Ironic Easter Passages in the New Testament Gospels

Title: Ironic Easter Passages in the Gospels

Text: John 11:49-52, Matthew 27:22-25, John 19:19-22

Time: March 7th, 2013



Some pastors say they don’t like the holiday seasons because it’s hard to come up with fresh material from the Bible for Sunday messages; everyone has heard it all before. But I don’t agree. I’ve never found a shortage of topics to teach during the holidays of Christmas and Easter. There’s always something new to teach, or a new twist to put on an old theme. It’s more lack of inspiration and imagination on the part of these pastors than anything to do with the Bible or the holidays. Well, because we’re in the middle of the Easter season for 2013, I’d like to continue teaching from passages in the New Testament that are related to Christ’s death, burial and resurrection. Today, I’d like to teach on three very ironic passages found in the different gospel accounts. What does it mean that they are “ironic?” Here’s a definition of “ironic” – “the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning: the irony of her reply, “How nice!” when I said I had to work all weekend.” So what I mean to say when I describe these passages as “ironic” is this: they all say one thing, but they are meant to mean something else. This will become apparent when I begin to explain each one of them. The first ironic passage I’ll talk about is from John 11:49, where Caiaphas the Jewish high priest says that it’s better for one man to die than for the whole nation to perish. I’ll explain the irony in this. The second ironic passage is Matthew 27:25, where the crowd at Jesus’ sentencing cries out to Pilate, “May his blood be on our heads and our children’s.” This too is ironic, as I’ll explain. Finally, a third ironic passage is found in John 19:19, where Pilate supposes he’s being sarcastic and insulting by putting up a sign on Christ’s cross reading, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” I’ll explain why this too is ironic. Now some of these passages are different kinds of irony; some are ironic from the standpoint of the speaker, some from the standpoint of the listeners, and some from the standpoint of history. But they all reveal something more than what they state at the time they are given. Caiaphas’ statement, we now know, means more than what he thought it did. So too did the crowd’s call for the blood of Christ mean more than what they were calling for. And finally, Pilate’s own statement by placing a sign on the cross meant more than he or the Jews thought it meant. By examining these examples we can get a better appreciation for the celebration of Easter this year, because we can learn something profound about God’s activity in history – it usually operates on two levels – there’s the obvious level, and then there’s the profound level. We see these two levels in God’s activity in these three examples from the gospels. Let’s explore further.


First, there’s the ironic statement of Caiaphas. John 11:49-52, “Then one of them, named Caiaphas, was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.’ He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one.” Obviously, Caiaphas the high priest was talking about turning over Jesus to the Romans for execution rather than risk having an uprising among Jews and having Rome violently clamp down on it causing the death of many Jews in the process. We must remember that the Jews were occupied by the Roman Empire. The land of Israel was under occupation by Roman soldiers. Even the capital city, Jerusalem, was under strict control of Rome. There had been Jewish insurrections and rebellions against Roman rule in the past that ended badly for the Jews with violence and death. The Jewish leaders feared another Jewish uprising led by Jesus and his followers — although as we know now this was a false fear because Jesus had no intention of leading a political movement. So Caiaphas the high priest spoke obviously of Jesus dying for the good of the Jewish nation in respect to the Roman occupation, in order to keep the peace and preserve fragile Jewish-Roman relations. But as the commentary by John says, this was only one meaning for the statement. The more profound meaning is that Jesus was indeed dying for the sake of the people, but not for a political reason, but for spiritual salvation. Jesus died on the cross as the sacrificial spiritual lamb in order to take away the sins of the world. Yes, it was indeed better for one man, Jesus, to die rather than for the people to die, but this truth has its deeper meaning in Christ’s spiritual sacrifice rather than any political sacrifice in might have been. The irony is, Caiaphas thought he knew what he was saying, the other Jewish leaders probably thought they knew and understood his point, but looking at what he said from a prophetic and spiritual standpoint, he was saying something a lot more profound. He was actually speaking about the sacrificial blood sacrifice of Christ for sins. He was describing what is at the heart of the gospel message of salvation, and what is the essence of Holy Communion that Christians celebrate. Do you see how God took the words of even the enemies of Christ and turned them into a profound spiritual truth? That’s because God is in control of history and he’s in sovereign control of everything else as well. Let’s never forget that God is in control, even when it seems he isn’t.


Second, there’s the ironic statement of the crowd. Matthew 27:22-25, “”’What shall I do, then, with Jesus, who is called Christ?’ Pilate asked. They all answered, ‘Crucify him!” ‘Why? What crime has he committed?’ asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, ‘Crucify him!’ When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility.’ All the people answer, ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children!’” Now this passage isn’t as clearly ironic as the previous one because we don’t have the passage actually explain the irony; but it’s there nonetheless. I credit the last Pope Benedict XVI for pointing this out to us in his 2011 book, Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection. In it he claims that the meaning of this passage is actually a prophetic reference to the spiritual forgiveness through the blood of Jesus on the cross. Now the passage doesn’t say, like the previous one, that it’s prophetic. Remember the last one had John’s commentary saying about Caiaphas, “He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation.” But in this passage there is no spiritual commentary as to its deeper, more profound spiritual meaning. So we are left to supply the spiritual commentary for ourselves. Is this verse prophetic? Yes, or at least, it could be interpreted as prophetic. It’s clear enough that the blood of Jesus does cleans us of our sins, cleanses us and everyone who trust in Christ for salvation. And it’s clear that the crowd did say, “Let his blood be on us and our children,” which could be interpreted in a spiritual sense to mean, “Let his blood be on us and children as an atonement for our sins.” But obviously the crowd wasn’t meaning to say that Jesus’ blood would be an atoning sacrifice for them and their children as in salvation. They were not claiming the blood of Jesus Christ for them in a positive sense; to the contrary, they were taking upon his blood in the negative sense. But that’s why this passage is so ironic, because in their anger and hatred and calling for Christ’s death, and even putting his blood or the guilt of his execution upon themselves, in a deeper, more spiritually profound sense, they were speaking prophetically about the atoning blood of Christ shed for forgiveness of sins. Again, we marvel at how God Almighty can take even the words of enemies and turn them around for good, as profoundly prophetic utterances. The crowd didn’t know they were speaking prophecy, far from it, but they were in fact speaking prophetically about the heart of the gospel message – the atoning work of Christ on the cross. God is in control of history and everything else. Never think that things are out of control. God takes all things and works them out for good for those who love him (Romans 8:28).


Third, there’s the ironic statement of Pilate. John 19:19-22, “Pilate had a notice prepared and fastened to the cross. It read: Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews. Many of the Jews read this sign, for the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city, and the sign was written in Aramaic, Latin and Greek. The chief priests of the Jews protested to Pilate, ‘Do not write The King of the Jews, but that this man claimed to be king of the Jews.’ Pilate answered, ‘What I have written, I have written.’” Remember our original definition of “ironic” – “the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning.” Pilate was employing irony, as well as a lot of sarcasm, in putting up the sign on the cross that read: Jesus, King of the Jews. He didn’t really believe that Jesus was king of the Jews, but he knew that it would infuriate the Jews to read it on the sign. By putting up the sign he was making fun of the Jews, mocking them – “Here’s your king, this man Jesus, and he’s dying under Roman power. How pathetic are you Jews that your king is so weak compared with the power of Rome.” We don’t know exactly what Pilate was thinking, but we can guess that he was having fun with the Jews, just as the Roman soldiers were having fun with Jesus by mocking him and so forth. It was a cruel joke against the Jewish leaders, and the leaders didn’t like it one bit. That’s why they objected to the sign; they requested that the wording be changed to say something along the lines of, “This man claimed to be a king.” But Pilate refused to change it. He was determined to continue to mock and insult the Jews even by executing someone the Jews themselves handed over to him for death. Now the irony of this is that even though Pilate didn’t believe it for one minute, Jesus really was the King of the Jews. Even though the Jews didn’t believe it, Jesus truly was their Messiah and King. So the sign, even though it was intended to be sarcastic and mocking, and even though it was never intended to be taken literally, not by Pilate, not by the Jews, it was in fact literally true. It was inscribed by Pilate in three universal languages – Latin, Greek and Hebrew, so everyone could see and read it, for maximum insult against the Jews. But again ironically, it’s truth was broadcast in the three most important languages of the time as a symbol of the universal nature of Christ’s offer of salvation. Jesus really is King, he really is Lord, he really is Savior, and he really is Messiah. We see the hand of God sovereignly working in the insulting and mocking words of Pilate aimed against the Jews. As it turns out, as God worked it out, Jesus was King, even if hardly anybody at the time believed it.


But the irony doesn’t end here. Pilate asked the crowd in the previous verse, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus, who is called Christ?” Now Pilate didn’t use the term “Christ” in any respectful or honest way. Again, he was trying to insult and mock the Jews by using the word for their messiah. “Christ” is the Greek word for the Hebrew word “messiah.” So Pilate is literally asking, with tongue in cheek and dripping with sarcasm and mockery, “What shall I do with your Messiah Jesus?” Of course, this got the crowd of Jews all the madder because they didn’t believe Jesus to be the Messiah. But ironically, as it turns out, Jesus was in fact the Messiah. Contrary to what Pilate thought, contrary to what the Jews believed, Jesus really was the Christ, the Messiah of Israel. Only the disciples and followers of Jesus knew or believed this; but of course, their voices weren’t given any weight in the decision to crucify Jesus. So we see one irony after another as we examine these three passages. God is full of surprises because he’s working behind the scenes in all instances. Doesn’t it comfort you to know that God is working behind the scenes, in these biblical accounts, and in your life as well? Isn’t it inspiring to think that prophecy is being spoken even when the speaker doesn’t even know it? Prophecy was being spoken through the mouth of a hostile Jewish high priest. We just examined the passage. Prophecy was also being spoken through a hostile Jewish crowd, even though they had no idea that they were being prophetic; it was as far from their mind as possible. And prophecy was spoken through the mouth of a pagan Roman ruler who thought he was being sarcastic. So if God can be prophetic in all these instances, it makes you wonder, how much prophecy is being spoken today, secretly, without our knowing it? When you go about your daily lives, when people speak to you and when you speak to people, do you think there might be any prophecy being spoken? Probably, at times, yes, probably, even though we don’t know it. This is so because God is still working behind the scenes, of our lives, in the world today. Our lives are lived in more profound territory than we imagine. Things are happening and things are said that have deep, profound meaning, although most of it probably passes us by. We are important to God, just as the people and events of the time of Christ were important. God speaks to us today, just as he spoke to the people in ancient times. Are we listening? Or are we so busy and caught up in our lives that we don’t hear him? Maybe because we aren’t closely listening enough for him? Let’s make it a point this Easter season, during the season of Lent, to make a point to listen to God, what he might be saying, through the Bible, through prayer, through church, through others and the events of our lives. God just may be saying something very profound to us. Let’s listen and not miss his voice.


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