Leadership can sometimes feel like walking a tight rope. Whether its in politics, commerce or the church, leaders have to juggle competing demands and conflicting interests. Different voices in each ear telling them what to do and how to do it.
On almost every issue, some people try to pull you in one direction, others in the opposite one – just ask Theresa May, as she struggles to satisfy the demands of Remainers and Leavers, Hard Brexiteers and Soft ones, the EU on one hand and the ERG on the other.
Any new leader will quickly discover that it is impossible to please everyone all of the time. You will inevitably disappoint some people with almost every decision you make.
At the end of the day, a good leader has to do what he or she believes to be right. Having weighed up the all arguments, a good leader will listen to their conscience and make what they believe to be the best decision in the circumstances.
From a human perspective, the tragedy of the first Good Friday is that Pontius Pilate didn’t listen to his conscience. Pilate was a man who capitulated under political pressure, a leader who sacrificed someone he knew to be innocent in exchange for a quiet life. Political expediency came before his principles.
Luke tells us that the Jewish leadership (the assembly known as the Sanhedrin) had already tried Jesus and found him guilty of blasphemy. But they came before Pilate with a new accusation against Jesus. They claimed he was guilty of sedition – guilty of rebellion against Roman rule – a pretender to the throne.
They chose this strategy because the Roman authorities weren’t interested in blasphemy. Religious purity was not their chief concern. But preserving their power was a priority for them, something they cared deeply about. Sedition was consequently a capital offence. A sentence only Pilate had the authority to bestow.
This all explains why the Jewish leaders said to Pilate “We found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be a king”. Later they add that “he stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here”.
The Jewish leadership wanted to persuade Pilate that Jesus and his disciples were a danger to the peace – revolutionaries against Roman rule. The Sanhedrin also whipped up a crowd to pile the pressure on Pilate. “Crucify him” they shouted, “crucify him!”
Yet Pilate could see for himself that Jesus was innocent. Three times in our passage Pilate says he can see no evidence to convict Jesus of sedition. His conscience was clearly telling him that Jesus was blameless. Even Herod could see that, when Pilate gave him the opportunity to quiz Jesus himself.
Ultimately, however, Pilate capitulated under pressure. He succumbed to the crowd’s demands and surrendered Jesus to their will. Ultimately, Pilate was more afraid of an uprising in Jerusalem than upholding justice. He was more interested in preserving his own popularity than preserving the life of Jesus. He was more concerned about his reputation with Caesar than his conscience.
We should be left in no doubt that Jesus was neither a blasphemer nor a revolutionary when he went to the cross. Even men like Pilate and Herod could see that. Jesus died not as a guilty criminal, but as a sinless substitute.
On the day itself Jesus was very literally a substitute for Barabbas – an insurrectionist and murderer who deserved to die. Pilate released Barabbas to the crowd while Jesus was condemned. Jesus physically took Barabbas’ place on the cross.
Yet Scripture is clear that Jesus was the spiritual substitute that day for every Christian believer. When he died that first Good Friday, Christ took the divine punishment we all deserve. The sad truth is we have all been rebels – not rebels against Rome – but against God. To have committed any sin is to be guilty of sedition against our heavenly king. If we’re honest, its not just Pilate who ignored his conscience when it was inconvenient. Its something we’ve all done at one time or another.
But the wonder of the Gospel is that when Jesus died he took our guilt upon himself and gave us his innocence. To be a Christian believer is to benefit from a great swap. At Calvary Jesus shouldered our guilt and we receive his righteousness in return.
In those famous words of Isaiah: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.”
Thanks to the Cross, we believers become blameless in God’s sight, forgiven forever for Jesus’ sake. No wonder we call it Good Friday.
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