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“Pilate's Predicament”

John 19:1-22
Tim Rask
March 28, 2004

Key Sentence

Identifying Jesus Christ is the most important decision anyone can make.


I. The Praetorium (John 19:1-8)
II. The Pavement (John 19:9-16)
III. The Place of a Skull (John 19:17-22)


        Due to the release of Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, a very broad range of people throughout our society are thinking about the crucifixion of Jesus, and what it means. On February 21, 2004 the Dallas Morning News ran an article by a woman named Susan Hogan, entitled “The Purpose of the Passion”. In this article, Ms. Hogan addressed Gibson’s controversial film. She says, “for some, the controversy is over who killed Jesus. But for others, it’s why He died - whether His death was necessary to atone for the sins of humanity.” She quotes a number of people from different perspectives, and does a pretty good job of presenting both sides of the issue. I would like to read you some of these quotes from the more liberal side, to show how Christ’s substitutionary atonement is being challenged by many people today.

        “ ‘It doesn’t make sense to me that God would need to be satisfied by sending His son to be killed,’ said Kip Taylor, a religion major at Texas Christian University. ‘That’s a vengeful God and not a God I want to worship.’ ”

        Dr. Elizabeth Johnson of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur Ga, who is a specialist on Paul said “it’s not that God is mad and Jesus takes the licks for us. Paul’s much more interested in what it means to say that Jesus’ death changes the structures of the universe, brings in a new creation and makes life out of death.”

        And finally, Dr. Sandra Schneiders, a New Testament scholar at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkely, Ca. said “it’s just bad theology to say that God had to kill His Son as a payback for sin - it makes God sound bloodthirsty.”

        Well, if we believe that Jesus’ death was an atoning sacrifice for our sins, then it is legitimate for us to ask why. Why do we believe that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ provides the only way to God? If it is the only way to God, then our identification of Jesus Christ, and the meaning that we ascribe to His death, will be the most important decision we ever make. Our Scripture passage for today is John chapter 19 verses 1-22. As we study this passage, we will follow two parallel lines of thought. First of all, on a theological level, we will see that there are two general requirements that determine the acceptability of an atoning sacrifice, and that Christ satisfied both of those requirements. And secondly, on a personal level, we will see how Pilate wrestled with these truths as he struggled to identify the person of Jesus Christ.

I. The Praetorium (John 19:1-8)

        The first section goes from verses 1-8 and it tells us about some of the events that took place in the Praetorium where Jesus was initially questioned by Pilate. The primary emphasis of this section is that Christ is presented as one who will bear the sins of the human race because He alone is qualified to meet both of the requirements for atonement.

        It says, “Pilate then took Jesus and scourged Him. And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and put a purple robe on Him; and they began to come up to Him and say ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ and to give Him slaps in the face. Pilate came out again and said to them, ‘Behold, I am bringing Him out to you so that you may know that I find no guilt in Him.’ Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, ‘Behold, the Man!’ So when the chief priests and the officers saw Him they cried out saying ‘Crucify, crucify!’ 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 by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.’ Therefore when Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid.”

        The events of this story took place at the time of Passover. Passover is a feast celebrated by the Jews once every year to commemorate their deliverance from Egypt. This deliverance has long been recognized as a powerful picture of redemption, and a typological picture of the sacrifice of Christ. In this feast, the Jews were required to take a lamb, slaughter it, and place it’s blood on the doorposts of their houses. In this way, they demonstrated their faith in God’s promise to pass over them as He executed judgment on the land of Egypt.

        There are many parallels between Passover and the crucifixion, and we will see some of these in today’s scripture. Christ bore two things for us; the sins of man, and the wrath of God, and it had to be in that order. Before He could bear the wrath of God it was necessary that He take upon Himself the sins of man, or else the judgment of God would be unjust. I do not know at precisely what moment Christ took our sins literally upon Himself. But we see this pictured here, in His humiliation. As if the brutality of a Roman flogging were not enough, they mocked Him, jammed a crown of thorns into His head, and put a scarlet robe on His back to make fun of His claim to royalty. It was almost as if God wanted to show just how depraved mankind can be. Here we see the sinfulness of man at it’s very worst, and it was this sinfulness that was placed upon Christ. We see that as a race of beings we are utterly contemptible, capable of the most sickening kinds of evil. If you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s movie, you have an idea of just how brutal this treatment may have been. The kind of creature that could do that to an innocent man is a wicked creature indeed, and this is the condition of the human race. We see this sin expressed in the actions of the soldiers. And when the scarlet robe is placed upon His back, it is as if we have a visual image of Christ taking our sins upon Himself. It reminds us of Isaiah 1:18, which says, “Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord, though your sins are as scarlet, they will be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool.”

        This chapter is full of profoundly ironic statements made by people who are right and wrong at the same time, and have no idea what they are really saying. Pilate is the first to open his mouth in this regard as he declares to the Jews “I find no guilt in Him!” From Pilate’s perspective, scourging Jesus was a way of placating the anger of the Jewish mob without actually going through with the execution. In the preceding verses, Pilate has struggled to find out what the charges are, and he is unable to find any reason to put Jesus to death. So he has Him scourged instead, thinking that this will satisfy them, and now he tries to convince them that Jesus is not worthy of death.

        From God’s perspective however, Pilate is openly declaring the purity of the Passover sacrifice. He was saying this to fulfill the words of God to Moses, in Exodus 12:5, that the Passover lamb should be an unblemished male. Christ was sinless. And the sinlessness of Christ points us to the first of the two theological requirements for an acceptable sacrifice. It must be holy. We see this in the Old Testament sacrificial system over and over. The Israelites were required to bring unblemished animals to the temple for sacrifice. God would not accept lame, sick or unclean animals. In the same way, a sinful person cannot die in the place of another sinful person because he has his own sins to die for. If you and I both owe a million dollars to the same person, I cannot pay your debt for you because I have my own debt to worry about. Only someone who is not in debt, who has resources of his own, could pay the debt on someone else’s behalf. And so we see that according to scripture, the blood of the sacrifice must be holy. In this way, the one who makes atonement must be different from those for whom He atones.

        The second requirement tells us a way in which the one who would make atonement must be like the one for whom He atones. That is, that He must have the same nature. Pilate, in his second statement about Jesus, inadvertently gives us a clue. He presents Jesus to the crowd and says, “behold the man!” In addition to being holy, the perfect sacrifice must also be human. Animal blood is not ultimately sufficient. Hebrews 10:4 says “it is impossible for the blood of goats and bulls to take away sins.” The ultimate sacrifice for human sin, had to be human blood, which is why Hebrews 2:14-15 says “therefore since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless Him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.” One of the church Fathers in the 4th century, named Gregory of Nazianzus said about the nature of Christ, “what is not assumed is not healed”. In other words, any aspect of human nature that Christ did not have, couldn’t be covered by His atoning death. For this reason it was necessary for Him to be fully human, so that His human blood could be shed. In that sense, we can say that He had to be like us.

        Some people question the necessity of a blood sacrifice, thinking it to be barbaric and crude. In Leviticus 17:11, God says “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood by reason of the life that makes atonement.” Hebrews 9:22 says “and according to the Law, one may almost say that all things are cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness”. Those who accuse God of being bloodthirsty are forgetting about His holiness. The reason why the penalty is so severe is because that’s how offensive sin is to God. If we downplay the holiness of God, we will also downplay the seriousness of sin, and will not be able to understand the need for blood to be shed in payment.

        Pilate has just made two very profound statements without even realizing it, and now it is the Jews turn. The Lamb has been presented to them, and His eligibility for sacrifice has been officially declared on two counts. Exodus 12:6 says that the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel was to kill the Passover lamb at twilight on the tenth day of the first month. Just as it is written, the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel cried out for the death of this perfect lamb on the tenth day of the first month, saying “we have a law, and by that law he ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God!” The law of Moses does indeed demand the death of the sinner, or else the death of a sacrifice on behalf of that sinner. The sins of the world had been placed upon Christ, and therefore, the law demanded His death. He was the acceptable sacrifice, and this was the acceptable time. The Jews were more right than they knew, and at the same time they were terribly mistaken. This is the paradox of redemption, that in committing this sin of rejecting Jesus Christ, they were at the very same time offering a sacrifice of atonement for that sin. They were unable to see it, but God was sovereignly working through their sinful choices to provide redemption for those very sins.

        It was their law which cried out for the death of Jesus Christ, but not in the way they meant. Their mistake was in their identification of Him. They did not believe that He really was the Son of God, and so they thought that He should die because of His alleged sin of blasphemy. They had no idea that He was really going to die as a sin offering for the sins of the world. The Jewish leaders were offering the Lamb of God for the sins of the world and they didn’t even realize it. It was like they were committing a sin and an act of righteousness at the same time. Romans 5:20-21 says, “the Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace would reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” This is the concept that we see at work in the trial and crucifixion of Christ.

        “When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid”. He may have been afraid because of the Jews resolve to kill Christ. Or he may have been afraid of the possibility that Jesus really was the Son of God. In any case, he decided to question Jesus further.

II. The Pavement (John 19:9-16)

        Verses 9-16 comprise the second section of today’s passage. The essence of this section is that Pilate’s greatest mistake was to allow fear of personal loss to keep him from acknowledging the truth about who Christ really is. It says, “And he entered into the Praetorium again and said to Jesus ‘where are you from?’ But Jesus gave him no answer. So Pilate said to Him, ‘you do not speak to me? do you not know that I have the authority to release you, and I have the authority to crucify you?’ Jesus answered, ‘you would have no authority over me unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” Jesus turns the tables on Pilate with His statement about authority. The implication of “you would have no authority over me unless it had been given to you from above” is that Pilate was accountable to someone, namely God, for something, namely what he would do with Jesus.

        The statement “he who delivered me to you has the greater sin” is significant because Jesus is highlighting the thing that Pilate would be accountable for, namely his decision regarding what to do with Jesus. If He was really the Son of God and the King of Israel, He would be worthy of worship. If not, then it would be no great problem to kill him. Those who delivered Him up for death had already rejected His claim to be King, and rejected His claim to be the Son of God. They had the greater sin because they had already made up their minds about who they thought He was, and they had come to the wrong conclusion.

        With reference to these men, it is valid to consider the question of why they were not saved if they were in fact offering a sacrifice of atonement by killing Christ. The death of Christ was crime and an act of righteousness at the same time. Scripture clearly teaches that Jesus died for all of our sins, therefore we are all responsible for His death. The deciding factor between those who receive the benefits of His death, and those who do not, is faith. Romans 9:31-33 talks about Israel and their pursuit of righteousness in the law. It says “but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as though it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone, just as it is written, “behold, I lay in Zion a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense and he who believes in Him will not be disappointed.”

        In a nutshell, we can define faith by saying that it is believing in the promises of God. Faith is not “blind” in the Bible, it always has an object. Unfortunately for most of the Jews in Jesus day, they had turned their religion into an exercise in rituals and regulations. Most of them had forgotten about faith and love, two of the most important motivations for keeping the law in the first place. There minds were already made up with regard to Jesus. They had already committed the “greater sin”. Now it was Pilate’s turn to make up his mind, and he was struggling.

        It was at this point that Pilate made his final attempt to release Jesus. And it was at this point that the Jews unleashed their most manipulative accusation of all. Verse 12 says “as a result of this, Pilate made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out saying, ‘if you release this man you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.”

        The accusation against Jesus is that He claimed to be the King of the Jews. Again, we see the Jewish leaders accusing Him of things that are true, but do not actually warrant a death sentence because of the fact that He is who He claimed to be. Pilate was in a very tough spot, because on the one hand, he himself had acknowledged that Jesus was an innocent man. He knew that if he allowed Jesus to be crucified, it would be unjust. And yet, he could not ignore the threat from the Jews. If he allowed this “King” to go free, he could be charged with a crime against Caesar. He had already been warned by Caesar that no further trouble with the Jews would be tolerated. Pilate had dealt harshly with them on a number of occasions and now he had to find the delicate balance of remaining loyal to Caesar while at the same time keeping the Jews from any kind of revolt. If this riot got out of hand, and word got back to Caesar about it, Pilate could be in big trouble. It seemed that there was no possible way for him to get out of this situation without either committing injustice, or suffering the loss of his position, and possibly his life.

        We said that faith always has an object, that faith is believing the promises of God. Pilate was faced with deciding between trusting in his own ability to weasel out of the situation, and trusting in this “King” this so called “Son of God”. Humanly speaking there was no obvious reason why he should trust Him. This man had not been able to deliver Himself from the Jews, how could He possibly deliver anyone else?

        So he moved from the Praetorium to the place called the Pavement, and he sat down on the judgment seat. At this stage of the decision-making process it almost seems like Pilate’s physical location is a subtle indicator of what was going on in his heart. John is careful to point out that Pilate moves onto the judgment seat. It is a terrible act of presumption to sit in judgment over the Son of God. But that is what Pilate did. The question we must ask ourselves is why did he do it? What were the factors involved in his decision-making process? It seems that his decision was based on a desire for self-preservation. From his perspective, it seemed that it was the only option. He could not ride the fence, even though he had wanted to. He wanted to say that Jesus was “just a good man” but not the Son of God, so he could release Him. But he found, as so many people throughout history have found, that there is no fence to sit on when it comes to Christ. Those who believe in Christ will have to face persecution from other people. Pilate was not willing to do this and so he allowed Jesus to be crucified.

        Pilate’s decision was based on a desire for self-preservation. He did not want to have to deal with the problems that the Jews would stir up if they didn’t get there way. He did not want to have to deal with trouble from Caesar. Based on these things, it becomes apparent that the only possible reason why anyone in his position would do anything different from what Pilate did, is if they actually believed that Christ was who He said He was. He was left with only two options - to crucify an innocent man, or believe in His claims and accept the consequences, whatever they might be. In a final twist of cruel irony, Pilate chose according to what he thought would save his life, and in so doing, guaranteed that he would lose it for eternity. Jesus said “whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses His life for my sake, will find it.” (Matthew 16:25) Jesus understood this. That’s why He could go through so much pain and suffering for us. That’s what motivated Him, the eternal Son of God, to come down and live in this world full of heartache and suffering. He did it because He understood that “if a seed falls to the ground and dies, it bears much fruit”. And He did it for you and me.

III. The Place of a Skull (John 19:17-22)

        Verse 17 and following says “they took Jesus, therefore, and He went out, bearing His own cross to the place called the place of a Skull, which is called in Hebrew, Golgotha. There they crucified Him, and with Him two other men, one on either side, and Jesus in between. Pilate also wrote an inscription and put it on the cross. It was written, ‘Jesus the Nazarene, the King of the Jews.’ therefore many of the Jews read this inscription, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city; and it was written in Hebrew, in Latin and in Greek. So the chief priests of the Jews were saying to Pilate, ‘do not write, the King of the Jews, but that He said, I am the King of the Jews.’Pilate answered, ‘what I have written, I have written’ ”.

        There is more fulfillment of scripture here. According to the ordinance of the red heifer, an offering that was made to provide purification from contact with death, which we read about in Numbers 19, the heifer was to be slaughtered and burned outside the camp. In the same way, Jesus was taken and slaughtered outside the camp. It was prophesied of Jesus in Isaiah 53:12 that He would be “numbered with the transgressors”. And here we see the fulfillment of that prophecy as Christ is crucified between two thieves and as he bore the sin of the world.

        It is interesting that there were two requirements for the sacrifice, and there were two accusations against Jesus in this passage. The sacrifice had to be holy, and it had to be human blood. Jesus was accused of claiming to be the Son of God, and indeed He was “guilty” of that charge. Thus we see His sinlessness in light of His Deity. He was also accused of claiming to be the King of the Jews. And of course we know that in relation to this charge He is “guilty” again. In this His humanity is proven, because He is the son of David. So He was accused and found guilty on exactly the two counts that God required. He was killed exactly as the scriptures foretold and precisely according to the plan and working of God. As God, He was sinless, and as man, He had human blood that could be shed. Both requirements were satisfied by Him and they could not be satisfied by any other for He is the only God-Man ever, and there is no other name under heaven, given among men by which we must be saved.

        What is the significance of all this fulfilled prophecy? Why is that so important? It’s important because it gives us a record of the faithfulness of God. In the very place where we are being challenged the most, to trust in Him, He graciously provides us with an abundance of reasons why we can trust Him. He gives us a testimony to the fact that He is worthy of our trust. And so the question comes to us as it came to the disciples, and as it came to Pilate, “who do you say that I am?” This is the most important question in the world. Our answer to this question will determine our eternal destiny.