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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Innocent One was Found Guilty
Text:LD 15 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Justice

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 75:1,4                                                                                           

Hy 24:1,2,3,6  [after Nicene Creed]

Reading – Luke 23:1-25

Ps 2:1,2,4

Sermon – Lord’s Day 15

Hy 25:3,4,7

Hy 67:1,3,6,7

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, the Lord God holds many positions and fulfills many roles. God never gets tired, and He has no shortage of ability, so He is King, and He is also Saviour, while at the same time He is Judge. This means that the LORD is the perfect decider of right and wrong, the infallible judge of innocence and guilt.

Long ago in Genesis 18, when Abraham was pleading for God to spare the city of Sodom from destruction, the patriarch asked, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (v 25). And the answer Abraham expected is that yes, God the Judge will do right. Justice is the foundation of his throne, says Psalm 97, essential to all of his daily activities.

Judges today are expected to be detached in weighing up good and evil, but God cannot be, for these things come close to his character as the righteous and holy One. To God the heavenly Judge, sin is a personal attack and there is no wrongdoing that He can tolerate.

So we see God’s judgments already at work in the present age: sometimes He brings down the proud and wicked, and He lets others experience the consequence of their sin. But God’s judgments will be seen most fully at Christ’s return. On that day everyone will be judged—all mankind, even believers, even the angels—when every secret will be exposed, and every hidden purpose, and we’ll have to give account of every careless word. For some it will be a terrifying day, yet God’s judgement will be just, “for the Judge of all the earth will do right.” And for sinners who believe in Christ, there is no fear in facing the Judge, because Christ was already judged in our place. That’s our theme this afternoon, based especially on Q&A 38,

The innocent One was found guilty in my place:

  1. Jesus condemned by an earthly judge
  2. Jesus condemned by the heavenly judge


1) Jesus condemned by an earthly judge: The Apostles’ Creed isn’t a long confession, just twelve articles. So only the most important things should be included, right? It confesses God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It also addresses the big issues of where we came from, and where we’re going. With its focus on these core elements, is there any room in our creed for humans? Three are mentioned by name. First, there is Jesus Christ, but He’s unique, both man and God. The next human mentioned is Mary, and she too, is very special, faithfully bringing the Saviour into the world.

Then there’s the final human who is mentioned. He definitely wasn’t sinless, like Jesus was. He wasn’t even an obedient servant of God, like Mary was. But there he is, in the oldest confession of the Christian church: Pontius Pilate. “I believe in Jesus Christ… [who] suffered under Pontius Pilate.” Just think about that: What’s he doing in there, a Roman governor, an unbeliever, an all-around nasty person? How is it that Pilate’s name crosses our lips every single Sunday of the year when we confess our faith?

To answer this, it’s good to look at who the man was. Pontius Pilate belonged to the upper middle-class of the empire, from a long line of military and civic officials. Now, by the time of Jesus, Palestine had been part of the Roman empire for more than sixty years. And in 26 AD (a few years before Christ’s trial) Emperor Tiberias appointed Pilate to be the prefect—or the governor—of Judea. As governor, Pilate had full control of Judea and commanded an occupying army of about 20,000.

The Romans were already hated by the Jews, of course, but Pilate found ways to make it worse. He was most unwise in ruling, and nearly drove the Jews to revolt two or three times. One of his first acts was to move the army headquarters from Caesarea to Jerusalem. The Jews took this as a great offense, because the legions always carried with them images of the emperor, who was considered divine. To have these idols in the holy city was an outrage, so the people demanded that Pilate remove them. He refused, and threatened to kill the protestors, but they would not yield. Pilate gave in, and the images were brought back to Caesarea.

Another time, Pilate slaughtered a group of Galileans. Luke 13:1 mentions this, when some ask Jesus about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” This sacrilege must have occurred during a feast at the temple, but nothing more about the event is known. It only shows again what kind of person this Pilate was.

To try keep local peace Rome had given the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, some authority. The Sanhedrin was even allowed to make judgments about offenses deserving death. Still, it was up to Pilate to put his seal of approval on every verdict. He had the authority to decide finally whether a person should live, or die. So it was that Pilate has to hear the case against Jesus during the Passover week. In their own assembly the Jews already determined that He was guilty of crimes deserving death. They said Jesus had blasphemed the name of God, and said that He’d destroy the temple.

When they bring Jesus to Pilate, however, notice that they’ve changed their story: “We found this fellow perverting our nation, and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, saying that He himself is Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2). They knew that to the Romans, starting a tax revolt was a serious offense. In making this accusation, the leaders might’ve been thinking about how Jesus had asked Levi, a tax collector, to quit his job; or how Jesus had influenced Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector in Jericho, to resign. The Jews knew Pilate didn’t care whether Jesus had broken the third commandment by blaspheming, that he was only interested in matters of politics and economy. So this claim about taxes and kingship was sure to get his attention.

And Jesus doesn’t deny that He is a king: “It is as you say” (v 3), he replies to Pilate’s question. Here was a full confession—an admission of guilt. Yet Pilate isn’t troubled; see how he promptly goes out to announce to the Jews, “I find no fault in this man” (v 4). Pilate was anxious to hold onto power, but he knew a non-threat when he saw one. This quiet fellow might claim to be a king, but he wouldn’t amount to much. He wasn’t even carrying a sword. And where was his army? His followers had already melted away in fear.

When Jesus spoke a bit more, his words were still no cause for alarm. John reports that Jesus said this to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world… It is from another place” (18:36). That’s a relief! Pilate could only conclude that this just another religious nut!

But the leaders are relentless. They point out, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee to this place” (Luke 23:5). Pilate probably felt a headache coming on—he really didn’t feel like becoming involved. So when he hears that Jesus was from Galilee, he sends him to King Herod. Because when it comes to legal matters, jurisdiction is always a big thing. Who has the authority to charge you? It depends where you are when the crime was committed. Jesus was from Galilee, and Galilee was in Herod’s territory—so let him settle this dispute!

Jesus gets transferred to Herod’s palace. But now He’s got nothing to say: “He answered him nothing” (v 9). This is probably because Jesus knows that Herod’s authority as a so-called king is dependent on Pilate’s, and that Pilate was the real decision maker in the land. So it wasn’t long before Herod sends Jesus back.

For a second time then, Pilate has to announce his judgment: “Having examined him in your presence, I have found no fault in this man concerning those things of which you accuse him” (v 14). Pilate was still holding firm. He could’ve finished the matter quickly, and had Jesus killed. What was a Jew’s life to him? But Pilate had no love for these people in his court, making demands and getting agitated. He certainly didn’t want to give what they wanted!

Unless, of course, Pilate’s own position was in danger. And the first cracks appear when his wife sends him a message. Matthew tells us about it, that Pilate’s wife pleads with him, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I’ve suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him” (27:19). This back-room development makes Pilate hesitate—hesitate to condemn Jesus, but also to let him go. For the crowds are only getting more wound up.

To try and defuse this volatile situation, Pilate tries a different approach. There was an annual custom that one prisoner chosen by the people could be released. It was a Roman effort at public relations, a way to keep the Jews happy, especially if someone popular had been imprisoned. So Pilate lays out a choice before them: Whom do they want released, Barabbas or Jesus? He was sure they’d vote for the harmless Jesus. Because who was Barabbas? A notorious criminal, involved in an uprising and murder, and slated for execution. But Pilate has misread his audience badly: they demand that Jesus be crucified: “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas” (Luke 23:18). They’d rather have a killer back on the streets than Jesus!

To the governor this made no sense. If you’re keeping track, this is now the third time that Pilate declares that Jesus is without blame, “I have found no reason for death in him” (v 22). But Pilate just didn’t have the fortitude to stick with his judgment. The crowds kept screaming—until finally, Pilate gives in. 

Pilate’s one concern was that there be peace in Judea. So, Matthew says, “when Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood.’” And he “handed Jesus over to be crucified” (27:24-26). And He was crucified.

Hopefully that would finish it. When he got home from the office that day, his wife couldn’t nag him, because he’d washed his hands of all responsibility. The Jews would fall quiet, because now they had their man. And of course, the emperor would never hear about this little riot. At this trial, there was no real evidence, no justice. There was a frightened man, worried about his political future. There was an angry mob, determined to get rid of someone they didn’t accept. And there was Jesus, plainly innocent. But He was condemned.

So whatever happened to Pontius Pilate after this? Sources from the first century tell us that he just could not avoid political disaster. Some years later the Samaritans were rising up, so Pilate sent his army to crush them. The Samaritans complained about the harsh treatment, and Pilate had to go to Rome to answer for the accusations. He lost his position as governor, and tradition says that he killed himself soon after.

Such was the man who judged the Lord Jesus: he seems a hard, cruel, yet cowardly man. So we return to our first question: Why is Pontius Pilate mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed? What did he do to get such a remembrance? That brings us to our second point,


2) condemned by the heavenly judge: Back when Jesus was standing in front of him, the Roman governor tried to get Jesus on side. John reports that Pilate asked him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” (19:10). And Jesus reveals how Pilate understood so little about what was really going on at this trial. For He replies, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above” (19:11).

Yes, this governor was from a well-placed family. He’d been appointed by the mighty Roman emperor, even commanded thousands of soldiers. But there’s more to say. Like every leader who has ever held position—like the President or Prime Minister today, or anyone else—Pilate was just a lowly man, given authority by God. “You would have no power if it were not given to you from above…” The Lord put Pontius Pilate in place, for He wanted him as governor at this very moment, for this turning point in history. And why? Because God would use Pilate to put into effect his own perfect judgment. He was a servant in God’s salvation plan.

That’s the way the Catechism explains it, “Though innocent, Christ was condemned by an earthly judge, and so He freed us from the severe judgment of God that was to fall on us” (Q&A 38). Underline the close connection: “Christ was condemned by an earthly judge… and so [Christ] freed us from the severe judgment of God.” The human judgment on Christ was in reality nothing less than God’s judgment! Pilate’s fumbling decision was God’s steadfast will. This was no mistake, but this was how it needed to be.

The early Christians realized this almost right away. In Acts 4 the believers offer up this prayer to God, “Sovereign Lord, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel… to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They [only] did what your power and will had decided beforehand would happen” (vv 27-28). Everything that those wicked men did was decided in advance by God! He was in charge the whole time, even over that pitiful trial, and unjust decision.

And it could not have been any other way. Jesus was a perfect, sinless, holy man. On that day, there could only be false charges and lying testimony. Yet this was the way God planned. Our Saviour would submit, and He wouldn’t defend himself, because God wanted him to be charged, to be found guilty, and killed.

The earthly judge acted out of motives that were corrupt and selfish. Yet the result was that Jesus was sent to death on the accursed cross (Q&A 39). And Jesus would hang there, not for some imagined rebellion or groundless charge. No, He would hang there, for the sins of “the whole human race” (Q&A 37). That was the force of God’s judgment. Three times Jesus was declared innocent, and from a human point of view, He was. Pilate knew it, his wife knew it, Herod knew it—even that thief on the cross knew it! “This man has done nothing wrong.” But in God’s eyes, Jesus was guilty and worthy of condemnation.

Why? Because on that day our Saviour was saying, “It was me! I accept all the charges. All the sin of my people I take upon myself—I’ll even become sin in their place, and swallow the deadly poison of its curse. I accept God’s just judgment so that sinners can go free forever.” That’s why Luke 23 isn’t an ugly tragedy, but glorious gospel! It was God who found guilty the innocent Christ. God declared him guilty, so we can be made righteous—forgiven and released!

Compare this to how Barabbas was set free by Pontius Pilate. Barabbas, a revolutionary and murderer, was the least deserving of all candidates for the governor’s pardon. Yet the notorious criminal was released, while Jesus was condemned. Brothers and sisters, we are Barabbas! Naturally, we are in the same position that he was: we are rebels and murderers, chained up on Death Row. Because of our sinful nature, for all our past sins and for the evil we still commit every day, we’d be bound for condemnation. We are Barabbas—yet in such great mercy, God released the guilty ones and He sent Jesus to the cross in our place.

Let’s remember too, that Jesus wasn’t forced to do what He did. He volunteered! He did it, because He loves us so deeply. As He says in John 15, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (v 13). He accepted the false accusations and submitted to the penalty, so that our sins can be taken away! God the just and merciful judge says that in Christ, we who believe are completely, and thoroughly, and permanently innocent.

So what does this all mean? What does this gracious verdict mean for our lives today, and tomorrow, and into eternity?

First, it means there’s no reason for you to live in sin. Through Christ, you’ve been set free from its deadly power! We don’t have to stay in the prison of our wicked and selfish desires. Sometimes we enjoy it there; other times we feel that we’ll never be able to break out of our bad habits and our sinful ways of life. But in Christ, we can. He sets the prisoners free, and He grants us a sure power for living a new life. Don’t accept being a slave to your sin, but live in the freedom of Christ!

A second thing: Christ being condemned in our place means there’s no longer a reason to live with guilt for sin. Whatever God held against you has been covered. When we humbly believe, God looks at us and says, “This man, this woman, has done nothing wrong.” And He keeps saying that. “You not deserve to die. You will not die. Because in Christ you are perfect.”

This should change how we look at sin, also the sins that you might be holding against yourself. There can be things you did years ago that you’re still deeply ashamed of. You know about forgiveness, but guilt feelings can be like a shadow that you can’t escape. But if you have repented truly, then it has been dealt with by Christ. He took our sin, fully. It’s no longer anything to God—why should it be anything to you? So repent, and be free of guilt!

Or what about the guilt you hold against someone else? There’s a person who once mistreated you, someone offended you—it can be so hard to let it go. In your eyes, they’re still guilty. But in Christ, God gives a sure basis for restoration. Repentance can be needed still, and an amendment of life, but Christ gives every motivation to rebuild and restore. Let us do whatever is in our power to live at peace, and to forgive, just as we have been forgiven.

A third consequence of Christ being judged is that there’s no reason for uncertainty before God. In Christ, our salvation is locked in. You don’t have to rely on your good works to get anywhere. You don’t have to doubt, wondering if you’re good enough or happy enough or blessed enough to really be God’s child. But depend on God’s steadfast mercy. By faith in Christ, this is your new status: no longer guilty, but righteous.

For on the last day Christ will come from heaven, and this time He will be the Judge. Not a judge like Pilate, but one who is righteous and honest and faithful. Christ will be Judge of the living and the dead, and all people will appear before him and render an account of what we’ve done. The thought of this great trial can be terrifying. For we’ve done things we wouldn’t want anyone to know. I’ve had thoughts in my head that would shock anyone. I’ve said words full of deceit, and hatred, and pride. Surely you’ve done and said and thought such things too.

Yet when the books are opened on that day, every one of our offenses will be blotted out and forgotten. Instead of being condemned, on that day we’ll be crowned with glory and honour. For those who repent and believe—and who live out their faith in a holy walk with God—there’s no need to fear. No fear, for this reason: we know what our Saviour did. He was condemned by Pilate and He was condemned by God, and so He took on all our guilt.

“In this way,” says John, “love is made complete among us so that we can have confidence on the day of judgement” (1 John 4:17). We can have confidence, for on the last day the Judge will claim us as his own. So make it your aim to love him and to thank him for all the riches of his grace!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
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(c) Copyright 2018, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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