Saturday, March 30, 2013

No King But Caesar

I love words. More specifically, the interplay of words and the ideas they portray.  I love especially word pictures: imagery, symbolism, types, figures, foreshadows, double meanings. I love how these can get a message across in a succinct yet powerful way, how they can hide a treasure of truth that is unnoticed on the surface and to the unobservant or uninterested, but is just waiting to be discovered by any who are willing to dig a little deeper, to stop and ponder for a moment.

This is a love that God seems to share. The Bible is simply packed with such treasures, a mother-lode of truth and light hidden just beneath a surface that often looks like barren desert. If we care enough to take some time to scratch the surface, to turn over rocks here and there, to peer into cracks and caves and shine our light into dark corners, we are often rewarded with a glint, a sparkle of light, or sometimes entire caverns packed full of dazzling jewels, gems of truth that more than reward us for our labor.

From cover to cover, the Bible is full of word pictures, of symbolism, of types and shadows, of layers upon layers of meaning tucked into simple or obscure passages. To read over these in haste and be on our way is to see only a drab gray cloth hanging forlornly on the wall. But as we stop and ponder, consider, look at the clues, add pieces together, we get glimpses of the glorious tapestry God has been weaving with our lives throughout history, a tapestry at once breathtakingly beautiful and astoundingly complex. It is a pattern so grand, so mysterious, as to be far beyond our ability to comprehend. Yet as we catch glimpses of it we cannot help but be awed by the glory, majesty, and wisdom of God. And from the little that we can understand, we get wisdom and insight into God’s working in our own lives; Truth ceases to be something dead and dormant in a book on the shelf or in history long forgotten and becomes alive and powerful in our own lives.

There are probably few passages in the entire Bible with as much imagery and meaning packed into so small a space as the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ trials, crucifixion, and resurrection. Just a straightforward reading is powerful and endlessly deep, since it is the climax of God’s great story, the focal point of all history, the most important event in the entire universe. Yet even here, a further reading brings to light many deeper meanings to already meaningful words and accounts. Besides telling the main story, the words are layered with imagery, with irony, with double meanings and shadow-references to grander themes.

Some of these are well known and easy to spot: the Good Shepherd, giving His life for the sheep, while at the same time being the sacrificial Lamb. The Kinsman-Redeemer, the Passover, the scapegoat, the Last Adam, and so on. There are many more that are maybe not as well-recognized: The Just Judge undergoing the most unjust trial in history; the Faithful and True witness being accused by false witnesses; the Great High Priest being called a fraud by a high priest unworthy of the position; the Light of the world being captured in darkness; the Truth being condemned by lies; the King of Kings and Lord of Lords being judged by petty, selfish kings; the Rightful King of Israel being labeled “king of the Jews” in mockery, and judged by an unworthy Jewish king; Barabbas, the “son of daddy” being chosen rather than the Son of the Father (some even believe that Barabbas’ first name was also Jesus); knees bowed before Him in mockery that will one day truly bow in involuntary acknowledgement of the King; a crown of thorns placed on His head as He takes upon Himself the curse of Adam; and the list goes on. Each one provides a deeper glimpse into the big picture, reveals a connection in the complex tapestry, drives the point home and makes it personal.

I find the interaction of Pilate with the Jews to be a particularly fascinating part of the accounts of Jesus’ trials. We tend to be rather hard on Pilate, and rightly so, for caving to the mob and letting an innocent person die. But I wonder if we can begin to rightly realize the pressure he was under, the nature of the situation he faced. He was an experienced Roman ruler in Palestine. He knew the Jews, only too well. He knew their fierce independence, their hostility and hatred of the foreign Romans. He knew their radical devotion to their ancient laws and traditions, and the explosive nature of their wrath when those were tampered with. He knew also their political cunning and ambition, and their determination to free themselves from Rome. He knew above all that they were dangerous and not to be trifled with or handled lightly. He had probably dealt before, swiftly and ruthlessly, with Jews trying to rise up and rid Palestine of Roman rule, and he was not at all endeared to them because of it.

Put yourself in his place, then, as he is awakened early one morning by an angry mob of Jews bringing before him one of their own. Their accusation against him? He claimed to be the king of the Jews. Imagine Pilate’s astonishment! Anyone who stood up against Rome was a hero in the eyes of the Jewish people. He was to be applauded and protected at all costs—and it was costly indeed for the Roman army to apprehend one of these rebels. Why would they bring such a hero to justice on their own? He probably knew right away that something was up. “Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me,” he told Jesus at one point. “What hast thou done?”  (John 18:35) A short examination of the suspect showed that he was not at all guilty of the type of crimes against Rome the Jewish leaders were claiming. Yet they obviously wanted him punished. What was his crime? Pilate endeavored to get to the bottom of the issue, but with little success. The mob wanted blood. Pilate’s sense of justice refused to give it to them without due cause.

In the midst of his uncertainty, Pilate seems to have latched onto, with a certain fascination (or was it delight?), the title the Jews had placed upon Jesus: King of the Jews.  He repeatedly used it in reference to Jesus when addressing the crowd, almost like he was rubbing it in to the Jews, using their own words to mock their thinly-veiled hypocrisy. Jesus himself had not made any claim to the actual Jewish throne; he seemed to have some weird notions of an unearthly kingdom instead. The Jews accused him of taking that title, yet themselves refused to acknowledge it. And above all, they insistently demanded his death. It just did not make sense.

Things suddenly started to get personal as they began to accuse Pilate of being unfaithful to Rome. “If thou let this man go,” the Jews cried out, “thou art not Caesar's friend: whosoever maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar.” Protecting the sovereignty of Rome was a duty Pilate took pride in, and had carried out mercilessly before, and the Jews always hated him for it. Now they were reminding him of his duty, threateningly! This was no longer a game. Something needed to be done. The Jews would not be satisfied without blood, and he was determined not to give it to them unless absolutely necessary. But this was no longer about the prisoner. That Jesus was innocent of any wrongdoing against Rome was clear to Pilate. It was also clear that he, Pilate himself, was now the one hanging in the balance. What price was he willing to pay for a clear conscience?

Let’s jump into the story at John 19:13

When Pilate therefore heard that saying, he brought Jesus forth, and sat down in the judgment seat in a place that is called “the Pavement,” but in the Hebrew, “Gabbatha.”  And it was the preparation of the Passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, “Behold your King!”

But they cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him.”

Pilate saith unto them, “Shall I crucify your King?”

The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”

 “We have no king but Caesar.”

What were the priests really saying? Under normal circumstances, I am sure the priests would have given their lives under extreme torture rather than making that statement. They hated Rome, they hated Caesar. They owed allegiance to no kingdom but the kingdom of Israel. To make such a statement was a betrayal of all they held dear, would have been considered treason were it uttered on any other occasion. Yet here they were forcefully proclaiming words that had to be utterly hateful to them, to be bitter in their mouths even as they uttered it.

This final answer of the chief priests seems to have been the last straw:

Then delivered he him therefore unto them to be crucified. And they took Jesus, and led him away. (John 19:16)

Pilate caved. The one who was so committed to justice gave in to the demands of the bloodthirsty crowd. The price of truth was for him too great. He failed the test of his life. And I believe it was this saying more than anything else that made Pilate realize that it was either his position, and quite possibly life, or Jesus’. It was these words that made him give up, betray truth and justice, and condemn innocent life.

But let’s take it one step further. The words were spoken in answer to a question from Pilate, “Shall I crucify your king?” In answering as they did, the chief priests sealed their rejection of Jesus as their king. They had ridiculed, opposed, and sought to discredit Him at every turn throughout His ministry, and now completed their rejection by condemning Him to death. They who claimed to love God and to obey His commandments utterly failed to recognize their Messiah, failed to yield their allegiance to the One who was indeed the King of the Jews in a much bigger and more real sense than they could have ever imagined. While proclaiming their love of the Father, they condemned the Son to death. In speaking words that they themselves considered treason against their nation, they also committed treason against their God by condemning to death His promised Messiah.

 “We have no king but Caesar!”

In proclaiming those words, they spoke more truth than they perhaps realized, exposing the reason for their rejection and declaring where their true allegiance lay. It was not to God. It was not to Moses. It was not to tradition. It was not even primarily to the kingdom of Israel or their own political power, as they claimed (John 11:48), though that would have been bad enough. At the heart of it, their allegiance was to no one but themselves, their own will, their own way. They rejected Jesus as their King not because His claims were not valid, but because the cost to them personally was too great. They refused to render allegiance to Him, to acknowledge Him as Lord, because His words were hateful to them, would cost them far too much. They were not willing to yield ownership of their lives over to someone else. Caesar was indeed their king, their only king. But not the Caesar that sat on the throne in Rome. Rather, the ”Caesar” that ruled in their hearts. From beginning to end, this was a refusal to allow the rightful King to rule on His rightful throne in their hearts. They wanted control of their own lives, and the lives of those under their influence. Anyone else who laid claim to that throne was guilty of treason and deserved death.

“We have no king but Caesar!”

With that one statement the Jews rejected their rightful King, swayed Pilate’s decision in favor of injustice, condemned Jesus to death, and exposed their allegiance to Self above all else. A sad picture indeed.

But that was then, that was there, that was them. What about us, here, now? The same question rings out to us each day: “Shall I crucify your King?” How do you answer? How do I answer? Who is your only king? Who sits on the throne? Jesus, the rightful King? Or “Caesar”? Realize that to give Jesus His rightful place on the throne of your heart is to dethrone “Caesar,” and hence to crucify yourself. As it was with the priests, so it is with you. You cannot hang on to control of your own life, on to governance of your own kingdom, and still have Jesus as your King. If you acknowledge Him as your King, there is no room left on the throne for you. As it was with Pilate, so it is with you. It’s either you or Jesus. One or the other will be “crucified.” Which will it be? What price are you willing to pay to stay on the throne? The choice facing the Jews and the choice facing Pilate was really one and the same: Self or Jesus on the throne? And it’s the same choice that you and I face today. The stakes are high, the results eternal. You who proclaim yourselves to be God’s people—Will you crucify your King? What is your honest reply?

“I have no king but…”?