For years, lies had been spread about Jesus. His abilities and intentions were questioned; he was called a glutton and demon-possessed. Rumors turned to accusations, and accusations to actions. Eventually, he was betrayed, wrongfully arrested, tried before false witnesses, and condemned to execution.
Even improper things can be done in seemingly proper contexts. Knowing they could not kill Jesus himself, the teachers of the law dragged him before the governmental leaders, including Pontius Pilate.
Pilate looked at the situation, and determined two things: Jesus was innocent, and the Pharisees were driven by envy. This should have been enough for him to demand Jesus’s release, had it not been for something else he determined: the people were close to rioting. Even after his wife had a dream that Pilate should stay out of it, he based his actions on protecting his reputation and avoiding chaos, landing on a “safe” approach.
“I have a tradition of releasing one prisoner during the feast. Would you like me to release Jesus, in whom I find no fault, or Barabbas, who started an insurrection and murdered someone?”
The crowds demanded Barabbas be released. Pilate — believing they would not choose him — tried to push back, but in the end, literally and figuratively washed his hands of any association with Jesus execution, whipped him, and released him to the angry crowd.
What influences our choices?
Pilate had rightly discerned that Jesus was not guilty of any crime, and that the Pharisees were driven by envy; not only did Jesus deserve to live, but the Pharisees deserved to be punished for wrongly arresting and beating an innocent man.
So why did he make choices that ensured Jesus’s death?
While we tell ourselves objective facts drive our decisions, this is far from the truth. Truth may play a role, but so do emotions, expectations, fears, aspirations, and a slurry of other factors. Often, those factors can lead us to ignore or denounce objective facts.
Pilate had facts, but he also had a desire to retain power, a fear of riots, and countless other factors playing into his decision to release Jesus to execution. Perhaps he convinced himself that he was innocent of all wrong; after all, the people made the decision, not him. He tried to save Jesus, but they wouldn’t have it. Regardless of his intentions and responsibility, he had the power to save, and instead allowed a wrongful death.
The Pharisees knew what they were doing was wrong; they studied the Law, and knew the importance of integrity and the sin of murder. The goal of their lives was to honor and love God.
So why did they make choices that ensured Jesus’s death?
They knew the facts of Jesus, and many understandably concerned them. However, they were also driven by a desire to retain power and influence, a fear of an uprising, and countless other factors. Convincing themselves that this was what God wanted, they deceptively arrested Jesus, found people to lie about him on trial, and convinced people — people that respected them as a spiritual authorities — to choose Barabbas. They found a way to disregard the clear breaches of their faith, and claim that they were protecting God’s honor.
Days earlier, the people had gathered along the streets to welcome this man that they believed would save them. None of them knew the actual way he would do so, and most assumed Jesus would use force to restore the people. Perhaps they were disappointed when he seemed gentle, weak, and determined to lose. Even so, their hearts had been warmed by Jesus’s words. More, they had witnessed him do incredible miracles; perhaps some in the crowd had been personally impacted by those miracles.
So why did they make choices that ensured Jesus’s death?
While it was not their idea to kill Jesus, they went along with zeal. Maybe they were angry that Jesus was not meeting their expectations, or fearful of what would happen if they opposed the Pharisees, or simply caught up in the mob mindset. They managed to convince themselves that killing an inspiring man and freeing a murderer was good, and boldly proclaimed it.
We are prone to justify bad decisions. Every one of us. And each of us, by default, avoids seeing it.
Three sets of people — Pilate and his authorities, the Pharisees, and the people — justified brutally murdering the most innocent, most loving, most important man in history.
“I would never have done that,” we confidently assert, not recognizing that we are assuming the worst of others in order to protect ourselves. We do not want to believe that there were good, well-meaning, loving people in those groups. We do not want to believe it because, if there were, we have to admit the truth: we, too, could have justified murdering Jesus.
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight." Proverbs 3:5-6
Why does scripture say this? Because our understanding is limited and flawed. We are easily and often swayed by more than objective truth; our ways are submitted more to our preservation and advancement than to God. The result is not a straight path, but one that could easily lead off a cliff.
We are capable of decisions that could cause harm, no matter how good or right we believe we are.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9
If we cannot trust our own ability to discern, what can we do?
What could Pilate have done? For one, he could have listened to his wife. Matthew 27:19 reveals what she told him: “Have nothing to do with that righteous man. I suffered much in a dream today because of him.” It is clear this was not a normal dream — she suffered much — and she indicated something that Pilate hadn’t: Jesus wasn’t just innocent, but he was righteous.
When God calls us to “Love God and love others”, it is not simply about praying and being nice to people: God is revealing the framework in which humanity was designed to function. We were designed to function through God, as community. This means that when one of those elements is missing, we malfunction. Pilate did not know God, and so could not access the supernatural wisdom needed to see Jesus fully (just as Matthew 16:17 reveals Peter only knew Jesus’s identity because the Father told him.) And in disregarding his wife’s urgent plea, he declined access to the power of community to help us know what we could not on our own.
For the Pharisees, they sought God, but often sought a form of Him while missing His fullness. Isaiah 58 gives a picture of this:
For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. Isaiah 58:2
They sought God daily, eager to know his ways, praying, and longing for closeness with God. The rest of the chapter, though, reveals how they not only missed the mark, but they were oppressing God’s children. Their connection with God was loose, which meant they, too, had limited access to the spiritual wisdom needed to discern what was right.
What about community; didn’t the Pharisees function as a robust community? What we consistently miss about community is that it is not meant to solely be a body of like-minded people. 1 Corinthians paints a picture of the diversity of parts within the body, and how if a body was only hands, or if the eyes said to the hands, “I don’t need you”, it couldn’t function. It goes on to say:
But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
The Pharisees were notorious for not having “equal concern for each other”; one of their reasons for opposing Jesus is that he often called them out on it.
Paul goes on to explain the different roles and gifts God placed into the Body of the Church. Why is this relevant? Because if the Pharisees were neglecting parts of the Body, then they were also neglecting roles and gifts that they needed. If they had, for example, listened to Jesus’s prophetic gift, they would have known the danger of their trajectory (and Jesus was very clear with them.)
The people faced an injustice in this; because they were called and expected to honor and follow authority, they were heavily influenced by the mindsets and actions of Pilate and the Pharisees. This is why the New Testament is repetitive regarding the qualities of a spiritual leader; carelessness and selfishness not only take down the leader, but those following him.
They are not off the hook, though. They were given ample opportunities to experience God and discern truth; so what went wrong?
Many of the people wanted to seek God — like the Pharisees — but wanted it in their ways and for their outcomes. For example, some would hear God insofar is it furthered their cause of revolution and liberation. Anything that God said that countered that, they ignored or rejected. So in the crucial moment that they could choose whether Jesus lived or died, they did not hear God’s voice, but those of the Pharisees and their own. They shouted “Crucify!”
And community? All their lives they had been told that only certain people had access to God, and only certain people had access to spiritual truth; if you lived the way they said, and paid in tithes and sacrifices, you may be okay. As a result, there was a spiritual disconnect for many of them; yet it wasn’t total. We know this because of the myriad of examples of people coming to, and following, Jesus; we see the spiritual communities that were formed in countless towns after someone had an experience with Jesus, like the woman at the well. When people authentically saw Jesus, they immediately discovered spiritual community.
The people shouting “crucify” had seen Jesus — they were actively looking at him — but they had not SEEN him. They had not seen him like the woman with the issue of bleeding, who knew even the hem of his robe had power; they had not seen him even like blind Bartimaeus, who saw Jesus more authentically than those who could physically see. This meant they could be a form of a community — physically standing as a crowd and shouting the same thing — and miss the power community was designed to produce. Or more, their community DID have power, but it was used in a destructive way.
You and I are making important decisions right now: as individuals, as communities, as leaders, as churches. We may not feel like our choices are on par with those deciding whether the son of God lived or died, but neither did those people; to them, he was just a man, and his death would be forgotten in a few months. We may not be aware of the eternal opportunities and ramifications that exist with each choice, nor would knowing necessarily impact our trajectory.
That feels like a tremendous amount of pressure! How can we face the day when we could so easily be swayed to make a destructive decision?
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Matthew 6:33 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God. Philippians 1:9-11 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7
Put simply: Love God, and love others.
Are we willing to put God and his glory above all else; above what we want, above what we believe is best, above what we think is right? Are we willing to trust His wisdom more than our understanding, even if we will look like losers and fools to others? Are we willing to take His course, even if it seems to amount to nothing, even if it costs us everything?
Are we willing to humble ourselves to hear the stories and perceptions of others? Are we willing to abandon arrogance and accept wisdom and plans counter to our own? Are we willing to forego self-sufficiency in order to honor the Body? Are we willing to sacrifice rights for the sake of others?
Today, many of us are doing things “in the name of God” that actually dishonor God; we are doing things “out of love for others” that actually cause harm. Sometimes what we are pursuing is not bad, but it has taken a higher seat than God: that makes it an idol. It’s why Jesus said we needed to hate our fathers, mothers, spouses, and even our own lives; anything can become an idol to us, something that we pursue or protect over God.
The beauty is that Jesus is after right ordering because he is after full life for us. In sacrificing these things — pursuits, stances we believe in, our own desires — we are not actually sacrificing them, but sacrificing a limited and fruitless way of seeing and engaging the world. The sacrifice allows us to see the authentic Jesus, and from that vantage point we see all those things — pursuits, stances, desires — in a new, wise way. We are able to discern what is best; we are able to see ways forward that previously seemed impossible.
The irony in all this is that God intended for Jesus to die. He would have been condemned whether these groups genuinely sought God or not; if it wasn’t them, someone else would have condemned. Even if the outcome was intended, it doesn’t mean the specific people needed to be there. While in one way or another Jesus would have been condemned, many — just like Rahab who escaped though her city was destroyed, or Lot escaping Sodom’s destruction — could have avoided playing a detrimental role.
Our spiritual carelessness can unwittingly make us participants in awful things. Whether it was an in-the-moment decision, or a series of life choices, many found themselves in a place where they not only had to make an important decision about Jesus’s life, but they were not equipped or determined to make it wisely. Regardless of their motives or beliefs, they all chose to kill Jesus.
Today, whether because of in-the-moment decisions or a series of life choices, we could be involved in embracing things that cause great harm, to God and others. We can effectively condemn Jesus and believe we are right.
When this happens, what will we do?
Will we pretend we are innocent and non-complicit, like Pilate?
Will we justify our actions, like the Pharisees?
Will we go with the crowd, like the people?
Or will we pause, humble ourselves, own our actions, and discover Truth, even if it breaks our hearts or costs us everything?
This is the invitation extended to us today, right now. There is one God, and He is calling us through a narrow gate; many prefer the wide gate, called there by the many other “gods” in our lives, but that’s not the path to the full life God has promised. We must seek a path towards God, not even towards the “things of God” (“Seek first… and all these things will be given to you as well.”) We have a choice before us:
But if serving the LORD seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD. Joshua 24:15