A Leader’s Dilemma

It is not easy to be in a leadership. Think about a person who is elected to a position in government. You know you have to cut spending but any major spending cut is going to affect jobs and benefits for your people. The government can’t keep going without cuts but you can’t get re-elected if everyone believes they lost their benefits because of you. This is the problem when it comes to Healthcare, the environment, foreign policy, trade issues, and just about anything else. No matter what you do, there are going to be negative consequences.

This morning we look at one of the greatest dilemma’s of history: The Roman Governor Pilate knows Jesus should be set free. He can do the just thing and release Jesus, but if he does, he could have a riot on his hands that could cost him his job or….his life.  The other option is to keep his job and sacrifice an innocent man. We all know the choice Pilate made but this morning we hope to find in Pilate’s story some cautions for our own lives.

Jesus was Innocent

If you remember the story, there were three charges against Jesus: 1) He was leading an insurrection; 2) He opposed the payment of taxes and 3) He claimed to be a rival King. Pilate examined Jesus and three times has the same verdict.

Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, “I find no basis for a charge against this man.” (23:4)

13 Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, 14 and said to them, “You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us; as you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death. (23:13-15)

22 For the third time he spoke to them: “Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty. Therefore I will have him punished and then release him.” (23:22)

In Matthew 27:15 we are told that Pilate knew that it was out of envy that they handed Jesus over to him.

Pilate has no doubt that Jesus is innocent of the charges that have been made against Him. He knew the trial was a farce. Pilate tried to save Jesus. We don’t really know why. Perhaps he was just a good Judge and wanted to do the right thing. Maybe in his discussion with Jesus he saw His noble character and sensed something different and perhaps even special in the man. Maybe he just disliked the Jews so much he simply wanted to battle their corruption. Maybe it was because of a dream that his wife had. Matthew tells us,

19 While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”

What we do know is the fact that Pilate (and Herod) knew Jesus was innocent. Don’t miss this fact! Still today people cannot find fault with the person of Christ yet they still refuse to bow before Him as Lord. Are you one of those people? Do you “like” Jesus but are unwilling to submit to Hiim?

The Crowd was Insistent

When Pilate told the crowd that in his opinion Jesus was innocent, the crowd balked. Some of you remember watching the OJ Simpson trial. As the evidence was presented we became convinced that OJ was guilty. When the verdict came back “Not Gulilty”, we were enraged. However, in most court cases someone feels an injustice has been done.

There is a difference in this trial. In most cases we are disappointed and even enraged but there is nothing we can do to change the verdict. That is not the case with the trial of Jesus.

The Jewish leaders were determined. They wanted Jesus executed. The facts of the case really didn’t matter. They wanted Jesus crucified even though this was a punishment the Jews found abhorrent because of its inhumanity. In Deuteronomy 21:23 we read “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse’.  These religious leaders wanted Jesus to be seen as cursed by God. They wanted it to be a warning to anyone else who would be so brazen as to buck the status quo.

Normally Pilate wouldn’t give a rip about what the crowd said. However we pointed out last week that Pilate had gotten in trouble in Rome because he had a couple of incidents when he provoked an uprising among the Jews. His predecessors had always had their soldiers remove the image of Caesar from their shields before entering Jerusalem because they knew it was seen by the Jews as a form of idolatry. Pilate ignored this precedent and it led to an ugly riot. Another time Pilate took money that was devoted to the temple to pay for a public water project. In both cases reports made Pilate out to look incompetent.

This past history painted Pilate into a corner and the Jewish leaders knew it. Pilate had ultimate authority but he could not afford another bad report to Rome. He is stuck.

The crowd finally gets to Pilate when they charge tell Pilate that if he releases Jesus, they will tell Rome that he is supporting a rival King. The Jews declare that they are loyal to the Emperor but they are not so sure about Pilate!

Of course it is all a lie. The crowd didn’t support Caesar and Pilate wasn’t a traitor but even making the charge at a politically charged time could very well have cost Pilate his life.

Pilate tried a number of things to get out of the mess:

  1. He tried sending Jesus to Herod. Herod however sent this political hot-potato back to Pilate.
  2. Pilate offered to punish Jesus and then release him. He offered to “teach him a lesson” but they wanted Him dead.
  3. He offered to make Jesus the “Prisoner to be named later” who was released at the yearly Passover Festival as a measure of good faith by Pilate. In essence, he offers the Jewish leaders a way to “save face” in this situation that has gotten out of hand. He gave them a choice between Jesus and a notorious criminal named Barabbas. The choice seemed obvious to Pilate but the people chose Barabbas and clamored for Jesus to be crucified. (Barabbas was surely the most surprised man in the story).
  4. Finally, in Matthew 27 we are told Pilate took a bowl of water and “washed his hands of the whole affair”. He declared he was innocent of the blood of Jesus. Yet, he signed the warrant of execution.

Injustice Was Permitted

Let’s say you work at a big bank. You have the keys to the vault where the money is stored. One day some fellow-workers come to you with a plan to rob the bank. It is pointed out that since the bank is insured you really wouldn’t be “hurting anyone”. They ask you to give them the key.

You know what they are asking is wrong. You plead with them saying, “We might lose our jobs”, “we could be arrested and thrown in prison.” And “What would your family think”. But nothing works.  You tell them you want nothing to do with this inside job bank robbery. . . . .yet you give them the key!

Let’s say they bungle the whole job and are arrested. Unfortunately, you are arrested too. You plead that you were not part of the plan. You refused to take any money from the bank. Will you still be charged? Yes because you facilitated the crime. You were an accessory. The very fact that you “did nothing” contributed to the crime. The same is true for Pilate.

Pilate lost the battle when he made the first concession. Instead of declaring Jesus innocent he negotiated. When the negotiation didn’t work he sent him to Herod hoping to sidestep his responsibility.

Pilate’s offer to have Jesus whipped (to teach Him a lesson) is still injustice. Jesus was innocent! He had nothing warranting punishment of any kind. People debate the kind of whipping Jesus was given. Was it a lighter whipping or a whipping with the whip that contained pieces of bone. This later whipping often killed the victims before they were able to get to the place of execution. No matter what kind of whipping Jesus received (it was severe enough that He could not carry His own cross), it was still a travesty of justice!

Pilate gave in to political expediency. He sold his own principles in order to keep his job. It is a scenario we see played out again and again. We attempt to negotiate truth in order to keep “everyone happy”. It can’t be done! Somewhere you have to take a stand.

Max Lucado describes it perfectly,

Pilate vacillates. He is a puppy hearing two voices. He steps toward one, then stops, and steps toward the other. Four times he tries to free Jesus, and four times he is swayed otherwise. He tries to give the people Barabbas; but they want Jesus. He sends Jesus to the whipping post; they want him sent to Golgotha. He states he finds nothing against this man; they accuse Pilate of violating the law. Pilate, afraid of who Jesus might be, tries one final time to release him; the Jews accuse him of betraying Caesar.

So many voices. The voice of compromise. The voice of expedience. The voice of politics. The voice of conscience.

And the soft, firm voice of Christ. “The only power you have over me is the power given to you by God.”

Jesus’ voice is distinct. Unique. He doesn’t cajole or plead. He just states the case.

Pilate thought he could avoid making a choice. He washed his hands of Jesus. He climbed on the fence and sat down.

But in not making a choice, Pilate made a choice.

Rather than ask for God’s grace, he asked for a bowl. Rather than invite Jesus to stay, he sent him away. Rather than hear Christ’s voice, he heard the voice of the people.

Legend has it that Pilate’s wife became a believer. And legend has it that Pilate’s eternal home is a mountain lake where he daily surfaces, still plunging his hands into the water seeking forgiveness. Forever trying to wash away his guilt … not for the evil he did, but for the kindness he didn’t do.[1]


There are some powerful lessons in this account. First, we see ourselves in Barabbas. Barabbas was a man who did lead a rebellion. He did want to destroy Rome. He committed murder. He was guilty of the very kinds of things for which Jesus was charged. Don’t miss what happened here: The innocent man took the place of the guilty man.

The name Barabbas meant “son of the father”. He was set free because of the one who was the Son of the Father in Heaven. In the exchange of Jesus for Barabbas we see a picture of what Jesus did for us on the cross.

You and I are called “sinner”, “guilty”, “rebel”, and “unrighteous. Yet, because of Jesus we are given the chance to walk free. He took our place and paid our penalty. He went to the cross and we go to Heaven. You don’t call that justice, you call it mercy; and you receive it as grace. And you should be grateful.

Think about Barabbas for a minute. As he heard the guards walk toward his cell he surely thought he was going to be led to his death. What if the guards went to his jail cell and told him he was being set free because someone else was taking his place? What if Barabbas said, “No, I don’t want this mercy, I refuse to be indebted to this one who would extend grace”? Would we call Barabbas foolish? If you refuse to the offer of a pardon . . . you are still guilty and must pay the penalty dispensed to you.

You and I stand in that same spot. We have been given the opportunity to know mercy and grace. Jesus has agreed to take your place and to make it possible for you to be set free. All we have to do is step out of the prison of our own sinfulness and step into the new life that comes through faith in Christ. Can you refuse? Of course you can. Is it wise? Judge for yourself.

There is a second principle: we must choose our value system before someone else chooses for us. Pilate got into trouble because he could not choose between what was right and what was popular. He waited too long to make his choice and the battle was lost to the justifications of expediency.

The predominant or default value system of our society is simple: “Do whatever is best for you!” We are counseled to “look out for our own best interest”. This is the philosophy that Pilate embraced. However there are some serious problems with this value system. First, if everyone is doing what is best for themselves, society crumbles into anarchy. Compassion will be swallowed up by narcissism. The indictment of Israel in the book of Judges was simple: “everyone did what was right in their own eyes”. The result was disaster!

Second, what we think is best for us is not always what actually is best for us. Look back on your life and ask a simple question: What if I had gotten everything I wanted in life. Many years ago country singer Garth Brooks wrote a song that thanked God for unanswered prayer. We think we know what is best for us but as we look back on our lives we find that the disappointments and frustrations in our past actually turned out to be the doorways to greater blessing.

Looking back was it really in Pilate’s best interest to be known for all of time as the weak leader who sentenced the innocent Son of God to death? If Pilate knew what he knew now do you think he would have done the same thing? I expect not.

The only way to avoid bad decisions is to determine your value system before those tough decisions need to be made. We must decide the core principles of our lives:

  1. Decide that you will trust the Word of God more than advice from others or even the justifications and arguments that come into our own mind. Decide today that where God speaks you will trust Him.
  2. Decide that you will live not for what is temporary but for what is eternal. Trust to make decisions you will wish you had made as you stand before the throne of God.
  3. Determine that you will define “blessing” not by the things you own, the applause you receive, or the good feeling that you experience. Define blessing as anything that brings you closer to the Lord.
  4. Resolve to relate to people not on the basis of what they can do for you, but by whom they are in God’s eyes, and who they can become by His grace.
  5. Decide that you will do what is right even if another option is easier..

It is important that we make these decisions now. Repeat them often. Make them the code by which you live. If you do not do that . . .the loud voice of the crowd (which is actually the voice of Satan) may push you in the wrong direction.

Many years ago I faced a tough decision in the ministry. It was a decision between doing what I believed was right or doing what would make everyone happy. I called a friend in ministry and asked for advice. The advice was simple: “When all is said and done you have to make decisions that you can live with for the rest of your life. People will come and go but your character is something you take with you.”  It was incredible wisdom for which I will always be grateful. It is a piece of wisdom that has guided me well.

Perhaps you are facing one of those decisions today. It may involve morality, ethics, how you will respond to someone who hurt you or even things you plan to do in your free time. Or it could be that the tough decision that faces you is the same decision faced by Pilate: What are you going to do about Jesus? Will you follow Him as your Savior or will you follow the crowd? Will you celebrate Him as King or push Him aside as a bother? Will you pursue eternal peace or give it up for the peace of the moment? Such decisions will determine your character and your eternity. Don’t make quick decisions. It’s my prayer that you will make a better decision than Pilate.

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