Jesus' Trial & the Scandal of Unbelief
Passage: John 18:38–19:16
Sermon from John 18:38b-19:16a by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on March 22, 2015
Scandal of Human Unbelief & Extravagance of God's Grace
We’re going to cover a lot of turf this morning, but stop just shy of Jesus’ actual crucifixion and save that for Easter Sunday along with some connections to Psalm 22. Wes is going to bring the message for Palm Sunday next weekend, so be praying for him. But today we look at Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate. We won’t cover everything in detail, but two things should shock you—the scandal of human unbelief and the extravagance of God’s grace in Christ.
We’re going to see the scandal of unbelief—the scandal of Jewish unbelief, the scandal of Pilate’s unbelief, and the scandal of our unbelief. People make scandalous choices when they fail to see Jesus for who he really is. It’s why people look at pornography; it’s why people love money; it’s why people are harsh with their children; it’s why people seek Jesus in private and fear man in public. People do scandalous things when they fail to see Jesus for who he really is.
But we’re also going to see the extravagance of God’s grace. Even through all the scandal of Jesus’ trial, God’s gracious initiative to save us remains unchallenged. In fact, in his extravagant grace, God designed the scandal of Jesus’ crucifixion to save you from the scandal of your unbelief. Let me read our passage all the way through once, and then we’ll make a few observations together.
18:37Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 39But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber. 19:1Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. 2And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. 3They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. 4Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” 5So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” 6When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.” 7The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” 8When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. 9He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. 10So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” 11Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” 12From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” 13So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. 14Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” 15They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” 16So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.
1. The Scandal of Unbelief
Let’s first look at a few things together about the scandal of unbelief—unbelief meaning not a failure to believe Jesus is a real person and said what he said, but a failure to take him at his word and give yourself whole-heartedly over to him as Lord and God. This kind of unbelief is scandalous. There are things happening throughout Jesus’ trial that ought to cause outrage in us as readers. We’ve seen the beauty of Jesus on page after page in John’s Gospel, and “This is the way he’s treated?!” is the idea. This scandal of unbelief comes out in numerous ways; let me highlight just four.
Unbelief is illogical
First off, check out how illogical unbelief is. They choose a guilty robber over Jesus, the Good Shepherd. I’ll give you some context. Barabbas is called a “robber” in verse 40; and I think that’s a good translation. Some of your Bibles may have “an insurrectionist.” That perfectly fine, too. It’s just that “robber” helps connect us to the only other place in John’s Gospel where we find that word.
Look with me at 10:1, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.” Bounce now to verses 7-8, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them.” Now verses 10-11, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
Now head back to chapter 18. Not only has Pilate just declared Jesus not guilty, but we know as readers that Jesus is the one who comes to give us abundant life. He’s not the one who steals and kills and destroys; he’s the one who gives and serves and saves. But the people’s cry goes up for the guilty robber: “Not this man, but Barabbas.”
Unbelief is scandalously illogical. It chooses murderers over the giver of life—Barabbas murdered people, Mark tells us (Mark 15:7 // Luke 23:19); Jesus raises the dead (John 11:1-40). Unbelief says, “I’d rather live with a robber to get what I want, instead of living with a Shepherd who gives me all I need.” It’s illogical, scandalously so.
Unbelief fuels injustice
A second way the scandal of unbelief comes out: unbelief fuels injustice. The Jews would rather live with a man guilty of murder than siding with Jesus, who is innocent. Three times Pilate says, “I find no guilt in him” (18:38; 19:4, 6). And yet on all three occasions, something unjust happens to the innocent Jesus. The first time Pilate says it, the Jews ask him to release a guilty man (18:40). The second time, they don’t even want to hear Pilate’s defense; they just cry out, “Crucify him!” (19:6). And the third time, the Jews falsely accuse him of blasphemy (19:7).
They really want nothing to do with a fair trial. Even one of their own kind, Nicodemus, warned the others earlier in John’s Gospel: “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” (7:51). And regardless, here they are, throwing their own law at Jesus while ignoring his words, ignoring his works. No hearing. No patient learning of what he does.
They even switch back and forth from their own law to Roman law. 18:31, “It’s not lawful for us to put anyone to death”—that’s Roman law they’re using. Ah, but now it’s their law they want to follow—“We have a law…” (19:7). And then they’re back to favoring Caesar in 19:12. It’s really about whatever law best serves their agenda, not whatever law best serves justice.
And then we see the injustice of Pilate himself. On the one hand, he knows Jesus is innocent; so he tries getting Jesus released. Yet on the other hand, when he has the authority to release Jesus, he doesn’t (19:10). He just tries to pacify the Jews somehow—he calls Jesus in for more questioning (18:33; 19:9); he has Jesus flogged without reason (19:1); he parades Jesus around like a weakling (19:5)—all the while knowing he’s innocent (19:4, 6, 12).
Unbelief is self-centered
Of course, Pilate’s desire to pacify the Jews also highlights a third way the scandal of unbelief manifests itself: unbelief is self-centered. Unbelief is scandalously self-centered. It shows no regard for the glory of God’s Son (1:14, 18). Its only concern is the glory of self. It craves the approval of others (cf. 12:42). Jesus said this earlier when he connects unbelief to the desire for human praise. What’s he tell the Jews? “How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? (5:44).
You see, Pilate is stuck. He knows Jesus is innocent; but by the end of this long exchange the Jews hit him with this: “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” So Pilate has to decide, “Who do I look out for—the innocent man; or my own tail end?” And it becomes immediately obvious who he’s really out to protect. He’s out to protect himself, his position, his clout—regardless of what he knows to be true.
Pilate suppresses the truth, because he fears the emperor’s opinion. He doesn’t want the Jews to spread word back to Rome that Pilate’s participating in sedition. Unbelief is scandalous, because it’s centered on self-glory instead of the glory of God in Christ.
Unbelief is blasphemous
Unbelief is scandalous also because it’s blasphemous. Unbelief pretends that the true King isn’t really king at all. Pilate calls Jesus “the king of the Jews” several times over, but it’s always with disdain (18:39; 19:14, 15). It’s his way of mocking the Jews, who obviously don’t want Jesus as their king: “Behold, your king!”
The soldiers parade Jesus around with a crown of thorns and a purple robe, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” while striking him with their hands. According to 1:1-3, Jesus holds their very being in existence, and yet here the soldiers make him the object of their cruel barracks humor.
But two of the most pointed counts of blasphemy come just at the end of our passage—one involves Pilate. We’re told in 5:22 that God the Father has given all judgment to the Son. One day, all will honor the Son just as they honor the Father. And this Son will ascend to the throne in heaven, and he possesses the power to call people out of their tombs, and separate them according to their works: those who’ve done good he will raise to a resurrection of life; those who’ve done evil to the resurrection of judgment (5:27-28). So, we know this about Jesus going into his trial. And then here, at the end of the trial, Pilate brings Jesus out and he sits down on the judgment seat himself with the Son of God in the dock. It’s so scandalous.
And then there are the Jews. Pilate straight up asks them, “Shall I crucify your King?” And the Jews totally forsake their theology. God is the only true King in Israel—they know this from their Bibles, or they wouldn’t have put Jesus on trial for blasphemy. And what do they say? “We have no king but Caesar.” They forsake their theology and their God, in order to crucify Jesus. They blaspheme God by calling Caesar their king. Unbelief is blasphemous, because it pretends that the true King isn’t really king at all.
2. The Scandal of Unbelief in Us Too
So, what then can we say about unbelief? We can say that unbelief is scandalous, because it’s illogical, unjust, self-centered, and blasphemous. Where faith in Jesus is lacking; scandal of this sort is present. Or, to make it more personal: we are scandalous people when we fail to trust Jesus for who he really is.
It is right for us—and part of preaching the gospel—to acknowledge that evil men crucified Jesus. But it would be wrong for us to distance ourselves from their evil, to distance ourselves from their unbelief—as if the same wasn’t true of us. Pilate and the Jews are not just doing their duties as officers; they’re people born in Adam just like us. They’re swayed by unbelief and sin, just like us. Our unbelief is equally scandalous.
Do you ever make half-hearted compromises, like we see in Pilate—maybe at the office? Maybe in parenting? Maybe in dealings with others? You know what’s right, but you compromise just to get by. Are there times when you sacrifice biblical principles for expediency? There are times when we’re so ruled by what’s expedient, by what’s convenient, by what’s pragmatic, that we forfeit what’s right. I mean within seconds I can make snap judgments that will make a noisy living room silent—but that doesn’t mean I brought about peace, especially the kind of peace the Lord wanted built into my children.
Have you ever envied someone else? Maybe they have something you want; maybe they look the way you desire to look; maybe they’re having success when all you seem to encounter is failure; maybe they receive credit for something you did—and envy builds inside you just like it built inside the Jews before they crucified Jesus (cf. Mark 15:10). John Stott has a great quote about that: “Nobody is ever envious of others who is not first proud of himself.” Do you ever feel threatened by others’ achievements or their knowledge of a particular subject or even their Christian walk?
Or what might we make of something like viewing pornography? Is it not scandalous? Is it not insanely illogical to look at your faithful Bridegroom and seek release in an electronic image? Is it not fueling all sorts of injustice for women made in God’s image? Is it not blasphemous to choose idols over the living God, adultery over faithfulness, selfish gain over true worship?
What might we make of the way we spend our money, while orphans suffer and widows go uncared for? How much do other people’s opinions matter to you? They should matter some; but do they matter so much that they govern what you do, the faces you put on? The approval of others sways your actions like it did Pilate’s, or maybe even sways your feelings toward others. You fret every night you go to sleep, racing through every moment of the day to see if you said something that would jeopardize your self-image?
And how many times have you attempted to sit in the judgment seat, where only Christ belongs? If you can number the times you have been sinfully angry, then you have your answer. How easy it is to sit ourselves down in the throne where only Christ belongs, and dictate to him what we think he should do and when he should do it.
Folks, every form of unbelief carries with it scandalous characteristics that were also present in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. That’s why Hebrews can say with such utter seriousness that to remain in patterns of unbelief is to crucify once again the Son of God to your own harm (Heb 6:6). Just like the Jews and Pilate, our unbelief, our sin, also played a role in crucifying Jesus.
The old American spiritual rightly asks us, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And in this sense we have to say, “Yes, we were all there!”—and it ought to cause us to tremble, tremble, tremble. Unbelief is scandalous because it sacrifices the King of glory to have robbers. It sacrifices the King of glory to have thieves; to have money, power, sinful sex, people’s approval—none of which lead to life.
Now, I know it’s unsettling to own the scandal of your unbelief—to look it in the face for the outrage that it really is—but we have no other choice when gazing upon the bloodied Son of God. Maker of heaven and earth—mocked by his creatures. By his majestic authority he cursed the earth because of our sin and said, “Thorns and thistles it shall grow for you,” and the audacity of man to smash those very thorns on his brow in wretched humor: “Hail, King of the Jews!” We have no choice but to be disturbed by the scandal of unbelief, its plotting, its scheming, to crucify the true King of the universe to get what we want. And we have to own it…
3. The Extravagance of God’s Grace
We have to own the scandal of our unbelief. If we don’t, we’ll never comprehend the extravagance of God’s grace—a grace that I want to point out to you and leave you with now. As I said earlier, God designed the scandal of Jesus’ crucifixion to save you from the scandal of your unbelief. Unbelief is a big part of this picture, here; but it’s not outside God’s sovereign and gracious plan to save us. Unbelief may be plotting to kill Jesus; but unbelief isn’t the one offering up Jesus on the cross. Look at verses 10-11.
Pilate is obviously offended that Jesus wouldn’t answer him: “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” And what is Jesus’ answer? “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” That little phrase, “from above,” appears several other places in John’s Gospel, and it essentially means, “from God, from God’s heavenly order and control” (3:3, 7, 31; cf. 8:23).
So, who’s the one really orchestrating the death of Jesus, even at the hands of evil men? It’s God the Father. God so love the world that he gave his only Son—John 3:16. Or Isaiah 53:10, “It was the will of the Lord to crush him.” God the Father is ultimately ordaining Jesus’ crucifixion.
That doesn’t mean Pilate and others like Caiaphas aren’t guilty for their sinful actions. Verse 12 says they’re both guilty; it’s just that Caiaphas’s sin is even greater by comparison. So in his mysterious providence, God is able to ordain evil through human acts and not be blamed for them himself. And this of course is the way the apostles preached the cross in the book of Acts: “this Jesus, delivered up according to the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:22-23)—lawless men killing Jesus and simultaneously God’s predetermined plan to offer up Jesus.
The point is that Jesus is in God’s hands through all this. Jesus isn’t suffering crucifixion as a helpless victim; he’s willingly fulfilling the Father’s plan to save sinners. Yes, the crucifixion exposes the scandal of unbelief; but it also does something more. It reveals the extravagance of God’s grace to give up his only Son for evil men like you and me.
The images we get throughout this passage are truly remarkable. The one who committed no treason is the one who dies to free those who have committed treason (18:38-40). The one who cursed the ground with thorns because of our sin is the one who wears the thorns himself to remove our curse (19:1; cf. Gen 3:18). The Son of Man who is worthy of all honor and never known any shame is the one who endures the wretched shame of crucifixion to clothe us with his honor (Heb 12:2; Rom 2:10). The Son of God who is worthy of all worship endures a scandalous crucifixion to free us from the scandal of our unbelief (1 Cor 1:23).
It is as Isaiah said much earlier: “He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isa 53:3-5).
Pilate said with great disdain in verse 5, “Behold the man!” But I want to say to you with great awe at God’s extravagant grace, “Behold…behold the man.” Here, the Son of Man is being lifted up in all his glory: behold the man (3:14; 8:24; 12:32).
God designed the scandal of Jesus’ crucifixion to save you from the scandal of your unbelief. He took the shame to bring you honor; he was humiliated to raise you up; he died a scandalous death to rid you of your scandalous sins; he wore a crown of thorns to give you his crown of life. Shai Linne, in one of his lyrical tracks called “The Cross (3 Hours),” captures the picture we see here perfectly. Bear with me as I read this, because I’m definitely no rapper even though I enjoy lyrical hip-hop.
We’re now in the realm of the sublime and profound
With God at the helm it’s about to go down
The Father’s wrath precise will blast and slice
The priceless Master Christ as a sacrifice
Willingly, He’s under the curse
To be treated as if the Son was the worst scum of the earth
The scene is the craziest
Jesus being treated as if He is the shadiest atheist
How is it the Messiah is in the fiery pit
As if He was a wicked liar with twisted desires?
The One who’s sinless and just
Punished as if He was promiscuous and mischievous with vicious lust
The source of all godly pleasure
Tormented as if He was a foul investor or child molestor
How could He be bruised like He was a goodie two-shoes
who doesn’t think that she needs the good news?
He’s perfect in love and wisdom
But He’s suffering as if He constructed the corrupt justice system
We should mourn at the backdrop
Jesus torn like He’s on the corner with crack rock with porn on His laptop
What is this, kid? His gifts are infinite
But He’s hit with licks for religious hypocrites
He’s the Light, but being treated like
He’s the seedy type who likes to beat His wife
He’s treated like a rapist, treated like a slanderer
Treated like a racist or maybe a philanderer
Jesus being penalized like He had sin inside
Filled with inner pride while committing genocide
I could write for a billion years and still can’t name
All of the sins placed on the Lamb slain
But know this: the main thing the cross demonstrated
The glory and the holiness of God vindicated
Or, let’s put it in the words of the apostle Paul: “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). In his extravagant grace, God designed the scandal of Jesus’ crucifixion to save you from the scandal of your unbelief. And with that said, here are a few brief exhortations to drive some of this home for tomorrow morning.
Admit the scandal of your unbelief
First of all, admit the scandal of your unbelief. Agree with God that your unbelief and sin is so scandalous that it crucifies the Lord of glory. Call unbelief what it truly is even though we live in a culture that will subtly persuade you that it’s not that big a deal. The same outrage you feel toward the evil men who crucified your Lord is the same outrage you should feel toward your sin. And do this before you sin or even when you’re caught in sin. Let the Bible teach you how horrific unbelief is.
Let it expose how illogical it is—unbelief will only lead you to choose robbers over the Good Shepherd. When you’re tempted to get on your phone or on your computer for inappropriate reasons, see that you’re being lured in by robbers that want to steal, kill, and destroy you. And then turn to the Savior, who wants to fill you with joy.
When you’re tempted to fear people, to love the approval of others, think of the ugliness depicted in Pilate’s treatment of Jesus. And then turn to all that God is for you in Jesus. If God is for you, what more do you need?
When you’re tempted to spend your money out of self-centered motives, consider the injustice it causes others, and what it ultimately says about your trust in the Lord who gives us everything we need. And then turn to the one who gives you everything you need, including generosity.
Admit the scandal of your unbelief, and do not harden yourself to the truth. But, don’t stop there, with the scandal of unbelief.
Preach the extravagance of God’s grace
Second, preach the extravagance of God’s grace. Preach to yourself the extravagance of God’s grace in the cross. Preach God’s grace in Christ before you sin, when you’re caught in sin, and after you sin. Yes, the cross stands as a reminder of how scandalous we are; but it’s also the revelation of how extravagant God’s grace really is. He really sent his Son to bear your wretched shame, and take it all away. He really became a curse to free you from the curse. He really became sin to free you from sin.
And so comprehensive is his work, that anyone who believes in him are called beloved children of God. God’s grace in Christ fundamentally changes people, so that they’re no longer objects of his wrath but objects of his delight. No mess you’ve made, no broken marriage, no shameful deed you’ve committed, no scandal you’re involved with, no self-pity party you’ve been throwing, can prevent God’s grace from reaching you, and saving you, and changing you, and empowering you.
Just look at the cross. Look at how dirty he’s willing to get to have you. Look at the shameful extent he’s willing to go to rescue you. Look at the crown he’s willing to wear to pluck you out of your desperate condition, and then crown you with jewels, like Isaiah 61 says. And that’s a message we need to hear every day, because we still disbelieve, we still sin, and we still need his rescue. And if you struggle to believe God’s extravagant grace, pray, “I believe! Lord, help my unbelief!” The perfection of your faith isn’t what saves you; Jesus saves you through simply faith.
It’s also a message that our neighbors need to hear as well. Look them in the eye and help them behold the scandalous death of Jesus; and whatever specific sins enslave them, take them to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Show them how God’s extravagant grace meets them where they are, in order to bring them to glory. God trades beauty for ashes. He makes the scandalous marvelous in Christ.
Live together beneath the cross
Finally, live together beneath the cross. The scandalous death of Jesus informs how we live and interact with each other. For instance, if the cross really exposes the scandal of our unbelief and sin, there’s no sense in trying to hide them from others. God has already publicly exposed us for what we really are through the cross. As others have stated before, the worst thing that could ever be said about you has already been said, when God poured out his wrath on Jesus in your place. There’s no other shameful exposure that can top that—we are far more sinful than we could ever imagine.
But the cross also stands as heaven’s loudest shout that we are more loved, more forgiven, more accepted than anyone could ever dream, to use the words of Tim Keller. And there’s great freedom found here for our relationships.
Your forgiveness before God means you don’t need to fear the self-righteous stares or insensitive comments of other people when you confess your sin. The cross is sufficient (1 John 1:5-2:2). Your acceptance with God means you don’t need to look for your acceptance in other people, since God himself is more than enough (Gal 2:11-21). He dressed himself with your shame to have you. Your identity in Christ means you have a status before God that’s infinitely superior to any sort of status you may be tempted to create with your own cleverness, or people-pleasing, or even silence when wisdom would urge you to speak (Eph 4:20-25).
Some of us embrace the mistaken notion that you must be an expert in order to understand each other’s heart and hear each other’s confession and counsel each other in the right direction. But listen to the words of Bonhoeffer, as he reflects on the cross:
Anybody who lives beneath the cross and who has discerned in the Cross of Jesus the utter wickedness of all men and of his own heart, will find there is no sin that can ever be alien to him. Anybody who has once been horrified by the dreadfulness of his own sin that nailed Jesus to the Cross will no longer be horrified by even the rankest sins of a brother. Looking at the Cross of Jesus, he knows the human heart. He knows how utterly lost it is in sin and weakness, how it goes astray in the ways of sin, and he also knows that it is accepted in grace and mercy. Only the brother under the Cross can hear a confession.
It is not experience of life but experience of the Cross that makes one a worthy hearer of confessions. The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus…It is no lack of psychological knowledge but lack of love for the crucified Jesus Christ that makes us so poor and inefficient in brotherly confession…Who can hear our confession? He who himself lives beneath the Cross. Wherever the message concerning the Crucified [Christ] is a vital, living thing, there brotherly confession will also avail (Bonhoeffer, Life Together [New York: Harper & Row, 1954], 118-119).
May we live together there, brothers and sisters, beneath the cross; and ask God to do incredible things in us. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom 8:32).
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