THE UNAVOIDABLE QUESTION
“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” (Matthew 27:22)
The woman screams in terror. Something awful is happening. Suddenly she jerks awake and finds herself lying in bed. Just a nightmare—but what a horrible nightmare! In her sleep she dreamed that an innocent man was being tortured and killed, and that her husband was responsible. The man being murdered had done nothing wrong, yet her husband directed that he suffer and die in the most horrible way imaginable. That was bad enough, and then, to make matters worse, the murdered man’s mutilated body didn’t stay dead. He came alive, and he wouldn’t go away. There was no way to get away from him. He was everywhere. No matter where she turned, he was there.
Now the nightmare is over and the woman is awake, but for some reason she can’t leave the horror behind. She rolls over in bed and reaches for her husband. He’s not there. Where is he? Then she remembers the whispers in the dark as her husband’s assistant called him out of bed in long before sunrise. Her husband, Governor Pontius Pilate, left in the wee hours of the morning for an emergency meeting with a bothersome group of religious leaders. The meeting has something to do with a man named Jesus, who recently arrived in Jerusalem from Nazareth and is said to be stirring up trouble. The religious leaders arrested Jesus during the night, they have him in custody, and they want Governor Pilate to get involved. After Pilate left the bed to meet with them, his wife went back to sleep. That’s when the nightmare started. Now she’s awake, but the nightmare still seems real. She can’t shake the feeling that something is horribly wrong. This isn’t just another bad dream.
The prisoner! That’s it! The man she saw being tortured in her dream, the murdered man who came alive again, must be the prisoner Jesus. Somehow, she is sure of it. Her nightmare is over, yet it’s not over. Mrs. Pilate scribbles hastily on a piece of paper and hands it to a servant. The servant hurries off to where Pontius Pilate is holding court.
When the messenger arrives, Governor Pilate scowls at the interruption. Can’t the man see he’s busy? Oh, it’s a message from his wife. Well, it had better be important. She knows better than to bother him when he’s conducting official business. Pilate reads the note: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (Matthew 27:19). Pilate glances over at the prisoner, then reads the note again. He hesitates and frowns. Then he crumples the note, and dismisses the messenger.
What a bizarre situation! Pilate has a life and death decision to make, and what does he have to go on? His wife wants him to base his decision on some crazy nightmare she’s had. Meanwhile, the prisoner refuses to argue in his own defense. When Jesus does open his mouth, he talks in riddles. He doesn’t seem to realize that Pilate has the power release him or to kill him. How is Pilate supposed to make sense of all this? What is truth, anyway? Pilate hears the crowd outside getting louder. He’s got a decision to make, and he’d better do it soon.
A Difficult Dilemma
Pilate faces a difficult dilemma. But is the difficulty really in figuring out the right thing to do? No, whatever Pilate can’t figure out, he already knows one thing for sure: this man Jesus is not guilty of any crime punishable by death. Jesus seems odd to Pilate, but you don’t give someone the death penalty for being odd. Besides, Pilate can’t shake the feeling that Jesus isn’t just another weirdo. There’s more to him than meets the eye. Jesus talks about being a king from another world, and his enemies accuse him of saying he’s the Son of God. Normally, you’d write such a man off as crazy, but in this case, Pilate has the eerie feeling that it’s not quite that simple. At any rate, one thing’s for sure: Jesus isn’t guilty of any crime.
Pilate knows this, and being a shrewd politician and judge of motives, he also knows the real reason the religious leaders have asked for the death penalty. He knows they’ve handed Jesus over out of envy (Matthew 27:18). They don’t want some upstart rabbi from the backwaters of Galilee winning the loyalty of the crowds. They want Jesus dead because they want to get rid of the competition. So despite the complications and questions about the case, Pilate already knows the right thing to do. He knows Jesus is innocent, he knows the real motive of Jesus’ accusers, and he knows that the right thing to do is to rule in favor of Jesus.
But in Pilate’s mind, it’s not that simple. Pilate can’t just consider what’s true and what’s right. He has to think about his career. Pilate can’t just look at the Person involved in the case. He also has to think about the politics involved in the case. That’s what makes it such a hard decision.
Pilate doesn’t want any more political problems. Already in his term as governor, Pilate has made serious blunders. Once he set up Roman standards with images in Jerusalem’s temple area, where no images were permitted. Mobs of enraged people soon gathered, and there was a tense standoff between the crowds and Pilate’s troops for several days until Pilate finally gave in and ordered the standards to be withdrawn. Another time, Pilate tried to boost his popularity and do the people a favor by upgrading the city’s water system. He ordered the building of a new aqueduct for Jerusalem, but he financed it with donations made to the temple. This infuriated the people. They didn’t want religious contributions paying for city water. On still another occasion, some of Pilate’s troops killed pilgrims from Galilee right while they were offering sacrifices in the temple.
Because of these blunders, the people and religious leaders are still upset with Pilate, and complaints of Pilate’s incompetence have reached the ears of the emperor. Tiberius Caesar appointed Pilate to office, and Caesar can just as easily fire him if things get out of hand in Jerusalem.
It’s not just Jesus’ life that’s on the line here. Pilate’s career is also on the line. It would be a serious risk to choose in favor of Jesus. Pilate doesn’t have public opinion polls, but he has ears. He can hear noisy crowds. They want Jesus dead. With Pilate’s popularity already so low, the last thing he wants to do is provoke the crowds or upset their leaders. Ruling in favor of Jesus is the right thing to do, but it doesn’t look like the smart thing to do.
You and I face similar choices. We know what’s right but often we don’t dare to do the right thing. Like Pilate we try to persuade ourselves that the situation is complex and we can’t be expected to know the truth of what we ought to do. We join Pilate in sneering, “What is truth?” The vast majority of people in our society say there’s no such thing as absolute truth. But even as we say everything is relative and nobody can know for sure, we really do know better. We know that truth is real and that there are absolute standards of right and wrong. If we say don’t know, it’s usually because we’re involved in doing what we know deep down is wrong, just as Pilate knew deep down that it would be totally wrong for him to hand Jesus over to be tortured and killed. Like Pilate, you have to make a decision about Jesus. Do you side with Jesus, or do you go along with the crowd? What should you do? You can’t avoid the question.
Running From Responsibility
As Pilate tries to make up his mind about what to do with Jesus, he wishes he didn’t have to make the decision at all. But how can he avoid it? Then he gets an idea. The prisoner Jesus is from up north in Galilee. King Herod happens to be in town, and Herod has jurisdiction over the region of Galilee. Jesus is originally from Galilee, so why not hand the responsibility to the ruler of Galilee, King Herod? It’s worth a try. So Pilate sends Jesus to the place Herod is staying. Herod and his men make fun of Jesus, but in the end Herod sends the prisoner back to Pilate and dumps the problem right back in his lap.
Then Pilate has another idea. Each year at Passover time, there’s a tradition of pardoning one prisoner chosen by the crowd and setting him free. Why can’t Jesus be that prisoner? If Pilate handles it right, he’ll be able to get the crowds themselves to call for Jesus’ release. All he’s got to do is offer them the worst, most dangerous prisoner as the only other choice, and they’ll almost have to choose Jesus. What was the name of that terrorist again? Barbarous, or something… Barabbas, that’s it. The man is a menace. Barabbas has been convicted of insurrection, murder, and who knows what else. Nobody concerned about public safety would want a guy like that back on the street.
So Pilate calls to the crowd, “Who do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” A murmur ripples through the crowd as people discuss this unexpected choice. Pilate smiles to himself and waits. No way are they going to ask for bloodthirsty Barabbas to be set free. Pilate will be able to turn Jesus loose and execute the terrorist, and the mob will have to go home. Yes, indeed, this is a stroke of genius. Pilate can do the right thing and avoid political damage.
But gradually Pilate’s smile twists into a frown. He sees some of the religious leaders moving among the people, whispering and gesturing. Then a few voices start to call, “Barabbas. We want Barabbas.” Soon the whole mob is chanting, “Barabbas.”
Pilate stares in disbelief. How can the crowd want him to turn a terrorist loose? And what about Jesus? He asks, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus, who is called Christ?” He’s back to his original problem. No matter how he tries, he can’t avoid the question, “What shall I do with Jesus?” It is his choice, and he can’t shift responsibility to someone else. He must decide.
So must you. Just as Pilate has to respond to Jesus either by standing with him or against him, so must every one of us. Pilate tries to be neutral, neither for Jesus nor against him, but in the battle between good and evil, there is no neutral ground. You must choose one or the other. Will you side with God and truth, or with evil and lies? If you make your decision about Jesus based on pleasing people around you or on your own desires, you will reject him every time.
When Pilate asks the crowd, “What shall I do with Jesus?” the crowd roars back, “Crucify him!”
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asks Pilate.
But they shout all the louder, “Crucify him!” Pilate hesitates, but the crowd keeps howling. Some of the ringleaders, knowing Pilate’s dilemma, start crying out, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar.” That settles it for Pilate. He thinks the ultimate question in all the world is, What will Caesar think? Forget abstract questions about morality and truth. Caesar is lord, Caesar controls the destiny of people and nations, and Pilate’s got to do what he’s got to do in order to maintain his position.
Still, there’s that bothersome little thing called a conscience. Pilate doesn’t want the blood of an innocent man on his hands. When he sees that he’s getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar is starting, he takes water and washes his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he says. “It is your responsibility.”
Pilate excuses himself the way many politicians do: he declares himself pro-choice. He says, “Personally, I oppose this killing, but I’m not going to force my convictions on you. It’s your choice.” Pilate wants everyone to know that he isn’t pro-crucifixion–not at all! He’s simply pro-choice. He’ll let the people destroy an innocent life, if that’s what they choose, but he washes his hands of the whole mess.
But it’s not so easy to escape responsibility. We all like to think that the evils we take part in are someone else’s fault and that the damage we do is not our responsibility. People come up with some amazing excuses for why car accidents they caused weren’t really their fault. Here’s a sample of explanations people actually gave: “The guy was all over the road. I had to swerve a number of times before I hit him.” “I pulled away from the side of the road, glanced at my mother-in-law, and headed over the embankment.” “I was driving along when suddenly a cow went under my car without once signaling its intention. I’ve since heard that the unfortunate creature was slow-witted.” “The pedestrian had no idea which direction to go, so I ran him over.” We may laugh at such excuses, but what about the excuses we make for our sins? Are they any better? The more we make excuses, the more obvious our guilt becomes. The longer Pilate washes his hands, the more they are stained with the blood of Jesus Christ.
Everything comes down to one unavoidable question: “What shall I do with Jesus?” No matter how Pilate tries, he can’t escape the question. He can’t find neutral ground. He either has to rule in favor of Jesus, or he has to do away with him. Those are his only choices. He can’t choose in favor of Jesus unless he’s willing to let go of his own ambitions. And if he chooses against Jesus, no amount of hand-washing or nice talk will make him innocent of Jesus’ blood.
Pilate isn’t the only one guilty of Jesus’ blood. The Bible says that whenever someone turns away from Jesus, “to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again” (Hebrews 6:6).
After Jesus is crucified, dead, and buried, Pilate thinks it is all over. He wants to put the whole episode behind him and forget the carpenter from Galilee. But the next day the priests and elders are again outside his door. “What now?” Pilate grumbles to himself. He sees a group of men wearing worried scowls. “Sir,” they say to Pilate, “we remember that when he was still alive, that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.”
Wearily, Pilate says, “Take a guard detail. Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” Pilate figures that if this is what it takes to keep these paranoid priests out of his hair, then so be it. Let them post a security detail and do anything else they can think of to keep things from getting lively in the cemetery. Once the third day has passed, Pilate’s problem will be gone for sure. Jesus’ disciples will realize he’s a lost cause, Jesus’ enemies will stop worrying about him, and Pilate can get on with his career as governor. So for the time being, just put an official government seal on the tomb, have some soldiers sit near it with weapons in plain sight, and nobody’s going to mess with anything. That body isn’t going anywhere. Right?
That Sunday, despite all the precautions, the soldiers are in shock, the tomb is empty, and reports are spreading that Jesus has risen. The man who claimed to be the Son of God is on the loose once again.
Pilate presided over the killing of Jesus because he was eager to advance his career and so afraid the political unrest would get him fired. But not long afterward, Caesar fired him anyway. So Pilate’s efforts to get ahead in this life failed. Worse yet, when Pilate entered the next life, he again faced Jesus. But this time it wasn’t Pilate deciding what would happen to Jesus, but Jesus deciding what would happen to Pilate. Hell is a terrible price to pay for not siding with Jesus. But hell is what happens to every person who does not decide for Christ.
The Lord Jesus Christ is alive and he can’t be ignored. Every last person on planet earth has to face the unavoidable question: “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” And we have to deal with that question in light of the question, “What will Jesus Christ do with me?”
The Lord Jesus Christ, allowed himself to be crucified under Pontius Pilate in order to pay the terrible penalty for our sins, but now he lives, and he calls you and me to believe in him, to have our sins washed away by his blood, and to live for him. We must come to Christ in faith and stake our lives on him. If we refuse his call, the only other possibility is to reject Jesus utterly and to be utterly rejected by him.
Here’s the unavoidable question: What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ? Pilate tried to avoid that question. He didn’t want to be for Jesus, and he didn’t want to be against him. He wanted to remain neutral, to sit on the fence and avoid the issue. That’s why he first sent Jesus off to Herod and then told the crowd to decide between Jesus and Barabbas. But no matter what he tried, Pilate couldn’t avoid the question. Pilate had to decide, either in favor of Jesus or else against him.
Likewise, you and I can’t be avoid the question or try to be neutral. You must either be for Jesus or against him. You must either trust him fully, or reject him completely. There is no middle ground. When Pilate pretended to be neutral, he ended up authorizing the murder of Jesus. When you pretend to be neutral, you’re really spurning Jesus and rejecting his claims. Jesus says, “He who is not with me is against me” (Luke 11:23).
If you say that you’re not really against Jesus but you’re not for him either, you’re saying, whether you realize it or not, that Jesus has no claim on your life, that you don’t recognize him as Lord and God. You’re saying that you don’t want his love, that you don’t need his blood to cover your sin, that you can get along without his resurrection life. The Bible says, “How shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (Hebrews 2:3 KJV) Neglecting his salvation is no better than rejecting his salvation. When you try to be neutral toward the Lord Jesus Christ, when, like Pilate, you try to avoid going one way or the other, what you’re really doing is rejecting him and destroying yourself in the bargain.
What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ? It’s a question we can’t avoid or be neutral about, and it’s also a question that won’t allow us to plead ignorance.
Life seems awfully complex sometimes, especially when it comes to religion. What if we just don’t know enough? What if we don’t have all the information we’d like in order to make up our minds about Jesus? Shouldn’t we remain undecided until all the information is in and all our unanswered questions have been answered to our satisfaction?
Pilate wanted to plead ignorance. At one point, Jesus said to him, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.” Pilate responded, “What is truth?” Pilate wanted to think he didn’t know enough about Jesus, that he needed more information to make a good decision. Pilate was frustrated when Jesus kept his mouth shut when he was asked to answer the various charges against him.
Well, there may have been much that Pilate didn’t know, but he knew enough to make the right choice. He knew that Jesus was innocent, he knew the religious leaders handed him over out of envy, he knew about Mrs. Pilate’s terrifying dream, he knew that Jesus claim to be a king from another world, and he knew that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. So whatever Pilate didn’t know or understand, he knew enough to stand up for Jesus. But he chose against him instead.
Are you tempted to plead ignorance? Maybe there are things in the Bible that puzzle you, or experiences that you just can’t figure out or make sense of. You may wonder, “What is truth?” But in reality, even if you don’t know everything you’d like to know, you know enough. You know even more than Pilate knew. You’ve been told that Jesus died to pay the price of sin, and that he rose again to conquer to power of death. If you don’t respond in faith to those great truths, why should God reveal any other truth to you? Truth isn’t just a matter of knowing the right facts; it’s a matter of whose side you’re on. As Jesus told Pilate, “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
So before you try to answer all your other questions, first answer this one: “What shall I do with Jesus, who called Christ?” First respond to the gospel truths you’ve already heard. Repent of your sins and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior, the Son of God and the Lord of the universe.
You may hesitate because of what it could cost you. Pilate was afraid that if he stood up for Jesus, he would lose his position. You may have similar fears. If you started living for Jesus, your new way of life and your refusal to make moral compromises might hurt you in your employment. You might run into new problems in some of your personal relationships. A commitment to Christ could cost you.
If, like Pilate, you put your own success first, you’ll turn away from Jesus. If you base your response to Jesus on how you think it will affect your immediate future, you’ll end up siding with evil, and in the long-term future, you’ll lose your soul eternally. As Jesus said, “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:25-26).
If, like Pilate, you refuse to make a personal commitment, if you wash your hands of Jesus and just go along with whatever the crowd tells you to do, you will lose your only hope of salvation. Jesus wasn’t on trial before Pilate. Pilate was on trial before Jesus. And so are you. Your response to Jesus reveals your destiny. God’s Word says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).
What will you do with Jesus?
Neutral you cannot be.
Some day your soul will be asking,
“What will he do with me?”
By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.