“So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” So when Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat at a place called The Stone Pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha. Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour. He said to the Jews, “Behold your King!” They cried out, “Away with him, away with him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.” So he delivered him over to them to be crucified.” (John 19:10-16a ESV)
One of the biggest issues facing the modern American church, I believe, is how connected to and reliant upon conservative politics we’ve become. We’ve come to believe the success of our churches and the gospel message is somehow linked to the political climate and the person sitting in the Oval Office. We also seem to be fearful of a culture that is growing increasingly hostile towards the gospel, the Biblical message regarding truth, in particular, and Christian beliefs and practices, in general. But, as we’ve seen during our study of John’s gospel, Jesus promises that when we are obediently following Him we will be hated and persecuted by our culture (see John 15-16).
In today’s passage, we see the Jewish religious leaders using the Roman political authority to achieve their personal kingdom building goals. When Pilate heard the charges against Jesus and then examined the evidence, he could find no justification for a guilty verdict let alone a death sentence. When Jesus refuses to answer Pilate’s question regarding His origin, Pilate makes a thinly veiled threat and appears to be a bit upset. He asks, “don’t you know that I have the authority to release you or crucify you?” In essence he says, “Don’t you realize who I am? I hold your life in my hands and you have the audacity to refuse to answer my question.” But, Jesus’ response is classic, “you would have NO authority over me at all unless it had been given to you from above.”
We need to hear those words, “you would have NO authority over ME at all unless it had been given to you from ABOVE.” Pilate’s only authority over Jesus was authority God had intentionally and specifically granted. Jesus had taught the disciples that they should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Matthew 22:21 ESV) We also know that Paul taught, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” (Romans 13:1 ESV) So, while we are obligated to respect and obey the civil authorities that rule over us we also know they are placed in that role to obey God and protect their citizens. We are accountable to God, but so are they.
But, I really want you to pay attention to what happens next. The religious leaders begin using Roman law and culture to oppose God and manipulate the outcome of Jesus’ trial. These leaders make a very interesting statement, “Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” They also state later in this same passage, “we have no king but Caesar.” Their intentions are to use Jesus’ words against Him and to incite Pilate to act in opposition to his own conscience. Pilate had determined that Jesus was innocent and unworthy of death so to resolve their “Jesus problem” they needed to lie and manipulate Pilate’s decision. There’s nothing quite like a well placed lie to change someone’s mind and influence cultural opinions.
You might wonder what “lie” I’m referencing in this statement. The Jewish leaders had no love of Caesar or the Roman occupation of Jerusalem. In fact, there had been many riots and much bloodshed over that very issue. The Jews didn’t have the military might to resist Rome and Rome simply tolerated Jewish religious customs and laws in an attempt to maintain peace and appease the Jews. Caesar could appoint and did appoint regional “kings” who worked in cooperation with the Roman Governor to maintain peace and authority over the region. So, these Jewish leaders who had NO love of Rome or their governor used them and blatantly lied when they said, “we have no king but Caesar” just to achieve their religio-political goals. Unfortunately, we often do the same today…
Wait. What? We pray for God’s kingdom to come and that His will would be done, on earth just as it is in heaven (Matt. 6:10). We then proceed to try and make it happen through our own political authority and prowess and sometimes just by sheer force. We somehow have tied the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God to our own economic and political success as if God is incapable of achieving His goals without our economic and political assistance.
Now, don’t misunderstand me on this point. I’m NOT saying that Christians should avoid running for office or voting in accordance with their moral beliefs. But I AM saying that we’ve become reliant upon the political climate and cultural favor to measure our success. In other words, we seem to believe the church can only be successful when we have a political conservative in the Oval Office, a simple majority of conservative Supreme Court Justices, and a conservative majority in both Houses of Congress. We think we can usher in God’s kingdom using man’s tactics. We couldn’t be more wrong…
Perhaps we need a reminder: “He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Matthew 16:15-18 ESV)
Our success is not measured in our political influence, the beauty of our church buildings, or even the size of our congregations. Our success must be measured by our holiness, our conformity to the character of Christ and never by human standards or cultural acceptance. We must faithfully proclaim the truth of the gospel, love God as much as is humanly possible and our neighbors as much as ourselves, and seek to become holy like our Lord and help others do the same. That’s what it means to be a Christian. It isn’t hard to understand, it’s just really hard to do. In fact, it is impossible to do in our own strength and abilities. That’s why we must be reborn as new men and women. We must be spiritually alive, not just physically alive. (see John 3:5-6)
The spiritual leaders of Jesus’ day exposed their true allegiance when they proclaimed “we have NO king except Caesar!” We expose our true allegiance when we tend to do the same with conservative politics and cultural bias. We have a tendency to think true Christianity must resemble our political structure and traditional 50’s southern culture instead of resembling Christ. I’m not saying you can’t be patriotic, I’m saying your patriotism can’t be a substitute for God. I am as patriotic as the next person. I still get chill bumps when I hear our national anthem and see the flag fluttering in the breeze. But I’m called to pledge my true and ultimate allegiance to the King of kings, the One True God, the Creator of the Universe, the Most High God.
Let me end by posting a few thoughts about ways we can evaluate our own position in this matter and whether we need to change… Do we recognize our own spiritual needs and failures as much as we do our co-workers or neighbors? Do we mourn over the sinfulness of our own hearts as much as we do others, especially those with whom we disagree politically or culturally? Do we see God’s strength and abilities as more needed to address our cultural needs than anything else? Is our greatest desire in life to become like Christ or to achieve some financial goal, like a comfortable retirement? Is our first response to someone’s sin or failure an act of mercy or compassion or is our first response more judgmental? Is our personal comfort or safety our primary focus when responding to someone’s need?
Each of these questions is simply posed based on the Beatitudes found in Matthew 5:3-11. Jesus says that true happiness is found in how we respond to them… Behold, your King!