This year at St. Peter our Lenten midweek services will look at Jesus’ journey to the cross from the eyes of those who witnessed and participated in those events. Their testimony concerning Jesus, His identity, and His work—testimony sometimes given against the will of those who testified—speaks a profound word concerning the salvation Christ died to win for us.
Pontius Pilate: “I find no fault in Him.”
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jesus of Nazareth was on trial for His life. The religious leaders of Israel had convicted Him in their court as a blasphemer, a crime worthy of death, according to their selfish and evil standards; but because they were a conquered people, the Jews lacked the authority to carry out the death sentence they desired. So they petitioned the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to carry out that sentence for them. Pilate heard their charges against Jesus, and he focused on the one that could possibly have mattered to Roman interests: the charge that Jesus claimed to be a king. Jesus testified that He was, indeed, a king, but that His kingdom was not of this world. Instead He came to bear witness to the truth. He testified that everyone who cherishes and holds to the truth would listen to Him. Pilate’s response set the tone for everything that would follow. He asked, “What is truth?”
You see, Pilate knew the truth concerning Jesus. This wasn’t an earth-shaking confession such as Peter made when he said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Nevertheless, Pilate spoke the truth about Jesus when he said, “I find no fault in Him at all.” This was the bare-bones truth. Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against Him by the Jewish authorities, and Pilate was fully aware of that fact. But what could that mean to a man who asked, “What is truth?” In a sense, Pontius Pilate is the father of what we call post-modernism, an ideology that says reality is relative and depends on who the interested parties are and what their interest is. You see, Pilate knew the truth, but he didn’t let that get in the way of what he believed is in his own best interest. The trial against Jesus should have ended then and there, the moment he ruled that Jesus was innocent of the charges. It had already gone on longer than it should have. There was no case, no cause for criminal procedure. With all his authority as Caesar’s representative in this region, Pilate should have released Jesus without hesitation.
But Pilate was a weak man, a coward. Though he carried the emperor’s authority with him and he had the backing of the local Roman cohort, he was afraid of an insurrection during his watch—especially since the Jews were gathered in Jerusalem in greater concentration than usual because of annual observance of the Passover. A rebellion during the festival had the potential to be deadly—not only for the soldiers under his command, but also to his career. So in order to keep the peace in Jerusalem and appear powerful and merciful at the same time, he offered the crowd a choice between the just and innocent Jesus, whom he called “the King of the Jews”, and Barabbas, called a robber by John and an insurrectionist and murderer by Mark. Perhaps he was surprised when the crowd shouted for Barabbas. But because he was weak and allowed his heathen reasoning to rule him, he had no choice but to let an innocent man face a punishment he did not deserve. Pilate heard the truth, but he was not interested in the truth, nor did he belong to it.
Truth is a precious gift of God, but it is a gift that is often unwelcome, a gift that comes under constant attack. Do you belong to the truth? Do you hear and cling to the voice of Christ? It is not easy to walk in the way of truth. You know this all too well. Be angry at Pilate if you must, but do not ignore the truth. The truth is, God is a just and jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Him. The truth is, you are as responsible for Christ’s crucifixion as Pilate. You are as responsible as if you had brought the false accusation against Jesus. You are just as responsible as if you had cried out for Barabbas. You are as responsible as if you had ignored the truth of the innocence of Jesus and surrendered Him yourself into the hands of sinful men with selfish and evil motives. You bear the curse of sin, inherited from your first parents Adam and Eve. With them, you look for some kind of greater truth that what God has revealed to you in His Word. You look for the truth in the treasures of this world. You look for the truth from fellow sinners. You live in a world that denies that there is objective truth; a world that denies that there is a universal right or wrong; a world that says that what is right for you may not be right for me; a world that says what Christ calls “sin” is the product of the time in which Jesus lived, and if He lived today He would say something different—and it’s so easy to buy into the “wisdom” of the world. With Pilate you have heard the Word of truth, but in the imagination of your hearts, deluded by your own self-interests, you ignore the voice of truth, the Word of God, to pursue your own sinful desires. Jesus, the innocent King of the Jews, the Son of God, is the voice of truth. That should be truth enough.
And if that truth is not enough, then listen to this truth: On the cross, Jesus suffered the wrath of God which your sin deserved. Ultimately, the cross is not the result of vengeful Jewish chief priests or misguided former disciples or cowardly Roman governors. Even though they acted in selfish and sinful ways, they are just acting as God’s instruments to bring the innocent, faultless Christ to the cross. God is at work behind their actions to carry out His judgment against your sin and the sin of the whole world upon His Son. The cross is the result of God’s great love for you, the people He created. The cross is not a victory for the chief priests and the leaders of Israel. It is not a victory for Pontius Pilate. It is not even a victory for the devil or the world, though this world’s prince and those who belong in his domain may delight in the suffering of Jesus. The cross is Christ’s victory: victory over the devil’s temptation to save Himself, victory over the satanic desires of the chief priests, but most especially victory over the sin whose wages would condemn us everlasting death. The innocent, sinless Son of God bore that sin to the cross, dying the death your sin earned for you. Through Baptism you died that death with Him; and because the innocent Son of God died that death for you, through Baptism you are raised up with Him.
The truth is, Jesus is the innocent, sinless Son of God. The truth is, through Holy Baptism, your sin becomes His burden, and His righteousness becomes Your innocence before God. When the world asks you, “What is truth?” your answer becomes, “Jesus is the truth.” Cling to the Truth, for in Him you have abundant life. In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.
And the hymn that goes with it:
As Strode the Christ to Cross and Grave
1. As strode the Christ to cross and grave,
To bear all men’s transgression,
Men saw His mighty pow’r to save
And of Him made confession.
Hail, Jesus, David's greater Son,
Who, in His love, heals everyone,
Delivering God's mercy.
4. Pilate before the priests proclaimed,
"I find no fault in Jesus."
All said, who should be greatly shamed,
"Naught but His death appease us."
Still, Pilate knew His innocence.
He gave up Christ at truth's expense.
Thus death became the judgment.
6. "Truly this man was God's own Son,"
The soldiers said in wonder,
As death's fierce power was undone,
The veil now torn asunder.
May we, with those who saw, believe
The saving work which Christ achieved
For us and our salvation.
Tune: AUS TIEFER NOT (LSB 607)