Luke 23:1 “Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate.’”
Our salvation from death and hell, and our entry into heaven, is entirely based on the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not based on Abraham or Moses or Mary or Peter. It is not based on Jesus plus any of those four people. It is grounded in the Lord Jesus Christ alone, what he has done for us as our prophet and priest and king. So we come now to the last two chapters of Luke’s gospel and they are all about him. He is virtually to be found in every verse. It is, I say, because of him alone that you are here today and you will read these chapters that describe his dying love for you and his triumph over death for you in wonder, love and praise.
We know that the Sanhedrin, the supreme Court of Israel with its 71 elders and lawyers, presided over by the Chief Priest, Caiaphas, was sharply divided into two groups, the liberal Sadducees and the conservative Pharisees, but Luke tells us that that Friday morning early at daybreak the whole assembly arose as one man and escorted Jesus to the palace of Pilate the Roman Governor.
THE PROCESSION FROM THE HOUSE OF THE CHIEF PRIEST TO PALACE OF THE ROMAN GOVERNOR.
To execute the Messiah it was necessary to get the approval of the Roman governor; they had to decide what would be the most satisfactory way of doing this. They decided it would be better when they took him to Pilate to charge Jesus with claiming that he was a king, and that sort of detail needed to be sorted out very early that Friday morning. They were aware that Pilate, as all Roman procurators, always held their courts first thing in the morning, getting rid of those irksome tasks of government before spending the rest of the day in the serious pursuits of hunting, or at the baths, or in any of the other indulgences of a leisured Roman gentleman. So they had to catch Pilate early before he set off riding with his friends. Also they were aware that there was high excitement in the city where a million people could gather for the annual Passover feast from all around the Mediterranean – let alone those who came there from every part of Israel. Jesus had been preaching to them all the week in the Temple and the city buzzed with stories of what he had done and said. The Sanhedrin didn’t want to face a mob, an uprising of popular support for Jesus when the news was leaked that they were going to crucify him. So at the first light of day, while pilgrims to the Passover slept, important decisions needed to be agreed upon for the swift dispatch of the Nazarene blasphemer. These were the reasons for the early start for Caiaphas and his cronies. Men rise early to make money; they rise early for their animals, even to take their dogs for a walk; men will rise early to jog and keep fit. Men will rise early to plan how to destroy any influence Christ might have over their lives. How few will rise early to enjoy the blessed company of God.
So here was this large procession, early in the morning hurrying through the streets of Jerusalem. There were 71 members of the Sanhedrin and their armed guard, and in their midst, bound and battered, pushed and prodded, was our blessed Lord. Those 71 men are the principalities that human eyes can see, whose footsteps human ears could hear, but there is a greater host going before and after this procession, above them and alongside them. There are other principalities and powers; they are the rulers of the darkness of this world, the horrible legions of darkness that have come out of the pit. Hosts of them were also there that day commanded by Beelzebub himself. They were there intent on the destruction of the one whom they hated to acknowledge that he was their Lord too and he determines their eternal destruction. You can see outwardly in the bruised and bloodied face of Christ all he has so far endured, but far more terrible suffering lies ahead of him this day. Yet all those sufferings are superficial. What horrible torments Jesus Christ is inwardly and secretly suffering. He is doing all this for us! “Bearing shame and scoffing rude, in my place condemned he stood.”
Consider again that this Jesus was the very man who had gone along this very street a week earlier on the back of a donkey to scenes of unprecedented excitement and welcome. The crowds had gone wild. They had torn off palm branches to wave at him; they had chanted “Hosanna! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord”; they had taken their coats off and thrown them in the road to carpet his entry. The King was coming to his city! Even his enemies were saying that God had raised a great prophet. What a contrast to this scene. Many of the same people are now watching Jesus with contempt as this procession heads for the Roman governor’s office to confirm his death sentence.
There in their midst is the Messiah, prodded and poked, bound and battered. Christ is there; his judges are there; the demons are there; the hostile crowds are there, and can you imagine this, that the thrice holy God is also there, seeing how they are treating his beloved Son, and yet he does not pour out fire from heaven on them, in fact a few weeks later he pours out his Holy Spirit on these same Jerusalem sinners. In one day he saves three thousand men and an unknown number of women and children. You would expect him to treat this worthless city like Sodom and Gomorra, but rather he will take it up in the arms of his love and saves thousands of its inhabitants. Doesn’t that give you hope? God has opened the gates of the heavenly Jerusalem to vipers, and whitewashed sepulchers, and dogs who eat their own vomit. Doesn’t this give the worst of you – and maybe that person is me, maybe it is you – hope, for you are being offered some hope in the mercy of God?
2. THE PURPOSE OF THIS PROCESSION.
They were taking Jesus to the Roman governor, Pilate, to officially confirm and legalize the sentence of death by crucifixion which they had passed on him. The Gentile world is joining the Jewish world in being drawn into the guilt and condemnation of Christ. His death is the common crime of humanity. Mankind together killed the Prince of Life. Every mouth is stopped before the judgment seat of God. No one can shout out, “I am totally innocent of his death.” The very words of Jesus, God’s great prophet, are now being fulfilled. We are on the spot as a prophecy is fulfilled. Listen to it! “Behold!” Jesus had told them, “We go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man shall be delivered unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, and deliver him up to the Gentiles.” This is that! This is exactly what our Lord said would occur, that he would be delivered to the Gentiles. The soldiers had put a blindfold on him and hit him and then had asked him to do a miracle. All the world likes magicians and this was a very basic trick. He would somehow prophesy by pointing out exactly the man who had hit him in the teeth or who had almost broken his nose or who had given him a black eye. But Jesus didn’t join in their game. He wouldn’t prove to them he was a prophet. The fulfilment of all the many prophecies of the details of his passion is proof that he is the world’s greatest prophet.
What a scene, the Jewish Messiah, the Word made flesh, being handed over to the Gentiles. “We Jews,” says their Chief Priest, “want nothing more to do with him. The biggest favour you Gentiles could do for us is to kill him as painfully as you can.” So they take him to Pilate’s palace, but only as far as the front door, and then they prod him inside a Gentile’s house, but they themselves wouldn’t enter through that open door. That would be a sin; they would be defiled! Like a baker putting the tins of dough deep into the oven on the end of a paddle they push Jesus into the presence of the Roman governor without letting the shadow of Pilate’s house defile them. Where do we read that? In John’s gospel, chapter 18 and verse 28, “Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them.” What did their faith say? It was wrong to enter a Gentile’s house, but it was all right to crucify Jesus of Nazareth. Their faith said it was sinful to eat a bacon sandwich, but O.K. to kill the Son of God. They had to celebrate the Passover feast properly, getting all the details right; nothing must come between them and correctly keeping religious practices, not even killing Christ.
What was wrong with their religion? They had made a fundamental mistake about who was the Son of Man, and so afterwards, no matter how zealous they were in all their religion, everything else they did was done out of a wrong motive. Like a woman who puts the first of twenty buttons on her cardigan in the second button hole and then proceeds to button the rest of her cardigan up. She makes twenty mistakes because she made an initial foundational mistake. It’s a terrible mistake to believe in the wrong god, and follow false precepts. There is an essential and certain cause-and-effect relationship between theology and life, between what we believe and how we act. One of the most erroneous statements ever made is, “It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you are sincere.” Sincerity has absolutely nothing to do with truth. Sincerity is to truth what the accelerator is to your car. The accelerator determines how fast you drive your car, but it has nothing to do with the direction in which you are going. John Reisinger used that illustration once when he was speaking at a student conference. On the way home, they became lost. John was giving a ride to some of the students and one of them said, “Well, we’ll just have to go a little faster Mr. Reisinger and then we will be sure we are going in the right direction.” Everyone laughed because they could remember the illustration. A girl caught on and she said, “Yes, tread hard on the accelerator! Push it down to the floor and you’ll sure we are going the right way.” I am sure everyone can see how ridiculous that is, but it is no more so than saying, “It does not matter what you believe as long as you are really, really, really sincere.”
Prince Charles in one of his moments of thoughtlessness said he wanted to be known as the ‘defender of faiths’ rather than the defender of the faith. Is he going to defend all faiths? The faith of the suicide bomber, is he going to speak up for that? Those men won’t eat pork sausages; it is sin for them to kill and eat a pig, but it is not sin for them to kill themselves and twenty strangers. How self-sacrificingly sincere, just as these Jews were in their determination to kill Jesus. Sincerity in what you believe determines how zealous you are in practicing your beliefs, but sincerity and zeal has nothing to do with things being true or false. Like driving a car, the more confident you are that you are going in the right direction, the further you’ll go before you turn around. No one is more sincere than the Mormon or the Jehovah Witness. The Islamic terrorists of our day are the most fully convinced people around. They will lay down their lives for what they believe, but they are dead wrong measured by Jesus Christ, and he is the only standard by which anyone and anything is to be judged.
The problems western civilization faces today are basically theological problems. These Jews had a belief about Jesus of Nazareth, that Jesus was a blasphemer, and they said that blasphemers had to die. Ideas have legs. They walked Christ off to Pilate and they said, “Kill him for us.” This decision did not come out of the blue. Pharisaism had grown unchallenged in Israel for 200 years until it was the most powerful religion in the land. A tide of doctrinal accommodation and theological compromise had produced it. Without the norming authority of Scripture anything becomes possible if not inevitable. The Bible was no longer the authoritative norm for the Sanhedrin, and then anything can be normalized, even what the Bible condemns, even the murder of the Messiah.
So the Jews were handing their Messiah over to Rome to be killed. Do you remember the four beasts Daniel sees in Daniel 7? The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle, so you couldn’t escape from such an animal by climbing a tree or getting over a wall. The beast would get you. That beast was Babylon, but worse was to come. The second beast looked like a bear and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth and it was told, “Get up and eat your fill of flesh.” That beast was the Medes and the Persians, but worse was to come. The third beast looked like a leopard, the swiftest of all the beasts; you could not outrun it, but in addition it had four wings and four heads; it could devour you four times as fast as any other enemy. That beast was Greece, but worse was to come. The fourth beast was the worst of all, “terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled them underfoot whatever was left . . . it had ten horns” (Dan. 7:7). Imagine the people of God handing over anyone to be killed by such a beast! That beast was Rome, and Israel handed over their Messiah to that beast!
3. THE PERSON THEY MET AT THE END OF THEIR PROCESSION.
The leaders of Jewry handed him over to Pilate. The beast had that name. The political power had a face and a past. Pilate represented Roman civil power and Roman military power, and he had governed Israel just as he pleased since the year 26. Pilate came from Spain. He’d been born in Seville and had joined the Roman legions as a soldier moving up through the ranks. During one long peace he went to Rome to live and to make his fortune. By an extraordinary providence he met and married the granddaughter of the emperor Augustus. His mother-in-law Julia was notorious in decadent Rome for her depravity and coarseness. It was her father the emperor Augustus who eventually banished her. Only a depraved man like Pilate would have married into such a family.
Once he was in that family his career accelerated. He applied for the governorship of Judea and got it. Soon the face of the beast was seen in Israel itself. Let me show you him in action. Turn to the opening words of the gospel of Luke, chapter 13, “There were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices.” Pilate had moments of sheer malice in which his disdain for these horrible Jews whom he was trying to govern burst out in cruel rage. He constantly upset them and irritated them. There were times when he seemed deliberately to provoke them to anger. For example there was a time when he tried to march his soldiers into Jerusalem carrying their standards – their military emblems covered in pagan symbols. Other governors had never done that, but with Pilate it was confrontation. Crowds of Jews in protest walked to Caesarea where Pilate was staying, and demanded that the standards be removed. Pilate said, “No way!” These Jews had better learn that they were in the Roman empire and the Roman power was to be displayed everywhere. Nowhere was off limits. Let them submit to Caesar. There was a standoff for five days. So Pilate got angry and he told them people that he would meet them in the local stadium. When they were all inside the entrances were locked and the Roman soldiers appeared from all sides. “If you do not surrender and give up this protest and quietly disperse you will be killed,” he said. To his amazement the Jews all threw themselves on the ground and bared their necks. They would die rather than see the holy city of Jerusalem contaminated. Then it was time for Pilate to back down; he would get nowhere with this people by confrontation and threats.
There was another occasion when Pilate put his hand in the Temple’s treasury and raided it to pay for an aqueduct that he had built from the Pools of Solomon into Jerusalem. A revolt took place about this too; “This money has been set aside to the Lord’s work,” They considered it was sacrilege to plunder it, but Pilate sent in his troops and butchered the demonstrators. This is the beast to whom the chief priest handed over Jesus, but of course, Pilate, quite independently of the Sanhedrin, will pass his own verdict on the Christ. The one thing, humanly speaking, Christ had going for him was Pilate’s utter contempt for the Sanhedrin, his ornery spirit which, if they wanted something very much, would mean he would refuse give it – just to spite them.
I ask you one more question; in whose hands was Pilate’s heart? It was in the Lord’s hands. The Lord could turn Pilate’s heart in any direction he pleased, for an innocent verdict, for a guilty verdict, to justify Jesus or condemn him, the ultimate decision would be God’s. You must always go back to the First Cause which is the living God. The reason for the wickedness of the verdict was all Pilate’s; 100 per cent Pilate’s. He was responsible for signing Jesus’ death warrant, but the fact that he condemned him was also 100 per cent God’s decision. God was in the sinful decision, but not in the sin of the decision. God was determined that his blessed sinless Son must die like the sinless Lamb of God and so take away the sin of the world. He was in fact the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world. Whatever God determines in eternity men will choose in time. So God prepared Pilate to do this dirty work; prepared his birth in Spain, and his brutalized military service in the Roman army, and his marriage to the daughter of a virtual whore, and his coming to Jerusalem six or so years earlier determined to show his authority over every sniveling Jew. All that was God’s plan so that Christ would go to the cross to save us.
What humility Jesus showed that Friday morning when he was frog-marched through Jerusalem and pushed through the porch into the tender embrace of Pilate to meet the justice of the Beast, “terrifying and frightening and very powerful.” But our Saviour humbled himself to that. He did this for us. He was pushed through the door of the den alone to face the beast and he did that for us. He did not make it easy for Pilate, he did not tempt Pilate to sin, but he did not make it impossible for Pilate to do God’s will. Just as he does with you today. God hasn’t made it impossible for you to be justified, has he? The very reverse. He has brought you here again and told you of the extraordinary humiliation of Jesus of Nazareth the Son of God. From the Sanhedrin he is marched through Jerusalem to the governor’s palace. He lets them debate his future without any interruption, and he lets them take him to the house of the beast without any protest, and now he stands before Pilate to be judged by this inhuman tyrant. All this he is willing to take because of his love for you. The Son of Man must suffer, and what suffering this is!
4. THE PASSIONATE HATRED OF CHRIST SEEN HERE.
I’ve never met anyone who hated Michael Palin. He presents travel programmes on TV and he is called the most popular man in England. Yet thousands despised Christ, treating him as if he were the antichrist. No patriarch hated angels for being angelic but these multitudes hated Christ, and there are those today who continue to hate men who testify to Christ’s message. All through the Middle East Christians are being persecuted. “They hated me and they will hate you,” Jesus warned. He healed the sick and he showed his mercy to all, and yet they persecuted him. He came offering men life, and more abundant life, and yet they put him to death. He spoke more movingly than any other man in history and they killed him cruelly.
Jesus was a threat to their influence and power. He told people that he was the truth; no one else. He was the way to God; no other way. He was the only begotten Son of God. He was the judge of mankind. He was the ransom price for sinners; no other ransom. True religion consisted of denying yourself, taking up your cross and following him. Imagine it! Chief Priest Caiaphas was being invited to fall at Jesus’ feet, confess him as Lord and Christ, and follow a carpenter’s son from Nazareth who had nowhere to lay his head! That would mean an end to all Caiaphas’ power. Remember the reaction of press and politicians to the profession of faith of Jonathan Aitkin. You’d think he’d announced that he’d come to believe in fairies. They totally patronize Aitkin in a way they would never patronize a person who announced that he or she had become a Roman Catholic, or a Moslem. You understand that it is not the Christian faith that causes the offence so much as biblical conversion. To tell people that you have turned in repentance from guilt and unbelief to the mercy of God as it is found in Jesus Christ and that now you were following him as your Lord and God – that is scandalous and laughable to most people. It is conversion that offends our godless world.
One of these members of the Sanhedrin had actually made a private visit to Christ one night. “How did it go?” his friends might have asked him. “Oh, he told me that I had to be born again,” Nicodemus replied. How insulting. Jesus should have been honoured that such an important man had paid him a visit, not telling him so peremptorily of his need of regeneration.
They hated Jesus because he was in their eyes a namby-pamby Messiah. They looked for miraculous fireworks, angelic armies sweeping over the land, vials of wrath being poured out from heaven on every Roman garrison. Instead of that you got a man preaching love to your enemies, that if a soldier commandeered you to carry his backpack for a mile you volunteered to go a second mile with it! What sort of Messiah was this? Away with him!
They hated Jesus because his probing preaching exposed their sin. He was unafraid of entering the Temple and driving out all their friends and disdaining the whole market atmosphere of the place. He showed up the praying and fasting of the Pharisees for the big ego trip it was. “The Pharisee was praying with himself,” commented Jesus of one of them who was standing tall to pray aloud in the temple. He described them as whitewashed sepulchers full of dead men’s bones. In the Upper Room as he was speaking to his disciples he said, “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin. Now, however, they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them what no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. But now they have seen these miracles, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason’” (Jn. 15:22-25).
Here’s a modern man who hates his job and so he finds excuses every month for calling in sick and taking days off. He says he’s got flu, or his grandmother has died, or some emergency has arisen. He will never be straight with his boss saying, “I can’t stand working in the office.” A man who is addicted to alcohol or nicotine or drugs or porn on the web will find a hundred excuses for disappearing for an hour to ‘take the dog for a walk.’ We excuse and cover our sins, that they are not like other men’s; they are beautiful. So too there are few persons in Aberystwyth who will say that the reason they are not Christians is because they’re not going to be the kind of people who go to Jesus as helpless sinners and plead for mercy, that they’re not going to have this man rule over them. Aberystwyth sinners won’t say that; they’re going to invent excuses for not following Christ. They are going to plead their belief in ‘science’ as the reason for their agnosticism, or their ‘real admiration’ for Jesus (whom they don’t know at all), or that they believe in evolution – though they have never read a booklet on evolution, or that they would ‘like to believe, and admire those who believe but it is not for them.’ The facts are different, namely that they refuse to read the New Testament or come to hear the word of God preached because they know that following Jesus means a radical change of life, and that is too high a price for salvation through Christ.
These Jews had Christ in front of them. They did not view him through the lens of history or read about him in the Bible. He was there healing; he was there teaching; he was there loving, and they hated the one they heard and saw. Have you ever thought of that as a possibility? That the more you understand the implications of who Jesus is and the demands he makes on us the more your hatred for him grows – if you won’t bow to him? There is no possibility of neutrality. He that is not for me is actually against me, he said. Men who were his contemporaries could look at him and hear his voice and ask him questions, and do you know what was their response. They were outraged at what they heard, so much that they handed him over to their mortal enemies for them to nail him to a cross, and I am saying that in your heart today are the same seeds of hatred to this same Christ who says that he is your God and your Judge and that you need him as your Saviour. That disdain is proof that you are a sinner.
On the National Eisteddfod field in Bangor some years ago some of our friends were giving out Christian literature and talking with people. One of them saw a girl who had been a student here some years ago. During the last year she has moved to a town in Wales where there were a couple of gospel pulpits. “Where are your worshipping now?” my friend asked her. She told him that she had visited one or two of them but hadn’t returned, acknowledging that she was now going nowhere on Sundays. My friend tried to persuade her to go to church but she got more agitated finally blurting out that she had been to a funeral service in the Baptist Church in Aberystwyth a couple of years ago when a friend of hers had died, and the preacher (that is myself) had said that that the man being buried had been a sinner. She knew this man, and he wasn’t a sinner. He was a deacon and a good man and definitely not a sinner. She didn’t want to go to one of those churches in that town where she is now living where she’d be told that she was a sinner who needed Jesus Christ to save her. She did not need saving. She was an ignorant woman. She did not know the difference between being a criminal – which my dear friend was not – and a sinner, which he was for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. The same hatred to a Lord who tells us that he did not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance is present today.
We are looking at another stage of Christ’s long journey into the anathema. We have seen a new vision of Jesus. We have seen him in agony in the Garden, beseeching his Father for another cup. We have seen him arrested and bound. We have seen this best of all friends forsaken, every one of this friends leaving him. We have seen him led as a captive to the high priest’s house, receiving no compassion and no sympathy. We have heard the false witnesses telling lies about him, and Jesus silent in the dock. We have heard him denied with curses by his chief disciple. We have watched him spat upon, and punched, and blindfolded while continuing not to say a word. We have seen him condemned to death as a blasphemer. We have seen him pushed through the streets of Jerusalem early on Friday morning and prodded through the doors of Pilate’s house to meet the beast alone. All this I myself have seen.
What a vision of Jesus the Bible gives us. All this he suffered as he entered the anathema of God, and it was all because he was moved by love for sinners like us. This was the price that had to be paid for our redemption. This was the cost of redeeming me from my sin. To propitiate the wrath of God towards me all this was necessary and much more. There is none other name under heaven given amongst men whereby we must be saved. Look unto him all the ends of the earth – to him alone – and be saved, for he is God and there is none else. He only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in. Seek mercy from God by pleading the name of Jesus. He went to the Beast that the Beast might not devour us. He entered the darkness that we might enter the realms of everlasting light. “For God, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh; that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit” (Rom. 8:3&4).
28th October 2012 GEOFF THOMAS