Who's to Blame?
Passage: Mark 15:1–15:15
Who's to Blame?
November 4th, 2007
Way of Grace Church
I. At Whose Feet?
Who's to blame? That's a question we hear asked quite a bit in our world. Whether it be in Washington DC, or in corporate America, or even right here in our own neighborhoods, we are debating about at whose feet guilt should placed.
Even when it comes to questions of history, the blame game is a popular pastime with historians.
You may remember a few years ago, when Mel Gibson's, "The Passion of the Christ" was released, that the film stirred up an old question about blame. David Denby, film critic for the New Yorker magazine described this issue this way:
As Gibson was completing the film, some historians, theologians, and clergymen accused him of emphasizing the discredited charge that it was the ancient Jews who were primarily responsible for killing Jesus, a claim that has served as the traditional justification for the persecution of the Jews in Europe for nearly two millennia.
Who's to blame for the death of Jesus? That's a question we cannot avoid as we go to God's word this morning.
Turn with me to the Gospel of Mark. For the last two years we have been looking together into this incredible account of Jesus Christ. And this month, exactly two years after we began, we will finish Mark's Gospel together.
And the question that has been driving us this whole time is a question that Jesus himself posed to his disciples way back in chapter 8:29, "but who do you say that I am?"
There is not a more important question than this. What do you believe about the identity of Jesus? Who is he?
Well this morning we resume our study in Mark 15:1-15 (page 852).
II. The Passage: "Then What Shall I Do...?" (Mark 15:1-15)
Now, where did we leave off in our study of Mark? Well, you may remember that Jesus, after a long and popular ministry in northern Israel, in Galilee, has finally come to Jerusalem with his disciples.
His many confrontations with the Jewish religious leaders of his day and the betrayal of one his disciples has led to Jesus' arrest and his conviction by the Jewish council in Jerusalem in a hastily convened, middle of the night session.
So listen as we pick up the story in 15:1:
And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole Council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate. 2 And Pilate asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" And he answered him, "You have said so." 3 And the chief priests accused him of many things. 4 And Pilate again asked him, "Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you." 5 But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed. 6 Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. 7 And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. 8 And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. 9 And he answered them, saying, "Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?" 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. 12 And Pilate again said to them, "Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?" 13 And they cried out again, "Crucify him." 14 And Pilate said to them, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Crucify him." 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified. (15:1-15)
Now, right off the bat, it is so important that we remember that the "hot water" Jesus finds himself in was something he expected. In fact, he even predicted it on several occasions. Remember what he told his disciples in 10:33:
"See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles." (10:33)
The words of Jesus are perfectly fulfilled here, aren't they? Jesus has just been handed over the Gentiles, specifically, to the Roman authorities in Jerusalem.
You may know that as an occupied country under Roman rule, as a Roman province, the Jews could not practice capital punishment. If someone was to die for this or that crime, the Romans would make the final decision.
And specifically, it was the Roman governor or prefect over Judea that would endorse or reject a person's conviction. And from 26 AD to 36 AD, that prefect was Pontius Pilate.
Far from being some obscure character of the New Testament, Pontius Pilate is mentioned by several ancient historians and writers outside of the Bible, and he is mentioned on a famous inscription discovered in Israel in 1961.
A first century Jewish writer, Philo of Alexandria described Pilate as a "man of an inflexible, stubborn, and cruel disposition," saying that his rule was marked by "briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injuries, executions without trial, and endless and supremely grievous cruelty".
While Philo was not the most objective critic, we do know that Pilate was eventually removed from his position because of his tendency to brutality.
So here, we see the Jewish religious leaders bringing Jesus to Pilate in order to secure his execution. What is the charge? Well, the charge is clear from the first question Pilate asks Jesus...verse 2: "Are you the King of the Jews?"
The title "King of the Jews" was a Roman designation. The Jews never used this language. They talked about the Messiah, the King of Israel. But the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem know that Pilate will not condemn a man because of religious issues, because he doesn't ‘tow the line' in terms of Jewish orthodoxy.
No, they need a charge that will stick. Something with teeth. And the charge they bring is directly related to Pilate's reason for being in Jerusalem.
The Roman governors spent most of their time on the coast in Caesarea. But they would often travel to Jerusalem on special occasions. And since it was Passover, since the city was four or five times its normal size because of pilgrims from all over the world, Pilate needed to be present to ensure that things didn't get out of hand; that Jewish insurrectionists didn't take advantage of the situation and stir up the crowds with talk of rebellion.
So anyone who would claim to be a king would be view as a possible threat.
But when Pilate sees Jesus, he may be immediately skeptical. Even though we can't hear the tone of his voice, he might be saying in verse 2, "Are YOU the King of the Jews". Notice how Jesus responds. "YOU have said so".
Jesus places the burden back on Pilate without acknowledging his identity either way.
Maybe at this point Pilate turns his skeptical eyes back to the Jewish leaders who immediately begin to argue their case with Pilate. But again, notice the contrast between these leaders, even between Pilate and Jesus. Verse 5: "But Jesus made no further answer".
Now it seems that Roman law presumed the guilt of anyone who refused to defend themselves. So Pilate is amazed that Jesus can remain so calm and so quiet.
But look back at verse 6: Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked.
Apparently, in order to score points with the people, Pilate would pardon one prisoner at Passover. A good way to win some political capital, right? This seems to be the reason the crowd is coming before Pilate, as we see in verse 8. This crowd was probably made up of friends and family and followers of those who were in prison. They were probably hoping to win the release of the specific prisoner they knew.
But Pilate seems to think this is the perfect setting in which to figure out what he should do with Jesus. Pilate knows that Jesus is popular. As verse 10 confirms, he knows the Jewish religious leaders have handed Jesus over because of "envy". But he is not about to execute a popular rabbi and have the crowds turn on him because he wants to appease the religious elite.
Additionally, this Jesus hardly seems to be a threat. This could be the perfect opportunity to bypass the religious leaders and release Jesus to the people.
But as we've read, that will not happen. Jesus will not be released.
III. Owning Up to Our Part in His Passion
Now, as we think more about the scene painted for us in verses 6 through 15, I want to first make it clear that I believe the main reason Mark has recorded this story is to confirm the innocence of Jesus. That's the role this passage serves in Mark's Gospel. Jesus was not crucified because he was a criminal. No, he was condemned, with some reluctance, because of jealous religious leaders, an angry mob, and a compromising Roman prefect.
This was an important point that the first Christians had to make clear to Greek and Roman listeners. Yes, Jesus died on a cross. But, no, he was not a criminal. It would be like us today telling other people about our Savior who died in the electric chair.
But this morning, I want us to think more carefully about what's happening here. Think about the decisions being made here. Think about the behavior of every person involved, except one. Does any of it ultimately make sense? Is this not the most senseless scene in the entire Bible? Is this not the most senseless scene in history?
Do you see what I'm talking about?
A condemned criminal is set free instead of the innocent Jesus (v. 15). Jesus himself, who only days before was hailed when he came into Jerusalem, Jesus who healed the sick and taught the people, Jesus is being sent to the worst death imaginable (v. 15). The crowd who must surely know of him, the crowd who cannot declare any reason for his guilt, the crowd is stirred up into a frenzy to condemn him (v. 14). The chief priests, those chosen to lead the people are compelling the people to forsake their own messiah (v. 11). And the Roman governor, this man who is supposed to execute justice, this man who has the final say, he is giving in to a mob; he is compromising at the expense of an innocent life (v. 15).
But...but...who is to blame?
Is it the crowd? Are the chief priests to blame? Is Pilate at fault? Or maybe the blame should be placed at the feet of those who are glaringly absent from this story. Where are Jesus' disciples? Where are those who said they would fight for him, even to the death? Maybe Peter, or John, or James, or Judas is to blame. Maybe all of them are guilty.
Did you notice that, in some sense, the characters in this passage are representative?
There are both Jews and Gentiles present. There is a crowd. There are individuals. There is a governor. There is a criminal. There are priests. There are sinners. There are those who are rich and powerful. There are those who are poor and powerless.
But notice something. Not one of them is standing with Jesus. Mark describes Jesus as being completely forsaken. There's not one person standing up for him. Even his followers have fled. There's not one person willing to defy the chief priests and shout the name of Jesus.
Why is that? I believe that Mark is simply pointing out that there is not one person who is not in some way, either by their actions or inaction, complicit in this senseless scene. And that includes you and me.
Now, undoubtedly, someone will say, "But I wasn't there? I can't be blamed for the Jesus' death!"
But what if you were there? What would you do?
One of the most important, but one of the most difficult realizations any person can come to is the realization that you, in some way, if you were there, you would have proven yourself guilty of rejecting Jesus. Do you believe that?
Maybe like the priests, you would have been motivated by envy.
Maybe like the crowd, you would have been stirred by thoughtless enthusiasm.
Maybe like Barabbas, you would have been thinking first about saving your own skin.
Maybe like Pilate, you would be driven to satisfy others.
Maybe like the disciples, you would have stayed away because of fear.
Mark does not describe anyone standing for Jesus, because no one would; because none of us would. How can I say that?
Well, the Apostle John confirms this in the opening lines of his Gospel:
10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.
John simply echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah who spoke over 700 years earlier:
3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Is 53)
And listen to what the Apostle Paul tells us at the end of Romans chapter 4:
[He] was delivered up because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.
Can any of us say that we are not responsible for sending Jesus Christ to his death?
The reality of our turning from a loving God, the reality of our self-seeking decisions, our self-exalting thoughts, our God-neglecting lifestyles, our cruel words, our bitter hearts, our compromises, our loveless indifference...those are the things that delivered Jesus over to death. Who is to blame? We are. The characters in this scene were merely our spokespeople.
It is a difficult realization to come to, but we need to get there. And if you already have acknowledged this truth, you need to remember who you are, what you are apart from God.
IV. What His Silence Is Saying
Now up to this point, I know this message would not by described by most people as uplifting, inspirational, or motivational. But only the human heart wants to be lifted up into the heavens without first acknowledging that its fallen down into a pit of its own making.
We want Good News without acknowledging the bad news.
But the very reason we need to come to this difficult realization of our own guilt is that our acknowledgment opens our eyes to the hope in this passage.
Now, this may be the point where you're scratching your head, asking. "Hope? Where is there any hope in this passage?"
The answer is, of course, our hope is in Jesus. Someone might say, "But Jesus doesn't say anything here?" Precisely! Isn't it wonderful?
Isn't it clear here that the silence of Jesus is speaking volumes? Isn't it clear that Jesus knows something we don't?
Listen to what the Apostle Peter tells us about Jesus' silence here:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. (I Peter 2:22-24)
Jesus was doing the one thing that no one else was: he was entrusting himself to God. He was looking to God. And because he was, he was putting our needs before his own. "He bore OUR sins in his body".
The silence of Jesus here is inspired by love. The silence of Jesus here is inspired by his commitment to the will of God. His silence here was inspired by the fact that God, through the innocence of Jesus, was carrying out a plan to deal with our guilt.
Do you remember what Peter said on the Day of Pentecost? He declared to the ‘crowd', "this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men." (Acts 2:23)
The very sins that would send him to such a horrible death were the very sins his death was designed to cover.
One of the most important, but one of the most difficult realizations any person can come to is the realization that God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever trusts in him will not perish because of their guilt, but instead, they will have eternal life with God.
This morning God has reminded us that Jesus was rejected because of us. That ultimately, all of us are to blame. But He has also reminded us that Jesus laid down his life for us, in love.
Have you acknowledged this incredible truth? If you have, then ask God to remind you each day, that, apart from him, you stand convicted. Pray that he would humble you because of that truth. Pray that he would cause you to be vigilant in light of who are without Him. Pray that he would cause joy to well up in your heart because of his forgiveness.
If you have not acknowledge both you guilt and God's grace, then do that this morning. As I close in prayer, talk to God yourself. Tell him that you recognize your need and that you need Christ and the forgiveness, the new life he makes possible.
The beautiful paradox of the gospel, the Good News about Jesus, is that when we acknowledge our inescapable guilt, we are given incomparable freedom. Like Barabbas, even though we deserve one fate, we are released because of Jesus.
Who's to blame for that strange twist? Jesus. The only thing he's guilty of is loving you to the point of death.