“Hand-Washing Won’t Do–Blood Is Needed” (Matthew 27:11-50)

Good Friday
April 10, 2020

“Hand-Washing Won’t Do–Blood Is Needed” (Matthew 27:11-50)

Right now in the news we’re hearing about governors making life-or-death decisions. Should we be open? Should we be closed? How far can I go to protect people’s health? What about the loss of freedom? What about the loss of jobs? Governors are feeling pressure from all sides to make a decision one way or the other. And these decisions do affect people’s lives and their livelihood.

No governor has ever made a more momentous life-or-death decision than the one we read about in today’s text, on this Good Friday. And that governor was Pontius Pilate. He had to make a life-or-death decision about one man who was brought before him, Jesus of Nazareth. How did Pontius Pilate do on this decision? Let’s find out. And let’s find out what this means for us.

First, a little background. The great world power of the time was the Roman Empire. Rome’s domain extended all across the Mediterranean and into the Near East. Rome had conquered country after country, including the land of Israel. And Rome’s policy was, in many cases, to let a local ruler do the actual governing in those lands, as long as he was subservient to Rome. Such was the case in Israel. There Herod the Great had ruled as such a local ruler. After Herod died, his domain was divvied up among his sons, into what were called tetrarchies. But the Romans were dissatisfied with the tetrarch of Judea, so they replaced him with one of their own officials as prefect or procurator–governor, in essence. This was the office that Pontius Pilate was holding at the time of our text. He was sort of a mid-level bureaucrat in the Roman food chain, serving in that region far from Rome, where all those crazy Jews lived, with their strange religion.

But Pilate was not interested in any internal Jewish religious affairs. That was up to them. But what Pilate did care about was law and order. His job was to maintain control, to keep any riots or revolts or rebellions from happening. And right now, the place was on edge. You had all these people streaming into Jerusalem from all over. This was Passover week, the biggest annual pilgrimage festival of the Jews. Jewish pilgrims were coming into town by the thousands. And there seemed to be an unusual amount of tension in the air this particular year. The Jews were all stirred up with one of their religious controversies, this one surrounding a fellow called Jesus of Nazareth. Well, Pilate needed to make sure that this thing didn’t get out of hand.

The Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, had met during the night, and they brought this fellow Jesus over to Pilate. They wanted Pilate to have Jesus put to death. The Roman governor had to approve any public execution, so this was Pilate’s call. The Jewish rulers hated Jesus because he, in their view, had committed blasphemy by claiming to be God. But that sort of religious question would not interest Pilate. So they had to come up with some other charge that would be of interest to the Roman governor. So they said that this Jesus fellow had claimed to be the king of the Jews, leading a political rebellion to overthrow the Roman rule. Now that–that would certainly be a matter to catch Pilate’s attention!

So Pilate interviewed this Jesus fellow. He could see that Jesus was no political revolutionary. He had no army that he had raised. He was breathing no revolutionary rhetoric. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus had said. OK, so this guy is just some dreamy religious nut. Big deal. He’s no threat to Rome. And Pilate could see that these Jewish religious leaders had just handed him over out of jealousy, because apparently Jesus had become fairly popular.

So Pilate declared to the crowd that had assembled, “I find no fault in this man.” But the crowd was not satisfied. Stirred up by their leaders, the mob was angry. They were shouting that they wanted Jesus put to death: “Let him be crucified!” And Pilate said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!” Now crucifixion was a particularly brutal form of public execution that the Romans used in their provinces, to show that they meant business and you better do what Rome says, or else!

So now you’ve got all this pressure mounting. Pilate finds no fault in the man, but the crowd keeps calling for his death. Things are starting to get out of control. Can’t have a riot get started. What to do? Well, what does Pilate do? “So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’”

Whoa, real brave decision there, Pilate! You know that the guy is innocent, you’ve said so yourself. But you buckle. You cave. You give in to the crowd. You’re going to send this innocent man to his death, but to take the burden off your conscience, you wash your hands of the matter. You literally wash your hands, as though that could really relieve you of your responsibility. As though that could relieve you of your own guilt. You want to shift the blame to others.

Friends, how often have we done the same thing? How often have we pulled a Pontius Pilate, figuratively, if not literally, washing our hands of a matter and shifting the blame? Well, I would say, a lot. We all do this. We take an action we know is wrong, but to keep it off our conscience, we wash our hands of the matter, so to speak. We make some excuse, some rationalization. We shift the blame to others. But we’re not fooling anybody. We’re certainly not fooling God.

This tendency of ours, to do a Pilate-like hand-washing–this goes back to our first parents, Adam and Eve. When God caught them red-handed breaking his commandment, they each tried to shift the blame. Adam blamed his wife: “The woman you gave me, God–she gave me to eat.” Then the woman blamed the serpent: “The devil made me do it!” So this is nothing new. Pilate did it with his hand-washing. We do it with our excuses and rationalizations. We make a wrong moral decision, and we blame it on someone else. We deflect, or defend what we’ve done, even though it’s wrong. Like Pilate, we wash our hands of the situation, even though God knows our guilt.

Friends, that won’t do. You can use all the Clorox wipes in the world, all the Purell hand sanitizers, all the antibacterial soap, and that will not remove your guilt. Hand-washing won’t do. You need something more powerful than that.

What is it? Ironically, the Jewish mob gives us the answer. In their demand to have Jesus crucified, they cry out: “His blood be on us and on our children!” Well, there it is! That’s the answer! Only the blood of Jesus will do! This is the only thing that will remove your deep-down guilt. The blood of Christ, shed on your behalf. Shed on the cross.

First, Jesus had been whipped violently, the forty lashes–minus one, just to make sure they didn’t miscount and kill the guy by an extra blow. Then they rammed a crown of thorns on his head, to mock this “King of the Jews.” So Jesus was already bleeding profusely when we came to the execution area. Then they laid him down and nailed his feet and his hands to the beams of the cross. More blood. They stood the cross upright, which made it excruciating for the crucified person even to breathe, having to push himself up, with each breath sending pain rushing through his body. Eventually, from the shock and the exposure, with the difficulty of breathing and the excessive bleeding, the crucified criminal would die. And that’s what happened to Jesus.

But this death–this death meant more than just the unfortunate fate of one innocent man. This death, this man’s blood, has infinite value and meaning for you and for me—and for the whole world, in fact. The death that Christ died was not for his own sins–he had none. The death he died was for us, for our sins. The blood he shed–the blood of God’s only Son is of infinite worth. It covers all the sins of all the sinners who have ever lived–you included. This is the only substance that will remove your guilt. It is the holy precious blood of Jesus. “The blood of Jesus, God’s Son, cleanses us from all sin.” You have been redeemed, not with gold or silver, “but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.”

In the Book of Revelation, we read about a great multitude that is gathered before God’s throne in heaven. They’re all dressed in white. So the question is asked: “Who are these, clothed in the white robes?” And the answer is given: “These are those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The blood of the Lamb–this is the only divine detergent that will get the stain out, the stain of sin ground into your soul. For behold, this Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

Pontius Pilate, all fellow rationalizing sinners everywhere, hear the news today: Hand-washing won’t do. Blood is needed. Only the blood of Jesus will cleanse your soul, remove your guilt, and give you God’s forgiveness and the sure hope of eternal life. On this Good Friday, what the crowd yelled in anger about Jesus, we shout with praise: “His blood be on us and on our children!’”

Published in: on April 10, 2020 at 9:36 pm  Leave a Comment  
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