During His interrogation, it appeared that Jesus’ fate was in the hands of men like Pilate. In reality, though, God was in control. In this message, Alistair Begg explains that man’s attempt to secure Jesus’ crucifixion fulfilled God’s will. Pilate thought he was interrogating Jesus, but truly, Jesus was searching him out. We, too, may examine Christ with our minds, but He comes to examine our souls and hearts.
We determined that we would use these Sunday evenings to prepare for our time on Easter, and particularly on Good Friday, when we will gather around the Lord’s Table and remember again, as we do this evening, the work of Christ on our behalf. It is, I think, an obvious necessity that there would be a measure of selectivity in the way in which we view the material that is before us in the time frame that we have. In other words, there are more scenes to which we might turn than there are Sunday evenings to be able to turn to them. And it is for that reason that we are turning this evening to the account as we read it beginning in verse 28. And you, I hope, will be able to follow me; I hope that the clarity that is in my mind will be equally clear as it flows from my words and also guides our thinking this evening as we allow, as it were, to take a metaphor, the director to determine that—given that the cameras are out on the Jerusalem streets—that the director is then saying, “Give me camera three,” and, “Give me camera five,” and inevitably leaving some of the scenes that are being fed back to the mixing station. And I have the privilege of directing that, and I hope that it will become apparent that I myself am under direction.
By the time we get to the verses that we read together, it is actually the morning of Good Friday. If we have thought in terms of the time process here as being protracted in some way, then we have thought inaccurately. And the pale gray light has passed into the dawn of another morning, and from the slope on the other side of the Temple Mount where you find, or would have found in those days, the temple of Caiaphas, these individuals, this melancholy procession, has made its way through the narrow streets and to the Upper City of Jerusalem, and has now approached the palace of the Roman governor. That’s what John tells us: “The Jews then led Jesus from the palace that was that of Caiaphas’s to the place of the dwelling of the Roman governor.”
Prior to this, in the scenes that had taken place there in the jurisdiction of Caiaphas, Jesus had been abused and maligned greatly. Indeed, we’re told in one of the other Gospels that “they spat in his face, they struck him with their fists, they slapped him, and they said, ‘Prophesy to us, Christ. Who hit you?’” Now, these same people who were involved in this are those who are then described here as being so concerned, in verse 28, “to avoid [the] ceremonial uncleanness” which would be theirs as a result of entering the palace. What strange perversity it is, that men can be guilty of such dreadful abuse and yet at the same time determine that they can’t go over the thoroughfares of the palace because they may find themselves ceremonially unclean.
Because of this, and in order to facilitate their expectations, we’re told in verse 29 that Pilate comes out to them. If they’re not going to come in, he will come out. Pilate is recorded for us not only in the Gospel records as being the governor of Judea, but also we have discovered—archaeologists have discovered, digging in Caesarea—various slabs and pieces of masonry that actually bear Pontius Pilate’s name and identify the time frame here as being somewhere around AD 26 to AD 36. We’re not going to take time to sketch in the background of this man. Our knowledge of him is that he was proud and cruel and shrewd and self-seeking and superstitious and paid a lot of attention to what his wife had to say. At least in that last respect, he should be an example to us all. But it is that we find in this opening scene that in the precincts of the palace, far enough on the outside so that the Jews will not be ceremonially unclean, he engages in a discussion with them.
And he begins, of course, by asking straightforwardly, “What are the charges that you’re bringing against this man?”—a perfectly reasonable request on his part, because if he was going to pronounce in any legal fashion, then it was legitimate for him to know exactly what the charge was that was being brought against the man. And their reply, of course, is as vague as his question was clear, and they say to him, “Listen, if he wasn’t a criminal, we wouldn’t have handed him over to you.” They’re not really there for Pilate to investigate the legalities of the situation; they are there in order that Pilate would rubber-stamp the decision that they have already made. And so the question that he asks poses a problem for them, and they fudge the question, leaning, as it were, upon him with all of the influence they’re able to bring.
And so Pilate’s response, then, is fairly straightforward in verse 31: he says, “Well, if that is essentially going to be the way you’re planning on approaching this, why don’t you take him yourselves and judge him by your own law? I mean, what did you haul yourselves over here for in the early hours of the morning, get me out of my palace and down to deal with you, and then when I ask you a straightforward question, you fudge the reply? Why don’t you just go on and deal with this yourselves?” “Oh no,” they said, “we actually don’t have the right to”—and notice the phrase—“execute anyone.” They weren’t there in order to conduct an investigation. They were not there in order that Jesus would be secured a trial and that it would take place in a way that observed all the rules of jurisprudence. Now out of their own mouths they reveal just what was going on: “We’ve brought him here in order that he might finally be executed. We’re unable to do that ourselves, and so that’s why we’re here.”
It’s a reminder to us, in verse 32, that God is sovereignly orchestrating all of these events—that the determination of men to secure his death by crucifixion is actually fulfilling the plan of God from all of eternity. And the wonder is that even in these degrading moments, even in this humiliation of Jesus, still his majesty is displayed. The hymn writer says,
Ride on, ride on in majesty!
In lowly pomp ride on to die.
O Christ, thy triumphs now begin
O’er captive death and conquered sin.
We need to turn to the other Gospel writers to discover that Pilate actually had recognized the fact that these people were motivated by jealousy and by spite and by hatred.
So that’s the opening scene. They come; “We can’t go in”; Pilate comes out; they said, “What are you going to do?”; he said, “Why don’t you take care of it yourself?” And then, as a result of this interchange, we go back now with Pilate inside the palace, he summons Jesus, and the camera angle focuses in on them from verse 33 onward: He “summoned Jesus and [he] asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’”
It’s really quite dramatic, isn’t it, that this man who is apparently in all of his power and majesty examining Jesus, this sorry-looking spectacle by this time, having been slapped and beaten and abused, thinking that he himself is worthy of the investigation, when in point of fact Jesus is the one that really is searching out Pilate? You may be here this evening, and you’ve come to examine Christ. And to the extent that you have come because you have been thinking about these things, someone may have given you a book; you may have begun reading the Bible, and you said, “I need to investigate who Jesus is,” and that is good to do. But if you think to sit in the position of authority over him and ask him to state his case, then you need to understand that actually what is happening is that Jesus is searching you out, and he sits in a position of authority over you .
Now, in all four Gospels this is Pilate’s first question. And it actually begins in the Greek with the personal pronoun “you”: “You’re the king of the Jews?” There’s a sort of contempt in it. There’s perhaps a wonder in it. There may be an awe in it. There may be a measure of reverence in it. But the fact is that he looks at this man and he cannot believe his eyes. And he says, “You’re the king of the Jews?” And Jesus says, “Well, is this your own investigation you’re conducting, or are you actually asking this question as a result of what other people have been saying to you about me?” That’s a legitimate response, you see, because if he’s conducting his own investigation, he’s really asking the question, “Are you, then, a political king conspiring against Caesar?”—the answer to which is no. If, however, he is asking the question that is prompted by the influence of the Jews, then the question that he would be asking is, “Are you the messianic King of Israel?”—in which case the answer would be yes. So it’s important that Jesus understands just what is in his mind.
Listen to the disdain in his response in verse 35: “Am I a Jew?” I mean, basically what Pilate is saying is, “Don’t come that stuff with me. I’m not a Jew. It was your people, your chief priests, who handed you over to me, so why don’t you just tell me what you’ve done?” You see the impatience in it, the aggravation in it. Jesus had clearly done something to arouse the envy and the hostility of the Jewish authorities; Pilate, for the best of him, couldn’t understand what it was. Had he been breaking the laws of Rome? That would be significant. “Well,” Jesus says, “my kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would be fighting, actually, to prevent my arrest from the Jews. But my kingdom is actually from another place.” In other words, “I want you to understand, Pilate, that if you’re thinking in political, territorial terms, you’re really up the creek. When you think in terms of my kingdom, you shouldn’t think in terms of a realm, first of all; you should think of a rule. Because my kingdom doesn’t take its origin from this world. The concern of my kingdom is in the spiritual transformation that is brought about in the hearts of individuals—the kind of transformation that needs to be brought about in your heart, Pilate. The kind of thing that I know perhaps your wife was speaking to you about in the early hours of the morning when she said, ‘You better watch out for this Jesus.’ If you had seen me marshalling my troops and putting together an insurrection, then you may be able to conclude that the kingship about which you have some concern was actually political. No, my kingship is operative in the hearts and lives of men who listen to the truth. Because the reason I was born as a king—the reason I came into the world—was actually to testify to the truth. And actually, everyone who listens to me is on the side of truth, and everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
Now, it’s in this context of interchange that Pilate begins to put the pieces of the jigsaw together. He says, “Well then, in that case, what you’re telling me is you are a king.” “Yes, I am,” he says, “in the sense in which I’m making it clear to you. I came into the world for this express purpose.”
Now, it is this, then, that evokes Pilate’s response in verse 38, which all of us have heard a number of sermons on: “‘What is truth?’ Pilate asked.” I’ve heard at least half a dozen that I can remember from my youth, and I always marveled at what they were able to get out of this little phrase “What is truth?” It was tremendous stuff, very very inventive, and it made me wonder at the time, and as I grew older, I would take notes and say, “I must remember to preach that.” I’ve never been able to preach it because I could never, when I went back to the notes, discover exactly how it was they got the sermon from the question of Pilate here, “What is truth?” Because one of the things that we’re left to wonder about is, is this cynicism? Is he going, “Hey, what’s ‘truth’?” or is this genuine investigation: “Can you please tell me what truth is?” Well, it would appear that if he’s asking the genuine question about truth, it is surprising that he then went out to the Jews immediately after this. I mean, you don’t say, “Could you please explain to me the nature of truth?” and then say, “Hold that thought,” and then go out and say, “Now let’s get on with the business.” So it would seem that in Pilate’s mind by this time he’s already become jaded, he has already become sufficiently disdainful of all of this kind of thing. And so he’s saying, “Hey, the lonely voice of youth cries, ‘What is truth?’” you know—which is a Johnny Cash song, for those of you who don’t recognize it.
Now, the exit of Pilate, then, brings us to another scene. Outside he goes once again, and back to the Jews. He says, “I want you to know that I find no basis of a charge against him.” Now, I want you to trust me on this, but it is probably at this point, as we compare the Gospel records with each other, that the visit to Herod then happens. In order to deduce that, you should turn for a moment to Luke chapter 23—and let me just give this to you; I don’t want to give you a lot of cross-references, but I think this will be helpful. Luke 23:4: “Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man.’ 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.’ On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod’s jurisdiction,” he said, “Oh, this is perfect; I can move him over to Herod. I mean, this is not going very well for me here at all. The mention of Galilee gives me another perfect out, so why don’t we just ship you over to where Herod is, as he is already in the city at the moment?”
Pilate’s conscience was still awake; Herod’s had already been put to sleep. And we’re not going to pause and look at the encounter between Jesus and Herod; it’s beyond camera three at the moment. But if you want to go back and run the video of that in your own mind, you will discover again what we mentioned, I think, last Sunday morning: that although Herod had been agitated by the preaching of John, although he liked to listen to John and it made him do a variety of things, by the time he was face to face with Jesus, he was a man who was curious and yet at the same time totally disinterested. And for that reason Jesus, knowing his heart, spoke nothing to him at all. By this time the conscience of Herod had been anesthetized.
Now, let me turn our gaze to one other scene—for right around this moment in the proceedings, a whole host of things are going on. People who have been mentioned already in the story are going about the business in relationship to the things they have done and said. And as you read this record in John 18, you may find yourself saying, “I wonder where Judas Iscariot is at the moment?” Well, it would seem that during the time of this encounter before Herod, or immediately following it, it is in that moment or two that we find Judas going about his business. You can actually find a record of it recorded in Matthew’s Gospel and in chapter 27. I said I wouldn’t give you cross-references, there I’ve gone and sinned and given you another one.
But anyway, Matthew 27: Judas recognizes that “Jesus [is] condemned,” and suddenly he is “seized with remorse.” In other words, there was a change in his perspective. There is a difference now in Judas from the moment before he sinned and after he sinned. All of the expectations that were wrapped up in his mind as he’d gone with the others, as we saw last Sunday evening, to the garden, to the olive grove, and had led the procession there in all of his boldness, in all of his barefaced animosity—whatever was represented in the heart of Judas in the committing of that heinous act now has been replaced, we’re told by Matthew, by a spirit of remorse which is gripping his soul.
Allow your eye, as it were, to settle on Judas for a moment or two. Let him be a reminder to us that the instants before we sin and after we sin is representative of a radical difference in feeling—the kind of radical difference that we find in the garden of Eden when our fathers turn their backs on God and have to be searched for in the garden. All that they have known in the moment before and all that they have anticipated in this act of rebellion now becomes dust in their mouths. With the commission of a sin, in Judas’s case so obvious, all of the bewitching, all of the intoxicating influence, all that interests us in sinning, all that encourages us to that event passes away in a moment, and only the naked fact remains . All of the things that looked so attractive to Judas in handing over Christ are now nothing to him, and his heart is beginning to change. “I’m going to,” he must have said to himself, “at least get rid of this bag that I’ve been carrying around here. How could thirty pieces of silver weigh so much?” Oh, it wasn’t the weight that hung at his waist; it was the weight that weighed upon his heart. “I will go,” he says to himself, “I’ll get in there, because frankly, ‘All occasions do inform against me.’ Every face I see in the bazaar is an accusing face. Every sound that I hear is a melody in a minor key. Every reverberation in my soul condemns me. I’ll go back, and I’ll find those Pharisees, and I’ll give them back their money.” That’s what he’s doing. That’s what’s recorded for us here. “I’ll get rid of these dreadful coins. Like thirty serpents they are, hissing death at me.”
And so he makes his way back to the place where he could find these individuals. Early in the morning, seeing Jesus condemned, seized with remorse, he goes back to the chief priests and to the elders. He’s without hope, he’s without help, he’s without comfort, he is in total despair. Watch him as he moves through the crowded streets, his tortured face: he’s aged fifty years in twenty-four hours. And the people are looking at him as he passes, and they’re saying, “Isn’t that Judas Iscariot? Look at him!” And finally he arrives upon the scene.
Did he shout it out? Did he squeak it out? Did he cry it out? How did he get it out? But he got it out: “I have sinned,” he said, and “I have betrayed innocent blood.” And look at the response: “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility. We’re not involved in that. It finished when we gave you the coins.” And their impatience and their contempt is akin to that of the seducer in responding to the cries of the seduced: “What is that to me? What do I care? Do you think I’d keep the packet when I’ve smoked the cigarettes? What do I care? You’re on your own now.”
You can imagine him looking them down, can’t you? Feeling himself more isolated than he could ever, ever have imagined in all of his life, standing, staring right in front of him in complete bewilderment, and eventually reaching in and taking the thirty pieces of silver, and moving forward into that area, and eventually throwing the coins as far from himself as he possibly can—“Get out of here!”—and every coin reverberating as it ticks and hits down onto the stone platform.
And then he’s out, and out into the day, and out through the Valley of Hinnom, which is to become the Gehenna, a dreadful, horrible place, charging as he goes, and running, and wandering, and up a steep side of the mountain. All of the jagged rocks biting at his ankles and scratching through his sandals—means nothing to him. Do you see him looking around on the rocky mountainside? Looking for a tree? “There must be some tree up here. Must be some stump, at least. There must be some place that I can do this.” And finally his eye settles on it, and there: some bent and narrow tree, adjacent to a rock on which he can stand.
And now he stops, and with a sort of methodical posture that is completely in control, he takes off the outer garment that is like a girdle that is all wrapped around him—perhaps the very thing in which he had entrapped the thirty pieces of silver—and he untangles it all. And we stand in amazement and watch as he takes this, and he puts it over the tree, and as he then ties it around his neck, and as he stands upon the rock. And then, either because of the imperfection of the knot, or because of the weakness of the branch, or because of the poverty of the fabric, down he comes and crashes into that scene, and his innards spill out, and he dies a dreadful death.
And he was at all the services. He was the treasurer of the Twelve. He was at the Last Supper.
All of that scene unfolds in this small period of time as they take Christ from Pilate to Herod and return him again to Pilate.
Well, let’s finish where we began, shall we? Pilate’s sidestep fails. He gets him back again. He might have hoped that he would be gone and gone for good, but no, he’s back again. “I don’t have a basis for charging him,” he said. “But [listen, it’s] your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” I think he probably thought the answer was going to actually be yes. And “they shouted back, ‘No, not him! Give us Barabbas!’ [And] Barabbas had taken part in a rebellion.”
Ultimately, what Pilate was seeking to do was evade the necessity of making a decision about Jesus. In that respect, he’s like some who may be here this evening: we really don’t want to have to face this crossroads. But he was unable to adopt a posture of neutrality, and we are equally unable. The fundamental question that was confronting Pilate, as is recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, was “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” And in the words of the hymn writer, which I remember from Sunday evenings back in Glasgow when I was very small… I can’t quote the hymn, I’m sure, from memory, but it started,
Jesus is standing in Pilate’s hall—
And friendless and forsaken and removed from all;
Listen to the sorry call!
What shall I do with Jesus?
What shall I do with Jesus?
Neutral I cannot be;
And someday my heart will be asking,
“What will he do with me?”
We may think to examine Christ intellectually; he comes to examine us morally and spiritually.
Some scenes on the way to the cross.
Let us pray:
God our Father, we pray that as we turn our eyes upon Jesus and as we contemplate the wonder of his redeeming love and the way in which he set his face so steadfastly to the work of redemption, we pray, Lord Jesus, that you will stir our hearts afresh with love for you. And we pray that as we bring to you our offerings, that it may be that offering up of ourselves, far and beyond the use of our finances. For we pray in your precious name. Amen.
 John 18:28 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 26:67 (paraphrased).
 John 18:29 (paraphrased).
 John 18:30 (paraphrased).
 John 18:32 (paraphrased).
 Henry Hart Milman, “Ride On, Ride On in Majesty!” (1827).
 See Matthew 27:18.
 John 18:34 (paraphrased).
 John 18:36 (paraphrased).
 John 18:37 (paraphrased).
 Johnny Cash, “What Is Truth?” (1970).
 John 18:38 (paraphrased).
 Luke 23:4–7 (NIV 1984).
 Mark 6:20 (paraphrased).
 Luke 23:8–9 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 27:3 (NIV 1984).
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 4.4.
 Matthew 27:4 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 27:5 (paraphrased).
 See Acts 1:18.
 John 18:39 (NIV 1984).
 John 18:40 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 27:22 (NIV 1984).
 Albert B. Simpson, “What Will You Do with Jesus?” (1905). Paraphrased.