This year during the Lenten season we have been looking at events and conversations in the life of Jesus on his way to the cross. The cross was the ultimate point of conflict between the kingdoms of this world and the new kingdom which Jesus had come to inaugurate. The kingdoms of this world, with their top-down, violence-based, power-driven, what’s-in-it-for-me ways of doing things, and the kingdom of God with its upside-down, others-first, get-to-the-back-of-the-line-if-you-want-to-lead way of doing things.
Previously we saw Jesus and his disciples entering Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. The whole city was abuzz, not only because of the celebration of Passover but also because of the expectation that things would be different this year and that at some point Jesus would declare himself Messiah. The religious leaders, who represented the kingdoms of this world par excellence, were watching Jesus. By this point they had given up on trying to trip Jesus up in his speech and thereby turn the crowd against him. At one point one of them blurted out in a meeting, “See, this is getting us nowhere!!!!! Look how the whole world has gone after him!!!!!” Their only hope was to somehow get Jesus separated from the crowd and then move in and arrest him and have him executed.
Jesus and his disciples found a secure, out-of-the-way place to celebrate Passover. So much went on that night. Jesus declared to his disciples that he had come to establish a new covenant, one that would fulfill the covenant with Abraham and replace the covenant with Moses. He gave them the terms and conditions of this covenant; all covenants have them. There weren’t 600-plus, there weren’t ten or even two. There was only one: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The evening started with Jesus saying that from then on when they celebrated Passover they would not remember Moses and the deliverance from Egypt but instead they would remember him. The bread was his body and the wine was his blood. The disciples had no categories for any of this.
As the night wore on it became evident that something was up, but Jesus wasn’t. He seemed…worried. And where was Judas? Shouldn’t he have been back by now? After the supper Jesus gets up and says let’s leave. They went to Gethsemane, an urban garden in the middle of the city where they had been many times. They went at night so they wouldn’t be recognized or disturbed. They went into the garden and Jesus instructed the disciples to wait and pray. Then he went further in. There he prayed that agonizing prayer: Father, you and I both know that if it were up to me I would choose another way, but not my will but yours be done. He went back to check on the disciples and they are sound asleep. Could you not even stay awake and pray with me for an hour? he asked.
Then Judas returned. But he wasn’t alone. Judas knew better than the disciples where this Jesus thing was going, and he didn’t want any part of it. So he decided to “unfollow” Jesus, but he wanted a little something at least for his trouble. So he went to the chief priests and for a price arranged to hand Jesus over at an opportune time. And now here he was, with a small army of temple henchmen. And to the shock and dismay of everyone present, Jesus surrendered to them. The disciples deserted and fled.
The story continues. Jesus is brought to the high priest’s house. All the chief priests, elders, and teachers of the law are there, crammed into that building. They had never before been able to get this close to Jesus, and this was their chance. They were curious, and emboldened. Many testified falsely against Jesus but their statements didn’t line up. They would ask Jesus a direct question but he wouldn’t answer.
Finally the high priest has had enough. He stands up and asks the one question that goes right to the heart of the matter. Answer this one incorrectly and it’s all the evidence they need to crucify Jesus. He asks: Are you the Messiah? Jesus answered: I am. The chief priests and high priest tore their robes. In ancient times, this was a gesture of complete and utter anguish, dismay, and lament. There it is, they said. You have heard the blasphemy with your own ears. We don’t need any more of this. He is deserving of death. The temple guards stepped in, bound him, blindfolded him and beat him. The priests and leaders spent the rest of the night discussing next steps and where to go from there. In all likelihood Jesus go no sleep that night.
Very early in the morning they came up with a plan. They were going to take Jesus to Pilate. Why? Because they had determined their sentence but they needed Rome to carry it out. If all went properly they could get it done early in the day, give the city time to settle down and the people time to give up on their messianic hopes and dreams, and go on and celebrate Passover with everything exactly as it was before. They hoped to have it all done by sundown, at which time the Passover would start.
Now Pilate had been in place for about seven years. He ruled over Judea and Samaria. If you know anything about Pilate you know that he hated the Jews and hated Jerusalem. He had a palace down by the coast, and that was where he spent most of his time. He only came to Jerusalem during festivals, to keep the peace. He got his kicks out of antagonizing the Jewish leaders and reminding them that they were subjects of Rome. He reveled in their groveling whenever they had anything to ask of him.
So it was early morning and the Jewish leaders were out on Pilate’s doorstep with Jesus in tow. Now they did not want to go into Pilate’s palace, and thereby defile themselves ceremonially by being under the same roof as a Gentile on the day they were supposed to preside over the Passover celebration. They had gone through an elaborate series of ceremonial washings to prepare themselves to celebrate the Passover, and if they passed over the threshold of a Gentile’s residence they would become unclean and have to start all over from scratch with the ceremonial washings, and there just wasn’t time for all that. Note the hypocrisy here: They are about to commit murder by insisting that an innocent man be put to death, but they haven’t entered a Gentile’s house so it’s all good.
So Pilate goes out to meet them because he has no other choice. What is this man doing here? he asks. They have a prepared statement: Pilate, if he were not a criminal we would not have handed him over to you. Translation: Don’t get bogged down in the details here. We need a favor. We wouldn’t be here–on the eve of Passover no less–if this wasn’t important.
Pilate lives for this. He wants to hear the Jewish leaders acknowledge that Rome is sovereign over their rebel state. So he eggs them on: Go ahead. Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law. Oh wait…you don’t have the power to impose your own laws. What a pity.
But Pilate isn’t done. He rubs the Jewish leaders’ noses in it even more by going back inside, knowing they wouldn’t follow–they’re too good for that. He takes Jesus inside with him.
Back outside the Jewish leaders are sweating bullets. Jesus, one-on-one with Pilate…no telling how that will end up. He has already swayed the nation, what’s to stop him from swaying Pilate? This was the flaw in their plan: They wouldn’t go inside with Pilate–they were too good for that–but Jesus would. He didn’t mind going under the same roof as a Gentile. That was part of the problem, in fact: Jesus was always hanging out with the wrong sorts of people.
Pilate goes right to the heart of the matter. Are you the king of the Jews? he asks. He had heard the rumors. He had heard about the parade. He had heard the crowds and the commotion. He had heard the reports from his soldiers that the city was on the verge of a riot. All because that rabbi from Galilee was coming to Jerusalem for Passover. This is Pilate’s big chance to ask his question.
Jesus responds: Is that your idea? Or did others talk to you about me? Yes I am a king, but my kingdom is not of this world, not like the kingdoms of this world. If it were, my subjects would be in arms right this very moment, trying to get me out of here. You know how this plays out because you’ve seen it a million times before: If my kingdom were of this world I would out-Rome Rome. I would play by your rules. I would use force, because that’s the way of things. But my kingdom is not like yours, or anything else in this world. Ah, says Pilate, so you are a king? At least we’ve got that straight.
So Pilate goes back out: I find no basis for a charge against this man. But they insist: He stirs up the people and causes trouble all over the city. One of them blurted out: He started in Galilee and now here he is. At which point all the others are groaning because they had agreed in advance not to bring up Galilee. Ah, says Pilate. So he is a Galilean? Not my problem. You’re wasting your time. Take him to Herod.
Now this Herod was the son of Herod the Great, the Herod who thirty years earlier had murdered all the kids two years old and younger in the area because he didn’t want any of them growing up to become king and take his throne. When Herod died his kingdom fell to his sons, and this son got Galilee. Now this Herod happened to be in Jerusalem, up for the Passover. Lucky break there.
So they take him to Herod, and Herod is thrilled. Like so many others he had heard the rumors about Jesus but had never been able to get close. So he brings Jesus in and asks him questions but Jesus won’t answer. He asks Jesus to do some tricks but he won’t. Herod is fed up, so he sends Jesus back to Pilate.
Pilate says: You said he is inciting the people to riot. I don’t see any riot, and neither do you. I find no basis for a charge against him. Neither does Herod, because he sent him back here. But just to appease you, just to get you off my front lawn so we can celebrate Passover, I will punish him and then release him.
True to his word, Pilate had Jesus flogged. They tied him up with his hands stretched overhead as far as they would go. Two Roman soldiers took turns, using a special kind of whip with leather cords and fragments of bone and other shrapnel embedded into the ends. They would count. Even the Romans had rules about flogging. It was just that gruesome. The whip would rip layer after layer of skin from the victim’s back and from his stomach, because the cords would wrap around. People died from flogging. People died from the resulting infections.
Next the soldiers placed a crown of thorns on his head, and a purple robe on his back–his beaten, raw, bloody back. Again and again they said “Hail king of the Jews!!!!!” and slapped him in the face, the same face that had already been bruised by the temple thugs the night before.
Pilate brought Jesus out and said “Look!!!!!”, in hopes that the crowd outside would have pity upon seeing him in that state. Surely seeing him in this state–incapable of causing trouble and likely to die in short order anyway–would satisfy them and get them off his lawn so they could all get on with Passover and be done with it so he could get back to the coast which was where he really wanted to be.
Once more Pilate reiterates that he finds no basis for a charge against him. Even when he was being beaten to death Jesus did not break, did not cry out and admit to things that he and everyone else knew weren’t true just to get the beating to stop. Now can we please just go on?
This was going nowhere, so the chief priests implemented Phase 2 of their plan. We have a law, they exclaimed, and according to that law he must die because (we didn’t tell you this earlier) he claimed to be the son of God. Now Pilate was even more afraid than before. Why? Because this crossed over into Roman territory. This intersected with Roman myth and legend, and was threatening to the empire. So Pilate questions Jesus further, but this time he doesn’t answer. Now don’t miss this: Pilate was a first century Roman soldier who had seen it all. This was the point at which men begged, not for their lives but for a quick death. And yet Jesus was not speaking. Pilate had seen it all, but he had never seen this. He was incredulous. Do you not realize that I have the power to free you or crucify you? he asks. You would have no power over me, responds Jesus, if it were not given to you.
From then on Pilate tried everything he could to set Jesus free. But the Jewish leaders were having none of it. They went into Phase 3 of their plan: If you let this man go you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king is opposed to Caesar. Checkmate.
Pilate was outmaneuvered. He knew that Tiberias, the reigning Caesar of the time, had spies all over the place. He brought Jesus out and said: Here is your king! Shall I crucify your king? At which point someone in the crowd shouted something which at any other time and in any other context would have been considered blasphemous: We have no king but Caesar!!!!!
So Pilate hands Jesus over. They take him to Golgotha. They offer him wine mixed with myrrh, a small act of mercy, but he refuses. Now up until this point in all four Gospel narratives the story was being told in excruciating detail, but at this point all four Gospel writers go minimalist. Because what happened next required no explanation. Why? Because once you’ve seen a crucifixion in real life you can’t unsee it.
The Greeks invented crucifixion; the Romans perfected it. It could take hours or it could take days, depending on how healthy the victim was and how well the Romans did their job. The goal here was not a quick death but a prolonged death. Crucifixion was so gruesome that it was banned by Church leaders from depiction in art until the fourth century, when Constantine took over as emperor and banned crucifixion as a form of punishment in Rome. C. S. Lewis wrote that the crucifix did not become a motif in Christian art until the generations that had seen real crucifixions had passed out of existence.
There was nothing glamorous or sentimental about a crucifixion. There was no way to clean it up or sanitize it. Once you’ve seen it in real life, you can’t unsee it. Many have had this form of death imposed upon them, but only one chose it voluntarily.
Here is what makes all of this remarkable: When Jesus died, there were no believers and no followers. Sympathizers? Yes. Followers? No. Why? Because Jesus claimed too much about himself. He claimed to be the resurrection and the life, but you can’t crucify the resurrection and the life. He claimed to be the Son of Man and was…arrested by Romans????? He gave every indication of being the Messiah that the Jewish people had been waiting for for ages and was…killed by a foreign power????? If Jesus was dead and crucified then he was most emphatically not who he had claimed to be. There was no dream to keep alive, no movement to keep moving. It was over.
Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, whom we met a few weeks earlier, went to Pilate to ask for Jesus’ body. No doubt they risked their lives in doing so. They probably exchanged a significant amount of money with Pilate in the process. It was illegal for crucifixion victims to be buried; their bodies were left on the trash heap to be devoured by wolves and dogs and other scavengers. Jesus was clearly not who they had hoped, yet he deserved better than that. Rome could always be convinced to look the other way if the price was right. So off they went, with myrrh and aloe and other spices, about seventy five pounds worth. Sabbath was coming, they had to hurry. They took the body and wrapped it in strips of cloth. They wrapped it in such a way that if by some chance he was still alive he would surely have suffocated. Why? Because he was dead and they expected him to stay dead. When they were done they made their way home and celebrated the Passover, confused and dismayed and with no answers to well over a million questions.
The Jewish leaders went back to Pilate one more time. Somehow they found out that Jesus had been buried, and they knew where. That was not part of the plan. So they needed one more favor from Pilate. Go, said Pilate. Take a guard and make that tomb as secure as you know how. So they put a seal on it and posted a guard.
And everyone slept well.
Caiaphas slept well. Once again he had outmaneuvered Pilate. Once again he had leveraged his power to get Rome to do his bidding.
Pilate slept well. Soon Passover would be behind him. Soon he would be able to go back home to the coast and enjoy his life and his family.
Up north somewhere, Saul of Tarsus was preparing another message on the Passover and its meaning. And over across the ocean somewhere, Tiberius was going on with his life, without even the remotest clue that any of this was happening.
And all was as it always was. Because everyone was expecting Jesus to do exactly what dead people always do: Stay dead.
These individuals were each only a few hours away from securing their respective places in history. But not at all in the way they had intended or suspected.