Text: John 18:28-19:16
Then they led Jesus from Caiaphas to the Praetorium, and it was early morning. But they themselves did not go into the Praetorium, lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the Passover. Pilate then went out to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this Man?”…
This morning is Palm Sunday, the day in which Christian churches remember and celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. But historically this day has also been used to mark the passion of Christ, and so if you check the Revised Common Lectionary for today, you’ll see that it has two liturgies: the liturgy of the Palms and the liturgy of the Passion.
One reason for this is simply historical. The liturgical calendar is a man-made product. Different holidays and celebrations cropped up in different locations around the Western world, and it was only later that any “official” church group attempted to put them altogether in a formal calendar. But combining the Palms with the Passion also makes good theological sense because the two scenes are really two aspects to the unified messianic action of judgment and salvation. Palm Sunday points to Good Friday. The reason that Jesus was riding into Jerusalem was to proclaim His messianic kingship, to lay claim to Jerusalem, and to predict the destruction and rebuilding of the temple. All of this actually occurred on the cross. When Jesus was crucified, He was performing the ultimate messianic action. He was, in His own body, destroying the temple so that it could be rebuilt. And He was being the king of Israel. At the cross, Jesus carried out a kingly action, and it was because of that act that He could truly inherit the kingdom.
This morning we will look quickly at Palm Sunday and connect it to Good Friday. Then we will focus specifically on Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, seeing how His kingship is again a central point of contention, and what we learn is that the kingdom of God came in a most surprising way. This morning we will see the King in court. We will see eternal victory in Jesus’ death. We will see Christ’s kingship in His condemnation. We will see the Palms and the Passion, and we will see salvation in the death and life of the Messiah.
First let us look to the triumphal entry. If there’s one thing that should be clear from Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem, it is that He is acting out the part of the long-expected messianic king. This is why the Bible says it fulfilled Zechariah 9:9, “Behold, your King is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.” Riding the donkey, descending from the mountain, entering the royal city, and arriving at the temple—these are all the kinds of thing that the prophesied heavenly messiah-king would do. We’ll say more about that in just a moment.
It should also be clear that the people in Jerusalem at the time understood Jesus to be doing this, and many of them even themselves proclaimed Him to be king:
The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out:
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’
The King of Israel!” (John 12:12-13)
This same scene is described in Luke’s gospel, and it made the religious leaders uncomfortable:
Then, as He was now drawing near the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen, saying:
“‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’
Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
And some of the Pharisees called to Him from the crowd, “Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.” (Luke 19:37-39)
How did Jesus respond? “I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out” (Luke 19:40).
NT Wright explains what’s going on here by pointing out the connection with Zechariah’s prophecy. Zech. 6:12-13 says this:
“Behold, the Man whose name is the BRANCH!
From His place He shall branch out,
And He shall build the temple of the Lord;
Yes, He shall build the temple of the Lord.
He shall bear the glory,
And shall sit and rule on His throne;
So He shall be a priest on His throne,
And the counsel of peace shall be between them both.”’
Notice the emphasis on the temple. The temple is also where the kingly Branch will “sit and rule” on His throne. Now what did Jesus actually do when He got to the temple? He threw out the money changers. Did you know that this is also a feature of Zechariah’s prophecy? “And there shall no longer be a trader in the house of the Lord of hosts on that day” (Zech. 14:21). The tossing out of the money changers was a tossing out of merchants or traders, a symbol that the “Branch,” the heavenly priest-king was here in the temple, setting up his throne. Wright sums this up by saying, “Someone doing what Jesus did was indicating that Israel’s history had reached the point of decisive destruction and rebuilding, and that his own actions were embodying that moment.” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 492). Palm Sunday shows that Jesus is king, and for a moment, the multitude of the people recognized that and rejoiced in it.
The King in Court
Now this emphasis on Jesus’ kingship reappears prominently in His trial before Pilate. The fact that He was supposedly going to destroy the temple was a relevant accusation against Christ, and His claim to kingship was presented as a threat to Caesar’s government. Thus Palm Sunday laid an important foundation for Good Friday. Jesus’ actions then set off a chain of events which led to His being arrested and condemned.
Jesus’ claim to be king comes up at least six times during his trial. Pilate asks him, “Are you king” (John 18:33). He responds, “My kingdom is not of this world…” (18:36). Pilate replies, “Are you a king then?”, and Jesus answers, “you say rightly. For this cause I was born…” (18:37). After scourging Jesus, the Roman soldiers place a crown of thorns on Jesus’ head and put a purple robe on Him. Then they mockingly say, “Hail, king of the Jews” (19:3). When Pilate presents Jesus at the judgment seat, he says, “Behold your king” (19:14). The people cried out, “crucify Him!”, and Pilate responded, “Shall I crucify your king?” The Jews replied, “We have no king but Caesar!” (19:15). Obviously Jesus’ kingship was a major theme at His trial, but the Jews were no longer so excited about it.
Atop this, there is the character of Barabbas. Barabbas is a very important character because he tells us something about the motivation of the crowd and the way in which it was manipulated by the high priests and other religious leaders. Barabbas was like Jesus in some ways, but he was not the same kind of threat. He could suitably substitute for Jesus. That’s why he was released in Christ’s place, and yet he was of no real consequence to the powers that be.
Who was Barabbas? John’s gospel simply says that Barabbas was a “robber” (18:40). However, it’s important to know that that term has a broad range of meanings. It can also mean a “brigand” or “rebel,” and that’s exactly what we see in the other gospels. For instance, Mark 15:6 says that Barabbas “was chained with his fellow rebels; they had committed murder in the rebellion.” Luke 23:19 repeats this, emphasizing “rebellion” and “murder.” Barabbas was not just a household thief. He was a violent revolutionary. He was the kind of person that the Jews were accusing Jesus of being.
Matthew’s gospel also tells us something important about Barabbas. While it is true that he was a violent revolutionary who was guilty of murder, a “notorious prisoner” (Matt. 27:16), it turned out that the “chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas” (Matthew 27:20). The people didn’t initially ask for Barabbas. In fact, the triumphal entry had them very sympathetic to Jesus. But the “wisdom of the crowd” changed. They were manipulated by their own Jewish leadership into wanting Barabbas instead of Jesus. Why would the priests and elders do such a thing?
The answer is twofold, and it’s given to us in two different places in the gospels. In Matthew 27:17-18, it says, “Pilate said to them, ‘Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’ For he knew that they had handed Him over because of envy.” –envy, did you catch that? The Jewish leadership was envious of Jesus because He was achieving something that they had been unable to do. The people were really starting to believe in Him! And so then we read this in John 11:47-48: “What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.”
Do you see? The chief priests, elders, and Pharisees were afraid that the multitudes would “believe in” Jesus. This would cause some kind of true uprising which would then get the Romans’ attention. The Romans would impose new rulers over the Jews, and that would put the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees out of power. This couldn’t happen. But the Jewish leaders knew that the multitude really was worked up, and so they couldn’t just have Jesus arrested and killed with nothing to offer in His place. No, the people would have rallied around His memory and demanded action! So the Jewish leaders came up with a trade-off. Basically the leaders of Israel knew that they could manipulate the crowd. The crowd was energized because of Jesus’ claims to the throne, but they could just as easily chase after a worldly rebel. Jesus wasn’t doing what Barabbas was doing at all. He was aiming His revolution at Israel first, and the leaders of Israel took notice. They didn’t want to lose their place, so they handed their messiah, their king, over to the Roman oppressors in order to maintain their tiny sphere of authority. Better to reign under Caesar than to serve under Christ.
But handing Jesus over to be killed did not prevent Him from taking the throne. No, instead the cross is where the ultimate messianic action took place. Palm Sunday points to Good Friday, where the true and living Temple was nailed to a cross and then taken down to Hell. He would rise again, rebuilt, on Easter Sunday, but because of our sin He first had to undergo hell and death. That was the great revolutionary act—not a battle of resistance or the forming of a militant kingdom, but instead submitting to a punishment not properly deserved so that God’s justice could be satisfied and guilty sinners like us could be saved. This act freed the people of God, but it took down the leaders of Israel along with the Gentile oppressors. Jesus’ death was the ultimate act of kingship, defending Israel from all enemies, foreign and domestic.
What we see here is that Jesus is the King who does more than rule over us and provides judgment. He is all of that. But He’s more. Jesus is also the King who goes to court for us, on our behalf. And He defends us by accepting the guilt and paying the penalty. He lays down His life so that we can be forgiven. This is the gospel. Listen:
For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor. 5:21)
Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”) (Gal. 3:13)
But now the righteousness of God apart from the law is revealed, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God, through faith in Jesus Christ… whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance God had passed over the sins that were previously committed, to demonstrate at the present time His righteousness, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:21-22, 25-26)
This is a salvation which also “convicts” those being saved. Before God’s people can be exalted, they must be humbled. This is even true of the good people. No, scratch that. This is especially true of the good people. Jesus will not redeem anyone who He does not first convict of sin, soften their heart, and bring to humble repentance. The King only claims those who bow the knee. And so we can’t have Jesus and our own way. We can’t have Jesus and our worldly agendas. We can’t have Jesus and self-righteousness. We can only have Jesus as He is, the King in Court, the King on the Cross.
We don’t get to be in charge when the Messiah shows up. He does things on His timing and in His way, and it’s always right. This is why the rich have such a hard time getting into heaven. This is why the rulers, both civil and religious, are often the last people to come to Jesus. We want to be in charge. We want to rule. And when we realize that Jesus is challenging that, we try to come up with a substitute Jesus. We want a Jesus that conforms more to our assumptions about life, a Jesus that fits our preferences, and a Jesus we think we can manage. But Jesus would rather die than let us get away with that.
The Palms and the Passion go together. The triumphant messiah is the suffering servant, and Jesus, the son of David, the King of Israel, is crowned by Pontius Pilate on His way to the Cross. This is what Christianity is all about. If you would partake of the kingdom of God, you must fall before the crucified messiah. You must also die, with and in Jesus, in order to live again. And so this morning, take a good look at your heart, at your desires, at what you are hoping to get from Christianity. Is it the gospel? Is it the passion of Christ? If not, then you’ve got the same thing the chief priests and Pharisees have. You’ve got an image of yourself in the place of Christ. You’ve got an idol.
But the good news is that God conquers our idols in Christ Jesus. He casts them out by the power of His Word. And so this morning, as you meditate on the death of Christ, repent of those idols. Cast them away. And find your fulfillment in Jesus. He is your King. He is the One Who reigns on the throne of David. He is the One Who conquers our enemies, even ourselves, and gives us new life with God. Blessed is He Who Comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the Highest!
Let us pray.