Sunday, January 25, 2015

No King But Caesar?

Every once in a while you come across something in Scripture that just takes your breath away. There are times when you are struck with wonder at the beauty of God as you see His holy love in action. But there are other times, sadly, when you are struck with wonder at the ugliness of human sin. This morning we're going to take a look at one of those ugly times. We're going to look at somebody's sin. But the goal is not to judge others but to understand ourselves better.

Jesus is before Pilate who is in the process of deciding His fate - though not really. The Jewish leaders are pressing him to condemn Jesus. In that context we read these amazing words.

Pilate 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.”

Jesus is the King, their king. But they reject Him. They have rejected their king and claimed to have another instead.

But, forget for a moment that they're talking about Jesus. But even with Him out of the picture, how is it possible for these Jewish leaders to say, 'We have no king but Caesar'? God is King of His people. Aren't the Scriptures clear about that? Where is their loyalty to their God?

Now, this is not some little sin. This strikes at the heart of the relationship between these men and the God whom they professed to believe in. This is an act of blasphemy and apostasy.

So, a question. And this will get us to the focus of the sermon. How did they get here? What could have led to this horrible sin? John explained it earlier.

The chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.”

These men were concerned about their future. Jesus might cause such a ruckus that Roman armies would come. The Temple and the people would be destroyed. So, they had to act. They decided that this troublemaker had to go. 'It is better that one man should die.' They waited, and at the right time they grabbed Jesus and brought Him to Pilate so that he would execute Him. That's when those horrible words were uttered.

I hope that it is clear that when Caiaphas offered his advice to the council, these men didn't decide to go to Pilate to declare their loyalty to Caesar. No, they just wanted to be sure that Jesus was destroyed. So, when the time came to speak with Pilate they didn't start with, 'We have no king but Caesar'. No, they started at a different place.

So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.”

They begin by telling Pilate that Jesus is causing trouble and should be stopped. But since they can't stop Him, Pilate should. I'm guessing that they expected that that would work well enough. Pilate would do their dirty work. But instead Pilate expressed some resistance. He tried to release Jesus according to an annual custom. But that didn’t work. 

Not this man, but Barabbas!

The leaders then spoke these words to Pilate.

We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.

But Pilate still resists. So, they say this, with its not so subtle threat.

If you release this man, you are not Caesar's friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.

Pilate was not acting as they wanted. Their goal of destroying this problem was not being achieved. So, the language was ratcheted up. And that leads to the climax of all of this back and forth maneuvering.

Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”

Now, again, understand that these men did not set out to reject God as their king and replace Him with Caesar. I'm pretty sure that that was the furthest thing from their minds as they plotted together. But something just as bad was going on. They had set their hearts on a goal. Jesus must be destroyed. That must happen. And Pilate is the one to do it. It was because of that conviction that, ultimately, those blasphemous words were spoken.

Now, someone might think, 'But they didn't really mean it. It was something said in the heat of the moment.' And to that I say, does that make it better or worse? Some very interesting things happen 'in the heat of the moment'. That's when some key commitments of the heart can be revealed. And that's because 'in the heat of the moment' the mask slips. The filter for our thoughts is forgotten. And a bit of truth about what's really going on in our hearts comes out. And that reveals the real problem with these men. The real problem isn't those words, as ugly as they are. The real problem is what's going on in their hearts. That's where the real ugliness resides.

Let's go back to where we started, to where the Jewish leaders were discussing the problem. This Jesus was getting too popular.

If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.

'We have a problem. Some things that are dear to us, our place - that's the Temple - and our nation - Israel - are being threatened. We must act to protect these things. Whatever it takes, we must make sure these are protected.'

They set their hearts on a particular desire. And because they lacked Godly character, they pursued that desire using evil means. It was because of that desire, because of those dynamics of the heart, that they spoke those words. Their behavior was determined by what was going on in their souls. And the truth slipped out 'in the heat of the moment' as they pursued that desire.

We have no king but Caesar!

This is not unique to these men. The same thing happened to Peter on the same night. When confronted with the accusation that he was one of Jesus' disciples, Peter denied it. And he did it three times. What was the desire that he set his heart on? Staying alive. He feared that he would be arrested and killed too. And because of the poor quality of his character, he worked to achieve that desire by lying, swearing and using oaths to be convincing. Peter acted in the same basic way as those men. His behavior was determined by what was going on in his soul. The dynamics of his heart led to his denials.

And that illustrates something that Jesus taught.

… out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.

I've explained some of the dynamics of the text. Now, I have to remind you of what I said at the beginning of the sermon. I told you that we would look at the sin of some people, not to judge them but to understand ourselves better. The fact of the matter is that we all act in the same basic way as those leaders and Peter. Our behavior - words and more - is determined by what's going on in our hearts. And every so often, because of things like 'the heat of the moment', the world gets to see what's really going on in us. And what's going on can be pretty ugly. I hope that you will be honest enough to agree that this is true of you. Those leaders are simply reminding us of ourselves and our hearts.

Understand what I have done. The sermon has been an explanation and a description of sin in something of its ugliness. And I've also reminded you that sin is not first of all a matter of what you do. Sin is, first of all, a matter of what is going on in your heart. Eve sinned before her hand touched the fruit.

Out of all of this I want you to see two things. First, the glory of the Gospel.  Jesus has come to re-make your heart. He has come to purify what goes on in there. He has come to take away the ugliness of your sin and replace it with something beautiful. You will not grasp the glory of Jesus unless you understand the ugliness of sin. Here's the second thing I want you to see. You cannot fix the problem. While you can change your behavior you cannot change your heart. A person can change much about himself so he looks better. But the sin is still there. It's just that, because of some makeover, how it shows has gotten changed.

But Jesus has come. He has come to change hearts. And that gives hope. The sins that show 'in the heat of the moment' can be dealt with and removed, and not just filtered. Jesus has come to deal with your sin. So, you can be so very optimistic. You are not trapped with a heart that cannot be changed. Jesus is in the process of changing that heart. Jesus is making you into someone holy and beautiful.

So, what have I done this morning? I have reminded you of two crucial facts that come from the Gospel. The first is simply that we all started out with hearts that were twisted into ugliness by sin. Given the right circumstances, that is, when some loved desire is under attack, we all would say, 'We have no king but Caesar!' Denying that is trying to deny reality. But acknowledging that sets up the glory of the other crucial fact. Jesus has come to change your heart. That is something that He is working on right now. And the day will come when you will have a heart that is completely cleansed of all sin. Then, the dynamics of your heart will always show as doing the kind of things that Jesus did. Holy love in action.

So, this is about who you were and who you are in the process of becoming. As you take that to heart you will be sobered by the thought of what was and then ecstatic with what will be.