This morning we look how the Heidelberg Catechism describes the suffering of Jesus. One of the elements that intrigues me about Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion is the crowd’s reaction. Within a matter of days, Jesus is jeered instead of cheered by the people. As the “Hosannas” from the Triumphal Entry die away, the cry “Crucify Him” erupts. How could such a change happen so quickly?
As Pilate looks at Jesus, he asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” It was clear to Pilate that Jesus was no rebel leader, no terrorist. This was no king! Jesus had no army to begin a revolt against Rome and so Pilate is very skeptical. Jesus’ answer, “Yes, it is as you say,” is more accurately, “You are saying it.” A simple “yes” would have led Pilate to understand that Jesus was admitting to be the rebel leader he was accused of being. On the other hand, by saying “no” Jesus would be denying the truth. For Jesus is indeed a king, in fact, the king.
Let’s pause to reflect for a moment on what Jesus’ admission to be king means for us. Jesus was not the kind of king that the people were looking for. They wanted a king who would restore the nation of Israel once again. However, Jesus was the king they should have been looking for. Jesus, as king, would lead the people to receive God’s spiritual blessings again. But the people were looking for a king that they wanted, not what they needed.
We too have to be careful as to what kind of king we want Jesus to be. Some want Jesus to be a political king who will make our nation morally strong. Some want Jesus to be a king in a way that is purely for their personal benefit. Rodney Clapp writes: “A noted Western philosopher was one day sitting on a log when he heard a buzzing sound. He was puzzled and fell to pondering. The philosopher reasoned along the following lines. “‘If there’s a buzzing noise, somebody’s making a buzzing noise, and the only reason for making a buzzing noise that I know of is because you’re a bee.’ Then he thought another long time, and said: ‘And the only reason for being a bee that I know of is making honey.’
After Jesus says that he is king, verse 12 says that the Jewish leaders rattle off charge after charge, becoming desperate to find something that would be worthy of death in Pilate’s eyes. While they are doing this, Jesus doesn’t dignify their charges with any kind of defense. That, however, left Pilate in a very difficult position as we see in verse 13. In the Roman system of justice, if the accused made no defense, it was understood as an admission of guilt. Pilate didn’t believe Jesus was guilty, but the last thing Jesus said was closer to a “yes” than a “no” as far as Jesus being king was concerned. And so as a result we read that Pilate was greatly amazed. Jesus was clearly not guilty, yet he wasn’t denying that he was a king! That is the first point that Matthew wants his readers to see: Jesus is King!
Throughout this trial, Pilate is trying to keep peace but is also trying very hard to have Jesus released because he is convinced that Jesus is innocent. In verses 15-17 we see that by now a crowd had gathered to see what was happening. At the Passover, the people could ask for one person to be released from prison. The Roman governor would release this person as a sign of good will. Verses 17-18 relate that in this case, Pilate suggests that the people consider Barabbas. Barabbas was a rebel leader who had murdered someone during an uprising. He was a violent man and a known criminal.
Pilate knew that the leaders simply wanted to get rid of Jesus because they were envious of the large crowds following Jesus. But Pilate believed that the general population would choose Jesus over Barabbas. They would surely choose a popular, non-violent, innocent man over a killer. Pilate is so convinced of Jesus’ innocence that he goes to great lengths to release Him. Jesus’ innocence is also seen in Pilate’s wife’s testimony in verse 19. During the trial, Pilate’s wife sends a message to Pilate: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” Matthew includes this to again underscore Jesus’ innocence for even this pagan ruler’s wife can see it.
Why does Matthew want to emphasize that Jesus was innocent? The Old Testament required that a sacrifice for sin had to be perfect, without blemish. If Jesus had sinned, he couldn’t be the substitute for us; then he would have died for his own sin. But because he is completely innocent, he is able to bear all the sins of the whole world. Jesus, though he was innocent, took the place we deserved and he died for us.
In the early 1800's a young man did not want to serve in Napoleon Bonaparte’s army. When he was drafted, a friend volunteered to go in his place. The substitution was made, and some time later the man’s friend was killed in battle. The same young man was, through a clerical error, drafted again. “You can’t take me” he told the officers. “I’m dead. I died on the battlefield.” They argued that they could see him standing right in front of them, but he insisted they look on the roll to find the record of his death. And there on the roll was the man’s name, with another name written beside it. The case finally went to the emperor himself. After examining the evidence, Napoleon said, “Through a surrogate, this man has not only fought, but has died in his country’s service. No man can die more than once; therefore the law has no claim on him.”
Jesus, the innocent one willingly died for us and God’s judgment has no claim on us. This is what question and answer 38 states very clearly. Question: “Why did he suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge?” Answer: “So that he, though innocent, might be condemned by a civil judge, and so free us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us.” That is what we see even more clearly in the next section.
III. Even though Jesus was innocent, yet he was still condemned for us.
During this time, as we see in verse 20, the Jewish leaders had been working the crowd, convincing the people to ask for Barabbas instead of Jesus. They may have been telling them that they more of a chance to get rid of the Romans with Barabbas than with Jesus. In verse 21, Pilate lays the choice out before them once again: Barabbas or Jesus? Based on Jesus’ popularity from the Triumphal Entry the Sunday before, Pilate was fully expecting the crowd to ask for Jesus. Imagine his shock when the crowd all shouted together for Barabbas. Pilate, in verses 22-23, asks if they are sure they understand what they are doing. Surely they would want to save their Messiah rather than a known murderer. But the crowd now passionately cries out, “Crucify him!” Pilate asks what Jesus has done, implying that Jesus is completely innocent. However, the mob irrationally kept on shouting “Crucify him!” The people simply would not accept Jesus as their Messiah but God did not give up.
For in fact, this is exactly what God intended to happen. Although Matthew doesn’t quote Isaiah 53, it certainly describes Jesus. Think of how the crowd treated Jesus and listen to Isaiah 53:2 - “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” Think of Jesus’ silence and listen to Isaiah 53:7 - “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” In fact, it was God’s plan to use this fiasco of justice to make everything right.
IV. So who bears the responsibility for Jesus’ death?
Pilate tries to avoid the responsibility in verse 24 by washing his hands. He tried to shift the blame from himself to the people, but because he knew Jesus was innocent, he should have simply released Jesus. He is guilty of Jesus’ death for he turned Jesus over to be killed. However, the people as well are certainly guilty as we see in verses 24-25. “All the people answered, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’” Theirs is a chilling acceptance of responsibility for killing Jesus.
However, we must remember that Jesus’ blood is on us as well. The fact remains that we bear the responsibility for the death of Jesus. Why? Isaiah 53:6 gives the answer - “We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Jesus suffered this horrible injustice to bring us forgiveness. This is the purpose of Jesus’ suffering as we see in Question and Answer 37. Question: “What do you understand by the word suffered?” Answer: “That during his whole life on earth, but especially at the end, Christ sustained in body and soul the anger of God against the sin of the whole human race. This he did in order that, by his suffering as the only atoning sacrifice, he might set us free, body and soul, from eternal condemnation, and gain for us God’s grace, righteousness and eternal life.” Jesus died so that we would be free from death and then receive our eternal life.
Yet, in a certain sense, we make the same choice as the people in the crowd. The people faced a choice that day: temporary help or the help they really needed. We often chose the king of material gain over serving King Jesus. How many times don’t we wish for power instead of humble service? But if we say that Jesus is our king we must realize what it means.
C. S. Lewis writes: “The Christian way is different: harder, and easier. Christ says “Give me all. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked -- the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.” Jesus is our King and if we are going to submit to him as King, it means we accept what he does without question and serve him whole-heartedly and joyfully.