Pilate is Faced with a Choice

A Passion Sermon

by L. Roth




Text: Matthew 27: 21
Date Preached: March 2006





Psalter 391: 1, 2, 3
Law of God
Psalter 332: 1, 2, 3
Scripture Reading: Matthew 27: 1, 2, 11 – 25
Text: Matthew 27: 21
Congregational Prayer
Psalter 437
Psalter 187: 2, 3, 4
Thanksgiving Prayer
Psalter 161: 1, 5, 6, 8
Doxology: Psalter 432: 4


Beloved Congregation.

As a human race we are constantly faced with choices in life, whether we will go here or go there, whether we will do this or do that. Many of these decisions do not affect our lives very much one way or the other. And yet we are called to be stewards of all the blessings which the Lord entrusts unto us. That means then, in all that we do and say, we are accountable unto the Lord. In fact, our whole life was meant to glorify God; we are His handiwork; all that we are and all that we have we owe to Him. And therefore the decisions that we make in life are far more reaching than first meet the eye. In all of our choices, whether we realize it or not they are for”, or “against the cause of God and His Christ.

Well now, let us seek to understand how this is also most clearly seen in the words of our text this morning under the following theme, PILATE IS FACED WITH A CHOICE, FOR OR AGAINST THE LORD JESUS. In the first place let us consider Pilate’s Dilemma. Secondly, let us regard Pilate’s Shrewdness. In the third place let us examine The People’s Choice.

In the first place let us consider Pilate’s Dilemma. A few hours previous to our text words, congregation, the Lord Jesus was forsaken by His followers, as well as the young man Mark at His arrest. While they loved their Master, their faith was not yet mature; they did not understand the manner in which He was going to secure deliverance also for them. And so they ran away in every direction fulfilling the prophecy, Smite the Shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered. But this was all in accordance to the will of God. For the Lord Jesus was called to tread the winepress alone. Yes, He would be forsaken of God the Father Himself, so that His people might never be forsaken but might find help and grace in time of need.

Well now, by the time we come to the words of our text the Lord Jesus had already been taken into custody by the chief priests. He had already suffered greatly at their hand and experienced shameful abuses, having been spit in His face and smitten by their hands. Their cruel games were filled with the venom produced in hell. However as desirous as the chief priests were to have the Savior done away with, they did not have the authority to put anyone to death since they were under the power of the Romans. And so, early the next morning they brought the Lord Jesus bound to the judgment hall of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor. And with the charge that Christ was an insurrectionist, one who threatened peace and stability, they wanted the Roman Governor to accede to their wishes and sentence the Lord Jesus to death. However, Pilate knew that they were seeking to get rid of Christ out of envy and spite. Verse 18 tells us that. And furthermore, his wife had experienced a dream by which she was persuaded that her husband should have nothing to do with this ‘just man’ as she put it.

And so the Roman Governor is confronted with a choice. He must choose whether to condemn Christ or to release Him. He does not like either one of these choices. If he releases the Lord Jesus then he will experience the disfavor of the people. He was not in their favor as it was for he was the only governor who had dared to bring Roman ensigns into the holy city of Jerusalem to make the Jews feel that they were subject to Rome. When many Jews went to Caesarea to protest after fasting for five days, Pilate gave in and removed the ensigns because they were ready to die rather than capitulate. Yes, the Roman governor lost that feud with that headstrong people. If he had his way, he would show them a thing or two; he would just release the Lord Jesus in spite. But…. he must be careful concerning his position. Caesar Tiberius frowned upon uprisings from subjugated nations. From that point of view, maybe he had better just give in to the Jew’s wish.

And yet, on the other hand, Pilate’s conscience is telling him something else. This Jesus Whom the Jews hate so much, really, He has done nothing worthy of death. To condemn a man innocent of the charges laid against him, that goes against the grain of Pilate’s sense of justice. Pilate was a Roman. And the Roman’s sense of justice was highly developed. In line with what is honorable and right and according to his own conscience he cannot but declare Christ innocent and give Him His freedom. But, looking at the consequences of this dilemma, that is not such an easy thing to do.

Yes, congregation, Pilate is confronted with a choice. For Jesus or for the people. Actually it is a choice between the Lord Jesus and his own position. Jesus, or himself. Pilate must choose but he does not want to make a choice. Pilate is afraid. And so he seeks a way to escape this dilemma. All of a sudden he has found what he thinks is a solution. Yes, that’s what he will do. It had been his custom at the time of the Jewish Passover to release a prisoner. By doing so he sought to placate the Jews, seeking to keep them calm during this busy time. But now this custom will come in very handy. Pilate will allow the Jews to make the choice. He will give them the choice between Jesus and a notorious criminal, Barabbas. Yes, then he will be able to wipe his hands clean from making a choice. And surely, the Jews will choose for the Lord Jesus. Perhaps the Jewish leaders may be a little hesitant, but the people will undoubtedly choose for Christ. Pilate has no doubts about that. They will condemn a hardened criminal before sentencing a man to death who went about doing good throughout the land.

In this way, Pilate sought to deliver himself from the dilemma that confronted him. Yes, congregation, Pilate resorted to the age old way of shoving his responsibility off on someone else. He would not face his responsibility and make an honest, proper ruling concerning the Lord Jesus, no. But in a very sly, under-handed way he sought to avoid passing judgment upon the Savior. What an awful and low way of dealing with the Son of God! How does Pilate dare to do so, especially when he knows in his heart that the Lord is not worthy of death? While this is a legitimate question, let us also examine ourselves concerning this important matter. What is your and my response to the Lord and His ways? Are we often not busy trying to in one way or another to be freed from them? In certain areas of life we love ourselves so much that we will not deny ourselves for Christ and His cause. For one it is being taken up with his favorite sports teams. For another it is compulsive eating. For yet another it is their love of shopping, thus, covetousness. Yes, dear friends, we can be so busy with this and with that so that we have no time for the Lord Jesus, no time for the truth of the Gospel, no time to seek to do that which is right and which sometimes our conscience even tells us. Isn’t that true, congregation? How often do we also not allow others to make decisions and then we merely go along with the majority view, rather than rock the boat and cause a disturbance?

You know, we are so good at blame shifting. If only I had married another wife or husband. If only had received a better example during my life I would not have an inclination to this or that sin. And yet the claims of the Gospel and the truth of God’s Word remain, beloved. You and I are not able to absolve ourselves from that. Either you are with and for the Lord Jesus and all that He stands for, or, you are against Him. You cannot stand on neutral ground over against the blessed Savior. Whoever is not for Him, is against Him. Let this vital truth sink down deeply into your heart, dear friends. In the things you do, ask yourself the question, In this activity am I engaged for, or against the Lord and His cause. Really, it is one or the other. And when we have no eye for this, we are trampling under foot the rights of the Lord and His Christ. He has made us. He supplies our every need for the body, but also for the well being of our souls. God the Father spared not His Son, beloved, His only begotten Son but gave Him as a ransom price for sin. How indebted we are to Him! Let us therefore seek His grace and favor, pleading His forgiveness in this regard. Which brings us to our second thought, Pilate’s Shrewdness.

The Lord Jesus has been put as it were on par with a common criminal. See Him there, in Pilate’s judgment hall, the Praetorium. The Savior allows Himself to be dealt with in such a debasing way. He does not speak a word of protest; He does not answer one word is self defense. In verse 14 we read that Pilate marveled at this. Instead, the Savior allows Himself to be placed at the mercy of public opinion, knowing full well what the outcome will be. Let us try to understand what is going on here as the Lord Jesus is placed on trial based on public opinion. And as we do so, congregation, let us realize that we too are deeply involved. No one can absolve himself from this. The question comes to each one of us, What think ye of Christ?

Let us first of all seek to understand the standing of “the candidates” who are placed over against each other. On the one hand we have the Lord Jesus and on the other Barabbas. Who is this Barabbas? In verse 16 Matthew tells us that he is a notable prisoner. That means that he was well known; he was a notorious criminal. He was captured and put into prison when he caused an insurrection in Jerusalem with his comrades; according to Mark 15:7, he had also committed murder. And so, his political agenda was to rebel against the Romans and if possible drive them out. And no one had better get in the way of that ideal, no, not even his fellow countrymen. Barabbas was a rebel, a murderer and a bandit. It is not unlikely that he was a member of the Zealots which was a Jewish political group who sought to throw off the yoke of Rome through violence. Not seldom they operated during Feast Days, mixing in with the crowds of people and then suddenly trying to provoke insurrection by pulling out short round swords from under their cloaks. That’s the Barabbas with whom we have to do. His name means ‘son of his father’ which may mean that his father was a renown rabbi. There are even secular writings that say that his full name was Jesus Barabbas which would be even more striking. That would mean that the criminal Jesus Barabbas, son of his father, is placed over against the Lord Jesus Who was the Son of God the Father.

Well now, surely when the choice between Barabbas and the Lord Jesus is placed before the Jews they will choose for Christ! Had He not gone about through out the land healing those that were sick, making the lame to walk, giving sight to the blind and freeing those who were demon possessed? In one word, the Lord Jesus had been going about doing nothing but good! But Barabbas was an evil man, a disturber and insurrectionist, a man who cared not for anyone’s life, who was ready to kill anyone that got in his way. Surely the Jews will not choose a murderer above someone Who went about doing good? Surely the Lord Jesus had everything in His favor and Barabbas in his disfavor! Undoubtedly the Jews will make the obvious choice.

And yet, we must not mistake the evil intent of the Jewish leaders, congregation. We must not misjudge their hatred. Indeed, they did not have much pity for such trouble makers as Barabbas was, for such activities might upset their position within the nation. And yet…..they would rather have Barabbas than the Lord Jesus. How amazing! But, when we just think about, is this really so amazing, dear friends? For, had the Lord Jesus not discovered the religious leaders to their hypocrisy? Had He not called them whitewashed sepulchers who were clean on the outside but inside were full of dead man’s bones? Yes, the Lord Jesus had unmasked them for what they were. But this had not humbled them at all but had made them even more hostile.

Yes, congregation, these blind leaders of the blind hated the blessed Savior with great revulsion. That is why He must be done away with. Did Caiaphas not say that it is expedient that one man die that the nation perish not? According to the Jewish leaders the Lord Jesus must go. If it’s one or the other, then Barabbas must be allowed to go free. At least he did not disturb their conscience; he did not challenge their ways; he did not make it difficult for them. Yes, let Barabbas go and let the Lord Jesus be put to death. That is the conclusion that the blind religious leaders come to.

Do we understand the reasoning of these leaders, beloved? No, in you heart you cannot agree with them; at least I hope you see how wrong they were. But, does this inclination not live by nature is all of our hearts? The Lord Jesus must remain outside of sinners’ lives, on the periphery. The Word of God with its claims must remain away from you, at a distance. It is too uncovering you know. Sure, you will tolerate a little bit of religion. You will give some intellectual assent to some basic religious truths as long as they do not infringe upon your lives. You see, by nature we are no different than the unrepentant Jewish religious rulers. We are called to give an account unto God with all our religiosity, as those who by nature are at enmity with God. And everything that is of ours, that is of the flesh, sets itself against the Lord and His Truth. And as a result, by nature we too are inclined to choose for Barabbas rather than Christ. Then at least your conscience will be stilled. Yes, the hostility of the Pharisee lives in all of us. Isn’t that true, beloved? Let me make this clear with a simple example. If someone from the church would come into your home and criticize you because of the magazines you subscribe to and the videos and DVDs that are to be found in your home how would you react? How would you feel? Is there not a tendency to say, Mind your own business; leave me alone? Yes, congregation, we must all cast our eyes down to the ground in humble acknowledgement of our sin and our guilt. For a Pharisaical streak lives in all of us. In fact, you and I am that man, that woman who is inclined to choose for Barabbas.

Let us not misjudge the religious leaders nor the people at large. One day it is Hossanna, hosanna. Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord. But in the very same week the Hossannas are turned into, Crucify Him, crucify Him. Yes but, we are not the Jews. We have better insight into Christ’s work than they some one says. Yes, it is true, we do have more revelation concerning the Lord Jesus’ life and death and resurrection and so on. But, that does not mean that we have a vital attachment to Him and His work.

You see, congregation, a tangible hero appeals more to our senses than a Savior from sin. Although Barabbas was a scoundrel, at least he was against Rome. Wouldn’t that be wonderful if somehow he led a rebellion against the Romans. Yes, then they would be free. But the freedom spoken of by the Lord Jesus was so different, so spiritual. And that type of freedom did not appeal to the Jews at all. For, they were set in their ways and too attached to their sins. But Barabbas at least had the right ideal. Perhaps he was going about it in the wrong way, but at least he sought for the Jews’ freedom from the Roman yoke. And Christ Jesus, He basically had nothing to say about that. Instead, He said, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. In fact, when things were beginning to look like something as He was being led into Jerusalem He began to speak of His suffering and death and that His Kingdom was not of this world and things like that. Moreover, all who would enter into His Kingdom must be prepared to take up the cross and follow Him, and be ready to lose themselves. And so, with Christ as your leader you were going to be a nothing. That’s certainly not so appealing. All your and my honor must be laid aside. And that was not attractive to the crowd that was gathered in front of Pilate’s judgment hall.

Well now, in his shrewdness Pilate has placed before the Jews a choice. What will it be? Barabbas or the Lord Jesus? For whose release would you cast your ballot, dear friends? For the Lord Jesus of course, you say. But, do not speak too quickly, beloved. For He was “the man of sorrows.” And when we see Him, Isaiah said, there is no beauty in Him that we should desire Him. In Christ Jesus we become a nobody, at least to the world. That certainly is not so appealing to the flesh is it? In paradise we chose for Barabbas and all he stands for and we are inclined to do so again and again. With all our piety, we choose for the flesh again and again. And therefore we all need to be delivered from The People’s Choice, for the first time and by renewal, again and again.

Yes, congregation, if we are honest, how often do we not vacillate when it comes to our position over against God. In a crowd of people, we do not want to stick out like a sore thumb, we don’t want to be the stick in the mud. But let us realize, congregation, if the Lord Jesus means more than life to you and me, then we need to let the chips fall where they fall. Then Paul’s, Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do is not very far from us. Yes, then the loving kindness of the Lord by the grace of the Spirit means more than life to you and me. But in the mean time, how much does the Lord not suffer at the hands of sinners. That was not only so at the time of His arrest but also today, when a people called after His name bring disservice to His name and His cause.

But to get back to our text, how unspeakably deep did the Lord have to condescend in paying a ransom price for sinners. Not only was He physically beaten and set at nought, but He was held with contempt by the high court of the Romans and rejected by His fellow countrymen. That which Isaiah prophesied became reality right here, He was despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and we hid as it were our faces from Him; he was despised and we esteemed Him not. He came unto His own, and His own received Him not. He would have gathered His people as a hen gathered her chickens under her wings, and they would not! And now that unwillingness reaches its height as the multitude begins to chant, Barabbas, give us Barabbas. As for Christ, crucify him, crucify Him. And so, they have rejected the fountain of living water, congregation. But is that true only of them? What about you and me?

Yes, dear friends, that is true of the whole wide world, of the whole of humanity. We have done it, beloved. We all like sheep have gone astray; we have gone everyone to his own way. But now the amazing thing is, “And the Lord hath laid upon Him the iniquity of us all.” What an amazing thing this is. That’s how deep the Lord was called on to go, beloved. As a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so the Lord openeth not His mouth. Christ kept silence. Before Pilate, before the Sanhedrin, before the people, before His Father in heaven, the Lord remained silent, led as a lamb to the slaughter, prepared to bear the full burden of God the Father’s holy wrath against sin. And for who would He do this? For Pilates, for Barabbases, for the greatest of sinners.

Yes, dear friends, we have every reason to stand beside Pilate and Barabbas, the Sanhedrin and the Jewish people. We are no better. But, beside such a sinner as Barabbas, beside a murderer? Yes, beside such a one as that. Before we protest any more let us realize, congregation, as Christ said during his ministry if any say, Raca, to his brother, meaning, vain fellow, or fool, he is in danger of being condemned to death and to even experience the torments of hell. We do not have to be guilty of putting another person actually to death and still be guilty of murder. You know the saying, “If only looks could kill.” If vengeful thoughts were turned into actions, how terrible that would be! And therefore, yes, we are all murderers, you and I. Worst of all, we have put the Lord of glory to death by our sins. We have driven the nails into His hands and feet by our iniquities. That means then that we are worthy of eternal death.

Barabbas and the Lord Jesus. Placed over against each other because of Pilate’s weakness. When Pilate sees that nothing will avail against a hostile crowd he tries to wash his hands from the matter in full view, declaring, I am innocent of the blood of this just person. And then Barabbas is given his release while the Lord Jesus is first scourged and then delivered up to His accusers to be crucified. Yes, congregation, a wondrous duo, Barabbas and the Lord Jesus. And……Christ is condemned while a sinner of the first degree goes free. While the Lord God used His agents, this was all directed by God the Father. For Christ has placed Himself on this duo with His people. In eternity already He declared, I come to do Thy will oh Father; Thy Law is within My heart. And in the fullness of time He allows His Father to make the choice. Not My will, but Thy will be done. And so the blessed Savior went the way of judgment and condemnation. He laid down His life; He suffered, the Just for the unjust, that sinners as we all are might be brought nigh unto our Creator and God. Oh, what a miracle of grace when the Holy Spirit changes the heart of a poor and needy sinner so that his cry for Christ’s death is changed to a sigh and a heartfelt cry, Lord, have mercy. Lord Jesus forgive. Hear my cry, O God. And the longing is born in the heart, Give me Jesus else I die. Yes, then is experienced, we love Him because He has loved us first, even with an eternal love. Then, full of holy wonder and amazement we bow deeply in the dust for God’s unspeakable gift, for such a wretch as me. Oh thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift. Is that also your only hope and comfort, beloved?


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