Between a Rock and a Hard Place
We have a lot of word pictures in the English language to describe being in a predicament. We might say we’ve “painted ourselves into a corner,” or we are “in a pickle” or our backs are “up against the wall.” A least one person has defined a predicament as being , “A lawyer who specializes in suing doctors for medical malpractice finding himself in need of major surgery.” We might also say that we are caught “between a rock and a hard place.” Between a rock and hard place means you’re stuck in between two options, and neither one is desirable. These are the times when you’re confronted with your absolute weakness and inability to hurdle the obstacles in life.
More than a hundred years ago, a financial crisis occurred in the US that became known as the Bankers’ Panic of 1907. The financial crisis impacted many industries, as you can imagine, and the ripple effect of the financial upheaval was felt all the way out in Bisbee, Arizona. The lack of funding led to a dispute between the copper mining companies and the mineworkers there. They were underpaid, and their working conditions were terrible. So they organized into labor unions and approached the company management with a list of demands for better pay and conditions.
The company refused and retaliated – any mining worker who complained would be fired. So the mineworkers were faced with a dilemma, they had to either choose to continue to work at the rock face in quarry in terrible conditions or lose their job and make matters even worse. One of the workers coined the phrase, “we are stuck between a rock (the quarry wall) and a hard place (unemployment).” It wasn’t long before the phrase took root and by 1930, newspapers were using the phrase to describe any number of impossible situations.
Maybe you are between a “rock and a hard place” this morning. Maybe your current job is unbearable, but there are no other jobs available and you need the paycheck. Maybe the people you’re living with are crazy, but you don’t have the money to get your own place. I am not necessarily talking about your family. Maybe you need surgery, but you don’t have health insurance. Maybe you are a student and don’t like school but you have to go. You may or may not find yourself in these kind of predicaments right now, but at some point in your life, you will find yourself caught between a rock and a hard place.
When we’re caught between a rock and a hard place, we feel trapped, stuck, and tired of where we are. We don’t know what to do or where to turn. Honestly, it’s a lose-lose situation. If it were a clear win-lose situation, we would know how to choose and where to turn. We’re like the Israelites with Pharaoh on one side and the Red Sea on the other. Death seemed certain either way. But what do you do when there are no clear choices? Maybe you try to deny it, maybe you try to mask it, maybe you try to fake it or you might even try to ignore it. Sometimes you just take the option that will cause you the least trouble or stress. You are still going to lose but you will lose less.
This morning, we continue to look at Jesus’ time before Pilate, leading up to being sentenced to crucifixion. Last week we saw the Jews approach Pilate in the early morning but would not come into his palace because it would make them unclean and they would not be able to eat the Passover. They try to manipulate Pilate into bringing unfounded charges against Jesus. Pilate finds no reason to bring charges against Jesus and tries to find ways to set him free. He also has a conversation with Jesus. Jesus assures Pilate that he is not trying to usurp his authority or take over as emperor. He says his kingdom is not of this world and he tries to introduce truth to Pilate which he scoffs at. Through all this, Pilate is convinced that Jesus is innocent, but instead of doing the right thing, Pilate tries to compromise and both times it backfires on him.
In our scripture this morning, Pilate continues to compromise and with each compromise he continues down a road to a point of no return. Pilate may not have felt that he was between a rock and a hard place yet but he soon will. Pilate also has another conversation with Jesus. Imagine having a conversation with the Son of God and not being changed. Those conversations could have made all difference in the world for Pilate and the rest of his life but when he was caught between a rock and hard place, he tried to deny it, he tried to mask it, he tried to fake it and he tried to ignore it.
The truth is we are weak creatures. We are sinful, we fail. Being prone to sickness, we hurt; being mortal, we wear out; pressure weighs us down; anxiety gives us ulcers; people intimidate us; criticism offends us; difficulties hound us. What choice do we really have during those times when we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place? That brings us to our big idea this morning which is to: You can turn to Jesus when you have nowhere else to turn and feel you are caught between a rock and a hard place. In fact, why would you turn to anyone or anything else? Where else will you find the truth? Where else will you find hope? Who else can do the impossible? Only Jesus.
Let’s pray: Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to what you want us to learn this morning. Imprint your words on our hearts and help us to use it to bring you praise and honor and glory. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
There are two points this morning. The first is “the rock” and the second is “the hard place.” We will start with “the rock” which for Pilate was knowing what the right thing to do was but not having the courage to do it no matter what. We see this in verses 1-11 of John chapter 19. This is what God’s word says, “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head. They clothed him in a purple robe and went up to him again and again, saying, “Hail, king of the Jews!” And they slapped him in the face. Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews gathered there, “Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.” When Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, Pilate said to them, “Here is the man!” As soon as the chief priests and their officials saw him, they shouted, “Crucify! Crucify!” But Pilate answered, “You take him and crucify him. As for me, I find no basis for a charge against him.” The Jewish leaders insisted, “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” When Pilate heard this, he was even more afraid, and he went back inside the palace. “Where do you come from?” he asked Jesus, but Jesus gave him no answer. “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.”
Pilate has tried to wiggle out of dealing with the Jews and Jesus. He has compromised over and over again instead of just doing the right thing and setting Jesus free. In verse 1, he continues his compromises by having Jesus scourged. In Luke 23:14b – 16, we get more insight into what Pilate was thinking here. That says, “I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges which you make against Him. No, nor has Herod, for he sent Him back to us; and behold, nothing deserving death has been done by Him. Therefore I will punish Him and release Him.” Pilate thought once they saw Jesus, bloody and beaten, he would be able to let Jesus go and this situation would be over.
Scourging or flogging was one of the cruelest punishments known to man. The criminal was bound to a post and beaten by several people in turn. They used a short-handled whip to which several leather thongs were tied. Each thong had jagged pieces of bone and metal attached to the ends. Jewish law set the maximum number of lashes at 40, but the Romans were not bound to that law so they would continue to beat the victim until they were exhausted, the commanding officer stopped them, or the victim died which often happened. This type of punishment tore a person’s body apart and was so horrible that Roman citizens could not legally be sentenced to it.
The Romans also had three different levels of scourging, one more severe than the last. The “fustigatio” was the least severe and was reserved for troublemakers who simply needed to be punished and warned. The third level was “verberatio” which was the most severe and served as part of the punishment for a capital offense, and in preparation for crucifixion. It seems Pilate chose to use the least severe form of scourging here to probably accomplish two things. One, to teach Jesus a lesson to be more careful in not upsetting the religious leaders in the future, and two, to satisfy the Jews who were demanding his death.
But the punishment and humiliation of Jesus wasn’t over yet. The Romans had made a sport of torture and the Roman soldiers continued to humiliate Jesus making fun of the accusation of Jesus being the “king of the Jews.” They twisted together a crown of thorns, probably made from the thorny date palm, whose thorns could exceed twelve inches and pressed it down on his head. It would have cut deeply into Jesus’ head increasing the pain and bleeding. They were mocking Jesus and the Jews, as it would have looked like Jesus had radiant beams coming from his head. They also put a purple robe on him, probably one of the soldiers’ robes, to finish the picture of Jesus as a king. The soldiers also mocked Jesus by going up to him again and again paying false homage to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews” as they would do before Caesar and hit him in the face. Matthew and Mark recount that they hit him with a reed which they had given him as a kind of scepter. It is interesting how much irony John uses in his gospel and we see it here. The Roman soldiers mock Jesus as a “king” not understanding that he is the King of kings and one day he would stand in judgment of those very soldiers who tortured and humiliated him.
The law now required a formal presentation of the criminal. Pilate comes out before the people and declares Jesus innocent of any charges that could be tried in a Roman court of law. He fully expected the Jews to be satisfied with the punishment already inflicted upon Jesus, so he brings him out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. He is beaten and bloody, face bruised and swollen, looking nothing like a king. He wanted to show the Jews how ludicrous it was to take their charges seriously. In his view, Jesus posed no threat to them or the Romans. Sarcastically he says, “Here is the man.” By introducing Jesus in this way, Pilate was mocking the Jews but also trying to elicit sympathy for Jesus so he can set him free. “Behold the man” probably meant “see this “poor” creature.” It would have been ridiculous to Pilate that they would want to crucify such a weak and humiliated person. Again, we see the irony John uses here in reminding us that Jesus called himself the “Son of Man” and that he is the Word made flesh and was displaying his glory as the Son of God in his disgrace, pain, and weakness.
But it backfires again. Instead of wanting him to free Jesus, the Jews shout and demand that Jesus be crucified. Now, I think Pilate may have been feeling the pressure of being caught between a rock and a hard place. He knows that Jesus is innocent of any wrongdoing. He probably has a sense that Jesus is not just any ordinary person. He knows what the right thing to do is but he lacks the courage to free Jesus, as was his right as the Roman governor. At this point, Pilate probably had enough of these Jews. They had brought Jesus to him in the first place but now would not accept his judgment. Seeing that his strategy to free Jesus has not worked, he mockingly and sarcastically tells them to take Jesus and crucify him themselves. This was another tactic to keep Jesus from being crucified because he knew they couldn’t carry that sentence out.
The Jews didn’t miss a beat though. It is interesting that they seem to have an answer for Pilate every time he tried to free Jesus. They had done their homework and knew what buttons to push. At no time did they seem to have to stop and think of what to do next. But Pilate almost seems unsettled at each turn and has to do a song and dance to keep ahead of the Jews agenda. In verse 7, the Jews change tactics. Their first tactic was to get Jesus charged as a political opponent to Rome which we saw last week. Now the Jews try to get Jesus charged as a religious opponent to Rome, saying that he claimed to be the “Son of God.” Taking this at face value, it should not have worked. What did Rome care for the religious views of the Jews? This is what Pilate was referring to back in verse 31 when he told them to take Jesus and judge him by their own law. He meant their own religious law. They tell Pilate that Jesus has already been judged according to that law, found guilty and deserving of death. The law they were talking about is found in Leviticus 24:16, which says, “Moreover, the one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall certainly stone him. The alien as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death.” The Jews demand that Pilate acknowledge their legal rights and order Jesus to be crucified, implying, that would keep the peace in the area. The Roman governor was responsible for keeping the peace and maintaining the local law. If he didn’t he would surely be replaced as governor if not taken out and killed.
This new tactic exposed their true motives as to why they wanted Jesus killed. They told Pilate that Jesus was guilty of blasphemy and had to die according to their law. Interestingly, Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God wasn’t sufficient to prove blasphemy. The anointed king of Israel, such as David or Solomon, was called the Son of God and the Messiah was to be the Son of God. What the Jews were upset about and why they hated Jesus so much was he claimed to be equal to God, himself. They knew they needed Pilate’s help to put Jesus to death but of course they weren’t going to be completely honest with him.
If the Jews were holding their breath to see how Pilate would react to them taking this religious angle, what Pilate did next probably gave them a great sense of relief. Instead of questioning the Jews about their motives, he becomes even more afraid and takes Jesus back inside the palace to have another conversation with him. Pilate like most Romans were superstitious. Every Roman of that day would have heard stories of the gods or their offspring appearing in human form. The thought that Jesus might be a man with divine powers or a god in human form filled him with fear. Also, his superstition was probably fueled by a dream that his wife had about Jesus and warning him to have nothing to do with Jesus. We see this in Matthew 27:19 where it says, “While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him a message, saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him.”
Pilate takes Jesus back into the palace and asks him where he comes from. He already knew Jesus was from Galilee, but what he wanted to know was whether he was from earth or from the realm of the gods. Jesus is silent when questions by Pilate. Why? It may have been to fulfill prophecy from Isaiah 53:7, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, Yet He did not open His mouth; Like a lamb that is led to slaughter, And like a sheep that is silent before its shearers, So He did not open His mouth.” Maybe Jesus is silent because he had already told Pilate he was not from this world or maybe he knew that Pilate couldn’t or wouldn’t understand any answer Jesus would give because Pilate had already shown he wasn’t concerned with truth.
Pilate is upset with Jesus that, of all people, he would not talk to him. He reminds Jesus he is the one who has the power to set him free or to have him crucified. This is ironic, in that he had spent all this time going back and forth with the Jews avoiding making a decision about Jesus but ultimately knew deep down that he could not avoid this responsibility. He may have had the power but he didn’t have the courage to do what was right. Jesus tells Pilate the only power he has over him is the power given to him from above. He did not have ultimate control over what happened to Jesus. Even the death of Jesus was under the sovereignty of God. Again, we see the irony in John’s gospel in that for all the power that Pilate felt he had he must have felt powerless before God’s plan in this hour.
Jesus tells Pilate there is someone guiltier than him. The one who handed Jesus over to Pilate was guilty of the greater sin. Jesus is probably not talking about Judas because he has disappeared from the story. It is probably not the Jews because Jesus seems to imply “one’ person. The best solution is the high priest Caiaphas. He was the catalyst for Jesus’ arrest and who had seemed to formulate the plan for Jesus to die. We see this in John 11:49-50, 53 which says, “But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” So from that day on they planned together to kill Him.” Jesus wasn’t absolving Pilate of guilt for his actions, but Caiaphas was more guilty because he had seen the overwhelming evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. He knew the scriptures, not Pilate. He should have accepted Jesus as his Messiah, not Pilate, who wasn’t even a Jew.
This was “the rock” that Pilate found himself between. He continues to find Jesus innocent of any crime. He knows the right thing to do is to release Jesus. Deep down he probably knows that what is going on is of the utmost importance but he still does not have the courage of his convictions. He doesn’t have the courage to do what is right and he continues to dig himself a deeper and deeper hole that he can never get out of. He is caught between a rock and a hard place. Which brings us to our first next step which is to make up my mind to always do the right thing no matter what. If you will choose the right thing every time your “rocks” will become smaller and not seem so impossible to overcome. Your stress and anxiety levels will be lower. The ability to choose to do the right thing comes easier when we turn to Jesus when things seem impossible and we have nowhere else to turn. (Big Idea)
Our second point this morning is “the hard place.” The “hard place” for Pilate was that he let the Jews pressure and bully him into crucifying Jesus. He let them back himself into a corner, ultimately sinning in making the wrong choice. We see this in verses 12-16. This is what God’s word says, “From then on, Pilate tried to set Jesus free, but the Jewish leaders kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar.” When Pilate heard this, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judge’s seat at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha). It was the day of Preparation of the Passover; it was about noon. “Here is your king,” Pilate said to the Jews. But they shouted, “Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!” “Shall I crucify your king?” Pilate asked. “We have no king but Caesar,” the chief priests answered. Finally Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified.
Here’s where Pilate really starts to feel the pressure and we see how desperate he seems to get. After talking to Jesus about who really had the authority and power over Jesus, Pilate is even more convinced of his innocence and tries to set Jesus free. In fact, the verb is verse 12 means an ongoing action in that he kept trying to set Jesus free. We don’t know how many different things he tried. We don’t know how many other compromises he made. The ironic thing was it was in his legal authority to set Jesus free. He didn’t need the Jews to okay it or rubber stamp it. But he didn’t have the courage to do the right thing and next we see the Jews put the final nail in the coffin for Pilate. If Pilate didn’t feel he was between a rock and a hard place before, now he knew it was over and he had no choice but to give in to the Jewish leaders’ demands to crucify Jesus.
Even though they failed to convince Pilate of Jesus’ guilt the Jews don’t seem to be fazed. They reverse their tactics again playing the political ace up their sleeve putting Jesus in opposition to Caesar himself. They tell Pilate that if he releases Jesus he was no friend of Caesar because anyone who says they are king opposes Caesar. They were planting the thought in his mind that he would suffer if he doesn’t do what they want with Jesus. The idea of not being a friend of Caesar’s would have set off warning bells in Pilate’s head. The emperor at the time, Tiberius, was noted for his suspicious nature and his willingness to ruthlessly punish his subordinates. Pilate most definitely would have feared for his position, his possessions and his life. Pilate had already brought a lot of heartache on himself while being the Governor of Palestine. The Jews had already made complaints against him to Rome because he had treated their religion with contempt a number of times. He could not risk the Jews making another complaint to Rome about him. Plummer comments on the tactics of the Jewish leaders: “They knew their man: it is not a love of justice, but personal feeling which moves him to seek to release Jesus; and they will overcome one personal feeling by another still stronger.”
We see how far the Jewish leaders were willing to go to get Jesus crucified. We see their corruption and their hypocricy. The Jews hated the Romans rule over them and were most certainly themselves no friend of Caesar’s. Again John shows us the irony here that in order to have Jesus executed the Jewish authorities had to make themselves out to be more loyal subjects of Caesar than Pilate was. Now Pilate had to choose between either setting Jesus free or inciting the wrath of the Emperor against him. Their mention of Caesar sealed Jesus’ fate. There was no question about the choice Pilate was going to make. He was caught between a rock and a hard place, in between two impossible choices, and in the end he made the choice that brought the least amount of trouble for himself. It was the choice where he would lose less. Greene says, “He would no longer oppose the Jews because that would take self-sacrifice.” Pilate was not willing to make any sacrifice on his part to save Jesus.
Pilate doesn’t answer the Jews but immediately brings Jesus out before the people. He will now give the official sentence which will conclude the matter. Pilate sits down on the judge’s seat. John tells us this place was known as the Stone Pavement, called “Gabbatha” in Aramaic, meaning “platform” or “high place.” Pilate is now poised to speak with the voice of his office. Again, John show us the irony in that Pilate was going to pass judgment on the one whom God had granted the power of all judgment and who would one day pass judgment on Pilate and the rest of humanity. Next we see John carefully setting the scene for us. He says it was the sixth hour on the day of preparation for the Passover Week. The sixth hour was late morning approaching noontime. It was swiftly approaching the time when the sheep would have been slaughtered in the temple in preparation for Passover. John wants us to remember Jesus as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of all people.
Pilate, still agonizing over his decision, tries one more thing. Instead of sentencing Jesus right away, he pronounces Jesus as their king. For Pilate, Jesus was not a king, at least not in any sense he would understand. But for John the kingship of Jesus was real and he wants us to understand that Jesus was king even as he went to the cross for our salvation. By now the Jews only want blood, Jesus’ blood, and they respond again with “crucify him!” Pilate again tries one more time, and we can hear the sarcasm in his voice as he says, “Shall I crucify your king?” with emphasis on the word “king.” MacArthur says, “This was probably his way of mocking them that this beaten, bloody, helpless man was all the king they deserved.”
Pilate is not answered by the mob this time but by the chief priests who make it clear that they have no king but Caesar. Here is another example of irony in that they of all people, who claimed to be the religious leaders of the nation of Israel, who claimed to be God’s chosen people and claimed God as their king, would make that statement. They now express the real truth of what was in their hearts. It is interesting that by saying they have no king but Caesar they actually gave Caesar more power than the Romans did. Up to this point in history Caesar was never called a king. Also, it was a total rejection of God alone as Israel’s king. Even the kings of Israel such as David reigned by God’s divine appointment. By rejecting Jesus as king they have rejected God. Again, we see the irony in that the Jewish leaders were guilty of blasphemy themselves. Robinson says, “Writing as a Jew for other Jews, (John) is concerned from beginning to end to present the condemnation of Jesus, the true king of Israel, as the great betrayal of the nation by its own leadership.”
There was nothing more Pilate could do. If he released Jesus now he would be accused before Caesar of not doing his duty. He had enough trouble keeping the peace in Palestine without allowing that to happen. So, after all that it says Pilate finally handed him over to them to be crucified. Now it doesn’t mean he handed Jesus over to the Jews. He handed Jesus over to the Roman guards who would carry out the sentence of crucifixion. But John is telling us is that Pilate handed Jesus over to the will of the people. No matter who carried out the actual crucifixion, Jesus was being handed over to those who wanted him dead. They had manipulated and played Pilate like the proverbial fiddle and they got exactly what they wanted, a crucified Jesus, which ironically was God’s plan all along.
Pilate was caught between a rock and a hard place. He knew what was right but didn’t have the courage to do it and then he let the Jews pressure and bully him into making the wrong decision. He let them use him for their own evil purposes and they persuaded him into sinning against the Son of God sending him to his death on a cross. That brings us to our second next step which is to not let others pressure me into sinning but to stand up for what is right in God’s eyes and not man’s. The question Pilate failed to answer properly is found in Matthew 27:22, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” That is the same question we must all face. There are only two alternatives. One, reject him and face eternal damnation, or two, acknowledge him as Lord and Savior and be saved. Pilate’s futile attempts to evade the issue clearly reveals there is no middle ground. Matthew 12:30 says, He who is not with Me is against Me. That brings us to our third next step this morning which is to acknowledge Jesus as my Lord and Savior and be saved. That is the most important decision you can ever make. Pilate no longer has the opportunity to make that decision but you and I do. I encourage everyone to have the courage to choose to do what is right and not let others pressure you into making the wrong choice when it comes to Jesus.
In closing, I want to read this illustration from Burge’s commentary. From Malchus, which means “my king”, who we saw in the garden to Jesus’ discussions with Pilate the word “king” occurs over a dozen times. Later even on the cross Pilate insists that Jesus be labeled “King of the Jews” instead of the compromising “This man said, I am the King of the Jews.” John’s story reads like a medieval drama about a king whose rightful rule has been overthrown temporarily. He moves about the masses unknown with no crown but only the clothes of a commoner. But we know the usurpers are doomed and the true king will win the day. Jesus is the true king, the hidden king, whose victory is about to be cheered.
John wants us to see the people stumbling in the darkness unable to see the true king in their midst, because he is challenging us with their predicament. If the kingship can be submerged in the politics of Jerusalem can the same happen today? Despite this darkness John assures us that God’s glory is still at work. This is “the hour” God planned from the beginning and Jesus is still in control. He asks the questions and makes the judgments. He alone has the power that comes from above. Despite how the world treats God and his son, God will prevail. God’s glory and power can’t be suppressed or be contained by the plots of human beings. No one can stop God’s glory if God intends his glory to be shown. God is in control of history even this hostile seemingly darkened chapter of history that offers little hope. If he is sovereign in places like this Passover during this particular year in Jerusalem, if he can manifest his glory and accomplish his purposes when to the observer everything seems like defeat and disaster, our history can be no different. If God can transform this “hour” with glory, than he can transform any hour. He can transform your hour. He can transform your “rocks” and your “hard places” if you will turn to him and rely on him when you feel caught between a rock and a hard place.
As Gene and Roxey come to lead us in our final hymn this morning, let’s pray: Dear Heavenly Father, when the storms of this life seem to surround us and it seems impossible to get out of them, let us turn to you. You are the one who gives us hope, you are the one who gives us truth and you are the one who can do the impossible. Let us make our minds up to do what is right no matter what and not allow others to pressure us into sinning against you. In Jesus; name, Amen.