LUKE 23:13-26.—MARCH 17.
HAVING gone through the form of a trial, a mockery of justice—the chief priests and scribes and Pharisees, with a multitude of their retainers and servants, a clamoring mob, led Jesus to Pilate, while it was still early in the morning. (John 18:28.) But they remained in the court-yard while Jesus was led alone to the judgment hall, probably by a court attendant or a sentry, the Jews declining to enter because so doing would make them ceremonially unclean, and hinder their observance of the Passover feast which would begin that same night. What a curious blending this shows us of cleanness and uncleanness! How exact they were to a jot and tittle about matters of minor importance, and how utterly lost to all sense of heart-purity and love, the real essence of the divine law! We who are of spiritual Israel need to be on guard against such a development of outward religious ceremony and formalism, carefulness and purity, which might be accompanied by a blackness of heart and utter absence of holiness and love for righteousness. As a matter of fact, these chief religionists among the Jews were murderers at heart, from the divine standpoint, while careful of the outward ceremonies of their religion. Let us not be like unto them.
It was an unusual thing to accuse one of their countrymen before a Roman governor. It was customary, on the contrary, from them to seek to hide their faults and to secure acquittal, or at least as much leniency as possible. Therefore, these prominent men of the nation had no question but what Pilate would immediately assent to their demand, and crucify Jesus. They seem to have been surprised that he should inquire respecting the facts of the case, or show an interest in giving justice—especially in protecting a Jew from the wrath of his countrymen, particularly the leaders of his nation. When, therefore, Pilate inquired, "What accusation bring ye against this man?" they answered him, "If he were not a malefactor we would not have delivered him up unto thee." Pilate then dismissed the matter as one of Jew against Jew, and not of Jew against Caesar, saying, "Take ye him, and judge him according to your law." (John 18:29,31.) But the Jews replied, "It is not lawful for us to put any man to death." The Roman government had taken away from the Jewish Sanhedrin the power of capital punishment, and nothing short of Jesus' death was in their minds.
They had failed to have Pilate's speedy endorsement of their condemnation, regardless of justice, and now they must put their plea upon another ground—they must formulate a charge, and it must be such a charge as would appeal to the Roman governor. They well knew that their condemnation of Jesus for having said that he was a Son of God would be nothing in the estimation of Pilate; hence, after condemning Jesus unjustly for blasphemy, they made before Pilate a new charge, of three counts: (1) Sedition—disturbing the peace; (2) that he interfered with the collection of the Roman taxes; (3) that he himself claimed to be a king, and was thus an antagonist of Caesar.
Pilate quickly saw the true state of the case; viz., that "through envy the chief priests had delivered Jesus" and condemned him, and not through any new-found love for Caesar and his government; and leaving the multitude of accusers in the court Pilate went into the judgment hall, where Jesus stood, and questioned him, "Art thou the King of the Jews?" (John 18:33.) The whole matter must have seemed very ridiculous to Pilate, who, we must remember, was neither Christian nor Jew, but a heathen man, in whose judgment all the hopes of Israel respecting Messiah would be absurdities on a plane with the chimerical hopes of the various nations the world over. He perceived that the person before him was a remarkable one, and the answer of Jesus led only to greater perplexity, for he told him that his Kingdom was not of the present time and order, but a future one, and that he had come to bear witness to this truth. Pilate found himself getting only deeper into problems which he could not comprehend, and suddenly broke off the conversation with the question: "What is truth?"—without waiting for or expecting an answer, as tho he would say, Yes, yes; we hear of truth, justice and equity, but what is it, and where is it to be found? Who shall determine what is the right? Are you right, or am I, here the representative of Rome, in the right, and authority, or are those Jews who are clamoring for your death in the right? What is truth? It is too perplexing a question for us to discuss further.
Pilate, however, had made up his mind definitely that there was no danger whatever to the Roman Empire from the meek and lowly person whom he had interviewed—he was surely not an anarchist, not an insurrectionist of any kind. He could do no harm in the world, and even if his teachings respecting his own heavenly origin and kingship were baseless and the product of an unbalanced mind, nevertheless the individual himself was no menace to Rome. And thus he expressed himself in the words of our Golden Text: "I find no fault in this man." (Luke 23:4.) And Pilate's decision has been the decision of all honorable, fair-minded people throughout the world from his day [R2785 : page 103] to the present, irrespective of religious prejudices. Whatever fault has been found has been against those professed followers who have taken his name—in vain: those who have claimed to be his followers, but who have not followed him, but have rather gone contrary to his teachings in many ways. These have brought dishonor often upon the sacred name, but as for Jesus, the world today declares with Pilate, "We find no fault in this man." Yea, the world loves to quote many of his blessed sayings, and many wish for a government built upon the principles of righteousness which he enunciated, even tho many who thus proclaim are unwilling to be guided by his precepts.
The Jewish leaders were chagrined with Pilate's decision, and began to argue the points and to attempt to prove that the teachings of Jesus were calculated to arouse a revolution amongst the people; that already in Galilee it had great influence, and now he was coming to Jerusalem, etc. True, the Lord's teachings were revolutionary as respected religious matters; but the charge was not true in the sense they wished Pilate to understand, that he was a breeder of a political revolution. And this is a good point for all of the Lord's followers to note: we, like our Lord, stand committed to a revolution amongst God's people on the lines of true religious worship, heart-obedience to the Lord, etc., but we, like our Lord, have nothing whatever to do with political revolutions. We know that such are coming in the Lord's own time and way, but we battle not with carnal weapons, as he did not; but as he did, so do we, wait for the Kingdom which God will establish in his own time and way—we wait for the expiration of "the times of the Gentiles," when, as God has foreordained and forearranged, the Kingdoms of this [R2786 : page 103] world will give place to, and be superseded by the Kingdom of God, in which, by the Lord's grace, we trust to have a part.
The mention of Galilee suggested to Pilate's mind a way of escape from his dilemma, without either doing an injustice toward Jesus or unduly arousing the enmity of the Jewish leaders; he would solve the difficulty by referring the case to Herod, who was then in Jerusalem. This was the same Herod who beheaded John the Baptist (the son of Herod the great who slew the infants at the time of our Lord's birth), the same one who, hearing of Jesus, speculated that possibly he was John the Baptist risen from the dead. We read that "When Herod saw Jesus he was exceeding glad, for he was desirous to see him of a long season, because he had heard many things of him; and he hoped to have seen some miracle done by him." (Luke 23:8.) Herod questioned Jesus with many words, but got no reply. Our Lord was not there in self-defence, nor to plead his cause, nor to seek to escape the penalty for our sins, but the reverse. His silence under all the circumstances was the wisest and most dignified course. Herod sought for amusement as from a sleight-of-hand performer, and was undoubtedly surprised and disappointed that his kingly curiosity and questions were ignored. However, he and his court would have some amusement, so the soldiers were given the opportunity to mock the kingly aspirations of Jesus, doing mock homage, and then insulting him. Herod returned Jesus to Pilate for judgment.
The Jewish notables and the rabble, clamoring for justice and the vindication of Roman law in the death of Jesus, again filled the court of Pilate's palace, and Pilate came forth and addressed them in the words of our lesson, declaring Jesus innocent of any criminal conduct, but announcing that in view of the commotion and clamor raised against him he would cause him to be scourged and that this should be considered a settlement of his case. Evidently the scourging of Jesus was an act of mercy on Pilate's part, by which he hoped to satisfy the bloodthirsty clamor of the accusers, yet it was unavailing, and merely caused our Lord additional suffering. The multitude cried out the more, "Crucify him!" Pilate's next subterfuge was to propose that since it was his custom to release one prisoner at this season of the year he would release Jesus at this time, and thus satisfy them in a double sense of the word; first, by considering him guilty, and secondly, by his release. But murder was in the hearts of those professedly religious people. They were blinded to justice as well as to mercy by the selfishness of their own hearts, for their enmity to Jesus was based simply and purely upon the fact that he and his teachings were discounting them and their teachings before the people.
It is well that we should note that selfishness lies at the foundation of almost every sin and every crime, that is and ever has been committed. Let us, as the Lord's people, be specially on guard against this insidious evil, which is ours by heredity, and which needs to be destroyed, eradicated, and to be supplanted with love, as the governing impulse of our hearts and lives—love, which thinketh no evil, which is not puffed up, which seeketh not her own advantage at the expense of justice to the interest of others. We are not, however, to think of these Pharisees, scribes and priests as wilfully, knowingly, intentionally, crucifying the Son of God. They would not have been so bold! On the contrary, the Apostle assures us that it was in ignorance that they did it. (Acts 3:17; 1 Cor. 2:8.) an inexcusable ignorance, we may say, or at least, an only partly excusable ignorance, because it was the result of prejudice, which in turn was the fruit of selfishness.
The priests, etc., felt that matters were getting desperate, and they must bring to bear upon Pilate every influence they could; hence their intimation that if he would not crucify Jesus they would report him to Caesar at Rome as being a friend of traitors against Roman authority—an enemy of the Emperor. This was a forceful argument, and Pilate realized it. Were such a report to be sent to Rome, signed by the leading officials of the Jewish nation, it would not be without weight, and the authorities there would wonder, at least, why the life of any poor, obscure individual would be spared to the alienation of the leading men of the nation and at the risk of an insurrection. Pilate decided that the only reasonable and proper course for him to pursue would be to let the Jews have their way; and taking a pitcher of water he washed his hands in their sight, as a symbol of his own disagreement with the death-decree which they were compelling him to render. His words were, "I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be upon us and upon our children."—Matt. 27:24.
Remembering that Pilate was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a heathen man, we cannot condemn him as others have done. Rather, indeed, we must commend him as being a man who loved justice and sought to mete it out, and who yielded to injustice only after he had made every effort to stem the tide of contrary influences when it would have been easy for him to have curried favor with the officials by quickly assenting to the death of a person of no political influence. It is to be noticed, too, that the apostles do not implicate either Pilate or the civil authorities, but held responsible the Jews and their leaders (Acts 2:23), and that God has held that people responsible is evident from the history of the past eighteen centuries, in which their prayer has been answered: his blood has been upon them and their children. Thank God, his Word does not imply that divine wrath, even against these guilty persons, will be manifested and exercised through an eternity of torture by devils, but rather, as the Apostle intimates, God's wrath came upon them to the uttermost in the troubles which befell them as a nation and people. (1 Thess. 2:16.) Soon the wrath is to be turned away and the commission of the Prophet already is due to begin, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people: speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem. Cry unto her that her appointed time is accomplished, for she hath received at the Lord's hands double for all her sins."—Isa. 40:1,2, margin.
Jesus was now delivered over to Pilate's soldiers, to be made ready for crucifixion, and they, heartless and brutal, as we might expect, made sport of the Master's adversities. Putting upon him a cast-off royal robe and a crown of thorns, they jeered him upon his claim to kingship, without a surmise, of course, of who he really was, and how he is yet to be a King upon the holy hill Zion, to whose sceptre every knee shall bow and to whom every tongue must confess. It will be a surprised awakening to them some day, when they amongst others shall come forth from the dead to find Messiah's Kingdom established, and to realize that he exercised mercy toward his enemies, and that his death prepared the way for the blessing of themselves and all the families of the earth with an opportunity to come to a knowledge of God and of his righteous requirements, and thus, if obedient, unto life everlasting.
It was probably about this time that Pilate's wife sent word to him respecting the dream she had, about Jesus, and admonishing him to have nothing to do with his condemnation. And so Pilate, as a last resort, brought Jesus forth, clothed in the purple robe of mock royalty, and with the crown of thorns, and presented him to the people with the words, "Behold the Man!" As tho he would say: Is it possible that you Jews are seeking the death of this innocent man, the noblest and best specimen of your race, indeed of the entire human race? Would not a final look at him appeal to your hearts and melt them? If I, a Roman, ignorant of your religion and regardless in general of all religion, have a pity and a sympathy and a sense of justice, is it possible that you are so unmerciful, while claiming to be the most religious people on earth? Behold the Man! Do you still insist that he be crucified? Then the priests cried out, not only that he ought to die because of being an enemy to the Roman Empire, but because he had taught that he was the Son of God,—thus appealing to the Jews that he was a blasphemer, one whom God commanded them in the Law to destroy.
Pilate was the more afraid when he heard that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, and again sought an interview with him; but Jesus' answer was, "Thou couldst have no power at all against me except it were given thee from above"—permitted of the Father. Pilate could do no more; even Jesus himself assented, and claimed that it was in the divine order that he should die. Pilate signed the death sentence.—John 19:4-11.
There is a lesson for us in these words of our Lord, respecting the Father's permission of all that happened to him. We who are members of his body are counted in with him as under divine supervision, so that in all of our affairs all things are guaranteed to work together for our good while walking in his footsteps. This is the ground of our confidence in all the various trying circumstances of life. This it is that gives the peace of God which passeth all understanding, ruling in our [R2786 : page 105] hearts, not only subduing self and enabling us to submit ourselves to the will of God, but permitting us even to rejoice in tribulation, knowing that under divine providence, and that rightly received, it will work out for us a far more exceeding and an eternal weight of glory.—2 Cor. 4:17.