Caught between two worlds
Have you ever found yourself caught between a rock and a hard place?
Throughout my life I can think of just a few times when I had to make some life and death decisions. When we were missionaries in Liberia, there were a few times when we would travel into the bush and I would have to decide whether our Land Cruiser would actually make it across the creatively homemade bridge (If you could call it that!) spanning the gap across the river. As I would align the tires of the Land Cruiser with the tree trunks, I would always tell my passengers that they had to get out. I wasn’t going to be responsible for the loss of their lives if the trees were to give way or the Land Cruiser were to slip off of the “bridge”. When I would ford the river on those very flexible tree trunks, I would always hold my breath, knowing that one wrong move could land my vehicle in the water and leave me with a giant headache.
But, what could we do? We needed to go forward to the village where we were scheduled to teach, and we could not just turn back. So, onward march! We pressed on and when presented with a decision to press forward or turn back, we tried our best to press on! Now, those decisions were fairly easy. Typically, the only life that was hanging in the balance was mine. Thankfully, the times when I have had to make life and death decisions for other people are few and far between.
As our church finishes working through the Gospel of John, we have finally arrived at the moment when Jesus is brought before Pilate. As I prepared for these passages, it has been interesting for me to try and look at the situation from the perspective of Pilate. Here is a guy who is put into the position of holding the lives of others in his hands. His decision would mean the death or life of an individual. In a way, he is portrayed as the bad guy of the story. Right? When we think of Pilate, we probably think of a man who we think had the power to either sentence Christ to death or to release him. But, did he really? I would like to suggest that Pilate was actually the one in bondage that day, seeking to be freed. Christ was exactly where He wanted to be. Christ was sovereignly orchestrating the entire drama as it played out.
Pilate was a man who was power hungry, and throughout his career had been on a constant search for status. Now that his status had been attained, it was something that he did not want to lose. John 18:33-40 records the events that took place prior to Jesus’ crucifixion. As you read through the text of scripture, try to imagine this event from Pilate’s perspective. He is lying in bed with his wife and in the early morning a crowd of Jews stand outside calling for an audience. He goes to see what the commotion is and finds a man named Jesus in their custody. Odd. The Jewish court system was only supposed to operate during the day. From the looks of Jesus, a trial must have been conducted throughout the night in order for them to end up at Pilate’s front porch this early in the morning. Pilate knows that the Jews have brought Jesus to him for a reason. After his examination, Pilate finds no reason for any charges to be brought against Jesus, but the crowd is thirsty for blood, demanding a verdict. After gauging the temperature of the crowd, Pilate realizes that they will not be satisfied until they get their way. He is stuck.
The plot thickens when we are told in a parallel gospel account (Matthew 27:19) that Pilate’s wife had had a dream about Jesus and urges her husband to have nothing to do with the man. Pilate finds himself trapped. Why didn’t Pilate just call his guards and either give the Jews what they wanted or force them to disperse and diffuse the situation. Based on Pilate’s track record, it would seem that Pilate’s position in the Roman Empire may not have been as secure as he would have liked people to believe. From things that I have read, it seems like one more riot, one more mob event, or one more filed complaint would have been enough for the Roman leadership to remove Pilate from his position and possibly from this world.
Pilate knows in his heart that this man has done nothing wrong. He knows in his soul that there is a spiritual element to what is going on that is bigger than he is. He also knows that he likes living in the lap of luxury and enjoys the intoxication of power and material things he has gained. What will win out? The spiritual or the material? Pilate stands on the pavement, thinking that he holds Christ’s life in his hands: live or die, freedom or bondage.
While Pilate is perceived to be the one judging this event, Christ has sovereignly ordained that these things must take place. Pilate asks Jesus if He is a king…and finally Jesus answers and says that His kingdom is not of this world. Jesus’ kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, not material. This answer really throws Pilate off his game. If Jesus had said, "Yes, I am a king and will one day reign on the throne forever," then Pilate could have easily charged Him with sedition and called it a day. But Jesus speaking directly to Pilate’s heart says that He is a spiritual king. A spiritual king doesn’t rule via material force. A spiritual king has no need of a physical rebellion. Politically, Jesus wasn’t guilty of anything. I wonder if - as Jesus spoke about His spiritual kingdom - if the words of Pilate’s wife weren’t rehearsed in his mind, “…have nothing to do with this man.”
We see two kingdoms colliding here. The spiritual and the material. Pilate is seated in the position of the material king. Jesus stands as the spiritual king. One of these men would sacrifice everything to maintain power and glory. The other man had already given up his glory. One of these men valued only what he could see and get. The other Man valued spiritual growth far more than silver. One of these men was a manipulator. The other allowed for no falsehoods to be found in Him. One of these men sat robed in royal clothing. The other stood giving no signs of riches, beauty, or majesty. And yet, as these two kingdoms collide…as these two men meet…things are not what they seem. Christ may be the one standing before the bema seat, but Pilate is the one on trial. Jesus states that He came to establish a new kingdom - a spiritual one. Jesus is calling the entire materialistic world to seek His kingdom first. Jesus, the spiritual king is calling everyone who will hear Him.
The world needs a spiritual Savior. Jesus shares the truth of His mission with Pilate and offers Pilate the opportunity to respond to Him as a spiritual Savior. But, like many people, Pilate scoffs at the truth Christ offers and turns his head toward his own desires and some form of economic stimulus to free him from his circumstances.
The world needs a spiritual Savior. As hard as it is to comprehend, the only way for Christ to serve as that spiritual Savior was for Him to lay down His life for the guilty. That’s us, by the way. If you were to read through this act of the drama recorded in John 18:33-40, I would suggest you notice two things as you near the end of the passage. As Pilate washes his hands of the situation, choosing his material position over the salvation of a spiritual Savior, a graphic visualization of Jesus’ ministry plays out. In one last attempt to let Jesus go free, a choice is given to the crowd: release one man - Jesus Christ, or a thief we know as Barabbas. As you know, the crowd chooses Barabbas.
I found it interesting that Origen recorded that Barabbas’ name was actually Jesus Barabbas, which means Jesus, the son of a father. Isn’t it interesting that as Christ takes one step closer to the cross, we have this graphic display of His ministry? Jesus Christ: Jesus, the Son of the Father…takes the place of Barabbas: Jesus, the son of a father. There is a good chance that Barabbas was scheduled to be crucified that day. He is the only person in human history that can say that Jesus Christ physically took his place on the cross. That is an amazing picture of substitutionary atonement at work: a life for a life. Christ taking the place of another.
I can say that Jesus took my spiritual place on the cross. I deserved to die. I deserved to be separated from God and pay the penalty for my own sin. But I don't have to because Jesus has already done it. Jesus was my spiritual substitute… He atoned for my sin. He absorbed God’s wrath against my sin. Because of that, I may stand before the Lord and be welcomed into His presence.
When kingdoms collide in your life. Which kingdom will you choose? To which kingdom do you regularly bow? The material or spiritual?
Pursuing any other kingdom…and being conformed to any other image...is pure bondage. To be conformed to Christ and to pursue His kingdom…is true freedom. We are called to continue in our love for Jesus... We are called to be conformed into His image...and in that…we are free. May God help us to understand this truth and live out this reality in our lives each day.