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Oh, Lord, You are our portion. We promise to keep Your words. We entreat Your favor with all our hearts. Be gracious to us according to Your promise. The earth, O Lord, is full of Your steadfast love. You are good and You do good. Teach us Your rules. We say with the psalmist, it is good for us that we are afflicted, that we might learn Your statutes. The word of Your mouth is better to us than thousands of pieces of gold and silver. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
I hope you have a Bible and you can turn with me to John, chapter 19. It’s important to follow along. What we do here at Christ Covenant is preach through usually books of the Bible, verse by verse. We have been in the Gospel of John, well, I started soon after I came here, so we’ve been in this series for coming up on three years with breaks along the way, but we are coming now to the crucifixion to resurrection and to the end of the book. And this morning we are in chapter 19. We missed chapter 18 because of the last two weeks looking at the armor of God in Ephesians chapter 6, and so we will pick up with John chapter 19. Follow along as I read the first 16 verses.
“Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. And the soldiers twisted together 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. Pilate went out again and said to them, ‘See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.’ So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’ When the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out, ‘Crucify Him, crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Take Him yourselves and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and according to that law He ought to die because He has made Himself the Son of God.’ When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, ‘Where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to Him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release You and authority to crucify You?’ Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no authority over Me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.'”
“From then on Pilate sought to release Him, but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.’ So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, ‘Behold your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!’ Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’ So he delivered Him over to them to be crucified.”
On March 30, 1981 Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, Jr., in an attempt to assassinate the President. No one knew at the time just how seriously injured and close to death Reagan was. Not surprisingly, behind the scenes the White House was in chaos. The Vice President was on a plane flying back from Texas, the President was heading into surgery. People wanted to know who was in charge. Al Haig, Reagan’s Secretary of State, rushed over to the White House, convened a meeting with a number of advisers, and then he entered the press room, he announced to the press and to the world, “I am in control here.”
Looking back, historians debate what to make of Haig’s statement. Now with the hindsight of some history, some people think Haig was bravely trying to send a message to the Soviets that America was going to be fine, that there was somebody at the helm, and all was not chaos, though it was behind the scenes. But in that moment, most people thought the Secretary of State sounded intemperate, presumptuous, ambitious. The sort of man that you would not in control in a moment of crisis, who comes blustering in to announce to everyone that “I’m in control.”
And the fact of the matter was no one really was in control. The 25th amendment made clear that the Vice President would assume the office of the presidency if the President died or resigned, but it wasn’t at all clear what to do when the President was in surgery or was incapacitated. In the fog of war, or in the fog of crisis, it can be very difficult to know who is really in control. And sometimes the people who look to be in control are not, and sometimes the very last person you think to have authority to be in control, actually is.
Here in John 19 we have a scene, if not a scene of complete chaos then it’s certainly a scene of crisis. There’s a trial, a judgment, a mob, an accusation, a Roman governor clinging to power, a religious elite trying to wield their power. There’s the threat of imperial retribution. There are soldiers, there’s violence, there’s shouts of “Crucify Him!” And then there is a bloodied man in the midst of them all. A bloodied man who is about to die.
So who is in control here? Who has the real authority?
We might think through the cast of characters in this scene in John chapter 19 and try to determine, on the face of it, who has the control, who has the authority.
We might think the soldiers. After all, they’re soldiers, and if there’s anyone really in control, it’s the people with the guns and the tanks and the planes, or here with the swords and the shields. They might look like they have some sway over the situation. After all, they are arrayed, we can imagine, in their military regalia, looking like fine Roman soldiers. And they seem to have the upper hand. After all, we read that they twisted together, in verse 2, a crown of thorns, put it on His head, gave Him a purple robe. We read in the other gospel accounts they beat Him, they gave Him a mock sort of scepter, they bowed down in mocking homage to Him, “oh, surely You are a great king” as they shroud Him with a makeshift cloak and a makeshift scepter and pierce into His brown that crown of thorns. So the soldiers, are they in control?
Well, what authority do they really have? If you press a bit deeper, they are really just bit players in this drama. We don’t even know their names. And when we have one of them who is singled out, the centurion we read about in the other gospel accounts, he is singled out because he confesses that this man crucified is the Son of God. These soldiers are men under orders; they’re not in control. They’re doing what others tell them to do.
And surely they will pierce His side, they will come to break His legs, but in so doing they are only fulfilling what Scripture had said would take place.
If you turn the page and you see in John, chapter 19, verse 36: “For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled. Not one of His bones will be broken.” They came up thinking they would have to break His bones because it was nearing the High Holy day and nearing the Sabbath and the Jews did not want the bodies to be up there and the Romans didn’t want it either, and so they would have to break their bones so that they could no longer prop themselves up to prevent death by asphyxiation. But when they came to Christ, He was already dead. They didn’t have to break His bones.
And even when they pierced His side and blood and water gushed out, verse 37, again another Scripture says they will look on Him whom they have pierced. So even when they are doing their brutally worst, they are only fulfilling what Scripture had already predicted. No, no, no, the soldiers are not in control here.
What about Caesar? Well, if, if there’s anyone who’s impressive, surely it’s Caesar. He is the Emperor, after all. And his name is invoked several times in this scene. He stands behind all the action as a kind of looming threat. Tiberius Caesar. He was a great Roman general, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and for a time parts of Germania into the north of the kingdom or of the empire. Tacitus, the historian, depicts Tiberius as a tyrannical, vengeful emperor.
People here, you see in verse 12, want to be sure that they are a friend of Caesar. It’s on its way to becoming almost a technical term, “Are you a friend of Caesar?” Are you a friend of Caesar? Are you someone who can be trusted? Are you really on the Emperor’s side?
So you might think that the Emperor, if anyone, the one who has sway over the entire Mediterranean basin down into North Africa and Levant up to the north, that surely this man is in control of the scene. But if you think about, what authority does he really have over this situation? He’s not in Jerusalem. He has no telegraph, no phone, no texting. He has no communion with them. He is presumably in Rome. He’s not calling the shots, not directly. His, his persona casts a shadow over the proceedings, but he wouldn’t have been able to know what happened there for days or weeks. Someone would have to travel. You could only get a message as fast as a horse or a ship could move a message. And he rules by fear of reprisal.
So, yes, make no mistake, Caesar has a kind of power, but when it comes to it, in this moment, the decision regarding Jesus, what to do with this man, what to do with the Jews, what to do with this situation, the Emperor’s not going to make that decision. He’s not calling the shots. He’s not in control.
What about the Jewish leaders? We, we see a reference at times to the Jews, like verse 7, and in the ESV there’s a little footnote that leads you to the bottom that says the Greek here probably refers to the Jewish religious leaders and others under their influence, and that’s certainly the case. And especially on the other side of the Holocaust, we want to make sure in reading the Gospels that we understand that there’s no blanket denunciation of the Jews as a people. In fact, you have to remember that John is a Jew and he’s writing this book most likely to other Jews, either those who are seeking to know more about Christ or who are young converts themselves, and so there’s no way to portray this book as anti-Semitic.
But the Jews, and certainly their leaders here in Jerusalem, are the ones who are clamoring for Jesus’ death. Now the crowds, though there is a crowd that has gathered around the chief priests and the scribes here, likely gathering around them because they took some interest in the proceedings and shared their point of view, but remember if you know the Gospels, you know that more often than not the crowd are astonished with Jesus. It’s not the common people per se who are after His head, it’s the leaders in particular that find Him a threat. A warning, of course, to any religious leaders, to people like me, how trained you can be in the things of the Word or the Scriptures or of God and how wrong and how mistaken you can be. Certainly these men were.
The crowd, on Palm Sunday, the day we celebrate today, welcomed Jesus with shouts of “Hosanna.” And it’s important to realize that that crowd on Palm Sunday shouting “Hosanna” as Jesus rode on a donkey into the entrance of Jerusalem is by and large not the same crowd on Good Friday that shouts “Crucify Him!” This is a popular point that preacher likes to make because it makes for a really good preaching point: Look at the fickle crowd, they sing songs to Him on Sunday and five days later on Friday they’re shouting to kill Him, how quickly we turn away.
Well, it is certain that we are fickle and we do turn away and we see Peter deny Him three times. But read all four Gospel accounts carefully and you realize the excited throng on Palm Sunday was filled with Galilean pilgrims. Remember, this is a pilgrimage festival, and it would make sense that those in particular from Galilee would be cheering on Jesus. Galilee was where He’s from, it’s His home base, it’s where Jesus did most of His teaching and His miracles.
So as He enters on Palm Sunday, it’s Galilean pilgrims and it’s His larger group of disciples, 70,120, more than that, who are cheering, not quite knowing what they’re saying, but cheering for Him nonetheless.
Then when we come to this crowd, it’s those who are stirred up by the Jewish leaders, by the scribes, by the Sanhedrin, by the chief priests, those who have really been against Him from the beginning, and now those gathered around who share their concerns.
So we have the Jewish leaders, and they would have looked an impressive lot. Again, decked out in their robes and their phylacteries and their hair according to the strictest rules of the Torah or the Halacha. They’ve already stood in judgment on Jesus. We read that in chapter 18, they’ve already bound Him and delivered Him over to Pilate. They believe that He’s a blasphemer. You see that in verse 7, “The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law and according to that law, He ought to die because He has made Himself the Son of God.'” They’re likely referring to Leviticus 24:16, “Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death.”
They cry out for Him, multiple times, to be crucified. Verse 6, “When the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out ‘Crucify Him, Crucify Him.'”
Verse 15: “They cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him.'”
The Jewish leaders are there in all of their resplendent, religious glory, sitting in judgment upon Jesus, twisting the levers of power to get Pilate to do what they want, calling out for His death, and they will have their way, and yet they’re not in control. They can’t even put anyone to death themselves. Chapter 18, verse 31, “Pilate said to them, ‘Take Him yourselves, judge Him by your own law.’ The Jews said to him, ‘It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.'” They don’t have power in and of themselves to crucify Jesus. They must rely on the Romans to do that.
And these religious leaders, far from being in control, they aren’t even in control of their own anger. Overcome again and again with seething hatred, “crucify Him,” they cry. Their hearts have been hardened. Jesus spoke of it in John chapter 12, “and they had given themselves over so fully to their hardness of heart that they are willing to throw their lot in with the hated Romans.” This was not a normal thing, “Yay, we love the Romans, our imperial overlords, as we have some sort of vassal state under their control and must pay their hated taxes and give obeisance to their Caesar.”
But no, no, no… Now they are willing to say, “We are the best friends of the Emperor.” Twice they announce themselves to be boot-licking imperialists: “If you release this man,” verse 12, “you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.”
And in verse 15, they answer “We have no king but Caesar.”
What are they really masters of? They had to succumb to the worst sort of cynical pose, a deliberate ploy, “Oh, we are your humble, loyal servants to Caesar, relinquishing all dignity and claims to our own power and authority that you might kill this man that we so blindingly hate.” They don’t have power.
If there’s anyone in this particular scene who seems to be in control, it’s the one that we hear from the most, Pilate. Judea became a Roman province, being joined to a larger province, in 6 A.D. Pilate was the prefect of Judea from 26 to 36 while Tiberius was Emperor. Tiberius was Emperor from 14 to 37 A.D. The prefect was the ruler of the province; you can think of him roughly as a governor as a state. Of course, he’s, he’s not voted in by any popular election, he’s appointed by Rome.
Not surprisingly, Pilate was not terribly popular with his subjects, and I imagine not many Roman prefects were. He put military standards around the city, with a picture of the Emperor on them. He squashed rebellions with violence. He used the Temple funds not for the Temple but to build an aqueduct. He mingled the blood of the Galileans with their sacrifices, we read in Luke 13:1. He’s not normally in Jerusalem; his home was in Caesarea Maritima on the coast, not Caesar Philippi, farther north and inland, but here Pilate is in Jerusalem as he would normally be because it’s the Feast of Passover and there’s lots of people coming in, perhaps the time for taxes or just the time for possible insurrection, and so he needs to be there.
He perceives that the chief priests are jealous of Jesus. Pilate’s been around the block; he’s a shrewd politician, he knows what envy looks like, he knows what fear looks like. He has quite a bit of that himself. He repeatedly tries to free Jesus. I’m sure a big part of it is that Pilate just doesn’t want to bother with the whole mess of it. Maybe, in fact, he saw Palm Sunday and saw that this man had quite a following and He has pilgrims and He has disciples numbering in the hundreds who are claiming Him to be some sort of king and I’m not looking to kill this man and have a mob on my hands wanting to kill me.
There’s all sorts of reasons he may want to let Him go. Perhaps his conscious is stricken; we read more about that in other accounts in the gospels.
But he offers to release Him several times. Chapter 18, verse 31: “Take Him yourselves, judge Him by your own law.”
Chapter 18:39: “But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. Do you want me to release this man, Jesus?”
Or chapter 19, verse 10: He says to Jesus, “Don’t you know I have authority to release You?”
And then in verse 12: “From then on Pilate sought to release Him.”
Pilate literally wants to wash his hands of this man, as we read that his wife, in another gospel account, is warned in a dream. Pilate wants nothing to do with Jesus.
Three times he states his belief that Jesus is innocent.
Chapter 18:38: “I find no guilt in Him.”
Chapter 19, verse 4: “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.”
Chapter 19, later in the chapter, verse 10, he tries to release Him, and then when he delivers Him out again in verse 12, he makes clear that he does not believe there is any charge against this man. He wants nothing to do with Jesus. He wants to save himself from making a real decision. So after they cry, in verse 6, “Crucify Him,” he says “Take Him yourself and crucify Him. I find no guilt in the man.” And so He has Jesus flogged, probably not initially with the worst sort of flogging. There are three different kinds of flogging that could be administered; it was probably the least severe, because at this point Pilate’s desire is to rough him up, to try to show that he’s taking their concerns serously, “see, I’ve had Him beaten, can’t you see I’ve done something to Him,” and maybe it will actually engender some sympathy, they’ll see that He’s beaten and He’s bloodied and they’ll be done with the whole mess. Later, on His way to the cross, He will have the beating and the flogging that puts Him to within an inch of His life. But here he just wants to be done with the man.
Earlier in chapter 18 he’s tried to release Him. He says you can choose for yourself, do you want Jesus, who is called the Christ, the King of the Jews, or do you want this man Barabbas, and they cry out for Barabbas, a robber, likely meaning an insurrectionist, one who has tried some sort of guerrilla tactics to try to overthrow Roman rule. Surely this is the man that you want to keep behind bars, not Jesus, who has a reputation for doing miracles and for healing people and casting out demons. And yet they choose Barabbas.
And it’s interesting that in some of the other textual variants for the other Gospels, there are some other variants that give the name of Barabbas as Jesus Barabbas. Jesus was a very common name among first century Jews, and we don’t know for sure, but it seems to be a tradition that has some merit, and so you think about it, if this man was really named Jesus Barabbas, and what is Bar-abbas mean? It’s Aramaic. Bar – son, abba – father. They released Jesus, son of the father, that they might crucify truly Jesus, Son of the Father.
And if ever there were a clear picture of the Gospel, surely it is here as you have one man who is guilty and deserving of punishment, and he goes free, and the man who is completely innocent, He suffers and dies.
The guilty to die to be set free, the innocent to die for the sake of the guilty.
Jesus will not be set free.
He is called, by some, the Son of God, which makes Pilate nervous. Verse 8: Roman officials were nothing if not deeply superstitious and he may be thinking I’ve just had this man, who may be some sort of holy man or some sort of son of the gods, and I’ve just had him whipped. Again, Pilate is eager to get rid of Jesus. He introduces Jesus to the crowds with a political flourish, with these famous words in verse 5: “Behold the man.” In the Latin vulgate, ecce homo. You can find famous paintings depicting this scene, ecce homo, behold the man.
Or again in verse 13, “Behold your king.” And Pilate is calling Him a king, stating more than he knows, He is a king much more than Pilate could ever dare to imagine.
And as he presents this king before him, it’s layered with ironies, because on the one hand Pilate may be saying, “Behold, here’s the man you want, He’s the king” and they respond with mockery and jest and hatred to crucify Him. Part of Pilate’s ploy may be “Really, this is your king? Does He, behold the man, does He look like a king? Is this really your king? Is this the one that you are going to crucify for blasphemy?”
There’s layers of irony and meaning and as so often happens in John’s Gospel, people state much more than they know: We have no friend by Caesar, no king but Caesar. How true it was of the elite leaders in Jerusalem. They had no king in heaven, they had a king Caesar. How true it was when Pilate would call Him a king that that is precisely who Jesus is.
So is Pilate the man in control here? Seems to be. He’s the one who’s going to make the singular decision does Jesus live or die. And yet how much authority does he have? What sort of impressive figure does he really cut? He is looking for a way to stay on the good side of Caesar, to do what the Jewish leaders want, not to harm some mysterious holy man, and not to upset the crowds. He was doing what some politicians do all too well; it’s not triangulating, it’s quad-ratulating. There are four sides to this thing. Okay, I got Caesar, I got the Jewish leaders, I got the crowds, I got Jesus, behind the scenes his wife has had a dream, and he’s just trying to navigate it all so that he can come out on the other side and not be in trouble. This is hardly a man who is the master of his own destiny. From start to finish, Pilate is controlled by the opinions and the actions of others. Does he come through this scene looking like a decisive, in control, authoritative man? Or one who is passively looking for the path of least resistance to preserve his own supposed power?
So who’s in control? Who has authority here?
If there is anyone who was looking in on Jerusalem on that day, they would have to conclude that the last person possible to be in control was Jesus. But remember, power is not the same as authority.
I came across this brilliant line from G. K. Chesterton: “If a rhinoceros were to enter this restaurant now, there is no denying he would have great power here. But I should be the first to arise and assure him that he had no authority whatsoever.”
There’s a difference between brute power and real authority.
The understated climax of this whole scene comes in verses 9, 10, and 11. Where are you from, Pilate asks. Are you really a son of the gods? And Jesus gives him no answer, like a sheep silent before its shearers. Pilate is annoyed, maybe bordering on outrage. You can just hear it in Pilate’s voice, “Don’t you know who I am? Show me a little respect. I have, I have the authority to kill you or to release you. If I ask you a question, bloodied king, I expect You to answer me. If You know what’s good for Yourself, You will answer my question. I hold Your life in my hand.”
But of course, he doesn’t. Jesus says to him, in verse 11, you, Pilate, would have no authority over Me at all unless it had been given to you from above.
Now it could be on one level He’s talking kind of Romans 13, governing authorities, the magistrate being given authority from God; that’s certainly true. But I think there’s a whole lot more than that in Jesus’ statement. This is less Romans 13 and more Acts chapter 4, “for truly in this city they were gathered against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your plan had predestined to take place.”
So no, Pilate, you don’t have any real authority here. You cannot do one little thing to Me apart from the willing of My Father who is in heaven. My Father who knows every sparrow that falls to the ground, who knows every hair on my head, who knows every germ and bacteria and virus in the universe. That God is the one who has given you your authority, Pilate.
He says the one who handed me over has committed the greater sin. It could be He’s speaking of Judas, probably actually Caiaphas in this case. The point is not to absolve Pilate of responsibility, but to say relatively speaking, there is less complicity for Pilate as he is active passively and other have acted actively to kill Jesus. But he is guilty, nonetheless, as Acts 4 tells us.
The main point is this: Everything, every thing, in this scene, which appears to be nigh unto the triumph of evil, like the world has never seen, everything in this moment is happening according to God’s plan. No authority for Pilate, except as God has granted it. The soldiers will not break a bone in Jesus’ body because the Scriptures have forbidden it. Jesus was in God’s hands, not in Pilate’s.
If ever there were a moment that looked to be out of God’s control, contrary to God’s purposes, surely this was it. But John is at pains to show us every step of the way that things are right on schedule, going precisely according to plan.
Of course, I must say in closing, there’s an immediate relevance to our current situation, we can all see that, I hope, and we’re right to make that application.
But let’s not make the coronavirus the main actor in this drama. That would be to make the mistake of thinking that John 19 is about the high priests, about Pilate, about Barabbas, about the crowds, about the soldiers, when it was about God and His plan and the story that He was writing with utter perfection.
So perhaps some time from now this will be 2020, the year of the virus, the year of COVID-19, the year when the world stopped, perhaps.
But we already know that it will be Anno Domini, the year of our Lord, 2020.
This is God’s story. And He is writing the story, though we cannot see, just like on Good Friday they did not know what God was writing, and those who were followers of Christ were filled with all sorts of fears, worries, anxieties, everything was crashing down. But of course, it wasn’t, and it was happening according to God’s plan, fulfilling what God had already decreed, fulfilling what the Scriptures had already declared, and in time God would make His purposes known.
And so as we come into this Holy Week, let us remember Pilate was not in control, the soldiers had no real authority there, the Jewish leaders were not the ones in control, not even Caesar himself, but the man who stood there in the midst of them, beaten, bloodied, bruised, battered, about to die… He was the One who had real authority, who would give His life up willingly for our sakes and be raised up three days later.
Let’s pray. Our gracious heavenly Father, we come to You asking for your help in our time of need, giving thanks that the most important work to be done has already been accomplished, and so remind us this week as we think about the betrayal, the death, the burial, and then the glorious resurrection, to remind us just who has real authority and who is the real King. We pray in His name. Amen.