You’ll notice that Pilate also called “the people” together, how he did so and how many we are not told. He knew how bitterly the clerics hated Jesus but perhaps the general population would be more kindly disposed.
Taking the Gospel narratives together, Pilate made a number of efforts to avoid the execution of a man he knew to be innocent of any crime deserving the death sentence. He tried first to force the Jews to deal with the matter themselves, then he sent him off to Herod Antipas in hopes he would handle his Jesus problem, then he attempted to persuade the Jews to accept Jesus as the prisoner who, by custom and as a gesture of Roman good will, he would release at Passover — as the next two verses will show, Luke knows of this custom and of Pilate’s interest in releasing Jesus under this pretext –, and now, finally, he offered to beat Jesus and release him — that would, Pilate hoped, satisfy their desire to see Jesus punished and humiliated. But none of these alternatives satisfied the Jews and Pilate was left having to make the decision. He could, of course, have simply released Jesus and refused to punish him — which he should have done — but he was a politician. Relations were always troubled with the Jews and if they deteriorated further, Pilate would be the one who would have to deal with the additional problems. [Morris, 340]
We find it odd that a man judged to be innocent would be beaten anyway before he was released, but this was Roman practice. It was a comparatively light beating and was meant to serve as a warning to the accused not to give the authorities reason to suspect him of anything in the future. It is, by the way, an interesting and important fact that Luke gets all of the technical details correct in his narrative of the trial as a specimen of Roman legal procedure. [A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 27, 32]
You will notice that the verse numbers in your ESVs skip from 16 to 18. The missing verse is given in a footnote. Here is a case of a later copyist explaining what Luke did not explain, viz. where the idea of releasing another man and taking Jesus in his place came from. Those words were imported into Luke from Mark 15:6. It is a true statement; it just wasn’t part of Luke’s original narrative and the manuscript evidence makes that clear.
In other words, a real criminal would be released and someone everyone knew was not a criminal would be executed.
Pilate was nothing if he weren’t persistent. He did not want to execute a man he knew to be innocent of any crime.
In other words, the mob gave Pilate reason to worry about a threat to public order. Pilate did not want a riot on his hands. Jesus’ innocence wasn’t that important to him.
We have come to the very heart of our faith as Christians this morning, the conviction that Jesus Christ saved us from our sins by his death on the cross. You remember the Apostles’ Creed:
“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.”
The creed passes over in silence the Lord’s baptism, his temptation, his several years of ministry, his teaching, and his miracles, and summarizes our faith in Jesus by saying that he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” But why this about suffering under Pontius Pilate? Why is the Roman governor so important that he should be mentioned when so much else is left out?
It is a question the Scripture itself forces upon our minds. In the weeks before his crucifixion the Lord Jesus himself frequently predicted the circumstances of his impending death and among those circumstances was his being handed over by the Jews to the Gentiles. Here, for example, is Matthew 20:18-19:
“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.”
Crucifixion, remember, was a form of legal execution. It was a form of death the Romans reserved for the worst kind of criminals. In other words, it had been God’s plan all along that Jesus would be sentenced and executed by Pontius Pilate in the way reserved for criminals, not murdered by an unruly mob, not stoned to death as a blasphemer by the Jewish clerics and elders, but tried, condemned, sentenced, and executed by the chief Roman legal officer in Judea.
Now whether it was real understanding on the part of the framers of the Apostles’ Creed or merely a proper intuition, the fact that they chose to mention among so many other things that might have been mentioned that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, the fact is hugely important.
One part of its importance, probably not uppermost in the minds of the framers of the Creed, is that the short phrase connects the message of Jesus Christ inseparably to historical events. It is a conceit of our age that the historical claims of our faith are of little importance. Many think that Christianity, as the other faiths and philosophies of mankind, should be viewed as a set of ideas about God and about how to be good. It shouldn’t really matter if the events reported in the Gospels actually happened or not and many of our so-called “thinkers” are quite sure that they did not happen, at least they didn’t happen as they are reported to have happened in the New Testament.
A Frenchman, a philosopher by the name of Couchoud represented this modern way of thinking when he said, “I believe everything in the Apostles’ Creed except the phrase, ‘He suffered under Pontius Pilate.’” He was not troubled by what he saw as the spiritual message of Christianity — God is love and so on — only the historical particularity of it bothered him. He did not want to think of the Christian faith as the announcement of events that occurred in history! But the fact of the matter is that our Christian faith, the gospel of Jesus Christ, is the announcement of events that took place in this real world of ours or it is nothing. As Paul admitted, if Jesus didn’t actually rise from the dead as he is reported to have done in the pages of the Word of God, then we Christians are dupes and we’re to be pitied by others.
And if these events happened in the ordinary sense of the word, like events happen in history today and will happen tomorrow, if what we are reading in this text is real history, a record of what actually came to pass in Jerusalem in those long ago days, then the Christian faith is hardly simply a set of ideas, Jesus is hardly simply an example of love whom we should seek to emulate (he is that to be sure), and the gospel is not simply one of many ways by which men seek to find God. And nothing says “history” like “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” We know who Pilate was. We know when he was governor of Judea; we know something about his previous career and something of what he did after being transferred to his next post. Pilate roots these events in history. We know about Roman legal procedures. We know about the tensions that were constantly flaring up in occupied Palestine in the third and fourth decades of the first century. Luke is clearly relating and intending to relate what happened that Passover week in Jerusalem during the time Pontius Pilate was governor. This is history, not philosophy. Had you had a camera there that morning and a tape recorder you could have caught it all: all the things that Pilate said, all the things that the Jewish clerics said, all the things the crowd shouted. You could have even caught the empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning. The New Testament leads with its chin. It makes hundreds of historical claims regarding people, places, events, dates, government edicts, and the like. It purports to be a record of what actually happened. It lays down the challenge of history to skeptics.
I hope you all, especially those of you who have never thought carefully about this, appreciate the significance of the fact that the Christian faith is a conviction concerning events that transpired in history, concerning remarkable things that happened in the course of human life. It is not a story with a point; it is history in which is found the meaning of life. We can put the point very bluntly: if Jesus of Nazareth was crucified and then rose again, as the NT says that he did, if he then ascended to heaven after promising to return, then everyone in this world ought to be, must be a Christian. There is no alternative! That is the significance of the Bible being a record of real history! And Pontius Pilate’s place in this narrative serves to root the story of Jesus in real history. So does much else of course in the Gospel narrative.
But, important as that is, it is not the most important role that Pontius Pilate plays in this narrative. Pilate was Jesus’ judge! And as a judge, Pilate, however unintentionally, condemned Jesus to death as a criminal for the sins of others, not his own.
Pontius Pilate, as the proconsul of Judea, was the supreme judge in that Roman province. That is why the religious leadership took Jesus to him. Pilate had other responsibilities, to be sure, responsibilities of a political and military nature, but when he was sitting on his judge’s seat, to which Matthew refers in 27:19, he was a judge and the highest judge in the land. Only he could have executed Jesus of Nazareth as a criminal.
What is more he was a judge who represented a system of jurisprudence that prided itself on its fair-mindedness and its zeal to get at the truth and to pronounce just verdicts. The trial itself, as recorded in all four Gospels, was typical of Roman procedure. The process involved the formulation of charges, an indictment with its evidence, and the judgment of the case by the judge.
Even in minor details, as we noted, Pilate’s conduct conformed to Roman legal custom. When in v. 16 he proposed having Jesus beaten and released, he was suggesting a typical resolution of minor infractions. Not to excuse Pilate in any way, his conduct cannot be excused, his position was complicated by the fact that Jesus mounted no defense. You may remember that later, in Acts 25:16, Festus, another Roman governor, said to Paul’s accusers:
“It is not the Roman custom to hand over any man before he has faced his accusers and has had an opportunity to defend himself against their charges.”
We say the same thing in America today. Every man is owed his day in court as a chance to confront his accusers and so on. That came from Roman jurisprudence.
A.N. Sherwin-White, an English scholar of the classical world and an expert on the Roman legal system, in a very valuable and interesting book on the trial of Jesus, wrote this [p. 25]:
“Luke is explicit [regarding the charges made against Jesus]: ‘we found this man disturbing our people, telling them not to pay taxes to Caesar [a bald face lie!], and calling himself a king’ [23:2]. This fits very well the [legal procedure of the Roman system of jurisprudence]: the accusers allege facts and the judge decides what to make of them.”
Since there was no defense offered, it certainly made it easier and perhaps made it inevitable that Pilate would convict in the end. But, the tremendously important point is that Jesus was convicted in a court, by a judge as a criminal. And not only that; he was condemned by a judge who stated publicly and repeatedly that the man was innocent of the charges brought against him.
Now, as we know from a great deal of teaching in the Bible, the essential thing in Christ’s death on the cross was that, in dying as he did, he suffered the penalty, the punishment not of his own sins but of ours. He was putting himself in our place, suffering on our behalf the penalty we deserved. That is the central affirmation of our faith: Christ died for us.
As the prophet Isaiah had predicted seven centuries before the birth of Jesus:
“…he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
As John the Baptist announced at the public appearing of the Lord:
“Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” [John 1:29]
The lamb in Jewish sacrificial ritual was a substitute: that is, the animal died in the place of the sinner.
Or, as Paul would put it after the fact:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” [Gal. 3:13]
That’s why in providence of God Jesus had to be crucified; crucifixion was a man actually hanging on a tree. So it was no accident that Jesus was put to death this way.
Or, as we read in Hebrews 9:28:
“…Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many…”
And Peter chimes in with this:
“For Christ…suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God…” [1 Pet. 3:18]
I could go on and on. This idea is everywhere in the Bible. Theologians call it penal, substitutionary atonement. It is penal because it deals with punishment for wrongs done; it is substitutionary because the punishment is born not by the guilty but by another in their place; and it is atonement because it satisfies the justice of God and restores us to fellowship with him.
Now perhaps Jesus could have come to his death in some other way and still have been our substitute and still have borne the penalty of our sin — maybe, we don’t know — but it certainly would not have been made nearly so clear that this is what he was doing. Here Jesus was condemned in a court, by a judge, and sentenced to be executed for crimes the judge himself emphatically and repeatedly declared he had not committed and of which he was innocent. Do you realize how extraordinary that set of historical facts is? Here is John Calvin explaining the point of all of this [Institutes, II, xvi, 5]:
“To take away our condemnation, it was not enough for him to suffer any kind of death: to make satisfaction for our redemption a form of death had to be chosen in which he might free us both by transferring our condemnation to himself and by taking our guilt upon himself. If he had been murdered by thieves or slain in an insurrection by a raging mob, in such a death there would have been no evidence of satisfaction. [Calvin means by “satisfaction” the expunging of guilt by suffering adequate punishment for it.] But when he was arraigned before the judgment seat as a criminal, accused and pressed by testimony, and condemned by the mouth of a judge to die — we know by these proofs that he took the role of a guilty man and evildoer.”
When the ancient prophet foretold that the Messiah would be “numbered with the transgressors” he was telling us that our Savior would die the death of a guilty man, not an innocent victim. But when we hear Pilate acquitting him with the same lips that condemned him to death, we see another ancient prophecy fulfilled:
“He was assigned a grave with the wicked…even though he had done no violence nor was any deceit in his mouth.”
This point is further demonstrated, and powerfully, by Pilate’s releasing Barabbas in Jesus’ place. The one who was actually guilty of the sins of which Jesus had been accused was pardoned and the one innocent of those crimes died in his place.
Here then is the conclusion: Pilate’s role in the history of our Redeemer’s death was to provide public demonstration of the fact that Jesus’ death was death for sin, but not for his own sin. It was judgment for crimes, but not for his own crimes. For the demonstration of this most important, most liberating, most scintillating of all facts, in the providence of God we have the sniveling coward, the timeserving politician Pontius Pilate to thank!
Now, hear me, brothers and sisters. Often, I think, too often I know in my own case, this teaching of Christ for me, of the Lord Jesus dying in my place, dying for my sins, can come to seem ordinary to us, commonplace. We’ve heard it and sung it a million times. There is nothing new in it so we are tempted to hurry by and go on to some subject more interesting, something we may think is more relevant to our life today. But this is the Devil! This fact that Jesus Christ took our place on the cross and suffered our punishment in our stead so that we would not have to suffer it ourselves, is the greatest, most wonderful, most perpetually relevant fact in the world. It is the answer to all the questions of human life and it is the foundation of any true and authentic, and therefore perpetual, human happiness.
To the extent that you embrace this great truth, the truth of Christ for you, to the extent that it occupies your mind, to the extent that it moves and motivates you, to the extent that you base your daily life upon it, to that extent you are a wise man or woman, to that extent you are a good man or woman, and a man or woman with a magnificent future spreading out before you as far as the eye can see. This is the heart and soul of our faith as Christians. It is this conviction — Christ for us — that separates us, most fundamentally, from all other people, including all practitioners of other religions that you may find in the world. That Christ suffered for us the penalty we deserved is the defining principle of our philosophy of life.
The world can understand substitution up to a point. Malcolm Muggeridge, in his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time, tells this remarkable story. During the Second World War he was serving for a time in Africa as a military intelligence officer and, anxious to get home, he secured a place on a plane flying to England. But shortly before the plane was to leave he was bumped from his seat by a colonel whom he remembered distinctly because he had a wooden leg. Muggeridge was furious, angry for a couple of days really, until he learned that the plane had crashed into the hills near Shannon Airport in Ireland and everyone on board had been killed. A life for a life. But, then, no one had intended that substitution. The colonel didn’t take Muggeridge’s seat intending to die in his place.
We can also admire acts of intentional human substitution, some of the most noble of all human acts. We stand in awe of Father Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan, who when once at Auschwitz a number of prisoners were selected for execution and one of them cried out that he was a married man with children, stepped forward to ask if he could take the condemned man’s place. For some reason the guards allowed this and he died of starvation in the man’s place some days later. Again, a life for a life. But that is human heroism and goodness, in this case, motivated by devotion to Jesus Christ who had done the same before for Kolbe and had done much more. Such examples stir our hearts with the goodness of such a personal sacrifice for another. What greater love is there than that a man give up his life for his friend?
But the substitution of Jesus Christ, his sin-bearing and punishment-bearing on behalf of others, was of an entirely different order. He died not for good men but for bad; not for his friends but for his enemies; not for the man crying out to live but as well for the Nazi guard who was planning to put him to death. And he did not die simply in the way of human death, but in the infinitely more serious and terrible way of enduring the holy wrath of God and the pains of hell for the sins, and not the sins of one man or two, but for the sins of the whole world. And not in the strength that some other savior had provided, but to make that salvation possible in the first place. And such it had to be!
The German theologian Emil Brunner is not one I cite very often; his views are not ours at many points, though it should be said that he thought Martyn Lloyd-Jones was one of the greatest preachers and the finest expositor of Paul’s Letter to the Romans in the world of his day. But Brunner could be luminously clear in his thinking about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Listen to him make the point I’m trying to make.
“…all other forms of religion — not to mention philosophy — deal with the problem of guilt apart from the intervention of God, and therefore they come to a ‘cheap’ conclusion. In them man is spared the final humiliation of knowing that the Mediator must bear the punishment instead of him; to this yoke he need not submit. He is not stripped absolutely naked.” [In Stott, Cross of Christ, 162]
Men hate this; are averse to this. They do not want to admit how bad they are, what comprehensive moral failures; they do not want to admit and will not admit their helplessness to fix the problem. But these are the facts of human life. We have come full circle, back to Pontius Pilate as a figure of history. Our sins are a fact of our personal history, they are not ideas, they are all the things we did and failed to do in time and space. They are not ideas but the facts of our life. Our guilt is likewise a fact of history. Our lostness, our alienation from God is a historical condition. You can see it everywhere you look in human life. Therapies cannot help us here. Our attempts to be good and do good cannot make up for a life of selfishness and failure to love God and others. If divine judgment is an event still to come in human history, as it is, only Christ’s death in history in our place, in our stead, on our behalf, is adequate to meet our need. That is what Pontius Pilate, that little man, teaches us still today, however little he intended to do so. There always was but one way in which we could find peace with a holy God: if our sins were laid on Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and if he were to bear the punishment in our place. What does Paul say of Jesus? “He loved me and gave himself for me.”
Now listen to Martin Luther.
“But who is this me? It is I [Martin Luther], an accursed and condemned sinner, who was so beloved by the Son of God that He gave Himself for me.
“Now these words “who loved me” are filled with faith. He who can speak this brief pronoun “me” in faith and apply it to himself as Paul did, will, like Paul, be the best of debaters against the law. [Luther is speaking of the law when it accuses you of having sinned against God and being guilty of that sin.] For Christ did not give a sheep or an ox or gold or silver for me. But He who was completely God gave everything He was, gave Himself for me…. I am revived by this ‘giving’ of the Son of God into death, and I apply it to myself.”
“Therefore read these words ‘me’ and ‘for me’ with great emphasis, and accustom yourself to accepting this “me” with a sure faith and applying it to yourself. [Commentary on Galatians, vol. 1, 176-179]
Hear Pontius Pilate declaring Jesus innocent of all charges; see him condemning Jesus to be executed as a criminal; see him freeing a bad man and condemning Jesus to death. If you understand what was happening there, you understand everything! Now, spend some time today, over the next few days, seeing if you can come up with a fact more important; no, see if you can come up with a fact half as important as this one: Christ died for you!