Luke 23:1-5 “Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.’ So Pilate asked Jesus, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied. Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man.’ But they insisted, ‘He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here.’”
We have come to that point in the history of the Jews when they officially and legally handed over the Messiah, the Son of God, to the Gentiles to be killed. They have never recovered from this. Back in this year of approximately 33 A.D. we are almost at the end of about 2,000 years of human history during which period God had had exclusive dealings with Abraham and his physical descendants. In this dispensation the Gentiles had been living under the sway of the prince of darkness, but from this time onwards God’s dealings will sweep out from Jerusalem to Judea and to Samaria and to the Gentile nations to the uttermost parts of the world never to return to deal exclusively with this land again. So the scene before us describes the border crossing. Pilate, the Roman governor, came out of his residence to meet with the 71 members of the Sanhedrin because they refused to enter a Gentile house during the Passover. The gospel writer John tells us what happened next, and we can fit in his words between verse one and verse two of our text in Luke. Pilate came out and glanced at them and this beaten-up, chained prisoner whom they’d pushed through the door into his residence. The dialogue went like this; “‘What charges are you bringing against this man?’ ‘If he were not a criminal,’ they replied, ‘we would not have handed him over to you.’ Pilate said, ‘Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.’ ‘But we have no right to execute anyone,’ the Jews objected. This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled. Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’” (Jn.18:29-33).
1. BLAME-SHIFTING: PILATE HAS TO BE THE ONE CONDEMNING JESUS.
Pilate wants to know what the case for the prosecution is, and how they have come to a guilty verdict. He disdains these Jews. They raised religious and theological issues which to him were utterly trivial matters, and they refused to enter his house. They have forced the Roman Governor to step down from his throne of judgment and walk out into the street to meet them. Pilate wants them to deal with their own unacceptable Jewish preachers. “What’s all this got to do with me? Deal with the issue yourselves. Why bring me into your interminable religious squabbles?” There was frustration behind his question, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” He would be rid for ever of this whole matter and everything like it.
But the Jews are not going in that direction. They’ve been up early in the morning and held a meeting in which they have decided to have Jesus condemned as an enemy of the state, a rebel. They know of the folly of raising the theology of Judaism with a Roman Governor. “This has nothing to do with Rome. Next case!” he’d have cried out bringing down his gavel; Pilate’s wagon was not going to be hitched to the scribes and Pharisees. But the Sanhedrin didn’t want to bear the sole responsibility of killing Christ. The people of Jerusalem were sleepy enough this early hour of the day, but what would the situation be like in a week’s time? The thousands of people Jesus had healed and all their families, and the 500 people whose lives were savingly changed by Jesus, would all be complaining about the terrible thing the chief priests had done in killing him. “What horror! Why did you do that?” the people would ask. From the heartland of Jesus’ support in Galilee there might be a revolution brewing. How would the people turn? Who could know? So the Sanhedrin decided to deflect that criticism by deciding, “We’ll put the decision in Pilate’s hands. We’ll tell the people, ‘Pilate, this wretched governor of ours, sent here by Rome, the butcher of the people, he is the one who killed him.’” So they answer Pilate’s question very broadly, “If he weren’t a criminal we wouldn’t have handed him over to you.” They’re not going to say the word ‘blasphemer’; that’s a theological term. Pilate will quickly step back into his house and close the door with Jesus on the outside with them. So Jesus has to be charged with subverting the state. The Sanhedrin is not straight; we believe that sinners are rarely straight when they’re dealing with God. Caiaphas didn’t present any document; there was no legal paper summarizing the charges, the evidence, the witnesses and the verdict. The Jews just evaded Pilate’s question: just, “If he weren’t a criminal we wouldn’t have brought him here.” What are they telling Pilate to do? “Investigate this for yourself. Interrogate this man. You’ll find out pretty quick that he’s a criminal and worthy of the full judgment of Roman law.” So this is the beginning of the brief tense conflict over Jesus between the Jews and the Gentiles, between the Jewish chief priest and the Roman governor, between Caiaphas and Pilate, which conflict is going to go on for some hours. But when the apostle Paul is preaching then the Jews will bring to the Romans the same accusations against him and Paul will be put on trial.
Now Pilate doesn’t want to be caught by any of the snares that the Sanhedrin have laid out. So he says, “Go ahead! You try him, and you punish him by your laws.” That’s what he tells them, and you understand that he’s not being ironical or sarcastic. Pilate simply wants them to be the ones dealing with this new Jesus problem. He is giving them authority to come to their own religious conclusions in this particular trial without his interference. They’ve got their version of Sharia law and ecclesiastical law, but not state criminal law. Let them be the ones to judge Jesus by religious law, and then let them send him a transcript of the trial and their verdict. Let the Jews with their doctrinal disputes handle all these tedious proceedings. Pilate doesn’t want to be involved. He is giving them free rein.
However, free rein is not what the Jews want. If they’re being asked to take the whole law into their own hands then the careful plans they’ve made (and have been talking about since before dawn on that first Good Friday morning) would fail. Weeks or even months earlier they had decided that Jesus must be condemned and killed by Roman law. That was their plan. We see that in the gospel of Luke chapter 20 and verses 19 through 22: “The teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately, because they knew he had spoken this parable against them. But they were afraid of the people. Keeping a close watch on him, they sent spies, who pretended to be honest. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: ‘Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?’ . . .” I needn’t remind you of our Lord’s brilliant reply; my point is that the Jewish purpose even then was to gather some accusations against him to set before before Pilate. “This man teaches that men shouldn’t pay taxes to Caesar.” There wasn’t a sermon Jesus preached where there wasn’t a spy in the congregation. There wasn’t a meal in someone’s house without information about his table talk being taken back to the chief priests. So when Pilate says, “Take him yourselves, and judge him by your own law,” then that is quite unacceptable to Caiaphas and his cronies. They don’t want to condemn and punish Jesus by their own authority. They want a formal, judicial, Roman review of Jesus of Nazareth ending in a guilty verdict. The goal of all their devices is to put Jesus to death under the Roman yoke. So Luke in our text tells us that they brought this particular charge against Jesus, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king” (v.2).
2. CONDEMNATION: ROMAN LAW ALONE COULD LIFT HIM ON A CROSS
It is the apostle John who gives us the reason why the Jews insisted that Pilate tried Jesus and signed his death warrant. “This happened so that the words Jesus had spoken indicating the kind of death he was going to die would be fulfilled” (John 18:32). It was because of the death of the cross that the Jews handed Christ over to Rome. To Pilate the Lord Jesus said and did nothing to dissuade the Roman governor from condemning him to death on the cross. The determinate foreknowledge and counsel of God is that his Son must die on a cross. For God the heart of the issue is the precise way Jesus was going to die. It was not going to be by the knives of assassins; not being thrown off a precipice; not being beheaded; not poisoned by hemlock, and he’s not going to die in bed of old age; it is going to be the lingering death on a cross, and the only way to a cross is by Roman law and order. Jesus is not going to be stoned by the sons of Moses but by the nails of the beasts of Rome.
Jesus is breaking out of the narrow confines of Judaism; his death is going to affect the whole heathen world until the end of time. Jesus is going to leave the narrow little house of Moses and be crucified under the whole sweep of heaven. He’s not going to be remembered in type as a brass serpent lifted up in the wilderness, he’s going to be remembered in reality as the Son of Man lifted high on a cross before the whole world. His death was not only the result of some Jewish sect who had taken hold of the religion and the temple and the law court annihilating any opponent who got in their way. His death is going to be the international sentence of the rulers of the known world. Both Jews and barbarians are going to put my Saviour to death. God must use the barbarians; all flesh must put the Son to death. You’d think reading the gospels and the growing hatred of Jesus by the Jews and our Lord’s denunciation of the priests and Pharisees that they must be the ones who end up killing him, that that is bound to happen. The Jews are going to murder him. Then God intervenes; clicks his fingers and along comes Pilate and he puts Jesus on a cross.
God has sent his Son to die, but it’s not that any old death will do. It is one particular death. It is not going to be murder one night in a dark alley, or in a lonely spot in the wilderness. Jesus is going to be lifted up so that all may see him. He’s not going to die like the lambs in the shadow of the Jewish temple. He will die under the sky near a road outside the city wall with people coming and going, noticing all that goes on. We don’t know how Moses died. We don’t know how Jonah died. We don’t know how Mary died. We don’t know how Peter died. We don’t know how Paul died. But we know only too well how Jesus died. One third of the Gospels tell us about the last week of his life, and four long chapters describe his dying on the cross, and everything he said and did of significance while he hung there. Under the full view of the world Jesus died. With a superscription in Hebrew and Latin and Greek announcing to the world who this was hanging there Jesus died. If you were a Jerusalem dwarf you could still see Jesus dying because he was going to be lifted high.
Pilate has to take him in and judge him and condemn him because it’s by crucifixion that Jesus is going to die. If not in this first or the second trial but in Jesus’ third trial the Jews will have their way and Pilate will sign the death certificate. Pilate has to take him in and judge him and condemn him because Jesus himself has predicted it. Listen; “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn. 3:14&15). Or again he says this, “‘Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.’ He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:31-33). Or think what Jesus has said already said to his disciples, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will rise again” (Matthew 20:18&19).
What does all that tell us? The fact that Israel had been conquered by Rome was not an accident, that Pilate was the governor at that time was not a mere coincidence, that the manner of Jesus’ death wasn’t bad luck. It was not that the form which capital punishment took in Israel 2000 years ago just happened to be crucifixion – some barbaric, chronological cruelty utterly incidental to the noble life of Jesus. No. The logic of God determined it would be after the long dying of the cross that Jesus would cry “It is finished.” It was not to be a painless death; that would not have delivered us from hell. Golgotha was all arranged and governed by God and predicted by Jesus. When the Father gave him the cup to drink in the garden then his crucifixion was in the cup. Not stoning, not stabbing, but being lifted up! So the Jews must hand him over to the Romans.
Lifted up was he to die! In other words he is going to be placarded. He must be advertised. He is going have world wide publicity, better than anything Nike or Cocoa Cola can ever achieve; he is going to become a universal sign. The record of his death is not merely going to be in some tattered old history read by a few – like those brave Jewish deaths recorded in the works of Josephus. That’s all too trivial for him. The annals of the world are going to announce the death of our Saviour. Men from all over the world, and in every age of human history, are going to see from all sides King Jesus die. He is going to be lifted up from the earth; he must be raised on a cross. He is going to be put on display above the heads of the crowds watching. He will be a spectacle and all the people gathered in Jerusalem from all over the known world will gaze at him.
The lifting up firstly refers to physical elevation. The cross on which he was laid and to which he was nailed would be lifted up and dropped into a socket and secured with wedges. The phrase has some reference to that lifting, an action of men elevating the cross of one particular man, but it means more. God is exalting his Son, the God of the whole world. It is God who is exhibiting his Son to the world. “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” There was never a more incredible exhibition of a Father’s love for his Son. Moses elevated a brazen serpent so that so that thousands of dying people might look at it and live. The serpent had to be raised high so that even those being prematurely dressed in their shrouds, dying from incurable snake venom, might take a glance at the brazen serpent and live. Look and live my brother, live. So the exaltation of the cross of Christ is to an immeasurable height above the whole world. I suppose that fact is captured in Dali’s disturbing painting of the crucifixion.
Our Lord is not going to die in solitary confinement, in a prison cell like John the Baptist. He is not going to die at the decision of some decadent sons of Moses. The light of the world cannot be dimmed by that circle of geriatrics. This light bursts out of the shadow lands of dying Israel; there before the whole world, high and lifted up is King Jesus in his royal death. He is going to be exalted in heavenly glory. The cross will be the way of defeating principalities and making a show of them openly. The cross is the door to resurrection, and ascension, and being seated at God’s right hand, and coming again, and setting up the throne of final judgment. It all begins with the cross. There was this little country, and a little city with a little temple, and people from all over the world had to make a journey there to the Passover feast and the altar and the priests who worked there at ground zero slaughtering lambs, but now God has lifted up the Lamb of God, and all men can see him. He has exalted him by a cross. The Ethiopian Eunuch was in a desert on the way to Gaza when he saw Christ lifted up. Saul was on the Damascus road. A jailer was in Philippi in Greece when he saw Christ exalted saving him from his sin. We have seen him exalted in Wales and others in Asia and Africa and Australia and Auckland and the Americas.
3. REBELLION: THE CHARGE THAT WOULD CRUCIFY JESUS.
Pilate would not think of himself as ruler by the grace of Jehovah the God of the Jews but by his own grace, by his initiative in marrying the granddaughter of Emperor Augustine, by the grace and favour of Rome, and its Caesar. That is the foundation on which Pilate could reign, and if Jesus of Nazareth dared to rock Pilate’s throne then Jesus would bring upon himself speedy judgment. The Jews knew this and so we are told “They began to accuse Jesus, saying, ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king’” (v.2). Then Pilate began his interrogation by turning to Jesus and asking him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (v.3). The Jews have shifted their accusation of Jesus from sins against God in the first table of the law – blasphemy – to crimes against men – insurrection. The Jews now make Jesus an enemy of the state. They bring him out of the mists of theological dispute into the clear light of law and order in Jerusalem and Galilee. This is a man who opposes the payment of taxes to Caesar and he claims to be the Messiah, in other words (they explain to Pilate), a king! “Draw your own conclusions as the representative of Rome, the grandson-in-law of Emperor Augustine, and the friend of Caesar. Do your duty to your patron in Rome.”
The chief priests are appealing to the sense of authority and accountability to Rome which a proconsul had. How perverted they had become. You see how they twist the whole concept of the blessed Messiahship. This is the great hope of the Jewish people that one day the promised Christ would come. He would be their redeemer and sin-bearer, the one who could crush Satan’s head. He would be God’s servant, and suffer for his people, and he would fill the earth with the glory of God. None of that is mentioned here. All Israel’s innocence and expectations are gone. They sell their Messiah to Rome with this tag – “here’s a man who wants to be the king, the top dog, whose message is ‘Stop paying taxes.’ He’s a threat to the state, Pilate. Away with him! Away with him!”
Listen to how formal was their language, “We have found . . .” (v.2); this is what they are saying. “We have been investigating this man and these are our considered findings . . . we are bound to come to the conclusion that he is a traitor.” That is how they get Pilate’s attention with the language of the bureaucrat. It is thus they force his hand to put Jesus on trial under Roman law and condemn him. They accuse him of making a tumult among the people, subverting the nation, and encouraging people not to pay their taxes. Jesus is an obstacle to the work of Roman revenue men. They were serious charges and constrained Pilate to prick up his ears and take this prisoner seriously.
Listen to the perversity of their language, “we have found this man subverting our nation.” What do they call the kingdom of God? What do they call their worshipping community? “Our nation.” The term was used in the Empire of any political entity, indistinguishable from all the other political units in the vast Roman Empire over which Caesar’s scepter swayed. The people whose God was Jehovah were accepting their place as another mere colonial outpost of Rome. They were selling themselves and their inheritance and they were buying into the Roman attitude to conquered peoples.
“This is a wannabe king,” they tell Pilate, and immediately in his mind’s eye, before he has met Jesus, he can see warrior Jesus at the head of an army leading thousands of soldiers into battle. Pilate can envisage legions of Roman soldiers having to be gathered from other parts of the Empire sailing in an armada to the eastern Mediterranean and marching on Jesus’ army in a long and costly campaign. He sees contagious rebellions being stirred up to the south in Egypt, and west in Babylon, and north in Assyria. Pilate thinks he had better nip all this in the bud now, and deal with this ‘king’ now before Rome sends an ambassador asking for his immediate return to the capital to give some explanation of how he’d let a situation get far out of hand. Pilate can no long divest himself of the responsibility of dealing with the accused man. He has to attend to this trial. Jesus is being accused of subverting the people and of standing in the way of paying taxes to Caesar. Pilate cannot be nonchalant about these matters. The political structure of Rome is being endangered. The Roman peace is being threatened. Pilate cannot ignore a man who is encouraging people not to pay their dues to the Empire.
So Pilate turns and looks at the accused insurrectionist, this battered handcuffed man, and he engages with him: “‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ asked Pilate” (v.2), but immediately we must slot in here the full answer that Jesus gives to that question which we find in John chapter 18 and verse 34; “’Is that your own idea,’ Jesus asked, ‘or did others talk to you about me?’” That is the core of the issue. Jesus puts his finger on it. He could have said, “How do you understand this ‘kingship’ issue? If I’d really been a king in the sense that Caiaphas has described wouldn’t you have heard about it long ago, Pilate? I’ve been preaching the kingdom of God for three years, and if I’d been a threat to the state, a revolutionary, urging people not to pay their taxes, don’t you know that one or two of your spies would have come to you months ago with the information? Wouldn’t the publicans or tax-collectors have sent urgent messages to you that taxes were down; the people ‘were refusing to pay because of the influence of a certain Jesus of Nazareth.’ But you haven’t heard a peep about such things.” When the Jews handed over the tied up Jesus of Nazareth to Pilate, far from being interested in this one – of whom he might have received many reports if Rome had considered him a threat.
Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (v.2), and John tells us that Jesus replied to him, “Is that your own idea . . . or did others talk to you about me?” Pilate was angry to hear this, “Am I a Jew? . . . It was your people and your chief priests who handed you over to me. What is it you have done?” (Jn. 18:35). Then our Lord answers so plainly, “Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.’ ‘You are a king, then!’ said Pilate. Jesus answered, ‘You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me’” (Jn. 18:36&37). John amplifies Luke’s précis of Jesus’ reply, “Yes. It is as you say.”
4. THE GOOD CONFESSION: MADE BY JESUS BEFORE PILATE.
Pilate’s question couldn’t have been an easy one for Jesus to answer. “Are you the king of the Jews? He certainly wasn’t the sort of ruler that Pilate had in mind, some sort of political leader over a geographical territory. Jesus wasn’t at the head of an army of soldiers, but was he a king? Yes he was. Pilate’s question is like the question we might occasionally be asked, “Do you believe the Bible?” Yes, we do, and yet we’d like to explain that there is poetry and figures of speech like hyperbole in Scripture, development from the theocracy and its civil laws in the Old Testament to the New Testament, and there is apocalyptic, symbolic language as in the book of Revelation, but we can’t go into all that. If we start to say all that we know we are weakening our answer and our questioner will suspect that really we look at the Bible just like he does as containing some truths but not wholly true. We don’t want him to have that impression and so we have to reply, “Yes it is as you say. I do believe the Bible.” Jesus answers Pilate’s question, “Yes, it is as you say. I am a king” It is the same kind of answer we find him giving in the previous chapter and verse 70 when the Sanhedrin asked him if he were the Son of God. “You are right in saying I am.”
Paul tells us that Jesus make “a good confession” (I Tim.6:13) before Pontius Pilate. This was a courageous answer of Jesus. He was bold to testify to his royal kingship. Luke has given us Christ’s genealogy in chapter three; he is of the house and line of David. When he was born the magi came bearing their gifts and asking, “Where is he that is born the King of the Jews?” Our Lord knew his lineage, and so when he was asked whether he were the king of the Jews he said, “Yes, it is as you say.” The truth demanded that he reply to Pilate. Do you see Pilate’s immediate response? Not alarm, and not mockery, but he got up from his throne and he went out again into the street and there Pilate addressed the 71 members of the Sanhedrin and told them all, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (v.4). They had prepared Pilate to confront a revolutionary criminal, a freedom fighter, but when Pilate met Jesus one glance was enough to show that he was nothing of the sort. There was no charisma of a rebel outlaw about him. Our Lord stood there exhausted after three years of healing and preaching and constant traveling, with no home and no family to comfort him. He looked fifty, although he was just over thirty, and he had just been ruthlessly beaten up by the soldier during a sleepless night. It only took a glance to know that this was a holy man, a preacher and not a rebel.
Every accusation made against him was false. He was not subverting the nation, he was not stirring up the people to stop paying their taxes, he was not a blasphemer. He was leading the people out of darkness into the way of truth and light. He was actually exhorting the people to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s. “Pay your taxes!” He was indeed stirring people up all over Judea, as the chief priests said (v.5), but it was stirring them up to abandon their unbelief and repent of their sins and come to him for rest. The beautiful, blameless, lovely Son of God is here and he is the only wholly innocent man that the world has known. Even a Roman Governor can see it. He had no basis for any criminal charge that could be brought against Jesus especially one worthy of crucifixion that day! Pilate said so publicly to 71 witnesses, and that should have been the end. Case dismissed, and Jesus freed. The trial should have been over very briefly, the defendant released and the whole ghastly affair ended with, say, Jesus being helped to Bethany, to the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus where they nursed him back to health. That was not to be. This was merely the first of three trials, for the men opposing Jesus were determined to crucify him to death.
So what do you think of this man named Jesus from Nazareth? He claims he is a king, that he is your king; that he has ultimate authority over your soul. He chose crucifixion that he might save you. What will you do with this Jesus? Will you dismiss him as a liar – the chief priest was right – and so he got what he deserved for leading millions astray? Or will you bow before him saying that indeed there is no charge that can be brought against him, that he is the holy child of God, and that you have taken him as your Lord and God? What will you do with this Jesus?
4th November 2012 GEOFF THOMAS