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Symbolic Statements in John’s Gospel (2)

W Ferguson, Antrim

It was early (18.28-40) - Determined hatred

At this point the Jewish leaders led Christ to the Roman praetorium ("hall of judgment", AV). The legitimacy of the proceedings was, at best, open to serious question. It was not permissible to put anyone on trial by night. Verse 30 presupposes that the Jewish leaders considered that they had already proved the guilt of Christ before bringing Him to Pilate. They seemed to take the attitude that for this reason Pilate should condemn Him to death without delay. They were in a hurry to get Him crucified. One detail of the narrative makes this particularly clear: v.28 says, "and it was early". This reminds us of a frequently recurring expression in the Old Testament, where it is said of people that they "rose up early in the morning". Before the technology was available to turn night into day people rose up early if they were determined to finish a job before nightfall. It was a sign that they meant business. Abraham, for example, rose up early in the morning to set out for Moriah to sacrifice Isaac (Gen 22.3), because he would not be found wanting in this act of supreme faith and obedience. Here in John 18 we have equal determination shown, but in a totally different cause. They were determined to get rid of Jesus that day, for the next day was a Sabbath.

These leaders in Israel would be careful to observe the Sabbath. They would avoid pollution lest they should not be ceremonially clean to participate in the Passover. They feared the deep pollution of a Gentile court at such a sensitive time. They seemed so punctiliously correct. Yet they held an irregular trial, paid men to give false witness, paid a disciple to betray his Teacher, whipped up a frenzy in the excitable mob to intimidate Pilate, and delivered up their Messiah, as Pilate realised, "for envy" (that is, because they envied Him – Mt 27.18). Pilate was annoyed at their insistence and retorted, "Take him yourselves, and judge him according to your law" (v.31, RV). He knew, as they did, that they had not the authority under Roman law to do this and condemn Him to death. And their intention was that He should die that day – they had risen "early" to achieve this.

There followed a sequence of events in which Pilate sought one means after another to prevent a judicial murder. The insistence of the priests increased the pressure, culminating in the threat to Pilate, "If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar" (19.12, NIV). Thus they added to their previous crimes the sinister ploy of threatening the judge’s personal career prospects, and probably indeed his very life. Pilate was faced with two alternatives: to follow the evidence by releasing the accused, or to hand Him over unjustly to be crucified, because of the threat. To be classified as a "friend of Caesar" was an honour, perhaps a Roman equivalent of the British "Companion of Honour". To be suspected by the Emperor of freeing a rebel aspirant to royal rank would spell disgrace for Pilate and probably the necessity of committing suicide.

The men who began work so early that morning would stoop to any device to achieve their purpose of ridding themselves that day of a man whom they could no longer tolerate. Pilate was no match for their bitter hatred and determination. He could not afford to have a full-scale riot on his hands, could not risk losing acceptance with Caesar. He cracked under the pressure and gave the decision which they demanded.

So the winter of their rejection of the Christ came to its climax. The hour had come. God, in wonderful grace, was overruling the rebellion and defiance of ungodly priests, the fickleness of an unruly mob of Israelites, and the human frailty of a Roman governor, to work His own amazing work of redemption by the sacrificial death of His own Son. Out of all the ugliness of human sin and raw hatred, God fashioned a masterpiece of pure, divine grace. On the day of Pentecost Peter caught the beauty of this work of God, when he said of the Lord Jesus, "Him, being delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay: whom God raised up, having loosed the pangs of death: because it was not possible that he should be holden of it" (Acts 2.23-24, RV).



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