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Sermon 12 - The aggravated Guilt of him who delivered Christ to Pilate

By Andrew Lee


      John xix.10, 11.

      "Then saith Pilate unto him, 'Speakest thou not unto me? Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee?' Jesus answered, 'Thou couldest have no power against me, except it were given thee from above: Therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.'"

      Judea was conquered by the Romans and reduced to a province of their empire, before Christ suffered for the sins of men. When the Jews conspired his death, Pilate was governor of that province. The power of life and death was in his hands. Though said to have been devoid of principle, he was unwilling to give sentence against Jesus. Free from Jewish prejudices, he was convinced of Christ's innocence; that he had committed no offence, either against his own nation, or against the Romans; but that for envy he had been arraigned, condemned, and delivered up as a malefactor.

      A mighty prince was then expected to arise in Israel. That he would save his people from their enemies, and crush the powers which held them in subjection, was the general idea entertained of him. But the Jews had no expectations of such a deliverer in the Son of Mary; nor did the Roman Governor see aught in him to excite suspicion of a formidable enemy. He wished, therefore, to release him; repeatedly declared him not guilty; and would have set him at liberty, but the Jews opposed. They declared that "by their law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God"--or gave himself out for the expected Messias.

      This was probably the first hint which Pilate received of this nature, and it seems to have alarmed him. "When he heard that saying he was more afraid."

      Pilate was not an Atheist. He appears to have had some knowledge of a divine existence and belief of a superintending providence. Living among the Jews, he was, no doubt, acquainted with their religion, and their expectations of a deliverer; and if there was a suspicion that this was that deliverer, it concerned him to act with caution; at least to make inquiry. He therefore returned to the judgment hall, and entered on another examination of the prisoner. He began by inquiring after his origin. "He said to Jesus, Whence art thou? But Jesus gave him no answer." The test follows, in which we observe the following particulars, viz:

      I. Pilate blaming Jesus, for refusing to answer him--boasting of his power, and appealing to our Lord, that he possessed it. 'Speakest thou not unto me? Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee'?

      II. Christ reminding Pilate, that he possessed only delegated power; intimating that he was accountable for the use he made of it. 'Thou couldest have no power against me, except it was given thee from above'.

      III. Christ aggravating the guilt of those who had delivered him to Pilate, from a consideration of the power which he possessed, in which there might be an allusion to Pilate's character as an unprincipled man. 'Therefore, he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin'. We will treat of these in their order.

      I. We observe Pilate blaming Jesus for refusing to answer him; boasting of his power, and appealing to our Lord that he possessed it. 'Speakest thou not unto me? Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee'?

      But why is Christ faulted? He had said enough to convince the court of his innocence. The judge had repeatedly and publicly declared it. "I find no fault in him."

      Christ's silence was not sullen, or contemptuous. He had said enough. His silence was prudent--perhaps necessary. He had come into the world to suffer--"to make his soul an offering for sin." Had he said more, perhaps Pilate had not dared to give sentence against him. Had not Christ died the ends of his coming had been frustrated. Therefore was he now dumb before his oppressors, agreeably to the prophecy. "He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep is dumb before his shearers, so he opened not his mouth."

      It was necessary that evidence should be given of Christ's innocence, sufficient to convince the honest mind, that he was not a malefactor --that he did not die for his own sin. This had been given. It was enough--rendered his murderers inexcuseable. The wisdom of providence permitted no more.

      Pilate declared himself convinced. But then 'he had power either to crucify Christ, or to release him'. He felt himself possessed of this power, and appealed to our Lord whether he did not possess it.

      Pilate knew what was right--what he ought to do. Conscience directed him to acquit the guiltless. But this did not necessitate him to do it. He had power to do right. He had power also to do wrong.

      Others possess similar power. Every moral agent hath power to obey or disobey the dictates of his conscience. It is not the method of heaven to compel men to good, or leave them to be compelled to evil. God intended man to be a free agent, who should choose for himself the part he would act; and endowed him with a self determining power, to capacitate him to choose. Devoid of this power, he could not be accountable.

      Man ought to be governed by reason and conscience. These make known his duty, and offer proper motives to induce him to discharge it. But they do not oblige him to it. It is referred to his own choice. If he prefer doing wrong, to doing right, he may do it.

      This is exemplified in the case before us. Sufficient evidence was given of Christ's innocence. The judge was convinced, and knew that it was his duty to treat him as innocent. But if to answer worldly ends, or in any respect to gratify depravity, he preferred crucifying the guiltless, he had power to do it. Though Jesus was the Son of God, God had left him in the hands of the enemy. "It was their hour and the power of darkness." They chose and conspired his death. The Jews would not receive such a Messias. Pilate did not choose to offend the Jews. The former urged his crucifixion, for fear "all men would believe on him." The latter was prevailed with to condemn the guiltless, because he wished to gratify the chiefs of the nation which he governed. Both sinned against the light of their own minds, not of necessity, but out of choice--knowingly did wrong to gain worldly ends; or avoid temporal disadvantages.

      Sinners commonly act on the same principles. They can distinguish between good an evil--can "judge of themselves what is right." They know it to be their duty to choose the good, and refuse the evil. But possessing power to counteract the dictates of conscience, often to gain worldly ends, and answer sinister views, do counteract them --choose that for which they are condemned of themselves.

      It is folly to pretend that our choices are necessary. The proposition involves absurdity. Choice and necessity are often opposites.

      Some bewildered in the labyrinth of metaphysics have doubted the plainest truths--the existence of matter! And even their own existence! But these doubts are a species of madness. To the person of common sense they are unnecessary. Let him only believe his senses, which the author of nature hath given to instruct him, and they will all vanish.

      In the case before us, a single glance inward, carries full conviction that we are free. To offer arguments in proof is superfluous--is trifling--it is to ape the philosopher who attempted to syllogize himself into a conviction of his own existence! *

      * Cogito, ergo sum. Descartes.

      From the knowledge of our capacity, and liberty of choice, ariseth sense of merit and demerit. And thence our expectation of reward or punishment from an enlightened and righteous tribunal. Were we necessitated to actions, now, the most criminal, we should have no sense of guilt; neither should we fear condemnation from a just judge on their account. Did we choose such actions, if we knew our choices to be the effect of invincible, supernal influence, they would give us no concern. On our part, no criminality would be attached to them; it would rest with the efficient. Had Pilate been compelled to give sentence against Christ, he would have had no sense of guilt; nor could he have been justly criminated. But when the motives which actuated him, and his freedom of choice are considered, he must have been condemned of himself, and of all mankind.

      When Pilate appealed to our Lord, that he was possessed of power, either 'to crucify or release him', the justice of the claim is admitted; but then,

      II. He is reminded by the divine prisoner, that he possessed only delegated power, intimating that he was accountable for the use he should make of it. 'Thou couldest have no power against me, except it were given thee from above'.

      Pilate probably prided himself on his exaltation. He was set in authority. In his province, his power resembled that formerly in the hands of the Babalonish tyrant: "Whom he would he slew, and whom he would he kept alive." It might flatter his pride to end himself the judge of Judah; others as being of divine origin--the Son of God--the expected Messias, who was to deliver Israel. and raise them to power. Perhaps he valued himself on power to do either right or wrong--that he was necessitated to neither. 'Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee'?

      Though Christ had given him no answer when Pilate demanded his origin, he now reminds him, boasting of his power, that it was all derived, or delegated; particularly that which he possessed over his prisoner, whom he had acknowledged to be faultless: 'Thou couldest have no power against me except it were given thee from above'. As though he had said, "Remember Pilate, that with all your high feelings, and parade of power, you have no power which is properly your own; none which is not derived from above; none for the use of which you are not accountable. There is one who ruleth in the kingdoms of men, and giveth them to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over them the basest of men," To answer his mysterious purposes you are now in authority; but forget not whence it is derived, and the consequences of abusing it. "There may be oppression of the poor, and violent perverting of judgment and justice in a province, but marvel not at the matter; for he who is higher than the highest regardeth"--he will set all right in the end. For the use which you make of your powers, you must give account to him.

      Such seems to have been the import of Christ's reply to this haughty ruler, boasting of powers, on this occasion. What sentiments it raised in the breast of this Roman, we are not informed; but the reply was full of salutary counsel and instruction. Had Pilate regarded it as he ought, it would have prevented him from having been a principal actor in the vilest enormity ever committed on this globe.

      Pilate seems to have felt in degree, the weight of Christ's reply, and to have been the more concerned. For it follows: "From thenceforth Pilate sought to release him." He had sought it before. "From henceforth," he was yet more desirous to set Christ at liberty, and exerted himself more earnestly to persuade the Jews to consent to his discharge.

      But this was not all which Christ said on the occasion; he added,

      II. Another observation, which related to those who had conspired his death, and brought him to Pilate's bar; perhaps more particularly to Judas, who had betrayed him--therefore HE that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin. If only one person is here intended, as having delivered Christ to Pilate, Judas must have been the person.

      That Pilate possessed such power, the power of life and death, is declared an aggravation of his guilt, who had delivered him to Pilate; in which there might be an allusion to Pilate's character as an unprincipled man. He was known to be under the government of appetite, passion, or selfishness. He had been often guilty of injustice and cruelty in his public administration. Therefore had his enemies the greater sin in delivering Jesus unto him.

      Such we apprehend to be the meaning of the text; which hath been thought to be obscure and difficult. The difficulty will strike us, if we read the whole passage as it stands in the translation. Pilate saith unto him, Speak thou not unto me? Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee? Jesus answered,

      Thou couldest have no power against me, except it were given thee from above; THEREFORE he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin.

      The last clause seems at first view, to refer to the words which immediately precede, which is to understand our Savior as aggravating the guilt of those who delivered him to Pilate, from the consideration of Pilate's power having been derived from above.

      This cannot be the meaning. All power in the hands of creatures, maybe traced to the same source. It is derived from above. But the source whence power is derived is out of the question respecting the merit or demerit attending the use of it. The guilt of him who delivered Christ to Pilate, was neither increased nor diminished by it.

      The consequence, THEREFORE he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin, looks back to words preceding--I have power to crucify thee, and have power to release thee. His sin was great, who delivered Christ to such an one; to one possessed, of his power, and of his character; much greater than though he had delivered him to one devoid of power to crucify; or to one who was a man of principle. Delivering Jesus to Pilate was like delivering Daniel to the lions; or the three children to the fiery furnace. The rage of the lions, and the power of the flames, were restrained by the greater power of God; but no thanks to the enemies of those holy men--they could be considered in no other light than that of murderers.

      The Supreme ruler could have restrained Pilate and have prevented his having yielded to Christ's enemies, and given him to their will. But the determinate counsel of heaven had otherwise resolved before the incarnation. "It was necessary that Christ should suffer, and enter into his glory." Therefore was he given up to the rage of his enemies who thirsted for his blood.

      Christ's crucifixion was the design of his enemies in delivering him to Pilate. This was their sin. God overruled it for good, and made it the occasion of glory to himself, and salvation to sinners. This is no alleviation of their guilt. "They meant not so; neither did their heart think so. For envy did they deliver him."

      What Christ said concerning the source, whence Pilate derived his power, comes in by a parenthesis. It is unconnected with the other parts of the sentence, which is complete without it. "I have power to crucify thee--The greater is their sin who delivered me to you. But you have no power against me that you have not received from above. Remember it is derived from heaven, and to the God of heaven you are accountable for the use you make of it."

      This memento, which comes in by the bye, was a proper caution to the ruler not to abuse his power. Had he acted agreeable to the evident design of it--so acted, as to have been justified to himself, and able to give a good account to the source of power, for the use he made of that which was delegated to him, it would have prevented him from delivering Jesus to his enemies, add kept him clear of a crime, the perpetration of which, darkened even the natural world, and throw it into convulsions!

      Pilate felt so much force in the warning, that he was perplexed. He wished to acquit the prisoner; of whose innocence he was satisfied; hut he feared the Jews. He was probably apprehensive that they might inform against him at Rome, as he knew, that much of his past administration could not be justified. He had not therefore the courage to tell the Jews, that justice forbad, and he would not condemn the guiltless. What had he to do with justice, who had often sported with it, to gratify his passions, or gain his selfish purposes? Who had done it openly, and it was matter of public notoriety? The Jews urged, "if thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend." Pilate trembled; but his fear of Caesar prevailed above his fear of God. "He conferred therefore, that it should be as they required, and delivered Jesus to their will."

      REFLECTIONS

      I. When we contemplate these things, what a series of wonders rise to our view? The state of man--the way in which he was brought into it; and that in which only he could be delivered from it, are all mysterious! Man had ruined himself--ruined his race! Human guilt could not be expiated without blood! Without blood divine! Man had sinned, and the Son of God must suffer, or sin could not be pardoned! No other sacrifice could make atonement. Christ consented to undertake the work of our redemption--to "make his soul an offering for sin!" But how? He must take human nature! Become man! Wonder of wonders! Still difficulty remained. He must die, "the just for the unjust!" In what manner could this be accomplished? Christ's sufferings would be, of all crimes, the most sinful, in those by whom he suffered. No good man could knowingly take part in them. They could only be the work of Christ's enemies, and of the enemies of God, and goodness.

      It is no small part of this mystery, that the good should oppose, and that it should be their duty to oppose, that which had become necessary for man's salvation! And that the wicked should be engaged to do that which was requisite for this end! And that their enmity against God and the Redeemer, should excite and influence them thereto!

      But though every thing relating to this matter is too deep for us. Deity had no embarrassment. To omniscience all was easy and obvious. The great Supreme needed only to sit at helm, superintend and overrule the lulls of apostate creatures, to effect the purposes of his grace! Need only to permit man freely to follow his own inclinations! "The wrath of man would thus be made to praise God;" and the designs of mercy be accomplished! The greatest good be occasioned by the greatest evil! God glorified, and sinners saved!

      The mystery of redemption was veiled, till atonement had been made for sin. That satisfaction was to be made to divine justice, by the sufferings of a divine person, remained a hidden mystery, till explained by the event. This was necessary. Had the enemy been able to penetrate the design, these things would not have been done. Satan would not have instigated, nor his adherents crucified the Lord of glory.

      The powers of darkness were laboring to subvert and destroy; they vainly thought to defeat the purposes of grace; but were made instrumental in their accomplishment. "The wise were taken in their own craftiness; the purposes of the froward carried headlong; but the divine purposes stood, and God performed all his pleasure! Oh, the depths of the riches, both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out!"

      II. Another thing which our subject suggests to our consideration, is the way of God with man. God hath provided a savior, and offered salvation--he hath pointed out the way of duty, and commanded us to walk in it--allured us thereto by promises, and barred up the way to destruction by threatenings. Those who enjoy the gospel, have life and death set before them. But no constraint is laid upon them--they choose for themselves, and the consequences follow.

      Though the best services of fallen man are imperfect, and mercy offered in Christ his only hope, he hath reason to expect saving mercy while seeking it in the way of duty, and only while thus seeking. When we "keep consciences void of offence, toward God and men, then are we satisfied from ourselves," and expect the approbation of our judge. When we act differently, we are condemned of ourselves, and tremble to approach the enlightened tribunal.

      These views are natural--they are written on the heart or conscience, by the creator's hand, and indicate what we may reasonably expect from him who knows our hearts--from him who is moral governor of all worlds.

      As we know ourselves to be free agents, and as we possess only delegated powers, we are certainly accountable for the use which we make of those powers. The duties which rise out of such a situation, and the consequences which will follow, according to the manner in which we act our parts, need not to be pointed out--they lie open to every eye.

      III. When we consider the struggle in Pilate's breast, between sense of duty, and a desire to please the world, and how it terminated, we see the danger of wanting fixed principles of rectitude--of not being determined, at all events, to do right, whatever may be the consequences.

      Pilate's duty was plain. He knew his duty--felt his obligation to do it, and wished to do it, that he might feel easy, and not be concerned for consequences. But he had formerly sacrificed conscience to appetite, passion, or selfishness, and it was known. This exposed him to temptation again to do wrong. He who had violated conscience to gain worldly ends, might do it again. Pilate had exposed himself by past conduct--could not justify his past administration--his enemies might report him to Caesar--he could not answer for himself before Caesar; but if he would again violate conscience, oblige the Jews, in a matter they had much at heart, he hoped their friendship--that they would spread a veil over his past conduct, and report in his favor at Rome.

      Such was the situation into which he had brought himself by willful deviations from duty--thence temptations to farther and greater deviations--temptations not easily overcome--temptations by which he was overcome, and seduced to the most horrid wickedness--crucifying the Lord of glory!

      Those who would maintain their integrity, and stand in the evil day, must resolve to do right; to obey the dictates of conscience; they must beware the beginnings of sin; hold no parley with the enemy; never hesitate, whether it is not best, in any case to yield to temptation; nor make attempts to please those who wish them, and dare to importune them to counteract the light of their own minds-- "trimming their way to seek love."

      To enter on such a course, is to go on forbidden ground. It is to pass the bounds, and go into the way of seduction. "Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not into the way of evil men. Avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it, and pass away." *

      * Proverbs iv. 14.

      What the poet observes, respecting one species of temptation, holds, in degree, of every other.

      "In spite of all the virtue we can boast, The 'person' who deliberates in lost."--Young.

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