7. In our place
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Let us pray. Almighty God, in you are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Open our eyes that we may see the wonders of your Word; and give us grace that we may clearly understand and freely choose the way of your wisdom; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
On Good Friday, it’s the world against Jesus. It seems to me that is one way that Luke wants us to look at the story of what happened on the eve of the Sabbath almost 2,000 years ago. As usual selected verses of the text will appear on the screen. You may also want to look at the text in your Bible; it’s page 88 in the New Testament of the pew Bibles and page 1651 of the large print edition.
After Jesus had been arrested and questioned by the assembly of the Temple elders, they are satisfied that he deserves to die. For them Jesus is guilty of the sin of blasphemy, but such issues were of no interest to Rome and the Temple leaders had no authority to impose the death sentence on anyone, no matter how much they believed him to be worthy of it. The next step is obvious. Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate.
In 26 A.D. the Roman Emperor Tiberius appointed Pontius Pilate prefect of the Roman provinces of Judea, Samaria and Idumæa, although Pilate is best known for his leadership of Judea. While the typical term for a Roman prefect was one to three years, Pilate was to hold his post as the fifth Roman prefect of this area for ten years.
As a Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate was granted the power of a supreme judge, which meant that he had the sole authority to order a criminal’s execution. His duties as a prefect included such mundane tasks as tax collection and managing construction projects. But, perhaps his most crucial responsibility was that of maintaining law and order. Pontius Pilate attempted to do so by any means necessary. What he couldn’t negotiate he is said to have accomplished through brute force.
Jewish high priest was fraught with tension. One source indicates that Pilate’s predecessor went through three high priests before he found one to his liking, Caiaphas. Pilate decided he would allow Caiaphas to stay in his position. But Pilate must have thought this was for his benefit because nothing else he did in his rule shows any sensitivity to the Jewish people. He set up images of the emperor Tiberius in the vicinity of the Temple in Jerusalem, which was the worst sort of offence to the Jews. People in the city rioted; Pilate threatened to massacre all the protestors but backed down when he realized that his bluff had been called and that these Jews were ready to die for what they considered an insult to them and to God. When the Temple leaders came seeking the co-operation of Pilate in their desire to be rid of Jesus, they were throwing their lot in with someone they despised.
Pilate was not afraid of using his authority, but I think it is safe to assume that he would enjoy taunting the Temple leaders. Jesus had been beaten by some of the Temple police who had arrested him in the garden (Luke 22:63). You can imagine that Jesus was already a sorry looking sight, bruised, bloodied and filthy. I think we are meant to hear a taunting, sarcastic tone in Pilate’s question, “Are you the king of the Jews?” In other words the only king these people are going to have is one who looks like this! But then Pilate hears something that gives him an idea.
Pilate was the prefect of Judea. His normal residence was in Caesarea, not Jerusalem. North of Judea was Samaria, part of the territory that Pilate ruled and north of Samaria was Galilee where Herod Antipas was ruler. His father, known as Herod the Great was the ruler of this entire area before his death in 4 B.C. He was known as the king of the Jews.
I have no way of knowing if Pilate knew anything about the history of the area where he was sent as prefect. But the rulers of these relatively small Roman provinces were always looking for a scheme that might end up with them controlling more territory, therefore collecting more taxes and therefore, likely receiving greater appreciation from Rome. It is possible then that Pilate knew both Herod Antipas and one of his brothers had petitioned Rome for their father’s title of king of the Jews and neither had been granted their wish. Is it any wonder that our text tells us in verse 12 that before the day of Jesus’ death Pilate and Herod had been enemies?
Pilate is in Jerusalem. At the time of the festival he would come to the city with 3,000 soldiers just to keep a lid on any possible trouble. Herod is in the city also. No one would welcome him there but if you have pretentions about being king of the Jews you cannot be anywhere but Jerusalem when Passover is being celebrated. So Pilate gets an idea. Whatever it was that itinerant preachers did—and Pilate could not have cared less about that—Jesus did it in Galilee.
The ruler of Galilee is here in Jerusalem. Can you not imagine Pilate thinking, “Oh this is just delicious. I will send this nobody from Galilee, where let’s face it they are all nobodies, who is charged with claiming to be king of the Jews over to that poor sap who wants to be king of the Jews but Caesar refuses. This is too good to miss.” Jesus is dragged over to Herod’s suite of rooms at the Jerusalem Hilton.
This is a fascinating scene. Jesus refuses to dignify Herod’s contempt with any sort of response. To Herod Jesus is a diversion, a carnival sideshow. He wants to see if the magician can slip a trick past him. Jesus will have none of it. Herod, perhaps going along with Pilate’s original joke finds a bright coloured robe and sends Jesus back supposedly looking more like royalty. As a result of all this, the hatchet is buried, Pilate and Herod become friends. It is the world against Jesus.
It’s the world against Jesus because that’s the way we must see it. It is hard for us to see it this way and perhaps more so today. One of the things I doubt very much that I will see in my life is any sort of effort to get rid of Good Friday—no one in their right mind wants to see the end of a statutory holiday. Most working people are off today, but it’s not a day when most people think of finding a worship service to attend. Good Friday is a day for the convinced and committed. It’s hard for us to think then that all the world is against Jesus, because we’re not.
Yet Good Friday is the reason that we are not against the Saviour, that we have claimed him as Lord. I don’t know about you, but I have never fully understood the intricate theories proposed by theologians as to what happened when Jesus died and why it happened. What I do know is this—that if the God who first revealed himself to Sarah and Abraham and who has been worshipped by countless faithful through the centuries is truly God, then this God must be holy and cannot welcome into fellowship any being or part of creation that is tainted by sin. And that, my friends, includes all of us. Oh, I know what lovely people you are and I know what a fine fellow I like to think I am, but the witness of God’s Word and the witness of history and frankly the witness of every newscast is that all creation is tainted by sin. In the end it is the world against Jesus.
It is then God who must propose a solution. This is it, that somehow God would take upon himself the entire mess of sin and in so doing would defeat sin and its consequences. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).
“God has paid. If you or I were God, we would have arranged for somebody else to pay that price, someone who we figured was deserving of condemnation. God arranged for his own self to pay the price; Jesus, the one person who did not deserve condemnation, stood forward to take the weight of sin upon himself, instead of us” (Rutledge, The Undoing of Death, 125).
The poet, W. H. Auden put it like this
Flesh grew weak,
stronger grew the Word,
Until on earth
the Great Exchange occurred.
On Good Friday it’s the world against Jesus. The one who knew no sin, takes our place, takes the place of the world, and then through faith invites us to take the place we long to have—a place in the grace and forgiveness and mercy of the kingdom of God.