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A Practical Commentary On Holy Scripture by Frederick Justus Knecht D.D.

[Mat. 27:11. Mark 15:1. Luke 23:1. John 18:33]

PILATE well knew that it was through envy that the chief priests and the ancients had brought our Saviour before him, and therefore he wished to save Jesus from their hands. So he went out to the people again and said: “You have a custom that I should release to you one of the prisoners at the Pasch. Will you, therefore, that I should release to you Jesus or Barabbas?” Now this Barabbas was a murderer, who had been taken prisoner in a sedition of the people. Immediately the people, instigated by the chief priests and the ancients, cried out: “Away with this Man, and release unto us Barabbas!”

Then Pilate said to them in amazement: “What shall I do then with Jesus who is called Christ?” They cried out with savage fury: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Pilate, still endeavouring to save Jesus, asked again: “Why, what evil hath He done? I find no cause of death in Him. I will chastise Him, therefore, and let Him go.”

He then caused Jesus to be scourged. Immediately the whole cohort was assembled. They stripped Jesus of His clothes, tied Him to a pillar, and scourged Him. Then, covering Him in derision with a purple garment, they plaited a crown of sharp thorns, placed it on His Head, and pressed it down, so that the thorns pierced the flesh and entered into the Sacred Head.

Then, placing a reed in His right Hand, by way of sceptre, they bent the knee before Him in mockery, saying: “Hail, King of the Jews!” Others spat upon Him, and took the reed that was in His Hand, and with it they struck His Head, driving the thorns still deeper into the flesh and bone. Every torment and every insult that malice could invent was then inflicted on His Sacred Person. At last they blindfolded Him, and then they renewed all manner of insult and injury.


Fig. 87. Ecce-Homo Arch at Jerusalem. (Phot. Bonfils.)

By this time the Saviour was reduced to a state so pitiable that Pilate thought the sight of Him would inspire the Jews with compassion. He, therefore, took Jesus out on the balcony and showed Him to the people, saying: “Behold the Man!” (Fig.87.) But they cried out: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Pilate exclaimed; “Take you Him and crucify Him, for I find no cause in Him.” The Jews cried out: “We have a law, and according to that law He ought to die, because He made Himself the Son of God.”

Pilate, fearing still more, entered the hall, and said to Jesus: “Whence art Thou?” Jesus gave him no answer. Then Pilate continued: “Speakest Thou not to me? Knowest Thou not that I have power to crucify Thee, and that I have power to release Thee?” Jesus answered: “Thou shouldst not have any power against Me, unless it were given thee from above.”

Now Pilate sought to release Jesus, but the high priests and ancients, seeing that Pilate was disposed to favour Him, cried out: “If thou releasest this man, thou art no friend of Cæsar.” Pilate, roused by this sickening hypocrisy of the Jews, retorted: “Behold your king; shall I crucify your king?” The maddened crowd replied: “We have no king but Cæsar.” Hearing this, Pilate was afraid lest he should lose the emperor’s favour.

But being still convinced of the innocence of Jesus, he took water in a basin and washed his hands before the whole people, saying: “I am innocent of the blood of this just Man; look you to it.” The Jews cried out: “His Blood be upon us, and upon our children.” Then Pilate released Barabbas, and delivered Jesus to be crucified (Fig. 88).

“He suffered under Pontius Pilate. The words of the Apostles’ creed do not merely mean that our Blessed Lord suffered during the time that Pontius Pilate was governor of Judæa, but are meant to show that Pontius Pilate was guilty of our Lord’s Passion and Death by his cowardly compliance with the Pharisees’ demands.

The Innocence of Jesus was supernaturally revealed a short time before His Death; for the dream of Pilate’s wife was a supernatural dream. In it God revealed to her that Jesus was a just Man, and that Pilate would incur a heavy punishment if he condemned Him to be crucified.

The Abasement of Jesus. It was a great humiliation to our Lord Jesus not only to be named in the same breath as Barabbas, but to have this ill-famed malefactor preferred before Him. Judas had valued his Lord at the price of a slave, and now the blinded people bartered away the life of their Messias for the liberty of an utter scoundrel who had robbed the peaceful inhabitants of Jerusalem of safety, possessions and life! Could a greater insult be offered to the Most Holy? Why did Almighty God suffer His Son to be so grievously insulted? The answer is this: It was our Blessed Lord’s will to be “reputed with the wicked”, and to be treated as if He were the worst of men, because He had taken the sins of all men upon Him, in order to make satisfaction for them to the divine justice. He took upon Himself the curse which rested on mankind, in order to bring to all men that blessing which Almighty God promised to Abraham, when He said: “In thee shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Old Test. IX).

The vicarious Satisfaction of Jesus Christ. The divine plan of salvation is visibly presented to our understanding by the rejection of our Lord in favour of Barabbas, whereby the Innocent suffered for the guilty. We sinful men are so many Barabbasses, for we have robbed God of His honour, and have deserved death. But the Incarnate Son of God has taken our sins upon Himself, and has made satisfaction for them to the divine justice as our representative, in order that we might be freed from guilt, and delivered from everlasting death.


Fig. 88. Place at Jerusalem where Jesus was condemned to death (1st station).

Our Blessed Lord was scourged for us. The scourging was a terrible torture to our Lord Jesus. The very fact of being stripped of His clothes and exposed to the gaze and laughter of the rough soldiers was an untold shame and pain to the Most Pure. Then followed the countless blows of the cruel scourges. Our Divine Lord’s tender Body was covered with wounds and bruises, and the Precious Blood flowed on to the ground. But He uttered no complaint; no cry of pain crossed His lips. He was silent, He endured and prayed, offering each stroke to His Heavenly Father in satisfaction for our sins. Our Lord suffered this chastisement especially to make satisfaction for all our sins against purity and chastity. How grievous and shameful must sins against the sixth Commandment be, if Jesus had to expiate them so terribly!

He was crowned with thorns for us. In order to prove to us the greatness of His love and the grievousness of our sins, our Blessed Lord allowed tortures, unthought-of till then, to be invented on His account. Such a torment, contrived with devilish cruelty, was the crowning with thorns, by means of which tortures were inflicted on the noblest part of His Body, His Sacred Head. Being accused of making Himself king, He was thus crowned in mockery and subjected to the malicious homage of His tormentors, who drove the thorns into His Head, striking Him with the reed which fell from His Hands, spitting in His Divine Face, and adding the sting of their scoffing words to this cruel treatment. Truly no son of Adam had ever endured such pain as Christ, the second Adam, endured, when He suffered the sharp cruel thorns to pierce His Sacred Head, in order to save us from the eternal ruin which the pride and disobedience of the first Adam had brought on us. Jesus, the King of everlasting glory, bore this for us, and carried the crown of thorns even unto death, to make satisfaction to the divine justice for our pride and all the sins which spring from it.

The following prophecies were fulfilled by those sufferings of Jesus about which you have just heard: 1. David’s prophecy: “I am a worm (i. e. despised and trodden under foot like a worm) and no man: the reproach of men, and the outcast of the people” (Ps. 21:7). 2. The prophecy of Isaias: “There is no beauty in Him, nor comeliness. Despised, and the most abject of men, a man of sorrows. He was wounded for our iniquities, He was bruised for our sins, the chastisement of our peace was upon Him, and by His bruises we are healed” (Is. 53:2 &c.). 3. The prophecy of our Lord Himself (Mat. 20:18): “The Son of Man shall be betrayed to the chief priests and the scribes (as was done by Judas), and they shall condemn Him to death, and shall deliver Him to the Gentiles (Pilate and his soldiers) to be mocked, and scourged and crucified.”

Mortal sin in its true aspect. Nothing is so calculated to show us the fearful evil of mortal sin as that horrible cry of the Jews: “Away with this Man! Give unto us Barabbas!” Any Christian who commits a mortal sin thinks, speaks and acts just as did those blinded Jews. Whenever there is a question between observing or transgressing God’s commandments in any important matter, then, we may say, Almighty God with His promises and Satan with his allurements are placed face to face, and man has to choose between them. The choice is put to you. Will you choose God, the most gracious, the most holy God, the source of true joy and of all noble happiness, His grace, His friendship, and His heaven so full of inconceivable bliss; or will you choose the prince of darkness, the liar and the murderer from the beginning, and the sinful pleasures which are all that he holds out to you? Whenever a man consents to sin, he, as it were, says to God: “I have compared together Thy service and that of the devil, and I find that Satan is a better master than Thou art, and that I can gain more from him than from Thee; and that the sinful pleasures by which he allures me are dearer to me than Thy friendship and promises.” Thus the sinner insults his Lord and God in exactly the same way as did the Jews, when they cried out: “Not this Man, but Barabbas!” Nay, more; the Christian who commits a mortal sin offers a much greater insult to our Lord than did the Jews when they preferred Barabbas to Him; for 1. he sins against greater knowledge, and therefore with greater malice. He believes and knows that Jesus Christ is His God and Saviour, and has, moreover, pledged both faith and obedience to Him. Nevertheless he despises His Commandments, and prefers the service of His enemy, Satan. 2. The Jews despised our Lord at the time of His abasement, but the Christian sinner despises Him now that He is sitting at the right hand of the Father. 3. Barabbas, whom the Jews preferred to our Lord, was, at least, a man, made to the image of God; but the Christian who sins prefers to the Author of all good the most despicable things, the works of darkness, base lusts and passions. Mortal sin on the part of a Christian is, therefore, a horrible offence, an undervaluing of God, and a shameful want of gratitude towards Him.

Resistance to grace. The divine warning by means of Procla’s dream was a grace which Pilate, indeed, wasted; but by corresponding with it his noble wife obtained the gift of faith in our Lord Jesus, and as most ancient fathers tell us, the grace to die a happy death. Pilate, on the other hand, was degraded by the emperor, and was banished to Vienne, where he ended his guilty life by suicide.

Ingratitude and fickleness of the people. They one and all voted in favour of Barabbas: not one raised his voice for Jesus. Ingratitude is the world’s recompense for benefits!

“Behold the Man!” These words were spoken to us as well as to the Jews, and demand that we should contemplate the sufferings of our Divine Lord, admire His gentleness and patience, and take to heart the infinite love which made Him suffer so much for us. The contemplation of the sufferings of Jesus Christ is one of the chief devotions we can practise, and is calculated to fill us with a hatred of sin and love of Jesus, and to comfort and strengthen us in all our sufferings and trials.

The Innocence of Jesus. Pilate said repeatedly: “I find no fault in Him”, and spoke of Him as “this just Man”. When he could find no more words to express his belief in the innocence of Jesus, he affirmed it anew by the solemn action of washing his hands, by which he meant to say: “He whom I am condemning against my will is guiltless of any fault.” In other cases where a man, though innocent, has been condemned, the judge has always based his sentence on, at least, some appearance of guilt; but in this case the judge solemnly and publicly declared that He who was accused was innocent on every charge. Jesus was condemned to a disgraceful death, avowedly, in spite of His innocence: no breath tarnished the fair fame of His holiness. No act of justice or law condemned Him to death; He was the Victim of those who hated Him, and who savagely and imperiously demanded His death.

Who was guilty of our Lord’s Sufferings and Death?—1. Pilate bore a guilt which the washing of his hands could not wash away. He knew and testified that Jesus was innocent, and was not worthy of death—and yet he condemned Him to be crucified. By doing this he abused his power and violated the laws of justice. He sinned against the fifth commandment by condemning Jesus unjustly, and thereby causing His death. 2. The Jews, and especially the chief priests and ancients, were even more guilty than Pilate. They delivered their Messias to death, and killed Him with their sharp tongues, by means of false accusations. It is true that they did not quite know that Jesus was the Son of God, as St. Peter testified in his discourse after he had healed the man born lame: “Brethren, I know that you did it through ignorance” (Act. 3:17). But their ignorance and unbelief were both wilful, because they let themselves be blinded by pride and envy, and shut their eyes to the light of faith which streamed on them from the life, words, and wonderful works of Jesus. 3. However, neither the malice of the Jews nor the weak compliance of Pilate could have caused our Lord’s death, had not the eternal counsel of God decreed that His Incarnate Son was to die to redeem us from sin and eternal punishment. It is, therefore, our sins which bear the real burden and guilt of our Blessed Lord’s sufferings and death, and cry out louder than His bitterest enemies: “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!” Let us, then, beat our breasts and say with S. Alphonsus: “Mercy and pardon, O eternal God, for by our sins we have nailed Thee to the Cross!”

Temporal authority is from God. “Thou shouldst not have any power against Me, unless it were given thee from above”, said our Lord to Pilate. God is the Lord of heaven and earth, and from Him comes all authority and power; so that all those whose duty it is to command others ought to exercise their authority in the name of God, and according to His will.

Fear of man led Pilate to condemn our Blessed Lord against his convictions, for he feared the displeasure of Cæsar more than the displeasure and vengeance of heaven. It was fear of man which also caused St. Peter’s fall, and which is, every day, the cause of countless sins. The true fear of God drives out human fear, and bestows fortitude; and he who cares for the praise or blame of men more than for the praise or blame of God, acts in a cowardly manner and has no living faith. Our Lord warns us against human respect in the strongest terms: “Fear not them that kill the body and are not able to kill the soul”, He says (Mat. 10:28), “but rather fear Him who can destroy both soul and body in hell”, i. e. the infinitely Holy and Just God.

Israel is no longer the people of God. With wilful blindness God’s chosen and highly-favoured people disowned and rejected the Anointed of the Lord, the Messias, for whom their fathers, the patriarchs and prophets, had yearned. Ever since that accursed cry “Crucify Him” was uttered, Israel has ceased to be the chosen people of God and of the Messias; for it proved itself unfaithful to its God, its calling, its history, and its past. The fate of Israel has been a very marvellous and striking one. God prepared this people during two thousand long years for the coming of the Messias. Every type and prophecy pointed to Him, and each day the Israelites prayed that He who was promised might speedily come. And yet when He came, full of grace and truth, to fulfil the law and the prophets, His people disowned, rejected, persecuted and killed Him! However, the delusion and passions of men could not frustrate the loving plans of divine wisdom; on the contrary, under the guidance of Providence, they served to carry them out. The chosen people killed the Messias and would not believe in Him, but Almighty God reserved to Himself a sufficient number of “true Israelites”, that through them, that is, through the apostles, salvation might be proclaimed to the whole world. Salvation came out of Israel, and through her gave life to the nations of the world, even though, by their own fault, it turned to the destruction of the unbelieving Jews themselves. The vengeance which they desired and called down, fell upon them.

The Blood of our Blessed Lord has indeed been on the Jews and their children. In the year 70 A. D. the judgment of God which they challenged overtook them, as has been described in chapter LX. The Jews had rejected their Messias and killed Him “by the hands of wicked men”, acknowledging the Gentile Cæsar as their sole lord; and now this Cæsar, by sending his army against Jerusalem, became the instrument of the divine vengeance. Many of those very men who had cried out: “Crucify Him, crucify Him!” were alive at the time of the siege and taking of Jerusalem, and themselves experienced its bloody horrors. Many thousand Jews died on the cross under Titus; a million perished partly by the sword, partly by famine and disease; about 92,000 were sold as slaves for a nominal price (thirty being sold for one piece of silver); and the remaining few were scattered over the face of the earth. Israel might have been the first among the nations if it had believed in Christ; but, as it is, it has simply ceased to exist as a nation. The Jews are dispersed, and are without home and country and temple, and for more than eighteen hundred years have been vainly waiting for another Messias. Every nation has its own prince or king, but the Jews, since the rejection of their true king, have had no king of their own; scattered about among all nations, they have as many rulers as there are rulers upon earth, but not one whom they can call their own! Thus was accomplished the fate of Israel, prefigured by that of Cain, affording to all the world a most clear proof that Jesus Christ, whom Israel rejected, is the true Messias and Redeemer.

APPLICATION. Fear and detest sin, for it is a terrible evil! If you are ever tempted to commit a mortal sin, put to yourself this question: “Whom shall I choose, Jesus or Barabbas?” Make a firm resolution never to commit a grievous sin for any price which the world could offer you, never to prefer anything to Jesus, but to serve Him lovingly, who for love of you suffered such shame and torments.

When Pilate asked the Jews: “Why, what evil hath He done?” they knew not what to answer. Let us ask our Divine Saviour: “What evil hast Thou done to be so inhumanly treated, and to die such a cruel death?” And His answer would be: “I loved you, therefore did I suffer these things. Behold the greatness of My sufferings, and you shall behold the greatness of My love. Will you not respond to this love, by loving Me in return?”

“I am a king”, said Jesus, though He knew that His royal dignity would procure Him no other crown but a crown of thorns, and no throne but the Cross. Look at Him earnestly, and with deep compassion. Look at this king crowned with thorns! See how He suffers, how He is ill-treated, scoffed at and mocked! See what majesty is His! Behold, the eternal King wears a crown of thorns for love of us, that He may kindle in us love in return. He suffered nameless torments to merit everlasting joy for us. He endured endless indignities to win for us eternal honour. He wore the robe of scorn to clothe us with imprishable glory. His royal dignity is one of love, for He desires to be king of our hearts. Shall He not, then, be our king? Cast yourself at His Feet, and promise Him that you will love Him ever more; and that you will follow His steps in humility and patience.

Think what a cowardly and disgraceful thing human respect is, and examine your conscience whether you have ever done evil or omitted what is right for fear of the wicked of unholy people. Fear God, and be afraid of no man.

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