"what they begged should take place" (or: Principles of Politics)

by Michael Hardt

Luke 23:24

Involvement in politics has been one of the questions of daily living which Christians have found hard to come to terms with. Many have pointed to a good influence that may result from Christians who 'make their voices heard'. Others have argued that, as well as our heavenly calling, we are called to play our part in the kingdom (which is true) and therefore in politics. This article attempts to establish whether the last point is true as well.

Principles of politics

Luke 23 sets the scene. Having accused the Lord before the religious authorities (the Sanhedrin, Luke 22:66), the Lord's enemies 'arose, and led him unto Pilate' (23:1), the Roman governor who ruled the province of JudŠa. 'And they began to accuse him' (v. 2). The accusation brought forward-that the Lord 'perverted the nation, forbidding to give tribute to Caesar.' -was entirely unfounded (compare 20:25), but designed to achieve their objective. When accusing the Lord before the religious council, they used the charge of blasphemy. Before Pilate, they used a political charge.

After a brief examination of the case, Pilate states that he 'finds no fault in this man' (v. 4). This should have settled the matter for him, but we read that the multitude was 'the more fierce'. This is where a first element of (democratic1) politics becomes visible: what matters is not the correct moral judgement of the issue in question, but the opinion and mood of the crowd2. In one sense, it is not surprising that this principle has become the general rule in many countries. Having rejected the Bible as God's Word and as the standard, there is a lack of absolute values and therefore no basis whatsoever to define the meaning of 'correct moral judgment'. As people live in a moral vacuum (scripture calls this darkness), the judgement is transferred to the masses3. As a result, the Man who 'went about doing good' was 'murdered by hanging him on a cross' (Acts 10:38,39). We do well to respect the old warning: 'Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil' (Ex. 23:2).

Pilate finds himself in what we would term a political dilemma: the multitude exerts pressure against the right course of action. As a 'good' politician, he makes a 'clever' political move. When 'Galilee' is mentioned (v. 5), Pilate immediately perceives a way of escape. If 'the man' were a Galilaean, then this would be a welcome opportunity for the politician to rid himself of this embarrassing case by sending the Lord to Herod, the tetrarch who was in charge of that area (vs. 6, 7). This demonstrates another principle of politics: when a matter is clear, but the right course of action is unpopular, then the matter is not dealt with at all or referred to someone else. Clearly, it has to be recognised that in some cases one is not able, or not the right person to deal with a matter and therefore has to refer it to someone else. However, the aim should be that the matter is dealt with in the best possible way, not to rid oneself of an unpopular task.

After the Lord's trial before Herod (vs. 8-12), Pilate is confronted with the same case again. His next move shows that he is becoming increasingly desperate to solve the issue. He repeats his own evidence, namely that he had 'found no guilt in this man' (v. 14) and he tries to strengthen his case by citing Herod's judgement (v. 15). His conclusion, however, must surprise the unbiased observer: 'I will therefore chastise him, and release him' (v. 16). This verdict was calculated to achieve Pilate's objectives and those of the crowd at the same time. On the one hand, it would allow Pilate to release Jesus (as he knew he should). On the other hand, it would appease the crowd by declaring the Lord guilty in a twofold way: firstly, He would be chastised - which involved the cruel procedure of scourging (John 19:1) and, secondly, He would be released, not on the grounds of innocence, but because Pilate had to release a criminal(!) at the feast (v. 17). Thus Pilate would have achieved his hidden agenda whilst giving way, to some extent, to the desire of the crowds. In one word, Pilate's proposal was based on the principle of compromise4. Again, the Christian can discern one of the elements which are so characteristic of politics: when people are ready to compromise their principles they will soon resort to the principle of compromise.

Despite the popularity of the principle of compromise in the political arena, compromise does not always lead to the desired result. Pilate repeats his proposal another time (v. 22), yet without success. This leads us to what may be the most shocking moment in the trial of the Son of God. Despite the convictions of the judge and despite the overwhelming evidence for the innocence of the Man Christ Jesus, we read: 'And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed. And Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required' (vs. 23,24) or, as the New Translation puts it, he 'adjudged that what they begged should take place'. This sentence is diametrically opposed to the evidence, and the simple but telling reason is that the 'voices prevailed'. When pressure becomes too strong, political judgement bows to pressure.  This is underlined by the next verse: 'But he delivered Jesus to their will' (v. 25). The Son of Man has no comment to make on these procedures: 'As a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth' (Isa. 53:7).

It was not only the intensity of the pressure, not only the rage of the crowd, that prompted Pilate to give in. John's Gospel throws light on the argument which brought about the change: 'But the Jews cried out, saying, If thou let this man go, thou art not Ceasar's friend' (John 19: 12). In politics (and sometimes elsewhere), good relationships with influential people secure one's own position and career. A righteous judgement that jeopardises one's own prospects and relationships must be avoided at all costs.

Servants of the King

Apart from the principles outlined above the Lord Himself made a statement in front of Pilate which should also be weighed by any Christian who considers involvement in politics. John reports that the Lord said the following: 'My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence' (19:36). Should not these words alone settle the issue? If Christians argue today that they should be politically active in order to fulfil their role in the kingdom, the Lord's words 'my kingdom is not of this world' should make clear that these are spiritual and not civil duties. If others point to the negative developments in our societies and argue that Christians must not tolerate this, do not the Lord's words give the answer again? 'If my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight.' A more scandalous event than the Lord's trial has never happened since. Yet, his servants were not called to fight. One of them, Peter, had not understood this and cut off the right ear of Malchus (John 18:10). 'Put up thy sword into the sheath' is the calm instruction of the Master.

Impact outside politics

Having examined some principles, or elements, underlying politics in a world that rejected Christ-and the terrible result in the case of cases-the Bible reader may concede that political activity is not the way for the Christian. At the same time, the question may and will arise: how, then, can Christians have an impact in this world at all?

Christians do and should have an impact in the world. However, this is not achieved by way of 'fighting' and by trying to improve the world. Rather, the believer is called

to be light (Matt. 5:14 & Phil. 2:15) -giving testimony

to be salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13) -preventing corruption

to pray (1 Tim. 2:1-2)

to preach, if sent to do so (Rom. 10:14,15)

to be an example (1 Pet. 3:1-2)

In a world which rejected Christ, our testimony is to a rejected, but now glorified Christ.

Another example that sheds much light on the subject, is that of Abraham and Lot. Abraham was separated whereas Lot sat in the gate of Sodom, the place of influence (Gen. 19:1).  Lot tormented his righteous soul (2 Pet. 2:7,8) and his testimony was com-promised to such an extent that, when he warned his sons in law, 'he seemed as one that mocked unto his sons in law' (Gen. 19:14). He had no impact at all. Abraham, on the other hand, was separate. He had no place in Sodom and he did not even receive gifts from the sons of Heth (Gen. 23:3-16), nor from the great of the earth (Gen. 14:23). And what was the result? He had a much better testimony. He was regarded by them as a prince of God. Ironically, we might say, he turned out to be the one who had to rescue Lot (Gen 14:16). Look at the scene of Sodom's destruction (Gen. 19:27-29). Abraham stood afar off and Lot was saved because of him (not the other way round).

We Christians have a much more elevated place (Eph. 2:6) and object (Col. 3:2). Once conscious of being 'partakers of the heavenly calling' (Heb. 3:1) we will be less preoccupied with earthly objectives. Equally, let us beware not to introduce the same principles (such as majority decisions) into the practical, individual and collective, life of God's people. Living in democratic countries, the development would seem so natural, but we can thank God for the absolute and infallible guidance contained in His Word.

It has been said.

An old Latin proverb says, "vox populi, vox dei" (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Others thought that it is more true to say, "vox populi, vox bovis" (the voice of the people is the voice of an ox). It has been pointed out that, often, things are worse and we have to say, "vox populi, vox diaboli" (the voice of the people is the voice of the devil). The passage from Luke 23 discussed above is a striking example for this. It will remain true as long as the Nazarene is despised and rejected. But soon, He will reign on the earth and it will become true to say, "vox regis, vox dei" (the voice of the King is the voice of God).

Conclusion

The Lord's trial before Pilate often occupies us with a focus on the Lord as the innocent victim, the Lamb of God 'brought as a lamb to the slaughter' and 'dumb' as 'a sheep before her shearers.' While we consider His unique perfection in this trial certainly the main thrust of the passage, the report also contains valuable hints regarding the nature of politics which should not be overlooked.

In so far as politics aims to please the multitudes, it tends to lead to decisions which go against the mind of God. The outcome of the trial before Pilate illustrates the danger of decision processes based on majorities.

Christians should be extremely careful not to adopt political procedures (such as majority voting) to regulate matters of their collective lives. Nonetheless Christians should, and do, have an impact in a world that rejected Christ, not by trying to improve it but by giving a positive testimony to Him.

It is God's plan to put things right in this world, not by our initiative, but by establishing Christ's kingdom on the earth (the very place where He was - and still is - rejected. Then (during the Millennium) Christ will make the Church the central seat of government (Rev. 20:6 and 21:9-27)

M. Hardt

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1. Democracy is not the root of the problem. Decisions taken by monarchs may run against God's will just as much as democratic ones (e.g. Dan. 2:5). The problem is not so much the form of government, but rather the fact that the legitimate king has been cast out.

2. Consider, for instance, the (Western) political debate on topics such as abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, etc. If a politician stood up and shed Biblical light on these matters, this might well be the end of his career.

3. There are, of course, situations in which no moral principles are involved. Further, safety is in the multitude of counsellors (Pro. 24:6).

4. You may think of examples in daily life where a compromise is appropriate. The danger comes in when biblical principles are abandoned because we settle for a compromise with a human (or worldly) point of view.

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