“PILATE’S PALACE: A PLACE OF INJUSTICE”
From the Upper Room to the Empty Tomb – Part 4
A recent edition of USA Today carried a headline that read: “Two Unjustly Jailed for Years Are Freed.” The article read:
“Two men who served seventeen and a half years in prison for the murder of a Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department deputy were freed yesterday by a judge who said they were the victims of gross injustices. Clarence Chance, 42, and Benjamin Powell, 44, were convicted seventeen years ago but have been released because evidence was suppressed, and witnesses were coerced.”
Now to think that two men could be in jail for 17 ½ years for a crime they did not commit is certainly a gross injustice. But the most unjust sentence in all of history was given by judge Pontius Pilate to Jesus of Nazareth 2,000 years ago. Jesus was accused by the Jewish leaders of blasphemy against the temple and of insurrection against Rome. The charges were false and the witnesses against the accused were liars. But the accusers were determined to force a guilty verdict and to gain the maximum sentence, which was death by crucifixion. Pontius Pilate, the Governor of Judea, had a responsibility to administer justice, but he failed miserably. Pilate was intimidated by the mob and he put his own self-interest ahead of serving justice. Admittedly, he was in a tight spot and he did what was politically correct, but the result was that a completely innocent man was sentenced to die by the most inhumane torture ever known to man.
Let’s follow the details of the trial as they are recorded for us in Matthew chapter 27, beginning with verse 11. And as we study today, would you put yourself in the shoes of Pontius Pilate. The decisions that we make every day are not unlike the selfish choice that he made years ago. Maybe they are not as dramatic, but we make choices that are politically correct, and we crucify Christ—and in the long run destroy ourselves.
It is the goal of this message to motivate us to choose justice and integrity even when it is not to our personal advantage. So, let’s examine Pilate’s dilemma, his deliberation, and his decision.
I. HIS DILEMMA.
Pilate faced a terrible dilemma that April morning.
Now to fully appreciate his predicament we need to understand a little bit of history from Josephus and others. So just stay with me for a second. Pilate was an anti-Semitic Spaniard who was appointed to govern Judea in A.D. 26. He lasted just 10 years. Palestine was bristling with problems because of the stubborn resistance to Roman rule. There were constant revolutions, threats, and guerilla warfare. The situation was not unlike the Middle East turmoil today. And Pilate was not a very good governor. Somebody in that position needed to be a diplomat, but Pilate was a tyrant. He was basically a stubborn redneck who was often tactless and ruthless! He was hated by the Jews and was not in good favor with Caesar, who had received a number of complaints about his failure to keep the peace.
For example, when Pilate first took reign, he marched his armies through the city of Jerusalem carrying the Roman banner. But on top of each pole was a little bust of the head of Caesar. And the Jews objected to that because to them that constituted a graven image. And all the previous governors had removed those images in deference to the religious practices of the city. But Pilate stubbornly refused to do the same and the protestors hounded him for five days. Finally, Pilate agreed to meet them in the amphitheater and there he surrounded the Jews with soldiers, telling them to disperse or he would kill them on the spot. And the Jews were so angry that they dared him to do it and they bared their necks, inviting him to strike. Well even Pilate could not massacre defenseless men, so he backed down and the graven images were reluctantly removed.
A while later, Pilate determined that Jerusalem needed a new water supply and he built an aqueduct. But in order to finance it, he stole money from the temple treasury. He rationalized that it was going to benefit the city, and thus the temple. But the Jews were so angry about it that they rioted and surged through the streets of Jerusalem in protest. Pilate had his soldiers dress in plain clothes, carry concealed weapons, and mingle with the mob. On signal they attacked and many of the Jewish protestors were stabbed and clubbed to death. Caesar received a number of written protests and Pilate had to report to Rome to explain his extreme actions.
And now, early one morning, an angry Jewish mob brings Jesus of Nazareth to Pilate and they put him in a squeeze play. They shouted, “This man is a criminal and we want you to execute him. And if you don’t, you are certainly no friend of Caesar!” They were so much as saying, “Look, Pilate, your record with us is no good. We reported you before and we know you are in trouble with Caesar. And if you don’t do what we want we are going to report you again. And if we do, you may be gone!”
They had Pilate on the horns of a terrible dilemma. It was a difficult choice—his job or Jesus.
Now there were two factors that made Pilate very reluctant to condemn Jesus.
First, there was Jesus’ claim to be God.
Look at verse 11: “Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied.” Another of the Gospels says that Jesus added, “[But] my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
Pilate did not want to incur the wrath of a god if this could be true, and Jesus was very impressive.
Verse 12 reads: “When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, [Jesus] gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, ‘Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?’ But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor” (vv. 12-14).
Pilate had been in the presence of Caesar, he knew authority when he saw it, and there was something impressive about Jesus. It was as though Pilate himself were on trial and not Jesus.
The second factor that made Pilate reluctant to condemn Jesus was the counsel of his wife.
Verse 19: “While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: ‘Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.’”
Now no matter how powerful a man is, he listens to the advice of his wife. Rosalyn Carter, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and Michelle Obama all had considerable influence on their husbands as President. And I listen to your counsel, but I have to admit to you that I listen to the advice of my wife more when it is given. Her thoughts and counsel are important to me!
I saw a cartoon in Leadership magazine recently that showed a preacher talking with his wife after the morning worship service was over, and he was saying to her, “You know, maybe my sermons would be more effective if you would say ‘Amen’ as I preach rather than “Ha!’ all the time.”
But our wives’ opinions mean something. And when Pilate was advised by his wife, “Don’t have anything to do with Jesus, for I’ve had a dream from God about him,” he listened to that and he didn’t want to condemn Jesus. He was looking for a way out.
Now there is an important principle that those of you here today who are younger need to pay particular attention to, and that principle is this: Past mistakes limit future options.
Your past mistakes limit your future options. Pilate’s early blunders made it impossible for him to negotiate with the Jewish people. Sometimes we talk so much about God’s forgiveness and grace that we leave the impression that when you sin it doesn’t matter—you just confess your sin to God and He will wipe it clean. And in a sense, that is true.
But in reality, while God forgives you of the eternal consequences of your sin, you often have to live with earthly consequences.
David sinned with Bathsheba, he begged God for forgiveness, and God wiped his slate clean. But there were earthly consequences. She became pregnant, had a child, and the child died. David’s children eventually rebelled against him, they had lost respect. He lost influence with his kingdom. Past mistakes limit your future options. Sin leaves a scar, even though God forgives.
You goof off your first few years of college because you have no sense of direction, and then in about the middle of your junior year you decide you want to be a doctor. Only now you can’t get into medical school because of your poor grades.
You take drugs in your younger years as just a passing fancy. But maybe you develop an addiction, or maybe you have an arrest record, and your past mistakes limit your future options.
If you are promiscuous before marriage you can tell yourself, “I’m going to be trustworthy when I get married.” But maybe you contract a disease, or maybe you limit the people who are willing to marry you.
There is a little verse in the book of Jude, a little phrase that reads: “Unto him who is able to keep you from falling” (v. 34). You see, the gospel is not just an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff to pick up those who are fallen and wounded, it is also a fence at the top to prevent us from falling in the first place.
Harry Emerson Fosdick said, “One thing is far better than bringing the Prodigal Son back from the far country, and that is keeping him from going there in the first place.”
That’s why Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 12:1: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come.”
II. HIS DELIBERATION.
Pilate made mistakes earlier in his reign and now he was on the horns of a dilemma, so he deliberately takes a long time in deciding. A long period of deliberation takes place.
If you place Matthew 27 alongside Luke 23 and John 18, you see a series of attempts of Pilate to get off the hook.
First, he tried dismissal.
Luke 23:4 relates that “Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man.’” In other words, “Case dismissed!” But the next verse reads: “But they insisted, ‘He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here’” (Luke 23:5).
Now when Pilate learned that Jesus was a Galilean under Herod’s jurisdiction, he thought of another way out. Pilate tried referral.
He sent Jesus to Herod, who just happened to be in town. You know what it’s like. “Hey, this is a city matter.” “No, you’re going to have to check with judge so-and-so about that, it’s a county matter.” So, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod.
Now Herod was the same tyrant who had beheaded John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin. Herod had heard about the miracles of Jesus and asked Him to do something spectacular. But Jesus refused not only to entertain Herod, He also refused to speak to him. Well that angered Herod and his soldiers, so they mocked Him by putting a royal robe on Him and calling Him king. Then they sent Him back to Pilate (see Luke 23:6-12).
I picture Pilate that morning eating breakfast now with his wife, relieved that Jesus was no longer his responsibility. And then they look out the window and here comes a contingent of soldiers, followed by an angry mob who were even more impatient, and Pilate is back in the decision-making process again.
So then he attempted another evasive tactic, he tried amnesty.
Matthew 27:15: “Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, ‘Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’ For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him” (vv. 15-18).
To keep the lid on the explosive Passover celebration, the Romans agreed to release one political prisoner each year if there was no uprising. So Pilate got an ingenious idea. He would let the people choose between Jesus of Nazareth and the most despicable criminal he could think of. That would be like saying in our generation, “Who do you want? Jesus or Osama bin Laden? Do you want Jesus, or do you want Osama bin Laden?” And Pilate put the monkey on their back. He was certain they would choose Jesus.
But verse 20 reads: “But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.” They had to persuade them.
Verse 22: “’What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?’ Pilate asked. They all answered, ‘Crucify him!’”
Pilate then tried reasoning.
Verse 23: “Why? What crime has he committed?” But you can’t reason with a mob, and “they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!” (v. 23).
So Pilate tried one other tactic, one other evasion, and that was appeasement.
Verse 26 says that he had Jesus flogged. John’s Gospel relates that Jesus was whipped in an attempt to satisfy the mob and avoid execution (19:1). Pilate was in hopes that once they saw Jesus severely punished that that would be enough.
Dr. William Edwards, of the Mayo Clinic, describes scourging in the AMA Journal. Now I know this isn’t pleasant, but I think we need to appreciate what Jesus went through. Edwards writes:
The usual instrument was a short whip of variable lengths in which small iron balls or sharp pieces of sheep bones were tied at intervals. For scourging, the man was stripped of his clothing and his hands were tied to an upright post. The back, buttocks, and legs were flogged either by two soldiers or by one who alternated positions. As the Roman soldiers repeatedly struck the victim’s back with full force, the iron balls would cause deep contusions and the leather thongs and sheep bones would cut into the skin and subcutaneous tissues. Then, as the flogging continued the lacerations would tear into the underlying skeletal muscles and produce quivering ribbons of bleeding flesh. Pain and blood loss generally set the stage for circulatory shock. Even before the actual crucifixion Jesus’ physical condition was at least serious, and possibly even critical.
One writer suggests that the severity of the scourging would be determined by how quickly the criminal confessed. The earlier you confessed, the less severe the scourging. But Jesus never confessed, and the evidence is that He received the most severe scourging possible.
Charles Faust preaches in New York City. He was preaching to a group in the inner city, talking about this crucifixion scene and how Jesus was scourged, and he could tell that a woman in about the third row was hearing this message for the very first time. And when he said, “They had Jesus whipped,” she blurted out, “*$#*@!!,” and she used an expletive and she was embarrassed. But if we were hearing this for the first time, we wouldn’t be complacent about it either. We would say, “What rank injustice! How could that happen?!”
John’s Gospel says, “Once more Plate came out and said to the Jews, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.’ [And] when Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe (that was now bloodied), Pilate said to them, ‘Here is the man!’ As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’” (19:4-6).
So Pilate’s effort at appeasement had failed. The sight of Jesus’ blood did not satisfy the crowd. They wanted Him dead. There were no other options.
III. HIS DECISION.
Now Pilate had enough information to make a decision in the right way.
Pilate had the testimony of Jesus and he knew he was innocent. He had the corruption of the accusers and he knew that for envy they had delivered Him. He had received special counsel from his wife, who had had a dream from God. And he had the comparison of Barabbas.
He had enough information to make the right choice, but he refused to make a decision.
You know, there are a lot of people who miss out on the blessings of life because they cannot decide.
Famous automobile executive from days gone by, Lee Iacocca, says that a good leader ought to be able to make a decision when 95% of the information is in. He says if you delay and wait until you are 100% sure, it is usually too late. But there are some people who just can’t make a decision until they are absolutely sure. They delay, they play it safe, they deliberate and talk, they agonize, they pray, but they just can’t pull the trigger. Charles Swindoll says of these people, “Their favorite color is plaid!”
Back in the 1991 World Series, Atlanta Braves base runner Lonnie Smith delayed for just a second when rounding second base on an extra base hit. That delay cost the Braves a run and the 6th game of the World Series, and ultimately the World Series itself—that one second delay. And 29 years later, Lonnie Smith says he is still asked about that decision everywhere he goes even today—or should we say, that indecision.
You see, failure to make a decision can be costly. There comes a moment to decide.
But I encounter a number of people who avoid making decisions about Jesus Christ—the most important decision they can ever make.
They tell themselves they are going to do it “some day” when they have all their intellectual questions answered. When they’ve got every piece of the puzzle in place, then they are going to decide. But you know what, then they won’t need faith! There are others who have areas of their life that aren’t straightened out yet, and they say, “When I get my life under control and I get it straight, then I’m going to decide for Christ.” But then they don’t have to swallow their pride and admit they are sinners and trust Him. Or there are certain sins that they don’t want to give up, they want to enjoy all the things of this world. And then when their life is spent on the pleasures of this world, they will give Christ the leftovers and they won’t have to make any sacrifice. So they attend church, they listen to sermon podcasts, they learn the songs, they are fascinated with Jesus, but they are looking for a way to evade commitment. They procrastinate, compromise, make shallow promises, try to joke their way out, but the truth is that Jesus forces a decision.
Pilate asked, “What shall I do with Jesus?” (v. 22). The time for decision had come. To avoid making a decision about Christ is like a paratrooper avoiding making a decision about pulling the rip cord! Not to decide is to decide.
So Pilate made a selfish decision. He realized he had to do something, so he tried to be neutral.
Verse 24: “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’” (Mark 15:15 reads that Pilate wanted to satisfy the crowd.) “[And] all the people answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’” (v. 25).
Pilate yielded big time to peer pressure. He did what was politically correct, he saved his skin and permitted Jesus to be executed. And the result was the most unjust verdict ever rendered. Not just a good man, or an innocent man, but a perfect man was crucified.
But we see the same response today in our country in response to the abortion issue. State senators don’t want to have to decide about abortion because it is such a political hot potato. No matter which way they vote they are going to lose half the constituency. Never mind the moral issue, never mind that there are unborn babies being killed, just leave it in committee so we don’t have to decide. But not to decide is to decide. And that’s cowardly! That’s Pontius Pilate. God’s greatest gift to us is the gift of life. When we return that gift to Him unopened, I think that is the height of insult.
Pilate knew deep down that he had made a choice and that he had chosen selfishly.
All the water in the world would not wash his hands of guilt. According to tradition, a few years later Pilate was relieved of his duties, banished to Gall for his incompetence, and there he died of suicide. Pilate saved his job, temporarily, but he lost his self-respect, his peace of mind, and probably his soul in the process. Jesus asked, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
And it’s not just the politicians. We are all guilty at times, aren’t we, of trying to wash our hands of Jesus? Oh, maybe not as dramatically as Pilate, but we wash our hands.
We wash our hands of Jesus for job security. “Yeah, I’ve got to lie a little on my job, but that’s the only way I can keep it,” we say.
We wash our hands of Jesus for financial advantage. “Yeah, I falsify a few reports now and then. But everybody does it, and I’ve got to make a living, you know!”
We wash our hands of Jesus to enhance our image. “In a role like mine,” we say, “you’ve just got to use some street language. It’s the only kind they understand. You can’t appear to be weak.”
We wash our hands of Jesus to achieve success. “Now I will admit that I cheat on a test on occasion, but that’s the only way I can get the grade.”
It is a rare and a special Christian who will take a stand for Christ regardless of the consequences.
A young woman I know was living with her fiancé. She thought she was doing it because it was the right decision. After all, everybody was doing it, and they were getting married some day, and it was cheaper. But some friends invited her to go to church and she met Jesus Christ, and she was convicted. She gave her life to Christ and then she was convicted about the live-in relationship. She went back and told her boyfriend that she had decided she was going to move out and they were going to be celibate until they got married. At first he was angered, and her friends thought that she was fanatical. But eventually her stand caused her boyfriend to remember the commitment he had made to Christ as a young man. He renewed his commitment and they got married as Christians.
Now to be honest, not all stories have that kind of an immediate happy ending. It is not easy to decide for Christ. It is a lot easier to wash your hands. But any sacrifice you make, He will restore to you eventually a hundred-fold.
I’ve been reading recently in a book that was given to me a number of years ago by a friend. It’s about the life of Bill McCartney, former head football coach of the Colorado Buffaloes and founder of Promise Keepers. Bill McCartney is an outstanding Christian and his autobiography From Ashes to Glory is inspirational reading. He used his God-given gifts to lead the Colorado football team to be one of the best in the nation. In 1989, they were the number one team in the nation. But the year of the team’s greatest glory was also the year of ashes, or personal trauma, for McCartney. His teenage daughter, Kristen, announced to her parents one day that she was pregnant, and that she was pregnant by the football team’s star quarterback. He wanted her to get an abortion and he now rejected her. But she refused and Bill McCartney stood beside his daughter, telling her she made the right decision.
But on March 29th, 1989, it was discovered that Sal Aunese, the quarterback, was dying of cancer. On July 22nd, 1989, Bill McCartney went to the hospital room and he led Sal Aunese to Jesus Christ. Bill Curry, who at the time was the head football coach at the University of Kentucky, said about that event, “I’ve got a daughter the same age as Kristen McCartney, and ironically her name is Kristen. When I think about what Bill McCartney had to endure, and then how he led Sal Aunese to Christ, I am totally overwhelmed. That’s as far as it goes. That’s as strong as it gets. When he faced the ultimate test, not as a coach, but as a father to the daughter he loves more than life itself, he responded by giving the ultimate gift.”
Now if you know anything at all about Bill McCartney, then you know that he has taken a lot of heat over the years because of his stand against abortion and against homosexuality. While McCartney was still the coach of the Buffaloes, the president of the university stated that he had no right to make those statements since he represented the university. But McCartney stood for moral values, even at the price of almost losing his job, and he refused to back down.
But a Denver tabloid, the Westword, carried a headline that read: “That Sinning Season.” It read: “CU coach Bill McCartney keeps the faith – and gets a grandson fathered by his star quarterback.” And they showed a picture of the coach with a crown of thorns on his head and nail pierced hands. And under the picture were the words: “The mortification of Bill!”
You see, the right thing is not necessarily the politically correct thing today.
When you do the godly thing, there will be opposition, ridicule, and sometimes even personal loss. When you do the right thing, you may have to wear the crown of thorns—you may lose your job, you may lose the relationship, you may lose money. But as Jim Elliott, the martyred missionary, said, “He is no fool who exchanges that which he cannot keep for that which he can never lose.”
I, like many others, are really missing right now the thrill of March Madness in the world of college basketball – one of my favorite seasons of the year when it comes to athletics. This is traditionally the time of year when the best there is in college basketball get to face off on the court and the games tend to come right down to the wire. And those who play basketball know that the most important time period of a close game is the last two minutes. More games are determined by the decisions made during that critical period than at any other point of the game.
But let me share with you a more important two-minute time period than that, and that is the invitation time at church—when eternal destinies are determined. We have enough information available to us already to make the right choice. But there is a real temptation to say, “I’m going to wash my hands of Jesus Christ today.”
Just remember, Pilate could not find enough water to wash away his guilt. There was only one thing that would cleanse him of his sin, and only one thing that would cleanse us of our sin. That was for Jesus Christ to die on the cross. Pilate’s sins did not nail Jesus to the cross. Pilate was responsible for his behavior. But Jesus Christ went to the cross voluntarily so that His blood could be shed to wash away our sins. “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”