Sermon – Wednesday, March 24, 2021 – Midweek 6

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Midweek 6 Sermon  ~  March 24, 2021  ~  Pastor Myrl Wagenknecht

Hands of Self-Preservation (Pilate)

15Now it was the governor’s custom at the festival to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. 16At that time they had a well-known prisoner whose name was Jesus Barabbas. 17So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” 18For he knew it was out of self-interest that they had handed Jesus over to him. 19While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” 20But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. 21“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered. 22“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” 23“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” 24When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” 25All the people answered, “His blood is on us and on our children!” 26Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. – Matthew 27:15-26

You know a lot about Pontius Pilate. You say his name every time you confess the Apostles’ Creed – “Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate.” What do you know about his hands? Most likely you think about how Pontius Pilate washed his hands saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.”  Tonight I want to tell you ten things about Pilate’s hands to show that they are HANDS OF SELF-PRESERVATION.

Sometime after Christ’s resurrection, Peter and John healed a lame man who had been lying outside the temple in Solomon’s Colonnade. When his leaping and singing praises gathered a crowd, Peter addressed them, and accused them of crucifying Jesus. He said: “You are guilty of killing the One who made this miracle possible. You disowned Jesus. You shouted for him to be crucified. You handed Jesus over to Pilate to be crucified, though he had decided to let him go” (Acts 3:13).  Pilate had decided in his mind to release Jesus. Peter said these words: “The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go” (Acts 3:13). 

Our text from Matthew 27:15-26 tells us of Pilate’s involvement in the Passion. So you are familiar with Pontius Pilate and his hands. We will see that Pilate did many different things on Good Friday, but there is one thing he didn’t do. He didn’t release Jesus. Instead of letting Jesus go even though he was convinced that Jesus was innocent and that he had decided to let him go, he gave in to the enemies of Jesus. Under pressure he capitulated. He compromised his integrity. He was concerned with self-preservation.

What happened? What made Pilate change his mind? Where did he go wrong, and how did he try to preserve his judicial integrity? The Romans were famous for their legal system, and judges were also judged on their honesty. Pilate knew what was at stake in this trial of the famous rabbi from Jerusalem. He knew the political pressure that the Chief Priest could use against him. All four gospels share details about the interaction between the King of the Jews and the governor of Judea, but only Matthew mentions something Pilate did before he handed Jesus over to be crucified. To protect his position, to proclaim his innocence, Pilate washed his hands. We will call these Hands of Self-Preservation

Pilate had ten good reasons to release Jesus.

#1) When Pilate first met him, Jesus said nothing. The chief priest and elders were accusing him of anything and everything, but Jesus said nothing. He didn’t protest his innocence. He didn’t plead for mercy. He didn’t say a word in his own defense, and Pilate was amazed.

#2) Jesus did open up when the two men were alone, and the things he said made an even deeper impression on Pilate. “My kingdom is not of this world….the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth….you would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (John 18:36,37; 19:11). No one spoke to the Roman governor like that. Come to think of it, no normal person ever spoke like that. And Pilate was beginning to realize that this man was no ordinary human being.

#3) If Pilate found those statements a bit unsettling, imagine how he felt when he received that message from his wife. She couldn’t wait for him to come home. She didn’t need anyone to interpret her dream because the meaning was clear. Don’t get involved with that man. Don’t have anything to do with that righteous man (if he did, he would regret it).

#4) Pilate was a well-educated politician. He didn’t get to his position by being naïve and easy to manipulate. He could see what the Jewish leaders were trying to do. He knew that they were jealous of what Jesus had become. Pilate was convinced that Jesus was no criminal.

#5) After weighing all the testimony, after examining all the evidence, it should have been an open-and-shut case. Pilate should have set Jesus free and sent the Jewish leaders home. But he didn’t. Pilate didn’t want to touch this political hot potato, so he tried to pass the buck. First, he told the chief priests that if he was guilty of blasphemy, to judge Jesus according to their own law.

#6) When that didn’t work, he sent Jesus to Herod, hoping that a Jewish court would handle the case. That didn’t work either. Herod said that he found no fault in Jesus.

#7) Pilate was running out of options, at least any options that would allow him to protect the innocent and protect his position at the same time. His last and best chance was a Passover custom to release a prisoner chosen by the people. To make the choice obvious, Pilate proposed two men: Jesus and a notorious prisoner named Barabbas. Barabbas was a criminal, guilty of rebellion and murder. He was so bad that he would make anyone else look good. At least that’s what Pilate was hoping. But Pilate’s plan backfired when the chief priests and elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas’ release.

#8) Pilate must have been stunned as he watched his foolproof plan fall apart. Pilate must have been at a loss for other words when these desperate words came out of his mouth, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” (verse 22). Then Pilate had Jesus scourged and brought him out bloodied and crowned with thorns hoping to evoke some sympathy pointing to Jesus and saying, “Behold! The man!” But the crowd immediately called for his crucifixion. And when Pilate tried to reason with them, it was too late. They kept shouting, “Crucify him!” (verse 23). Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!

Pilate was responsible for keeping the peace, but his attempts to free Jesus had almost started a riot. He needed to do something. He needed to decide: “Do I do what I know is right, or do I do what I think is best for me?” Self-preservation was his only concern.

#9) In the end, Pilate chose himself over Jesus. He sentenced the world’s only truly innocent man to die, while maintaining his own supposed innocence in the process. “He took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’” (verse 24).

Pilate as the Roman governor in the occupied land of Israel was the law of the land. Pilate was the only person who could authorize Jesus’ execution. In spite of his claims to the contrary, Pilate was responsible, and history has held him responsible. Two thousand years later our creeds still confess that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.” No amount of water or public washings will ever make those guilty hands clean.

It was bad justice that Pilate condemned an innocent man. He condemned the sinless Son of God. It was bad enough that Pilate blatantly disregarded justice. What made his actions even worse was that he did everything for his own self-preservation. Pilate was a pagan, and his actions prove that protecting his own power and authority was more important to him than anything else. In the final analysis, an unbeliever acted like an unbeliever. We shouldn’t be surprised by that. In fact, we should probably expect that. What is a greater concern is when people who know better, people who know Jesus, people who call themselves Christians, follow Pilate’s example. They hang their hands in silence.

In the safety of this sanctuary, surrounded by fellow saints, it is easy to sing God’s praises, but out there in the world, it is a different story. When we are with our coworkers or classmates, when we get together with a group of our friends, not all of them are Christians; and some of them can be pretty outspoken. They aren’t afraid to question what we believe. Sometimes they even make fun of us for what we believe.

When we find ourselves in those situations, we know we should say something; but how often have we said nothing? It is an act of self-preservation. After the opportunity has passed, when we have time to think about it, and are feeling guilty about it, we might try to come up with excuses for our silence: “It wasn’t the right time…I didn’t want to get into an argument…I don’t want to lose my friends…I don’t want to lose my job.” We have no excuse and when Jesus declares, “Whoever denies me before others, I will also deny before my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 10:33 EHV), we have to realize that those condemning words are aimed at us. How about boldly confessing, “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.” Witness to the power of the cross in your life.

Pilate didn’t do what he could have, and should have, done on Good Friday, but he wasn’t the only person on the Stone Pavement who was in a position to take action. Jesus could have come to his own defense. Jesus could have called down legions of angels to destroy his enemies. Jesus possessed the divine power to do everything Pilate failed to do and more, but he chose not to use it. He could have raised his hands in self-preservation, but instead he lowered his hands in submission. Jesus allowed his enemies to arrest him. He allowed the soldiers to mistreat him and humiliate him. He allowed a crooked court to convict him and a weak judge to wash his hands of him. He allowed himself to be numbered among the transgressors to fulfill prophecy and to pay for the world’s sins. Jesus allowed his own life to be taken as the atoning sacrifice that allows us to live in his presence forever. Praise God! “He has for all a full atonement made.” CW376, stanza 4

#10) We have been looking at all the things Pontius Pilate didn’t do, but he did do one thing on Good Friday that could be considered positive. When Jesus was crucified, Pilate had a notice fastened to the top of his cross that read “THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Matthew 27:37). We don’t know what Pilate meant by that. Was he tweaking the beard of the chief priest? Was he making a final statement to that crowd that yelled for the crucifixion? Was there a part of Pilate that wanted to believe that? Probably it was just one more attempt at self-preservation.

We believe what Pilate’s hands put on that sign. We believe that Jesus is the King. We believe that Jesus is our King. Our King’s rule extends all around the world, and yet his kingdom is not of this world. His rule is primarily spiritual. He claimed us to be his own through the washing of rebirth. He rules in our hearts through the faith he created on the day of our baptism. And the gracious way Jesus loves us and leads us, moves us. As his humble, grateful subjects, we offer our hands to serve him. We eagerly seek out opportunities to serve him. As we pray for his kingdom to come and his will to be done on earth, we look forward to the day when we will enter his Kingdom in heaven.

Before our Savior-King we confess: “Nothing in my hands I bring; Simply to thy cross I cling.” Amen.