Pilate’s Dilemma
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Pilate’s Dilemma

John 19:1–16  (ID: 2215)

With Jesus before him, Pilate faced a terrible dilemma. He found Christ innocent, yet the Jews wanted Him crucified—and only he could give the order. As Alistair Begg demonstrates, Pilate lacked the moral courage to do what was right, choosing to crucify an innocent man rather than face the costs. We are faced with the same question: What will we do with a blameless Jesus?

Series Containing This Sermon

Journey to the Cross

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23801

Sermon Transcript: Print

Well, let’s take our Bibles and turn again to John 19, shall we? And before we turn to the Word of the Lord, we turn to the Lord of the Word:

Father, as we study material that is familiar to many, new to some, vital for all, we crave the enabling of the Holy Spirit. We pray, O Spirit of God, that you will descend upon our hearts, that you will wean them from earth and through all their impulses move, that you will speak to our weakness, mighty as you are, and teach us to love you as we ought to love.[1] For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.

Well, we’re moving towards the scene of crucifixion, to which we will come, God willing, on Friday evening when we gather for our time of Good Friday worship, and to which we invite one another. But now we come to this scene that introduces us once again to surely one of the most tortured individuals that ever confronted Christ. Surely if we were to pick somebody out of all of the biblical record who had proximity to Jesus, who had access to him to be able to pose his questions and to seek his answers, and yet who on account of his own moral perversity and emotional weakness found that, despite the very closeness that he enjoyed, still he was to be separated from him in time and presumably in eternity.

These verses that introduce us, once again, to this mockery of a trial—this interrogation, this fraudulent piece of activity, this bad piece of jurisprudence—remind all and any who may want to live with the notion that when it comes to the things of Jesus Christ, there are a number of possibilities open to us. And one is that it is possible for us to adopt a position of splendid isolation, a bit like Austria at the onset of the Second World War, choosing to annex itself from all activity and claiming that somehow or another it could be disengaged from the whole event—successfully so, in some measure, on that political front, but absolutely impossible when it comes to the matter of who Jesus is and what he has done. So let none of us be in any doubt, as we go through this study this evening, that it may be possible for us to remain undecided about who Jesus is and why he came. The idea that we could register, as it were, a no-vote, that we could abstain, is actually to vote against Christ, and as we will see, it is to follow the sorry pattern that is established for us by this man Pilate, the Roman governor.

Now, at the end of chapter 18 we saw that Pilate had gone out to the Jews who were accusing Jesus and had said to them, “I find no basis for a charge against him.”[2] This was to become, as we will see in a moment, a kind of recurring theme for Pilate: “I find no basis for a charge against him.” Well, in light of that, what we then discover as we go into chapter 19, and particularly what is described there in the opening phrase in verse 1, “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.” If you think about this for just a moment, it is strange treatment for somebody that the governor regarded as innocent: to step out in front of his accusers and say, “I find no charge against him,” and then to follow that up by delivering him up to this cruel treatment is indication again of the fact that Pilate just can’t settle in his own mind. He vacillates between a desire to do the right thing and a kind of downward drag that urges him to the wrong.

Pilate Has Jesus Flogged

Presumably he takes Jesus out to be flogged and removes himself from the sorry sight, the cruel results of his compromise to be enacted outwith his view. This flogging was referred to as the “pre-death death.” It was a horrible and brutal experience. The individual was taken; their hands were tied behind their backs; they were bent over; they were attached, often, to a pole in the center of the praetorium; and then those who were to administer the punishment would take short wooden poles to which were attached thongs with pieces either of lead or of brass or of bone, which were attached to the end of the leather thongs, and with the victim’s back bared, they would then unleash their fury against him. In lesser mortals it often was so severe that the person never went on to be crucified because they were unable to endure the flogging. The body was at times so torn and lacerated that—the secular historians tell us—that as a result of such an evil punishment, deep-seated veins and arteries and sometimes even the inner organs of an individual would be exposed, so that they would beat the back of the man until his kidneys actually became public view.[3] “I find no basis for a charge against him. Why don’t you go ahead and flog him?” Pilate, what’s wrong with you?

The cruelty of verse 1 is more than matched, as we see then, by the mockery that follows in verses 2 and 3—this mock coronation, with the soldiers taking a crown and, with these thorns, crushing it onto his head; taking, presumably, one of their purple or scarlet robes, which would have been worn by one of these military officers, one of these men in high position, and essentially they dress him up. And if you doubt the perversity and baseness of humanity, if you doubt the ability of man to do heinous things, then you need only read the second verse of John 19: “[And having] twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head [and] clothed him in a purple robe … [they] went up to him again and again, saying, ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ And they struck him in his face.” For what? For healing the lady who was bent double for eighteen years?[4] For giving the dead son back to the widow of Nain?[5] For bringing Lazarus forth from the grave?[6] For taking children on his knee and encouraging his disciples to understand that “of such is the kingdom of heaven”?[7] On the basis of what did they find it in themselves to smash him in the face and to abuse him in this way? And when you add the correlative material from the Synoptics, you find that they actually went as far as kneeling down before him, spitting at him, and giving him a scepter that was made out of a reed.[8] And he who spoke and the world came into being, he who set the planets in their place, he who reigned from all of eternity, inhabiting our time-space capsule, subjects himself to this.

Oh, make me understand it,
Help me to take it in,
What it meant [for] Thee, the Holy One,
To bear away my sin.[9]

Pilate Presents Jesus

And “once more Pilate came out”—verse 4—and he “said to the Jews, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you now to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.’” Pardon? If you find no basis for a charge against him, Pilate, instead of bringing him out to the crowd, release him. If there is no basis for a charge, have the courage of your convictions, man, and let him go!

How could it possibly be that bringing him out to the crowd would somehow or another substantiate his conviction that he felt that there was no real reason for Jesus to be subjected to such a pathetic scene? Presumably the answer lies in the fact that as he brings him out—and it almost is a scene that makes one want to turn one’s eyes away from even looking at the text, to bring out the Lord of Glory, crushed with a crown of thorns, dressed up in somebody’s clothes, holding a reed as a scepter, a mockery of humanity—presumably he said, “Look! Do you think this is a king? Do you think this is the basis of insurrection? Do you think this man is a revolutionary about to overturn the world? Look at him! Behold the man!”[10]

Yeah, “Behold the man”! Behold the embodiment of humanity. There was never a man like this in all of his perfection. This is not the man of Jesus Christ Superstar. This is the “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief”; this is the Son of Man before whom men hid their faces; and “a sheep before [its] shearers is dumb, so [this man] opened not his mouth.”[11] Do you grasp a little of this tonight? This is not some pathetic piece of humanity, you know, who can do nothing for himself. This is the King of the universe. This is God incarnate. This is the one who in a moment or two from this is able to say, “I could call twelve legions of angels, and the whole thing would be finished in a moment.”[12] But he goes down this road. Do you understand why? “Oh, the love that drew salvation’s plan.”[13] For you! Yes, you! You know who I’m talking about, don’t you? And you know what you’re really like, as I know what I am like: like a sheep constantly going astray;[14] like someone actually by nature indifferent to God and disinterested in who he is or what he’s done. And here stands this sorry spectacle outside the governor’s palace, and part of the reason is because he has the name “Alistair Begg” before his gaze. He has your name—the name that he has graven on the palms of his hands.[15] “Behold the man.” He never spoke truer words.

And “as soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him”—look at the nature of these people—“they shouted, ‘Crucify! Crucify!’”[16] It’s amazing, isn’t it? And there’s not a modicum of sympathy or empathy in any one of these hard-hearted religionists, so secure behind their robes, so settled in their convictions, so convinced that they are right, and so dreadfully wrong. And instead of the spectacle inducing in them a lump in their throats and a sense of absolute shame whereby they fell before him and said, “Was ever sorrow like this?”[17] they simply rehearse their cry again: “Okay, that’s good so far, Pilate. But let’s not grow weary here. Let’s not stop. Let’s go the whole way and let’s get him crucified.”

And again, you will notice, Pilate replies—I think in a spirit of frustration here—“You take him and crucify him! You want a crucifixion? You do the crucifixion. Because after all”—and here he goes again—“I find no basis for a charge against him.”[18] Well, let him go, Pilate! Have the courage of your convictions, man! Stand up to the crowd!

Is that your problem tonight, as a young person? Oh, in your heart of hearts you know exactly why Jesus came. You know exactly what it means that you would follow him and love him and serve him, but somehow or another the pressure of all the circumstances around you makes you vacillate. One day you’re here, and another day you’re there. I understand that perfectly, I lived my life like that for a while.

“I find no basis of a charge against him. You go ahead.” Their fury produces his frustration, and the monotonous refrain, the ominous chant—“Crucify! Crucify! Crucify! Crucify!”—rings in his ears. Says Leon Morris the commentator, what we have in Pilate’s response here in the second half of verse 6 is “the sudden wild statement of a man [who is] goaded into speaking unreasonably.… ‘If [you’re] not going to take any notice of me, then crucify him yourselves—if you [want].’”[19] That’s the response. ’Cause he knows he’s in a real predicament. Of course, at the same time he knows that they cannot carry out that kind of execution without him, and so he hates the crowd, he hates these people, he despises these Pharisees. But his sense of disgust for them is somehow or another not great enough to overcome his fear of them. Otherwise Christ would have been released.

Incidentally and in passing, in all of this the plan and purpose of God from all of eternity was being fulfilled. Was Pilate an automaton? Was Pilate exercising his prerogative as a Roman governor? Yes. Was Pilate making wrong decisions all on his own? Yes. Was Pilate preprogrammed to make these decisions? No. Was Pilate by his perversity fulfilling the plan whereby it was the will of God, as Isaiah 53 says, to “bruise him”?[20] That according, later on, as Peter preaches on the day of Pentecost, it was according to the foreknowledge of God that cruel men delivered him up?[21] Yes.

And so the Jews come back forcefully. Verse 7: “We’ve got a law, and according to that law Jesus has to die.” They’re careful not to play their ace just yet—it’s coming—but they want to do enough just to keep Pilate on track. And so what they’re saying is, “Pilate, you know as well as us that we have freedom within Roman jurisdiction to regulate our own affairs, but we want you to remember that it is your duty to respect our laws in matters such as this. And by our law, this man should die”—verse 7b—“because he claimed to be the Son of God.” And so they manipulate him.

Now look at verse 8. That’s why I say there was no more tortured individual who met Christ than Pilate: “When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid.” The fearfulness which had been rising in him has almost reached epidemic proportions. After all, the Romans knew about gods; they had all kinds of gods, as did the Greeks. They were aware of the fact that in their minds, at least, the gods came down and did things to people. And here he is confronted by one who is apparently a Son of God, if not God himself, and he cannot get out of his predicament. And so his fear is overwhelming. His wife had actually told him earlier in the day, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”[22] So his wife had been tossing and turning the previous evening, and when he gets his breakfast in the morning and he goes out to the day, she says, “Pilate, before you go in there today, let me give you one word of caution: whatever happens, have nothing to do with that innocent man. I’ve been awake half the night and troubled most of this morning as a result of him.”

There was never a more tortured individual that met Christ than Pilate.

So you see how it all moves around in his mind. Here he has him. “I find no charge. Flog him.” Now he has the guilt on his heart as a result of having been the one who introduced him to such brutal treatment. Then he thinks that perhaps he can justify that by using the sorry spectacle as a means of inducing sympathy on the part of the rulers, and instead of creating sympathy it creates fury. Their fury creates his frustration. His frustration says, “Do it yourself.” Their forcefulness says, “We can’t, but you can,” and their forcefulness leads to his fearfulness. And he’s jammed. I say to you again, there was never a more tortured individual that met Christ than Pilate. 

In fact, it is interesting, if you just look at the verbs “in” and “out,” you find that he was “in” and “out” constantly. In verse 29 of chapter 18: “Pilate came out to them and asked, ‘What charges are you bringing?’” In verse 33: “Pilate then went back [in and] summoned Jesus.” In verse 38: “‘What is truth?’ Pilate asked. [And] with this he went out.” In verse 1 of chapter 19: “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged”—and he goes back in! In verse 4, once again, he comes out; and in verse 9, once again, he goes back in! This is the proverbial cat on the hot tin roof. He doesn’t know whether he should be in or out, or just where he should be! Because he has Christ like the hound of heaven on his back. He has his face fixed in his mind’s eye. He cannot evade the challenge of the man. He cannot get to the bottom of it. He doesn’t understand why he doesn’t do something, why he wouldn’t say something, at least.

Pilate Questions Jesus

And so, you will notice that in verses 9 and 10 there are three questions that come, staccato. Question number one: he goes back inside the palace and he said to Jesus, “Where do you come from?”—“Where do you come from?”—but “Jesus gave him no answer.” Presumably it wouldn’t have made any difference. Presumably he wouldn’t even have been able to get his head around the fact when Jesus said, “Well, actually I come from heaven.” He really didn’t have any interest in that at all; it was just a superstition that was so riddling him. He said, “Well, I better try and find out something about him. Where do you come from?” and Jesus gave him no answer.

Then comes his second question: “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Actually, in the Greek it goes, “To me you do not speak,” question mark. “To me?” I mean, he’s saying, “Jesus, do you know who you’re talking to here?” You get the irony? Pilate, do you know what you’re doing? “To me you do not speak?” Pilate pulls rank. He rests on his dignity. “I’m the Roman governor. Don’t you think you should speak?”

It makes me think of Naaman, doesn’t it?[23] When confronted by his leprosy, the servant girl says to him, “You know, if you go to the man of God, he may be able to do something for you.” And he goes down and he pulls up in front of the house of Elisha, and all of the wonderful accoutrements of his powerful position in Syria are there for everybody and anybody to see. If only the man of God will come out and see how powerful Naaman is, then presumably that will result in the man of God right there on the spot doing something pretty miraculous, and then Naaman will be able to go home again, healed and fine.

And, of course, the man of God doesn’t even come out; he sends a servant to him, and the word of a servant that comes from the man of God to Naaman is, “Why don’t you go and dip yourself in the Jordan seven times?” And then you get the same response: Naaman says to his guys, “Okay, we’re out of here,” he says to his retinue, “we’re moving on. He clearly doesn’t know who I am. I’m Naaman. I’m a Syrian, I’m powerful, I’m successful. He doesn’t even come out and speak to me directly; he sends a servant to me. It would be one thing if he sent a servant to me to give me some kind of potion or some miraculous deal, but he sends a servant out and he says, ‘You go and dip yourself in the Jordan’? Filthy river! Not like the beautiful rivers, the Abana River that flows down into the beautiful regions of Lebanon there, into those beautiful groves. I could have at least gone in one of my own rivers, done it my own way.”

When a person is truly redeemed, it doesn’t make them proud. It makes them humble.

Do you know there are some people here tonight, and that’s the reason you’re not a Christian? Because you don’t think that Jesus knows who you are. You somehow or another are stuck on the fact that Jesus is not impressed with you. Because the way to get to you is to be impressed with you. For you have lived your whole life to become impressive to people. And the way that people access you is on the basis of being impressed. And now you come to Christ, and like Pilate you say, “To me you do not speak? To me you don’t come and do a special miracle? To me you do not do this?” or “To me you do not reveal that?” Listen, my dear friend: Who the world do you think you are? The wonder is that Christ would ever come to any of us. Any of us! That’s why when a person is truly redeemed, it doesn’t make them proud, you know. It makes them humble. 

“Where do you come from?” Jesus gave no answer. “You refuse to speak to me?” And he follows it up with his third punch: “Don’t you realize that I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” You see, that reveals the depth of his dilemma. Because on the human plane, although he’s trying hard, he cannot shift the responsibility of the decision, no matter how many enterprising sidesteps he tries to do. See, he wants to be able to say, “This isn’t my problem.” But when he looks the thing straight in the face he says, “Don’t you realize that this is my problem? Because I possess the power to free you or to crucify you.” Now you’re telling the truth, Pilate! “But let me tell you something,” says Jesus. “Realize this,” Jesus says, “that you wouldn’t have any power whatsoever if it were not given to you from above.”[24] In other words, earthly rulers may act only as God permits. Pilate has no inherent authority over Jesus. Jesus has already said, “No one takes my life from me. I have the power to lay it down, and I have the power to pick it up again.”[25]

The greater our knowledge, the greater our culpability; that’s the second half of verse 11: “The one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” And knowledge brings with it responsibility. And these people who were standing, with their ominous chanting, combined with the work of Judas, whose sorry state we considered last Sunday evening, were culpable, and they could not evade the responsibility.

Pilate Surrenders Jesus

Well, as a result of this little interchange, verse 12 says that “Pilate tried to set Jesus free.” But as a result of his endeavors to set him free, “the Jews kept shouting,” and here they play their ace: “If you let this man go, you’re no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” What a torturous situation, to know the right thing to do and to be so fearful of what other people say and think that you cannot find it in yourself to do the right thing.

That’s the reason some of you have never come to faith in Christ: because if you trust in Christ, you’re going to have to admit that you never knew Christ before. Oh, you knew about him. And since you’ve managed to live a kind of external Christian life, enough to create a disguise that can bypass the stares of friends and neighbors, who have already assumed that since you’re a fine fellow or a lovely girl and you have done most of the things that you’re supposed to do through your life, that you’re a solid upstanding citizen of the community and a good Christian. But if you actually come to bow before Jesus, then you’re gonna have to go back to those people, and you’re gonna have to say, you know, “I never knew Christ at all! I was relying on myself. I was relying on my endeavors. I was relying on my religion. I was relying on a ton of stuff.”

Is that you tonight? So close to being a Christian, but you’re not a Christian, because you never trusted in Christ. You’ve never admitted that his death upon the cross was on account of your sin—not just “sin” sin, but your sin. And that since “as many as received him, to them [he gave] power to become the sons of God,”[26] since you have never come and trusted in Christ in a personal, life-transforming way, you remain outside. And again, it’s because you’re afraid of what other people will say.

Look at this Christ holding this reed, bearing this crown, wearing this rig-out, and see him beckoning you.

Well, look again at this Christ holding this reed, bearing this crown, wearing this rig-out, and see him beckoning you . And then see the people that live in your neighborhood and tell me who you would rather offend. Does it really scare you more to admit to your friends that you have never been a Christian than to stand before the bar of God’s judgment and to tell Christ that the reason you never trusted him was because of the people with whom you played bridge every second Thursday? Amazing. “I find no reason to bring any charge against him, but I can’t let him go.” “I find every reason to trust him, but I can’t bring myself to do it.”

The problem in Pilate was really in his morality—a moral deficiency in him, an inability to do the right thing no matter what it cost him.

The problem in Pilate was really in his morality—a moral deficiency in him, an inability to do the right thing no matter what it cost him.  I wonder how his father attempted to forge his character when he was a boy. Maybe he never tried. Maybe his father acceded to his every request, bowed to his tantrums, covered his faults, laughed at his double standards, and produced this most tortured of individuals.

And so, we conclude. The final blow: “You’re no friend of Caesar.” Oh, how he must have been annoyed, enraged at their hypocrisy. They didn’t give a rap for loyalty. They couldn’t have cared less about Caesar. They simply were using this: “We’ll tell Caesar that you condoned a rebellion. We’ll tell Caesar that you’re the one, Pilate, that released the ‘King of Israel.’” They knew there was no rebellion on the part of Christ! And if every man has his price, then here is Pilate.

And finally he accedes, ignoring his superstitions, ignoring the promptings that had been left to him at breakfast by his wife, ignoring everything in the core of his being that said, “You know, if I had any intestinal fortitude at all, I would stand up and tell these Pharisees to go take a hike, and I would send Jesus out on the road to freedom.” But instead he sits down in the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement. Some of you have been in the area, and you have stood there and wondered. And with his conscience drowned by the loud voices of rationalization, Pilate compromised, because Pilate was a coward.

And notice how the Gospel writer even pinpoints the time, the way they do on the news even to this day. And so they will say, for example—and I can’t remember the exact time, but I can still hear Rather’s voice saying it on the news broadcast that came across—“…and at 10:02, at such-and-such a New York hospital, John Lennon tonight was pronounced dead,” the time etched indelibly in the minds of everyone who cared. And that’s what John is doing: “It was the day of Preparation of the Passover Week, and it was right around the sixth hour, and Pilate stood up and said, ‘Here is your king.’”[27] And their fiendish chants reverberate their reaction: “‘Take him away [and] crucify him!’ ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ Pilate asked.”[28]

Now, here’s an answer for a good Jew: “We have no king but Caesar.”[29] That’s right. The only king they had as a possibility was standing right in front of them. To reject Christ as king left them with only one other possibility in that political framework, and that was their submission to Caesar. They refused to give homage to God, and so to whom else would they pay homage? And so they reject the one who was born to be king. And the Gospel writer Matthew tells us that Pilate at this point had his hands washed,[30] a symbol of his attempted evasion: “I’m innocent,” he says. “It’s your responsibility.” Matthew tells us that the response of the people was “Let his blood be [upon] us and on our children.”[31] And verse 16: “Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.” And the people murmured, “Let his blood be upon us and on our children.”

If Jesus came to Cleveland tonight, don’t think for one nanosecond that he would draw a crowd at Beachwood Mall and that the people would fall down in front of him and worship him. They would not, for the same reasons: pride, rebellion, stubbornness—the very things that keeps a man or a woman from bowing beneath his kingship and his rule.

Through, in another part of the building this evening, there’s a whole host of children. And the teachers are there, and they’re introducing them to the King; they’re encouraging them to become the King’s kids. Some of you even put your children in there, because you know enough to understand that there is no more important decision they could ever make, and there is no hope for them in all of life, except to bow beneath his kingly rule—and yet you yourself, dad, in all of your well-meaning actions, refuse to bow your knee before the King and become one of his kids. Do your colleagues in the office really concern you that much, that you would give up Christ, and give up forgiveness, and give up peace, and give up heaven, and go to hell as a tortured soul with Pilate?


[1] George Croly, “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart” (1854). Paraphrased.

[2] John 18:38 (NIV 1984).

[3] Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 4.15.4.

[4] See Luke 13: 10–13.

[5] See Luke 7:11–15.

[6] See John 11:1–44.

[7] Matthew 19:14 (KJV).

[8] See Matthew 27:29–30.

[9] Katherine Kelly, “Give Me a Sight, O Savior.”

[10] John 19:5 (paraphrased).

[11] Isaiah 53:3–7 (KJV).

[12] Matthew 26:53 (paraphrased).

[13] William R. Newell, “At Calvary” (1895).

[14] Isaiah 53:6 (paraphrased).

[15] Isaiah 49:16 (paraphrased).

[16] John 19:6 (NIV 1984).

[17] Lamentations 1:12 (paraphrased).

[18] John 19:6 (paraphrased).

[19] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 703.

[20] Isaiah 53:10 (KJV).

[21] Acts 2:23 (paraphrased).

[22] Matthew 27:19 (NIV 1984).

[23] See 2 Kings 5:1–14.

[24] John 19:11 (paraphrased).

[25] John 10:18 (paraphrased).

[26] John 1:12 (KJV).

[27] John 19:14 (paraphrased).

[28] John 19:15 (NIV 1984).

[29] Ibid.

[30] See Matthew 27:24.

[31] Matthew 27:25 (NIV 1984).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.