A Matter of Life or Death.

A Meditation for Good Friday

John 18:28-40

In this word from the gospel of John we learn of a discourse between Pilate and Jesus where the discussion is a matter of Life or Death. In this meditation I want to turn our attention to just two of the players in this scene: Pilate and Jesus.


As a governor he was complete failure. He had contempt and complete lack of sympathy and religious sensibility for the Jews. He’d already killed and threatened Jews in an argument over bringing graven image of the Emperor God on his standard into the Old Palace of the Herods. He’d also raided the Temple treasury to resource the building of a new Aquaduct, causing a riot in which he and his soldiers finished with killing many of the rioters. At another time he’d refused to remove special shields made in honour of Tiberias the Emperor god from the palace of the Herods, for which the Jews reported him to Tiberias who ordered him to remove them.

Little wonder, then, that Pilate acted as he did. The Jews blackmailed him into crucifying Jesus. They said in effect: “Your record is not too good; you were reported once before; if you do not give us our way, we will report you again to the Emperor, and you will be dismissed. On that day in Jerusalem Pilate’s past rose up and haunted him.

Have there been times in our own lives when fear of loss of security, status or job have forced us to make decisions we know are wrong that later cause us to be racked with guilt.

Pilate did not want to condemn Jesus, because he knew that he was innocent; and yet he was caught in the mesh of his own past.

So how did all this affect his conduct of the trial?

  1. Pilate began by trying to put the responsibility on to someone else.

He said to the Jews: “You take this man and judge him according to your Laws.” He tried to evade the responsibility of dealing with Jesus; but that is precisely what no one can do. No one can deal with Jesus for us; we must deal with him ourselves.

  1. Pilate went on to see what compromise could do.

He ordered Jesus to be scourged. This he perhaps thought might satisfy, or at least blunt the edge of Jewish hostility and avoid him having to give the verdict of the cross. Once again, that is what no man can do. No man can compromise with Jesus; no man can serve two masters. We are either for Jesus or against him. Let us seek forgiveness for the times we have compromised our faith when challenged by the secularity of our culture.

  1. Pilate then tried to see what appeal could do.

He led the scourged Jesus out to the people and asked: “Shall I crucify your King?” He tried to swing the balance by this appeal to emotion and pity. But no one can expect the appeal to others to take the place of his own personal decision. No man can evade a personal verdict and a personal decision regarding Jesus.

In the end Pilate abandoned Jesus to the mob because he lacked the courage to make the right decision and do the right thing.

Now let us come to the central character of the drama – Jesus.

  1. First and foremost we can see in this encounter the sheer Majesty of Jesus There is no sense that he is on trial. When a man faces him, it is not Jesus who is on trial; it is the man. Pilate may have treated many Jewish things with arrogant contempt, but he did not treat Jesus in this way. We cannot help feeling that it is Jesus who is in control and it is Pilate who is floundering and at sea in a situation which he cannot understand. The majesty of Jesus never shone more radiantly than in that time when he was on trial before men.

2. Jesus speaks with utter directness to us of His Kingdom .It is not, he says, of this earth. The atmosphere during Passover was particularly explosive which is why extra troops were always drafted in, but if Jesus had wished to raise the standard of rebellion and to fight it out he could have done so easily enough. But he makes it quite clear that he claims to be a King and equally clear that his kingdom is not based on force but is a spiritual kingdom built on love. His was a conquest of love. Have we understood the immensity of the suffering that Jesus voluntarily endured on the cross to bring us all through the gates of heaven. Have our hearts been conquered by his supreme act of love?

3.Jesus tells Pilate, and us, why he came into the world.

He came to witness to the truth; he came to tell men the truth about God, the truth about themselves, and the truth about life. That is one of the reasons why we must either accept or refuse Christ. There is no half-way house about the truth. And Christ is the truth regardless of what the world may say. He is the way and the life. And He is the only way by which we can pass into eternal life.

4. There is the physical courage of Jesus. Jesus stood a scourging from which few remained conscious and some died or became raving mad. Pilate led him to the crowd and said: “See the man!” It is always true that whatever else we do or do not say about Jesus, his sheer heroism is without parallel. Here indeed is a man! Oh, that those of us who know him would show one small iota of that courage in witnessing and spreading the good news of his kingdom. Were better at keeping it a secret than spreading the news!

5. We see here in the trial of Jesus the spontaneousness of his death and the supreme control of God. Pilate warned Jesus that he had the power to release him or to crucify him. Jesus answered that Pilate had no power at all, except what hade been given to him by God. The crucifixion of Jesus reads like a story of a man caught up in a web of circumstances over which he had no control. Jesus was not hounded to his death; those last days of Jesus were a triumphant procession towards the goal of the cross with all its agony and pain. Let us ponder on the infinite sacrificial love and courage that that entailed.

6. There were the times when Jesus was silent.

Not only before Pilate, but also before the Jewish authorities. Let us think about, with regret, the times when our minds have been so shut by pride and self-will that there is nothing that Jesus can say that will make any difference. At these times he remains silent; but never absent, waiting patiently for us to turn back to him, seeking forgiveness and re-aligning our wills to his.

So in the dramatic trial scene in which matters of life and death are discussed we see the immutable majesty, the undaunted courage and serene acceptance of the Cross of Jesus. Never was Jesus more majestic as when men did everything to humiliate him.

Lastly in one final scene we find Pilate, faced with an urgent decision as to what to do with a man he knows to be innocent in a politically charged situation turning to the crowd appealing for them to make a choice – this guilty man Barabbas or this innocent man Jesus.

The choice that faced the mob in Jerusalem is still before our world. Whom will we follow? Whom will we make our king? Ourselves? Our Career? Our sporting heroes, etc? Barabbas continues to represent an alluring alternative, the fulfilling of worldly ambitions and dreams, the gratification of human lusts and hungers, the nationalist dream, the political kingdom. But Jesus still stands before us also, knocking on the door of our hearts, offering his truth, a knowledge of the Father which, beginning in the valley of confession and repentance, leads forward along the pathway, guided and directed by the Holy Spirit, of daily surrender to him as King. Though on the surface less attractive, however, that choice frees those who make it to serve him in the world. It carries them at the last beyond the passing shadows of this earthly life into the enduring order of the heavenly kingdom which will have no end.

Every day we are faced with a decision to choose Barabbas or Jesus as our King? Maybe, like me, and like the apostle Peter there have been times when you rejected him; usually when the going gets tough. However, perhaps more importantly, can we like Peter accept the forgiveness that comes with repentance.

Let us meditate on, confess, repent and accept Jesus’ loving forgiveness of wrong choices, let us accept the righteousness before God which he bought for us on the cross, which gives us a pass into his eternal kingdom. And let us also have the courage of our convictions.

It is a matter of life or death.


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