Fateful Choices

Posted: September 7, 2014 in Mark

Mark 15:1-15, “Fateful Choices”

Choices can change the course of history.  It’s amazing when we look back over time, and see what choices caused us to reach certain points.  If the Titanic had paid better attention to the iceberg reports, and less to its own publicity, then the ship may never have sunk.  If only a few people in Florida had made a different choice on their presidential ballot in 2000, we would have had a President Gore instead of a President Bush.  Not all choices carry that kind of weight, but some do…some choices can truly change history.

That was the case on the Friday of Passover the year of Jesus’ crucifixion.  All kinds of people made choices to reject Jesus, and send Him to the cross.  That was their rebellion.  Jesus made the choice to humble Himself to God, and be obedient to the will of His Heavenly Father.  That choice is our salvation.  Our choice (Mankind as a whole) sentenced Jesus to His death; His choice allowed Him to go there.  Our choice was one of hatred; His was one of love.  And because of His choice, we now have a brand-new choice: to be made sons and daughters of God.

Mark 15:1–15
1 Immediately, in the morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council; and they bound Jesus, led Him away, and delivered Him to Pilate.

It had been a long night for Jesus.  At some point after the Passover meal with His disciples, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives to pray.  There at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus labored in prayer (seemingly for hours), while the disciples failed to grasp the severity of the moment and slept.  Eventually it was too late.  Judas came with the Jewish Temple Guard and Roman soldiers, he betrayed Jesus and had Him arrested, and Jesus was carted off to the house of the high priest for trial.  The trial itself was a farce.  The hour was illegal according to Jewish custom, and the location was illegal according to Jewish Scripture.  The outcome was already predetermined, and the only challenge was finding enough liars who were able to corroborate their false charges to find Jesus guilty of death.  To the frustration of the high priest, none could be found, and he finally blurts out the one question that has been on his mind, asking Jesus directly if He is the Christ, the Son of the Blessed God.  Previously silent through it all, Jesus answers in the affirmative, adding also that one day the priest would see Jesus as the judge of all the earth, coming in the glory of God.

This was the moment the priest had been waiting for.  He tore his clothes (as an official sign that he had witnessed blasphemy), declared Jesus guilty of blasphemy, and all of the Jewish leaders who were present agreed with him.  They found Jesus worthy of death, physically beat Him, and prepare their next move. None of this was a surprise to Jesus. He had predicted it all, including what went on outside the house the whole time, as Peter three times denied that he knew the Lord.

All of this had taken place during the dark hours of night and early morning.  As a new sunrise prepares to break, the Jewish Sanhedrin prepares their next move.  The Roman government only took legal cases involving the death penalty at sunrise, so the priests, elders, and scribes had to prepare their case and get ready to take it to Pilate.

There was only one problem.  They had found Jesus deserving of death, but the supposed-crime was blasphemy.  The Romans didn’t care about blasphemy.  That was a religious issue to be settled by the religious authorities.  It did not involve the political authority of Rom.  They did not see blasphemy as a crime deserving of death.  So the priests have a new challenge: how can they persuade Rome to kill this blasphemer?  Of course, ultimately they were jealous of Jesus; they just wanted Him out of the way, enabling them to maintain their power among the people.  Blasphemy was their religious excuse for execution; they needed a political/criminal one for Rome. They “held a consultation” among themselves to devise a plan.

Eventually, they come up with a strategy, though Mark only briefly addresses it.  The account in Luke shows the Sanhedrin throwing everything at Jesus (lying to Pilate the whole time) hoping that at least one charge will stick.  Luke 23:2, "And they began to accuse Him, saying, “We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, saying that He Himself is Christ, a King.”"  (It’s the kitchen sink approach!)  Out of all the charges, one does stick, and that is what is picked up by Pilate.

2 Then Pilate asked Him, “Are You the King of the Jews?” He answered and said to him, “It is as you say.”

The charge now is not blasphemy, but treason/insurrection.  It is no longer religious, but political.  Among all the other things the chief priests had accused Jesus of doing, the only one that mattered to Pilate was whether or not Jesus was claiming to be “the King of the Jews.”  No doubt, this was a legitimate charge, at least from a certain point of view.  After all, Jesus had directly affirmed that He is the Christ/Messiah (Mk 14:61-62).  Not only is the Christ the Son of God, but He is supposed to be the King of Israel, fulfilling the covenant promises made by God to David.  The Messianic expectation always came with an expectation of the kingdom.  So much so, that even after Jesus rose from the dead, the disciples asked Him if that was the time that they were to expect the kingdom to be restored (Acts 1:6).

  • BTW, we still have an expectation of Jesus reigning over a literal kingdom in Israel as the Messiah.  His timeframe was far different than the expectations of the original disciples, but the ultimate plan is the same.  Jesus IS the Messiah, and He WILL rule as King!

But this is what caught the ear of Pilate, and what needed to be addressed by the Roman governor of Judea.  There could be no insurrection allowed – no competition for the throne.  For a brief time, Rome had allowed a title of “king” to be given to its chosen governor (i.e. King Herod), but now there was no longer a king in the province of Judea.  That position had fallen to the Roman procurator/prefect, Pontius Pilate.

Pilate himself was a cruel and (as we’ll see in the text) cowardly man.  He ruled from AD26-36, covering the whole adult ministry of Jesus. (The King Herod of Jesus’ adulthood was one of the sons of Herod the Great, and ruled over Galilee in the north; not Judea in the south.)  Pilate seems to have had a rocky relationship with the Jews, conflicting with them several times.  The Jewish historian Josephus notes that from the very beginning of Pilate’s rule, he had to deal with protests and potential complaints against him to Caesar.  He did not hesitate to deceive the people and beat large numbers of the Jews, and political unrest was a common occurrence.  If there is any time you don’t want to be dealing with a self-serving career politician and bureaucrat, it’s when you’re dealing with matters of life and death…and that is exactly the situation into which Jesus is cast.

If Pilate’s question was political, then Jesus’ answer is shrewd, and yet still completely honest.  Asked if He was the King of the Jews, Jesus replies (literally), “You say.”  Jesus does not deny the charge, but neither does He directly affirm it.  It would have made for a (relatively) easy day for Pilate if Jesus had simply said “Yes,” but He didn’t.  “You say” meant that those were Pilate’s words; not Jesus’.  Jesus is not being deceptive here; He’s being accurate.  No doubt that as the Messiah, Jesus IS the Son of David & thus the rightful King of Israel.  But Pilate’s use of the term “king of the Jews,” and Jesus’ use of the term are vastly different.  Pilate was wanting to know if Jesus was a political threat to Caesar (or at least, to Pilate himself); Jesus certainly is more powerful than Caesar, but not in any way that Pilate could have understood.  Jesus is the King of all kings, but His kingdom is not of this world.  Jesus is the rightful ruler of Israel, but the nation first had to reject Him, and that was what they were doing at the moment.  Jesus had not come to overthrow Caesar, but to overthrow death.  Jesus is the best of all possible kings…Pilate didn’t have a clue who was standing in front of him.

  • Some people can at the same time both see Jesus and miss Him entirely.  That was what happened to Pilate.  That’s what happens with many people today.  They hear about Him, even acknowledging His miracles, and perhaps even affirm that He is the Son of God, but they never take the next most necessary step: faith.

3 And the chief priests accused Him of many things, but He answered nothing. 4 Then Pilate asked Him again, saying, “Do You answer nothing? See how many things they testify against You!” 5 But Jesus still answered nothing, so that Pilate marveled.

The trial continues, and the chief priests go on to make all of their spurious accusations against Jesus.  Again, Mark does not detail them, but simply notes that Jesus doesn’t answer any of them.  In the end, it didn’t matter what His accusers said; He had already submitted Himself to the will of God, and He was going to do nothing to stand in the way of it.

Of course, this stands out to Pilate.  The Man is on trial for His life, and yet He says nothing.  Normally men who are accused (especially when they are falsely accused) speak up in their own defense.  Not Jesus.  He said not a word.  From a logical standpoint, He had no reason to say anything.  After all, the charges against Jesus were so obviously false that they fell down on their own.  If Jesus had been guilty of all of the various things the priests said of Him, surely Pilate would have heard of Jesus by now.  Yet by all indications, it seems as if all of this was brand-new to Pilate.  Pilate had come to Jerusalem to maintain order during the feast of Passover (normally the Roman prefects resided at Caesarea), and Jesus had been in town all week with huge crowds.  No doubt any insurrection and imperial rebellion from Jesus would have caught Pilate’s attention.  Surely none of the changes against Him could be true, save one – and that was already answered by Jesus (although obliquely).  There was simply no reason for Jesus to say anything.

  • BTW, sometimes we are far too quick to speak up in our own defense.

Theologically, there was another reason for Jesus to remain silent: He had to die.  He had come into the world for this very purpose, and He was not going to resist it now that the time had come.  No doubt Jesus could have defended Himself marvelously.  He had debated the scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees in the past and always demonstrated that it is impossible to get into an argument with God and win.  Jesus could have argued Himself into His freedom; He chose not to.  He chose to submit Himself to the plan of God and become our atoning sacrifice for sin.

  • This was the eternal plan of God.  Isaiah 53:7, "He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, And as a sheep before its shearers is silent, So He opened not His mouth." This was the feast of the Passover, and Jesus was the true Lamb of sacrifice sent by God.  There was no protest as injustice piled upon injustice against Him; there was no brilliant self-defense given by the most intelligent Man in history.  There was only submission to God as men railed against Him and lied about Him.  If it were not for Jesus, none of His accusers would even exist.  Beyond the act of Creation, the Bible tells us that God knits every individual together within our mothers’ wombs.  Jesus was directly responsible for the priests and Pilate having life – and He stood silent as those very people lied against Him, trying to seek His death.

Note that Pilate “marveled” at Jesus, but still ended up sentencing Him to death.  The text clearly shows that Pilate believed Jesus was innocent, not deserving of crucifixion, but Pilate gave it to Him anyway.  He was in the presence of the Innocent Son of God, he was amazed by Him, and yet he still left unchanged.

  • Amazement is good, but amazed people still go to hell.  Amazement and wonder don’t save anyone.  Some people are amazed by Jesus’ teachings, and revere Him for His morality, but they still come woefully short of faith.  But faith is what matters!  Without faith, it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6), and we must have faith IN Christ if we are to be saved BY Christ.  Otherwise, we can be amazed, but still eternally doomed.

6 Now at the feast he was accustomed to releasing one prisoner to them, whomever they requested. 7 And there was one named Barabbas, who was chained with his fellow rebels; they had committed murder in the rebellion. 8 Then the multitude, crying aloud, began to ask him to do just as he had always done for them.

The scene changes a bit, and provides a bit of background for what is to come.  There seems to have been nothing in the Roman law commanding the practice of releasing a prisoner on the Passover, though Roman governors releasing prisoners to the people (in general) was not unheard of.  Why this had become the custom seems to be nothing less than simple bribery.  There was no love lost between Pilate and the Jews, and this was a way to placate the people and try to maintain some peace.

The strange thing was that apparently Pilate let the people have anyone – “whomever they requested.”  That opened the door for the people to request anyone…even criminals like Barabbas.  It seems likely that a crowd had gone to Pilate to ask exactly this thing, wanting Pilate to honor his custom by releasing Barabbas over to them.

We know little to nothing about Barabbas apart from the Bible.  Mark notes that he had taken part in a well-known rebellion (“the rebellion”), and that he “committed murder” as a result of it.  Who Barabbas murdered, we do not know.  It could have been a Jew murdered in cold blood, or it could have been a Roman, all as a part of the rebellion.  Matthew calls Barabbas a “notorious prisoner” (Mt 27:16) – Luke says that he “had been thrown into prison for a certain rebellion made in the city, and for murder.” (Lk 23:19)  John is the only gospel writer who lists a slight variation on the same crime, calling him a “robber” (Jn 19:40).  No doubt Barabbas was not a gentle person, but how he was viewed by the people is something of a mystery.  They could have viewed him as a thug or a terrorist, or they could have seen him as a freedom fighter – perhaps one of the Zealots trying to achieve independence from Rome.

For all we don’t know, there is one thing we do know for certain: Barabbas deserved his punishment.  Whether he fought for Jewish freedom, or if he was simply evil, he still “committed murder,” and the legal authority had the right (and the responsibility) to execute him.  He had been given the death sentence, and he had earned it.

  • Likewise, we are guilty of our own crimes.  We have earned our own death sentences.  The Bible tells us that the wages of sins is death.  If you’ve sinned (and who hasn’t?), then you’re a dead man/woman walking.  That’s the punishment we’ve earned for ourselves, and there’s no getting around it.  We might try to dress it up & make our sin sound less sinful, but it is what it is.  Half-truths are still lies – lusting is still adultery – hatred is still murder of the heart – flippant use of the word “God” is still taking His name in vain.  All of it is sin, and all of it kills. We deserve death.
  • But as Barabbas learned from experience, we don’t have to endure our death sentence if an appropriate substitute is found.  Jesus is our substitute!  (Is He yours?)

9 But Pilate answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he knew that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy.

This was Pilate’s out…or at least, so he thought.  With the people asking for the annual prisoner release, this was his opportunity to offload Jesus.  Pilate may have been a coward, but he wasn’t stupid.  He knew that the priests didn’t have a legitimate case to kill Jesus, and that they were jealous of Him.  (Besides, anyone that could keep the Jewish priests occupied and out of Pilate’s hair would have been an asset to Pilate!)  He had no reason to kill Jesus; he just wanted to get rid of Him.

Obviously Pilate did not call Jesus “King of the Jews” as a way of expressing any belief, but simply as a way of identifying Jesus to the crowd.  Keep in mind that Jesus had often been in Jerusalem throughout the week, and many people in the crowd might recognize Him.  If not by face, at least they might know Him by reputation.  Pilate is giving them the opportunity to get someone better than Barabbas: not a rebel, but a “king.”

To look at Pilate’s treatment of Jesus is to see a classic example of indifference.  He’s not trying to free Jesus out of any magnitude or mercy; he just doesn’t want to be bothered with the whole mess.  It’s amazing: Pilate had more face-to-face time with Jesus than most Jews did within Judea, and yet the only thing he wants to do is get rid of Him.  Unwilling to take any stand for Jesus, Pilate is really choosing to stand against Him by default.  Pilate doesn’t care, and that itself is his undoing.

  • When it comes to Jesus, we’ve got to make a choice.  Indifference isn’t an option.

11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd, so that he should rather release Barabbas to them.

The priests were one step ahead of Pilate.  Circulating among the crowd, they convinced the people to ask for Barabbas.  It’s quite ironic.  On any other occasion, the priests would desire Barabbas’ punishment.  After all, they had the priesthood through their political connections.  For Barabbas to stir up trouble through rebellion was for their own positions to be put at risk.  Now they find themselves convincing the crowd to cry out for their political opponent.

  • Some people choose anything over Jesus!

12 Pilate answered and said to them again, “What then do you want me to do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?” 13 So they cried out again, “Crucify Him!”

If it hadn’t seemed ugly yet, it just got there!  Pilate again reminds them of the choice – perhaps even offering to release both Barabbas AND Jesus to them.  Pilate doesn’t want Jesus, so what to the people what to do with Him?  After all, surely there were some in the crowd that knew Him.  It was only a few days’ prior that many people in Jerusalem cried out “Hosanna to the Son of David,” and laid palm branches at His feet.  Yet either those people are extraordinarily fickle, or they are nowhere to be found.  The crowd is moved to sheer evil.  Not only did they prefer the known killer to their rejected King, they desired that the King receive the murderer’s punishment: crucifixion.

Note that it wasn’t Pilate who suggested crucifixion (though he had few issues ordering it to be done); it was the Jewish crowd who called for it.  Out of all the possible punishments that could have been given, they want crucifixion – out of all the possible ways to be killed, the mob demanded the worst.

Crucifixion was not a death of a few seconds or even a few minutes.  Crucifixion was non-stop torture that lasted for house on-end, sometimes even overnight.  People did not die from the nails (indeed, not everyone was nailed to their cross).  The nails were incredibly painful being that they were massive spikes that went straight through major nerves – but that didn’t kill anyone.  What killed people was time.  Crucifixion was normally death by asphyxiation (being unable to breath), but it wouldn’t happen immediately.  At first, people would be able to pull themselves up on the cross to get air in their lungs.  Of course, if they were nailed there, they would have to put their whole bodyweight upon the spikes to do so.  Each act of taking breath would rack their bodies with pain.  Eventually, they would no longer have the strength to do it, and they would suffocate while hanging there. 

It was incredibly brutal, reserved for the worst of criminals.  Even contemporary Roman writers commented on how awful it was.  And yet this is what the Jewish mob chose for Jesus.  Something they normally would not have wished upon their enemy is what they demanded for their rejected King.  Think about it – at the very least, Jesus was one of their own countrymen, a Jew.  Even if they honestly believed He deserved death, why not something more humane?  Why not stoning or the sword?  They chose the worst of all possible options for the best of all possible people.  THAT was the extent of their depravity, and to which they rejected Jesus.  And that was the extent to which Jesus demonstrated His love for them, and for us.

  • Understand we are just as depraved.  We are just evil in our own hearts…  When we rebelled against God, we did the same thing as the Jews of that day in that we rejected God as our Lord and King…
  • What’s almost worse than rebellion as a non-believer is rebellion as a believer!  After all, at least non-believers are somewhat honest their rejection of God.  Believers will call Jesus “Lord” with our lips, while rejecting Him as Lord with our actions.
  • We are just as depraved, and Jesus is just as loving.  Knowing all of this about us – experiencing the worst rejection that mankind had to offer, Jesus still died for us. …

14 Then Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they cried out all the more, “Crucify Him!”

Pilate is understandably in disbelief.  Crucifixion was reserved for true evildoers: murderers and the like.  “What evil” had Jesus committed?  His only crime against the people was to anger the priests.  Even if He had disappointed them as a potential king, what reason was that for His crucifixion?  Yet that was exactly what the crowd wanted.  They were thirsty for blood, obtained in the worst way, and they would not be satisfied until they received it.

It’s difficult to wrap our minds around the humiliating spectacle of it all.  The Bible tells us that surrounding the throne of God are angelic creatures continually crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty!”  In heaven, anything that has breath continually uses it to give praise and glory to God.  It’s shouted so loud, that the foundations of the heavenly temple shake.  Yet on earth, the complete opposite took place that morning in Jerusalem.  There was a large multitude – there was much noise and shouting – but it wasn’t worship; it was evil rebellion.  It was not people praising God, but a mob clamoring for the torture and death of the Son of God.  Surely Satan was as pleased as he could get that day, when God’s own chosen people cried out for the crucifixion of God’s only Son.  This was worse than the rebellion at the base of Mt. Sinai, when people worshipped the golden calf – this was worse than the rebellion at Kadesh Barnea, when the people refused to enter into the Promised Land – this was rebellion not just from the Jews, but on behalf of all mandkind…rebellion of the Created against its Creator, demanding death of the God who gave us life.

And yet this is the very thing that God would use to provide salvation to the world.  How many in the mob were later again in the crowd on the day of Pentecost?  How many were personally cut to the heart as Peter told them: Acts 2:22–24, "(22) “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know—(23) Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; (24) whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it."  That was them.  Those were their crimes.  They were the ones who knowingly turned away from the Son of God and demanded His death.  And now God was reaching out to them with an offer of forgiveness and salvation.  The very death they demanded was the death that God used as an atoning sacrifice for their sin.  This was God’s plan all along, and though they were guilty of heinous crimes, they could each be forgiven and be made true children of God.

  • God makes this same offer available to you today.  Your crimes were the reason Jesus was sentenced to the cross.  Your sins were the reason He hung there.  Your rebellion was the reason Jesus was given over to die.  And Jesus did it willingly.  It was according to God’s purpose and foreknowledge, as it was His sovereign plan to make your salvation possible.

15 So Pilate, wanting to gratify the crowd, released Barabbas to them; and he delivered Jesus, after he had scourged Him, to be crucified.

In the end, Pilate gave in.  He knew the truth of Jesus’ innocence, and chose to do nothing.  He had all kinds of options available to him.  He could have kept Jesus in prison, waiting for the passions of the mob to blow over.  He could have executed Jesus on the spot with the sword, ending the issue right then & there.  He could have quietly released Jesus and played the political odds.  He could have done any number of things, but instead he chose “to gratify the crowd.”  They wanted a crucifixion, so he gave them one.  This was torture for sport; not justice.  This was the premier act of political cowardice.  Pilate was supposed to stand for Roman order, and instead he just bowed to the demands of a mob.

Scholars are often quick to note that scourging was a typical precursor to crucifixion, but it was a horrendous punishment all on its own.  This was not the 40-lash beating allowed by Jewish law; this was an act of barbarism that lasted as long as the soldiers inflicting the punishment had the strength in their arm to bring down the whip.  The whip itself had multiple leather straps with pieces of bone, rock, and other items tied/embedded in it.  Coming down on a person’s bare back, it wouldn’t merely beat the man, but literally rip skin, muscle, and other flesh away.  By the end of a scourging, a man’s back would look like hamburger, bloody & quivering.  It was not uncommon for men to die from the scourging alone.

Again, it often accompanied crucifixion…but there is no reason it HAD to accompany crucifixion.  In fact, John gives the impression that Pilate had Jesus scourged before he actually sentenced Jesus to be crucified (Jn 19:1,16).  Scourging may have been commonly associated with crucifixion, but there can be no doubt that this was all Pilate’s doing right here.  The mob wasn’t the only group that had a thirst for blood that day; Pilate did as well.  He wasn’t just a coward; he was cruel.

The amazing part of it all was that Jesus allowed it all to take place.  He stayed silent, allowing the cruel torturers to rip flesh from His bones.  With a blink – with a mere thought – the Son of God could have obliterated them all in righteous vengeance.  No doubt angels were at the ready, perhaps even having to be held back by God from coming to rescue their Creator.  How could this happen to Jesus?  He had already been betrayed, berated, beaten, chained, falsely accused, and more.  And now this?  What more would the Son of God endure?  In fact, He would endure far more than even this.  There was more yet to come…and all of it was the price of our salvation.  The furious wrath of God due to sin had to be satisfied, and even with the scourging it wasn’t enough.  That would only come with the cross, and that was still in the hours ahead.  And Jesus would endure till the end.

Conclusion:
That fateful Friday morning was one filled with both the purest of evil and the purest of loves.  On the one hand, Mankind showed itself in all our depravity as we sought the torture and death of our Creator God.  On the other, God showed all of His love for us in full splendor as Jesus gave His body over for our sins.  Jesus’ very silence was a magnificent statement of His love for us.  That was His choice.

There were all kinds of choices made that day:

  • The priests chose conspiracy and lies.
  • The crowd chose murder and evil
  • The governor chose indifference and cowardice
  • Jesus chose obedience and love

When it comes to Jesus, we must make a choice.  We cannot see Him and do otherwise.  Today, choose Jesus.  See Him for who He is – see Him for what He has done.  Make the decision to stop rebelling against Him, and to receive the gift that He offers you.

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