The Lord's Day Morning
October 16, 2011
“Before Herod and Pilate”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 23. We’re going to be looking at verses 6 to 25 together. I would invite you, as you’re turning there, to look immediately prior to this section that we're going to read, and then just a little bit after it. You’ll notice that the passage is going to begin with the words, “When Pilate heard this,” which should make you wonder, “What is it that Pilate heard that led him to do what he does in the rest of that sentence and brief paragraph?”
And if you’ll look back just a couple of verses, you’ll see what it is that he heard. In verse 5 of Luke 23 you read that the body of the Sanhedrin who had brought Jesus before Pilate and asked him to condemn him, after Pilate had said in verse 4, “I find not guilt in this Man,” they had responded with these words — “He stirs up the people teaching all over Judea starting from Galilee.” And when they say that, an idea pops into Pilate's mind. Pilate doesn't want to condemn Him and he hears that He has been teaching in Galilee and you’re going to see in this passage he's going to say, “Is this Man a Galilean? If He's a Galilean, that's part of Herod's jurisdiction. Maybe I can send Him to Herod and Herod will get me out of a fix by ruling on this in a different way and I can settle down these folks that are upset in front of me.” So that's the precursor to the passage that we're reading today.
Now, after this passage, if you’ll look down to verse 33, the next thing that happens immediately after the passage we're going to read is that Simon is going to carry Jesus’ cross. So beginning in verse 33, we have Luke's account of the crucifixion. Luke has told us what he told us in Luke 23:1-5 so that we will know the charges that were brought against Jesus, why it was that the religious leaders of His people wanted Him to be put to death. They charged Him with fomenting rebellion, they charged Him with forbidding the people to give taxes to Caesar, and they charged Him with being a Messianic King who was making a political claim against Rome, all of which were false, and all of which, in this passage, Pilate will declare to be false. But Luke wants you to see precisely what were the charges against Jesus. But in the passage we're going to read today, he not only wants you to see that, he wants you to see that the religious and political authorities, that the Roman authorities and the authorities over Galilee and Judea, those who had political responsibility for the government of the people, declared that Jesus was not guilty of these things.
And so as we read this passage today, I'd like you to be on the lookout for two or three things. I want you to look at what these passages tell us about the innocence of Jesus, I want you to be on the lookout of what this passage teaches us of the rejection of Jesus, and I'd like you to be on the lookout for what this passage teaches us about the substitution of Jesus. Well let's pray before we read God's Word.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word and we ask that You would open our eyes to behold wonderful things in Your Word because this Word especially is preparing us for an understanding of the cross which is at the very center of salvation. So give us ears to hear, eyes to see, hearts to understand and to receive and believe and act upon Your truth. In Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God, hear it, beginning in Luke 23:6:
“When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the Man was a Galilean. And when he learned that He belonged to Herod's jurisdiction, he sent Him over to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad for he had long desired to see Him, because he had heard about Him, and he was hoping to see some sign done by Him. So he questioned Him at some length, but He made no answer. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing Him. And Herod with his soldiers treated Him with contempt and mocked Him. Then, arraying Him in splendid clothing, he sent Him back to Pilate. And Herod and Pilate became friends with each other that very day, for before this they had been at enmity with each other.
Pilate then called together the chief priests and the rulers and the people, and said to them, ‘You brought me this Man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining Him before you, behold, I did not find this Man guilty of any of your charges against Him. Neither did Herod, for he sent Him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by Him. I will therefore punish and release Him.’
But they all cried out together, ‘Away with this Man, and release to us Barabbas’ — a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder. Pilate addressed them once more, desiring to release Jesus, but they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify Him!’ A third time he said to them, ‘Why, what evil has He done? I have found in Him no guilt deserving death. I will therefore punish and release Him.’ But they were urgent, demanding with loud cries that He should be crucified. And their voices prevailed. So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Luke is going to begin to describe for us the crucifixion of Jesus in just a matter of a few verses, and when he does, he wants a question to be on our minds and he's setting us up for that in this passage that we're reading right now. And the question is this — Why is Jesus on the cross? Why is Jesus being crucified? Charges have been brought against Him but the charges have proven untrue, so why does He end up on the cross? How does He get there? What's He doing there? Why is Jesus on the cross? Why is Jesus being crucified? It is vital for us to understand that. It is vital for us to understand that for our salvation. It's vital for us to understand that for our assurance of God's acceptance of us and Luke wants us to be focused on that question. He's preparing us for it.
THE INNOCENCE OF JESUS
And the very first thing that he wants to tell us is that Jesus is on the cross, He's going to go to the cross, not because He is guilty, for He is in fact not guilty. The very first thing that Luke wants us to see in this passage is that Jesus is innocent. He is pointing us in this passage to the innocence of Jesus. Now he's already started doing that, if you look back in verse 4 of chapter 23, Pilate has already said after his initial examination, both to the chief priests and to the crowds that had gathered, he's already said, “I find no guilt in this Man,” but they did not like that answer. And so he sends Him to Herod and Jesus won't answer a word to Herod and so Herod mistreats Him and then dresses Him up to mock Him, perhaps in clothes that look like a king would wear, and sends Him back to Pilate again. And Pilate, for a second time, says to the chief priests and to the crowds that are there, not only this time does he say, “I find no guilt in this Man,” he says, “I've examined Him according to each of the three charges you brought against Him and I do not find any truth in any of the charges that you have brought against Him, and therefore I'm going to punish Him and release Him.”
And by the way, isn't that the most interesting judgment you've ever heard from a judge? He's completely innocent of all the charges, therefore I'm going to punish Him and release Him. Now this is an appeasement you understand. He's thinking, “Okay, I can appease the mob by beating Him up a little bit and then I’ll release Him and that way I’ll keep Him from being killed.” And the Romans did this. There is an account of a Roman soldier in Jerusalem burning a scroll. You know what happens when Korans are burned today? There are certain people around the world that get very angry about that and they burn things down and the protest in the streets and they threaten people. Well, when you burned scrolls in Jerusalem and you were a Gentile occupant of the land doing it, it did not make the natives very happy. And there was a call for reprisal against that Roman soldier that did it. And Pilate put him to death for burning a scroll, not because Pilate cared a thing about the Word of God, not because he had any religious scruples at all, but in order to do what? In order to keep the peace. “I’ll just have the soldier put to death and that will keep the peace.” And that is exactly what's going on here. He's saying, “This Man is entirely innocent of the charges you've brought against Him, He does not deserve to die, so here's what I propose to do. I propose to beat Him up a little bit and then release Him.” And he hoped that that would appease the crowd.
But the crowd responds, “No! That's not enough! He has to die!” And so Luke, notice again, after Pilate has said this, he, a third time says, look at verse 22, “I have found no guilt in Him deserving death.” Now Luke has told you this three times and he has shown you both Herod and Pilate declaring Jesus not guilty so that you will understand when Jesus is on the cross He is not there because He deserves to be there; He is not there because He is guilty of some crime; He is not there because He is not innocent. In fact, He has been declared innocent by the highest political governmental leaders in His land. They have declared Him not guilty. So when you’re asking yourself the question, “Why is Jesus on the cross?” the answer is not “Because He's guilty,” for in fact He is not guilty. He is innocent. And so the first thing that Luke wants us to understand is the innocence of Jesus. When He goes to the cross, He goes to the cross not because He is guilty of a crime.
THE REJECTION OF JESUS
But the second thing that Luke wants you to see in this passage is the rejection of Jesus. And in the backdrop of this rejection we hear the words of Isaiah 53. The rejection of Jesus by His own people is pointed out in numerous places in the New Testament. The first chapter of the gospel of John is one of our favorite chapters in the Bible. It has those beautiful words, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God and nothing was made apart from Him.” But the first chapter of John also contains the words, “He came to His own and His own received Him not.” The rejection of Jesus the Messiah by His own people is emphasized in various places in the gospels and in the rest of the New Testament and Luke emphasizes it here. When Pilate, the pagan Gentile, declares Jesus to be not guilty, look at verse 10. While Herod is questioning Jesus and Jesus is not answering, the chief priests and scribes are by Him, “vehemently accusing Him.” When Pilate declares Him to be not guilty, verse 18, “They all cry together, ‘Away with this Man and release to us Barabbas.’”
And so there is a rejection of Jesus and it's a very ironic rejection, isn't it? The man charge that they brought to Pilate — you remember, when they tried Jesus at night and then at their early morning meeting, the focus was on His blasphemy, right? They said, “He claims to be the Messiah; that's blasphemy, therefore, He deserves to be punished.” But that's not what they emphasize to Pilate. Because Pilate is a Roman political figure, he could care less about what theJews believed. All he cares about is things being under control in Palestine. And so what do they emphasize to Pilate? They emphasize that He is a rebel against Roman rule, He is treasonous; He is trying to lead an insurrection and He's a dangerous man. But look who they ask to be released. They want a man who had already been tried and convicted and sentenced to death for insurrection in Jerusalem and murder! They want him released but they want Jesus put to death. This is the rejection of Him by the chief priests and the rulers and the people.
And then again in verse 20, when Pilate again addresses them saying, “I want to release Jesus,” they respond, “Crucify, crucify Him!” And when he speaks a third time in verse 22 saying that he finds Him innocent, in verse 23 they say they “demand with loud cries that He should be crucified.” So Luke is showing you the rejection of Jesus by the people. And of course my friends this is in fulfillment of the Scriptures.
Turn with me to Isaiah 53. In Isaiah 53 beginning in verse 3, six hundred years before Jesus was tried and crucified, Isaiah says this about the Suffering Servant — he's speaking of the Servant being despised and rejected and forsaken. Isaiah 53 beginning in verse 3:
“He was despised and forsaken of men; a Man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hid their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely our griefs He Himself bore and our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. And He was pierced through for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening of our well being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray; each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has called the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.
He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth; like a lamb that is led to slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, so He did not open His mouth.”
Isaiah is emphasizing the rejection of the Suffering Servant by the very people who needed the forgiveness that He came to provide. And Luke is telling you that this indeed happened. And so he points not only to the innocence of Jesus, but he points to the rejection of Jesus.
THE SUBSTITUTION OF JESUS
And then he points to the substitution of Jesus, and you even see this hinted at at the end of the passage. In verse 18, the mob, the chief priests and the religious leaders and the crowd that was with Him, cry out and say, “Away with Jesus! Release to us Barabbas!” And so you have the picture of Jesus, who has been falsely accused of insurrection, being called to crucifixion while Barabbas, who has been rightly accused and convicted and sentenced for insurrection, being set free. And in that you have a little picture, you have an analogy, of the substitution of Jesus Christ. And I love what J.C. Ryle has to say about this passage. Listen to his words:
“We observe in this passage the remarkable circumstances connected with the release of Barabbas. We are told that Pilate released Barabbas, the man in prison for insurrection and murder, but he delivered Jesus over to them to do as they wished. Two people were before him and he released one of the two. The one was a sinner against God and man, a malefactor stained with many crimes. The other was the holy, harmless, and undefiled Son of God in whom there was no fault at all, and yet Pilate condemned the innocent prisoner and he acquits the guilty. He orders Barabbas to be set free and he delivers Jesus to be crucified.
There is a deep meaning underneath these circumstances before us and we must not fail to observe it. The whole transaction is a lively emblem of that wondrous exchange that takes place between Christ and the sinner. When a sinner is justified in the sight of God, Christ has been made sin for us who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him. Christ, the innocent, has been reckoned guilty before God that we, the guilty, might be reckoned innocent and be set free from condemnation. If we are true Christians, let us daily lean our souls on the comfortable thought that Christ has really been our substitute and has been punished in our stead. Let us freely confess that like Barabbas, we deserve death, judgment, and hell. But let us cling firmly to the glorious truth that a sinless Savior has suffered in our stead and that believing in Him the guilty may go free.”
Now this theme of what Jesus is doing in His substitution is one that Luke has been building up for some time. And as you know, Luke wrote the book of Acts as the sequel to the gospel of Luke. And if you’ll turn with me to Acts chapter 2 and Acts chapter 4, you’ll see two places in which Luke emphasizes what is going on with Jesus as our substitute on the cross. And interestingly, in both of these places, Luke draws attention to the fact that the chief priests and the religious leaders, Herod, Pilate, and the mob, all were guilty of calling for Jesus’ wrongful death but that ultimately Jesus was not their victim. He was not on the cross because they were in charge, He was on the cross because God was in charge, because of God's design for our salvation. And listen to Peter. Remember, we're just read in the few verses previous to this, that Peter, in the courtyard, didn't even have the courage to admit that he knew Jesus. Now, after the resurrection, Peter stands up at Pentecost in front of a crowd of thousands of Jews and he says this in Acts 2:22 — “Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a Man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know, this Man delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.”
Now is that not a remarkable statement? Luke has just told us in verse 25 of Luke 23 that Pilate delivered Jesus up into the will of the chief priests and the people, but Luke, in Acts 2:23 says it was God who delivered Him up. It was by His predetermined plan and foreknowledge that He was delivered up. But then he still turns and he says, “And you nailed Him to the cross by the hands of sinful men. You’re responsible, you’re culpable, you’re guilty, but this was part of God's plan.” Part of God's plan to do what? To provide a substitute to die for our sins, a substitute who lived a life that we cannot live and to die a death that we deserve to die so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Turn forward to Acts chapter 4. The same thing is happening. The early church is praying, Peter and John are in prison, and when they are released they go back to their companions and they report what had happened and when the Christians hear it they begin to pray in verse 24 of Acts 4 and here's what they pray: “O Lord, it is You who made the heaven and the sea and all that's in them, and by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David, Your servant, You said, ‘Why do the Gentiles rage and the people devise futile things? The kings of the earth took their stand and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ.’” Look at verse 27 — “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You did anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”
Do you hear what Luke is saying? Jesus is not on the cross because He's guilty. Everybody else is guilty — Herod's guilty, Pilate's guilty, the chief priests are guilty, the people are guilty — everybody else is guilty but Jesus is not guilty. What is He on the cross for? Because He fell into the hands as a victim of His enemies and was handed over to them by Pilate? No. He was there, listen to what he says in verse 28, to do “whatever God's hand and God's purpose predestined to occur.” And what was that? To be a substitute for His people. He was there to be a sin-bearer. He was there to bear the punishment and the guilt that we deserve so that all who look to Him and trust in Him alone for salvation as He is offered in the Gospel are set free. We, like Barabbas, deserved the sentence of death, but if we look by faith to Christ, we are set free in a deeper and more profound way than Barabbas was set free.
And my friends, this is absolutely vital to the Christian life. It's vital to the Christian life because it's at the heart of the Gospel to understand that Jesus on the cross is our sinless substitute, but it is also vital to our assurance. You know, in this room there are hundreds and hundreds of people who wrestle on a daily basis with the issue of acceptance, of feeling accepted. Some of you in this room don't feel accepted. Some of you have been accepted but you resent the way you've had to go about being accepted. The issue of acceptance is a huge issue. One of the things that the truth of the cross says is — your acceptance has not been conditioned by God on something in you. Your acceptance is based on Jesus and that's why you need never fear not being accepted by God because your acceptance is based on Jesus, not on something in you. And that's vital for living the Christian life, to understand your acceptance with God on the basis of what Jesus has done. It opens a new world in your living of the Christian life and in your relating to your heavenly Father to know that your acceptance is not conditioned upon you not messing up the next time you mess up but that a Savior has already died for every sin that you've ever committed, are committing, or ever will commit and that you have been accepted in the Beloved. It makes all the difference. But there are so many of us who struggle to believe that and to really experience that and Luke wants you to understand that. When you look at the cross and you ask the question, “Why are You there, Jesus?” part of the answer is because He's your substitute so that you might be accepted by God in Him.
Our Lord and our God, the Gospel is the greatest news ever in the history of the world, and yet because some of us have grown up hearing it all of our lives, we are insufficiently awed by it and insufficiently grateful for it and consequently, insufficiently helped and encouraged by it. Still others of us, perhaps even in this room, have just never had the message come home to our heart. Lord, if You come home to us in this hour, in this day, today for the first time, bring every heart that You've already touched into a full, safe, and confidence in Jesus Christ as He's offered in the Gospel. For those of us who've already embraced Christ by faith, albeit imperfectly, grow us in our understanding of Him as our substitute and make our faith to be strong in Him and change our lives this way, O God. We pray in Jesus' name, amen.
Now let's sing about this. John Newton loved to dwell on this particular truth and if you’ll take your hymnals out and turn to number 186, John Newton puts the words in your mouth that you need to sing back to God in gratitude for this.
We, alas, forget too often what a friend we have above. Here's what He says to us. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.