Monday, February 13, 2017

I Believe in Pontius Pilate - Luke 3: 1-2

In the Apostle’s Creed, only three human beings are mentioned by name. The main one is Jesus, of course. The Virgin Mary is the second one. The third is Pontius Pilate.

Amazing, isn’t it?  Every Sunday in every church that regularly uses the Apostles Creed, millions of people recite the name—not only of Jesus and Mary—but of Pontius Pilate! Of all the people we could name on a weekly basis, Pilate would be the last to deserve it! 

In no way does Pilate deserve the honor. He was the fifth prefect of the province of Palestine under the Roman Empire from 26 to 36 A. D. He was known for his cruelty. He deeply offended the Jews, and was removed from office after numerous complaints to the Emperor Tiberius. The Roman writer Philo described him as a vindictive man with a furious temper. He gives several examples. He placed Roman symbols and shields on the wall of the fortress Antonia, so they could be seen from inside the temple. He did this just to irritate the Jews.  Another time he took money from the temple treasury to build an aqueduct. When the Jews gathered to complain, he ordered his troops to beat and kill Jews randomly. Philo wrote of "his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity."

What happened to Pilate is unknown. It is said that he committed suicide about two years after being deposed. The emperor at the time was Caligula, who was criminally insane and who regularly commanded noblemen to commit suicide and give him all their money. If that was what happened to Pilate, most people who knew him would say it was poetic justice. 

So why is his name preserved in the Apostles Creed? Only one reason—because he was governor at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.

In those days there was no standard system of historical dating like we have today. Dates were given by the reigns of rulers. So when the Creed says he “suffered under Pontius Pilate” it meant that Jesus died between 26 and 36 AD.
The date of the crucifixion is hugely important to the Christian, because Christianity is the one and only historical faith. It is what makes our Christian faith different from the other religions of the world. Our faith depends on historical events being true. If Jesus wasn’t crucified during the reign of Pontius Pilate, then our whole faith is a lie. 

This is not true of most religions. Buddhism does not depend on Buddha being a real, nor does it care when Buddha lived. Buddhism is a set of philosophical and moral teachings. In fact, many Buddhists insist that it is not a religion at all, but a philosophy. In Hinduism, there are many myths and legends, but a Hindu doesn’t have to believe any of them. It doesn’t matter to him when or if any historical figure actually lived. Whether a story is real or fictional doesn’t matter in Hinduism. It can be symbolic of something else. Buddhism and Hinduism believe the world is cyclical, that it has no beginning or end, so history is irrelevant anyway.

Islam and Judaism are based on historical events, but not in the same way Christianity is. They believe there was a creation and will be an end of the world. When looking at the details of their founders, the actual details of their lives are not as important as their systems of belief. In Islam, the details of Mohammed’s life are unimportant. The stories of Mohammed’s life were written two or three hundred years after his death and are not considered entirely accurate by Muslim scholars.  The Quran does not report on the history of Mohammed. If the Exodus never occurred, it would not change Judaism. They follow the Laws of Moses, not the life of Moses. To the Jews and Muslims, their holy books are like Shakespeare’s plays. If someone wrote them, it wouldn’t matter. It is what the books say that matters.

But Christianity is different. It is based on history.  If Jesus never lived, if He never died on the cross and was resurrected, then Christianity is a lie. Without these events, there can be no Christianity. 
Listen the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 13-19,

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. 18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.”

Without one the resurrection of Jesus, which happened in the reign of Pontius Pilate, Christianity falls apart. With the death and resurrection, Christianity is the one true religion, and the basis for all life. The resurrection of Jesus is not just a fable, nor is it a metaphor for something else. It is true. All of Christian teaching relies on this.

We have always liked good stories, especially if they can be used to teach moral lessons. We still read Aesop’s fables. Most of the myths the ancients told about gods and goddesses were not actually believed, they were just good stories. People used the myths and legends of Theseus or Hercules to explain moral truths. Our common stories give us a common language.

We still use good stories to teach lessons. You don’t have to believe it to be true. If I called someone a Mr. Spock or Darth Vader, most of you would know what I was talking about.

Take a book like Lord of the Rings. It’s a well-written piece of fiction which paints a wonderful picture of perseverance, the dangers of power, and so forth. But it’s just fiction. Yet we can use the story to teach many great truths. Lifeway Books sold a video series called, “The Andy Griffith Bible Study” where they teach truths from old Andy Griffith shows. They also has a “Beverly Hillbillies Bible Study.”  No one says that those TV shows were true, just because they could be used to teach lessons.

But when we say the Creed, we confess that it cannot be said of the stories of Jesus. It really happened in the reign of Pontius Pilate. He was really conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin named Mary.

Unbelievers respect Jesus--they just don’t believe in Him. They can enjoy the stories as pretty fables, intended to teach moral lessons. In their minds Jesus is a symbol of sacrifice and commitment. They like the story, they just don’t believe He is God, or that He was resurrected. To them, it doesn’t matter whether or not He actually suffered in the time of Pontius Pilate. He is just a story, no different from Frodo or Harry Potter.

But the New Testament writers never intended to give us the luxury of respect without belief. That is what made the Romans so mad at Christians. If they had just offered Jesus as one more example of mythology, no one would have minded Christianity.  But the Christians insisted. That He was a real man who was a real God. They gave enough details in the Bible to nail down when and where it happened.  They mention people and places who could be verified. When Jesus rose, Luke mentions people who saw it. He mentions historical events that happened at the same time. That is so we can verify what he said.

The Book of Mormon contains tales of Jews in the New World. It mentions people and places that supposedly existed. Yet not a single place or person has been independently verified. But we can go today to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Rome. We can see the records of Pontius Pilate as well as of Jesus. 

On my first trip to Israel, the first day we traveled by bus to Tiberias, on the Sea of Galilee. As we traveled though the Jezreel valley, I looked up and saw a road sign. It said “Nazareth--3 km.”  When I saw it, something broke inside me. Here is was. For thirty years, I’d been preaching about Jesus of Nazareth, now, here was the real place, and my doubts dissolved. It was all true. Here it was, and I suddenly felt secure, knowing that I was this close to seeing it. 

The writers go out of their way to link the story to history. Jesus’ birth is in the reign of Caesar Augustus. Jesus death is in the reign of Tiberius.   When Luke begins his narrative of Jesus’ life in Luke 3, he uses six different rulers’ names and reigns to nail down the time of John the Baptist to 30 AD.

Jesus is real, He is not fictional. If we think it all a fantasy, and not reality, then believing in Jesus won’t do us any more good than believing in Harry Potter. 

But if He is real, then several things follow. First, we can’t make Jesus into whatever we want.  Our goal must be to portray Him accurately. We can be creative in our interpretations, but we must be always true to who He actually is. We can’t “reinvent” Him as if He were a fictional character. We must become like He was, not make Him into our own image.

Second, we must accept that what He is, God is. He was the true manifestation of God in human form. If we want to be like God we must look to Jesus. If we want to please God, we must think and act like Jesus. 
Third, He makes a difference in the real world. Our problem is not that we pray too much, but not enough. God’s interference in history shows us that He is involved in the world, and remains involved. He cares if we have a job or not, if we are sick or well, or if our marriages work out. 

Fourth, if He can make a difference, then we can make a difference. We are backed by the power of a real God, who intervened in human history, and continues to do so. 

Philosophers, poets, intellectual, and dreamers must all bend to reality. In our dreams, we may think we are invulnerable, but if we stand in a real road in front of a real truck we will be just as dead. Jesus hung on a real cross in a real country called Jerusalem in 33 AD, and rose from a real tomb in a real hill in Jerusalem. Jesus is not just a fable. He is real, and He is your Lord.  

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