Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg church door in Germany setting in motion a series of events we now call the Protestant Reformation. The prominent themes accompanying that period are Grace Alone, Word (of God) Alone, Christ Alone, and Faith Alone. I’d like to look again at those significant themes by re-examining the trial of Jesus before Pilate.Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther nailed the Ninety-five Theses to the Wittenberg church door in Germany setting in motion a series of events we now call the Protestant Reformation. The prominent themes accompanying that period are Grace Alone, Word (of God) Alone, Christ Alone, and Faith Alone. I’d like to look again at those significant themes by re-examining the trial of Jesus before Pilate.
Have you ever served as a juror? I served once for a man who’d been arrested for drug possession with intent to deliver. The prosecution had lots of evidence establishing the man’s guilt, but the defense attorney over and over said, “Do you have a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt?” I, as a member of the jury, had to decide whether the man was guilty or innocent, whether he deserved punishment legally or whether he should be set free.
There is a sense in which every time we hear the message of Jesus Christ or the story of Jesus on trial, we become jurors. We decide what the evidence tells us who Jesus is. What does Pilate say about Jesus in the story? What does Pilate’s wife, Claudia, say about Jesus. And what do you say?
Historians tell us Pilate did not have a wealthy upbringing. He was middle-class. He served in the Roman army in Germany and then married into the family connected to the Emperor Tiberius. Because of this connection with the man on the top, Pilate was given a position that would never have been given to him any other way. In AD 26 on the recommendation of Sejanus, Tiberius’s right-hand man, Pilate was appointed governor of Judea. That is nepotism at its strongest – a man appointed to a position of authority simply because he knows the right people.
In Judea, being governor carried a lot of responsibility. As the Roman procurator, he was responsible for maintaining law and order and peace in the region. Pilate’s normal headquarters were in Caesarea, but during the Jewish Passover tensions often ran high. So Pilate was in Jerusalem to maintain law and order. Hence, when Jesus was brought before him for trial, it was in the city of Jerusalem.
Pilate, we are told, was a tactless, stubborn, and ruthless governor. He thought that because he had power and authority, he could bully the people to enforce his will. He exploited them for personal gain and manipulated them for political advantage.
For example, the city of Jerusalem needed a water supply, which was always a problem. So Pilate constructed an aqueduct, a channel to bring water into the city. He concluded that because it benefitted the Jews, he would use the Temple treasury to pay for it.
As you can imagine, the people were very indignant that Pilate would steal from the holy money of the Temple treasury to pay for the aqueduct, so they rebelled and rioted. Pilate sent his own people into the crowd wearing plainclothes and carrying clubs and daggers. At an appropriate signal, they turned on the people, clubbing and stabbing them. Many were killed that day. That’s why in Luke 13:1 it speaks of the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices. Pilate was not a kind governor. He was ruthless.
On this trial day, Jesus is brought before Pilate, and they have a conversation about the charge made of Jesus being king of the Jews. “Are you a king?” Pilate asks. Jesus has an unusual response. “You say that I am,” or “You have said I am.”
Could it be, in the manner with which Pilate was going to treat Jesus, that he was saying he was King because he was fulfilling the prophecy of the crucified Messiah, or did Pilate actually believe Jesus was a king of sorts? Remember the sign over Jesus’ head when He was executed on the cross. A sign always told the crime for which the person was being put to death. It read, THE KING OF THE JEWS. The Jewish leaders came to Pilate and said, “Don’t say ‘The King of the Jews,’ say, ‘He claimed to be the King of the Jews.’” But Pilate said, “What I have written, I have written.”
On seven occasions Pilate declared Jesus was innocent of any crime. He had done nothing deserving death. But Pilate did not wish to push against the Jewish leaders or the mob crowd. Seven times he declared Him not guilty, yet he wouldn’t release Jesus in a sentence of justice. He did try to release Jesus with the common practice of the release of one prisoner at that point in the year. He gave the choice between Barabbas – a thug, a murderer, a riotous rebel – and Jesus – the Son of God. The people, at the Jewish leaders’ instigation, called for the release of Barabbas and screamed for Jesus to be executed. “Let His blood be on us,” they said.
Pilate, even then, didn’t want to deal with Jesus. So he sent Him to Herod because Jesus was from Galilee. Herod, after wanting Him to do magic tricks, sent Him back to Pilate saying He had done nothing deserving death.
Claudia, Pilate’s wife, interrupted Pilate’s time on the bench in the midst of the trial and said, “I’ve had a dream about this man. Have nothing to do with this innocent man.”
So let’s recap.
• Pilate seven times said No guilt. No fault. He is innocent. He is not a criminal. He has done nothing deserving death.
• Claudia, his wife, interrupts the trial itself to say He is an innocent man.
• Herod said He’s innocent.
• Judas Iscariot, after the trial was over, said, I have sinned for I betrayed innocent blood.
• The thief on the cross said to his colleague thief across the way, Don’t you fear God, for we deserve what we’re getting? But this man (meaning Jesus) has done nothing wrong. Then he asked Jesus as the King to remember him when He came in His kingdom.
• The Roman centurion in charge of His execution, observing the courage with which Jesus faced death, said Certainly this man was righteous. He was innocent, and this man was the Son of God.
So what’s the point of this Passion Story and the execution of Jesus, the end of the life of the one claiming to be Messiah of whom the story narrative says over and over and over again by all those different characters that Jesus is innocent? Here is the essence of the Gospel: Jesus, the holy Son of God, pure and faultless and sinless Son of God, the One who in compassion healed the sick and made the lame to walk, who took the children into His arms and blessed them, who raised the dead, who exuded compassion, who taught about the kingdom of God – this Jesus, who had done nothing to deserve it, was put to death. It was the worst abdication of justice in the history of humanity. Jesus, the Son of God, was unjustly condemned then whipped, beaten, mocked, and crucified, hung between heaven and earth bleeding out until His life was gone and the blood spilled out of Him. The innocent died for the guilty.
This is the Gospel – that Jesus the Son of God – is the Savior. John called Him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Pilate’s huge problem was that He was entrusted with the authority to maintain justice, but he washed his hands of the sentence of justice in declaring Jesus’ innocence. He was afraid of the mob. He was afraid the Jews might report him to the Romans, and he would lose his position of power. He was afraid, so the gross violation of justice of the innocent was turned over to the mob to do what they will, and this innocent man died.
But Pilate’s washing of his hands did not absolve him from guilt. In an irony in the story, the mob says Let His blood be on us and on our children. The blood of Jesus’ death is on all who have sinned, all who caused His death, all who have done immoral deeds or rebelled against God’s right to be God. The blood of Jesus is on me for I am a guilty man.
The beauty of the Gospel is that, in love for you and me, Jesus was willing to take our place. As the innocent Savior of the world, He took the guilt of all people of all time in history and died on the cross with it to wash away our sins and our guilt, to lift our shame from us, and to give us a pure heart and a new beginning in His unconditional love.
That is what is called The Great Exchange. It was not only Barabbas, the murderous thug who was replaced by Jesus. Jesus also took my place. The innocent died for the guilty, and His purity lifted my shame.
Through the years, I have talked to so many people who were afraid that they were not at peace with God. They were afraid that they were not saved or that when life was over they would be banished to hell instead of welcomed into the presence of God in heaven. They were afraid that they were not good enough, their faith wasn’t strong enough, their profession of faith not sincere enough, or the morality of their life not transformed enough.
Don’t kid yourself; none of us can be good enough by our effort. No resolve of heart to be good will save us, our children, or those we love. It is only God who can rescue us. So God sent Jesus to die in our place, and Jesus the pure, innocent, and perfect Son of God, laid down His life so you could believe that He forgives your sin, and you belong to God.
It is because of the cross of Jesus that God declares you forgiven. Because of the cross of Jesus, you are not condemned. Because of the cross of Jesus, we are freed from our guilt. Because of the cross of Jesus, God calls us His beloved children. Because of the cross of Jesus, we are resurrected to a new beginning. We are His forever. In grace alone – the grace provided by Jesus’ death in our place (the innocent for the guilty) we are free and we are loved.
So I believe in the promise of God, in the name of Jesus for us. I believe I am a child of God. That is what’s so wonderful about the injustice of the trial of Jesus and the execution of Jesus on the cross. The moment in time where Jesus lays down His life for us is the greatest Good News for all who believe. Amen.
Pastor Lee Laaveg