Put under Pressure
Pilate knew that the Jews wanted him to condemn Jesus to death but he really didn’t want to take the responsibility for that. Consequently he had:
Tried to get the Jews themselves to deal with the matter as being their problem
Tried to shift the responsibility onto Herod
Tried to fudge the issue – a bit of painful discipline might satisfy Jesus’ opponents
Tried to offer an alternative – Barabbas or Jesus
Why did Pilate behave like this?
Pilate was convinced that Jesus had done nothing to warrant the death penalty – accusations had been brought against him but there really was no case to answer. Pilate knew that the real reason the Jews wanted Jesus dead was because they were envious of the success he was enjoying.
Pilate also had his eye on the Jews – he didn’t like them but feared their influence and capacity for making life difficult for him. As events would prove he had good reason for this.
To resolve the tension Pilate tried to sit on the fence and not to decide to do anything definitively. It is a choice of action, or inaction, that many have since tried to follow when they have been confronted with Jesus. Pilate was to discover that this was an impossibility, he would be forced to take a real decision, a personal decision - there was in fact no fence for him to sit on.
The same is true for us as well. When it comes to our attitude towards Jesus he never intended to leave us with the option of hesitant indecisiveness – we must either be for him or against him:
Lk.9:50 "for the one who is not against you is for you."
Lk.11:23 "Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters."
Factors that brought about Pilate’s choice
The first thing for us to note is that Pilate was not convinced by the presentation of some new evidence that swayed him to find Jesus guilty as charged. Again and again Pilate made it clear that he had found no fault in this man.
v.22 "A third time he said to them, "Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death."
This declaration of innocence is very important and Luke goes out of his way to emphasise it. We will return to the significance of this innocence a little later.
Pilate allowed himself to be swayed by others. It is clear that Pilate from the outset was aware that the Jews were seeking Jesus’ death – that was the reason they brought Jesus to him for judgment even if they hadn’t explicitly said so. As time went on their demands became more overt and much more strident and this is how Pilate was influenced and finally browbeaten:
Opposition towards Jesus can be very vocal. Opponents can speak loudly and forcefully and that is was these particular opponents did. Such behaviour can be and was here intimidating:
v.18 they cried out
v.21 they were shouting
v.23 they were demanding with loud cries
v.23 their voices prevailed – that is, they overcame, they gained the upper hand through the exercise of strength
Opposition towards Jesus can often appear to be coming from every angle, everyone everywhere can seem to be united in their rejection of him:
v.18 they all cried out together
Sometimes it might seem like that to you too. Everyone is against Jesus wherever you turn. The TV, the radio and the media in general have different messages to peddle and their message is not in line with what the Bible has to say. Some of course are open in their hostility towards Jesus regarding him as irrelevant and so they are uninterested by what the Bible has to say about him. Others may pay a certain lip-service to the influence of Jesus but still fail to grasp the significance of who he is and what he has done. These people will often reject the historical Jesus and replace him with a construct of their own. Sadly, you’ll even find some of these people in the church. They may claim to be followers of Jesus but because they deem the Bible to be unreliable and full of errors they try to strip him of everything that makes him important (his deity, his uniqueness etc.) When you’re surrounded by such folk and constantly bombarded with their ideas it is not surprising if you begin to wonder whether their views are right – after all they are so strident, so confident, so omnipresent.
And don’t think that this situation will quickly change if you just argue back. The opposition to Jesus will often prove to be persistent, the volume may well be tweaked up against you, and the tone of that opposition may become ever more hostile, ever more scornful. We certainly see that here in the conduct of Jesus’ adversaries:
As Pilate tried to solve the problem Jesus’ opponents redoubled their efforts to secure his condemnation – they had no intention of settling for anything less than what they wanted and the more they persisted the more they seemed to be getting near to securing their goal.
Pilate was being worn down by this opposition and was running out of ideas as to how to cope with it all.
Their increasingly aggressive insistence
Not merely did these opponents persistently maintain their demands but they grew increasingly harsh as they made them. They ratchet up the tension until it seems as though there is going to be an outbreak of violence.
Nb. how the demand to find Jesus guilty and worthy of death moves on. It had begun as implied or understood – then it was expressed verbally with cries of "away with him". Finally he crowd becomes a mob chanting its terrible cry of "crucify, crucify."
This is the first occasion when the enemies of Jesus openly call for him to be executed by means of this horrendous method. The call is shocking and we should be shocked by it.
This is in fact the very first time that Luke mentions crucifixion in his gospel – we are perhaps so used to the idea that Jesus was crucified that we fail to be feel the import of this.
Jesus had spoken already to his disciples about how he would be handed over to the authorities who would hound him to his death but he had not spoken much about being crucified. He alluded to his death when he spoke about Moses lifting up the serpent on a pole in the wilderness:
Jn.3:14 "And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,"
But it wasn’t until the third time that he spoke to his disciples about his sufferings and death did he tell them he was going to be crucified!
Mt.20:19 "And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day."
And now, what Jesus had spoken of before was drawing close as the crowd raised their voices and screamed for his execution:
It was horrid and it was intimidating and Pilate felt the pressure.
It was the kind of intimidation that was felt by many in Nazi Germany during the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler – you’ve seen films of those mass rallies, how difficult it was to stand against the tide or to go against the flow. And that sort of intimidation has not disappeared from our world. It was seen again very recently in Pakistan as muslim extremists bayed for the blood of Asia Bibi. Their efforts had an effect too on the government of Pakistan which signed a dishonourable agreement with the extremists.
Pilate was also influenced by the threats of the authorities backed by the crowds. In addition to their repeated cries for Jesus to be crucified the serious charge was laid at Pilate’s own door – if you don’t do this you are no friend of Caesar!
And Pilate’s resistance had finally gone.
He knew what he ought to have done with Jesus but he allowed himself to be squeezed and sought to appease men rather than to do the right thing. He set free a guilty man and handed over an innocent to be brutalised and executed. Jesus fate was sealed – he was about to be crucified.
Before we move on we should pause a moment longer and notice the utter hypocrisy of those clamouring for Jesus’ execution. They had delivered him over to Pilate on the charge of misleading the nation and of urging the withholding of taxes, in short of insurrection. These were outrageous charges because not only were they false, they knew them to be so. Then in order to secure the death of the man they so disliked they called for the release of a convicted murderer, of one who had already been found guilty of insurrection, the very charge they pretended so shocked them in Jesus’ case!
And men and women are no different today – all kinds of illegitimate reasons are used for rejecting Jesus still. If you are not yet a follower of Jesus Christ are you so sure that your reasons for not following him are genuine and not just pretexts? Until God shines light into your heart whatever you might say you will not follow Jesus as your Lord and Saviour.
Why Jesus’ Innocence is so important
I mentioned earlier that the insistence upon Jesus’ innocence was important and that we would return to it. Well now is the time to do just that.
While Jesus’ rejection, suffering and subsequent death were travesties of justice we must never forget that Jesus knew that exactly this had to take place, indeed he had come into the world with the express purpose of dying and this was the death he had come to die.
Jesus was now about to die and he would do so as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. This is sacrificial language and Jesus’ death would be a sacrifice. In the OT, which gave the pattern and framework for understanding sacrifices, the sacrificial victim had to be without spot or blemish – ie. the victim had to be a perfect specimen if it was to acceptably serve as a sacrifice. God had made it clear that he would not accept an imperfect offering so there would be no point in bringing such a thing. So if Jesus was to die in the place of sinners and on their behalf he had to be himself blameless – now do you see why this insistence on Jesus’ innocence? The emphasis on Jesus’ innocence is not to highlight flaws in the judicial processes of the day but to highlight the fact that Jesus’ life met the criteria for being an acceptable offering to God.
This is how the NT takes up these twin truths of Jesus’ innocence and his substitutionary sacrifice for sinners:
2Cor.5:21 "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God."
And this was of course prophesied already centuries earlier by the prophet Isaiah who declared that the One who "was wounded for our transgressions" who was "crushed for our iniquities", the One upon whom fell "the chastisement that brought us peace" was the One who:
Is.53:9 "had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth."
1Pet.2:22, 24 "He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth... He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed."
In God’s amazing plan of salvation the wicked scheming and cowardly collusion of evil men served a purpose. That is not to say that these men were seeking to promote God’s plan and purpose, they weren’t; they were following their own agendas and they will be held responsible for their acts. But it was in this way that they unwittingly brought about the accomplishment of God’s predestined plan.
I have referred to Jesus’ death as a substitutionary sacrifice and we see what that means wonderfully illustrated in the experience of the man named Barabbas. Barabbas was on death row and he had begun the day believing it to be his last. He had committed murder. He had participated in insurrection. He had been judged and found guilty for the crimes he had committed. His future was bleak – a short walk to the place of execution and then an awful end to a failed life. It didn’t matter how sincere he was, how nice he might have been to his mother, he was a condemned man. And then something unexpected happened. Another man took his place. The cross that had his name written on it was taken over by another man. Yes, a man would die on that cross but it wouldn’t be Barabbas. Barabbas would go free because another man did not. Jesus was the one who took Barabbas’ place and because Jesus’ died Barabbas went free.
What a picture of the salvation that is offered to us in the gospel! We deserve to lose everything because of our rebellion against God, because of our determination to live for ourselves rather than to the glory of God, but God in his mercy has sent his Son to die in the place of sinners so that we sinners might go free!
Do you understand this? Have you responded to this? Have you pleaded with God to forgive your sins for Jesus’ sake?
The hymnwriter put it like this:
Because the sinless Saviour died,
my sinful soul is counted free;
for God the Just is satisfied
to look on Him, and pardon me.
Can you say this too?
To God be the glory.