Christ Being Raised Above the Sphere of Mosaic Law
Pilate went out unto them, and said, What accusation bring ye against this man? They answered and said unto him, If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee. Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death: that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die.
ALL the evil that men contrive in this crooked world, God turns into good. The very announcement which was given the brothers of Joseph is given to His brethren today by a Greater than Joseph: “Ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good.” This is just one more reason for saying to those who do not dare to come near Him because of their sins: “Fear not, for I am in the place of God” (Compare Gen_50:19).
You sense the point we want to make. We want to point out the harmony, the unity of thought, between the preceding chapter and this one. In that chapter we noticed that they are placing Christ outside of the sphere of Mosaic law. That narrow place is altogether too holy for the profanest of Nazarenes. Therefore: Cast Him out, cast Him out. But while that is going on, God, through whom that same Son is lifted above the far too narrow sphere of the law and of the dispensation of Moses, achieves another accomplishment for His Son. The Jews say, “He stands outside of the law.” God replies, “He transcends the law.” He who casts out degrades; He who lifts up, transcends. Thus did God exalt His Son in the hour of His humiliation. Yes, it is true that the shadow of humiliation is already falling upon the Son of man; even as it does so, however, it appears that He is the exalted One. He is exalted by the death on the cross, exalted presently above the clouds, exalted in order that all who believe may not perish but may have everlasting life in Him.
This Nazarene, God announces, cannot be kept within the narrow sphere of Moses. Just as Moses raised the serpent—in the wilderness, it is true—so must the Son of man be raised, not in a wilderness in which a small congregation is hidden away, but in full view of the world. He must be raised on a cross, and lifted high above the highest heavens. He Himself announced this, signifying what manner of death He should die (Joh_12:32-33; Joh_3:14). This it is which God confirms now as He arranges and directs the history of the coming together of the Jews and the Romans in such a way that the saying of His Son is fulfilled, signifying what death He should die.
We need not reproduce the narrative of the event at great length. The fastidious Jews came to deliver Jesus up to the judge. When they reached the front of Pilate’s praetorium they came to a halt, not daring to enter. Pilate soon knew what they wanted. He went out to meet them; the judge came out to meet the accusers. He did not insist upon himself, did not haughtily demand that they should come to him when they wanted something. No, as a good diplomat, as one who knows his business, he follows the customs of Rome’s colonial policy which instructed its representatives not to ignore unnecessarily the fine points in the religion of its vanquished peoples, but to reckon with these carefully. Hence Pilate is not above coming out of doors and asking what they want.
We must say however, that this was a pathetic beginning of the day. Pilate overlooks Moses, and honors the specific kind of religion which is called Judaism. Such is his diplomatic art. But he fails to inquire into the essence of religion. After a while he will ask, “What is truth?” “Moses” may continue to occupy his little corner of the world as long as he does not interfere with Rome. But there is no room for Christ today, for Christ comes to reveal the hidden significance of Moses. He has come to set the essence of the cult free from its ancient “forms”—and it is this role which will cost Him His life today.
Yes, this is the pathetic beginning of Pilate’s gloomy day. He ignores all religions but the religion. He honors all religions but fails to ask Him who is the essence of religion any questions except the dubious, “What is truth?”
But before Pilate reaches the point of asking even this question, he squirms and twists himself into many contortions in an effort to rid himself of the case of Jesus. At first he is inclined to revert the question which has been appealed to him, to the Jews themselves. Not that he feels unqualified to take care of the matter. No, not that. But all of these issues which arise out of the Jewish religion are really too trivial and mean for his attention. Hence he asks the Jews just what the charge against the man is. Now this was not merely a formal question designed to get the proceedings under way. It is plain that Pilate is really eager to return the issue to the Jews themselves. This becomes obvious even before they have told him what the charge against the Nazarene is. Plainly, then, when Pilate asks for their formulation of the charge, he is, as becomes apparent later, trying to rid himself of the whole matter.
But the Jews refuse to go in that direction. They have staked everything on the attempt to have Jesus condemned as a traitor to the state. Surely, it is not for nothing that they have held that early morning session with a view to formulating the charge.
We know that the morning session of the Sanhedrin (Mat_27:1; Mar_15:1 a; and Luk_22:66) was designed to plan as exactly as possible how to have the sentence imposed by the Sanhedren carried out by Roman authority. They had looked for the most expedient way of inducing Pilate to condemn Jesus as a traitor to the state. The Jews do not want Jesus’ incompatibility with the law of Moses or with the theology of Judaism pushed to the fore as the sole casus belli. They know very well that Pilate will not allow himself to be hitched to a wagon of the Jewish theologians. And even if he could be constrained to deliver Jesus up for purely theological reasons, the responsibility for His death then would remain squarely on the shoulders of the Jewish authorities. And who could predict how the people would react if the Nazarene should be delivered up solely upon the authority of their spiritual leaders? Who can tell? Today or tomorrow the people might say: Why did you do that? No, no one could predict what capricious turn the temper of the people might suddenly take. Therefore the Jews feel that the more cautious thing to do is to place the responsibility for the final decision into Pilate’s hands. The conclusive argument, then, which they could use to vindicate the death of the Nazarene to each and every eventual critic, would be that of the Roman governor himself, the one which none other than he had officially brought into the foreground.
This gives us the reason at once for which the Jews do not wish to tell Pilate precisely which final conclusion the Sanhedrin had reached. Under the direction of Caiaphas that session had found Jesus guilty of blasphemy. But blasphemy is a theological issue, and what does Pilate care about theology? No, they must give matters a different turn, must carefully lead Pilate into another direction. Jesus must be condemned not because He has blasphemed God, but because He has subverted the state.
Mark their tactics. They do not give a straightforward answer to Pilate’s question. They present no legal paper upon which Caiaphas’ sentence has been tersely and effectively epitomized. Instead, they evade Pilate’s question for the moment. They say in effect: If this man were not really a malefactor (suggesting that He is one, even according to Roman law), we would not have brought Him to you. Now this sounds very much as if they were telling Pilate: Go ahead; investigate the matter thoroughly, and you will find that He is indeed a transgressor of the law which you as the Roman authority are pledged to protect and uphold.
And now begins that bidding against each other which is to characterize the activity of the whole day. Pilate who fears very much that he will trap himself in the snares which are lying about abundantly, tells the Jews that they may take Jesus and judge Him according to their own law. Understand that this is not an ironical utterance by which the haughty Roman more or less sarcastically wanted to mock those who were seething around him. He was not trying to suggest to them that they could not do anything without him anyhow. No, this is a serious gesture on his part; he wants to have done with the case. He gives the Jews the authority to act according to their own findings, and then to give him a record of their decision, a petition for a writ of capital punishment— demanded in that case, of course by the Jewish law—for his signature. Note that he is not yielding an inch of his authority—to do that might prove very costly later. But he wants to leave the tedious proceedings entirely in the hands of the Jews. According to its own findings the Sanhedrin may on the basis of its own precedent draw up the charge and fix the penalty. Pilate can see later, then, whether the sentence can eventually be sustained.
 This interpretation removes the objections which some have against saying that Pilate’s statement was seriously intended. It avoids the solution according to which Pilate spoke sarcastically on this occasion, a solution very hard to sustain, and also harmonizes with the data of the text concerning the manner of Christ’s death. If the Jews had been compelled to sentence Jesus on their own responsibility, stoning would have resulted, and Pilate would officially have allowed that. Concerning this issue, read also the rest of the chapter.
In short Pilate gives them a free rein. But it is just this free rein which they do not want now. For if they are to be allowed to take the law into their own hands, the Roman authority resting satisfied meanwhile with a “fiat,” their whole programme as drawn up in the morning assembly would be nullified not only, but the plan on which they had deliberated for weeks could then be said to have practically failed. Not since morning but since weeks ago, they have intended to see to it that Jesus be brought into conflict with Roman law. This is very apparent from Luk_20:19-20. What we read there proves beyond a doubt that the Jewish leaders long ago understood that because of the people they would have to proceed very care fully. The question about whether Jesus was of God or of Satan might become an embarrassing one. Hence they “took note of Him then.” They kept spies around Him in the secret hope that these would find reasons for delivering Him up into the hands of the procurator and the rulers of the city. Now it seems as if this carefully contrived programme is to be nullified in a moment by the suggestion of the haughty Pilate. No, no, they do not want that. The “royal” gesture of this Roman official is altogether too objectionable to these servile natures. They do not want to cast Jesus out on their own authority; hence they insist upon a formal, disciplinary investigation against Jesus. It is designed by all means to put him to death under the Roman yoke. Hence they reply just as formally as Pilate spoke, that they have not the authority to put anyone to death. Very diplomatically they insist upon strictly legal procedure. A comparison of their attitude at this time with the one they carry out against Stephen, who was stoned by the Jews, proves beyond a doubt that they were not morally sincere in this insistence.
Bidding against each other, turning and twisting about—surely, all this is a very petty business, and yet in this, too, the wisdom, and counsel, and majesty of God are apparent. For John adds to his account of the event: “And this took place in order that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which He spake, signifying what death He should die.”
What death . . . what manner of death. It is in reference to this that their humanly contrived machination again touches on the solid bottom and carefully arranged plan of divine prophecy. Right now, at this first contact between the Jews and Pilate, the shadow of the cross falls upon the corridors of the praetorium. And it is God Himself who puts the sun of prophecy, the passion of Christ, and this madding of the Jews into such an integral relationship with each other that the shadow of the cross must indeed fall upon this palace. For, in the counsel of God, the issue in this matter is the manner of the death which the Christ should die. Suppose for a moment that Jesus had actually been put to death without a direct participation in the trial on the part of the Roman authorities as represented in Pilate. Then Jesus would have been stoned but not crucified.
Stoning, we know, was the Jewish method of execution; crucifixion was that of the Romans. From God’s point of view, the question now is whether Jesus is to be sent to His death by the bastard sons of Moses, or by the nails of the soldiers of Rome, that typical Beast of the world. Is the death of Jesus to be carried out solely within the narrow walls of the house of Moses, the house in which his bastard sons are rising up against the faithful Interpreter and Fulfillment of Moses? Or is the death of Christ, which is to include all heaven in its sweep, also to perturb and move the whole earth, not excluding the heathen? Is the brass serpent to be raised only in the restricted and degraded area of the malicious Jews, or is that serpent, in the form of its counter-image in the Son of man, to be raised on the horizon of all nations, and of all men? Is the death of Christ to be the act of a sect—the Jews are just that at the very moment in which they put their king-Messiah to death—or is it to be the sentence of the whole world, the universal finding of Jews and barbarians together? Indeed, God cannot do without the barbarians: all flesh must put the Son to death. Just at this time, just when a combination is effected at the door of God’s house, God intervenes and directs the wicked business which each is conducting to its own ends for opportunistic reasons, to the end which He Himself has in mind.
Jesus is to die. Yes, but in the manner which God has appointed for Him. He must be lifted up so that all may see Him. His cross must be raised, not in the gloom of a Jewish temple, or of a rabbinical college, but under the full sun of the world and of world economy. His cross must be raised at the crossroads of the world where the nations meet and pass.
Just that is the meaning of our text which tells us that Jesus’ own statement still had to be fulfilled, His saying, signifying what death He should die. Now the concept of revelation which God gives us in this text will become meaningful to us the moment we relate it to what we were told earlier in the Gospel. There are several utterances of Christ which point in the same direction as this one recorded by John. We all think in this connection, for instance, of Joh_13:14-15 : “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: that whosoever believeth on Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’’ We also think of Joh_12:31 a, Joh_12:32-33, where Jesus says: “Now is the judgment of this world; and I, if I be lifted from the earth, will draw all men unto me; this He said signifying what (manner of) death He should die.” Moreover, in this connection a light is also shed upon Mat_20:18-19 : “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the Scribes, and they shall condemn Him to death, and shall deliver Him to the Gentiles, to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify Him, and the third day He shall rise again” (See Mar_10:33-34; Luk_18:32-33).
Now if we put these scattered statements into relation with each other (as is the duty of any exegesis that is faithful to the Scriptures), we see that the manner of Christ’s death is not an accidental one; it is not a merely regional or historical particular, hardly essential to the whole, but it responds fully to the logic of God, and to the logic of the events as they are described here, and are arranged and governed by the history of special revelation. Jesus might not and could not be stoned within the limits of Mosaic law, for He wanted to be lifted up.
To be lifted up. In other words, He must be advertised; He would have world-wide publicity. He would be a universal sign. The journal kept by a decaying Sanhedrin is too trivial for Him; His name and the proceedings of His trial must be taken down in the annals of the world. Men must be able to see Him from all sides. In a time of world-crisis, He would “be lifted up from the earth.” For He affects everyone. Therefore He must go to the heathen. He must be raised on the cross, He must be “lifted up.” The phrase is rich in meaning. On the one hand, it gives expression to the fact that one who is crucified is raised from the earth, is put on display above the heads of the spectators, is made a “spectacle” to those who would see it. In this sense, the phrase represents a very concrete expression of the manner of Christ’s death, and nothing more than that. In another sense, it transcends the scope of concrete language. The idea of “being lifted up” must also be developed in a theological sense. It may be true that the raising, the public manifestation, of the crucified Jesus is an act of men, but it is also an exaltation on the part of God, the God of the whole world. He and He first of all is the one who exhibits the crucified Son to the whole world. Moses raised the brazen serpent on a rod in order that a whole people, a whole community of those who were wrapped in death’s folds, might see it. That serpent had to shine forth above the white tents of those who had been summoned to die, and even over the curtains of the temple behind which God dwelt, but dwelt in concealment. Just so Jesus must be lifted up today, and publicly exhibited (Col_2:14-15). For Jesus is the sign of redemption who affects everyone in His death. God points to Him as such a sign, points to Him as He hangs suspended above the white tents of the children of death, and above the wasted and abandoned temple. Therefore we can say that the lifting up of Christ on the cross is indeed an indication of the world-wide significance of the cross. God cannot be contained within a stone temple; nor is there a temple court to which God can be restricted when He comes to die in His human nature. The law of Moses rejects the Christ; that much we saw in our preceding chapter. But the rejection was really His own doing. He did not wish to die in solitary confinement, in a sectarian corner in which the company of Moses—according to the flesh—was old, decadent, and about to fade away. No, there is no esoteric sect, no part of the globe, within whose confines one can limit Jesus, or within which He can be sent to an anonymous death.
Indeed He is cast outside of the sphere of Mosaic law, but it is precisely by such rejection that He is glorified, for by means of it He reaches His own destination. Above the narrow confines which the yardstick of God or of Satan has marked out in the past Christ would be lifted up as a sign to the whole world.
This cycle of thought leads us even higher. We can work out the phraseology of Christ’s being “lifted up” on the cross in still another direction. The Bible passes from a consideration of the concept of world-wide manifestation to the idea of Christ’s being exalted above the earth in heavenly glory. In Joh_3:14 Christ demonstrated that His cross was a world-symbol. In Joh_12:32 He presents it as the beginning of His permanent glorification. Via crucis via lucis. Even in death the way of triumph over the world is also the way of world-vanquishment unto life. And in Joh_3:14 Jesus presents Himself to us as the sign of the brass serpent—but in fulfillment, of course. Now we know that this consummated serpent has not been raised to the right or to the left of a little alley, or of our own street, but that it stands highly exalted as a world-symbol at the very extremity of our horizons.
But that which stands at the extreme end of our horizon merges with the heaven of God’s glory even as we watch it. Everything which rises above the earth raises its crest into heaven. Thus Jesus passes from Joh_3:14 to Joh_12:32. Therefore it is not only in an eschatological sense that for him who looks at it in faith the cross of Christ stands at the extremity of his horizon, but it is also true that in an axiomatic sense it stretches out as a symbol of victory into the highest heaven. As such the cross is indeed the beginning of the resurrection, the ascension, the being raised to God’s right hand, the second coming, and the final judgment. Thus the great God who confines the wise in their conceits directs this competitive bidding of the anxious Jews and the cautious Romans to His own end. It is God Himself who rescues Jesus from the far too narrow sphere of Moses. The Jews may reject Him—as we saw in our preceding chapter. It could not be otherwise, for Jesus Christ had long outgrown the narrow confines of Mosaic restriction. The stream of redemption could not be restricted to the slender trickle of a private fountain, to initiates in the holy corridors of Moses. Christ had to break through the bonds of Moses; He had to stand at the extremity of the wide horizon of Moses’ ancient jurisdiction. Every demagogue in Israel cries aloud: Cast Him out, cast Him out! God says: He is beyond it already. And everything that these excommunicants plan for His humiliation God turns to good. He makes it the beginning of glorification. A heavenly light falls on the crooked transaction going on between the Jews and the Romans. “Come to His glory, all ye people, and worship it, O my soul.”
The Jews are sealing their own fate. They thrust Jesus out of the cabinet of Moses but in spite of themselves, they lead Him to the place where He had to be. For He wished to be on the inclusive, world-wide domain of Romans, Greeks, of the dwellers in Asia Minor, of Europeans, of Batavians, and of those on the faraway isles. They bring Jesus to His own destination, for His destination is the world. They drive Jesus out to His profanum vulgus. Praise God for that, for now we are His concern, we are the profanum vulgus, and we understand very well that He who was bound, governed those who bound Him. The province over which Pilate has authority has placed Jesus and the “common people” under one and the same sign, and has done so by the will of the Lord. Wist ye not that He must be in the province of His brethren? He had to be lifted up, and even those on the most distant shores shall see Him and be satisfied.
AH this was God’s work. The calendar-wisdom taught us in the grammar school has a way of beginning the story of our national history with the coming of the Batavians to our shores, and of passing on then to the Roman invasion. But the background even of this national history must be found in the realm of the Spirit. No one can tell the truth about that history unless he has understood Joh_18:29-32. There the Jews bring Jesus to the realm of the Romans — and of the Batavians. Presently the praetorium of Pilate will become the crucial point of the world empire as it is to reveal itself through the centuries, and as it will grow in all the spheres of mundane culture and of wicked world unity.
Whoever has seen these things in this light—for this is the line of prophecy which relates Rome to Babylon, the Caesar to the Antichrist, and the chair of Pilate to that sea of nations mentioned in Revelation 13 — will understand that the dignified Jews, those who bound my Lord Jesus, are themselves bound by the ropes of God. They bring Jesus the Christ to the realm over which the Antichrist will some day rule. He too will stand at the extremity of the world’s horizon. He too will say: I am the Son of Man and must be lifted up; I must be exalted; I must be ever exalted. And He will add: I shall do this directly—no cross, no humiliation, and no ascension for me. I shall do it in my own strength.
Now we thank Thee, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou didst constrain the Jews to bring Jesus to His own place. We thank Thee, Father of all nations, that Thou didst base the feast of Pentecost on this unworthy human business. We thank Thee for protecting missions by keeping the Jews from yielding to Pilate when He wanted to rid himself of Jesus. Teach us to tremble before Thee, Father, for all those who still cast Jesus out of the narrow confines of their own selves are merely bringing Him to His own spacious destination. Jesus can be seen only as one raised above every sphere—He falls, and sits, and hangs, and is enthroned above the globe. The condemnation is not a private but a universal matter. Therefore it becomes personal, as personal as life, and as God, and as — grace.
And we thank Thee for another thing. We thank Thee for light, for the light which shines through the gloom of this sombre transaction. The rays of the ascension of Jesus Christ and of His high exaltation are playing upon this night of sins and sects. Jesus must be lifted up. The manner of His death, although it is fully informed by the curse, must be such as to make a world symbol of that death. And this is to mark Christ’s transcendence over the vicious circle of temporal and earthly restrictions and is to make us know that the Saviour is great in His eternal strength. He is being delivered up to profane heathendom but even as this takes place, He as the Son of man annexes unto Himself the host of God’s elect. He becomes the Kurios, the Lord. His thorn-crowned head touches on heaven; it reaches the horizon. Now He draws all angels unto Himself. He becomes the Kurios. He is raised to the Father’s right hand. Thence He places His own hand on the great domain of the whole Cosmos, a cosmos which can be governed only from the most exalted of thrones. He becomes the Kurios; buffeted, cast out as He is, He will draw all men unto Him. He is rejected; He is cut loose from Moses. He will draw all men, will be the magnetic center of His own realm. Isaiah, Isaiah, they are barring Him from the Testimony, but He confirms His instruction among His disciples. He draws them, calls them out of the snare.
For God so loved the world that He gave His Only-Begotten Son, so that all those who are bitten by the snake, and therefore struggling with death now, might look up to the cross of Jesus, and thus—not by a miraculous but by a true saving faith—have eternal life in the exalted Christ.
There are these crucial points in the Bible which we may not ignore.
The Jews say to Pilate: We may not put Him to death. Do you decide His case on the basis of your world authority. And it is just this decision which rescues the feast of Pentecost, the missions of my church, the victory of the kingdom of heaven, the triumph of the Spirit over the Beast, the universal significance of the struggle of those last witnesses who will prophesy in the spiritual Sodom and Egypt, and the return unto judgment. Just as the lightning cannot be kept within the domain of Moses or within the sphere of any other man, but must shine from the East to the West, lightening the whole sky, so shall the coming of the Son of man be. Today He Himself has indicated and has had reported in the universe of God what manner of death He should die. His death is not to be the act of a peculiar sect any more than God’s lightning is that, and all who excommunicate Jesus, the universal Son of man—surely all these are but a sect.
But I believe the holy catholic Christian Church. Why? For many reasons. But also for this one: He suffered under Pontius Pilate. I hope to remember this at church next Sunday night.