A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on March 14, 2021.
Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You have said so.” But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed. Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified (Matthew 27:11–26).
The morning after did not bring sobriety. Imbibing and drunk on the lust of their flesh, Israel’s leaders felt vindicated in saving their country from the Truth. Though the rooster’s crow had sobered Peter to the reality of his sin, the Sanhedrin marched into the morning with a guilty verdict. But despite their cultural independence, Israel was under Roman rule and subject to its law. They could condemn Jesus to death, but his execution was conditioned upon the governing authority.
On the morning after Jesus’ mock trial, Friday morning, Matthew records that “all the chief priests and the elders of the people plotted against Jesus to execute him. They tied him up, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor” (Matt. 27:1-2, NET). In reality, Pontius Pilate was nothing more than an appointed governor of the Roman state. His appointment was likely not career-advancing, and yet he is remembered infamously in the oldest of the Christian creeds: Our Lord Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate.” It was under his authority that Israel proceeded in their murderous scheme.
He who willingly surrendered himself and did not defend himself is delivered to Pilate as a criminal, found guilty of being “the Christ, the Son of God” (Matt. 26:63), a truth transformed into a false charge of blasphemy. But it will not stand, at least not under Pax Romana, the peace of Roman rule. Under Roman law, blasphemy is not a capital offence. They need something else, something so illegal that the governor will be forced to act.
What becomes quickly obvious in Matthew’s narrative is that the plotting of the chief priests and elders involves a legal strategy of prosecution. If Israel’s charge of blasphemy will not send Jesus to the cross, what will? What about treason? What if Jesus’s willingness to concede that he is the rightful son of David, and heir to the throne, can be twisted into a rebellion against the Roman state? In the Gospel of John we hear the argument from their wicked lips, saying, “Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12). To oppose Caesar, the Roman Emperor, was to usurp his ultimate authority, to be a traitor to Rome, to be guilty of treason. And treason was a capital offence.
The irony of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is that Jesus, who is Truth, tells the truth, and Pilate can’t deny it. John records that when Pilate asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”, Jesus responds characteristically, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” (John 18:33-34). Were it not a matter of life or death, it’s almost comical. He already knows and understands the accusation, but does Pilate?
When Pilate seeks to clarify the charges, as if Jesus doesn’t understand the severity, Jesus explains the difference between earthly kingdoms and the kingdom of heaven, confessing his regal sovereignty but confounding Pilate’s world view (John 18:35-36). Meanwhile, the prosecution is seemingly tireless, hurling accusations but receiving no response. Perhaps outwitted or simply exasperated, Pilate finally asks, “Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?” But he receives no response, nothing but sovereign silence.
Jesus’ silence amazes Pilate. How can he stand there under a constant barrage of accusations and not respond, even to one? Of course, as the living Word of God, Jesus knowingly fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of the Christ, as “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isa. 53:7). But there is also another perspective of Jesus’ silence before his accusers: wisdom.
To the Colossians, the Apostle Paul said that in Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3), and to the Corinthians he said that Christ is the very “wisdom of God.” Rightly do we interpret the personified wisdom of Proverbs as Christ himself. Therefore, when Jesus stood silent before his accusers it was not only in perfect fulfillment of prophecy, it was also wise. Proverbs says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent” (Prov. 10:19). Undoubtedly, the world needs more quiet prudence not less, but Jesus is being more than prudent. He is actually speaking through his silence.
This is not the only place in Scripture that we read of the significance of divine silence. For example, consider the various ways that Psalm 50 says that God speaks. First, God speaks through his general revelation of creation: “The Mighty One, God the LORD, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting” (Ps. 50:1). Indeed, “There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard,” even “to the end of the world” (Ps. 19:3-4). What God says is witnessed by all whether acknowledged or not, rendering everyone “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
Second, according to Psalm 50, God speaks through his covenant faithfulness: “Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!… “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Ps. 50:5, 14-15). Our God is a covenant-making, covenant-keeping God, but that does not mean his people are.
And so, third, sometimes God speaks through his silence. In Psalm 50, God recounts the actions of the wicked among his people asking: “What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips? For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you. If you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you keep company with adulterers. You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit. You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son. These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself” (Ps. 50:16-21). Israel’s leader considered Jesus of Nazareth one like themselves, one whom they could slander, persecute, and even murder. But he was also the Christ, the Son of God. And while he spoke loudly through his silence on that day, he will not always be.
And so, fourth, God speaks through his judgment. As Psalm 50 tells, “Our God comes; he does not keep silence; before him is a devouring fire, around him a mighty tempest. …Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!” (Ps. 50:3, 22). In considering this psalm in light of Jesus’s trial in Caiaphas’s courtroom, it should not surprise us that Jesus remained silent until it was time to pronounce judgment, and then he did not remain silent but spoke clearly, saying, “from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64), a clear reference to Judgment Day.
So, according to Psalm 50, God speaks through creation, through his covenant faithfulness, through his silence, and through his judgment. He also speaks through the special revelation of his Word. As the writer of Hebrews explains, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Heb. 1:1-2). And the Son stood before Pilate silent as his accusers railed against him, reveling in their lawless deeds (Acts 2:23). It’s not that the living Word had nothing to say; he simply knew it wasn’t the time. As the Prophet Amos said, “he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time” (Amos 5:13).
Meanwhile, attempting to unshackle himself from the execution of an innocent man, Pilate offers a guilty one. Apparently, it was the governor’s custom to release a prisoner in Roman custody to Israel, so Pilate uses the opportunity to broker peace. Thinking of the worst of criminals in his custody, he offers the release of either the notorious thief and murderer Barabbas or the meek and innocent Jesus.
It is a sound strategy. Who wants a dangerous and deadly criminal on the loose if it can be prevented? What’s the worst that could happen with Jesus’s release? How about continued teaching, preaching, and miracles? But in the mind of Israel’s elite, they see Jesus’s release as a complete loss of religious and political power. Apparently, the vilest of villains can be vindicated for the sake of saving a nation.
The wicked envy of the leaders of Israel is obviously apparent to Pilate, likely causing him serious concern, but he is not alone. While he sits in the seat of judgment, he receives word from his wife. She has had a dream, perhaps a nightmare, about Jesus, “that righteous man.” Whether from God or encouraged by the hysteria of the moment, she has reached intuitively the same conclusion as her husband: Jesus is innocent.
Whether due to the words of his wife or the counsel of his conscience, or both, Pilate seems unwilling to be influenced by the accusations against Jesus. Perhaps knowing this, Israel’s leaders must appeal to something more powerful than reason: popular opinion. Up to this point the chief priests and elders have been front and center, but a crowd has gathered, seemingly representing the will of the people, at least to Pilate. Though he sits upon the seat of judgment, Pilate asks, “which of the two do you want me to release for you?” In a short but telling sentence, Matthew reveals, “Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus.” With persuasive words and cunning evil, Israel’s leaders have manipulated the gullible into believing that the Truth is their enemy. Seemingly incensed, they want their way . . . now. They are, to borrow from John Knox, a “rascal multitude.”
Often referred to as “herd mentality,” people can be influenced to behave emotionally rather than rationally based on crowd momentum. History is full of examples of pied pipers who could lead the public willingly astray by playing upon their emotions. The chief priests and elders are no exception. Likely employing the chief tactic of fear, they manipulate the crowd into willingly embracing a murderer while pleading for Jesus’s execution: “Let him be crucified!”, they shout, and all the more, “Let him be crucified!”, such is the moral majority, a rascal multitude indeed.
Short on reasoning and void of truth, the angry mob wins. Pilate will not argue with them, but he will clarify, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” Literally washing his hands of the matter, Pilate at least concedes, authorizing Jesus’s execution. But it is Israel’s response that is both sad and startling, and deeply ironic: “His blood be on us and on our children!” It is an outrageous claim, one they cannot keep.
It was with Israel’s father, Abraham, that God made a covenant, promising that “all the nations of the earth would be blessed” through his offspring (Gen. 22:18). It was a covenant sealed with the blood of a sacrifice. It was at Mount Sinai that God made a covenant with Israel, and Moses threw the blood of the covenant upon Israel, ratifying the covenant. It was in the tabernacle, and then the temple, that atoning sacrifices were made for Israel, blood shed for the people. But on that Friday, in their sinister and blood-thirsty intent to murder Jesus, they look not to a substitute but submit themselves as the guilt offering: “His blood be on us and on our children!” – a sad testimony of total depravity. As Jesus would later pray upon the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).
The irony of Israel’s cry is that upon the cross Jesus shed his blood to atone for the sins of his people. Drawing upon this truth on the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). He called them to repentance; he called them to believe; he directed them to baptism; and told them of the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-38). And then, to a people who had confidently cried, “His blood be on us and on our children,” Peter reminded them of the covenant faithfulness and mercy of God: “For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself” (Acts 2:39).
What Israel’s leaders and the angry mob meant for evil, God meant for good, transforming a curse into a blessing, a blessing upon “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself,” and reminding us,
Nothing can for sin atone —
nothing but the blood of Jesus;
naught of good that I have done —
nothing but the blood of Jesus.
O precious is the flow
that makes me white as snow;
no other fount I know,
nothing but the blood of Jesus.
 Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).
 Robert Lowry, “Nothing but the Blood,” in Trinity Hymnal, Revised Edition (Suwanee, GA: Great Commission Publications, Inc., 1990), 307.