November 12, 2017
It was a year ago this week we voted for the President of the United States. The Republican and Democratic candidates were of course Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In the days before the election, both pundits and polls said it would be a Clinton victory. Forecasters clearly gave her the edge, ranging between a 71 and 98% certainty. In fact, on November 8 – election day – the New York Times gave Clinton an 85% chance to win. The Huffington Post put it at 98%. Most major news outlets predicted the same – an ABC News political analyst put it at 95% two days before the election.
As a result, Chris Matthews of MSNBC said, “Nobody predicted this.” Jake Tapper of CNN said, “I don’t know one poll that suggested Donald Trump would have this kind of night.” Many who stayed up to watch the returns were shocked. Others like me, were shocked to wake up to President Donald Trump. By the way, none of this is intended to be political commentary, simply noting an election that shocked many.
But it was not as shocking as an election that took place some 2000 years ago. You see, then the candidates were not equally matched, significantly flawed people – in fact, I would suggest going into the election, there was a clear winner. Pilate thought so. Why, the week before, one candidate rode into town to the loud acclamations of the crowds. They didn’t have political signs, so they waved palm branches instead. The other candidate? Well, he was in prison, facing certain death. One candidate had a great campaign – healed and fed many. Campaign speeches? He spoke like no other. He’d even raised the dead. The other candidate? Well, he took life in his campaign, seeking to overthrow the government. It seemed clear the election was a foregone conclusion.
True, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey, He didn’t look very presidential; kingly. He looked more like a peasant. We should probably lose the white flowing robe, blue satin sash and the halo. Oh, and He didn’t have a vast campaign team. His group consisted of 12 – no, make that 11 scared followers who deserted Him right before the election. His campaign manager denied even knowing Him.
One writer said He had no appearance that we would be attracted to Him – what you would expect of a popular candidate. So, when it came time for the crowd to cast their votes – they cast them against this Man, and voted for a murderer instead. Shocking. So, what to do with the loser? That’s exactly what Pilate wanted to know. We read about it in our text as we return to the Gospel of Mark 15:1-15.
I knew when I started Mark I would eventually get to these chapters. The illegal trial by the Jews, this mistreatment by Pilate and the Romans, the spitting, the beatings, the mocking, the scourging, the crown of thorns, the crucifixion. It is with mixed feelings I arrive. On one hand, I understand, as much as I can, His passion resulted in our rescue. On the other, His suffering was cruel, unjust, inhumane. There is no way my feeble words can communicate the depth of what happened that day. While I believe the entire Bible is God’s word, we arrive this morning at the most important chapters in the Bible – the chapters which tell of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are on holy ground. Everything in history points forward and back to these three days. Take these three days out of the Bible and the rest is meaningless.
As we cover His passion over the next couple of weeks, I want to remind you Jesus was a king. Not just any king, King of the universe. He may not look like it – He may not present Himself as the most viable candidate – He was. My question for you this morning is the same question Pilate asked the crowd, “What will you do with Him who is called the king of the Jews?”
As I’ve told you, Jesus endured two trials – one Jewish, one Roman. Each consisted of three parts – the Jewish trial before Annas, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin; the Roman trial before Pilate, Herod, and Pilate again. None of the gospels carries a full description of the events, but we can piece them together to produce an accurate account. We’ve already covered the Jewish trial; we arrive this morning at the Roman. My outline will simply follow those three parts – before Pilate, before Herod, and before Pilate again. We’ll do a little flipping through the gospels, but I’ll put them on the screen to make it easy to follow. All I’m going to do is tell this grand story.
The Roman trial began when the Sanhedrin concluded their business early that morning and led Jesus bound to Pilate. Remember, the Sanhedrin had limited authority – they could try people according to Jewish law, but only the Roman could give the death penalty, which is what they sought.
Let me tell you about Pontius Pilate, because there are some things about him that help us to understand what happens here. He had been appointed the sixth governor of Judea in 26 AD. Actually, governor is a general term – more precisely, he was a prefect appointed by Tiberius Caesar. A prefect was generally a military man, as was Pilate, and usually governed small, troubled areas, where they exercised almost unlimited power. Their job was to keep the peace – failure to do so would result in replacement, and perhaps banishment.
Extra-biblical sources portray Pilate as a cruel, insensitive ruler who hated his Jewish subjects and made very little effort toward them, which caused lots of trouble. For example, when he was came to Judea, a political hotspot, he wanted to display strength – that he was not a man not to be trifled with. So, the first thing he did was had his soldiers march into Jerusalem carrying their standards, complete with an image of their divine emperor engraved on top. None of the previous five governors had done that – they were smarter.
But Pilate thought, I’ll show them who’s boss. He had them march into Jerusalem at night, so the next morning, the city woke up to what they considered idolatrous, graven images. They went crazy. A horde of protesters traveled to Caesarea, where Pilate lived, to personally protest. Pilate chose to ignore them, refused to see them for five days. But, they wouldn’t leave. Finally, he sent word for them to gather in an amphitheater where he promised to meet them. When he finally showed up, he came with his soldiers who surrounded the protesters. Pilate threatened, go home or be executed – beheaded. It is said several protesters bared their necks and laid down at the soldiers’ feet – we will not leave until you promise to remove the images, kill us if you must.
So Pilate had to give in – the last thing he needed was a massacre. But it incensed him. From then on, he did things to intentionally provoke the Jews. For example, once he used money from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct to Jerusalem. The whole city was in an uproar. This time, he sent soldiers dressed as civilians, armed with swords and clubs, into the crowd. At a prearranged signal, the soldiers pulled out their weapons and began killing people.
There was another event that got Pilate in trouble– not just with the Jews, but with Tiberius Caesar. Remember, Pilate was supposed to be maintaining the peace – but every time he turned around, the Jews were threatening to riot. This time, Pilate decided to have some shields made and dedicated to Tiberius. They were hung for all to see in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. Guess what the inscription on the shields read? They included titles of Tiberius, one of which declared him divine. The people went nuts again, only this time, Tiberius found out. He personally wrote a letter to Pilate telling him, in no uncertain terms, take the shields down.
All those events preceded our text today. The point is, Pilate was already in a tenuous position in Judea. The Jews hated him; his superiors were breathing down his neck. He felt a tremendous amount of pressure to keep the peace. But he hated the Jews – so he didn’t necessarily want to give in to them. That is what you see with Jesus. Frankly, Pilate didn’t care about a Galilean peasant, but he did enjoy opposing Jewish leadership. All Pilate does is ask questions, trying to manipulate the situation and not give in. But he also knew, if the people rioted one more time and Tiberius heard about it, it would likely end his career. And by the way, that is exactly what happened in 36 AD.
So, Pilate doesn’t care about Jesus. It was Passover – hundreds of thousands of Jews were gathered in Jerusalem. That’s why Pilate was there from his seacoast home in Caesarea – to make sure a riot didn’t break out. And the Jewish leadership showed up at the Praetorium – that is, his house in Jerusalem, likely Herod’s palace, with this man named Jesus. No doubt, Pilate had heard of Jesus – everyone had. But, one look told him Jesus didn’t seem to pose any kind of political or military threat. The fact is, Jesus didn’t look much like a king. John tells us what happened first in John 18:28-32:
28 Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas into the Praetorium, and it was early; and they themselves did not enter into the Praetorium so that they would not be defiled, but might eat the Passover. [They wouldn’t enter the home of a Gentile, that would be a terrible wrong, but they would murder an innocent man.] 29 Therefore Pilate went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this Man?”
Which is good – Pilate is following Roman law – to try a man, you had to know what charges were being leveled. Remember – by this time, Jesus had been kept up all night, and had already been beaten by the Sanhedrin. He was very likely bloodied and bruised. Pilate takes one disdainful look at this Galilean peasant and says, what are the charges?
Verse 30, They answered him, “If this Man were not an evildoer, we would not have delivered Him to you.” Do you see what they said? They didn’t answer. Pilate, if He wasn’t an evil guy, we wouldn’t have brought Him. You can trust us, Pilate, pal. Pilate knew right away something amiss.
31 So Pilate said to them, “Take Him yourselves, and judge Him according to your law.” [He could see through their ruse – it was obvious their problem with Jesus had to do with their religious laws, so he didn’t want anything to do with the situation. So, at this point] The Jews said to him, “We are not permitted to put anyone to death,”
32 to fulfill the word of Jesus which He spoke, signifying by what kind of death He was about to die.
You see, Jesus had said He would be crucified – a Roman form of execution. Pilate had to judge Jesus, and Pilate had to hand Him over to crucifixion, because Jesus said so.
All that brings us to Luke 23 where we finally see the charges leveled against Jesus. “And they began to accuse Him saying, ‘We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.’ So Pilate asked Him, saying, ‘Are You the King of the Jews?’ And He answered him and said, ‘It is as you say,’” which brings us back to Mark 15. I want you to notice the charges they brought against Jesus. It had nothing to do with blasphemy – Pilate wouldn’t have cared about that. So, they invented some things about Him – things they thought would get Jesus the death penalty.
First, they said, He is misleading our nation. How was Jesus doing that? Healing people, driving out demons, feeding people, raising the dead, teaching? It was that last one that irritated the Jewish leadership, because it exposed them. They also said, He is forbidding people to pay taxes to Caesar – which was not true. A few days earlier when they asked Him about paying taxes, He’d actually said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Pay your taxes. But it was the third accusation that caught Pilate’s ear. They said, Jesus also claims to be Christ, a King. That one was true. All four gospels pick up the dialogue, including our own Mark 15:2, when Pilate asks, “Are You the king of the Jews?” You don’t look much like a king.
To which Jesus responded, “It is as you say.” Now, you should know, Jesus is being somewhat ambiguous. He’s saying, yes, I am a king, but, no, not like a king you think. We need to switch gospels again and pick up the rest of the dialogue in John 18:
36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”
37 Therefore Pilate said to Him, “So You are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say correctly that I am a king. For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.”
38 Pilate said to Him, “What is truth?” And when he had said this, he went out again to the Jews and said to them, “I find no guilt in Him.”
Yes, I’m a king, Pilate, but you don’t have to worry about a simple insurrection. If I were a king of this world, my servants would be waging war. But they aren’t, because my kingdom transcends this world – my kingdom is a universal kingdom. So, Pilate asks, you are a king? Yes, I am. But, it was obvious to Pilate that Jesus posed no threat. He had no position, no wealth, no soldiers. He was a Galilean peasant.
After affirming His kingship, all four gospels record Jesus remained silent. The Jewish leadership continued their assault against Jesus, He remained silent, which floored Pilate. He had tried hundreds of prisoners by now – and no doubt, without exception, they had pled their cases. They either pled for mercy or claimed their innocence or counter-charged their accusers. Jesus said nothing.
Why? His time had come to die. The accusations were false – everyone knew it – the Jewish leaders knew it, Pilate knew it. Even Pilate’s wife knew it – she sent word to him to have nothing to do with this “innocent man.” Everyone knew Jesus was innocent – everyone knew this was a sham. Verse 10 says Pilate knew the chief priests handed Him over because of envy. So why answer? Besides, Isaiah 53 says, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth….like a lamb before His shearers, He was silent.”
It was probably about this time we get to the second phase of the trial, before Herod. Only Luke records it. After Pilate found no basis of charge against Him, the Jewish leadership kept persisting, making accusations. Finally, at one point, they said, “He stirs up the people, teaching all over Judea, starting in Galilee.” That got Pilate’s attention. He asked, wait, this man’s a Galilean? Great, that means He’s out of my jurisdiction – He falls under Herod’s authority, who just happens to be in Jerusalem for Passover – take Jesus to Herod. Pilate thought he had discovered a way to pass the buck. So, Luke tells us Jesus was taken to Herod. Luke 23:8-11:
8 Now Herod was very glad when he saw Jesus; for he had wanted to see Him for a long time, because he had been hearing about Him and was hoping to see some sign performed by Him.
9 And he questioned Him at some length; but He answered him nothing.
10 And the chief priests and the scribes were standing there, accusing Him vehemently.
11 And Herod with his soldiers, after treating Him with contempt and mocking Him, dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate.
This is the Herod – Antipas – who had arrested, imprisoned, and beheaded John the Baptist. Through His ministry, Jesus seems to have steered clear of Herod. He had always wanted to meet Jesus. Why? Because he wanted to see Jesus do a trick. He questioned Him for a long time, but Jesus answered nothing, even when the chief priests and scribes vehemently accused Him. Finally, Herod and his soldiers began mocking Him and His kingship. You see, He didn’t look much like a king. So they helped Him out – they dressed Him in a gorgeous robe and sent Him back to Pilate. Which brings us back to Mark and the continuing trial before Pilate.
At this point, Pilate was still trying to release Jesus. Luke even says, since both Herod and Pilate had found Him innocent, Pilate offered to scourge Jesus and let Him go. John actually records three different times Pilate declared Jesus innocent. In Roman trial law, the accused is brought, the charges are made, the evidence is presented, the defendant is given a chance to defend himself, and the verdict is issued. All of that had been done. End of trial. Jesus had been found innocent. But that was not good enough for Jewish leadership who wanted Jesus dead. Pilate found himself in a predicament, looking for a way out.
And an idea came to him, and for a moment, he thought he found it. All four gospels record this part. There was apparently a Jewish custom that said the Roman governor was required to release a prisoner of their choosing during Passover celebration. It was now later in the morning, and the crowds had begun to gather. Pilate no doubt had heard about the Sunday before when the crowds had been delirious when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey. Jesus was obviously wildly popular – the polls put Him way ahead. I know, Pilate thought, I’ll ask them if they want me to release the prisoner Jesus to them. In fact, verse 9 says, I’ll put it to a vote: King Jesus or Murderer Barabbas. No way Jesus can lose this election.
Now, who was Barabbas? His name literally means, son of the father. It’s possible he was a son of some famous rabbi. Now, most of us, I think, have an incorrect picture of him. He’s often portrayed as an ugly, filthy, grimy lunatic. That’s not who Barabbas was. Matthew calls him a noteworthy prisoner. Mark calls him an insurrectionist who apparently had committed murder during the insurrection. Know this – insurrectionists were folk heroes among the Jews. The Jews hated the Romans – anyone who tried to revolt against the Romans, the Jews loved.
So here, it appears the crowd had gathered to ask Pilate to release a prisoner. And I would add Barabbas was more like the Messiah/Deliverer the Jews were looking for – one who would lead them to throw off Roman oppression. Jesus? Well, He actually talked about loving your enemies. Barabbas looked more like a king than Jesus. Pilate made a tactical blunder. He assumed Jesus would be more popular than Barabbas – and that may have been true in Galilee – but they weren’t in Galilee. So, prompted by the chief priests and the elders, the crowd cast their vote: give us Barabbas. Pilate was stunned.
So, he asked the question every person on the planet must eventually ask, “So what then shall I do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?” What do I do with this guy who claims to be a king, but doesn’t look much like a king? What to do with Jesus? That’s the question everyone must eventually answer. You say, well, He doesn’t look much like a king – a God. What are looking for – a god with a body like Zeus or Hercules – carrying a trident or a hammer? Coming in profane judgment? Or One who comes with undeserved grace. The people replied, Crucify Him! Pilate said, “Why – what evil has He done?” But they got louder – Crucify Him!
Notice verse 15, “Wishing to satisfy the crowd.” Matthew says further Pilate saw he was accomplishing nothing, but rather, a riot was starting. Pilate was in a tenuous political position. He was supposed to keep the peace. One more failure and he was likely done. So, Pilate made a pragmatic decision. It wasn’t a decision based on truth or right. He simply gave in to the demands of the Jews. He sacrificed an innocent man to keep his job.
Only Matthew, records what Pilate did next. In a gesture to proclaim his own innocence, he took some water and washed his hands in front of them. This wasn’t a Roman custom – it was Jewish. He was doing something they would understand: I am innocent of this man’s blood. But he wasn’t – he’s the one who delivered Jesus over to be crucified. You’re not innocent either.
The people cried out, “His blood shall be on us and on our children.” They had no idea what they were saying. For their guilt of putting Messiah to death, some suggest His blood fell on them viciously in judgment in 70 AD when Jerusalem was overrun by the Romans. But, for those who later received Jesus as the Messiah, His blood was indeed on them.
Verse 15 says: “Pilate released Barabbas for them; and after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified.” Most of you know what a Roman scourging meant. They used a whip with multiple leather straps. Within were lodged glass and bones and pieces of metal. While Jewish law said you could only give 40 lashes, there was no limit to Roman scourging. The victim would be tied to a pole, arms over his head, skin pulled tight. Usually two soldiers would administer the beating, one on each side. The whip with the pieces of metal and bone would rip the flesh open. After a Roman scourging, the flesh would be in ribbons, bones and organs exposed. Frequently, a person would not survive. It was meant to weaken them for crucifixion.
John says after the scourging, Pilate brought Jesus out to them and said, “Behold, the Man!” He didn’t look much like a king? As we close this morning, I want you to consider two ironies involved in this story.
First, Jesus was clearly innocent, and Barabbas was clearly guilty. Jesus, the innocent, was chosen for crucifixion. Barabbas, the guilty, was released. In fact, some suggest the ones crucified with Jesus were part of the insurrection. It’s possible the middle cross was for Barabbas. Innocent Jesus took guilty Barabbas’ place. That’s an awful lot like us. We were the guilty ones, as bad as murderous insurrectionists. In my place condemned He stood. We, as a race of people, have rebelled against our Sovereign King. Jesus took our sins in His body on the cross, so we could go free.
Finally, consider the name Barabbas means, son of Abba, son of the father. That’s interesting. In fact, there are some manuscripts which suggest his name was Jesus Barabbas. The truth is, the crowd voted for the wrong Jesus. They voted for the wrong son of the father. Or did they? You see, if Barabbas the guilty had been crucified, you would still be guilty, too. So in the vote, Barabbas was chosen over Jesus, all according to the predetermined plan of God. He died in our place, that we the guilty may go free.