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Jesus on the Cross: A Violent Grace

By Michael Card
Guest Columnist

CBN.com - After His arrest, Jesus is led in to face a hastily convened council of Jewish leaders. Caiaphas, chief priest of the Sanhedrin, presides over the kangaroo court (John 18:24).

His religious enemies wait to hear just one thing -- Jesus' claiming to be the Messiah and the Son of God. That claim is a heresy that Jewish law says is punishable by death. When Jesus makes the claim, they have what they need.

"Why do we need anymore testimony?" they ask. "We have heard it from his own lips" (Luke 22:71).

The next stop is the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Since the Jews will not enter the palace for fear of becoming ceremonially unclean, Pilate begrudgingly comes out to them, and they present their case against Jesus on the palace steps. A vague charge of religious trespass doesn't carry much weight with the Roman governor, so the Jewish leaders recast their brief.

"We have found this man subverting our nation," they tell Pilate. "He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king" (Luke 23:2).

Thinks he shouldn't pay taxes? Thinks he's a king? You can imagine Pilate pondering the charges brought with such urgency so early in the morning. This rebellious province is full of people like that! With barely a flicker of interest, he tells the religious leaders that they don't have a case. Relieved to learn that Jesus is from Galilee, Pilate then tells them to take the case to King Herod, who has jurisdiction for Galilee and who is in Jerusalem for Passover. The entourage troops off to Herod's palace.

Herod is happy to see Jesus, but not for any legal, political, or theological reason. "He hoped to see him perform some miracle," writes Luke (Luke 23:8). Although Herod asks Him many questions, Jesus refuses to answer him. So Herod and his soldiers ridicule and mock him, dress him up as a make-believe king, and send him back to Pilate. Whether he wants to or not, Pilate will decide Christ's fate.

You've noticed, I'm sure, that at every step of the proceedings Jesus' enemies were there to press their case. But where was the counsel for the defense? Nowhere to be found. In Jesus' day the sole responsibility for the fairness of a trial fell to the magistrate -- in this case, Pontius Pilate.

Yet, since we read in every Gospel account that Pilate found no fault in Jesus and wanted to set Him free, we have to ask: What happened to justice? Why did Pilate change his mind? Matthew even says that Pilate's wife, Claudia Porcula, had dreamed about Jesus and sent word to her husband: "Don't have anything to do with that innocent man" (Matthew 27:19).

To help you understand why Pilate's name ended up going down in history as synonymous for cowardice and injustice, come with me behind the scenes.

The Palestine of Jesus' day was a region in transition. Between 30 B.C. and A.D. 14, during the reign of Octavian, the Roman Republic was transformed into an empire. In the new order, leaders in various parts of the Empire often had to scramble to hold onto their power.

Pilate was no exception. He had received the governorship because of the patronage of a powerful senator in Rome, Lucius Aelius Sejanus, who held the favored position as consul to the Emperor Tiberius, Octavian's successor. Sejanus was well known for his hatred of the troublesome Jews. In fact, in A.D. 19 Sejanus persuaded Tiberius to expel all Jews from Rome.

Like his patron, Pilate displayed an open disdain for the people of Palestine. To build an aqueduct for Jerusalem, he stole money from the temple treasury, which caused a riot in Jerusalem. Soldiers disguised in plain clothes infiltrated the crowd and slaughtered hundreds of people.

In another incident, he set up the soldiers' standards outside the temple. These symbolic poles usually depicted the bust of the emperor, and the soldiers burned incense to them during military campaigns. The Jews therefore considered them graven images.

Putting them near the temple led to a Roman confrontation with a Jewish mob in the amphitheater in Caesarea. On this occasion, Pilate backed down and ordered the standards removed.

Pilate also issued coins for the region that were stamped with the littus and the simpulum -- the stick and the ladle used in pagan offerings. There is no record of the response of Jewish leaders, but it's not hard to imagine.

Finally, just before Pilate appeared on the steps of his palace for Jesus' trial, something happened that put his political future on the line. In A.D. 31, Pilate's patron, Sejanus, had been exposed as a liar. The accusations that had led to the Jewish expulsion turned out to have no basis in fact. On October 18, Tiberius had him executed. Then he ordered hostilities against the Jews to cease and dismissed many of Sejanus's appointees. Pilate must have wondered if he would be next.

At the time of Jesus' trial, Pilate's grasp on power depended entirely on proving that he had transferred his loyalty from his former patron to Tiberius. His actions during the trial revealed that he was determined to stay in power.

Pilate, the anti-Semite, clearly enjoyed goading the priests and Pharisees, and he relished this opportunity to embarrass the Jewish leaders. When they protested the wording of the inscription he placed above Jesus' cross, Pilate coolly responded, "What I have written, I have written" (John 19:22).

Pilate, the judge, recognized the jealousy behind the spurious charges the Jews had brought against Jesus. As the administrator of Roman justice, he found Jesus not guilty, for "he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him" (Matthew 27:18).

And what about Pilate, the politician? With sinking hearts, we see that his insight into the motives of Jesus' enemies and his finding that Jesus was innocent were not enough to determine his course. His ultimate concern had nothing to do with governing justly and everything to do with using his position to stay in power.

Does this last statement make you wonder about Pilate's most famous question during the trial proceedings?

We read about it in John 18. Jesus has just told Pilate that He has, indeed, been born to be king and that one purpose of kingship is to testify to the truth.

"Everyone on the side of truth listens to me," Jesus says.

Many essays and sermons have been written on those three words: What is truth? Was Pilate wistful? Sincerely seeking? Sardonic? Defensive? Or was it merely an off-handed remark?

The very next sentence begins: "With this [Pilate] went out again to the Jews ... " (John 18:38). Pilate didn't even wait for an answer. He immediately turned and walked away. His question was meaningless -- the empty rhetoric of politics -- and he was already sure of the answer: Truth was what served his political purposes at the time.

John's Gospel records the turning point in the proceedings against Jesus. Pilate has decided that Jesus should go free. Then someone in the crowd shouts, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar" (John 19:12). "Friend of Caesar" was one of the formal titles for a Roman governor. Whoever shouted this knew that Pilate was standing on a slippery political slope. When Pilate heard it, he abandoned his defense of Jesus.

The stage was set for an unthinkable act: The official who was charged with upholding the truth handed over a man he knew was innocent to a murderous mob.

And Jesus went willingly.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth ...
By oppression and judgment, he was taken away …
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
For the transgression of my people he was stricken
(Isaiah 53: 7-8).

Pilate was removed from office in A.D. 37 for excessive cruelty to the Jews. It is thought that he committed suicide on his final journey to Rome. According to tradition, his wife became a believer; she later came to be revered as a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church.

And what about the man condemned that day? The one who had no legal counsel and stood alone before His enemies stands today in the Father's presence as our eternal Advocate? "We have one who speaks to the Father in our defense -- Jesus Christ, the Righteous One," wrote John, many years after Jesus' trial (1 John 2:1).

Not only that, but Jesus, as He promised, has sent the Holy Spirit to be our Counselor and Comforter here on earth. Parakletos, the word Jesus used to describe the Spirit, means "to be called alongside." The Spirit is called alongside us, exactly like legal counsel in a court case. "The Spirit himself intercedes for us," Paul wrote (Romans 8:26).

Although Jesus stood alone to face His accusers, we never have to. When the powers of this world, seen and unseen, condemn us, Jesus is always standing alongside -- not to protest our innocence, but to offer Himself as the one who has already stood trial for our sins.

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Taken from A Violent Grace by Michael Card. © Michael Card. Used by permission of Multnomah Publishers.

Michael CardWith nineteen albums and eight books to his credit, singer/songwriter and author Michael Card holds a master's in biblical studies and is pursuing his doctorate in classical literature. He also hosts a weekly radio show called Joy in the Journey. He, his wife Susan, and their four children live in Franklin, Tennessee. More at www.michaelcard.com

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