For those of us who have spent some significant time in church, there are certain passages or stories within scripture that I think we sometimes start taking for granted. Passages that we have read or heard preached more than a few times tend to be, unfortunately, easier to skim through without much depth of thought. Perhaps we subconsciously assume we’ve learned all that we’re going to learn from the passion narrative, the birth of Jesus, the creation story, or the road to Damascus (to name a few). One of our preachers recently estimated that he’s probably spoken on the Christmas story somewhere in the neighbourhood of 200 times! How can there possibly be more to glean from a story we’ve read, heard, and been taught about so much?
Yet it’s often in the times when I acknowledge that tragic assumption, and spend some time reading a familiar passage, that the Lord reminds me just how much I still have to learn. With that in mind, and with Easter fast approaching, I invite you to join me in studying the well-known events directly before Christ’s crucifixion, in the book of John chapter 19. There’s obviously a lot we could go into in this passage, but for the sake of brevity, today we are going to focus specifically on verses 12–16. As always, however, one of the first steps to understanding a text is looking at the context, and so I invite you to read through the beginning of the chapter, verses 1–11.
Pilate is an interesting person, and I know in my own lifetime I’ve found it easy to be confused by his motivations and even his character. At many points in the passion narrative he seems to have good intentions—to pursue justice and to avoid killing someone who, per his own examination, seems innocent (or at the very least, not deserving of execution). In fact in the start of our passage today, after a conversation with Jesus about the nature of his own authority and guilt, we read:
As a result of this, Pilate made efforts to release Him;John 19:12a NASB
But as we quickly see, his “efforts” and intentions only go so far, and his motivations are far from altruistic. We can guess as to why Pilate sought to have Jesus released: perhaps he didn’t want to be seen making a mockery of the Roman justice system, or to be noted as one who was pushed around by the demands of the Jewish authorities. We conquered them; how dare they think they can tell me what to do? Perhaps there was even a hint of fearing the God that Jesus claimed to be the Son of (see 19:7–8). What is clear, however, especially from the coming verses, is that what Pilate cares about most is himself. And in playing to his ego and his sense of self-preservation, it is clear that the Jewish leaders knew that too.
But the Jews shouted, saying, “If you release this Man, you are not a friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar!”John 19:12b NASB
Picture the child who comprehends for the first time that just the threat of telling Mom and Dad can actually be beneficial in convincing their siblings to submit to their own personal demands. Sure Pilate, I guess you can release Jesus. But it would sure be a shame for Emperor Tiberius Caesar to find out you passed up on an opportunity to execute this man who is seeking to take over his kingdom. With the threat of a tarnished reputation on the line, Pilate’s decision has been made. Jesus dies today.
His mind made up, Pilate takes Jesus outside to pronounce his judgement.
Therefore when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement—but in Hebrew, Gabbatha. Now it was the day of preparation for the Passover; it was about the sixth hour. And he said to the Jews, “Look, your King!”John 19:14 NASB
No doubt tired of their forcefulness and blackmail, Pilate brings forth a beaten and bloodied Jesus and presents him as their sovereign (cf. 19:5), mocking the leaders of this subjugated nation for their insatiable bloodlust towards one of their own. Ignoring his taunts for the moment, their goal within reach, the people respond:
So they shouted, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!”John 19:15a NASB
For the second time in this chapter (see 19:6) the Jewish leaders demand Jesus’ death. But they don’t just want him to die, executed within the means of their own law. They want him to suffer the full torturous pain and shame of what contemporaries acknowledged as the worst and cruelest of Roman capital punishment.
Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king except Caesar.” So he then handed Him over to them to be crucified.John 19:15–16 NASB
Any desire to pursue justice, any effort to release this innocent man, is tossed aside as Pilate conforms to the demands of the Jewish leaders and sends Jesus to be crucified. But what I find particularly surprising in this set of verses, in fact it’s one of the major reasons I picked this text this week, is that Pilate is not the only one who abandons his principles for the sake of conformity. In a shocking display of borderline atheism, the chief priests, those entrusted with the leadership of the Jewish people, present full submission to Rome; and in doing so, deny the kingship of the Father (cf. 1 Sam. 8:7–8) and the messianic hope that is to come through the kingdom of the Son. It is an action on par with the very blasphemy that they have falsely accused Jesus of; not so different from the misguided loyalty they sought to trap him in when they asked about paying taxes in Matt. 22:15–22.
We’ve known that the religious elite are the antagonists of the gospel accounts, and by this point we’ve seen just how obsessed they’ve become with Jesus’ death. In many ways, their wickedness should not be surprising. But to see this next step, so blatantly disregarding even their own so-called faith, their own rules, abandoning all pretense of faithful service to the almighty God—something about it feels different. It’s chilling, cold-blooded rejection of not only the Savior, but the one who sent him. In fact, what justification do they have to be outraged about Jesus calling himself God’s Son, if that God isn’t their king anyways? But to them, that doesn’t matter any more. They got what they wanted. Jesus dies today.
Why Does it Matter?
I remember hearing or reading it said once that sin probably shouldn’t surprise us, but it should never stop shocking us. That is to say, we know the world is fallen, that evil is present, and try as we might, we won’t ever eradicate the sin in our life this side of eternity. However, that truth should not desensitize us to just how vile, wretched, and anti-God our sinful actions are. Take this section of John, for instance. It shouldn’t surprise us that the governor of a pagan, conquering empire sought to put his own wants above those of an alleged criminal. It shouldn’t even surprise us that the Jewish leaders were so blinded by their own power, greed, and arrogance that they condemned an innocent man to die, and once again bowed down before a king that was not their God. Yet Pilate’s selfish cowardice in the face of an opportunity for justice, and the Jewish leaders’ denial of the kingdom of God should bother us.
Why? Well for starters, because sin is detestable to God, and furthermore, because oftentimes we’re not so different. How quickly, in hindsight, our selfishness, our desires, our fear of people, our ambitions, our reputation, or our blatant disregard for obedience can lead us to abandon that which we claim to hold to. Who among us hasn’t struggled with giving in to the demands of another in the face of what we know is right? Who among us hasn’t put something else in our life in the place of God? Who among us hasn’t denied obedience for the sake of getting something we want? We face daily the struggle of the flesh, doing that which we don’t want to do (Rom. 7:14–20).
However, while in many ways we might face similar struggle and temptations to Pontius Pilate or the Jewish leaders, in the most important way, we are also completely different. That is to say, for those of us who have trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of eternal life—the one they crucified who rose victorious three days later—our sin convicts but it does not condemn. Romans 8:1 reminds us “Therefore there is now no condemnation at all for those who are in Christ Jesus.” So while we can look at this story, saddened by these people and the ways it reminds us of our own depravity; we can leave that grief at the foot of the cross and rejoice in the forgiveness promised by our Savior (1 John 1:9)! Forgiveness that is available to us, all because Jesus died that day.