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sed Saviour's innocence, from which, before we pro ceed any further, we shall deduce the following truths.
1. As the innocence of Jesus Christ was to be imputed to Jews and Gentiles at the divine tribunal, so it was likewise to be made manifest at the tribunals of Jews and Gentiles.
The perfect innocence of our blessed Saviour was to be the only means for reconciling men to God, and the veil that was to cover their sins. Now, as the whole human race, until the incarnation of Christ, had been divided into Jews and Gentiles with respect to religion; the testimony of his innocence was to be corroborated by the unanimous consent of Jews and Gentiles. Pilate was a Gentile, Herod, on the contrary, was a Jew. Both these great personages, though they differed widely in their religion and palitics, though they were at open enmity with each other, yet agreed in this; that Jesus had done nothing worthy of death. Indeed, the innocence of Christ was infinitely beyond what the judges could possibly conceive. He was not only innocent of any crimes punishable with death, but there was not the least shadow of guilt or sin in him. For, as St. Paul observes, Such a high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens, (Heb. vii. 26.) He was therefore so far from meriting death, that he did not deserve the least mockery or abuse. It was sufficient, according to human laws, that Jesus was acquitted of the charge brought against him. But notwithstanding all this, he was afterwards sentenced to die. Hence it may be easily conjectured, that the cause of his death did not lie in his own person, but in us. Oh, that we may be truly sensible, that our transgressions were the real cause of the death of Christ! For, we, by our sins, laid the foundation of the sentence, which God pronounced against his Son. How ought this knowledge to humble us, and
at the same time, to put us in a condition of laying hold on Christ's innocence, as our own, and pleading it at the divine tribunal.
2. Charity requires that we should clear our neighbour when he is slandered, and bear witness to his innocence.
A christian is bound to love his neighbour as himself. Now, as we are all ready enough to justify our own innocence, when aspersed by calumnies and malicious reports, it is therefore likewise our duty to be concerned for our neighbour's innocence, and, as much as in us lies, to protect it from injuries. In the instance before us, Pilate publicly clears our blessed Saviour's character before all the people, and by his testimony of Christ's innocence, contradicts the rulers of the Jewish nation, who charged him with being a malefactor. This public testimony of Christ's innocence, given by the Roman governor, is to be considered as a prelude of what was afterwards to come to pass in the Roman empire. For several of the emperors bore witness to the innocence of the followers of Christ, in public instruments, and mandates to the governors of provinces, enjoining them to forbear molesting the Christians, and putting them to death. The very persecutors and executioners of those harmless persons were often sensible of their innocence, and could not forbear giving testimony of it.
But this heathen governor will rise in judgment against many Christians, who have behaved very differently towards the innocent members of Christ, from what he did towards our Saviour with regard to his innocence. Many are convinced of the innocence of the faithful servants of Christ, when the world asperses them with the most virulent slanders; but will not speak a single word in their defence, from a pusillanimous fear of being suspected to have any connection with them. Others are still more culpable, who are so far from taking the part of innocence,
that they concur in reviling and loading it with ca lumnies. There is a third class still more abandoned. than either of these, who, like Herod, make a mock of suffering innocence; and others again, who in the gall of bitterness, like Pilate, contrary to their own knowledge and conscience, join in oppressing truth and innocence. All these offend grossly against the ninth commandment, though some sin with more aggravated guilt than others.
Pilate, having thus publicly borne witness to the innocence of the blessed Jesus, makes use of two unwarrantable expedients, in order to procure his releasement. If he had acted agreeably to the conviction of his conscience, he would have discharged this innocent person, notwithstanding the accusations of the chief Priests, and have resolutely protected him against their malice and rage. But a mean, abject fear of man, and worldly policy, led him into crooked ways; so that he attempted to gain his point by craft, that he might not make the chief Priests his enemies, by an open affront. To this purpose he makes two proposals to them.
The first proposal of Pilate was, to chastise Jesus, and to let him go. The rules of justice required, that he should discharge the innocent; but to offer to scourge him, was the height of injustice. If Jesus was guilty, why should he release him? And if he was innocent, why should he offer to scourge him? Thus Pilate was prompted by his carnal wisdom to have recourse to a most iniquitous method. He was for satisfying his troubled conscience, and therefore scrupled to execute the sentence. But he was, at the same time, willing to humour the inveterate hatred of the Jews against the blessed Jesus, and to support the reputation of his venerable accusers: He therefore proposed to scourge him, that it might not be thought that the person accused was found entirely innocent. This he concluded to be the best expedient, on the one side for paying some regard to jus
fice, and on the other as a salvo for the honour of the chief Priests and elders; who now might clear themselves to the people, by saying, that Jesus of Nazareth had been found in a great measure guilty, though Pilate, out of his clemency, &c. was pleased to spare his life. Besides, he imagined, that the chief Priests would the rather be contented with this proceeding : since by being scourged, which was an ignominious punishment inflicted only on slaves, Jesus would be rendered contemptible; so that he would lose all his credit with the people, and be deserted by all his adherents. Had this proposal of Pilate been accepted, it would have been matter of great triumph to the infernal powers, as some kind of blemish would have remained on the oppressed innocence of our blessed Lord. But God directed this circumstance contrary to the intention of this heathen governor. The innocence of the blessed Jesus was destined to shine forth with unsullied lustre on this day. It was not only made known, that he had done nothing worthy of death; but a certain person was likewise to declare, that he had done nothing amiss; nothing that deserved the slightest punishment. Thus God brought this affair to quite another issue, than what Pilate in his worldly policy had projected.
Pilate's second proposal was as follows. He put the Lord Jesus on the same footing with a notorious malefactor, and offered the people the privilege of choosing which of the two they would have released. Hereby Pilate, who wavered in his mind, like a reed shaken by the wind, was for trying whether he could get Jesus released without any chastisement. This scheme was more likely to succeed than the former, as it put it in the power of the people to release Jesus; for many of them had received extraordinary benefits from him, and they were in general more favourably disposed towards him than the chief Priests and elders; who, as Pilate well knew, had delivered him out of envy, (Matth. xxvii, 28.) This subtle politician saw
into this mystery of iniquity, and concluded that nothing was to be done with the chief Priests; since it was too much their interest to destroy Jesus, who had struck at their dignity and power by his doctrines. With regard to this incident, we may observe,
First, What induced Pilate to make this proposal. It was occasioned by the following custom: 'Now at the feast of the passover, the governor was wont to relcase unto the people a prisoner, whom they would. Therefore, of necessity he must release one unto them at the feast.'
It is somewhat dubious, whether this custom was introduced by the Jews or by the Romans. From St. John's account, (chap. xviii. 39.) who says, 'Ye have a custom that I should release one unto you at the passover,' some conjecture, that it was a custom of Jewish origin, in memory of their deliverance out of Egypt, of which the feast of the passover was a commemoration; and that the Romans, after subduing Judea, had indulged the Jews in the continuance of this usage as some shadow of liberty. Others are of opinion, that this custom was introduced by the Romans, as a favour shewn to the Jews, who resorted to Jerusalem from all parts of the world at the feast of the passover, that they might celebrate the feast with the better temper, and be less liable to revolt against the Roman government. Be this as it will, it was a custom contrary to the law of nature, which does not allow a convicted malefactor to be released without punishment; and likewise contrary to the law of Moses, which absolutely excludes from pardon all murderers, or shedders of man's blood. However, as the custom had once taken place, the Jews were more tenacious of it than of God's ordinances; and therefore Pilate, to prevent any disturbance, was under a necessity of releasing a prisoner to them, whom they would. This was what gave occasion to the proposal.