Sunday, November 22, 2015

Jesus: Friend and King (John 19:12-16)


I once heard a story from the great Welsh preacher John Phillips about one of England’s Kings. I don’t recall exactly, but I think it was George V or Edward VII. At any rate, when he was just a boy, he used to slip away from the palace to play in the streets with some mischievous boys, who had no idea that their playmate was the Prince of Wales. On one occasion, the boys ran afoul of the law and had a run-in with a local policeman. The officer said, “I’m going to need your names.” The young royal piped up first and said, “I’m the Prince of Wales.” The officer seemed unimpressed and pressed further, “Come on now, lad, enough with the games, I need your name.” Again the boy retorted, “I told you I am the Prince of Wales.” Seeing that he was getting nowhere with the boy, he turned to another of the children and said, “OK, how about you? What’s your name?” The boy quickly replied, “Who me? Oh, I’m the Archbishop of Canterbury.” Phillips did not relate what ultimately happened with the boys on that day, but suffice to say that on that day, the street children discovered that their dear friend was an heir to the throne, the one who would become King.

The Gospel of Jesus Christ tells us that the King of all kings has come into the world. He is God in human flesh, and He has come to befriend sinners by His love and grace. In a very real way, you have an opportunity to become a friend of the King. Every person who is confronted by the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done for us is invited into this relationship. But, as our text today shows us, not all who receive this invitation respond to it. Together, Pontius Pilate and the religious leaders of Israel show us that we must carefully consider who will be our friend and who will be our king.

I. Who is Your Friend? (vv12-13)

Of all the good advice I’ve forgotten over the course of my life, it is sometimes surprising what has stuck in my memory. I can remember from childhood being told, “You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friend’s nose.” I suppose we could call that good advice, but it should go without saying. Nonetheless, the choice of who will be our friend in life is an important one. In a day when Facebook has made the word “friend” very elastic, we would do well to remember the counsel that Dr. Howard Hendricks used to give to his students: “Two things will determine where you are ten years from now: the books you read and the friends you make. Choose them both very carefully.”[1]

Pontius Pilate is remembered as a political opportunist. His entire life had consisted of building strategic friendships with the right people. A Spaniard by birth, Pilate had joined the ranks of the famed Roman military commander Germanicus in time for the wars on the Rhine. After the wars came to an end, Pilate came to Rome, where he met and married Claudia Proculla, the granddaughter of Caesar Augustus.[2] But perhaps Pilate’s most important relationship was the friendship he had forged with Lucius Aelius Sejanus. Sejanus had experienced a meteoric rise through Rome’s ranks, from distinguished soldier to the commander of the Emperor Tiberius’s personal security force. During the reign of Tiberius, Sejanus had more power than anyone except the Emperor, and at times, seemingly even more than the Emperor. It was undoubtedly through Sejanus’ influence with Tiberius, perhaps combined with some influence of Pilate’s wife, that Pilate was offered the position of prefect of Judea.

Pilate knew the importance of choosing friends carefully. Just as his choice of friends had led to his rise, so too, as we see here in our text, it would lead to his downfall. Remember that when Jesus was first brought before Pilate, it was on the political charge of insurrection. Pilate interrogated Jesus about His claim to be a king, and seemed satisfied that Jesus posed no threat to Rome’s authority or the political stability of the region. So, in John 18:38, he declared to the Jewish officials, “I find no guilt in Him.” Still, in order to appease the bloodthirst of the Jews, he ordered Jesus to be scourged and allowed Him to be tormented by the soldiers. Again, he announced to the Jews in John 19:6, “I find no guilt in Him.” At this second verdict, the Jews regrouped and tried another tactic. They pressed Pilate to enforce Jewish law and find Jesus guilty of the religious charge of blasphemy. Frightened, offended, and surprised by the responses of Jesus to a new line of questions, Pilate begins here in verse 12 to find a way to release Him. But before he could do so, the Jews cried out, saying, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar.” And it was here that their trump card was played.

The words “friend of Caesar” struck Pilate like a ton of bricks. Within three decades of the events of our text, the title “Friend of Caesar” would become an official honor given by the Emperor Vespasian to the distinguished leading men of the Empire. Already by this time, however, it was an unofficial moniker given to those who were faithful and loyal to the Emperor Tiberius. It is likely that through his friendship with Sejanus, Pilate was either in line for, or had already received, this honor. The Roman historian Tacitus said, “the closer a man [is] with Sejanus, the stronger his claim to the Emperor’s friendship.” However, it was around this very time in history that Sejanus experienced a plummeting fall from favor with the Emperor. Tiberius was known to be very suspicious of others who may threaten his power, and very cruel in his dealings with them. Sejanus had even persuaded Tiberius to have the Emperor’s own son murdered on suspicion of treason. In 31 AD, which would be either just before or just after the trial of Jesus before Pilate (depending on one’s dating of the events), Sejanus himself fell prey to the Emperor’s suspicions. For reasons that are seemingly lost to history, Tiberius removed Sejanus from his position, had him arrested and strangled to death. If that had just happened, Pilate would have good reason to suspect that he was dangerously close to falling from the Emperor’s favor as well. His hopes of gaining, or maintaining, his status as a friend of Caesar were slipping from his grasp already.[3]

It isn’t like he wasn’t already on thin ice. As soon as he arrived in Judea, he bucked the trend of his predecessors who were careful to not offend the sensitivities of the Jews. Pilate’s deep-seated anti-Semitism was well known. In one of his first acts as prefect, he sent soldiers into Jerusalem bearing standards with images of the deified Emperor Tiberius, causing the Jews to protest that he was forcing idolatry upon them. When they refused to relent from their protests even as he threatened them with mass murder, he reluctantly removed the standards. On another occasion, he raided the temple treasury to pay for an aqueduct he was building. This time, he followed through with the killing of the protestors. When Pilate ordered the display of shields devoted to the worship of Tiberius on the palace of Herod, the Jews sent a petition to Tiberius, who ordered Pilate to remove them. And then, in Luke 13:1, Jesus tells of an occasion when Pilate slaughtered a group of Galileans while they were worshiping.[4] Somehow he had managed to hold onto his post in spite of all these incidents, but at this point, he did not need another negative report getting back to the Emperor on this occasion. Even though he wanted to release Jesus, he was too enamored by the prospects of being a friend of Caesar, and too terrified by the Jews’ threat, to follow through. To foul up here in this instance could mean political suicide for him, if not execution as well!

Pilate represents here the dilemma that has faced many throughout history. Will we court the friendship of Jesus or the friendship of the world? Like the Caesar whose friendship so enamored Pilate, the world offers advancement and opportunity, prosperity and achievement to those who will violate conscience and conviction to accommodate its values and priorities. This is why the Bible warns us repeatedly of the dangers of becoming too friendly with the world. In John’s first epistle, he writes, “Do not love the world nor the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever” (1 Jn 2:15-17). Similarly, James 4:4 warns, “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”

But it does not have to be this way. The Lord Jesus offers His friendship to all who turn to Him in faith and repentance and call upon Him as their Lord and Savior. He came to befriend the most unfriendly of us, and was not ashamed to be known as a friend of sinners. How could the holy God of perfect justice and righteousness be a friend to sinners? Jesus said it Himself: “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:13). It was in the laying down of His life on the cross – the cross to which Pilate would sentence Him, but which was prepared for His sacrifice from the foundation of the world – that He made it possible for us to become His friends. There on the cross, He received the penalty that was due to us for our sins which had separated us from God. By His death and resurrection, the sins of those who trust in Him are washed away in His blood so that we may become His followers, yes, but also His friends by faith.
To be sure, as one considers becoming the friend of Jesus, there is a cost to consider. Deitrich Bonhoeffer spoke of “The Cost of Discipleship” in his book by that title, and concluded that ultimately suffering is the cost of following Jesus. Pilate had already begun to see the high price of becoming a friend of Jesus. There was the barrage of harassment heaped upon him by those who are friends with the world. And there was a great cost of personal sacrifice – the risk of losing his position of influence, his prosperity and security, even the jeopardy of his own safety and life! But, the cost of being a friend of Jesus cannot be compared to the alternative. The Bible says that if God be for us, who can be against us? The necessary corollary of that promise is that if God be against us, who can be for us?

But Pilate opted for friendship with Caesar – friendship with the world, we might say. The friendship of Caesar is fickle at best, as many of Tiberius’s friends discovered all too painfully. So it is with any friendship with the world that spurns the gracious offer of friendship with Christ. There is no hope in life or death to be found in friendship with the world. Jesus said, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mt 16:26). But the Bible assures us that there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Prov 18:24). Pilate refused the offer of that friendship, and reaped destruction for himself. Had he turned to Christ, yes, it would have likely been a difficult road for him the rest of his life. Jesus never promised any of His friends an easy life. But He promises us an abundant life and an eternal life (Jn 10:10; 3:16). When all this world’s friends have forsaken us, we can have the assurance of a friend who has promised to never desert us nor forsake us (Heb 13:5), and who promises to be with us always, even to the end of the age (Mt 28:20). Jesus said to His followers, “No longer do I call you slaves … I have called you friends (Jn 15:15). He offers His friendship to us all, if we will heed His call to repent and turn in faith and trust to Him as Lord and Savior over our lives. This is something Pilate seemed unwilling to do. Will you? Who is your friend? As the hymnwriter says, “What a friend we have in Jesus!” I hope you have, or will, come to know Him as your friend.

Now the second question that this text puts before our consciences is a similar one:

II. Who is Your King? (vv14-16)

Americans have a luxury that most people in the history of the world have not had. We have the opportunity to choose our nation’s leaders by voting. Now, the people we vote for don’t always win, but in most cases, four years later, we can take another crack at it. Most people in the world, and most throughout history, don’t have that freedom. But whether our nations are governed democratically or not, every person has the right and responsibility to choose his or her king – the one to whom their ultimate allegiance is pledged. As Bob Dylan put it so well:

You may be an ambassador to England or France,
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance.
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world,
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls;
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes,
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody.
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.[5]

So, that being the case, the question for us all is, “Who are you going to serve?”, or, “Who is your King?” The question was before those present in the scene described in our text today.

When they had first brought Jesus to Pilate, the initial charge was that Jesus was guilty of treason because He had claimed that He was the true King of Israel. It was on this allegation that Pilate had begun to interrogate Jesus in John 18:33. He asked, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Of course, if Jesus had made no claims to be king at all, He could have merely cleared the whole matter up then and there. “Who, Me? A King? No, there’s been a misunderstanding.” Or, if a claim had been made as a pretense, He could have confessed that and plead for mercy before Pilate. But Jesus didn’t do that. Instead, He began to clarify to Pilate what kind of King He really was. He said, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Pilate picked up on it. Anyone who claims to have a kingdom is simultaneously claiming to be a king. So Pilate said to Him, “So You are a King?” And Jesus acknowledged that Pilate had drawn the correct conclusion (18:33-37). Upon hearing Jesus’ explanation of the nature of His kingship, Pilate determined that He posed no threat to the Empire, and thus, found no reason to have Him executed – at least not on that charge. Pilate didn’t understand it all, but he reasoned that Jesus would not be raising an army to overthrow Rome. The Jews didn’t think that either, but this entire line of accusations had no basis in fact anyway.

That Pilate was exasperated by the entire ordeal is obvious from the way he conducts himself from about the mid-point of the trial to the end. Attempting to reason with unreasonable people can cause any of us to lose our cool, and Pilate was well past that point. He began to say things that only further irritated the Jewish leaders. In verse 14 of our text, he again presents Jesus to the crowd and says, “Behold, your King!” Why did he say that? The text does not specify, but it is not hard to imagine that he intended to ridicule the Jewish leaders. They were not amused by these words and began to shout, “Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!” And again, Pilate rubs the salt of sarcasm into the wounds of their zeal and pride. “Shall I crucify your King?” And here, in response to Pilate’s stinging mockery, they make a shameful and tragic declaration: “We have no king but Caesar!”

Make no mistake about it, there wasn’t a soul in that crowd who felt any sense of loyalty or allegiance to Caesar or the Roman Empire. They hated Rome, and they hated the Emperor’s oppression of their nation. Their testimony of allegiance to Caesar was as phony as the charges they had brought against Jesus. But while they feigned allegiance to Caesar, their words were a confession of treason against their God.

Remember that early in Jewish history, God declared Himself to be the King of the nation of Israel (e.g. Jdg 8:23, et al.). In the days of Samuel, the elders of the nation came before him and demanded, “Now appoint a king for us to judge us like all the nations” (1 Sam 8:5). Samuel was grieved by this demand and began to pray. The Lord said to Samuel, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them” (8:7). The Lord answered their demand and gave them a king just like all the other nations had, and King Saul came to the throne. Their demand for an earthly king nearly destroyed the nation. But in God’s timing, He raised up David, a man after His own heart, to replace King Saul and lead the nation. God’s promise to David was that he would have a descendant who wound reign over an everlasting kingdom (2 Sam 7:12-13). All of the prophets looked forward to the day when the Son of David would come as the long awaited King of Israel, and in the Lord Jesus Christ, He had come.

Pilate had spoken better than he knew when he said, “Behold your King!”, for Jesus was truly the King of Israel, and indeed the King of all kings. But the religious leaders of Israel did not recognize Him as such and did not receive Him. When the Jewish authorities rejected King Jesus, they not only rejected God’s promised Messiah, but all of their hopes of a Messiah. If they will not receive the Messiah that God has sent, there will not be another one to come, nor are they presently seeking one. I asked a Reformed Jewish rabbi on one occasion, “What is your idea of ‘messianic hope’?” She quoted Rabbi Robert Levine as she said to me, “There is no Messiah, and you’re it! We have stopped waiting for God to come and change the world and started trying to do it ourselves.”[6] I wanted so much to ask her how that was working out for her, but I was too shocked by her words. But, her statement was not overly different than those religious leaders who demanded the crucifixion of Jesus before Pilate.

Ultimately, they are once again dethroning God as King over their nation. On that day, they chose their king. “We have no King but Caesar,” they said, and though there was not an ounce of genuineness in their claim, the history of the nation seems to confirm that God took them at their word. By rejecting God’s chosen King and pledging allegiance to a pagan Gentile here, they gave testimony to just how spiritually dead the religion of Israel had become. And, as Arno Gaebelein writes, “Their declaration has come upon their own heads, for ever since the Gentile world has domineered over them and the nation has had … [a] history of blood, tears, and sorrow as Jerusalem has been trodden down by the Gentiles. Nor will there be a change till the day arrives when the rejected King returns and a believing remnant welcomes Him as the Redeemer-King.”[7]

Who will rule over you? Who will be your king? It will be Jesus, or it will be yourself or some other. The cries of the crowd to crucify Jesus was a declaration that this One would not rule over them! And today, multitudes continue to raise a clinched fist to heaven and declare to Him, “You will not reign over me!” But, the pledge of allegiance to any other sovereign is an invitation to disaster – if not here and now, then certainly in eternity. But it does not have to be that way. King Jesus welcomes all who will yield their allegiance to Him to become citizens of His everlasting Kingdom. Though He was crucified, He lives, and He reigns, and His Kingdom is marching forward in victory and will ultimately triumph over all the petty kingdoms of this world. As Revelation 11:15 declares, “The kingdom of the world has become the Kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.”

The King who was crucified has defeated death by His resurrection. In His death, He took our sins upon Himself and received the full measure of our penalty as a substitute, and He offers us a share in His victory over the grave if we will but turn to Him as Lord. The Bible says that if we confess with our mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in our heart that God raised Him from the dead, we will be saved (Rom 10:9-10). To call upon Him as Lord is to make Him your King, the one whom you gladly render allegiance and service as you walk with Him by faith. And this King has promised that He is coming again to reign on His everlasting throne. In Matthew 24:30, He said, “all the tribes of the earth … will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory.” The apostle John depicted the day of His coming as the return of a mighty warrior, seated upon a white horse, and crowned with many crowns, striking down the nations with the sword of His word, and with His robe emblazoned with His name: “King of kings and Lord of lords” (Rev 21:16).

For those who have come to know Christ as their King by faith, this is the day for which we long with great expectancy. We have become citizens of His kingdom, as Paul says in Philippians 3:20. “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” The day of His coming does not fill our hearts with fear, for on that day we will celebrate the return and the rightful reign of the One who, by His grace, has become our friend.

Pilate had the opportunity to become His friend, but He chose friendship with Caesar instead. The nation of Israel had the chance to know Him as King, but they opted for the kingship of Caesar instead. Each and every one of us must decide for ourselves. Who is your Friend? Who is your King? Will you choose to render your friendship and your allegiance to this world and all that it contains? Or will you turn in faith to the King of all kings, who has become the Friend of sinners by laying down His life on the cross to rescue us from our sins? His offer still stands – the King is willing to be your Friend.

[1] Accessed November 18, 2015.
[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of John (Vol. 5; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 1421
[3] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 602, 607.
[4] Boice, 1421-1422.
[5] Bob Dylan, “Gotta Serve Sombody.” Slow Train Coming. CD. Columbia. 1979.
[6] The book to which the Rabbi referred was Robert N. Levine, There is No Messiah (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2002).
[7] Arno C. Gaebelein, The Gospel of John: An Exposition (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Bros., 1965), 363.

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