Notes on Luke 23:1-38

Luke 23:1‑38  •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 8
We have next the scene before the Roman governor. Heartless as he was and with little conscience, still willfulness characterizes the Jews. “And the whole multitude of them rose up and led him to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, We found this [man] perverting our nation and forbidding to give tribute to Caesar, saying that he himself is Christ a king.” (Ver. 1,2.) Thus they who were really impatient under the Roman yoke and breaking out from time to time into turbulent opposition were here forward in the pretense of loyalty. But this was a little thing compared with the blindness of unbelief which denied their own Messiah. Nor could any charge be more false. He had departed from themselves when they wished to make him a king. He had only just before expressly enjoined that they should render to Caesar the things that were Caesar's, no less than to God the things of God.
It will be observed that when “Pilate asked him, saying, Art thou the King of the Jews? he answering said to him, Thou sayest.” (Ver. 3.) The Lord acknowledged the authority that was ordained of God, however He might suffer from it. This is the true safe-guard of faith, let the authority be ever so faithless. We are called to walk in His steps. We are not of the world even as He is not of the world. By and by we shall reign with Him and shall judge the world, we shall judge even angels. The more are we called above the world in spirit to be subject to God's authority in it: only we must obey God rather than man and therefore suffer where His will and the world's authority come into collision. So the Lord here witnesses a good confession and submits to all the consequences.
But it is striking to observe that the Lord's confession of the truth (for indeed He was the King of the Jews) did not damage His cause before the Roman governor but with His own people, blinded against the truth. On the contrary “Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, I find no fault in this man. But they insisted, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Judaea, beginning from Galilee as far as this.” (Ver. 4-6.) Satan was pushing the incredulity of Israel to the lust extremity. It is always so finally with his victims. Christ, in the fullness of His grace and truth, thoroughly brings out what is in man, because He brings in God.
“But Pilate having heard of Galilee asked if the man were a Galilean. And having learned that he was of Herod's jurisdiction he remitted him to Herod who himself also was at Jerusalem in these days. And when Herod saw Jesus he rejoiced exceedingly, for he was wishing for a long time to see him, because of hearing [much] of him. And he hoped to see some sign done by him, and he questioned him in many words, but he answered him nothing.” (Ver. 6-9.) The silence of the Lord was a very solemn condemnation of Herod, while it gave the fullest opportunity for the rude insolence of his followers as well as of the accusers. “And the chief priests and the scribes stood and accused him vehemently. And Herod with his troops set him at naught and mocked him, and having arrayed [him] with a splendid robe, sent him back to Pilate.” The Spirit of God does not fail to notice here the moral peculiarity of the transaction. There had been a feud between the Governor and the King, but “Pilate and Herod became friends with one another that very day, for they had been previously at enmity with each other.” (Ver. 12.) Thus it is against Christ that Satan contrives to make his union in the world, as the grace of God does by Him and for Him.
The closing hour approaches. “And Pilate having called together the rulers and the chief priests said unto them, Ye have brought to me this man as turning away the people, and, behold, I, having made examination in your presence, find no fault in this man, as to the things of which ye accuse him; nay, nor yet Herod, for I remitted you unto him, and, behold, nothing deserving of death is done by him. Having chastised him therefore, I will release him.” (Ver. 13-16.) Such was the boasted equity of the Roman empire, of man. There was no doubt of the innocence of Jesus. The charges of the people had been proved to be fictitious. The hardened judge could not condemn but acquit as a matter of justice. He was willing to concede something to please the people, but he was anxious to release the prisoner. Whether the 17th verse be genuine or not, there can be no doubt from what follows that it was the custom to release a prisoner at this time. Several excellent authorities omit the verse, as the Alexandrian, the Vatican, the Parisian uncials (62 and 63), with several very ancient versions, whilst others change its position. Nevertheless the Sinai, with the mass of MSS. and some of the best versions, contains it. On the whole the balance seems in its favor, as it also would be harsh to act upon an unexplained custom. “Now he was obliged to release one for them at [the] feast. But they cried in full crowd, saying, Away with this [man] and release Barabbas for us; who for a certain tumult made in the city and murder had been cast into prison.” Such was the choice of man, such the value of their loyalty to Caesar, such their care for God's respect to the life of a fellow creature made in His image. A rebel and a murderer preferred to Jesus!
“Again therefore Pilate addressed [them], wishing to release Jesus. But they kept calling in reply, Crucify, crucify him. And he said unto them the third time, Why, what evil has he done? I have found no cause of death in him. Having chastised him therefore, I will release [him]. But they were urgent with loud voices begging that he might be crucified; and the voices of them and of the high priests prevailed. And Pilate gave sentence that what they begged should take place, and released him that for tumult and murder had been cast into prison for whom they begged, and delivered up Jesus to their will.” (Ver. 20-25.)
Thus all the world was proved guilty before God, but none were so deeply involved as those whom it least became. The people who had the law fell under its curse, not merely because they were disobedient to its requirements, but worst of all, because they were resolutely bent on the rejection of their own Messiah to death, and this, when the heathen sought to let Him go. Such is what the world was proved to be, where the reality came out through Him who alone was real, the Holy and the True. No room for boasting more: there never was, in truth, but now it is evident and impossible to be denied by him who rightly reads the word of God.1
Nevertheless the Spirit of God gives us more. “And as they led him away, they laid hold of a certain Simon, a Cyrenian, coming from [the] country, and put on him the cross to bear [it] after Jesus.” (Ver. 28.) There was no restraint now, but if man were lawless, God remembered Simon another day, and his sons are not forgotten in the record of life. (Compare Mark 15 and Rom. 16) It may be a terrible truth that God looks down from heaven and beholds the children of men, and sees none so worthy of reprobation as those who misuse selfishly the highest privileges of His mercy; but when we know Him, or rather, are known of Him, it is not the least of our comforts that God takes account of everything and knows how to reply in His grace to those who have power on the side of their oppressor.
It is not that man lacks feeling: but feeling without faith comes to nothing, no less than mind, or authority, or position, were it the highest in the religious world. The affections of nature may be sweet but never can be trusted to stand firm to Christ, however moved for a season. “And there followed him a great multitude of the people and of women who wailed and lamented him. And Jesus turning unto them said, Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not over me, but weep over yourselves and over your children; for, behold, days are coming in which they shall say, Blessed the barren and wombs which bare not and breasts which suckled not. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall upon us, and to the hills, Cover us. For if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be in the dry?” Jesus knew what was in man, despised not the feelings of the women, but trusted Himself to none. Tenderly He warns them of that which man believes not till it comes, for it is a part of man's wisdom to suppose the future uncertain in the words of God, because it is uncertain to man. Fools and slow of heart to believe what the Lord said no less than their own prophets! Had they believed them, they had not refused Him. Had they received Him, days of heaven had dawned upon the earth, on Israel especially, and all the glorious visions of His reign had been accomplished. But Israel was ruined and guilty, man fallen and lost, and all in such a state reject Jesus. Therefore God works out deeper counsels by the cross of Jesus in heaven and for heaved, now testified by the Holy Ghost sent down here below. These are the counsels and the ways of His grace, but His warnings stand equally and His word must be accomplished to the letter. Soon had they an accomplishment, though I do not say that there may not be more in store at the end of the age, when those who refused the true Christ that came in His Father's name shall receive the Antichrist coming in his own. And the overflowing scourge shall pass through and the apostate Jews be trodden down by it. The Messiah was the green tree, the Jews the dry. If He because of their wickedness came into such sorrow, what was not reserved to them for their own? For, whatever His grace, God judges righteously.
“And two others, malefactors, were led with him to be put to death.” (Ver. 32.) Jesus was spared no insult. As He was the song of the drunkard, so He made His grave with the wicked. “And when they came to the place called Skull, there they crucified him, and the malefactors, one on the right hand and the other on the left. And Jesus said, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” It is not here, as in Matthew and Mark, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It is the expression of His grace towards sinners, not of His abandonment by God in accomplishing the work of atonement; and it is of the deepest interest to see that, as the answer to the one came in resurrection-power and heavenly glory, so of the other in the proclamation of forgiveness by the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven. Therefore Peter could preach (Acts 3:1717And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as did also your rulers. (Acts 3:17)). “And now, brethren, I wot that through ignorance ye did it, as also your rulers. But those things which God had showed by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ should suffer, he hath so fulfilled. Repent therefore and be converted for the blotting out of your sins, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord,” &c. But here again we have to wait. The message of forgiveness was refused, a remnant indeed believed, received forgiveness, and rose into better blessings; but the mass pursued their heedless unbelief to this day and will sink into deeper darkness. Yet assuredly light shall spring up in the darkest hour and the remnant of that day shall be brought out of their sins and ignorance alike to be made the strong nation when He appears to reign in glory.
The horrors of the crucifixion in its detail come before us. “And parting his garments they cast lots. And the people stood beholding, and the rulers also with them sneered, saying, He saved others, let him save himself if this is the Christ, the chosen of God. And the soldiers also were mocking him, coming up, offering him vinegar, and saying, If thou art the king of the Jews, save thyself. And there was also an inscription over him, The king of the Jews [is] this.” (Ver. 35-38.) In every respect the word of God was accomplished, and the ways of men laid bare. It was no question of a class and its peculiar habits. High and low, the governed and the governors, civil and military, all played their part; and the part of all was enmity against God revealing His love and goodness in His Christ. The folly too of man was apparent no less than grace in presence of his wickedness. It was because He was the king of the Jews, as none other had been or can be besides, that He saved not Himself, and can therefore send out the message of salvation now and bring salvation by and by. Little did man, in that day, weigh the import of that which was written over Him in Greek and Roman and Hebrew letters, “This is the king of the Jews.” If man wrote it in scorn, God will give it all its own force—God who overrules the will and the wrath of man to praise Him. Through the crucified, God will bless the world by and by, Jew and Gentile, high and low, even as His grace gathers out from it now.