Luke 23:1-16

Sun, 24/02/2008 - 10:45 -- James Oakley

So who is Jesus then?

Why did he come?

Why did he die?

What is his relevance for today?

Those are questions we’ve got to be clear on. At least, we’ve got to be clear on the last one haven’t we? We’ve got to know what his relevance is for today. If he’s of no relevance, we shouldn’t waste our time on him. If he’s of great relevance, we’ve got to know what relevance so that we relate to Jesus appropriately.

But how relevant or not he is will depend on the other two questions. Who is he? Why did he come?

Saviour and King

We’ve been reading through Luke’s gospel as a church now for about 5 years. As you read Luke, he presents his answers to those questions. Luke presents to us Jesus the king, and Jesus the Saviour.

We meet Jesus the king from the very beginning – Joseph is from the house and line of King David. The angels announce that he’s born in the city of David. Jesus ministry begins with an announcement that the Spirit has anointed him to be a liberating king. He shows his authority over sickness and over the demons. By chapter 9, Peter recognises that he is the Christ, the king promised in the Old Testament. Then they set out on the road to Jerusalem where Jesus must die. Jesus tells a number of parables that continue to develop the theme of Jesus as king. The most notable is the story, only found in Luke, of the king who went away for a while, and then came back as king to reward his servants and deal with the subjects who didn’t want him to be king. He rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, as Zechariah said the king would. And he foretells how God will install him as the promised Son of Man, the one with all authority over the nations of this world. The Jesus of Luke is Jesus the king.

He’s also Jesus the Saviour. In Mary’s song, we learn how he will act as king to cast down the proud. But he will also lift up the humble. And throughout Luke, the focus of Jesus’ attention is on the outcast, the sinner, the social reject, the implausible. He came as doctor to the sick, friend of sinners, searching for the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, welcoming people like lepers, and tax collectors. Jesus the Saviour.

That’s the Jesus of Luke. Jesus the king. Jesus the Saviour. There will be other things we could say about the way in which Luke presents Jesus to us, but those two are certainly dominant. King. Saviour.

And that is the message of Christianity for the twenty first century. Jesus is our King and our Saviour. As King, we have to answer to him, we have to obey him. But as Saviour, he came to bring forgiveness to his humble subjects who have not treated him as the king that he is.

Is Jesus Guilty?

That’s Luke’s presentation so far. Jesus the king. Jesus the Saviour. But then at this point, things take a bad turn. Jesus is arrested, and tried before the Jewish leaders. They cannot execute a death sentence, so they bring him before Pilate, the Roman governor of the day.

What is the charge that they bring him before Pilate with? It’s deception. Verse 2: “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king.” They say, “This man has put the whole nation into a spin over his fraudulent claims. He claims to be a saviour-king. But he’s a rogue. He’s a misleading, deceiving so-and-so.” He’s up on trial for claiming to be a king when he is no such thing. If he is guilty of this, Luke’s presentation of Jesus as king is in tatters. He’s not a king after all. He’s a fraud.

Actually, Luke’s presentation of Jesus as Saviour would be in tatters too. We thought a few weeks back about the two men who hung on crosses either side of Jesus. One of them discovered for himself that Jesus is a Saviour. He was welcomed into paradise by the dying Jesus.

What was it about Jesus, though, that meant this criminal felt it was worthwhile to put his confidence in the dying man next to him? It was Jesus’ innocence of the charges he was facing. Verse 41: “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” That was what meant Jesus could save that criminal. Which means that if Jesus had done something wrong. If his death was payback time. If Jesus’ crucifixion was nothing more than him getting what his deeds deserved too. Then he was no saviour.

In other words: Jesus is up on a charge of being a fraud. If the charge stands up, he’s guilty. If he’s guilty, he’s only a fraudulent king, not a real one. If he’s guilty, his death is nothing more than the punishment he deserved, and he’s totally ineffective as a saviour, not a real one. And so the key question at this point in Luke is what we do with the charges levied against him. Is he guilty of these charges?

Luke’s thesis stands or falls on this. Jesus’ innocence is crucial for Luke’s thesis that Jesus is King and Saviour. And by the same token, 21st century Christianity stands or falls on this. If Jesus is not innocent of the charges that are brought, he is no king, he is no saviour, and 21st century Christianity falls apart.

Did you hear the story this week of the double yellow lines in the village of Wateringbury in Kent. The Council was planning some road works, so needed to put some double yellows down. They had a great idea, rather than paint them for just eight weeks, which is expensive, they’d use some special yellow sticky tape. Great idea. Quick to apply. Saves money. Until they blew away in the wind on the first night they were down.

If Jesus is not innocent of the charges brought against him, he’s no more use than those double yellow lines. King? Saviour? A lovely idea. But blown away in the wind by a one-hour trial.

The Trial Outcome

So what is the outcome of the trial? Is he found guilty? Verse 13: “Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death.”

Pilate’s conclusion was that Jesus was not guilty of any of the charges against him. Herod said the same thing. Jesus has stood before not one judge, but two. He’s had two trials. Both had the same verdict. Not guilty.

So that should be the end of the matter. Jesus should be released without charge. His solicitor should stand on the steps of the Old Bailey and read out a statement on behalf of his client. End of story.

Sadly, not.

The problem is that the religious leaders won’t take no for an answer. They’re pictured in verse 5, insisting before Pilate that something must be done. They’re pictured in verse 10, vehemently accusing him of nothing in particular. Now, in an ideal world, in a just world, Pilate and Herod would have told them to get lost. But that isn’t what happens.

Let’s think about Pilate first. Pilate tells them that Jesus is innocent. But the religious leaders still want him charged. So he has a bright idea. He discovers that Jesus technically falls under Herod’s jurisdiction. So why not let Herod face the dilemma! That way, either Herod can miscarry justice, or Herod can fall out with the religious leaders. Either way, he’s off the hook.

It’s a brilliant plan – you have to credit Pilate with that. It’s utterly cowardly to pass the buck like that, as he should have released him directly, but it’s clever. The trouble is that Herod outsmarts him. Herod, too, can see Jesus’ innocence. So he sends him back to Pilate. But not before subjecting Jesus to a humiliating session of mockery and ridicule. That way, he avoids charging Jesus, but keeps the crowds happy as well.

So Pilate gets him back. Great! But Herod had given him another idea. Here’s plan B to wriggle out of his dilemma. He offers the crowd the same compromise that Herod just struck. He’s innocent, he says, then verse 16: “I will therefore punish and release him.” Let him go. But beat him first.

So both Pilate and Herod rule that Jesus is innocent. But both Pilate and Herod punish Jesus anyway.

This is a complete miscarriage of justice unfolding before our eyes.

Imagine a man in this country, in a high court, on trial for 3 counts of murder. The jury come back in after just ten minutes, and the foreman says they are unanimous in deciding that the defendant is not guilty.

Then the judge gives his closing speech. “Mr Jones, the jury has decided that you are free to go. This was an easy verdict for them to reach, and I can see why. It has been clear to this court from the outset that you did not kill any of the 3 victims in this case, let alone commit murder. You should not be in the dock at all. If anybody should be in the dock it is the Crown Prosecution Service. The public money that has been wasted in this trial is an outrage. This case should never have come before this court, and there are serious lessons for both the Metropolitan Police and the Crown Prosecution Service to take on board.

“Mr Jones, you are cleared of all charges. You will be spared the life sentence you would have got had you been found guilty. Nevertheless, I hereby sentence you to a custodial sentence of 4 years imprisonment. Court dismissed.”

That’s what’s going on here. Jesus is innocent. And yet the judiciary are content to subject Jesus to an orchestrated act of humiliation and to a public, authorised beating.

Narrative Tensions

So by this point in Luke’s account, things are running at high tension. Luke has presented Jesus to us as King and Saviour. But then he’s arrested, and if he’s proved guilty that would throw his credentials as King and Saviour into the bin! That set up a fair bit of tension in the story. But now things have really heated up, because it’s becoming clear that seeing justice is done is not the only issue in the minds of the key players involved.

On the one hand, Jesus is acknowledged as innocent. On the other hand, Pilate and Herod are concerned not to upset the crowd. So which will they listen to? Their own convictions on Jesus’ innocence? Or the pressure from the crowd and the Jewish leaders. Which influence will win? Pilate’s going to have to get off the fence, but which side will it be?

So if the narrative tension was high before this trial began, it’s so high now that it’s hard to keep reading. Before this trial, the issue was whether Jesus really is a King and Saviour, or whether he is a fraud. Now we’ve heard Pilate and Herod give their verdict, we know he’s for real. So now the stakes are even higher. Now we’re hanging on tenterhooks to know whether the true King of this world, the only one who can save this world, is about to be sentenced to death.

And the reason why it’s scary is that Pilate and Herod are culpable. This isn’t ineptitude. They know that Jesus is not a fraud. And there’s a distinct possibility that they could condemn him even though they know this.

Did you catch the lovely story of governmental ineptitude that came out this week? The Department for Communities and Local Government had found some money to give to local councils. The scheme was the Local Authority Business Growth Incentive. Councils that do a good job at attracting businesses get some money. So the government awarded 2.7 million pounds to Newcastle Upon Tyne. And I’m sure they deserve it. Tyneside has seen a lot of redevelopment over the past few years, and I don’t doubt it is becoming more attractive to businesses.

The trouble was, you know who got the 2.7 million, don’t you? We did. Newcastle Under Lyme borough council was the lucky beneficiary. And they just assumed it was a reward for their hard work – nice to be recognised. So Newcastle Council is 2.7 million better-off, and they’re refusing to hand it back! I just love the fact that a department in Whitehall doesn’t know the difference between us and Tyneside!

That’s ineptitude. Pilate and Herod are not inept. They are deliberate. They won’t act on their convictions. They know he’s innocent, but they’re more worried about the angry Jewish leadership. And the result is scary – the king and saviour of this world could go to his death as a result.

Luke Draws Us In

Now, this isn’t just a story that we can read with curious but detached interest. It’s a story that we need to respond to.

Frequently in the gospels the human characters we see provide a foil against we can see our own response to Jesus. We hear Jesus teach, and we see someone respond in just the right way, and we’re meant to respond the same way as we read that teaching. We see Jesus perform some miracle, and we see someone respond in just the wrong way, and we’re meant to avoid that response as we read of the same miracle.

This is especially true in the accounts of the trials of Jesus. All courtroom drama draws the reader in in this kind of way, doesn’t it? We hear the charges. We read the defence. We listen in as the judges deliberate. And we are meant to be doing our own weighing of the evidence, our own assessing, our own deliberating. As we hear the judge ask the jury “Do you find the defendant guilty or not guilty?” we cannot help asking ourselves whether we find the defendant guilty or not guilty.

Pilate and Herod were in a tight spot. They wanted to keep the crowds happy, so they wanted to put him to death. The easiest way out of that tight spot would have been for them to rule him guilty. Their dilemma would evaporate. But they didn’t do it. They both ruled him innocent.

We live two thousand years later, with less evidence available to us. It’s highly unlikely that they tried and tried to find the evidence to put him to death and failed, but that we’ll be able to turn up some evidence they missed. So when we are faced with deciding whether Jesus is guilty of being a fraud, guilty of being a false prophet, guilty of misleading the people, guilty of claiming to be a king when he was no such thing – we, too, need to adjudicate that he was not guilty.

The challenge, though, is that Pilate and Herod reached the same decision. They could see he was for real. But that didn’t stop them doing the wrong thing. That didn’t stop them treating him as though he were a fraud. So the issue for us is not whether we will decide that Jesus is innocent. The issue is whether we will treat him as innocent. Whether we will bow before him as our king and our saviour.

Apply Things

That’s quite a challenging prospect, once we realise that what we decide about Jesus may have no bearing on how we actually treat him. Let’s think about what this means in practice.

I want to suggest 2 groups of people, such that I think we all fall into one of them.

Some people here are still trying to decide what to make of Jesus. You’ve had the chance to weigh some of the evidence – perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. But you’re still thinking things through. Great! But you need to ask what would happen if you decided that Jesus’ claims stand up, what would happen if you decided that Jesus really was king and saviour.

Because Pilate and Herod confront you with the scary reality that it’s perfectly possible to reach exactly that decision and yet to do nothing about it. Other factors like keeping a particular group of people happy can come into play. Which means that if you’re still weighing the evidence, you need to ask whether it’s really evidence you need. Is the evidence the issue? Or actually, if you’re honest, do you know that Jesus’ claims are true, but something else is holding you back.

That’s one group of people. The other group are people who follow Jesus as their king and their saviour. Those of us who are following him already are no more immune to the pressures that Pilate and Herod felt. Believe it or not, we are still capable of living as though Jesus had been judged guilty.

Let me give a few examples. There are moral decisions. Is Jesus really king? If you’re tempted to sleep with someone to whom you’re not married, is Jesus really king? If you’re tempted to be less than 100% honest in some area of finance, is Jesus really king? You can supply your own moral dilemmas. Is he really king, or is it going to be a Pilate and Herod moment when we say he’s king at exactly the same time as we act as though he wasn’t?

Or, in those moral decisions, is Jesus really saviour? What if you flunk it in one of those moral issues? Your choice in relationships is not in line with what you know pleases king Jesus? Your financial dealings are not in line with what you know pleases king Jesus? Is he really saviour? Because if he is, you can abandon what you know is wrong, return to his way of doing things, and know that he can and will forgive you and welcome you back. Or is it time to say he’s a saviour, whilst carrying on doing what we know to be wrong. Is it time to say he’s saviour, whilst stopping doing what we know is wrong and starting carrying around a bucket load of guilt instead.

We Christians know that Jesus is true. We know he’s king and saviour. But so did Pilate and Herod. That’s not the question. The issue is how that affects us.

Let me give another example. More To Life. If Jesus really is king and saviour then everyone we know who doesn’t realise this needs to discover it. He’s their king, whether they know it or not, whether they like it or not. Which means that we owe it to them to make sure they know this. We know from Pilate and Herod that they could come to know this and still do nothing about it, but we can’t leave them in the dark, can we?

If we don’t bring them to More To Life events, that’s saying we believe Jesus is right to claim to be king and saviour, but then acting as though he were guilty of fraud.


So Jesus is on trial. Jesus is declared “not guilty”. So Jesus’ agenda stands. His claims to be king stand up to scrutiny. His claims to be saviour are not rubbished by a totally deserved death. He stands up, and the Christian message is as potent today as it was 2000 years ago. Be greatly reassured by that!

Which means that it isn’t really Jesus who is on trial here. It is we, the readers of Luke’s gospel, who are on trial. Jesus is king and Jesus is saviour, whether we treat him that way or not. That’s not in question. What’s in question is the verdict we will reach and the lives we will live. On the charge of being an outright fraud, do you find Jesus guilty or not guilty? Or, perhaps more to the point: On the charge of being an outright fraud, do you live as though Jesus is guilty or not guilty?

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