Good Friday: “Return to the LORD: Return to Truth”
April 2, 2021
Text: John 19
“What is truth?” Pilate cynically asks (John 18:38; ESV). And the answer would, in a very short time, be hanging on the cross.
The truth is, this man is the King of the Jews, and Pilate finds no guilt in Him. But the pressure is great, and the threat of riot is very real. Pilate wishes to release Him, but the Jews demand Barabbas instead. As the Church sings, “A murderer they save, The Prince of Life they slay” (LSB 430:5).
The truth is, Pilate has an innocent man flogged with a cat-o’-nine-tails, hoping to gain the sympathies of the crowd for Jesus. The truth is, the soldiers sadistically punish Him, weaving together a crown of thorns and pressing it into His brow, clothing Him in royal purple and striking Him as they offer mock obeisance.
“Behold the man!” Pilate declares (John 19:5), as he brings the pitiful spectacle before the crowd. But the truth is, this crowd has no pity. “‘Crucify!’ Is all their breath, And for His death They thirst and cry” (LSB 430:3). “We have a law,” they exclaim, “and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God” (John 19:7).
Pilate is afraid at this assertion, and continues interrogating the Accused. He is looking for an out. It is an impossible dilemma. Execute this blameless man, a gross miscarriage of justice, or face the ire and potential violence of the mob.
But Jesus is no help. He gives no answer. “Don’t You know who I am? Don’t You know who You’re talking to, Jesus?! I have the authority to save You, or kill You” But the truth is, Pilate would have no authority at all, unless it were given him from above.
And the truth is, in spite of all appearances, Jesus is in absolute control of this situation. For His will is one with the Father’s, and it is the divine will that Jesus suffer and die for the sins of the world, and in so doing, win for Himself a Kingdom.
The next charge seals the deal. “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (v. 12). To be a “Friend of Caesar” is a technical term and title of honor. It means you are considered a loyal supporter of the Emperor, and even his advisor. But to rule in favor of an imperial rival, well… that is treason. “Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar.” Ergo, Jesus opposes Caesar, and if you, Pilate, let Jesus off the hook, then you oppose Caesar. And we’ll tell him so! But as for us, we faithful Jews… “We have no king but Caesar” (v. 15).
But it is a lie! They don’t mean that, and they know it. And Pilate knows it. The truth is, the Jews had never acknowledged Caesar as the rightful king. They were looking for a Davidic King to free them from Roman rule and restore the Kingdom to Israel. But when that King’s swollen and bloodshot eyes are staring them right in the face, offering them an even greater freedom, a freedom from the tyranny of sin, death, and the devil, they perceive Him as a threat… a threat to their power and position, their autonomy, and their self-generated sanctity. So they turn to the earthly powers as though they’d been loyal sons of the Empire all along. And Pilate’s hand is forced. He delivers Jesus over to them to be crucified.
What happens next is the penultimate event in all of world history. Our Lord carries His own cross to The Place of a Skull, where the soldiers nail Him to the wood, and raise Him up between two criminals. It appears as though the Romans are carrying out “just another routine execution, of another common peasant mongrel, in another backwards region of Roman conquest, in the middle of nowhere.” The soldiers did it all the time. The hills surrounding Jerusalem were routinely littered with crosses and corpses. But the truth is, this is not just an execution. It is a coronation. Jesus is ascending His throne. He wears a crown, and Pilate has written the truth above His sacred, wounded head: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (v. 19). Many of you wear this sign on your t-shirt, or post it on your bumper, the initials “INRI.” You’re quoting Pontius Pilate in Latin: “Ieusus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum.”
The soldiers divide His garments, a part for each man. But His tunic is seamless, a valuable specimen, so they cast lots to preserve it in one piece, to fulfill their greed. But the truth is, this fulfills the Scripture, which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots” (v. 24; Ps. 22:18). And this is an important point. What is happening here in the crucifixion of Jesus is not by accident. It is written. It was all prophesied long ago. This is the culmination of the Law and the Prophets. It is God’s eternal plan.
And the truth is, Jesus is really in the driver’s seat throughout. Not the Jews. Not the chief priests. Not Pilate, or the soldiers, and certainly not Caesar. See how King Jesus, in the throes of His agony, provides for His mother and His beloved disciple. A son to care for St. Mary. A mother for St. John. “God setteth the solitary in families” (Ps. 68:6; KJV). And by His suffering and death, He sets you in this Family, the Family of His Father, with brothers and sisters and a place at the Table, God’s own child, a Church to call home. The truth is, you’d be utterly alone in the outer darkness of hell, were it not for gracious King Jesus, who has taken you in, to be His very own.
Now, knowing that all was now finished, His suffering complete, Jesus said, to fulfill the Scriptures, “I thirst” (John 19:28; ESV). They try to relieve Him with a sponge of sour wine… “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me sour wine to drink,” Jesus prays in the Psalm (Ps. 69:21)… but it isn’t just that His mouth is dry, though assuredly He is physically and spiritually parched. Jesus hungers and thirsts for your righteousness (Matt 5:6), and He will not be satisfied until He has poured out His own righteousness upon you, that you may be justified, that is, counted righteous for His sake. And the truth is, that even as they lift the sponge up on a hyssop branch, the blood of God’s Paschal Lamb is painted on the door posts and lintels of the cross, and on the hearts of all who believe in Him, thus shielding you from the angel of death.
And then the declaration: “‘It is finished,’ and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (John 19:30). He declares that the goal has been reached, that God’s wrath has been exhausted, that He has made full atonement for the sin of the world. And He bows His head, and He gives up His spirit. He has the authority to lay down His life, and the truth is, He has authority to take it up again (10:18).
But then, the truth is, that should have been your cross and your death. For it was your sin for which He was condemned. You are Barabbas. Jesus takes your place. He suffers your hell. He sheds His blood for you. He dies for you. And He does all of this willingly. The truth is, this is God’s eternal will. “O wondrous Love, what have You done! The Father offers up His Son, Desiring our salvation” (LSB 438:3). The truth is, His death saves you. And by dying for you, He becomes your King. And your old master, the serpent? His skull has been ground to dust.
God put our Lord into the deep sleep of death, and from His side formed for Him a Bride. One of the soldiers pierced Him with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water (John 19:34). Baptized into this sacred Fountain, you are born anew. Drinking from this eternal Spring, your sins are forgiven, and new life flows through your veins.
“What is truth?” The truth is not a what, but a Who. The truth is Jesus. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). And you will know this truth on the Third Day, when the penultimate event in all of world history gives way to the ultimate. And not only will you know the truth, the truth will set you free (8:32). In the Name of the Father, and of the Son X, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 The theme and many of the ideas for this sermon are from Eric Longman, Return to the Lord: Resources for Lent-Easter Preaching and Worship (St. Louis: Concordia, 2020).