We Don't Serve a Plastic Jesus
Last week, we talked about Jesus' being delivered over by the Jews to Pontius Pilate for judgment. This word "handed over" is the same Greek word used by John to describe Judas' betrayal of Jesus to the Jewish authorities. We also noticed that Pilate who was known to be heartless and cruel was taken back by the appearance of Jesus. Something about Jesus was different. Even though it would have been perfectly in character for Pilate to have been cruel to Jesus, Pilate shows a lot more humanity to Jesus than the Jews who were supposed to be witnesses to the mercy of God. This indeed was a further indictment against the Jewish nation. God, who is not willing that any should perish, showed more concern for Pilate than Jesus did for His own life. We read earlier in the gospel that the "Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). And Jesus goes even the extra mile. He gave His life for His enemies as well (See Romans 5:10). So Jesus, out of love, challenged Pilate to come to the Truth, Himself.
Exposition of the Text
v. 38. We covered the first half of this verse last week. Pilate after asking "What is Truth" led Jesus back outside saying "I find no fault in Him at all." It was the job of the priest to inspect the sacrifice to make sure it was offered without blemish. But the Jews refused to act on their responsibility, but passed this unto the Gentiles. By doing so, they pronounced the final judgment, not on Jesus, but themselves. The Jewish sacrificial system had proven its utter bankruptcy. God was now introducing the better way through Jesus, salvation to the Gentile as well as the Jew.
v. 39. The other gospels give a little more information. John only makes mention of whether they would release Jesus as part of the Passover tradition. In a sense, Pilate was pronouncing Jesus' guilt. You don't release an innocent man out of custom. You release him because of justice. So Pilate says he is innocent and guilty at the same time. But no mention is made in John about Pilate's presentation of both Jesus and Barabbas. Perhaps John wanted to emphasize to us that Jesus the one we must give account to God for. Barabbas was hardly worth mentioning.
v. 40. Barabbas is mentioned in all four gospels. But just who is this Barabbas? In some Greek texts of Matthew, his first name is given as Jesus. How interesting! Barabbas comes from the Aramaic word "Bar" which means "son of" and "Abba" which means "father". So both people being presented for the crowd to choose were called "Jesus Barabbas" or "Jesus, the son of the father."
John calls Barabbas "a robber". The Greek word λῃστής (lee-stees) describes a person who robs or steals by violence as compared to a simple thief who steals by stealth, κλέπτης (klep-tees, from which we get "kleptomaniac" from). That word is used to describe Judas in John 18:6. The word used to describe Barabbas could also be used to describe one who started an armed revolt. In fact, Luke's account gives support to this understanding. He states that Barababbas was involved in a στάσις (stah-sis, revolt) and had committed murder in that revolt. Many preachers when preaching about Barabbas tend to emphasize that the Jewish people chose a thief or robber. But I feel that this isn't quite the complete picture. We must remember that the Roman understanding of things was at times vastly different than the Jewish people. One man's terrorist is another man's hero. I feel that the different vies of Barabbas is crucial to understanding what is really going on here.
To Pilate and the Romans, who distrusted the Jewish leaders, and held the common people of the land in utter contempt, any insurrection was a threat to Roman authority as well as the establishment of Roman civilization among the subject people. Barabbas would have been seen as supporting an "Axis of Evil" and barbarism. This is the same fatal understanding of America when it tries to spread American style democracy to the Middle East. There is an assumption that once these people see our "shock and awe" as well as all the advantages of our culture that they will immediately drop their weapons and come over to "our side". The Romans generally tried to show at least some degree of tolerance to the Jews, including the unprecedented grant of liberty to them to practice Judaism in the entire empire and not just Palestine. But the Jewish, and later the Christian belief in absolute monotheism made them irreconcilable to Romanizing. Simply put,
Barabbas was a terrorist in the Roman eyes, one that would stab you in the back in a crowd when you weren't looking.
But to at least some of the Jews such as the Zealots, who were the Romans enemy equivalent of our today's Al Qaeda, Barabbas was a hero. And a great many of the Jewish people, although they did not formally belong to the party, were at least sympathetic to their views. They would be like the Palestinians who handed out candy to children for joy that the World Trade Center fell. When we see the tension of the two sides, it becomes apparent whom the people would choose. To Pilate, it seemed obvious that they would pick the relatively harmless und unimpressive looking Jesus. Anyone who supported the Roman sense of law and order would see this. But many of the Jews felt otherwise. They were running short on patience. They were looking for a man of action who could be molded into their idea of a Messiah and king. Isn't that what they tried to do with Jesus in John 6:14 15. they tried to arrest Jesus and make Him their King? But Jesus held to a different view of kingship. Jesus would never become putty in the hands of the people. Barabbas was much more their idea of a deliverer, someone who could be molded by human hands. It should be obvious that the Jews would choose Barabbas.
v. 19:1. I would think that Pilate was indeed surprised that the Jewish people would pick a thug like Barabbas. His gambit had failed. So Pilate unwittingly devised another plan to "save Jesus", that of trying to gain the crowd's sympathy. The Jewish people hated the brutality of the Romans. If he could just beat up Jesus a bit, the people would be horrified and ask for Jesus to be released. So he had Jesus scourged. This scourging could have ranged from the relatively mild scourging to a severe flogging which often resulted in death. Some have suggested the more severe beating was given because of Jesus' fainting under the cross (not mentioned in John's gospel). However, we must remember that His own clothing was put on Him to wear to the site of the crucifixion. If he had bled a great deal, it would have soaked the garments He was wearing and clotted. Removing of the clothing at the site of the crucifixion would have involved a very painful tearing away of garment and skin from the body of Jesus. This is certainly within the cruelty of the Roman punishment, but then who would want to cast lots for a bloody mass of clothing (Jn 19:24)? Also, Pilate seemed genuinely interested in saving Jesus. I would therefore question the severity of the beating, unless he was scourged again after condemnation and before crucifixion. It seems that the treatment of Jesus, the mock worship, scourging, beating, etc. was simply to elicit sympathy from the Jewish people.
Pilate did not realize that by having Jesus scourged that he was fulfilling the scripture in Isaiah 53:5 that these stripes would provide us healing. This crucifixion as we see from Scripture was no accident. It was all part of God's plan.
v. 2. If the Jews would not worship Him, the Romans in their mockery did. They prepared for this mock worship in dressing Him for the part. They put on Him a purple garment or robe. Only the royalty wore purple. It was forbidden to lower classes. And they put on His head a crown made of the sharp thorns of the Date Palm. One week earlier, the Jewish people had stripped the leaves of the same type of tree to wave at Jesus in His Triumphal Entry. In one short week, the Jewish people had gone from waving palm branches in joyous expectation to beating Jesus with their palms, the palms of their hands, in anger. Yet we must see Jesus in both figures, the Suffering Messiah and Glorious Lord. The One who wore and now forever more wears the Heavenly Crown also is the Incarnate Lord who wore the crown of thorns.
v. 3. The mockery of Jesus by the Romans continues. No one in their right mind would ever strike Caesar with their hands and mock him. Yet the Romans were ignorantly doing this to the Lord of Heaven. If Caesar or some earthly despot demanded to be treated with the utmost reverence, how much more is the Lord of the Universe? Yet even to this day, God is mocked, even by those who claim to be His.
v. 4. The humiliation over, Pilate hopes the sight of the humiliated Jesus would be enough to Jesus over to them. How ironic it is that the violent and evil Gentile had more compassion on Jesus that Jesus' own people whom He had Himself chosen. Again He claims that Jesus has been found guiltless. In a way, he was unwittingly saying that Jesus was the perfect sacrifice.
v. 5. Pilate now presents the humiliated Jesus before them. In a way, Pilate was also mocking the Jews too. It was as if he said to them: "Here is your miserable little king, no Caesar at all. This wretch is the perfect king for your wretched kingdom. Look at Him!" But Pilate also affirms Jesus' humanity. Jesus truly suffered for us as man. He truly felt pain. He truly was worthy as a man to bear our sins.
v. 6. Now again we see multiple trials going on. Jesus is being tried in the court of Jewish public opinion, but at the same time, the Jewish people were on trial. Jesus had earlier said "I am the Vine, you are the branches (John 15:1). If they were to reject Jesus now, they were also rejecting themselves from the very One who had given them their identity as God's chosen people. If they voted against Him, they could no longer be considered even in a formal way the children of Israel. Indeed, ten tribes have become lost to us today because they became so much like the Heathen nations that they lost their identity. They had committed national suicide for rejecting God. The very same fate nearly happened to the Kingdom of Judah when they went into Babylon. In fact, they may have been preserved for this very hour, so that Christ would be born, live, die, and rise again.
It is evident from this verse that the Jewish people freely and decisively chose to reject Jesus. They just didn't cry out to have him executed, but to be executed by crucifixion. The cycle of rejection hinted at in John 1:11 was complete. He was rejected by the Judeans. He was rejected by his hometown. He was rejected in Galilee. He was rejected by the Zealots and the others who called themselves disciples after the feeding of the 5,000. He was rejected by the Pharisees and Scribes. He was rejected by the Sanhedrin and Sadducees. Even the twelve had fled Him. Now the Jewish people themselves finished this cycle of rejection.
It has been suggested by some that only a few of the Jewish leaders in cahoots with the Roman authority conspired to execute Jesus. This, however, is very far from the picture presented in John, and in fact all the Gospels. And in all the same Gospels, there is a unified witness of Pilate's attempt to stop the crucifixion. I know that much of this has arisen out of the concern to not appear anti-Semitic. We must understand that we as Christians who claim that the Bible, Old and New Testament, is the word of God. We cannot for the sake of political correctness rewrite Scripture, remove Scripture, and give a false interpretation of God's Word simply because some have abused Jews.
The Scriptures link the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem to the rejection of Jesus. Jesus Himself prophesied it. And it wasn't just the leadership, but the people too who rejected Jesus. If it had been just the awful decisions of the leaders, God would have made everyone suffer for the sins of a few. This would have gone against God's word which said the father would not be accountable for the sins of his son, and vice versa. Everyone is accountable to God for their own sin.
We must understand this rejection as a national rejection, to which a punishment of a national scale was meted out. The fear of Caiaphas would soon be realized. The place of the priesthood would be taken away. Jerusalem would be destroyed. Most of the people who survived were carried away captive either in 70 AD, or the rebellion in 135 AD. As we mentioned before and as is mentioned by Paul in Romans 9-11, their rejection opened the way for God's new plan. Salvation was made available to all people of all nations. No longer would the Jewish nation have a monopoly on God. The true follower of Abraham is the one who is justified by faith in Jesus Christ, a believer in the same promise as Abraham. And even in the Old Testament, Paul reminds us that not everyone who called themselves a Jew was one, but only those who had the faith of Abraham. So the Covenant to Abraham has never changed. Only the understanding of it has been expanded and clarified. The true Jew, either in the Old Testament era and the New is the one who has been circumcised in heart. What happens at the cross is that all pretense and pretending to be God's people are taken away. It was all an illusion.
We do need to remember that Pilate, representing the Gentiles, also ultimately rejected Jesus. And although Jesus assigns a lesser degree of guilt, Pilate was not exonerated (John 19:11). And Christ died for the sins of the world. There is not one who wasiswill be righteous, except for Jesus who died for our sins on the cross. And since Jesus firmly had the authority to go to or reject the cross, it must be emphasized that this was not done to blame anyone for murdering Jesus, but rather that for whosoever will, their blame might be taken away.
Pilate again tries to stop this mob by declaring Jesus innocent for the third time. I feel there is significance in the fact this declaration was made three times in the same way Peter denied Jesus three times and later affirmed his love for him three times. He tells the Jews to crucify Him themselves. He wanted no part of it.
v. 7. The Jews now answer their real reason they rejected Jesus. They thought Jesus' claims of Himself were blasphemous because He kept referring to Himself as the Son of God. They could not stand the idea that Jesus, a mere man in their eyes, was making Himself equal with God (John 10:33). The idea is that the Jewish people rejected the claim because Jesus had made himself the Son of God. The people had tried to make Jesus king, but Jesus did not make Himself anything. He was what He said He was.
We must realize that the Jewish leaders, people, and Pilate are not the only people who have to make this decision about what to do with Jesus. This was their hour of decision. Others have had their hour of decision. Now it becomes our hour. This hour of Jesus, for which he was born faces us today. What are we going to do with this message? Although we know that after the Resurrection and Pentecost that many of the Jewish people were given a second chance, and even a large number of priests became obedient to the faith (Acts 6:7), we cannot assume that we will be given that opportunity. We must also realize the dangerous temptation to mold Jesus to be like us. If Jesus were too much like us, He can not save. He Himself would need saving. Jesus is not made of plastic. The Jewish people had failed because they chose the wrong Jesus. They thought Barabbas was easier to mold because he tried to do God's work the way the Jewish people had thought it should be done. The Jesus they rejected made many demands like having to deny one’s self and take up a cross if they wanted to be disciples of Jesus. I am afraid we see too much of that today. The message of the real Jesus is too offensive and scandalous, so we create our own Jesus, a plastic one. But whether we make Jesus of plastic or gold, we are making an idol. If we humans have done such a thorough job of messing up the world think that we can do anything but make it worse, we are mistaken. How can our idols which we create in our own minds and fashion with our own hands save us. We can make what we think is Jesus, but in reality all we end up with is Barabbas. Barabbas got a second chance. What did he do with the opportunity? Did he save Israel? No, he just disappears from history. And the very Jesus Who they rejected reigns as King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
A theologian named Athanasius wrote more than 1600 years ago that "God became man that man could become God". And although I would prefer the statement, "like God" instead, Athanasius has made the right point. Yes Jesus had to become fully human. God came a long way from the glory of Heaven to the humble manger and the even more humiliating cross. But the likeness stops at the cross where his righteousness and our sin meet. We need to stop making Christ more like us. Instead we need to become more like Him. If we bear the cross of suffering and obedience even as Jesus did, we can be assured that after we have borne our cross, we shall see Him. There is a necessary transformation, because flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God (I Cor. 15:50) And John does not tell us that when Jesus comes that He shall be like us, but rather that we shall be like Him (I John 3:2). The very next verse in I John says that whoever has this hope purifies himself/herself, even as Jesus is pure. It is important in i John 3:3 that the Greek verb is active with the reflexive pronoun. If "sanctification" were put in the middle voice which is the same as the passive, one might have a valid interpretation that sanctification is a passive process. However, it is abundantly clear that we are not to be passive participants in Christianity. We must let the Holy Spirit in us mold us. We are the ones who need to be made of plastic, even as we sing the song "You are the Potter, I am the clay; mold me and make me, after thy will...."
So many preachers with good intentions exhort us to "make Jesus the Lord of your life". However, the Jews could not make Him king. Neither can you make Him the Lord of your life. He is already King. He is already Lord of our life, whether that be for good or ill for us and whether we recognize His Lordship or not. What we need to do is to become aware of His Lordship and pray that God would be our Lord unto life eternal and not destruction. Some would think this to be a trite point, but it is one of the most serious decisions that can be made. To be at control at all is to make Jesus plastic and therefore an idol. It is not Jesus who needs to be transformed. It is us, whether the world likes it or not, and it won't. It is the world and those who belong to it who needs to repent and turn to Christ. We do not sing the chorus to Jesus "To be like me" but "To be Like Jesus". Let’s simply junk the idea that the way to attract people to church is to change Jesus to make him more friendly to the world. All that will result in is mock worship and a loss of all respect for the majesty of King Jesus. Ultimately, both Jesus and
His followers will be mocked as irrelevant and weak, not willing to stand for what one believes.
The cross of Jesus has and always will be a scandal. And if we are true believers in Christ, we must realize that to be a Christian is scandalous. This is a small price to pay, considering the Eternal benefit. I really think we would do better in our evangelism efforts if the church would be more willing to become like Jesus than for Jesus to become more like the world. O the world will still hate us but will respect that we at least are true to what we say we believe. The Barabbas approach, even though it looks like the popular decision of the day will fall into nothingness.
A final warning--We must realize the consequences of unbelief. If God spared not the nation of Israel in this hour, He will not spare us. If God's mercy wasn't enough to warn them at Jesus' trial, he gave the nation a whole generation to repent before the Romans came and destroyed the place. And although many individual Jews did accept Christ, the nation as a whole continued in unbelief. Those who believed Jesus' prophecy left town before the Romans came. Most of those who did not perished. The rest were sold into slavery.
If God spared not them, neither will God spare us. Paul makes this argument crystal clear in Romans 11:16-22). Unbelief has tragic consequences. We must persevere in faith or the tragedy that happened to the Jewish nation will happen to us. On a national level here in the United States, our rejection of God in general and Christianity in particular makes this nation ripe for judgment. O a generation or two might pass while God sends out His prophets with the warning to repent. But destruction will come. Listen O denominations! If you reject the counsel of God and the Scriptures, God will come and take away your candlestick, unless you repent. You cannot substitute your own righteousness for that of God. You are doomed to irrelevancy and death just like the ten lost tribes. It may take a generation or two while the Lord sends His prophets and prophetesses. But your destruction is assured, unless you repent. O local church--will you stand unless you are faithful to the truth and love one another? And O individual--do you not need to heed this word this morning, for is this is your word of prophecy, and am I the prophet God has sent for this hour?
Preached October 2007