A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 04/19/1996

Luke 23:13-25

Pilate's Trial Luke 23:13 And Pilate summoned the chief priests and the ruler and the people 14 and he said to them, “You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges you made against him. 15 No, nor has Herod, for he sent him back to us. And behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him. 16 I will therefore punish him and release him.” 17 (Now he was obliged to release to them at the feast one prisoner.) 18 But they cried out all together, saying, “Away with this man, and release for us Barabbas!” 19 (He was one who had been thrown into prison for a certain insurrection made in the city, and for murder.) 20 And Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again, 21 but they kept on calling out, saying, “Crucify, crucify him!” 22 And he said to them the third time, “Why? What evil has this man done? I have found in him no guilt demanding death. I will therefore punish him and release him.” 23 But they were insistent, with loud voices asking that he be crucified. And their voices began to prevail. 24 And Pilate pronounced sentence that their demand should be granted. 25 And he released the man they were asking for who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, but he delivered Jesus to their will. INTRODUCTION

Human parents are fallible. If you doubt the truth of this proposition, just ask any teenager. Therefore, though in the main our parents do a good job of raising us, probably each of you who lived in a house with brothers and sisters can remember being blamed and punished at some point for something you (for once) didn’t actually do. It is one of the hardest things in life to take. But imagine that the judge knew you were innocent and condemned you anyway! That is what the Lord Jesus Christ endured voluntarily for us. In this passage which narrates that condemnation, I want you to notice three things.


It is nothing less than astounding how many times Pilate officially pronounced the innocence of the man he finally condemned. It started last week in 23:4. “I find no guilt in this man.” But instead of letting him go, Pilate passed the buck and sent him to Herod. Herod then mocked Jesus but did not condemn him, and sent him back to Pilate, who reiterates his original verdict in 23:14. “You brought this man to me as one who incites the people to rebellion, and behold, having examined him before you, I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges you made against him.” In verse 15 Pilate acknowledges Herod’s corroborating judgment: “No, nor has Herod, for he sent him back to us. And behold, nothing deserving death has been done by him.” In verse 20 the same statement is made again, to no avail. In verse 22 Pilate asks, “What evil has he done? I have found no guilt in him demanding death.”

John 18:33-38 explains Pilate’s verdict. “Are you the king of the Jews?” he had asked him point blank, only to receive the cryptic reply, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate was satisfied that, contrary to the charges being made, Jesus was not an insurrectionist, that is, he had no political ambitions that needed to concern a guardian of the interests of Rome. If the Jewish leaders found his religious views annoying, why that was all the more reason for Pilate to want to release him. On a deeper level, it was important that Jesus’ innocence be officially recognized because of the very nature of the sacrifice he was about to make for us. Jesus was about to die as the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb. And Exodus 12:5 required that the Passover Lamb be “an unblemished male of the flock.” If Christ was to die a substitutionary death for our sins, a death that would pay the penalty for all our sin forever (“for the wages of sin is death,” Romans 6:23), then it was absolutely necessary that he be sinless himself. Otherwise, his death would only pay the penalty for his own transgressions. If you owe a hundred dollars, and I have a hundred dollars, I could pay it for you—but not if I owed it too. Jesus’ innocence did not depend on Pilate’s verdict, but it was part of God’s plan that the verdict be unmistakably proclaimed for all the world to hear. There was no cause of death in this man, and that is why his death could count for us.


It has long and often been noted that Barabbas is a perfect illustration of the substitutionary nature of the atonement. The cross on which Christ was crucified was Barabbas’ cross. It had been erected for him; it had his name on it, as it were. And now he would be walking away from it a free man. Did he look back and see another man on his cross? Did he shudder at the thought that if it were not for that man’s agony, he would be there himself at that moment? Did he ever stop to think about it? We will never know. But I would suggest that we stop to think about it this morning. For Barabbas is the patron saint of every believer. We can all look up at that cross and see another Man hanging where we ought to be.

We all know that salvation is a free gift of God’s grace, his unmerited favor, simply accepted by faith. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord’ (Romans 6:23). “For by grace are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-10). Thinking about Barabbas enables us to see more clearly both that this is so and why it has to be so.

Let us imagine that Barabbas walks up to Jesus and says, “How about you get up on that cross in my place and let me off. If you do that, I’ll go to synagogue every week—at least when it’s convenient—I’ll tithe a full ten percent, and I’ll try to be reasonably nice to people.” Suppose he promised to fast himself almost to death, to pray seven times a day, to wear a hair shirt, and to beat himself with whips every night, while spending every waking moment in self denying service to mankind—if only Jesus would replace him on his cross. This is only marginally less insulting than the first deal! Do you see? I hope you find this kind of thing as disturbing and revolting as I do: not only absurd, but blasphemous. I almost hesitated to speak it. But I did it to make a point. Is that not what we are doing if we allow the Gospel to be tainted with the slightest tinge of the notion of salvation by works? Whether it is the superficial deal of American Protestants or the harrowing self denial of medieval monasticism makes no essential difference. You cannot even think of making any deal like that with God, not if you actually think about what you are doing. You can only discover that Jesus has in fact, in an act of incomprehensible love and inscrutable grace, already mounted your cross and died there. All you can do is accept it as a gift. To treat it any other way is incomprehensible once we see it in these terms—not only incomprehensible but insulting and blasphemous. Salvation involves the forgiveness of your sins, not because God has winked at them, but because Jesus has paid for them in full. Because of the very nature of what salvation is, it can only be by grace through faith apart from works, accepted as a free gift by the empty hand of faith. Every form of salvation by works is a blasphemous insult to our Savior. Once you have walked in Barabbas’ sandals, you can never be unaware of that fact again.

But we must notice something else while we are still standing in his sandals. The very same fact that makes works for salvation absurd makes works from salvation imperative. How does Ephesians 2:8-10 continue? “By grace ye were saved through faith, and that not of yourselves, not of works lest any man should boast; for we are his workmanship, created in good works, which God hath prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Why? The very same fact that makes works for salvation absurd makes works from salvation imperative. Barabbas might have looked up at that central cross on the hill, shrugged his shoulders, and walked away. Why? Because he was only a symbol, an illustration, of the believer. He did not have to have any faith to be the recipient of the gift of life and freedom. He just had to be in the right place at the right time. For him, nothing other than the incomprehensible vagaries of Roman politics was needed as an explanation. But it is not so for real believers. For us, the gift of eternal life won for us by Christ on our cross is given to those who believe in him. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him might not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). Therefore, “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord and believe in your heart that God hath raised him from the dead, you shall be saved” (Romans 10:9). To be the recipient of this gift is to know and understand that Jesus took your place on your cross voluntarily because he loves you. Can you be the recipient of such sacrificial love, the beneficiary of such a costly gift, and still be the same person? Can you do anything other than follow Christ even to the ends of the earth? If you can do anything else, you cast doubt on the supposition that you have actually believed at all. The response of one who acknowledges himself a sinner and truly believes that Jesus has replaced him on his cross out of love must be something far more profound than any of the bargaining we laid out a few minutes ago. Do you see? The very same fact that makes works for salvation absurd is what makes works from salvation imperative.


Pilate, alas, saw the innocence of Christ, but did not see anything much beyond that. He had no experience of or understanding of the dynamics we have just been discussing. He was not the great evil villain imagination has made him. He was a normal human being a lot like we would be without Christ. He found himself caught in a political vice, and he yielded to pressure and executed an innocent man. When we understand those pressures, we will understand why he did it. And we will also get a very practical lesson in compromise that will help us be faithful to our own role as the recipients of Christ’s inestimable gift.

Pilate seems to have been a decent man and a good administrator who tried to do the right thing. If he had a weakness, it was that he had never been able to understand the religious sensibilities of this difficult people he had been sent to govern. Two incidents had made his position somewhat precarious. When his troops marched into Jerusalem and displayed their standards, the Jews had a conniption that led to a riot. Why? Roman legionnaires sacrificed to their standards. It was idolatry. Abomination! Then there was the incident of the shields that had been hung from the windows of the fortress Antonia. Imagine some pious Jew looking up as he passes and stopping dead in his tracks. He reaches up to the little tear that he carries, closed with soft, thin thread, in the collar of his tunic so he can ceremonially “rend his garment,” and cries in a loud, nasal voice, “Abomina-a-a-tion!” For the shields have pictures on them—perhaps the Roman eagle. Graven images! And there is another riot.

Rome wanted the peace kept in Judea, and knew that the Jews would not compromise their fanatical religious beliefs. So they had been granted a number of dispensations, privileges no other Roman provinces enjoyed, to practice their beliefs unhindered. But Pilate kept running afoul of them anyway. About one year before this trial tool place, he had received a letter from Caesar, which basically said, “I don’t want to hear about any more complaints over the way you handle Jewish religious issues.” So when the Jews said, as is recorded elsewhere, “If you don’t do what we want, you are no longer a friend of Caesar,” they were not making an idle threat. There was actually a club in Rome called the Amici Caesari, the friends of Caesar. The members were officials of the Roman administration, including provincial governors. So the Jews were saying, in effect, “If you don’t crucify Jesus, we are going to complain to Caesar one more time, and you will get kicked out of the club!” This is more than just the threat that Pilate would lose his job. Caesar’s method of asking for the resignation of one of his officials might well be to command him to commit suicide—which he would have to do, because otherwise his property would all be confiscated and his family left in abject poverty. Do you begin to understand the kind of pressure Pilate was facing?

Pilate was a normal human being. He was not a moral monster. He was a relatively decent, ordinary man under extreme pressure. It would have taken an extraordinary moral hero to have sacrificed his own life for the sake of abstract justice and this weird Jewish nutcase. So Pilate tried as hard as he could to do the right thing, but he finally gave in. Any of us might well have done the same thing in similar circumstances. But extraordinary moral heroism is sometimes required of ordinary people! How, if we find ourselves in such a position, are we to stand—to be willing to give our lives for the One who gave his for us? That is the final question I want us to consider as we contemplate this scene. Do you see that, given the nature of the pressure he was under, the first moment of wavering really made Pilate’s final downfall inevitable? Once Pilate tried to pass the buck by sending Jesus to Herod, his doom was sealed. He had already shown weakness; he had already tipped his hand that he was looking for a way out, that he was uncomfortable with the situation, that he was operating from a position of weakness. His only chance to get through this trial with his own integrity unscathed was to unwaveringly do the right thing from the very first moment, with no sign of compromise tolerated. But once he wavered, the buzzards were circling for the kill. Once he wavered at all, his blood was in the water and the sharks galvanized into their feeding frenzy.

What is the practical lesson for us? Don’t set yourself up for compromise! When you are asked to do something you know is wrong, if you dither and scrape your feet and say, “Well, I don’t know . . .”, you are setting yourself up for a fall. You are sending the signal that you can be bought, and making it harder for yourself to say a final “no” at any later point. So let your first “no” be final by being forthright: “I’m sorry, but I am not going to do that, because it would be displeasing to my Lord.” It’s not open for discussion or negotiation—is it? If not, present it as if it were not from the get go. Otherwise, you will eventually fall, even when you are under less sever pressure than Pilate faced here.


To have received the incredible gift Jesus gave us when he replaced us on our cross is to want to stand for him without compromise. But where are we to find the strength to do it? For the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. But the strength comes from the same One who gives us the desire. For he is with us through his personal agent and representative, the Holy Spirit. Christ and Christ alone can enable us to stand as strong and unwavering as he himself did in the trial we have been studying today. So look to him and live for him; look to him and live.

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 4/4/2008