Events can be very revealing, can’t they? Eg, Hello magazine publishes a picture of celebrity A kissing celebrity B and we know there’s a romance going on. Or the Bank of England slashes interest rates and we know there’s a crisis going on. But the most revealing events ever published are in the Gospel accounts about Jesus. Because as John’s Gospel puts it, in that Christmas reading, Jesus was God become flesh – which means that everything he did and said revealed what God is like (see John 1.14,18).
But it’s not just Jesus who revealed things – so did the way people reacted to him. Eg, last week we looked at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, where the magi visit the new-born Jesus. And we saw how revealing their choice of gifts was: gold, the royal metal – signifying that Jesus is the rightful ruler of each one of us; incense, the priestly fragrance – signifying the access to God that Jesus would secure for us; and then myrrh, the burial spice – signifying the death he’d have to die, to do that.
And this week we’re looking at the apparently ‘un-Christmassy’ end of Matthew – and Jesus’ death. That’s because we just happen to be at that point in this series on Matthew. But it’s not as un-Christmassy as it seems. Because again and again the Bible says that the reason God the Son was born as a man was to die for our forgiveness. Which is why the creeds jump straight from his birth to his death, leap-frogging everything in between: ‘he was born of the Virgin Mary, and suffered under Pontius Pilate.’
So would you turn in the Bibles to Matthew 27, and we’re looking at v11 onwards.
We’ve been looking at the final hours of Jesus’ life on earth – his betrayal by Judas and then his trial and condemnation to death by the Jewish leaders. And now we see him before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. Because although the Romans had delegated a lot of power to the Jewish leaders to keep them onside, they hadn’t delegated the right to carry out the death-penalty. So if they wanted Jesus dead – for what they thought were his blasphemous claims to be God’s Son – then they had to accuse him of something Pilate thought deserved death. Now Pilate couldn’t have cared less about blasphemy: what we know about him from sources outside the Bible shows his utter contempt for Judaism and the Jews. So accusing Jesus of blasphemy would have got them nowhere. So instead they accused him of treason. They basically said to Pilate, ‘This man is claiming to be the king of the Jews – ie, a rival to Caesar, a rebel against Rome. So it’s our duty to accuse him and it’s yours to crucify him.’
So that’s where we rejoin Matthew in chapter 27 and verse 11. And the question to ask is: what do these events reveal? What is God showing us by including them in the Bible? And the they reveal:
First, THE HEART OF JESUS (vv11-14)
Look down to v11:
11Meanwhile 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. [Which is a qualified, ‘Yes.’ Jesus is saying, ‘I am what you just called me, but I’m not the kind of king you’re thinking of, or that they’re accusing me of being.’ Read on:]
12When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. 13Then Pilate asked him, "Don't you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?" [Ie, don’t you realise this could get you put to death?] 14But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge – to the great amazement of the governor. (vv11-14)
You see, we know from the rest of this passage that Pilate didn’t believe the charges against Jesus – and tried to release him. All it needed was for Jesus to defend himself. But he didn’t. And in v14 it’s dawning on Pilate that this prisoner seems not just resigned to die, but resolved to – it’s as if he’s chosen to go to the cross. Which is what Isaiah foresaw in his famous prophecy of Jesus’ death:
He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth.
He was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth. (Isaiah 53.7)
- why not? Because he was willing to die – not suicidally, but sacrificially. That’s what these events reveal about Jesus.
So why is that important? Well, because for us to be saved from the punishment our sins deserve, the Bible says a substitute had to take it instead. Otherwise, in forgiving us, God would look as if he was simply sweeping our sins under the carpet – which would be unjust. So it needed a substitute, who’d never sinned, to take the punishment we deserve – so that on the one hand, we could be saved from that punishment, and yet on the other, justice would be done on our sins. And that’s what happened at the cross.
But God could only be satisfied by a willing substitute. Which is why the Old Testament (OT) animal sacrifices couldn’t do it, but only pointed forward to Jesus’ sacrifice, which could. Because it needed a sacrifice where not only was punishment meted out by God, but a substitute took it in a way that accepted and submitted to the justice of it. Only then would justice be fully satisfied.
It’s a bit like a court case in the news where some awful crime has been committed and a long sentence has been handed down – so that to that extent, justice is satisfied. But then you read that the convicted person showed no remorse at all and left the court shouting defiance – so that to that extent, justice is still not fully satisfied in that although it’s been meted out, it’s not been accepted and submitted to.
Or on a lighter note, it’s like some friends of mine who, in the days before child-seats in cars, insisted that their children never stood up in the back. Well, one day, their five-year old did and he was told to sit down. He wouldn’t, so he was told he’d be sent to his room for an hour. He stayed standing, so they made it two hours, and then three, when he finally sat down. But a few minutes later, a defiant little voice piped up from behind: ‘I’m still standing up inside.’ So again, justice has been meted out, but it hasn’t been accepted and submitted to – and so to that extent it’s still not fully satisfied.
Whereas when Jesus died on the cross as our substitute, not only was justice meted out by God the Father, it was willingly accepted and submitted to by God the Son. So that God’s justice was fully satisfied, and nothing else needs to be done for us to be forgiven. We simply have to trust in Jesus’ death alone.
So as we read about the crucifixion – from this silence before Pilate, through the flogging and mocking and brutality to the actual crucifying – let’s remember that he went through it willingly for us. Let’s read every detail and say to ourselves, ‘He did that for me.’ And let’s do so conscious that none of that was actually the worst suffering – the worst was his Father’s rejection as he took responsibility for our sins and was treated as if he himself had sinned them. And if in v14 Pilate was amazed, then surely we who understand it like he never did should be. As one great Christian writer put it, ‘Dead is the soul that has ceased to wonder at the death of the Lord Jesus.’ And if your soul feels lacking in life, lacking in the will to trust that he’s really being good to you, or lacking in the will to love him gladly, then one remedy is to read and re-read the crucifixion accounts and say to ourselves, ‘He did that for me.’
That’s the first thing these events reveal: the heart of Jesus. They also reveal:
Second, THE HEART OF MANKIND(vv15-26)
Look on to v15:
15Now it was the governor's custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16 At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. 17So 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?" 18For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. [Added to which, v19:] 19While 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." (vv15-19)
So Pilate tries to get Jesus off – partly because he believes he’s innocent; but perhaps mainly just to thwart the Jewish leaders and get one over on them. So he uses this Passover custom thinking that the crowd will ask for Jesus.
And in the middle of that, notice that very revealing comment in v18:
‘he knew it was out of envy [or you could translate that rivalry] that they had handed Jesus over to him.’
You see, what does their violent reaction against Jesus reveal? Well, v18 says it reveals rivalry – the rivalry of proud egos which say, ‘I don’t want God to be God over me.’ As Oscar Wilde put it, ‘I want to be master of my own soul.’ So throughout his ministry, Jesus had challenged these leaders that for all their religiosity, they were still in the wrong with God – he once called them ‘whitewashed tombs’ (Matthew 23.27), religious on the outside but unrepentant on the inside. And he’d basically said to them, ‘To relate to God, you must follow me, and if anyone would come after me, he must deny himself – ie, get yourself off the throne of your life and let me take the throne instead’ (Matthew 16.24). And when you understand that fundamental challenge that Jesus makes, something has to be put to death – either self, or Jesus. And what these leaders did reveals which option they chose.
And the Bible doesn’t hold them up as the worst of the human race, but as typical of the human race. That kind of pride is in the heart of every one of us. And if today you’re someone who has surrendered the throne of your life to Jesus, then remember it’s not because you’re any different by nature, but because God by his Spirit has worked in you to overcome your proud resistance. And if you’re someone who’s not yet surrendered the throne to Jesus, can I say: if he really is the Son of God and really did rise from the dead and you really are going to meet him one day as Judge, isn’t it foolish to hold out against him? Isn’t this Christmas the time to be forgiven and start life over again with God in his rightful place? And if you need to know how that can happen, do pick up a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? from the Welcome Desk at the back.
So Pilate tries to get Jesus off. But it doesn’t work. Look on to v20:
20But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. 21"Which of the two do you want me to release to you?" asked the governor. "Barabbas," they answered. 22"What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?" Pilate asked. They all answered, "Crucify him!" 23"Why? What crime has he committed?" asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, "Crucify him!"
24When 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 [which of course is a lie]. "It is your responsibility!"
25All the people answered, "Let his blood be on us and on our children!"
26Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (vv20-26)
And in the middle of all that, there’s another very revealing comment in v24: ‘When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting...’ So if in v18 the Jewish leaders act out of pride, in v24, Pilate the Roman governor acts out of fear.
Now critics of Christianity sometimes say that the picture of Pilate here is totally at odds with the picture we get of him from sources outside the Bible. But in fact that’s not true. We know from other sources that Pilate did show utter contempt for Judaism and the Jews and that he’d treated them shockingly and brutally. But that was early on in his career. This was towards the end when we know he’d had his knuckles rapped by Rome and had been told not to inflame things in Judea. And that’s why the Jewish leaders have him a bit more over a barrel here. And in fact just a few years after this Caesar did sack him from this post. And that’s what Pilate is afraid of here. Afraid that if this situation gets out of hand and it should get back to Caesar, his career and possibly his life might be on the line.
And so he capitulates out of fear. It’s just like Jesus said, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross’ – ie, accept suffering whatever rejection comes your way as a result of siding publically with Jesus (Matthew 16.24). And that’s what Pilate won’t do. He’s afraid of what rejection might come. And again, something has to be put to death - either Jesus, or the risk of rejection for Jesus’ sake. And again, what Pilate did reveals which option he chose.
And fear is still a live issue for all of us, isn’t it?. I ran a Christianity Explored group earlier this year and we talked about ‘taking up your cross’ – suffering possible rejection for Jesus’ sake. And one member of the group said, ‘I can understand this even though I wouldn’t call myself a Christian yet. Because when I told my colleagues I was just coming to a course to investigate Christianity, they ridiculed me. Just think what they’d say if I told them I’d become a Christian.’
But again, whether it’s the fear of starting to follow Christ, or the fears we encounter once we’re following him, we need to say: if he really is the Son of God and really did rise from the dead and we really are going to meet him one day as Judge, isn’t it infinitely more important to have his approval and acceptance on that day than to have the approval and acceptance of our colleagues and friends and even family now?
So that’s the second thing these events reveal: the heart of mankind – which is a lethal cocktail of pride and fear. And either pride and fear will rule your life, your behaviour, your choices. Or Jesus will. And although putting pride and fear to death seems hard, seems costly, the freedom from being ruled by them and having our lives distorted by them is a wonderful thing. Because, ironically, the only person in these events who was truly free was the prisoner. Jesus. And we can only be truly free if we make ourselves his servants.
The heart of Jesus. The heart of mankind. Then the last things these events reveal is:
Thirdly, THE SOVEREIGNTY AND SYMPATHY OF GOD
As you look back over this passage, and the others we’ve covered since October, it looks like Jesus is being treated like a football – passed from Judas, to the Jewish leaders, to Pilate and finally to his military death-squad. And it’s a chain of evil, a chain of sinful decisions – from the betrayal to a corrupt trial to a cowardly governor to the sadistic brutality of the soldiers. And yet this is what it says in Acts 4. Praying to God the believers say:
27Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. [And listen to this:] 28They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. (Acts 4.27-28)
‘They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen.’ Ie, nothing they did lay outside God’s plan. All those evils, all those sinful decisions and actions were part of God’s plan and used by God to bring about his will. So God allowed it that the leadership of Israel became as corrupt as it did in that generation so that his Son would be handed over to death by the chief priest – so that those with eyes to see would realise in retrospect what was really going on: that Jesus was the effective sacrifice for sin to which all the previous ones could only point. And God allowed it that Pilate was in that politically weakened position and was the kind of personality that he was, so that his Son would die in a way that had ‘judicial death penalty’ written all over it. So that those with eyes to see would realise in retrospect that he was taking their ultimate death-penalty in their place.
Now everyone involved was responsible and culpable – the fact that they were unwittingly doing God’s will didn’t change that. But the point is: they were unwittingly doing God’s will, and Jesus was not a football being kicked around. He and his Father were sovereignly in control of the whole chain of events, as they have been, and will continue to be, sovereignly in control of all the events in history – including all the events of our lives.
And that is a great comfort whenever we feel like footballs being kicked around – by the sins of others, or the decisions of others, or the twist and turn of events. It’s a great comfort in the face of a relationship or even a marriage breaking up; or in the face of redundancy or unemployment; or in the face of illness – or whatever it may be for you and your family right now. It doesn’t mean we always understand at the time why things are happening – why God is allowing them. But it does mean we know that God is allowing them, that he has not lost control and that he has ultimately good reasons for allowing what he’s allowing – even if those reasons are not open to us at the time.
But it’s not just the sovereignty of God that’s revealed here, but also his capacity to sympathise with us in our suffering. Because the risen Lord Jesus doesn’t just sit on the throne of heaven, controlling the events of our lives. He know from experience what it’s like to be in the middle of them.
Edward Shillito was a believer who fought in World War I and both experienced and witnessed enormous suffering. But he also found enormous comfort from the fact that the Lord Jesus could sympathise with that suffering from his own incarnate experience. And after the war, he wrote a poem called Jesus of the Scars – it’s really a prayer to the Risen Jesus, and it goes like this:
If we have never sought, we seek Thee now;
Thine eyes burn through the dark, our only stars;
We must have sight of thorn-pricks on Thy brow;
We must have Thee, O Jesus of the scars.
The heavens frighten us; they are too calm;
In all the universe we have no place.
Our wounds are hurting us; where is Thy balm?
Lord Jesus, by Thy scars, we claim Thy grace.
If, when the doors are shut, Thou drawest near,
Only reveal those hands, that side of Thine;
We know today what wounds are, have no fear;
Show us Thy scars, we know the countersign.
The other ‘gods’ were strong, but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds God’s wounds alone can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
And from his birth that first Christmas to his death that first Easter, the Lord Jesus either experienced or witnessed all that we will. And it makes all the difference to know that he is not only sovereign over our circumstances, but can sympathise with what it feels like to be in the middle of them.
So what do these verses of Matthew’s Gospel reveal? They reveal the heart of Jesus – ‘He did that for me.’ They reveal the heart of mankind – ‘He did that for someone as bad as me.’ And they reveal the sovereignty and sympathy of Jesus. And although that doesn’t make trusting in him easy, it makes it possible: those truths are where faith can anchor itself, even when the sea of life gets rough.