April 3 Sermon Resource

Jesus Condemned

  • Main Text: John 19:1-16a
  • Accompanying Text: Psalm 146

Context

As we read the various Gospel accounts concerning the crucifixion and the events leading up to it, it’s important to view them as complementary rather than contradictory. Each writer chooses which details to include, as a journalist might do today in reporting a leading story. 

That the crucifixion did take place is referenced in non-biblical sources such as Josephus and Tacitus.  “Josephus is one of the primary sources on Pilate and depicts him as a cruel, ruthless, and brutal person. Philo also describes him as guilty of ‘venality, violence, robbery, assault, abusive behaviour, frequent executions without trial, and endless savage ferocity’ (Legatio ad Gaium 301-302). Pilate was definitely not the sort of person you would want to antagonize at any time…There is also the reference in Luke (13:1) to Pilate being involved at some point in the spilling of Galilean blood in Jerusalem…In view of his propensity for violence as a means of achieving his ends, would Pilate even have bothered giving such a low-ranking individual such as Jesus a trial, when this matter might conceivably have been dealt with by a Roman subordinate?  Perhaps at any other time of the year this might have been the case, but, because of the sensitivity of the Passover week, it is more likely that Pilate would have wanted to deal with the matter himself so as to ensure a firm outcome…it was up to Pilate so sort things out and show an example. He was probably afraid that if he was not seen as decisive, unrest on the street might quickly turn into a full-blown insurrection”. [1]

Also, according “to the Roman historian Tacitus, ‘Christ…suffered the death penalty during the reign of Tiberius, by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate” (Annals 15.44).  Although Tacitus errs slightly in upgrading Pilate’s rank (he was a prefect, not a procurator), his terse summary agrees with what we find in Josephus and in the Christian Gospels”. [2]

A debated detail has been the story of Barabbas. “All four New Testament Gospels know of Pilate’s so-called Passover pardon (Mark 15:6-15; Matthew 27:15-23; Luke 23:18-25; John 19:10-12). Although some critical scholars have cast doubts on the historicity of this tradition, it is improbable that inauthentic tradition, whose falsity could be so easily exposed, would be utilized by all four evangelists.

Besides, there are other accounts of Roman and other officials releasing prisoners on occasion of special days that are not questioned. For example, the Roman historian Livy (c.25 BC) speaks of special cases where prisoners were released (‘Books from the Foundation of the City,’ 5:13,8). Herod’s son Archelaus, as the newly appointed ethnarch of Judea and Samaria (4 BC), acquiesced to popular demands to release many prisoners (Joesphus, Ant. 17.204)…The evidence as a whole suggests that Roman rulers, as well as at least one Herodian prince, on occasion released prisoners (so apparently did other rulers in the eastern Mediterranean). This was done for purely political reasons, to satisfy the demands of the crowds and to curry their favour. The Passover pardon, therefore reflected Pilate’s shrewd political instincts, not political weakness or human kindness. The Passover pardon was intended to show respect for the great Jewish holiday, in effect to say, ‘In keeping with your celebration of freedom from bondage we shall set free anyone of your choosing.”  The tradition of the Passover pardon gave Pilate the opportunity to pass responsibility for the fate of Jesus onto the shoulders of his accusers.  If they so badly want him dead, then let them take responsibility for passing judgment.  Pilate is neither cowardly nor principled.  He is clever…He was not about to risk offending the populace, especially at the Passover season, and so instigate a riot…But Pilate forces the crowd to make the decision. This way he can ‘wash his hands’ (literally in Matthew 27:24) of the matter. Politically, Pilate has acted shrewdly and entirely in keeping with his character as we know from unsympathetic sources (e.g., Philo and Josephus)”. [3]

What happened to Barabbas? Did he live to witness Christ’s crucifixion? If so, what would he have thought? Some scholars think that it’s unlikely that he would have survived for long because he was in effect a terrorist. Was he re-arrested and executed? “To allow Barabbas back on the streets of Jerusalem would have been a foolhardly act of the Roman authorities, to say the least, and so must have been unlikely. Hence, Barabbas was most likely executed — clemency or no clemency”. [4]

Thoughts re application today

“‘Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull’ (John 19:17).  The death of Jesus is a very dark moment in human history.  Not just an innocent man, but the Creator of the world is brutally killed.  Those who have pushed for this to happen are largely in the dark.  They didn’t know what they were doing.  Those in the darkness did not see or understand the light that was shining in their midst.  They didn’t comprehend that Jesus is the light, which is the other meaning of that word, but neither have they overcome Jesus as a light”. [5]

Even though Christ was condemned to be crucified not just for our sins but also or the sins of the whole world, thankfully “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

james.henderson@gracecom.church

Some other Scripture Resources

  • Mark 15:6-15
  • Matthew 27:15-23
  • Luke 23:18-25

Other GCI resources

Footnotes and references

  1. Shimon Gibson, The Final Days of Jesus: the Archaeological Evidence, published by HarperOne, UK, in 2009:88-89.
  2. Craig A. Evans and Tom Wright, Jesus, the Final Days, published by SPCK, UK, in 2008:3-4.
  3. Ibid 20-23.
  4. Shimon Gibson, The Final Days of Jesus: the Archaeological Evidence, published by HarperOne, UK, in 2009:90.
  5. Ian Galloway, Called to be Friends: Unlocking the Heart of John’s Gospel published by Hodder & Stroughton, UK, 2021:286.

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