The judged King - Luke 22:66 - 23:25
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Jesus has always been a controversial figure. Several years ago the Christian preacher John Stott wrote a best selling book entitled, ‘Jesus the Controversialist’ in which he pinpointed several ways Jesus caused division. Of course, controversy has often surrounded great men. Think of Karl Marx who proved most controversial at the time for the political ideology he espoused regarding the inevitable expression of class conflict in the rise of the proletariat and the collapse of capitalism by way of revolution in an industrialised society. Or maybe we can think of Adolf Hitler and his dream of National Socialism and the inevitable supremacy of the Aryan races, which resulted in a nightmare for many. It was the opinions of these and many other men like them that tended to generate endless and heated debate.
But with Jesus it was different. You see, his teaching of ‘loving your neighbour as yourself’ or ‘turning the other cheek’ is universally applauded by religious and non-religious alike. But, unlike Marx or Hitler or Ghandi or Freud or any other influential world figure, it was not so much what Jesus taught that has led to controversy, but who Jesus was. Claiming to be a good moral teacher or an innovative religious sage is one thing, to claim divinity is another. And it is this which continues to provoke the contempt of atheists like Christopher Hitchins and inspires the rage of Muslims. But you know what? This was the case in Jesus own life time, in fact right up to the very end as we shall see tonight. So do turn with me to Luke 22:66 ff as we think about the question: Who is really on trial?
First the trial of the religious- vv 66-71, “At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them. If you are the Christ, they said, tell us.”
It has been a long and sleepless night. Jesus face has already been battered to a pulp and now it is dawn and he stands before the religious elite of his day, the Jewish council called the Sanhedrin; and it is a formidable assembly dressed in all their ceremonial finery and burning with fury. ‘If you are the Christ, God’s specially appointed ruler- tell us’ they say. They are demanding to see Jesus credentials as others demanded to see a sign. And they want evidence not so that they can follow Jesus- if that is the way the facts point- but so that they can condemn Jesus. The last thing some of them want is for the messiah to turn up as that would spoil their cosy political arrangement with Rome whereby they can go about exercising their religious clout without interference. They had ‘live and let live’ arrangemnt with the Roman authorities which suited them down to the ground, and to have someone coming along making claims to be the Christ, would upset the religious applecart and they were not going to have any of that. And so they make their demand for evidence-but it isn’t genuine. And over the years I have seen this time and time again, folk who ask question after question about the Christian faith- what about suffering, what about evolution, what about those who have never heard, wasn’t Jesus just a space man? And after each question is answered satisfactorily, they move on to the next, and the next. For some, this is done because they just love a good argument- not because they are seeking after the truth. But for others it is merely a means of evasion, a way of avoiding the truth because deep down they know it will mean a change of direction, a handing over their lives to someone else- to Jesus, and that they are not willing to do. But others are so set in their ways that no amount of evidence will change their views-their minds are made up and they don’t want to be confused by the facts. Well, if that is you, then you are standing on very thin ice because look at what Jesus does say in verse 67, ‘‘Jesus answered, If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer.” Jesus is Lord and sovereign over whom he will and will not speak to. Ultimately, as we shall see in a minute, it is we who are answerable to him, not he who is answerable to us. He knows that for some people, no matter what he says, and no matter how much evidence is produced- they will not believe. Notice that, not, ‘cannot believe’ but ‘will not believe’- it is a deliberate conscious decision which is made not to trust. Of course it may be rationalised- ‘Oh, I am a scientist I can’t believe in that kind of stuff’, but the decision has been made beforehand not to even try and find out if it is true. And let me say that if that is your decision-Jesus will leave you to it, together with its consequences, which are dire. You do not play around with him! Do you remember G. K. Chesterton’s celebrated observation? ‘It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that Christianity has been found demanding and therefore not tried.’
But Jesus does say something which makes it abundantly clear who he is which would have blown their socks off if they had been wearing any: v 69, “But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.” What is Jesus getting at? Well, he is speaking about himself. The phrase ‘the Son of Man’ was one which Jesus frequently used as a self-designation. But what does it actually mean? Well, several things, but the big thing is to be found in the Old Testament passage which is being alluded to here which is the vision of Daniel 7:9-14,"As I looked, "thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.... "In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
Jesus’ ‘Son of Man’ title refers here not just to an earthly figure but a Heavenly one, not to a lowly mortal but to a mysterious person in the throne room of God who approaches God, the Ancient of Days, and who himself comes with attributes of Deity, which is symbolised as ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’ – a characteristic way of representing the presence of God. It is not until the full revelation of the New Testament that people would understand how God could approach God, if there was only one God, that is God the Son can approach God the Father, so here in Daniel it is couched in mysterious terms.
But this figure is decidedly linked with earth as well as heaven. He is one ‘like a son of man’, like a human being. And to him is given authority to destroy the evil that has overtaken the world and threatens the people of God. And Jesus is claiming that the one whom Daniel saw is the one standing before them now. The religious authorities might think they are sitting in judgement on him, but he is the one who rightly occupies the throne of heaven and they are in his heavenly courtroom and they are to be judged and found wanting.
But notice very carefully what Jesus says, ‘From now on the Son of man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.’ By going to the cross Jesus as the Son of man defeats all those evil powers and wicked people that stand in opposition to God and his people. By dying for the sins of all those who trust in him, he enables them to stand in the presence of God without any fear of being condemned. But for those who reject him, they condemn themselves and their fate is already sealed. And let me tell you, the same is true today in the church. The religious leaders who wish to domesticate Jesus, stripping him of his deity, reducing him to one religious leader amongst many, trivialising his demands for holy living, are just storing up trouble for themselves when Jesus does return and issues his final judgement. Is Jesus saying he is the Son of God? You bet he is- verse 70, and for the religious leaders that is enough to condemn him- he has to be got rid of.
And so secondly, the trial of the politicians, Chapter 23: 1-16. “Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. 2And they began to accuse him, saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king." So Pilate asked Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. 4Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no basis for a charge against this man." 5 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."
Let me tell you something about Pilate the politician. One ancient historian (Philo) described him as, ‘naturally inflexible, a blend of self-will and relentlessness’- not a man you would want to cross is he? He had been the Prefect of Judea for about five years when Jesus appeared before him and had several run-ins with the Jews, one of them ending up in a massacre which didn’t earn him any brownie points back in Rome- he was meant to keep the peace not break it. But that was Pontius Pilate for you, often suffering from a bad case of foot and mouth- placing his big foot in his big mouth and suffering the consequences, as was eventually to happen here, for a few years later he was removed from office as a failure.
And so if Pilate was the inflexible know-it-all who was relentless, then why did he try to get Jesus released? The only explanation is given by Matthew in his Gospel, namely that Pilate’s wife had a disturbing dream that night which led her to send a message to her husband to have ‘nothing to do with this righteous man’ because in her dream she had ‘suffered much on his account.’ Pilate was Roman and so he was quite open to belief in portents and omens and the like and therefore would have taken this seriously, especially as it came from the ‘Missus’- ‘’er indoors’. Pilate was no fool, he would have been aware of the personal animosity of the religious leaders towards Jesus, he would have heard of Jesus peaceful but provocative entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and the adulation of the crowds, so he wouldn’t particularly want to antagonise them, but he might have taken some delight in getting one over the religious rulers and so showing them who was really in charge. It was a delicate political game he was playing and so trying to get Jesus of the hook while keeping control would have been a reasonable thing to do, let alone the just thing to do.
Maybe Pilate can see through the lies and half truths of the trumped up charges brought against Jesus and so he concludes there is no real basis for Jesus to be standing there. Whatever ‘King’ he is, for Pilate he poses no threat to Caesar which is his main concern. And in one sense he was right. The kind of kingship Jesus exercises doesn’t compete with all the little kingdoms and empires we make, it will still be in existence when all of these have been ground to the dust. And so often as God’s people we look out at the rise of this nation or that, some new law which threatens religious freedom, a new book which seeks to undermine the reliability of the Bible and we panic. But like Caesar and Pilate they come and go- and Christ’s church still remains and his kingdom steadily expands. Again it was Chesterton who once wrote that, ‘Five times the church went to the dogs and each time it was the dog that died.’ But being the smooth political operator he was, Pilate saw a chance of passing the buck when in verse 5 he heard that Jesus was from ‘Galilee’ which was Herod’s jurisdiction, the son of the King Herod which tried to kill Jesus was he was a baby, and would you believe it he happens to be in town, just a few yards down the road in fact and so Jesus is bundled off to stand before him- “When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle. 9He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate. 12That day Herod and Pilate became friends—before this they had been enemies.”
While the religious leaders saw Jesus as a threat, and Pilate saw him as a mystery, Herod sees Jesus as a novelty, did you notice that? Like a gawping child, he was rubbing his hands, jumping up and down in excitement hoping to see a miracle that might liven up his dull stay in Jerusalem. We don’t know what kind of questions he bombarded Jesus with, but you can be pretty sure they had very little to do with his innocence. Jesus is being viewed as some sort of amusing oddity whose only value is entertainment. And Jesus says….nothing. What can you say to someone like this? And it is sad to say that some within the church today pander to such childish interests such as Herod’s by presenting a Jesus freak show with people being manipulated so that they fall down shaking and laughing uncontrollably, whipped up into some ecstatic frenzy devoid of all reverence and sense. In short, Jesus, that is a Jesus of the imagination not the Bible-, becomes and emotional fix- to be switched on and switched off at the will of the man or woman at the front. But that is not the biblical Jesus we see standing here, with his face battered and bruised, barely able to stand from the exhaustion. However, that doesn’t stop Herod from getting his fair share of entertainment value, because he gets his soldiers to poke fun at Jesus so everyone can have a laugh at his expense by dressing him up and parodying him as a King- ‘Here is - king of the Jews, we had better bow in homage’- then comes a blow to the kidneys. ‘He needs a sceptre’, so they stick a reed in his hand. And having had their fun which is nothing but unadorned cruelty- they send him back to Pilate to meet his fate- v 13ff.
You have to admit it- Pilate does try. He is open that he finds nothing against him, neither has Herod. He is willing to concede a beating to complete the humiliation in the hope that will satisfy the Jewish leaders- but nothing doing- the crowd want blood- Jesus blood. But there is one more card up his sleeve, which Luke alludes to but which Mark in his Gospel makes explicit, namely, that it was custom at the Passover for Pilate to release a prisoner, and now he has two on offer for the crowd to choose- Jesus and Barabbas, who was a known insurrectionist and murderer to boot- v19.
And so we come to the trial of a murderer, “Wanting to release Jesus, Pilate appealed to them again. 21But they kept shouting, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" 22For the third time he spoke to them: "Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him." 23But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.”
Now here is the thing: this whole episode is full of bitter irony- the reality is the opposite of the way things appear. The one who refused to be a rebel is crucified on the cross of the one who is a certified revolutionary. Not only that, but the name ‘Barabbas’ means ‘son of the father’, so here we have two ‘sons of the father’ that day. But no one is simply called ‘son of the father’ so Barabbas must have had another name. Some ancient manuscripts tell us what than name is- can you guess what it is? It was Jesus, ‘Jesus- Barabbas’. And so we are being drawn deeper and deeper into the plan of God for people like you and me. Jesus came to identify himself with rebels- which is another word for ‘sinners’. And here that identification is so graphically and precisely portrayed. For here stands two sons of the father, two men called ‘Jesus’ (The Lord rescues); one pillaged and killed, the other loved and suffered. The innocent one died in the place of the guilty one. The true Son of the Father gave up his life so that we might all become sons of the father. Do you see how it works? A great substitution and exchange is taking place.
So who is really on trial? It is not Jesus. It is humanity- you and me are represented here. Here we have the best of religion- Judaism, the most powerful government- Rome, conspiring together to murder their Maker. And chances are, had we been there, we too would have joined our voices with the rest of the crowd and cried, ‘crucify’. And whenever we decide that it is us and not Jesus who should be on the throne of our lives, when we see ourselves and not Christ at the centre, when we show hate instead of love to those around us, then we are just as much rebels, guilty of insurrection and murder, as Barabbas. And yet it is this same Jesus who willingly goes to the gallows in our place. This is the way one writer, Emile Brunner put its: ‘In the Cross of Christ God says to man, ‘That is where you ought to be. Jesus my Son hangs there in your stead. His tragedy is the tragedy of your life. You are the rebel who should be hanged on the gallows. But look, I suffered instead of you and because of you, because I love you inspite of what you are. My love for you is so great that I meet you there, there on a cross. I cannot meet you anywhere else. You must meet me there by identifying yourself with the One on the cross. It is by this identification that I, God, can meet you in him, saying to you as I say to Him, my beloved Son.’
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