Following His Footsteps: “That Pesky Jesus Problem” – Matthew 27:1-54

J104162401One of the traits I truly admire in great leaders is their ability to remain calm in the face of extraordinary circumstances. The “best of the best” have been able to withstand enormous pressures, often without showing much of the wear it had upon them. Whether it is a jovial smirking face of the cigar-laden Winston Churchill, or the calm but tired look of Abraham Lincoln – history sometimes yields little snapshots of great men with resolute faces of quiet confidence. Think about those two men for a moment… Can you imagine finding yourself responsible for the course of your country in such dire circumstances? Lincoln was watching the Union he loved dissolve and fragment over decades old conflicts. Churchill was watching his world renowned, well-ordered and prosperous society of England pummeled into rubble by Nazi rockets and bombs. Both were faced with enormous pressures, but both responded with confidence… At least, that is what the pictures show.

Have you ever been in a situation in which you were absolutely unprepared for what was expected of you? I admit that I am a bit of a compulsive planner, almost neurotic about being unprepared, which is probably my version of a personal nightmare. I want to be ready for what is expected – and I want to deliver MORE than was expected. That desire must be kept in check, because it can drive me if I am not careful. Over the years, I have come to realize a problem in life: the things which catch me by surprise are often some of the most critical things to get right in my first response. (Ask the Honorable Mayor of Baltimore if she would like to have had more time to prepare some of her remarks this past week!) Knowing what to do in grave circumstances and before critical people in a pressured moment is a skill that must be honed, tested and practiced. One thing is certain: From all we can tell from historical documentation, Pontius Pilate didn’t have those skills on the ready. He had a moment of his leadership remembered in history – and it is a moment where he not only failed to lead, but was completely “rattled” by the crowd. He was a man who appeared confused by the stresses of leadership.

How do I know? In the Gospel account, during the last hours of Jesus earth ministry before He was crucified, the Savior stood before that leader – Procurator Pontius Pilate. Pilate stood in the toga of an equestrian Roman, a man bred into the upper class of society, and proudly surrounded by the might of Rome’s soldiers, but he didn’t sound the part. Pilate asked a critical question to the leaders who brought Jesus before him. Matthew 27:22 recorded it this way: “Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” He was the de facto leader on the scene – but he was a man with a terrible perplexing problem, and seemed to be seeking advice from the people he was called to lead. What should he DO? …Indeed. Consider this truth for a moment…

Key Principle: What we DO with Jesus determines what we DO with our own lives and our own destiny.

Historians differ on approaches to Jesus. World historians view western history around the coming of Jesus – because more than the calendar changed. The impact of the message and people of Jesus was obvious to any who are truly open to studying western history. At the same time, much of the historical work doesn’t really expose Jesus – but rather those who followed Him. In my life, I have found…

People DO many things with Jesus:

Consider for a few moments some of the people in the narrative of the New Testament, particularly in Matthew 27, where we are treated with an interesting view of what a variety of people “DID” with Jesus. They are more than just memories. I would suggest they are almost archetypes. Let’s take a look:

Leaders bound Jesus

Matthew opens with Jesus in custody, and the rising of the sun…

Matthew 27:1 Now when morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus to put Him to death; 2 and they bound Him, and led Him away and delivered Him to Pilate the governor.

The Jewish leadership could tolerate no more of Jesus, nor of those who followed Him. In essence, those who could not control Him, sought to silence Him. Is that not something we have seen, over and over in history.

Think about the church’s objections to moral redefinition today. Think about the unshaken nature of the church in relationship to the unborn. We don’t seem flexible – because we follow an unchanging God when it comes to moral precepts. For generations, leaders of our country (many who can be evaluated by the works of private biographers) unashamedly quoted from the Bible, called upon people for counsel like the Reverend Billy Graham, and thought of the Biblically unmovable fences of morality as a GOOD THING. Yet, as the tide of public opinion turns – because it has been deliberately engineered by forces bent on re-shaping our moral frame – these same leaders quietly offer tacit approval to creating an environment that silences the words of the Scripture on subjects now found unpopular.

Let’s be wise: When so-called “leaders” cannot control Jesus and His message, and they cannot co-opt it for the purpose of gaining popularity – they choose the third option… to silence it by whatever means necessary.

Hollywood has tried to remake the image of Jesus and cut and paste His words to make Him inoffensive – but that hasn’t worked – because God preserved the text and its pages stubbornly reveal their antics. Educators have tunneled under the Scriptures and tried their best to offer such complex criticisms of the Holy Writ that students would be left plagued with doubts about the veracity of the narrative – but students who do the work will find that the Bible is filled with details that have been unearthed by archaeologists. Even more, those who are walking with Jesus have watched His Word take apart the strongholds of evil within and woo us to obedience. The power of the Word by those who have truly encountered it, is hard to silence in a life transformed.

Go back to Matthew 27, and look at the opening words. The men “conferred” together about what to do with Jesus. He Who sought no advice from them, was now at the mercy of committee rule. They weighed whether stoning would be an option, but with the Galileans in town for the feast – a group among whom Jesus was quite popular – they thought imprisonment or death would bring an uprising. Some suggest, from time to time, that the leaders couldn’t have killed Him without being defiled. Yet, on close inspection to the Gospels, these men seemed quite capable of ordering a death along with a lunchtime salad – and continuing through the day with punctilious religious ritual. I suspect the need to keep the crowds settled was the deciding factor – not the morality of the command to kill. They decided to trade Jesus to the Romans and seek His death through the courts. In the event all things went poorly, they could hope that only Pilate would be the loser.

Here is the truth: If leaders can’t USE Jesus for their ends – they may well move to SILENCE Jesus and His followers. We have passed through decades of attempts to align the followers of Jesus with a political party – and we are now seeing the truth. We will be discarded and silenced if we don’t bend with political winds. This isn’t the first time – it has been going on since the Gospels…

Judas betrayed Jesus

Judas also had a decision to make about what to DO with Jesus. Matthew recalled:

Matthew 27:3 Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, 4 saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See [to that] yourself!” 5 And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself. 6 The chief priests took the pieces of silver and said, “It is not lawful to put them into the temple treasury, since it is the price of blood.” 7 And they conferred together and with the money bought the Potter’s Field as a burial place for strangers. 8 For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “AND THEY TOOK THE THIRTY PIECES OF SILVER, THE PRICE OF THE ONE WHOSE PRICE HAD BEEN SET by the sons of Israel; 10 AND THEY GAVE THEM FOR THE POTTER’S FIELD, AS THE LORD DIRECTED ME.”

Let’s say it this way: The one who did not face the beckoning of conviction faced the dead end of the wall of guilt. Scripture defined the difference between “Godly sorrow” – what we call “conviction” and “ungodly sorrow” – what we call guilt. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he wrote:

2 Corinthians 7:8 For though I caused you sorrow by my letter, I do not regret it…9 I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to [the point of] repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to [the will of] God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. 10 For the sorrow that is according to [the will] [of] God produces a repentance without regret, [leading] to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death.

Paul had previously written to them about one who was walking in sexual sin (1 Corinthians 5) and their arrogance in boasting that they “loved the man” in spite of the sin. Paul told them to separate the man from their midst. He upset them. He may have even written them a second time (some scholars feel) with even sterner words. The words hurt their feelings and made them face the sin.

Why is that important enough to mention? We now seem to live in times when people have become convinced that preserving their feelings are of supreme importance in life. For the world, this is to be expected, but even many Christians don’t seem to recognize that obedience to God is far more important than “how I feel about an issue”. Some of us don’t seem to grasp that it is no vice to call sin what it is (God’s prophets made a living doing it) and it is not wrong to require believers to face what they are doing when it is contrary to God’s Word. That isn’t “judgy” – it is the loving work of a brother of sister who truly wants you to become all that God made you to be!

Some have forgotten that Paul made clear some sorrow is GOOD – if it leads one to conviction, and that sense in turn leads the wayward back to the arms of God in obedience. On the other hand, there is such a thing as ungodly sorrow – an insidious guilt that helps us erect a wall and block our return to God in obedience. Let me suggest that although the call to face sin can be delivered badly, it is not usually the major problem. The bigger factor seems to be the heart of the one to whom the appeal is made. If we care more about what we want than what God has directed, we rebuff conviction – we will harden and recoil. We may attempt to place the blame for a guilt wall on the messenger who called us to repentance, but the mortar of rejection was mixed in the unyielded heart of the one who cared more for their feelings than for their Lord.

In the Gospels, Judas had remorse – guilt – but did not allow that to soften him to conviction. Though he turned on Christ behind the scenes – others turned on Christ right in front of Him. Peter’s rejection led to conviction; Judas’ led to guilt. Peter found a forgiving Christ; Judas found a rope. The difference wasn’t the sin as much as the response to the prompting of God about what they did.

We must grow to understand that our feelings must be subservient to God’s Word – regardless of what the feelings are about. God didn’t give us commands to harm us, and the enemy and the fallen world don’t beckon with temptation us to truly help us. We must not blame the Scripture, nor the one who points out our error from it – we must accept the responsibility to soften to God’s inner conviction – or we will harden into sinful patterns that kill.

What we know about Judas is this:

• First, his name suggests either that he was a man from Kerioth in Judea, or that he came from the upstart political movement of the “isacarii” or “dagger people”. In either case, he was different than the average Galilean follower of Jesus. He was very likely a southerner in a group of northerners.

• Second, Judas complained about the use of funds, and was scolded by Jesus. Perhaps he was truly interested in the poor at one point, but it is clear by his interest in personal payment by the priests that he had become greedy. He was about to receive the price of a slave’s life (thirty pieces of silver, cp. Exodus 21:32) for testimony against his rabbi.

• Third, it appears that Judas struggled inside with his own chosen commitment to follow Jesus. The Master said and did things he didn’t always agree with – and he hadn’t truly surrendered to following what the Master wanted. He followed when it made sense to him – but held back his heart when it didn’t. Judas isn’t the only follower who ever reserved his heart for his own ultimate control.

Let me suggest that I am not at all certain that Judas saw any of what happened playing out the way it did. I don’t believe he saw himself on the end of a rope, until guilt and shame boxed in his life and squeezed the air from him. He had been the treasurer of the group – an insider. Now he was a disloyal and untrustworthy traitor. He couldn’t face himself, let alone the other men he had traveled with along the way. Tell me he didn’t replay that kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane a thousand times as he walked to the side of the Hinnom Valley and tied up the rope to the tree…

Judas heard the gentle voice of Jesus. He sat beside Him for several years. He knew the Master’s laugh, and even saw Him weep for people. He saw Jesus forgive a woman overtaken in adultery, a man caught up in slimy taxation and greed – yet Judas missed something. He missed Who Jesus truly was. He missed His deep desire that NO ONE would perish distant from God. He missed the grace of God – the undeserved mercy of the Holy One to the broken and dirty. He got far enough to feel conviction, but all he could do is read it as condemning guilt. He died without peace, and faced an eternity without mercy – because he turned his face from the mercy of God right in front of him!

Pilate bargained with Jesus

The Roman governor’s exchanges with Jesus highlight another way some people try to “handle” Jesus…

Matthew 27:11 Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor questioned Him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And Jesus said to him, “[It is as] you say.” 12 And while He was being accused by the chief priests and elders, He did not answer. 13 Then Pilate said to Him, “Do You not hear how many things they testify against You?” 14 And He did not answer him with regard to even a [single] charge, so the governor was quite amazed. 15 Now at [the] feast the governor was accustomed to release for the people [any] one prisoner whom they wanted. 16 At that time they were holding a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. 17 So when the people gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” 18 For he knew that because of envy they had handed Him over. 19 While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him [a message], saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.” 20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death. 21 But the governor said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” 22 Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Crucify Him!” 23 And he said, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they kept shouting all the more, saying, “Crucify Him!” 24 When Pilate saw that he was accomplishing nothing, but rather that a riot was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see [to that] yourselves.”

Let me offer a simple idea about Pilate’s exchanges: He who could not maneuver politically, surrendered immorally. We mentioned Pilate at the beginning of this lesson, but there is more here than just a question – there is a record of a man who looked like a leader, but was actually a trapped follower.

Think of the conversation recorded in Matthew’s account. We know that Pilate was a politician and a man of some significant wealth in his day. We know that he was the ranking official on the scene representing the Emperor. Yet, his maneuvering got him nowhere… In the beginning, he asked questions to Jesus. Two are recorded: “Are you the King of the Jews?” and “Can’t you hear their accusations against you?” As you keep reading, Pilate addressed the delegation that came to see him – and he also did it with questions: (twice) “Whom do you want me to release to you?” and later: “What shall I do with Jesus called the Christ?” If you look closely at the account, Pilate offers nothing to the crowd in logic or direction – but simply asks people what they want, and then gives it to them. No wonder he could claim innocence – he had done nothing to show any decision making ability!

Pilate would probably do well in a modern leadership role. In the absence of values driven men and women, we find ourselves increasingly following people who poll test their “values” and choose the path of their “leadership” based on the more popular notion of the crowd. Let’s be clear: that isn’t leadership – it is being a follower with a leader’s title. In the absence of heartfelt values, many who would lead are much more readers of polls than leaders of people…and it appears that has been true, at least in some, for many years.

Bold leaders know right from wrong, and use their place of leadership to attempt to persuade people who need to be led. Bold leaders don’t need the crowd to tell them what is moral, and what is just. They are moved, much more by needy people, then by popular opinion. Pilate was clearly NOT a bold leader. In the middle of his dealing with Jesus, Matthew included that he even got instruction from him wife to walk away from the trial. The poor man: everyone weighed in on his decisions! There was a reason. When leaders don’t show the courage of conviction, they invite an assault on them by the strong winds of opinion around them. Pilate asked questions and took advice, but he offered little more than a stuffed toga to the proceedings. In the end, his lack of conviction and leadership allowed him to both commit immoral acts (hand a man over for death he deemed innocent) and feel fine about doing so (since he was simply giving people what they asked for!)

It should come as no shock that politicians use Jesus routinely. They quote (and often misquote) Him in order to add some legitimacy to their position. They skip anything that may not be regarded as “all-loving” and “all-accepting” – and they cut and paste His words into their speeches with little regard for the context of His true ethical frame. Some people simply USE Jesus to try to get what they truly want – acceptance of a certain crowd in a certain occasion. I have seen men who mouthed Jesus words to get a woman to like them. I have seen young people mimic words of Jesus to keep parents off their back. Some people just USE Jesus.

The crowd bade for Jesus’ blood

There are others who have no problem cursing Jesus openly…

Matthew 27:25 And all the people said, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” 26 Then he released Barabbas for them; but after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified.

People’s sense of “justice” can easily be warped. In fact, a crowd of people who lose sensitivity to the truth become swiftly a cold and inhumane lot. We don’t have to move past the shattered streets of a fractured city that destroyed homes, cars and businesses out a sense of outrage. Many people stood up for what seems to be injustices committed against citizens. They stood with the courage of conviction in non-violent protest, and made the world hear them. On the other side of town, people took full advantage of the situation and trashed their neighbors – a scene that is becoming far too common in our time.

Go back to Matthew’s account. Can you see the crowd mentality involved in their words? They seemed to take responsibility as a group for a decision that virtually no one was going to individually accept the weight of – for they were making an immoral decision to release a known criminal while publicly condemning an innocent man. They watched as a One Who did NOTHING wrong was stripped, beaten, and tortured. What kind of people could do that? The answer is simple: people who had lost a sense of real justice, and only embraced her cousin: outrage.

The soldiers belittled Jesus

Bored Roman soldiers also weighed in to the scene…

Matthew 27:27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole [Roman] cohort around Him. 28 They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. 29 And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 They spat on Him, and took the reed and [began] to beat Him on the head. 31 After they had mocked Him, they took the [scarlet] robe off Him and put His [own] garments back on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him. 32 As they were coming out, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom they pressed into service to bear His cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull, 34 they gave Him wine to drink mixed with gall; and after tasting [it], He was unwilling to drink. 35 And when they had crucified Him, they divided up His garments among themselves by casting lots. 36 And sitting down, they [began] to keep watch over Him there. 37 And above His head they put up the charge against Him which read, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.

Can we not see it? Those with an illusion of their own power find dominance something easy to play with. Roman soldiers believed themselves to be the power in the courtyard that morning – and they used their power to act out in unjust and intemperate ways. They PLAYED with Jesus –as many people do. They felt dominant. Look at them! Jesus was beaten, His head down, blood running everywhere! They stood strong, arrogant, in control of their lives. Many people do. In the end, they recognize the illusion of that control, as their physical prowess slips away, and the number of their days draws short.

When we don’t recognize the ultimate power of the Savior, we belittle Jesus. We puff ourselves up and appear strong in our own eyes – supposing God to be aloof and un-observing or disengaged. We don’t get it. We will all stand before the Judge Who created us. There is no escaping it. It is appointed for all of us to face the end of our lives, and then know God’s real view of us. Jesus came to make grace available – not to offer unending license to our selfish behavior. He came to triumph over sin, not to be belittled by convicted sinners. He allowed the mockery of these soldiers, because it served His end: to bring salvation by death on a tree – as promised by prophets long before.

The crowd berated Jesus

Along with the soldiers, the crowds mocked the Savior…

Matthew 27:38 At that time two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and one on the left. 39 And those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, “You who [are going to] destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41 In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking [Him] and saying, 42 “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him. 43 “HE TRUSTS IN GOD; LET GOD RESCUE [Him] now, IF HE DELIGHTS IN HIM; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” 44 The robbers who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him with the same words.

Let’s say it plainly: Those who spend little time considering a serious matter often speak most freely about it. The people who hurled accusations were not a serious part of the discussion of “Who Jesus was” – they were “passersby”. Today, they drop into to social media and offer sniping and rude comments about Jesus. They explain how the Bible is filled with inaccurate and even immoral advice – using a metric that is made up on a napkin. They hurl about accusation on the Creator and Sustainer of the cosmos, thinking little about what they are even saying. We see it growing as the time draws later, but it was present when Jesus was walking amongst us.

The centurion believed in Jesus

In the face of all those who used Jesus and even mocked Jesus, it is worth noting that there was still a note of hope – some saw the truth…

Matthew 27:45 Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. 46 About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?” that is, “MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?” …50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. 51 And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53 and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!

Some people respond only when the power of God is made plain in their eyes – but they respond. What a great sign of hope – no matter where they have been in their lives. No matter what they have said, or what they have done – when they encounter Jesus, and look at what He has done… hope remains that they will respond properly, and recognize Him for Who He is. The centurion did it… and so can you and I. It changed his life from that day forward – just as it did for many who are walking through this lesson together. Jesus changes us when we open our heart to Him! The reason what we DO with Jesus makes so much difference is because of WHO Jesus is.

He is the Alpha and Omega. He is the Privileged Son of the Creator. He is the agent of salvation. The whole picture of Who Jesus is cannot be seen in this single story from Matthew.

If Jesus had only come to earth, He would have been a mere visitor – God on a holiday, cruising about His creation. If Jesus had only died at the hands of these wicked men, He would be yet another mere religious teacher – marked by martyrdom, but little more than others who offered ethical teachings like Buddha or Mohammed. The whole story of Jesus didn’t begin at His trial, but at earth’s creation. The story of His earth walk didn’t end at His Crucifixion, but at His Resurrection. His dealings with men didn’t end at His ascension to Heaven, but in the moment they stand before Him in judgment. That is why…

What we DO with Jesus determines what we DO with our own lives and our own destiny.