The first verse of chapter 15 resumes the narrative broken off at 14:65 to complete the account of Peter’s betrayal. At that point the Sanhedrin had agreed to condemn Jesus.
Pontius Pilate was the fifth Roman prefect of Palestine, appointed by the emperor Tiberius. He ordinarily lived in Caesarea but at the Jewish festivals, when large numbers of Jewish pilgrims streamed into Jerusalem and religious fervor ran high, the governor’s presence was needed in the capital. Pilate was prefect from A.D. 26 to A.D. 37, the longest tenure of any of the 14 Roman governors of Judea. By Roman standards he was a competent ruler but he tended to be severe and intractable and it was for this that he was eventually fired by Caligula: he dealt too ruthlessly with what was probably an innocent gathering of people in Samaria. The political situation of a Roman governor of Palestine was not simple. The Jews were constantly agitating against Roman rule. He would be expected to put down insurrection without mercy, but he could be punished for dealing too severely with his subjects. There was no use making an already volatile situation still more so. The picture we are given of Pilate in the NT comports very well with the information we have about him in other sources.
From the information supplied in the other Gospels it is clear that Pilate knew full well who Jesus of Nazareth was and that he was concerned about his influence. On the other hand, he did not seem to feel, upon investigation, that the circumstances called for an execution. But relations with the Jews being what they were, he was disinclined to make an issue of it by refusing to acquiesce to their demands and took the easy way out: handing Jesus over for routine crucifixion. [Edwards, 455-456]
In any case, two historical details explain the statement in verse 1. First, Roman legal proceedings commenced at daybreak; by mid-morning Roman noblemen had completed their business. Second, the Jews needed Pilate because they did not have the authority to order an execution. Understandably the Roman government did not permit local control over capital punishment.
Pilate had no interest in Jewish religious questions, but he would have been very interested in Jesus as a political figure, as a pretender to a Jewish throne. Remember, by this time in the development of Jewish thinking the Messiah was primarily a political deliverer and what he would deliver the Jews from in their view was Roman oppression. In any case, this is what the Sanhedrin told Pilate Jesus was claiming to be. Their case against him was based on the charge that he was a political revolutionary, a charge false on its face.
The NIV reads Jesus’ reply as a straightforward affirmative response. Mark’s Greek is more ambiguous – perhaps something like “So you say…” – and that explains why Pilate continued to question Jesus.
Whether the request for Barabbas’ release was the Sanhedrin’s idea – a way to involve the crowd in demanding Jesus’ death, for only in this way would a popular “freedom fighter” be saved – cannot be known for sure, but it is certainly quite possible. It is also certainly possible that the “crowd” – however large it may have been – that assembled in the early morning was recruited by the Sanhedrin and did not contain many of the people who had heard Jesus gladly in the days before.
Certainly Pilate, astute politician and governor that he was, realized that Barabbas was a greater danger to the political order than Jesus was.
A brutal beating was the customary first step in a crucifixion.
I mentioned earlier that there are other references to Pontius Pilate in the historical sources of the period, both Roman and Jewish. We know something of the man and of the history of his prefecture. What is more, we also know from other sources of this encounter between Pontius Pilate and Jesus of Nazareth. In a famous passage in his history of the Jewish people Josephus, writing in the later years of the first century, wrote of Jesus and Pilate. He also wrote about John the Baptist and some other pieces of early Christian history, but most interestingly about Jesus himself. Josephus was no Christian but he wrote of Christ. Scholarship has, as you can imagine, poured over this text. A few skeptics have judged it to be entirely a Christian invention, somehow inserted later into Josephus’ text. Most others have argued that some parts of it may be Christian interpolations or additions. And another sizeable group of scholars, both Christian and non-Christian, have argued that the text as it stands is entirely the work of Josephus. Here is the text with only the parts of it that are virtually universally accepted as original to Josephus’ history.
“And there arose about this time Jesus, a wise man, for he was a doer of marvelous deeds, a teacher of men who receive the truth with pleasure. He led away many Jews, and also many of the Greeks. And when Pilate had condemned him to the cross on his impeachment by the chief men among us, those who had loved him at first did not cease; and even now the tribe of Christians, so named after him, has not yet died out.” [Cf. the account of the matter in F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable, 108-112]
Josephus may very well, in the same paragraph, have mentioned that Jesus was the Christ and that he rose from the dead – the only form of the text that we have has those statements – but leave that to the side. What we have from Josephus is a straightforward account of the death of Jesus at the hand of Pontius Pilate as a result of the instigation of the religious leadership; precisely what the Gospels also tell us happened.
Or consider this from the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus [XV, xliv]:
“Christus, the founder of [the Christians], had undergone the death penalty in the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator, Pontius Pilate.”
I could read you other material about Pilate and about Jesus from other sources from the period. But you get my point. What we have read this morning is, on one level, ordinary history. It is history in the same sense in which the reign of Tiberius is history, or the high priesthood of Caiaphas is history. It is history in the ordinary sense: it is what happened. Had you been there you would have seen the events unfold: heard the crowd shout and witnessed Pilate’s dialogue with the crowd just as it is described here. This happened in the same way that it happens that you are in this church this morning. There are, in fact, a host of little details in the Gospels’ accounts of the trial of Jesus at the hands of Pontius Pilate that confirm the historicity of the account. The Gospel writers obviously intend their readers to read their narratives as accounts of what happened.
It is also completely true that many of the participants in this historical episode did not understand what they were actually doing or what was transpiring before their very eyes. They had no grasp that the salvation of the world was taking place. They did not understand that Jesus Christ was the maker of heaven and earth, that he was their own Lord and their only hope of peace with God. They did not appreciate that they were, for all the wrong reasons, contributing to the redemption of mankind by sending Jesus to the cross. So little did these people understand this, so inconsequential was the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth to many of these people, certainly to the Romans, that Tacitus, in his review of the troubles in Judea [Histories, V, ix] comments, “under Tiberius nothing much happened.” [sub Tiberio quies] Nothing happened? The greatest thing that ever happened or ever would happen happened under Tiberius and his own governor played a leading part! But he was blind to the significance of what was happening in his own palace and what his own order to crucify Jesus would mean for the world.
Only from the vantage point of faith can one see what is really happening here. A murderer, a guilty man, was set free and an innocent man was punished. There was a substitution here that illustrates the meaning of Jesus’ death. Jesus was convicted and condemned by a judge, indeed by the supreme judge of the land. What is more, he was convicted and condemned by a judge who not only knew that he was innocent of any crime, who not only knew that out of envy the religious leadership had brought trumped up charges, but who said publicly on several occasions that Jesus was innocent.
“Why crucify him?” Pilate asked the people. “What crime has he committed?” Pilate, the judge, condemned an innocent man to death and set free a guilty man in his place.
As we know from the teaching of the entire Bible, the essential thing in Christ’s death was that in dying he was suffering the penalty, the judgment, the condemnation that is due to sin. But in suffering that penalty he was enduring condemnation not for his own sins – for he had none – but for the sins of others. Pilate’s role, in the providence of God, was to ensure that Jesus was condemned in a court room, by a judge, and sentenced to be executed for crimes that he had not committed. Pilate, however unwittingly, played his role to a “T.” He condemned Jesus to death without once suggesting that he thought Jesus had actually done anything deserving punishment of any kind, much less death.
To take away our condemnation, it was not enough that Jesus should die in any manner whatsoever. To make satisfaction for our sin and guilt, to suffer vicarious punishment for sinners, a particular form of death was necessary. If Jesus had died in his bed from disease, or if he had been killed in an accident, or if he had been murdered by thieves or killed in a riot, there would have been no demonstration, no evidence that his death was substitutionary, vicarious, and penal, that is a judgment for sin. But because Jesus was arraigned before a judge, accused and condemned as a criminal, and sentenced to die, we know that he took the role of an evildoer. He was, as the prophets foretold, “numbered with the transgressors.” The death he died was the death of a guilty man, a criminal. [Cf. Calvin, Institutes, II, xvi, 5, p. 509]
On the other hand, when we hear Pilate acquitting him with the same lips that condemned him to death, we see the fulfillment of another ancient prophecy:
“He was assigned a grave with the wicked…even though he had done no violence nor was any deceit in his mouth.”
In other words,
“The purpose of [Jesus’] condemnation, not only by the Sanhedrin but also by the secular Roman judge Pontius Pilate, was that he would not die in secret as a result of an assassination or in an insurrection but that he would be publicly and legally killed, after being properly examined, in accordance with a verdict from the then best and most thorough system of justice, and that in the process his personal innocence…as well as the basis for his condemnation, namely, his confession that he was the Son of God and Israel’s Messiah…would be clearly and incontrovertibly made manifest before the eyes of all.” [Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, iii, 409]
His being condemned to the worst form of punishment then known, the most terrible and disgraceful method of execution, demonstrated, as the rest of the NT will confirm, that Jesus fully satisfied the most rigorous demands of the law and that he had fallen under God’s curse, all so that he could remove that curse from us.
In other words, Pilate serves to ensure that the death Jesus died was a death for sin, but not for his own sin. It was a judgment for crimes, but crimes that he had not himself committed. For this demonstration of this most important of all historical truth we have, in the providence of God, Pontius Pilate’s sniveling cowardice, timeserving, and dereliction of duty to thank. And, on top of that, Pilate, for the worst reasons, lets a guilty man go and punishes the innocent, a perfect demonstration of what the cross of Jesus actually achieved: escape from the very punishment that men deserve.
And that it was Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who served this purpose, proves all of this to be real history. Something that really happened. The meaning of this history may or may not be understood, but that it is history is beyond dispute.
Some of you may have seen a YouTube video that is circulating as such videos do nowadays. Mr. Bechtel drew it to may attention. It is a brief lecture by one Dr. Randy Pausch of Carnegie Mellon University. It is what he calls his “last lecture,” that is, the lecture every teaching professor thinks of giving when he learns that this would be the last time he would be able to speak to his students. Prof. Pausch is an engaging man with a lively delivery, but what makes the lecture – which he repeated for an Oprah TV audience – hence the YouTube video – so captivating is that he is dying. He has pancreatic cancer and has only a few months to live. What makes that fact still more poignant is that Randy Pausch is still quite a young man, with a young wife and three little children. Indeed, he is still a vigorous man; he looks healthy. He does not appear to be ill at all.
The lecture itself is unremarkable. He says plenty of things that you have heard others say and nothing really that you haven’t heard many others say at one time or another. He chose, in this last lecture, to talk about fulfilling one’s childhood dreams and he advises such uncontroversial things as hard work, the appreciation of people who drive you to succeed, and an unwillingness to let the obstacles in your way prevent you from success. He says that you can choose to be happy and that such a choice is health-giving to you and to those around you. He says that when you screw up – as everyone does – you should apologize for your misbehavior and not only admit that you did wrong but ask how you can put the wrong right. Be patient, show gratitude, and don’t make a practice of complaining. Pretty conventional, uncontroversial stuff.
He finishes the lecture by saying that though he is dying soon; he has chosen to be happy and not to complain about his misfortune both for his own sake and the sake of his family. When he concludes the lecture by saying that the people he had in mind in writing the lecture were not really his university students or even the vast television audience but his three little children who will grow up without him, the camera pans the audience to show that there is hardly a dry eye in the house.
The summary statement of the lecture is this: if you live your life the right way the karma will take care of itself; your dreams will come to you.
Now all of that is very Oprah and very 21st century America. It sells in a comfortable, middle-class environment where almost everyone lives a long life. It tugs at our heart strings because it is so uncontroversial and so confirming of the things we would like to be true. It is sentimental in the truest sense of the word. But, of course, the lecture would sound ridiculous in Darfur. Indeed, it is ridiculous in a great many modern American contexts. Pausch admits that he had a very happy childhood in a stable loving home. Many nowadays don’t have that privilege. He is a happy fellow by disposition. Someone who struggles with depression will find the notion that the karma will take care of itself a cruel joke. He has three happy, healthy children. Parents who have lost a child to disease or accident may not find it so easy to believe that if they live their lives the right way their dreams will come to them.
But more important than any of that is this. All of that is just a man’s opinion, quite a sentimental opinion in fact. Compared to the historical fact of Jesus’ judgment and crucifixion, it is nothing much at all as a statement to be made to people in the hour of death. What we offer to the world as Christians is not sentiment but history, events in the real world that changed forever the possibilities of human life. Prof. Pausch admits that we make mistakes and thinks that we ought to apologize for them. But he also takes time to say in this brief lecture that if you are patient with people their native goodness will rise to the surface. The true condition of human beings, the true situation in which they live in this world, the reality of divine holiness and justice, the brutal fact of human sinfulness, none of this is mentioned or even hinted at.
Indeed, Prof. Pausch thinks that he is dying because he had the bad luck to get pancreatic cancer. We might gently ask why in his case the karma did not make his dreams come true or those of his wife or children who now must live on without him. But as a matter of fact men do not die because they get pancreatic cancer. Men get pancreatic cancer because it is appointed that they die. Pancreatic cancer is just one of the great many ways that death is visited upon human beings. Human beings were made to live; every fiber of their being tells them that, but they must die. That is the brute fact. How they die, even when they die is much less important than the fact that they will die. And the reason they must die is because of the judgment of human sin that has been visited upon this world by a holy God. Death is an intruder in this world, but death exists as a punishment.
Compared to the judgment of Jesus by Pilate and the Son of God being sentenced to die by crucifixion the banal platitudes of Prof. Pausch’s speech signify nothing, nothing except perhaps that we all can hear – no matter what we believe about God and man – we all can hear at least the faint echo of the truth. Even in death unbelieving man seeks some meaning because he can’t help believing that there must be some.
Set next to the titanic event of the crucifixion of the Son of God urging people to be nice to one another so that their dreams will come true is revealed for what it is: the counsel of despair. We are all going to die. Barabbas was going to die. He was going to be punished for his crimes and we will be as well…unless somehow, in some way, our guilt before God is removed. How can that happen unless, in some way, our sin is punished and justice satisfied for it. How can that happen unless someone who is sinless himself and whose life is of infinite value should offer to bear our punishment in our place. This is what Jesus did and this is what Pilate’s role in that tragic and absolutely glorious affair was designed to demonstrate publicly and dramatically. Jesus died a criminal and yet he was entirely innocent. He died condemned and yet even the judge admitted he had done nothing wrong.
He died, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God. Those who trust in Jesus may see themselves in Barabbas, being set free because Jesus took his place; the guilty released, the innocent condemned and executed. The great substitution complete.
In his Chronicles of Wasted Time, Malcolm Muggeridge tells of a time during the Second World War when, anxious to get home to England from his post in Africa, he was bumped from the seat assigned to him on the plane by a colonel with a wooden leg. He was incensed that he had been substituted for until he learned that that very plane, with now the one-legged colonel instead of Muggeridge aboard, ran into the mountains around Shannon airport and crashed with no survivors. There is substitution of a kind: a life for a life. One lives because the other dies.
But this substitution we are speaking about is of an entirely different order. Christ offered himself for sinners. He went to the cross on purpose. There was nothing accidental about this substitution. He died not for one man but for a world of men. He died not for his friends but for his enemies. And he died not simply in the way of human death but in the far more serious way of a man suffering the divine wrath against human sin.
In all other forms of religion and philosophy the problem of sin and guilt, the problem of man’s moral failure is dealt with in some other way than by the intervention of God himself. And the result is that they all come to cheap and finally empty solutions. In them man is spared the final humiliation of knowing that the Mediator must bear his punishment in his place; he is not stripped absolutely naked. But in them also there is no true answer given to the problem of his guilt.
Here is the true answer and we have Pilate to thank for making it so clear.
He was pierced for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
And by his wounds we are healed.
We all like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
And the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.