November 10th, 1991 @ 8:15 AM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-10-91 8:15 a.m.
This is the senior pastor bringing the message Pontius Pilate. In completing my long series of sermons from the Book of Mark, I thought I would like to present a sermon on this ruler who consigned Jesus to death.
Then next Sunday, I am going to begin a series on Ecclesiastes. I never thought about doing that in all of my life, but someone in our congregation suggested to me that I preach from the Book of Ecclesiastes. That is the last thought that would ever have entered my mind, but it stayed in my heart and I began to study the book. So we begin next Sunday the series on Ecclesiastes, and the title of the sermon is A True Value Heartware Store: H-e-a-r-t, A True Value Heartware Store. And may God bless us as we preach through that unusual book written by Solomon and included in the infallible Word of God.
Pontius Pilate, in the first verse of the passage you read: “Immediately in the morning the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole Sanhedrin, and they bound Jesus, led Him away, and delivered Him to Pilate. And Pilate asked Him, Are You”—of all of the peasants that ever could be brought before me—“are You the King of the Jews?” [Mark 15:1-2]. He was the procurator of the Roman province of Judea for ten years, and like all of the rest of the Romans, he had an illimitable and profound contempt for the Jews: “the horde of the circumcision,” as one of the Latin writers responded. You can see his illimitable, immeasurable contempt in what he did. At the trial of Jesus, “Am I a Jew?” as though the nomenclature and designation would be of all things contemptuously unthinkable. “Am I a Jew?” [John 18:35].
And with what delight did he bring the Lord Jesus before the mob, beat up, beard torn out, dressed in peasant garments, and pointed to Him and said this, “Behold, your King” [John 19:14]. And as you know, and the whole world knows, when the Lord was crucified, Pontius Pilate wrote above His cross, “This is Jesus the King of theJews,” all of it in profound, sardonic, sarcastic contempt. And when the Jews came to see him and said, “Do not write, ‘This is the King of the Jews,’ write, ‘He said He was King of the Jews,’” Pilate replied that famous word, “Gegrapha, gegrapha”: “What I have written, I have written” [John 19:19-22]. So you see Pilate in his true colors.
Judaeus Philo, literally Philo the Jew, was doubtless one of the most famous members of the race. He was a philosopher and a scholar who lived in Alexandria and was a contemporary of the Lord Jesus and of Pontius Pilate, known for his allegorizing of Holy Scriptures, and known throughout and reverenced throughout the whole Jewish world. Philo calls Pilate, quote, “Inflexible, ruthless, merciless, obstinate, cruel.” Philo reproaches Pilate with venality, violence, peculation, ill-treatment, insult, repeated infliction of punishment without trial and with endless acts of cruelty. And I have copied a sentence from Philo, speaking of an occasion on which the Jews threatened to report Pilate to Tiberius the emperor. Philo writes:
The threat exasperated Pilate to the greatest possible degree, as he feared lest they might go on an embassy to the emperor and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, his corruption, his acting insolence, his rapine, his habit of insulting people, his cruelty, his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity.
That’s what Philo wrote about Pontius Pilate. You have, of course, in the history of Josephus, the incomparable Jewish historian—you have several descriptions of what happened under the procuratorship of this Roman. For example, when Pilate secretly brought standards of the Roman army into Jerusalem, the Holy City, and on those standards they had effigies of the Roman emperor—to the Jews, an idolatrous insult to God—why, the Jews went down to Caesarea and before the palace of the procurator, by the thousands and the thousands, they pled with him to remove those effigies, those idols. Pilate paid no attention to them for five days, according to Josephus. But on the sixth day, Pilate said, “I’ll meet you in the amphitheater,” and those thousands and thousands of Jews went down to the amphitheater. And Pilate had secretly placed an ambush of soldiers to slay them all! But when those Jews bared their necks, thousands of them, the carnage that would have ensued was so vast that Pilate relented and took the standards out. That’s one incident in Josephus.
Here’s another in Josephus. When Pilate sought to bring water through an aqueduct into Jerusalem, he seized the sacred money in the treasury of the temple. And, of course, that brought unbelievable sorrow to the hearts of those worshiping Jews, so they assembled there before Pontius Pilate again by the thousands. And what Pilate did, he took his soldiers and disguised them with bludgeons. And at a given signal, those soldiers bludgeoned uncounted numbers of them to death. This is Pontius Pilate.
So we’re going to look at him for just a moment: he was a man without dedication to justice. He lived in a world of self-serving self-interest. Whatever ministered to the fortune of Pilate was what he chose to do, even though he was the ruler of the people and supposed to stand for justice in the name of the Roman Empire.
Tiberius Caesar, the emperor, had two things he demanded of his provinces. One, the proper receipt of taxes, they pay their taxes; and second, that the province be quiet and secure. Well, already there had been an embassy to the emperor Tiberius in Rome about the violence of Pontius Pilate, and because of that accusation, the emperor had severely reprimanded the procurator.
Now this mob is out there before him, clamoring for the blood of Jesus [John 19:12-15]. And Pilate was afraid lest a second embassy be sent to Rome to accuse him, which might be fatal to his procuratorship. And that’s why—“Who is this peasant? And what does it matter if this innocent Man be delivered unto death?” So he sent Jesus to be crucified [John 19:16]. May I make an aside here? It is a remarkable thing how a past sin will dog you in your life and make a coward of you. Because of that past dereliction of Pontius Pilate, he was afraid of what could happen now.
You can find an illustration of that in a piece of famous literature. In Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Idylls of the King”—I-d-y-l-l-s; “Idylls of the King”—do you remember Sir Percival, one of the knights of the Round Table? He aspired to engage in that quest for the Holy Grail, but he found himself unable and weak because—then I quote from the poem; Sir Percival says,
Then every evil word I had spoken once,
And every evil thought I had thought of old,
And every evil deed I ever did,
Awoke and cried, “This quest is not for thee.”
And lifting up mine eyes, I found myself
Alone, and in a land of sand and thorns,
And I was thirsty even unto death;
And I, too, cried, “This quest is not for me.”
Dogged by his sins of the past—and then you remember, of course, Sir Galahad, the wonderful knight who found the Holy Grail, that is, the cup out of which Jesus drank at the Lord’s Supper.
My good blade carves the casques of men,
My tough lance thrusteth sure,
My strength is as the strength of ten,
Because my heart is pure.
That’s so true in all of life. And that dogged Pontius Pilate.
Number two, he was not only a man dedicated not to justice, but he was also a man dedicated not to truth. Do you remember in the trial, Jesus said He came to bear witness to the truth [John 18:37], and Pilate sarcastically replies, “What is truth?” [John 18:38].
Contemptuously, “What is truth?” Sweet people, there are three ways you can ask that question. One is out of a broken heart, a crushed spirit. “What is truth? What is the meaning of brokenness, and sorrow, and despair, and disappointment? What is truth?” Do you remember Job cried that? “Oh how I wish I knew where I could find Him!” [Job 23:3]. We had a beautiful service here, a moving service here yesterday afternoon in this very sanctuary: one of the finest men in this city, Judge Nick Lundy, to me a very young man. “What is the meaning of suffering?”—and he suffered, and finally death, taken away. “What is the truth of God?” You can answer that in tears and in a broken spirit.
You can ask that question in a second way. “What is truth?” You can answer it in a scholarly, scientific way, trying to find an answer to the problem of life. For example, in medicine, how do you find an answer to these things that afflict human life? Or you can ask it in law: here is a jury, trying to discover the truth. But you could also ask it as Pilate did, in contempt and in sarcasm. “What is truth? It doesn’t matter to me. I couldn’t care about it less.”
The Romans, so many instances in life, had a response like that to everything of human existence. Some people say that the greatest history ever written is Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and I’ve copied an epigrammatic description of the Roman attitude toward religion. I’ve copied this famous sentence. He wrote, “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true, by the philosophers as equally false, and by the magistrates as equally useful”; contempt for truth and for all the things that pertain to human life.
A third and a last thing about Pontius Pilate: he was a man without dedication to the spiritual and to the eternal. His life was bounded by his five senses. What he could see, what he could hear, what he could feel, and nothing beyond. The great factors in the life of Pontius Pilate were Tiberius Caesar, and the mercenary soldiers sent to him from Rome, and this mob out there before him, and the accusations of those religious priests. Beyond that, he had no interest and no response to human life. And as I have said, when his procuratorship was threatened by the accusations of this howling, storming multitude of people, what was the life of a peasant? And what was it that this Jesus mattered? So he gave Him to the cross [John 19:16-18].
And isn’t it strange? Isn’t it unbelievable how an act of dishonesty and disloyalty and injustice dogs you and haunts you? That’s the strangest thing in the world. You may be the most vile of sinners, but when you do something of wrong, somehow it follows you, in the night, in the day. You never get away from it. You look at Pontius Pilate. I say his injustice and disloyalty to the truth haunted him.
His wife sent word to him and said, “Dear husband, I have suffered in a dream because of what you have done with this peasant” [Matthew 27:19]. Isn’t that amazing? “I have suffered,” she said, “many things in a dream because of what you have done to this Galilean peasant.” Isn’t that amazing? And do you remember one other thing? He asked for a bowl of water. And sitting down before that bowl of water, he washed his hands. And as he washed his hands, he said, “I want you to know, I am innocent of the blood of this just Person: see ye to it” [Matthew 27:24]. And he washed his hands.
Ever think about that? How do you wash your hands of the Lord Jesus? How do you do it? How do you do it, who pass Him by, who refuse to open your heart to Him and to follow Him in the pilgrim way? How do you wash your hands of the Lord Jesus? “I will have nothing to do with Him.”
You go to your office, and you write a letter, and you dedicate that letter, and you dictate that letter, and you date that letter. This is November 10, 1991. What do you mean 1991? Why, you have just written there, “I’m writing this letter one thousand, nine hundred and ninety-one years anno Domini, after the birth of my Lord!” You do that, and you say, “I have nothing to do with the Lord Jesus.”
Or you go to your office and you close it on Lincoln’s birthday, or on Washington’s Birthday, or on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday. But on Christmas, you open your office for work. Oh, do you? If there’s any day in the year you close that office, it’s on Christmas. And what is Christmas? That’s His birthday. That’s His birthday.
Or, if you’re fortunate, you go to the coronation of the queen. And where is the coronation? It’s in a church! It’s a church service. Or, you go to the inauguration of the president of the United States, and he takes his oath on the Word of God. And that’s Jesus, the Word of God [John 1:1]. Or you read fine literature, and in reading literature, there’s John Milton’s Paradise Lost, John Milton’s Paradise Regained—all of it about Jesus. Or you go to a symphony and you hear marvelous music; it will be about Him. It will be Handel’s Messiah or Felix Mendelssohn’s Saint Paul or Elijah, or it will be Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christian Fugues.
And you say you’re going to wash your hands of the Lord Jesus and have nothing to do with Him? Or you look at great art, and you stand in amazement at Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci; you wash your hands of the Lord Jesus? You say to your boys that are playing out in the yard, “Remember, sons, the Golden Rule.” Where did you find that? From the lips of the Lord Jesus [Matthew 7:12].
And you go to a wedding, and there quoting the beautiful words of the Lord Jesus: “As the Lord loved His bride, and gave Himself for her [Ephesians 5:25], so you take this beautiful girl, offer your life in her defense and blessing.” Or you go to a funeral, and there you hear those incomparable promises: “I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in Me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: and he that believeth in Me shall never die” [John 11:25-26].
Sweet people, you cannot escape the Lord Jesus. You cannot do it. You meet Him down every road and in every providence and experience in human life. He looks at us from Bethlehem as a Child [Matthew 2:11]. He looks at us from the Horns of Hattin and the Sermon on the Mount [Matthew 5:1-7:29]. He looks at us from His cross, dying for the sins of the people [Matthew 27:32-50]. He looks at us from Olivet, where He ascended into heaven [Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9]. And He looks at us today from the courts of glory. And someday, He will look at us in the great and final judgment of Almighty God [2 Corinthians 5:10].
O Lord, how I need the love and blessing and friendship of the precious Lord Jesus! He is the star in the sky by whom we guide and steer our pilgrim life. As those magi said, “We have seen His star in the East, and we have come to worship Him” [Matthew 2:2].
And that’s our appeal to you. Down this aisle . . .