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A Death Sentence


John 19:1-16a

Ladies & gentlemen of the jury, I submit to you that the case against the accused is undeniable. The case has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. The only verdict possible is “guilty!” And the only appropriate sentence is death. Yes, I am asking you to render a death sentence against the accused.

In the first case, the accused were given many opportunities to change their ways, to change their beliefs, & to follow the way of Christ. On numerous occasions, Jesus tried to open their eyes to what God was doing in their midst. He openly confessed to being God in the flesh, but they would have none of it. They were too stuck in their ways, too entrenched in their power structures, too narrow-minded to allow the truth found in Jesus to change their minds & ways. And so they stand before you today guilty!

Here, given one last chance to amend their ways, they refuse. Rather than professing faith in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God, they shout, Crucify! Pilate put the crucial question to them, Do you want me to crucify your king? The chief priests, in their zeal to destroy Jesus, denied the very God in whom their lives were grounded.

Those who come to God through Jesus are not judged, but given eternal life. Those who reject the offer of God in Jesus are already judged because they have closed themselves off from God. In rejecting Jesus as king, the Jewish leaders have rejected God, & so they are already judged. I’m simply asking you to confirm the punishment.

Through their own words & their rejection of Jesus, the Jewish leaders have judged themselves. They were offered salvation & invited into the presence of God, but they chose condemnation instead. They heard Jesus’ words but did not keep them. The chief priests have, in fact, lost everything.

There is no joy to be found here. It is a moment of sheer loss, the impact of which echoes still today. The Jewish leaders disclaimed their God; who could rejoice? The death of Jesus is not the tragedy; the Jewish leader’s loss of their relationship with God is. The key decision to be made by everyone is the acceptance or rejection of God in Jesus. And it is clear what the chief priest’s decision is. The only penalty you can choose is death.

Our other defendant, Pilate, is no better. Although not given as many opportunities, for as long a time period, as the Jewish leadership, this man too chose to reject Jesus, & therefore reject God.

Pilate’s exchanges with Jesus are painful to hear. They bring to mind Jesus’ words of John 12:48: Whoever rejects me & doesn’t receive my words will be judged at the last day by the word I have spoken. Pilate’s question, What is truth? signaled his rejection of Jesus & his words. When Pilate handed Jesus over to be crucified, he put into action the rejection that characterized his response to Jesus throughout his trial. In truth, Pilate never heard Jesus; he never listened to Jesus’ voice.

The word that Jesus has spoken stands as judge, because it is Jesus’ word that has shown the limits of Pilate’s judgment, power, & authority. Pilate attempts to exercise power & authority over Jesus, but instead, Pilate’s power & authority are diminished. His questions & responses to Jesus show his distance from any true command of power, authority, & truth. Jesus’ trial has shown us a ruler with all the accoutrements of power & office, with the legal authority to take away life, but who nonetheless stands powerless in the face of true power, authority, & life. Jesus testifies to the truth; Pilate looked to political expedience. The power of this ruler of the world is exposed as empty.

Let me be clear: Pilate is not a victim in this trial, nor is he a hapless innocent, maneuvered by Jewish leaders. Pilate is a man, like so many others, to whom Jesus speaks the truth about God & himself. Pilate was given his opportunity to make his decision about Jesus – not his legal decision, but his theological decision. By speaking the truth to Pilate, Jesus put Pilate on trial. Pilate was asked to decide whether he would receive Jesus’ word, whether he would identify himself with those who have God’s love in them, or whether he would turn his back on God.

Pilate’s encounter with & rejection of Jesus are quite clear; Pilate both receives Jesus’ witness & rejects it & him in this trial. In his rejection, Pilate reveals who he is, that he loves the darkness more than the light, that he belongs to those who reject the revelation of God in Jesus. Therefore, only one sentence is appropriate. Death.

From the perspective of the participants in our Scripture, Jesus plays 2 roles: the accused, on whom a verdict is to be rendered, & the mocked & humiliated “king,” the object of derision & scorn. From John’s perspective, Jesus also plays 2 roles in this passage: the end-time judge & the good shepherd-king. At the end of the trial, when Jesus is handed over to be crucified, Pilate & the Jewish leaders think that the moment of judgment on Jesus has finally arrived, that his “kingship” has come to an end. But Jesus is not the one being judged; they are. It is not the end of Jesus’ kingship, but the prelude to his exaltation & “enthronement” on the cross.

The end of the trial is a tragedy for Jesus’ enemies, because they have turned their backs decisively & absolutely on Jesus’ gift of eternal life, of his gift of the love of God, but it is not a tragedy for Jesus. John 12:27 tells us that Jesus said, this is the reason I have come to this time. The trial before Pilate shows us clearly the love of God incarnate in Jesus, flinching neither from testifying to the truth nor from laying down his life. The trial, like the crucifixion which will follow, does not represent defeat for Jesus, because it sets up the moment of glorification. I am not trying to minimize the reality of Jesus’ death, but the trial & crucifixion are but a part of the story. To understand the death of Jesus, we must recognize that the man who died on the cross was the loving shepherd, the witnessing judge, & the incarnate Word who did not hesitate in laying down his life for those he loved.

And just as the chief priests, Pilate, & the disciples had to come to a decision – whether to accept Jesus as God’s revelation in the flesh or not – so too each of us must decide. I hope your time today in the jury box will give you an opportunity (or another opportunity) to decide for yourself. Is Jesus the Messiah, the good shepherd, the Son of God, the bread of life, the Savior of the world, the Savior of your soul? Or is he not? Only you can decide.

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