“Are you the King of the Jews?”: a meditation on Luke 23:1-5

April 22, 2019

Today I’m beginning a short series of meditations on Good Friday as described in Luke 23. The following reflection on Luke 23:1-5 comes, in part, from handwritten notes in my ESV Journaling Bible, Interleaved Edition.

Then the whole company of them arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.” And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.” But they were urgent, saying, “He stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place.”

Why do we sympathize with Pontius Pilate?

After all, to the credit of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council who turned Jesus over to the Romans on Good Friday morning, they were correct to see in Jesus a threat to their very way of life. From their perspective as unbelievers, this man, Jesus, was “misleading our nation,” saying that “he himself is Christ, a king” (23:2). Granted, they misunderstood the nature of the Messiah’s kingship: he would never be king—one king among others—but the king—the King of Kings.

But at least they understood the danger that Jesus posed.

Not so Pilate: “I find no guilt in this man” (23:4).

Pilate is wrong to dismiss Jesus’ kingship so lightly. As Jesus tells his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before, “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? (Matthew 26:53) (Twelve legions would be 72,000 angels: If these angels chose to protect Jesus from Pilate and his military might, they would have wiped the Roman Empire off the map!) Also, in his conversation with Pilate he tells him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been give you from above” (John 19:11). So even one of the world’s most powerful men is doing nothing more than what Jesus’ own Father wants him to do. So much for Pilate’s great power!

Pilate should have fallen on his knees and begged Jesus for mercy!

But still we sympathize with Pilate. Why?

Perhaps because his view of Jesus isn’t so different from our own. Jesus is a “king,” we may say, but he isn’t one to whom we owe absolute allegiance. This king won’t require us to change our lives or make any sacrifices. This king poses no threat to our own little “kingdom.” Jesus will be “king” over one small part of our life rather than the One to whom we owe our entire lives; the One who owns us because we were “bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:20).

How has my own life failed to come to terms with Jesus’ kingship?

Is Jesus someone to whom I offer everything because, after all, he’s my greatest treasure (Matthew 13:44)? Is he a King for the sake of whose honor I would be willing to die? Are Jesus and his kingdom, and his gospel, and the words that his Spirit guided the biblical authors to write down, the Rock on which I can build my life? (Matthew 7:24-27). Do I trust that this Rock will support my weight—and the weight of every other concern in my life?

Sure, like Pilate, I have “said” that Jesus is “King of the Jews” (v. 3). And like Pilate that acknowledgment too often makes little difference.

Lord Jesus, forgive me for being like Pilate, for acknowledging with my tongue that you’re the King, yet so often failing to let that truth penetrate to the core of my being. No more half-hearted devotion to you! Give me, by the power of your Spirit, the ability to surrender to you. Don’t wait for me to “want” to do it, either; you’ll be waiting forever! Or, better yet, just change what I want. Bend my will to your will. Besides, it’s not like my efforts to be “king”—to be in charge of my own life, to dictate to others, to pursue my own interests ahead of your own—have made me happy. I need you to take over. Please! Amen.

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