All over the world, churches are preparing for Easter by looking at the events that took place in the days before Jesus' death almost two thousand years ago. Today we're coming to a section that describes what happened after Jesus' arrest and in his trials before he was condemned to die.
It's popular for people to say that they like Jesus, but they're not really sure that they believe that he's the Son of God. A lot of people respect Jesus, and they think that he was a prophet or a great moral teacher, but they're not sure if they can accept that he was God or the Savior of the world. Today we're going to see that there are four ways to think about Jesus, and all of us fit into one of these four ways, but only one way makes sense.
What are the four ways of responding to Jesus?
1. Outright hostility
Some people respond to Jesus with outright hostility. Ironically, this response makes more sense than other responses, as we're going to see in a minute. Some see Jesus as a fraud and a danger and have no time for him or for any of his followers. We see this exact same reaction to Jesus in this text.
We read in verses 63-65:
The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, "Prophesy! Who hit you?" And they said many other insulting things to him.
It wouldn't have been uncommon to have some fun with prisoners who had been arrested. Here you've got a bunch of bored guards passing the time by playing blind man's bluff, only with a twist: they mock Jesus for claiming to be a prophet. Ironically, the fact that they do this confirm that Jesus is in fact a prophet, because he had predicted that this would happen. Jesus said in Luke 18:32 of himself, "He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him." Jesus had just predicted as well that Peter would deny him three times, and it happened just as he said. But here you have the hostility against Jesus' claims to be a prophet. Luke doesn't give us all the details, but your imagination can fill in the details of what it would have been like. "And they said many other insulting things to him."
Then in verses 66 to 71 you have the elders, chief priests, and scribes. This was the religious leadership of Israel, the religious leadership of that day. Because they're under Roman rule, they have no authority to put Jesus to death. This was a pretrial investigation. They wanted to lay the groundwork for pressing a charge that they could take to Pilate. It was only if Pilate agreed that Jesus could be destroyed.
So you have them trying to decide on a charge. They begin by asking Jesus if he is the Messiah. You need to understand what Messiah meant back then. We think of it as a divine title now. At the time, Messiah didn't mean Son of God who saves people from sins. It meant anointed agent, descended from David's royal line, who would cast out the Romans and restore Israel. If Jesus admitted that he was the Messiah, then they had a case. The Romans wouldn't hesitate to kill someone they suspected of rebellion. They couldn't care less if Jesus made a religious claim, but if Jesus was a political threat to the Romans, he was a dead man.
But Jesus didn't answer. He gave a non-answer. "If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer" (Luke 22:67-68). Jesus knew it was useless to answer them, because they weren't asking an honest question. They would reject anything that he said that didn't mesh with their agenda to kill him. It wasn't an honest question, you see. It was a hostile question designed to incriminate.
They did get Jesus though. Jesus gave a non-answer, but then he added, "But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God" (Luke 22:69). People who say they like Jesus' teaching but don't think he was God haven't really understood how offensive Jesus' teaching is if he was right. What Jesus said here was completely offensive, and either he's right or else he's one of the most deluded leaders to ever have existed. Jesus was essentially saying, "Well, you say that I'm the political deliverer, and I won't get into that because you don't want the answer. But I will tell you who I am: the Son of Man that the prophets talked about." Daniel had talked about the Son of Man:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
Jesus said, "That's me." Essentially he was saying, "You think I'm on trial before you. Actually, one day you're going to be on trial before me. From now on I'm seated at the right hand of God, and I will come in the clouds to judge the world." Then, in verse 70, he confessed to being the Son of God. They're asking, "Do you claim to be a uniquely exalted person who is able to sit next to God as his virtual equal?" Jesus says, "You say that I am." He didn't deny it. And this was enough for them to proceed with his conviction.
What do you say to those who are hostile to Jesus? Two things. First, your position makes some sense. In fact, if you take Jesus seriously, you're forced to either worship him as who he says he is, or dismiss him as a crackpot and condemn him. Those who are hostile to Jesus actually make some sense. How do you respond to someone who claims to be God if you think he's not? We have to treat people with respect who are hostile to Jesus, because if he isn't who he says he is, they have every reason to be hostile.
The lead singer of U2, Bono, was asked, "Christ has his rank among the world's great thinkers. But Son of God, isn't that far-fetched?" Bono said:
No, it's not far-fetched to me. Look, the secular response to the Christ story always goes like this: He was a great prophet, obviously a very interesting guy, had a lot to say along the lines of other great prophets, be they Elijah, Muhammad, Buddha, or Confucius. But actually Christ doesn't allow you that. He doesn't let you off that hook. Christ says, No. I'm not saying I'm a prophet. I'm saying, "I'm the Messiah." I'm saying, "I'm God incarnate." And people say, No, no, please, just be a prophet. A prophet we can take….Because, you know, we're going to have to crucify you. And he goes, No…
So what you're left with is either Christ was who He said He was – the Messiah – or a complete nutcase. I mean, we're talking nutcase on the level of Charles Manson.
It's an all-or-nothing choice when it comes to Jesus.
There's only one thing to ask of those who are hostile to Jesus, and that is to consider his claims. The problem with the Sanhedrin is that they came with an agenda. They weren't asking honest questions. We need to learn to doubt our doubts and to look at the evidence honestly, rather than coming to the evidence with our minds already made up.
That's the first response to Jesus we see in this passage. Quickly, three more:
2. Mild curiosity
The Sanhedrin had condemned Jesus, but they had no legal authority to kill him. So they passed Jesus on to Pilate, who passed him on to Herod, Romans who had the authority to put him to death. Herod was thrilled to finally meet Jesus. "When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort" (Luke 23:8). You don't get the sense that Herod had any spiritual longings. He had heard that Jesus could perform miracles, and he wanted to see some tricks. He doesn't want to consider the claims of Jesus or be changed by Jesus. He wants to be entertained by Jesus. He's mildly curious, but only at the most superficial levels.
On the surface this looks much better. There's no blatant hostility toward Jesus. People actually are interested in Jesus, but for all the wrong reasons. But you'll notice that Jesus doesn't even answer. As entertainment, Jesus is profoundly disappointing. If you're looking for a Savior, God in the flesh, Jesus is all of that. But he does not entertain, and Herod ends up rejecting him and joining the ranks of those who are hostile to him. "Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him. Dressing him in an elegant robe, they sent him back to Pilate" (Luke 23:11).
We live at a time when we're blessed to have the best entertainment available to us. Sometimes it's easy to begin to expect some entertainment from Jesus as well. C. Michael Patton decided to go out and visit two churches. One was an evangelical high Anglican church. The other was a large, more accessible, even alluring church with valet parking, a children's program with video games, professional music, excellent production. When he reflected on it afterwards, he realized that underneath all of the glitz was a nagging question: "When things get tough (and they will), who will people turn to? Where will people go when the entrainment, laughter, and fun serve no purpose?" As someone else said about churches that entertain, "I had to wonder how one shifts from their emphasis on entertainment to Bonhoeffer's famous line in The Cost of Discipleship: 'When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.' Can that call come after the entertainment?"
All of us, I'm sure, want church to be interesting rather than boring. But when we start to see Jesus as another entertainment option in our lives, we discover that Jesus refuses to go along. He always ends up disappointing those who are mildly curious, who are looking for Jesus to do something to impress them.
Two more responses:
3. Going with the flow
Out of all the options in responding to Jesus, this one is probably the easiest. Not many people are overtly hostile to Jesus. If you want to be entertained, there are much better options than expecting Jesus to entertain you. But going with the flow is easy. If Jesus fits into life and doesn't cause any major problems, fine. If it becomes inconvenient or unpopular to follow Jesus, then he's gone.
When the Sanhedrin brought Jesus before Pilate, the Roman ruler in charge of maintaining law and order in that region, Pilate examined him and found him to be innocent of all charges. It's pretty hard to argue that Jesus was a threat when he was alone, all of his followers having deserted him. Pilate pronounced him innocent, tried to shift responsibility to Herod, before having to deal with him again. Three times he declared Jesus innocent. Verse 16 says, "I will punish him and then release him." In other words, let Jesus off with a slap on the wrist, the least amount of punishment possible. Pilate was doing everything possible to treat Jesus with fairness, but the crowd wouldn't take it.
Eventually Pilate caved in. "But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand" (Luke 22:23-24). Pilate lacked the nerve to do what was right. Politics and public relations won out over justice. Pilate did what was expedient rather than what was right.
There may be some here who are hostile to Jesus, but I doubt there are that many. I'm sure we all have a bit of the desire to be entertained within us, but usually that doesn't last long because Jesus refuses to cooperate. But maybe more of us are tempted to respond to Jesus as Pilate did. Our beliefs about him change depending on the pressures we face to modify those views. It takes courage to follow Jesus against the flow.
Blaise Pascal, who lived in the 1600s, was one of the leading scientists and mathematicians of his age. He invented the calculating machine, the syringe, and the first wrist watch. He was a brilliant mind. Yet for two hours on the night of November 23, 1654, he had a dramatic experience with God. He carried the record of these two hours for the rest of his life around his neck. This is part of what it said:
The year of grace, 1654
Monday, 23rd November,
From about half past ten in the evening until half past twelve
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the
Philosophers and savants
Certitude. Certitude. Feeling. Joy. Peace.
God of Jesus Christ.
My God and Thy God
May I not fall from Him for ever
This is life eternal, that they might know Thee, the only
True God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent
I have fallen away: I have fled from Him, denied Him, crucified Him
May I not fall from Him for ever.
We may never have that kind of experience of fire with God, but the more our relationship with Christ is based on a real encounter with God, a real understanding of who Jesus is, a true change of our hearts before him, the more we'll be able to pray, "May I not fall from Him for ever." Have you had that encounter with God?
One more response:
4. Radical Change
The most surprising response to Jesus in this whole account is the one that takes place in verses 39-43. Jesus was crucified between two criminals. One of them sneered at Jesus, but the other one said to the other criminal, "Don't you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." And then he said to Jesus, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And then Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."
You know, the irony is that the Sanhedrin, Herod, and Pilate all thought they were judging Jesus, when in fact they were standing before Jesus as ones being judged. But the only one who understood in this passage that he was judged and guilty, who admitted his guilt and appealed for Jesus' help and asked for mercy was saved. He didn't say, "Remember my works." He didn't try to make a case for why he should be forgiven. He simply said, "Remember me." He asked for mercy.
We all stand before Jesus as ones being judged, even as we think that we're the ones judging him. Some of us will reject him. Some of us will want him to please us. Some of us will follow as long as it's convenient. But some of us will echo the dying prayer of famous astronomer Copernicus, who died in 1543:
I do not ask for the grace that you gave St. Paul; nor can I dare to ask for the grace that you granted to St. Peter; but, the mercy which you did show to the dying robber, that mercy, show to me.