Power of the People - Part 2
Date: 14 Apr 2017 (Good Friday)
Text: Matthew 27:11-26
At our service on Palm Sunday we gave some thought to the issue of the power of the people. We thought about that tumultuous welcome given to Jesus as He arrived in Jerusalem when there was loud and exuberant cheering from a happy and excited crowd. It’s possible that some in the crowd were even ecstatic as they saw the person they were desperate to see; the person who may have been the One to rescue them from the tyranny of the Romans and the oversight of the heavy handed Pharisees.
Palm Sunday ended with Jesus and His disciples retiring to Bethany, a village about 3 kilometres or 1½ miles outside Jerusalem. The time then from Monday until Thursday evening seems to have been very busy with a whole variety of activity. Take a look at Matthew 21 to 27 and you will get a clue as to the many things that Jesus was involved in over those four days.
After spending part of Palm Sunday in the Temple, Jesus then spent time teaching people by using parables; healing people who were in great need; and being challenged by both the Pharisees and the Sadducees. The Pharisees were constantly plotting against Jesus and in fact had started quite early in His earthly ministry. We can read in Matthew 12:14, “the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.” This situation arose from the fact that Jesus and His disciples were hungry and had plucked ears of corn while walking in a field. The problem was that they did this on the Sabbath and the Pharisees were none too impressed. So much so that they started an argument about working on the Sabbath and having lost that argument the Pharisees decided that Jesus had to go. They obviously spent a lot of time trying to work out how they could get rid of Him without being linked to anything untoward that might happen. In Matthew 21:23-27 we can read of another encounter between Jesus and the Pharisees when the Pharisees came off second best. They never seemed to have a decent argument with which to defeat Jesus, perhaps because they didn’t really serve God but only themselves. A later situation to arise was with the Sadducees rather than the Pharisees. These people didn’t believe in the resurrection of believers and yet felt brave enough to ask Jesus about marriage at the resurrection. When Jesus countered their argument with sound reasoning by pointing out their errors in not understanding Scripture, Matthew tells us in 22:33 that, “When the crowds heard this, they were astonished at his teaching.” Clearly at that time the people were still behind Him. Following that conversation Jesus continued with more teaching, particularly on the signs to show that we are reaching the end of the age.
In Matthew 25:31-46 we can read what appears to be Jesus’ final session of teaching. At that time He tried to explain to the people just who would and who wouldn’t join Him in heavenly glory; and it was after this event that He told His disciples that at the Passover which was still two days away He would “be handed over to be crucified” (26:2). I wonder if the disciples believed Him. Meanwhile the Pharisees continued to plot against Jesus looking for anything or anyone that could help them get rid of Him. They were particularly keen to get rid of Him in a sly way, presumably so that the finger of suspicion couldn’t be pointed at them and on top of that they were worried about the possibility of inciting a riot amongst the people.
Imagine the look on the faces of these plotting Pharisees when Judas went to them voluntarily and offered to betray Jesus, for a price. A deal was agreed and from then on Judas looked for a place and a time when he could implement his evil plan. He didn’t have to wait too long as shortly after sharing bread and wine at the first Lord’s Supper they all went to the Garden of Gethsemane. It was whilst they were there that Jesus was betrayed by Judas and the guards arrested Jesus to take Him before the Sanhedrin.
Jesus was taken before what can only be described as a kangaroo court where all of the evidence presented against Him was false. Despite that the Pharisees were unable to make anything stick enough to enable them to achieve their avowed intent of having Jesus killed. Perhaps in sheer desperation they took Him to appear before Pilate the Roman Governor.
I’m not sure that Pilate really wanted to get involved in what he regarded as an internal religious matter among the troublesome Jews. It is important for us to understand that under Roman rule Pilate was not elected, he was appointed. That meant that he could be sacked at almost a moment’s notice something that may have been on his mind when Jesus stood before him. Regardless of what he may have thought, Pilate tried unsuccessfully to get something incriminating out of Jesus so that he could deal with Him justly. Pilate could sense that he needed to do something but didn’t want to get caught up in a plot laid by the Pharisees; he was after all as Governor supposed to act with justice. However, Pilate needed to do something since the last thing he wanted was to have any sort of uprising on his hands. He remembered that it was the custom at the time of Passover for the Governor to release a prisoner chosen by the people. He already held a notorious terrorist and murder by the name of Barabbas and so offered the crowd the choice between Jesus and Barabbas. The crowd yelled and screamed for Barabbas to be released and so Pilate meekly gave in to the baying crowd. Once again the power of the people won the day only this time theirs wasn’t a roar of approval but the complete opposite, a roar of disapproval and a roar of death. Pilate knew that if he didn’t respond to their demands his superiors in Rome would get to hear about it and he would soon be on his way back to Rome in disgrace; he could even face execution himself.
Only a few short days previously it was the people who acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah as He triumphantly entered Jerusalem, and yet now, they were chanting for Him to be punished. It surely follows that many in that crowd of people standing before Pilate were also in the crowd of people waving palm leaves and laying their cloaks on the road as Jesus rode in on the colt. How fickle the people can be. Matthew makes it clear though that the people were being stirred up as he tells us in 27:20, “the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.“ Proving that political agitation is nothing new, the Pharisees obviously succeeded in their evil intent as the people kept on chanting for Barabbas to be released and when Pilate asked what he should do with Jesus, they shouted almost as one “Crucify Him” (27:22b).
The power of the people won again as we read in 27:26 that Pilate “released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.” How incredible is that? It isn’t unusual for the people to change their mind but it isn’t normally as quick as that. People often join the clamour for something to happen and then when it happens they like to consider at their leisure that they may wish to change their mind. However, in this case the change took place almost at the speed of light! The Pharisees may not have been the true representatives of God that they were supposed to be but they certainly had great powers of persuasion. Pilate of course was more than happy to hand over this problem to the people having publicly washed his hands of the affair.
What an amazing week Holy Week is. On day one, Palm Sunday, Jesus was hailed by the people as the Messiah Who they had longed for. Five short days later more or less the same people were clamouring for His crucifixion. This surely was an example of people power at its worst; a loving crowd became a hating crowd in what feels like the blink of an eye. How would we react in that situation? Would we be in the crowd on Palm Sunday lauding the arrival of the Messiah? I hope so. Would we then still be in the crowd on Good Friday screaming for this self same individual to be executed? I hope not. Crowds can be fickle and easily led and the Jerusalem crowds on those two days in particular prove just how fickle they can be.
Let us all remember that first Good Friday and pray that were a similar situation to ever arise again we would not be in the crowd condemning Christ but definitely with the people on Palm Sunday proclaiming Him to be Lord of all.