blind had been opened, the deaf made to hear, and the lame to walk. There must have been hundreds, if not thousands of people in Jerusalem at that time whom Jesus had touched personally. He had awakened within the people the hope, the flaming desire, that this was indeed the Messiah, come to deliver them from the yoke of Rome. All their ideas of messiahship centered around the thought that he would be the one who would set them free from the hated bondage of Rome. Now, when they saw him standing helpless before the Roman governor, saw his apparent unwillingness or inability to make any defense or to get out of this by any means or to do anything against the Romans, all their loyalty to him collapsed. In anger and disappointment, they turned and chose Jesus, the son of the father, who lived by force, Barabbas the murderer.
We, too, face the same decision these Jews had to make between Barabbas and Jesus. Have you ever been disappointed in Jesus, disappointed in God? Have you ever expected him to act in a certain way because of what you understood about him and his life and his nature -- but he did not do it. Has that ever happened to you? I has to me. I have been angry and disappointed in God. I have been all but convinced that he did not live up to his promise, for I was sure that I knew what he was going to do, and God disappointed me. My heart was filled with rage that God would act that way, despite the fact that God has told us all, again and again, "My ways are not your ways, and my thoughts are not your thoughts. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts higher than your thoughts," (Isaiah 55:8-9). We cannot figure out God. He will be true to himself, he will never lie, he will never deceive us; but he is more than we can handle. He is bigger than we are. And, like this crowd, when we get angry with God, and upset with Jesus and turn from him, there is always another Jesus waiting in the wings for us to follow.
A few weeks ago I saw the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. In a way, I appreciated that musical. I thought it was a very honest revelation of what the world conceives Jesus to be. One thing was very clear, however; it was not the same Jesus that is in the gospels. It is the same name, same attributes, but not the same Jesus. Our anger and disappointment in Jesus always open us to the possibility of following another Jesus. The scourging of Jesus related in this paragraph raises another question. Pilate knew that the crowd wanted him to release Barabbas and not Jesus. He asked them, "What shall I do then with Jesus, the King of the Jews?" And they said, "Crucify him." I think Pilate was somewhat aghast at that; there was no basis for him to order Jesus to be crucified. And yet the crowd was demanding it, and Pilate was a man-pleaser. So he scourged Jesus. Now it was not the normal practice to scourge a prisoner before crucifying him. There is no evidence that the other thieves who were crucified with Jesus were scourged before they went to the cross. But Pilate ordered Jesus to be scourged. Any of you who have seen what the Romans used in this process of scourging would realize what a bloody and bitter experience it was. These long leather cords were imbedded with bits of metal and bone, so that as the thongs whipped around him, the skin on the prisoner's back was cut and flayed open, until it was a bloody mass. I often have wondered why it was that Pilate ordered this scourging, knowing that crucifixion would follow. But I think it is clear that this was the last attempt by Pilate to spare Jesus. He hoped, by the scourging, to awaken the sympathy of the crowd. He hoped to punish him in a way that would arouse the feeling of the crowd on his behalf. For John tells us that after the scourging, Pilate led Jesus out before the crowd and said to them, "Behold the man!" (John 19:5 KJV). But it failed. Stirred up by the chief priests and others, the crowd kept crying, in their madness, "Crucify him!"
John tells us that Pilate was afraid of Jesus. He was afraid of the crowd; he was afraid of Jesus. So as this account unfolds, you see a man of dubious character, caught on the horns of a dilemma. Trying to please two opposing powers, he is stripped naked before all of history, and we begin to see this man in his true character. He is a coward, afraid to make the decision of the basis of justice. So he tries to decide on the basis of expediency and he ends up the curse of all the ages. See how the cross again is at work behind the scenes, bringing out the hidden things.
Now the final paragraph this morning deals with the soldiers. Verse 16:
This mockery was a strange thing. They did not usually do this with those sentenced to crucifixion. These were rough, hard-handed soldiers, used to carrying out gruesome orders. They could callously take a man out and nail him to a cross, then go to breakfast. But they went through this mockery of Jesus that seems to have a tremendous passion behind it. Notice they called the whole band together, all the soldiers who were off duty or lounging around, so they were all joined together in this. It was spontaneous. They did not have to do this, they decided by themselves to indulge in this cruel and insulting mockery. They made the crown of thorns and jammed it down on the Lord's head; they put a reed in his hand as his scepter and bowed down before him; they spit on him, and jerked the reed out of his hand and hit him over the head with it.
Why this strange insulting mockery? Again, I think the answer is revealed in what they said to him: "Hail, King of the Jews!" Now, they were not angry at Jesus. Probably had never seen him before, and knew very little about him. What they were angry at was the Jews. All the pent-up hatred and resentment against this stubborn and difficult people came pouring out and found its object in this lonely Jew whom they understood was regarded in some sense as King of the Jews. All the foul mass of bigotry and racial hatred came pouring out against Jesus. Once again we see how the cross unveils what is hidden. We read this morning in Psalms 2, which begins with these words,
The Psalmist is asking, "Why?" And as you read through this account you can see that God is subtly moving in strange and various ways behind the scenes to answer that question. As the cross of Jesus comes into the life of any man, woman, boy, or girl, it has a powerful way of ripping off all our disguise, and we have to answer finally, clearly, and honestly, what our reaction is to Jesus.
That is why the great question of all time is, "What will you do with Jesus, who is called the Christ?" What is your attitude toward Jesus? Do you love him? Paul writes, "Any one who does not love the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be accursed," (Galatians 1:8-9). The word is, "let him be damned." Now why would he say a harsh thing like that? Because, you see, that is the test. If you do not love Jesus, what do you love? You love the opposite. Instead of loving love, you love hate. Instead of loving truth, you love lies. Instead of loving honesty, you love deceit. It is the final testing of all time, of every person. What do you feel about Jesus? Do you love him? Most of us do. But even in those hours when we act differently, the cross has this strange and marvelous way of penetrating deep beneath the surface and bringing out all that hidden secret wisdom of God, which none of the rulers of this age understand; for if they had, they never would have crucified the Lord of glory. Every one of us finally stands naked before God. So I hope that if your attitude is anything other than a love for Jesus, perhaps this morning you will surrender that attitude to him. You cannot change your heart, but he can. If you bring it to him, he will make the change.
When the flesh was bold and confident, Peter slept. And the results are what follows in Verses 43-50.
There are three actions emphasized in that paragraph. First, the kiss of Judas. Mark uses the normal word for kiss, which means "to love," in telling of the arrangement Judas had made with the chief priests. They were to seize the one whom he kissed. But in the actual moment, when Judas carries this out, Mark uses an emphasized form of that word, a word that means a prolonged kiss, a lover's kiss. I do not think there is anything in all the annals of treachery more contemptuous than this kiss of Judas' -- a deliberate, prolonged, apparently loving act, done with cold determination to accomplish his own purpose.
The second emphasis in this paragraph is on Peter's blundering defense. Peter is still trying to make a show of carrying out what he resolved. He grabs the sword and, as the priests and soldiers move in on Jesus, he slashes away. But so poor is his aim that all he does is lop off the ear of the high priest's servant. That is such a beautiful example of the flesh at work! We may strike out in our attempts to carry out our purposes, but all we accomplish is the lopping-off of somebody's ear.
I look back this morning on twenty-five years of pastoral ministry and I am sure that if the symbols of my actions were visibly apparent, you could look back and find lopped-off ears lying all over the place! They are symbols of my attempts to do what I thought was right -- but it was not of the Lord. We have all done this. The glorious thing, Luke tells us, is that Jesus reached out and touched that servant and healed his ear. I am so grateful for the Lord's healing touch on the lopped-off ears that I have been responsible for during my lifetime.
The third action emphasized in this passage is the sudden flight of the disciples. They all forsook him. I am sure this means that, at that moment, after three-and-a-half years, all their confidence that Jesus was indeed the Messiah suddenly forsakes them. They see now that he is nothing but a man. His willingness to give himself over without any resistance into the hands of his enemies and his refusal to defend himself in any way becomes, in their eyes, tantamount to his renunciation of being the Messiah. Now it is every man for himself, and so they flee.
In Luke's account of the resurrection, remember that as two disciples walked along the road to Emmaus, a stranger appeared, a man whom they did not recognize, and they discussed with him the events that had taken place in Jerusalem. They said to him, concerning Jesus of Nazareth, "We had hoped (notice the past tense) that he was the one who would redeem Israel," (Luke 24:21a RSV). Their hope was gone, so they forsook him and fled. And thus the smiting of the shepherd resulted in the scattering of the sheep.
Mark adds a little postscript in Verse 51 that we do not want to miss:
All the scholars agree that this is Mark himself. This is Mark's way of saying, "I was there." I am sure there are two things at least that he is telling us by this little account of his presence there. At the beginning of this series on the book of Mark, I said that it was my conviction, derived from the Stedmaniac version of Scripture, that Mark himself was the rich young ruler who came to Jesus and asked the way to eternal life. Jesus said to him, "Go, sell what you have ... and follow me," and that young man went away sad, because he had great possessions, (Mark 10:17-22). I think there is some evidence that this was Mark. I believe this incident toward the end of the book is Mark's way of saying, "I did it. I went away and sold all that I had and gave it to the poor. All I had left was a robe. That night I followed him, and in the confusion and abruptness of the arrest, they laid hands on me and I lost even the robe!" And he fled away naked into the night. It is also Mark's way of explaining to us how we got the account of Gethsemane. None of the disciples could have given it. Eight of them were in a part of the garden some distance from Jesus. Three of them were close to him, but they were sound asleep and could not have heard the crying and the prayers; they did not see the angel come and minister to him. But somebody was watching. A certain young man was there watching the whole thing and gave us the story, that we might have hope in the hour of our Gethsemane. This account can help us when we feel that we do not want to do what God tells us to do, and we are confident that somehow we can work it out in our own strength. In that hour, we have Mark's account to remind us that we can come to a throne of grace and find mercy and grace to help in time of need.
The first account is the story of the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane:
Perhaps the most striking feature of that account is the event which John does not record -- the agony of Jesus in the shadows of the garden. Each of the other three gospels relates this incident when Jesus took Peter, James and John and asked them to pray with him. Then, retiring further into the garden, he knelt and cried out to his Father, asking that if possible the cup might pass from him. But John says nothing of the loud cries, the tears, the bloody sweat that fell from his brow, his three-fold prayer, and his strengthening by the angel who appeared to him at the end of his ordeal.
The reason John does not mention these incidents is because they reveal Jesus in his human weakness and his recognition that he was about to be put through a terrible ordeal. His response to that was to cry out in pain and fear, out of which God delivered him and strengthened him. What John actually records is the picture of the Lord after that event, striding out in dignity and majesty, in full command of what is happening. This is what John wants us to see, especially as he relates to these two men, Judas and Peter. He draws a contrast in each of these movements of this chapter and here the contrast is between Judas and Peter.
John says that Jesus met the crowd of soldiers and Pharisees who were coming to arrest him, and immediately identified himself. "Whom do you seek?" he asked. They replied, "Jesus of Nazareth." He said, "I am he." By his aggressive initiative, he anticipates and renders quite unnecessary the betraying kiss of Judas, which the other accounts tell us Judas had arranged as a signal for the soldiers as to which one to arrest. Judas did kiss him, but it was an action that had little or no meaning for Jesus as, according to this account, he had twice clearly told them who he was.
The impressive thing about it is that, when he did this, so commanding was his initiative and so unexpected was his action that the soldiers and priests stumbled backwards and fell all over one another. They must have felt like fools before the impressive calm and dignity of Jesus. Some commentators say that he said this in such a striking way that what he was actually saying was the name of God, "I AM," and there may even have been some kind of dramatic revelation of his deity that caused the soldiers to fall backwards. I do not think so. To me that smacks of Star Wars or Flash Gordon. What caused the arresting parties to fall to the ground was simply the unexpectedness of his identification and his aggressive approach.
This also renders quite ridiculous the number of people whom Judas had brought with him. The "band of soldiers" which John refers to is a word that means "cohort," which is a tenth of a legion: 500 soldiers. Most commentators agree that there probably were not that many in this group -- obviously 500 soldiers would not be required to arrest a man -- but it probably refers to a considerable number, perhaps 15 or 20, who were part of the band of Roman soldiers. With them were a number of the temple guards, "officers from the temple," and included also were a scattering of Pharisees and Sadducees, those of the high priest's office. All of them were carrying lanterns and torches and were armed to the teeth. So probably a minimum of 50 people came to take one lone, unarmed teacher, defended by eleven very frightened fishermen who had but two swords between them.
John is trying to picture the ridiculous contrast between the expectations of these soldiers and the dignity and majesty with which our Lord conducted himself. Part of that is conveyed by the fact that, when Jesus gives orders, the soldiers obey him. He said, "If you are looking for me, then let these men go." Though John does not say so, it is clear that the disciples took full advantage of that and fled as fast as they could. Peter, of course, could not leave. He had crawled out on a limb earlier by saying he would defend Jesus to the death. He drew his sword and aimed a blow at the head of the high priest's servant, but the man ducked, and ended up having his ear lopped off. (We can tell John was an eyewitness because he says it was the man's right ear.) By his impetuous action Peter is made to look like a fool. Jesus rebukes him, tells him to put his sword away, and indicates that he is totally out of line in his actions.
John intends to draw a sharp contrast between Judas and Peter. Twice in these verses he refers to Judas as the one "who betrayed him." Verse 2: "Now Judas, who betrayed him, also knew the place." Judas is cool and calculating, having thought it all out in advance. Evidently he sensed something of the power of Jesus because he comes with this tremendous crowd of 50 or more people to arrest a single man. Then, in Verse 5, John says, "Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them." By this time it was too late to do anything for Judas. He had gone beyond the point of no return. Soon he would be in a suicide's grave, his soul gone out into the eternal night.
But observe Peter. He looks foolish and does a rather stupid thing. Jesus, however, remedies his mistake. He picked up the cut-off ear and, according to the other accounts, placed it back on the man's head and healed it with a touch, thereby saving Peter from an awful lot of difficulty later.
Have you ever lopped off somebody's ear, hoping to do some good for the Lord? I confess there have been times when I have found myself doing that. What a wonderful encouragement that He can heal the cut-off ear!
Then he corrected Peter's method, as he sometimes has to do with us, too. He said, "Put up your sword, Peter. That is not the way I work. I am not here to destroy, to cut people apart." By his word he prevented any more cut-off ears.
Then our Lord modeled for Peter the true way to conquer the hearts of men: "Shall I not drink the cup which my Father has given me?" That was not a pleasant cup. It meant agony and torment, pain and loneliness in the horror of the cross. Yet what made it helpful was that it was the Father's choice. Have we learned that lesson yet? God sometimes chooses hard things for us. There is a distressing idea about Christianity abroad today which says that when you become a Christian, God works for you to keep everything smooth and easy. But the cross is the answer to that. In the words of the Apostle Paul, "We are afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not despairing, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed," (2 Corinthians 4:9). That is true Christianity, and that is what our Lord manifested here. Peter learned his lesson.
By the way, notice that, all through this account, Peter is referred to as "Simon Peter." Wherever the Holy Spirit chooses to use that name, Peter is always acting in the flesh, moving in his own strength, and trying to do things his own way. But Peter learned great lessons from this incident. Years later, thinking back on these very events, he wrote of Jesus, "When he was reviled he reviled not again, but committed himself to Him who judges all things justly," (1 Peter 2:23). Trust God. He is part of the program. He has a plan to work this out. It may be through pain and anguish, but the result is certain.
John now summarizes the trials before the Jewish priests.
It is not the trial before the high priest that occupies John's attention here, but the actions of Peter. He is resentful and hurt by the rebuke of Jesus, confused that his zealous, well-intentioned efforts to do something to save his Lord fell apart. The other accounts say he "followed afar off" (Luke 22:54 KJV), and he arrived after the other disciple. That was probably John, though we cannot be certain. It may have been his brother James. These two were fishermen who had a business that often took them to Jerusalem, selling the salted fish from the Sea of Galilee. Through that they had doubtless become acquainted with the high priest and his family. (John even knew the name of the priest's servant whose ear Peter cut off.)
But the striking thing about this account is that, when John came out and asked the maid to let Peter in, she asked Peter, "Are you one of this man's disciples?" He had no reason at all to deny that. At that point he was in no danger. John was also a disciple, and through this whole account he had never been harassed. Yet the maid knew that Peter was a disciple. Notice how she phrased her question to him, "Are not you also one of this man's disciples?" It is ironic to know that, had Peter said, "Yes, I am," he could have joined the other disciple, seen the whole proceedings, and never would have denied his Lord. But Peter foolishly determined to do it his way. That is what got him into trouble.
He believed like the little boy who said about a lie, "A lie is an abomination to the Lord, but a very present help in time of trouble!" Many of us agree with that philosophy. Have you discovered that, once you tell one lie, you cannot stop? Other circumstances force you to tell another to back up the first one. Then, like Peter, you find yourself riding an avalanche that sweeps you away. That is what happened here. A lie completely swept Peter into the most disastrous experience of his life. In contrast, John describes Jesus' behavior before the high priest:
As John is careful to point out, Annas was not really the high priest, but the father-in-law of the high priest. He had been the high priest some years before this, but, because of his corruption, he had been removed from office by the Romans. Now he was the "power behind the throne," as it were, and the soldiers brought Jesus to him for a kind of preliminary hearing.
Annas begins this interrogation on a totally illegal basis. Like American law, Jewish law never required anybody to testify against himself, yet that was what Annas did with Jesus. The point John is making is that Peter was asked a fair and simple question, one that did not jeopardize him in the least, yet he answered with lies and pretense. But, when Jesus was asked devious and illegal questions, he replied openly and honestly, only to be met by contempt and by a stinging blow to the face.
Our Lord's response is very interesting, especially in light of his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, "If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also," (Matthew 5:39 RSV). Does that mean that we are to meekly let people do whatever they want with us? Some have interpreted it that way. But this account in John explains what Jesus meant. He did not literally turn the other cheek, but figuratively he did: He simply repeated his previous position which had brought on the unwarranted slap on the cheek. When Annas began to question him, what he had said, in effect, was, "This is not right. The law does not allow you to question me. Besides, it is not necessary. Ask those who heard me. They can tell you. Bring witnesses. That is what the law requires." When the minion of the high priest, no doubt in an attempt to endear himself to his master, strikes him a stringing blow, Jesus does the same thing, saying to the man, "If I have done wrong then tell me what it is. If not, why do you hit me? That is against the law." He simply repeats the position he had taken earlier and stands his ground, without retaliation or personal abuse. That is what it means to turn the other cheek: Stand on your rights but without becoming angry or striking back. What a beautiful model this is.
Evidently when Annas saw that, he realized he could get nowhere, so he sent Jesus on to Caiaphas. He did not have to send him far, just across the courtyard to the hall of the high priest, where, by this time, the Sanhedrin had gathered. But John ignores that whole trial before the high priest (we get that in other gospels) and instead relates what Peter does:
That is a highly condensed account that probably covers a period of an hour or more. As he was standing around the fire warming himself with the soldiers, Peter's Galilean accent betrayed him. He sounded like a Texan in Boston! Everybody knew instantly where he came from. According to the other accounts, he had to deny two or three times that he was a disciple of Jesus because he sounded like one. By this time he was becoming frustrated; he could not back away from his lie. About an hour later, one of the servants, the man who was a relative of the one whose ear had been chopped off, saw him and asked him again, "Did I not see you in the garden with him?" By now Peter is so rattled and frustrated, according to the other accounts, this is when he denied the Lord with oaths and curses, finally resorting to blasphemy in order to assert his lie that he was not a disciple of the Lord. The minute he did, through the morning air there came the sound of a rooster crowing. Peter remembered what Jesus had said, and, according to the other accounts, at that very moment Jesus walked across the courtyard and caught his eye. When Peter saw those eyes filled with mercy and tender love, he broke down and wept. Quickly leaving the area he went out and wept bitterly in the streets of Jerusalem. John now turns to the account of Jesus before Pilate.
Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the praetorium. It was early. [Probably 4 or 5 o'clock in the morning.] They themselves did not enter the praetorium, so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the passover. (John 18:28 RSV)
This has confused many because the passover actually had been eaten the night before. But what this refers to is the Feast of Unleavened Bread which accompanied the passover, and for which it was necessary to keep oneself undefiled from leaven. This is why the Jews were concerned. They did not want to enter the place of a Gentile lest they should touch leaven in some way and thus be defiled. John draws a clear contrast between their sanctimonious piousness over ceremonial defilement when they were totally unconcerned about the moral guilt of delivering an innocent man up to die.
So Pilate went out to them, and said, "What accusation do you bring against this man?" They answered him, "If this man were not an evildoer, we would not have handed him over." Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law." The Jews said to him, "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death." This was to fulfill the word which Jesus had spoken to show by what death he was to die. (John 18:29-32 RSV)
The Jews, of course, want Pilate to simply affirm their sentence and carry it out without any further hearing. Pilate refuses. He does not like these Jews -- he never did. To exasperate them, he throws it back at them: "Take him yourselves and crucify him." John says God used that to bring about what had been predicted 1,000 years before, that when Jesus died it would not be by the Jewish method of stoning but by the Roman method of crucifixion. Psalm 22 describes it very clearly. John is saying that God is still in control of all these events, and working his will despite the free will of man and the right of men to make their own choices.
Pilate entered the praetorium again and called Jesus, and said to him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus answered, "Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?" Pilate answered, "Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me; what have you done?" (John 18:33-35 RSV)
That exchange followed Pilate's direct question, "Are you the King of the Jews?" The emphasis was on the word "you." "Are you the King of the Jews?" By now Pilate's curiosity is aroused. He looks at Jesus and wonders what is behind all this. Jesus could not answer by a simple "Yes" or "No." If he had said "No," Pilate would have imagined that he was not a king at all. If he had said "Yes," Pilate would have thought he was a king according to the Jewish standards and that he was a threat to Caesar. So Jesus said to him, "How are you asking that question? Are you asking it as a Jew or as a Roman?" Pilate's response is, "Do I look like a Jew? Am I a Jew? Your own people delivered you to me. What is going on?" Jesus answers the question directly.
Jesus answered, "My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world." Pilate said to him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice." (John 18:36-37 RSV)
This was Pilate's critical moment. What Jesus says is, "Yes, I am a king" (Pilate understood that), "but my kingship is not of this world. It is not the kind you think. But I am a king. You have said the truth." That is what he means when he says, "You say that I am a king. You have said the truth. I was born a king. The work of a king is to make people face the way things really are, to unveil the truth. Therefore, everyone who loves truth will listen to me." That was Pilate's cue. It was the test of whether he truly loved the truth. Here is his response.
Pilate said to him, "What is truth?" (John 18:38a RSV)
It is a cynical, weary answer, the response of someone who has been trying to find a way out of his troubles, but has lost all confidence in religion or any other guide.
After he had said this, he went out to the Jews again, and told them, "I find no crime in him." (John 18:38b RSV)
That was a sentence of acquittal. Had Pilate been the man of truth that Jesus was probing him to discover, he would have dismissed the charges and let Jesus go. But, unfortunately, he was a politician. Thus we get the next word:
"But [that is the politician's word] you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover; will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?" They cried out again, "Not this man, but Barabbas!" Now Barabbas was a robber. (John 18:39-40 RSV)
We would call him a terrorist, a troublemaker who had caused violence throughout Jerusalem. John is quickly covering a lot of events here. According to the other gospels, at this point a message arrived from Pilate's wife warning him, "Have nothing to do with that just man. I have suffered many things in a dream about him," (Matthew 27:19 KJV). That got to Pilate's superstitious mind. As a result he sent Jesus to King Herod from Galilee. Herod tried to question Jesus, but Jesus would not answer him, so the king sent him back to Pilate. In a desperate attempt to still pronounce Jesus innocent, but to find some way to deliver him without having to take a stand himself, Pilate now did a terrible thing, which John records in the first three verses of Chapter 19:
Then Pilate took Jesus and scourged him. And the soldiers plaited a crown of thorns, and put it on his head, and arrayed him in a purple robe; they came up to him saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" and struck him with their hands. (John 19:1-3 RSV)
Now begins the physical torment of our Lord, predicted in the 53rd chapter of Isaiah, "The chastisement of our peace was laid upon him and by his stripes we are healed," (Isaiah 53:5 RSV). The terrible Roman scourging -- pieces of metal and bone were embedded in the leather whips -- stripped all the skin off his back, leaving him bloody and torn; a crown of thorns was pressed upon his head, and the soldiers mocked and taunted him.
It is clear from this account that human free will operates always within the framework of divine determination. God gives us choices -- and they are real choices -- but he does not give us all the choices. Nobody can control his or her own life. While we are always responsible for the choices we make, ultimately they fit within the plan and program that God is working out.
Notice that neither Pilate's conscience nor Peter's zeal could stand up against the subtle pressure of the world, the flesh and the devil. Neither can ours. Both Roman pride and Galilean courage crumbled when they were exposed to the subtle temptations and pressures of the world. If we choose those things we must suffer the result of our own folly.
Pilate chose compromise and ended up a murderer of an innocent man. The crowd chose Barabbas and ended up crucifying the Son of God. Jesus chose the cross and ended up King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
Thrust upon us in this account is the realization that there is no point in trying to outwit God. He will work out his own purposes, but we will have to bear the results of our own folly.
The truth of this account is best summed up in the words of James Russell Lowell,
Underneath the buildings that presently occupy the north side of the temple mount in Jerusalem, archaeologists have uncovered a pavement stone that bears markings of an ancient game, rather like the game tick-tack-toe, which was played by soldiers of the Roman Empire. It has almost certainly been established that that is the actual pavement of the judgment seat of the Roman governors, the spot on which our Lord himself stood as he was condemned to death by Pilate. The pavement is called "Gabbatha" ("pavement" in Hebrew).
In Chapter 19 of his gospel, John takes us from Gabbatha to Golgatha, the hill of Calvary, and finally to the tomb in which Jesus was laid. The first scene in this chapter is that of Pilate bringing Jesus before the multitude. Our Lord is bloodied and torn by the scourging he has suffered. He is still wearing his crown of thorns and the purple robe with which the soldiers had dressed him in mockery.
We begin with Verse 4:
John clearly establishes the fact that Pilate was anxious to release Jesus if he could. Twice in this very paragraph he declares that he has found no crime in him. A comparison of all the gospel accounts reveals that seven times during the trial of Jesus Pilate has pronounced him guiltless. He obviously is trying to find a way to release him and sidestep the determination of the priests to crucify him. The problem is, he only will do so if it can be done at no cost to himself. John indicates that, although Pilate is trying to release Jesus, he is unwilling to pay any price to do so.
All of us at one time or another have acted similarly. We want to stand up for Jesus and show our loyalty to him up to the point when that will result in some momentary loss for us; then we remain silent. It is frightening to recognize how easily we can slip into the weakness of Pilate.
John also brings into focus the hatred of the priests. First, they are manipulating the crowd. These expert rabble-rousers utilize the same principles rabble-rousers employ today -- they begin to chant a slogan initially. Watch any television report of a pressure group demonstrating, and you will discover that they always come up with a simple chant that is repeated over and over. "Crucify him, crucify him," is the slogan of the crowd to pressure Pilate as he seeks a way to release Jesus at no cost to himself. Then there is the arm-twisting insinuation of the mob that Jesus is a dangerous man. "We have a law," they cry, "and by that law he ought to die because he made himself to be the Son of God." Pilate did not hear that statement the way the Jews intended it to be understood, or the way we understand it today. To them, this claim was blasphemous. They saw God as only one Being, far removed from man, and any man who claimed to be the Son of God was blaspheming. As a pagan, Pilate did not believe in one God but in many gods and in the children of the gods. Doubtless he heard this charge as a claim that Jesus was one of the sons of the gods, a demi-god possessed of supernatural powers who could wreak vengeance upon anyone who displeased him. His superstitious heart was struck with fear.
John goes on to say that Pilate came back in with Jesus to examine him further.
There is nothing more magnificent in the Bible than this answer of Jesus to Pilate's angry attempt to impress him with his power. In quiet dignity our Lord simply replies, "You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above." He means, of course, that God is the source of all authority. Anybody who exercises any kind of power whatever does so by the permission of God himself.
Christians need desperately to recover this biblical view of life. Remember this tomorrow morning when your boss mistreats you. Remember this when the tax man cometh. (That is a good time to remember it!) When your teacher assigns more homework than you think you can handle, remember he or she has no power except that which is given him or her from above. In a thousand and one circumstances, we need to remember that God is in charge of human life. The world does not recognize this. It tries to forget God. The business of Christians is to recall that he is in charge and in control of life. This will help in wrestling with the problems of injustice, pain, heartache, cancer, war and death, whatever it may be. This is not a perfect world, nor was it intended to be. God is not trying to run the world right. Remember this when you hear people charge him with incompetence because things do not work out to their liking. Jesus could stand before Pilate, facing the injustice of his mock trial, the hatred of the priests and the vacillating weakness of this governor, and say to him, "You could have no power over me except it had been given you from above."
Yet Jesus recognizes also that to him who knows more, more will be required. He says, "He who delivered me to you has the greater sin." That statement, of course, refers to the priests. It was the chief priest who had handed him over to the Roman governor. Jesus infers that Pilate is a relatively ignorant man who is unaware of how God operates. But the priests do. They have Moses and the Law, the marvelous record of the Old Testament. They should have understood the demands of God for justice, love, concern and mercy toward others. Jesus points out with quiet dignity that delivering an innocent man over to this pagan governor to be crucified is indeed the greater sin.
In the next scene the wolves close in for the kill.
That does not mean they were preparing to eat the Passover feast (that had been done the night before). Rather it refers to the day of preparation for the Sabbath which fell within Passover week, which required that they remain undefiled. That is why John puts that note in here.
John paints the drama of this scene in vivid colors. We can almost hear the shouting priests, their faces contorted with anger and bitterness toward Jesus. We can see the vacillating, compromising governor, trying uncertainly to find a way out of this mess. All the while the lonely, silent Prisoner awaits with dignity the inevitable outcome. The priests move in on Pilate, and get to him with their threat that he is no friend of Caesar if he releases Jesus.
Every word and action of this account strips away the pretense behind which men seek to hide. John deliberately uncovers the hypocrisy, deceitfulness and dissembling of men. This is what the cross does in everybody's life. The very fine biblical scholar, Bishop Wescott, has said,
Great occasions do not make heroes or cowards, they simply unveil them to the eyes of men. Silently and imperceptibly, as we wake or sleep, we grow strong or we grow weak, and at last some crisis shows us what we have become.
This is the way God operates in human history, constantly bringing out that which is hidden. The whole world seeks to project a false picture of who they are, but God works to unveil that, to strip away the pretense. How obvious that is here. Pilate wants to appear a fair and impartial Roman judge, capable of outwitting these scheming priests and preserving public peace. But, as one event succeeds another, he is revealed as a cowardly, compromising individual who is willing to do anything to preserve his own skin.
At this point he drops out of history. We do know that, later, he was dismissed as governor and summoned back to Rome to answer to Tiberius' charges against him. On his way there, Tiberius suddenly died. Pilate was freed from the charges and went on to southern France, then known as Gaul. There, according to tradition, he put himself to death.
In this account we can see how the priests wish to appear righteous and just men, zealous for God's glory, and loyal to his government. But, in the struggle with Pilate, they are driven to reveal themselves as jealous, petty schemers who are willing to commit murder to protect their own interests. They are forced at last to deny their loyalty to God and to openly acknowledge the rule of the hated Roman Caesar. John wants us to see that, as we draw near the cross, it is impossible to remain a deceiver. Jesus had said earlier that there would come a time when "nothing that is hidden shall remain hidden, but everything shall be revealed, that which is spoken in secret shall be shouted from the housetops." God will strip away all pretense and fantasy and reveal us for what we really are.
We venture with reverent hearts upon the scene of the crucifixion itself.
John records certain symbols that speak eloquently of what is happening here. The place to which they took Jesus is called "The place of the skull." From time immemorial a skull has been a symbol of death. This is God's eloquent way of saying that he intends to deal with the problem of death at the place of the skull. That hill stands a few hundred yards outside the Damascus gate of Jerusalem. It is a small rounded knob, with two large excavations on its side that look like eye sockets.
It is fascinating to recall that that hill was the very spot upon which Abraham was called to offer his son Isaac in sacrifice to God and was stopped at the last moment by the voice of God. In a wonderful picture of Jesus bearing his cross, Isaac had to bear the wood for the sacrifice up that hill. At the foot of it, right where the road passes by today, the ancient road also passed. There was the site of the crucifixion, near the city, where every passerby could read what Pilate had written and placed over the cross.
It is clear from this account that God wanted the whole world to know that Jesus was indeed King of the Jews -- it was written in three languages so no one could miss it. When the Jews tried to get Pilate to change the wording he suddenly turned stubborn and refused to do so, remarking in that double-meaning phrase, "What I have written I have written." It has often been pointed out that this is true of all of us.
It is sobering to think that you cannot change the past, you cannot take back words you wish you had not said. What we have written we have written. Pilate speaks for all of us in his remarks on the impossibility of changing the past. Only God can cleanse it.
Once again John underscores the predictions that were fulfilled in the crucifixion of Jesus.