Monday, February 02, 2009

Mark 15:1-15 -- The Silent Sacrifice of the King

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A few weeks ago, none of us had ever heard of Chesley Sullenberger. Yet, for a few days in January, the media attention that had been focused on preparations for the most historic presidential inauguration in our nation’s brief history was momentarily eclipsed by the heroic actions of this man called “Sully.” When both engines went out on the Airbus jet he was piloting, Sully directed the powerless plane over the Hudson River and brought it safely down, saving the lives of all 155 passengers and an unthinkable number of bystanders who would have surely perished if the plane had crashed into New York City. In the midst of circumstances that would have produced understandable panic in the most courageous of humans, Sully’s words on the cockpit recorder was described an investigator as "a very calm, collected exercise, … It was very matter of fact." Ninety seconds before bringing the plane down into the Hudson, Sully calmly spoke three words to the people on board: “Brace for impact.” Sully stepped out of the slowly sinking aircraft only after walking through twice to make sure that all of his passengers and crew had escaped safely. Sully’s calm confidence under intense pressure and his selfless concern for others instantly elevated him to the status of hero in the eyes of the nation. The image of all those people standing on the wings of the plane in the freezing water will be etched in our minds for a long time. It is one of the ironies we find bearing out time and time again. While the actions of obnoxious and boisterous people occasionally make headlines, more often the quietly confident actions of self-sacrificing individuals make history.

As we turn our thoughts to the passage before us today, we find Jesus on trial before Pontius Pilate. In the last chapter we saw how the ruling council of Israel had seized Him in cooperation with Judas and condemned Him to death on the charge of blasphemy when He acknowledged that He was the Christ, the Son of God. However, the Jewish people were under the dominion of Rome, and though they were permitted many freedoms they were not allowed to perform capital punishment. Therefore, it was imperative to have the Roman governor pass the death sentence in this case. And in our passage today, Jesus stands trial yet again on false charges that carry serious consequences. While many of us would insist on a lawyer and character witnesses and long speeches of self-defense to escape from these charges, we find Jesus standing silently before them. And when the sentence is passed and He is wrongly condemned while a guilty man goes free, He does not appeal the verdict or protest, but is led off in silence to die in the place of a rebellious murderer. We see here the fulfillment of Isaiah 53:7, a prophecy spoken about the Messiah some 700 years before Jesus was born, which says, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.” Three times in this passage, and six times in the larger context, Jesus is referred to as the King of the Jews, yet here He does not ascend to a throne. He descends to a cross. It is the silent sacrifice of the King. Both His silence and the sacrificial nature of His death are significant in our understanding of the person of Jesus Christ.

I. The Silence of Jesus Reflects the Son’s Confidence in the Father (v1-5)

Pilate was appointed in AD 26 by the Emperor Tiberius as the fifth governor or “prefect” in Judea. He held that post until AD 37, the longest tenure of the 14 Roman governors. Though he was not overly corrupt compared to many political figures of his day were, he was described by the ancient historians Philo and Josephus as a cruel and stubborn man. Whenever there was a special occasion in Jerusalem, he was required to be present to put a quick stop to any potential uprising and make public examples of any who would threaten the security and authority of Rome. He was a politician in the truest sense of the word, having to stand for the powers over him while keeping the peace among the subjects under him.

“Early in the morning” on Friday of Passover week, Jesus was brought bound into Pilate’s presence by the authorities of Israel – the Chief Priests, scribes and elders and the whole ruling council, some 71 highly respected figures in Jerusalem. The Roman Empire was not one that believed in a separation of religion and politics; the two were inseparable. The Emperor was hailed as a god, and his worship was demanded across the empire. But the Jews were exempted from emperor worship, and therefore, the government tended to stay out of their religious squabbles. He knew that the Jewish leaders were bringing a petty case before him, as v10 indicates: “He was aware that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy.” But a person claiming to be the Messiah and the Son of God would certainly demand their attention. By this time in Israel’s history the Jewish concept of Messiah was closely related to the idea of a perfect and powerful King who would overthrow all oppression and liberate the Jewish people. In this sense, Christ’s claim to be Messiah could be interpreted by Rome as an act of high treason. His claim to be the Son of God presented Him as a rival to the Emperor. So Pilate asks Jesus, “Are You the King of the Jews?” He was hoping to hear a confession from Jesus that would put the matter to rest one way or another. If Jesus said, “No,” then Pilate could dismiss the case altogether. If He said, “Yes,” then Pilate could just kill Him and be done with it.

But notice that Jesus did not give Pilate a “yes or no” answer. This is hard for us to see in our English Bibles, for the translators have tried to help us by adding a few words into his answer. In the NASB, this can be seen by the italicized words in verse 2. When we see words in italics in our Bibles, it is a clue to the reader that the translator has added these words, feeling them to be necessary to our understanding of the passage. Sometimes, unintentionally, those italics actually subtly blur the meaning of the text, as they do here. When I find words in italics, I read them, and then I go back and read the text leaving out the italicized words. Usually, the passage makes just as much sense, and is more faithful to the original without them. The NIV adds the word “Yes,” but not in italics. There is no equivalent to that word in the Greek text. The KJV, in spite of its antiquated English, is perhaps most accurate here, in rendering Jesus’ response, “Thou sayest it.” In John 18:34-37 we find more details about the conversation. There, when asked if He is the King of the Jews, we read that Jesus said, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or did others tell you about Me?” And when the question is pressed further, Jesus says, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.” When Pilate said to Him, “So you are a king?,” Jesus said, “You say … that I am a king.” In other words, Jesus is putting the ball back into Pilate’s court for him to decide who Jesus is. That is the sense of the response we find in Mark 15:2. We may understand His words as, “You say so yourself.” It is as if He says to Pilate, “What do you really think?” It is a way of saying, “Yes I am a king,” while at the same time saying, “No, not in the way you imagine.” His kingdom is not of this world. John’s Gospel indicates that Pilate must have been been convinced by Jesus’ answer that He posed no threat to Roman authority, for John says that after this interchange, Pilate faced the people and said, “I find no guilt in Him.”

At this point, the accusations become more intense. From Mark 14, we may infer that they charged Him with plotting to destroy the temple. In Luke 23, we learn that they were also accusing Him of misleading the nation, forbidding Jewish people from paying taxes to Caesar (a bold-faced lie), and stirring up trouble all over the land by His teaching. When Pilate again turns to Jesus to find out what He has to say for Himself in light of these charges, Mark tells us in 15:5, “Jesus made no further answer.” In fact, at least in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus speaks no more to any human being. Upon the cross, He will speak to His Father God, but He has nothing more to say to man. His last words to man are somewhat akin to His question in Mk 8:29, “Who do you say that I am?” From that point on, He is silent. And His silence, we are told, amazed Pilate.

In the face of so many harsh accusations, how could Jesus stand in silence and not defend Himself? Was this a silence of fear or ignorance? Was it a precursor to our Fifth Amendment rights that exempt us from self-incrimination? No, I propose to you that His silence was a silence of confidence. Jesus understands that Pilate has authority in this trial, but He also knows that Pilate’s authority is limited. All of us have some measure of authority in life, and all of us are under authority. The people are under the authority of the Council, and the Council is under the authority of Pilate. To some measure, as we see here in the passage, Pilate’s authority can even be swayed by the people leaving us to wonder who is really in charge here. The answer to that question is simple. Ultimately, God’s authority supersedes all other authorities. Paul says in Romans 13:1, “there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” God is the ultimate authority in all matters, giving authority to whomever He chooses and holding them accountable for the exercise of that authority. And so while we may assume that Jesus’ life and death are in the hands of the Council, or in the hands of the people, or in the hands of Pilate, Jesus knows full well that ultimately His life and death are in the hands of His Father God. In John 19, we find that Pilate confronts Jesus about His silence saying, “You do not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify you?” But Jesus said to him, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been give you from above.”

Because Jesus knew the Father was in full control, He could place His confidence in Him. No decision made by Pilate, the Council or the crowd could undermine the authority of God over the situation. Therefore Jesus did not need to defend Himself with words or actions. He could entrust Himself to His Father, and let God’s sovereign authority be His only defense. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty means that God is in ultimate control of all things, even when we cannot understand His purposes or ways. Those who have come to Christ by faith have been adopted into God’s family, and He has become the Father to all who believe. When we know Him as our Father, then we can know that we are loved by One whom we can trust even in the most difficult circumstances. Nothing that comes our way takes Him by surprise, and nothing is outside of His control. That’s a comfortable pillow for us to lay our heads on. When it seems the world is out to get us, when it seems like nothing is going right, when circumstances are frustrating and disturbing, and even when we seem to be staring death directly in the teeth, we need not panic or lose faith. Like the only begotten Son, the adopted sons and daughters of God can face these matters in the quiet confidence that comes from absolute trust in God’s ultimate authority. Though He may allow us to go through some dark and difficult days, and though He never promises comfort, luxury or even survival in this world, He has promised to never leave us nor forsake us. Though the saying has become cliché, it bears repeating: We may not know what the future holds, but we know Who holds the future, and our trust is in Him. As we faithfully endure the difficulties of life in this fallen world with all its hardships, those around us will see the quiet confidence we place in our Father, and like Pilate, they will be amazed. The silence of Jesus teaches us that. We see in His silence the Son’s confidence in the Father.

II. The Sacrifice of Jesus Demonstrates the Father’s Plan for the Son (vv6-15)

Let there be no mistake about it – Jesus was innocent of every charge brought against Him and entirely undeserving of a death sentence. Even Pilate recognized this. Though Pilate’s confidence in Jesus’ innocence is more clearly stated in the other Gospels, even in Mark we can see him nearly pleading with the people to let Jesus off. Criminally, Jesus had done no wrong. Even more than this, we can say on the authority of God’s word that He had done no wrong morally. In His divine nature, He could not sin. The Bible says of the Lord Jesus that He knew no sin, and that He was tempted in all ways as we are, yet without sin. The scriptures say that the wages of sin is death. Having committed no sin, Jesus was entirely undeserving of death.

Let there be no mistake about another matter – Barabbas was a guilty man. We know nothing about Barabbas outside of what Scripture tells us, but what Scripture tells us is enough. He was “imprisoned with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the insurrection.” We have no information about this incident apart from what is said here, but it is enough to demonstrate that Barabbas was a rebellious murderer. Both of these crimes were understandably punishable by death. Even in our own nation with all of its modern civility, treason and murder are punishable by death. There is a subtle irony in this man Barabbas. His name means “son of the father.” Compare this to Jesus, who is the true Son of the Father. So in these verses we have Barabbas, a guilty son of the father, and Jesus, an innocent Son of the Father.

We are told that the people pressed Pilate to uphold a custom of releasing a prisoner at Passover. Pilate asked in v9, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” But the priests had incited the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas instead. This should not come as a surprise. After all, Barabbas was more the kind of person they were looking for than Jesus. At least he was willing to overthrow Rome. What is surprising is that Pilate would agree to it. He’s already deemed Jesus to be no threat to Rome, but Barabbas has already been convicted of an attempted coup! As for Jesus, the bloodthirsty cry of the near-rioutous mob cries out, “Crucify Him!” Even though Pilate initially protests, he ultimately concedes, “wishing to satisfy the crowd.” What is going on here? Why would Pilate grant such a radical request? Why would the people make such an inexplicable demand? The underlying reason is that God was demonstrating through these events His ultimate purpose in sending His Son into the world. As Peter declared in his Pentecost sermon: “This Man, delivered over to you by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to across by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” Though men are having their way with Jesus, their way is still under God’s predetermined plan. And in the substitution of Jesus for Barabbas, we have a perfect demonstration of that plan.

You see, there isn’t a person in this room who is any better than Barabbas. The Bible says that all of us have sinned. We are sinners by nature and by choice, born in a state of rebellion and inclined to disobey God from the womb. Just as Barabbas is guilty of treason against Rome’s authority, the rest of us are guilty of treason against God’s authority. And the Bible also tells us in James 2:10, “whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” That means that in God’s eyes there are no degrees to sin. Sin is sin. Jesus explained this in the Sermon on the Mount when He said, “everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” He also said, “You have heard that the ancients were told, 'YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER' and 'Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.' "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell” (Matt 5:21-22). We may think, “Well, I’ve done some bad things, you know, but I never killed anybody before.” Don’t be so sure. Jesus would have us to examine our lives and ask, “Have I ever been angry with another person? Have I ever hurled insults at another? Have I ever condemned another person?” These, He says, are of equal severity in God’s eyes with murder. Welcome to Murderers Anonymous. My name is Russ, and I am a serial killer.

The Gospel of Jesus is Good News. You say, “Doesn’t sound like good news, you said we’re all rebellious murderers.” Ah, but there is good news for rebellious murderers. Jesus came to be your substitute, your sacrifice. Death is for sinners! Though He didn’t deserve it, Jesus took Barabbas’ place in death, and He has taken our place in death, that we may go free. Our sins are placed upon Him and He receives our penalty for us, that we may be pardoned and liberated, set free from sin and death and hell. He receives scourging and the cross. We receive abundant life now, and eternal life forever, if we turn from our sins and accept Him as Lord and Savior. Paul said it this way in Romans 5:8 – “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” In 2 Corinthians 5:21, he says, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

This is grace. This is love. This is mercy shown to us by God in Christ. And so the question of Pilate becomes the question of us all: “What shall I do with Jesus?” And the answer is that we should turn from our sins and trust Him who died to save us. The day will come for every person when we stand, not before an earthly authority such as Pilate, but before the ultimate authority of God. And in that day, if the question were to be asked, “Why should you enter heaven?” what would we say? Would we say, “Well, I’m a pretty good fellow. Never killed anyone, never done any really bad stuff?” God forbid that we should boast in such a way before Him. On that day, if that question were asked, the only response the could possibly be uttered is to say, “I don’t deserve heaven. I deserve death and hell because of my sins. But I believe that Jesus took my penalty, paid my death, and served my sentence for me. I trust in Him alone to SAVE me.” We say with Paul the words of 1 Timothy 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” The only thing we can boast of is the Cross of Jesus on which He died to save rebellious murderers like Barabbas, and me, and you. He is the true King. Make Him King in your life today, if you never have before.

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