Monday, November 16, 2015

The Surprising Answers of Jesus (John 19:9-11)


Here’s a question for all of you Bible scholars out there: Should you, or should you not answer a fool according to His folly? The Bible tells us that the answer is, “Yes.” In Proverbs 26:4, we read, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will also be like him.” Yet, in the very next verse, Proverbs 26:5, we read, “Answer a fool as his folly deserves, that he not be wise in his own eyes.” Is this a contradiction? No, what we have here is a set of statements which simply mean that there are times when an answer is necessary, and times when an answer is not necessary. And in the text we have just read from John’s Gospel, Jesus demonstrates both.

The context of our passage is unchanged from our previous studies in John’s Gospel. Jesus stands before Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea, having been accused by the Jewish religious authorities of, first, the political charge of insurrection, and second, the religious charge of blasphemy. Pilate was unconvinced by the first accusation, and thoroughly confounded by the second. The Jewish officials have said that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. This leads Pilate, who has already declared Jesus’ innocence twice, to reopen the case and begin a new round of questioning. The questions are not surprising. The answers, however, are quite surprising – for Pilate and for us – because in these surprising answers, we find insights into several important spiritual issues. Let’s look at them.

I. It is surprising how Jesus responds to futile questions (v9).

“Where are you from?” It is a rather innocuous question that is often asked. I was either blessed or cursed with a very undistinct accent, and people have a hard time figuring out where I’m from, so I get this question a lot. Maybe you do too. Pilate asks the question here of Jesus. Undoubtedly, it has to do with this “new information” that has come to light about Jesus claiming to be the Son of God. It seems like a good place to start in considering the issue, so the question itself is not surprising. What is surprising, to both Pilate and the readers of this Gospel, is how Jesus answers. He didn’t. Verse 9 says, “Jesus gave him no answer.”

In American judiciary practice, we are accustomed to the concepts of “pleading the Fifth” and “the right to remain silent.” The Fifth Amendment to our Constitution provides that a person cannot be compelled to be a witness against himself. He or she has the guaranteed right to decline any to answer any question that may further incriminate himself or herself. So, in the famous words of the “Miranda Warning,” an arresting officer will say, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in a court of law.” But you have to understand, these rights do not exist everywhere, nor have they ever. Jesus did not have this right before the prefect of Judea. An answer to the question was expected. But no answer was given. Why is this? It seems there are several reasons.

First is the issue of understanding. Pilate did not possess the capability of understanding the full answer to this question. Had Jesus said that He was from heaven, assuming Pilate were to have taken the words at face value, he would have merely drawn from his reservoir of pagan mythology and filled those words with all sorts of unintended meanings. But then again, such an answer could have been merely chalked up to the ramblings of a madman after all. Had Jesus said He was from Bethlehem, Pilate would have been incapable of understanding the prophetic significance. Pilate did not know the prophecy of Micah 5:2 which had foretold that the Messiah would be born there. Had Jesus said He was from Nazareth, Pilate’s response may have been similar to that of Nathanael in John 1:46. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” For that matter, Luke tells us that Pilate had already ascertained that Jesus was from Galilee, and all that accomplished was to prolong the case, for he sent Jesus off to Herod who was the Jewish governor of that region. Herod merely bounced Jesus back to Pilate. So, there was no way that Jesus could have answered the question in a way that would have been meaningful or comprehendible to Pilate.

There is yet another reason for this silence, and that is the issue of necessity. Because Pilate could not have comprehended any answer that Jesus could have supplied, the question was entirely futile. He did not need this information. His responsibility was to render a verdict on whether or not Jesus was guilty or innocent of a crime punishable by death. Knowing Jesus’ origins would not have any bearing whatsoever on that decision. This, then, is the core of the matter. Jesus had already said enough to convince Pilate to announce, not once but twice, that He was not guilty. And yet, knowing already of Jesus’ innocence, Pilate had ordered Jesus to be scourged, and had allowed Him to be tortured by the guards. It was obvious that Pilate’s interests were not those of pure justice. Further questioning at this point only demonstrated Pilate’s spinelessness to enforce the decision he had made. There was simply no need for Jesus to answer his question. And so He was silent. The question was futile and did not deserve an answer. Jesus deems that the information He has already provided to Pilate is sufficient for him to make whatever decision he needed to make, and therefore no further information would be given to him. It is a silence of merciful judgment: judgment in that Pilate stands condemned for rejecting the truth that he has already received; mercy in that Jesus prevents him from multiplying his guilt by rejecting more truth.

All around us today, people are asking all sorts of questions about Jesus. Some of them are genuinely curious and are making serious inquiry into who Jesus is and what He has done. Jesus has much to say to these. They will be satisfied to know what has been revealed in Scripture about Him, His words, and His works. We can point them to these answers as we dialog with them. Others, however, are merely engaging in futile debates that are entirely unproductive. To those asking futile questions, our Lord Jesus would not utter a syllable of response if He were face to face with them. Nor should we. The revelation found in the Word of God is sufficient for them to make a decision for or against Jesus, and no amount of debate or dialog is going to bring them any closer to a truth that they have already determined in their hearts to reject. Jesus was no waster of words, and He would not have us to be either. It was perhaps best said by one of the poets of our own generation: “You got to know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em; know when to walk away, and know when to run.” There are times when the best answer we can give is silence. Our “interrogators” (as it were) have no interest in truth, no capacity to comprehend it, and no desire to accept it. They merely want to prolong a futile debate. Once the Word of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been presented to them and clarified for them, it is entirely appropriate, even if surprising, for us to respond to them as He did: with a deafening silence.   

That is but one of the surprising answers of Jesus that we find here in the text. Moving on, we discover another. …

II. It is surprising how Jesus rebukes hollow boasting (v10-11a).

A story is told, the truth of which is uncertain, about Muhammad Ali, which finds the famed boxer seated on an airplane prior to takeoff. When admonished by the flight attendant to fasten his seat belt, Ali purportedly quipped, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” Those familiar with Ali’s reputation for making grandiose claims would not be surprised by this assertion. If the story is to be believed, however, the response of the flight attendant is most surprising. She is said to have immediately retorted, “Superman don’t need no airplane.”[1]

Pride often compels people to make audacious assertions. Jesus’ silence in response to Pilate’s question about His origins had irritated him. He blurted out, “You do not speak to me?” The word “me” here is emphatic, as if to say, “ME, of all people.” Pilate says here to Jesus in verse 10, “Do You not know that I have authority to release You, and I have authority to crucify You?” Bold and audacious though Pilate’s boast may be, it was as hollow as his integrity. If anyone ever dares to think that the Lord Jesus owes him an answer to his every inquiry, there is an overly inflated sense of self. If the Lord ever imparts any word to man at all, it is an act of His grace, and never something that we deserve. God would have been perfectly just to never give man another word at all following the sin of Adam. That Jesus had said even one word to Pilate before was more than he deserved.

Let us also notice that any line of questioning of Jesus Christ that begins with the words, “Do You not know,” is immediately wrong-headed. He is the all-knowing One, and any ego which boasts of having any knowledge superior to His teeters on a dangerous and slippery precipice inviting humiliation upon himself. We have reason to be suspect of anything else Pilate may go on to say when his words are rooted in this kind of soil. But when he begins to boast of his “authority,” we immediately see how hollow his boasting really is.

“I have authority to release You,” Pilate said. If you’ve read the preceding verses to this passage, you might like to say, “O do you now? Then why is that twice you have declared Him not guilty, and yet the trial is ongoing?” He may theoretically possess this legal authority, but in practice, he demonstrates himself to be subservient to the whims and wishes of the Jewish officials who are politically strongarming him. He also says, “I have authority to crucify You.” Legally, I suppose, it is true enough. But there is a difference between what is legal and what is just. As Matthew Henry writes, “he magnifies his power to an exorbitant degree when he boasts that he has power to crucify one whom he had declared innocent, for no prince or potentate has authority to do wrong.”[2]

The boasting was hollow, but Jesus did not respond in silence this time. He addressed it in another, equally surprising way. Just as a fool in his folly at times warrants a response of silence, there are also times, the Proverb says, when a fool in his folly must be answered for his own good, “that he not be wise in his own eyes.” Jesus speaks a word that is sharp as a sword to slice through the vain pretensions of Pontius Pilate. “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above” (v11a).  

This is one of the most loaded statements in the New Testament. First, it says that, inherently, Pilate has no authority over Jesus. He has more legal authority than any man in the nation of Judea, in fact more than almost anyone in the world, save his ultimate superior, the Roman Emperor. But Jesus says that this position he holds does not qualify him to have authority over God. No one in the universe has that kind of authority. Secondly, whatever authority he has or thinks he has now over Jesus is not his own, but has been given to him “from above.” This is a typical Jewish idiom to refer to God without using His name. This is in full agreement with the classic biblical treatment on God and government in Romans 13, where we read, “Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God.” If Pilate has any authority at all, much less over the Son of God in this instance, it is because God Himself has granted and allowed it. 

But even this is not all that is contained in Jesus’ words. It takes a keen eye for the Greek text to notice the third thing (keener than mine, for I am indebted to the scholarship of others for this observation). When Jesus says, “unless it had been given you,” the word “it” is a pronoun that requires an antecedent. What is “it”? It is most commonly assumed that the antecedent is “authority,” however in the Greek text, there is a disagreement in the forms of these words. Therefore, it is most likely that when Jesus says “it” has been given to Pilate, the “it” He is referring to is this entire situation. This entire situation has been laid in his lap: the position he holds has been given to him by the Roman emperor (as a result of connections through Pilate’s wife); the opportunity to render a verdict has been presented before him by the treacherous leaders of Israel; the authority to render a verdict has been afforded him by God Himself. Pilate, strutting with hollow pride as if he were an inherently powerful dictator here, is reduced by these words to the state of a beggar. He only has what others have given him.

Friends, Pilate was not the last man to ever vaunt himself in a parade of self-aggrandizement. Strands of hollow pride run through the fabric of all of our lives, and many have woven those strands together to form a garment by which they cover themselves on a daily basis. “I am in complete control of my life and the lives of others. I answer to no one but myself. No one tells me what to do. I choose my own destiny and blaze my own trail. I can trample on anyone in my way if I so desire, because there are no rules governing me except those of my own making.” Few would come out and say those words verbatim, but countless lives are built on the foundation of that kind of thinking. What they fail to realize is that every breath they take is a gift of God, and every accomplishment of their lives is owed to His blessing, or the sovereign restraint of His wrath. Unseen to themselves, there is an invisible hand moving pieces on the chessboard of our lives until the moment when God unveils Himself to say, “Checkmate.” That moment has come for Pontius Pilate. Has it come for you? Has it come for those whom you know and love? The greatest victory any of us can ever know is found in the moment of surrender when we acknowledge that there is a God, and I am not Him; there is a Lord over my life, and it is not myself, it is Jesus Christ, from whom everything I am and have has come, and to whom everything I am and have is owed. It seems that Pilate never found that victory of surrender. The more important question is, will you? And if you have, then will you help someone else find it? There are times when the best thing we can say to someone is nothing. Then there are times when we owe them the favor or reminding them that their boasting is hollow. It may be the most welcome surprise they ever receive.

And this brings us to the final surprise here in the answers of Jesus. …

III. It is surprising how Jesus regards human sin (v11b).

In a criminal justice, there are misdemeanors, and there are felonies. The difference has to do with the nature of the crime, the intent of the criminal, and the severity of the punishment. But in no court of law does a judge ever declare, “I will let you off the hook and declare you not guilty because you have only committed a misdemeanor, and not a felony.” Justice requires that a guilty verdict come down in either case.

Jesus’ final word to Pilate suggests to us that this is the way that He regards human sin. In verse 11, He says to Pilate, “For this reason, he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin.” Now, lest we make a disastrous mess of these words, let’s be clear as to what Jesus did not say. He did not say that Pilate has no sin. He did not say that Pilate’s sin was not great. He did not say that Pilate will not face a severe judgment for his sin. That must be clear before we move on.

Jesus here makes a distinction between the sin of Pilate and the sin of the one who delivered Him over to Pilate. Who is that one? It is often assumed that the person in view here is Judas Iscariot, the disciple who betrayed the Lord. In fact, the same Greek word translated “delivered Me” is translated as some form of the word “betray” in several passages regarding Judas. However, Judas did not ultimately “deliver” Jesus to Pilate. He betrayed Him into the hands of the Jewish officials, and then Judas exits the narrative almost completely. It was the Sanhedrin, the governing council of Jerusalem, who delivered Jesus over to Pilate. But Jesus here speaks of a singular individual, and no one fits into this description better than Caiaphas, the high priest.

Now, we must ask, why is the sin of Caiaphas greater than the sin of Pontius Pilate? After all, it was Pilate who ordered the crucifixion. There are, I believe, two reasons why Caiaphas was guilty of the greater sin, and these two reasons are important for us all to understand. The first reason has to do with responsibility. You see, no matter what decision he makes, he has the responsibility of making a decision. It’s his job. He didn’t ask to be put into the position; he was thrust into it. He has a job to do. He might do it poorly, and if he does, he will answer for it, but it has to be done. Now, contrast this with Caiaphas. Concocting murderous schemes, bribing betrayers and false witnesses, distorting laws to accomplish what he wants – this is not his job as high priest. He is acting outside of his God-ordained role and willfully using his influence and authority to accomplish evil. This is one reason that his is the greater sin.

The second reason has to do with revelation. Caiaphas had complete access to the Scriptures as the high priest. Every law, every prophecy, every Psalm and Proverb was well known to Him. And in Luke 24, Jesus said every single one of them pointed to Him (vv27, 44; cf. also Jn 5:39-47). He had opportunity to witness Jesus perform miracles and hear Him teach and preach. I don’t know if he ever did, but he could have. At the very least, he had access to abundant of people who heard Jesus speak and saw Him work. He could have, and should have, been able to clearly see that Jesus had come forth from God to do the work of God on the earth. His very title of “high priest” indicates that he should have been an expert in the things of God, yet he did not recognize the promised Messiah when He stood before him face-to-face. Contrast this with Pontius Pilate. He may have never read a word of the Hebrew Bible, and likely wouldn’t have understood it if he had. For that matter, prior to this day, Jesus was likely a virtual stranger to him. If he’d ever heard of Jesus at all, it was only in whispers and hints of the occasional gossip on the wind. He didn’t know who Jesus was, and there was not really any good reason why he should have at that point. To have the kind of revelation available and accessible to you, as Caiaphas had, and to willfully act contrary to it, is to commit a greater sin.

It is a principle of God’s word that the more revelation a person has, the more guilt they accrue before God if they do not heed that revelation. It’s why Jesus said that the day of judgment would be more tolerable for the people Sodom than the people of Capernaum, who had witnessed the power of Jesus at work with their very eyes and refused to believe in Him. It will be more tolerable for Pilate on the day of judgment than for Caiaphas, because Caiaphas’ has the greater sin.

Now, lest you think for a moment that there is any comfort in coming in second place in the sin competition, there isn’t. Like we said earlier: Jesus never said Pilate wasn’t a sinner, never said he hadn’t committed a great sin, and never said that Pilate did not have a severe judgment awaiting him. He only said that Caiaphas’ sin was greater. We are prone to look around at others and say, “They have the greater sin, so I’m ok. I don’t have to worry about where I stand with the Lord, because there are much worse sinners than me out there.” That would be a dreadfully mistaken notion. Sinners who are guilty of greater sins and sinners who are guilty of lesser sins are both equally guilty before the Lord – they are both condemned as sinners. And the Bible says that we are all sinners, and we know it is true. Now, there are varying degrees of penalty, but the baseline penalty is eternal separation from God and the torment of divine wrath in the place the Bible calls hell. That’s baseline – it gets worse from there. “More tolerable” does not mean “tolerable.” As Joel 2:11 says, “The day of the Lord is indeed great and very awesome, and who can endure it.”

But the Gospel of Jesus Christ is good news, because it tells us of a God who loves us so much that He became one of us, lived a sinless life that fully satisfied the righteous demands of God’s law, and yet died in our place as our substitute so that the penalty for our sins could be punished in Him. He bore our sin so that we could be forgiven, reconciled to God, clothed in His own righteousness. No matter how great your sin is, or how it compares to the sins of others, there is no sin that greater than God’s grace. When you stand before God to give account for the sins of your life, God will not ask how your sins compare with those of others. What will matter on that day is whether or not your sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ which was shed for you.

The God we serve and proclaim is big enough for you to ask Him any question you can imagine. He will never be surprised by your questions, for He knows what is on your heart already. But you should be prepared when you ask them, for you may well be surprised by the Lord’s answers. He loves us too much to tell us what we want to hear. He tells us what we need to hear – even if the truth hurts, even if it makes us uncomfortable, even if sometimes what we need to hear is silence. The answers given to Pilate here in this text are the last words Jesus would ever speak to him. That day will come for every one of us as well when Jesus speaks a final word to us. The Bible says that some will hear the Lord speak, “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” while others will hear, “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:35, 41).  Humble yourself, and turn in faith and repentance to Jesus, if you never have before, and lead others to Him, lest any of us should be surprised by His final words to us.  

[1] categorizes this tale as “Undetermined.” Accessed November 13, 2015.
[2] Matthew Henry, Complete Commentary on the Whole Bible. Online at commentaries/mhm/view.cgi?bk=42&ch=19. Accessed November 13, 2015. 

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