P. G. Mathew | Sunday, October 20, 1996
Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew
In our study of the gospel according to St. Matthew, we have come to the enigma of the Judge of all the earth being tried. After his arrest in the garden of Gethsemane Jesus was tried first by the Sanhedrin under the leadership of a crook named Caiaphas. But in this passage we find him standing before a vacillating coward, Pilate the Roman procurator.
Pilate was procurator of Judea and Samaria from A.D. 26-36. He was married to Claudia Procula, daughter of the reigning emperor, Tiberius, and his wife Julia, the daughter of Emperor Augustus. Now, Pilate did not have a very good record as governor. He was cruel, self-centered, and hateful to the Jews. But as he judged Jesus, he was gripped with fear of the crowd that stood outside. Under the influence of the propaganda spread by the Sanhedrin, this mob unanimously demanded the release of Jesus Barabbas, a freedom fighter, nationalist, insurrectionist and murderer. The crowd also unanimously demanded the destruction of Jesus, the one called Christ, who was the heaven-sent Savior of the world. And in the middle of it all was Pilate, who understood beyond the shadow of doubt that Jesus was handed over to him by the Sanhedrin only because of their envy of him--envy of his popularity, his power, his teachings and his moral purity. Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. Even Judas Iscariot knew it, having declared to the Sanhedrin that he had betrayed innocent blood. And now Pilate faced the unenviable task of judging and sentencing this Jesus Christ who was standing before him.
Would Jesus receive any justice from Pilate? No. Rome was known for justice, yet the Roman judge, Pilate, found himself unable to render justice in this case. That was certainly no surprise to our Lord Jesus Christ, who predicted this in Matthew 20:18-19. "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life."
Although Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent, he found he was unable to acquit Jesus and let him go. He knew he alone was responsible for judgment, being the sole judge in this case. He knew Jesus was innocent and he openly declared that. But Pilate was morally weak and corrupt. He knew his record of governorship was not good. The crowd demanded the destruction of Jesus, and Pilate knew that if he did not capitulate to the demands of the crowd and destroy Jesus, then the crowd would appeal to the moody and temperamental Tiberius, who then might look into Pilate's record as a procurator and punish him.
Pilate thought he could release Jesus as part of a customary Paschal amnesty, but the crowd said no. They demanded that Jesus Barabbas, an insurrectionist and murderer, be released instead. This increased Pilate's distress. Pilate's wife even told him not to have anything to do with Jesus, being providentially warned by God through a dream that Jesus was dikaios, innocent.
Pilate's own conscience even bothered him. He had the privilege of hearing truth from the very lips of Jesus, who had said, "I am the way, the truth and the life. . . I am the light of the world." Jesus spoke to Pilate, and yet Pilate succumbed to his own self-interest. So that he could survive and hold onto power in this world, Pilate soon would come to the decision that this innocent Jesus was expendable.
"No Fault in Him"
Many people agreed that Jesus was innocent. This man who was about to be condemned to death by Pilate, the Roman judge, was not guilty of any crime. In fact, he was declared innocent by many people. Who were some of these people?
First, Judas declared Jesus was innocent. In Matthew 27:4 Judas told the chief priests, "I have sinned for I have betrayed innocent blood." What about Claudia Procula, the daughter of Julia and the reigning emperor Tiberius? In Matthew 27:19 we read, "While Pilate was sitting on the judge's seat, his wife sent him this message: 'Don't have anything to do with that innocent man. . .'"
Not only that, Pilate himself, after his own careful examination of the case, declares three times that Jesus Christ was innocent of any crime. In John 18:38 we read, "'What is truth?' Pilate asked. With this he went out again to the Jews and said, 'I find no basis for a charge against him.'" And in John 19:4 we read, "Once more Pilate came out and said to the Jews, 'Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.'" Here the Roman judge, a man who represented a system which was known for justice and careful investigation, declared Jesus was innocent. And again, in John 19:6, we read, "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.'"
So Judas, Mrs. Pilate, and Pilate himself declared Jesus to be innocent. What about Herod Antipas? Pilate sent Jesus to Herod because Jesus belonged to Herod's territory of Galilee, and in Luke 23:14-15 we are given Herod's verdict. Pilate told the chief priests, rulers and people, "'I have examined him and have found no basis for your charges against him. Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. As you can see, he has done nothing to deserve death.'" Yes, Herod Antipas declared Jesus to be innocent.
Not only that, even one of the thieves on the cross acknowledged Jesus' innocence. In Luke 23 we read of two thieves who were crucified with Jesus. At first both of them joined those who were railing against the Lord Jesus Christ as he hung beside them. But then one of the thieves came to his senses and in verse 41 he told his fellow criminal, "We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong."
What about the Roman official who was overseeing Christ's crucifixion? He also recognized Jesus' blamelessness. In Luke 23:47 we read, "The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, 'Surely this was a righteous man.'"
And finally, we see a crowd of people near the cross. What did they say? In Mathew 27:54 we read, "When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified and exclaimed, 'Surely he was the Son of God!'"
Jesus, the Son of God, was innocent. But by God's plan and foreordination the innocent, yea, sinless Jesus, the Judge of all the earth, the Savior of the world, was rejected and condemned by Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin and now we find him standing before Pilate, awaiting his sentence by this man who was charged with executing justice.
The Foiled Attempts of Pilate
Knowing that Jesus was innocent, Pilate tried to avoid having to condemn him to death. In fact, when the Sanhedrin first brought Jesus before him, he told them to take care of Jesus themselves. But the Sanhedrin desired to have Jesus put to death, and only the Roman authorities could execute someone, so they insisted Pilate deal with Jesus.
Next, Pilate tried to hand Jesus' case to Herod Antipas, the playboy king. Jesus was from Herod's jurisdiction, and I am sure Pilate told Herod to just take care of it himself. But after questioning Jesus and receiving no response, Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate.
Then Pilate tried to appease the bloodthirsty crowd who were being manipulated by the elite Sanhedrin. He offered to release Jesus as a Paschal amnesty candidate, but his strategy didn't work. The crowd demanded that Jesus Barabbas be released and Jesus Christ be executed.
What could Pilate have done differently? The one thing he should have done as the sole judge in this matter was to acquit Jesus and let him go, but he failed to do it. This was not justice; it was less than justice. It was like the justice of today. Those who are mighty and powerful and well-connected get some justice or at least manipulate justice in their behalf. The poor and the weak are those who usually bear the full brunt of the law.
Pilate failed to act justly because of his own moral corruption and his desire to hold on to his self-interest and power. However, he made another attempt to appease the crowd by ordering to be Jesus scourged and released. He was hoping that the crowd would sympathize with Jesus when they saw him beaten up and abused. So he unjustly handed Jesus over to the Roman soldiers to be flogged.
The Scourging of Christ
What did this scourging entail? In his commentary on the gospel of Mark, Walter Wessel writes,
". . . flogging was no light punishment. The Romans first stripped the victim and tied his hands to a post above his head. The whip (flagellum) was made of several pieces of leather with pieces of bone and lead embedded near the ends. Two men, one on each side of the victim, usually did the flogging. The Jews mercifully limited flogging to a maximum of forty stripes; the Romans had no such limitation" (Walter W. Wessel, Mark, in vol. 8 of The Expositor's Bible Commentary, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984], 775).
Wessel then gives a doctor's account of the physical effects of flogging:
"The heavy whip is brought down with full force again and again across Jesus' shoulders, back and legs. At first the heavy thongs cut through the skin only. Then, as the blows continue, they cut deeper into the subcutaneous tissues, producing first an oozing of blood from the capillaries and veins of the skin, and finally spurting arterial bleeding from the vessels in the underlying muscles. . . . Finally the skin of the back is hanging in long ribbons and the entire area is an unrecognizable mass of torn, bleeding tissue." (C. Truman Davis, "The Crucifixion of Jesus: The Passion of Christ from a Medical Point of View," Arizona Medicine 22, no. 3 [March 1965]: 185, as quoted by Walter W. Wessel, Mark, in vol. 8 of The Expositor's Bible Commentary, edited by Frank E. Gaebelein, [Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984], 775).
Many people died because of scourging and many lost their rationality and became delirious. Roman citizens generally were exempt from the cruelty of scourging, but Jesus, being just a Jew, endured it.
The Soldiers Mock Jesus
After Jesus was brutally scourged, some of Pilate's soldiers decided to have some fun at his expense. They had heard the charge against Jesus that he was the king of the Jews, meaning one who opposed their reigning emperor, Tiberius. So these Gentile soldiers, who came from various parts of the world, gathered all the soldiers together, peeled off Jesus' blood-drenched clothing, and draped a tattered scarlet robe around him. Just picture the scene: "Aren't you a king?" they would say. "Kings must have scarlet robes. Let us find one and put it on you. And what about a crown?" they would ask as they plaited a crown of thorny plants and put it on his head. And I am sure that as the assembled soldiers watched this entertaining spectacle, they roared with laughter.
What else did they do? "A king needs a scepter as a symbol of his authority," they probably said, and so they found a stick and placed it in Jesus' right hand. "Hold it, King Jesus!" they would say, and again we can imagine the laughter of six hundred or so Gentile soldiers. They were having a great time! Then some of the soldiers knelt before Jesus and mockingly worshiped him. When they rose from their knees, they took the rod from his hand and hit Jesus on his head. And we are told by St. Mark they kept on hitting until Jesus' blood ran down his face.
Now, we must remember that Jesus had already been scourged. This additional punishment was just a little fun for the soldiers at the expense of Jesus. So they continued to slap his face with their hands and greet him, "Hail, king of the Jews!" There would be more roaring laughter as they spat on Jesus' face, hit his head and plucked his beard. And there Jesus stood--scourged, hit, smitten, spat upon, robed in scarlet, sceptered, and crowned with a crown of thorns, being mocked, abused and rejected by wretched humanity. Jesus was rejected by Caiaphas, Annas, the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the scribes, the scholars of the Bible, Judas, the crowd, the people of Jerusalem, the Gentiles, and now Pilate and his soldiers. No wonder John says in John 1:11, "He came to that which was his own but his own did not receive him."
Pilate's Last Attempt
Now Pilate the coward, the morally corrupt judge of Rome, the puppet of the Jerusalem crowd, brought the scourged, abused, humiliated Jesus before the crowd. This was his last effort to save Jesus from death by crucifixion--the most dreaded form of execution--which the crowd was demanding. He introduced Jesus--covered with blood, robed in scarlet, crowned with a crown of thorns which symbolized a curse, and holding a stick as a scepter--to the Jerusalem crowd by saying, "Ecce homo --Behold the man!" In other words, Pilate was saying, "Come on, crowd, feel sorry for this man. Look at him--he is no threat to you or Rome or anybody. He is just a miserable man. Why don't you spare him from execution and let him live? Hasn't he suffered enough already?"
What was the response of the crowd? "Crucify him! Crucify him!" And then they said, as we read in John 19:7, "He must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God." And the Bible says that after hearing that, Pilate was even more afraid. I am sure he wondered if perhaps he really was standing next to a supernatural being, the Son of God, who could destroy him. So he took Jesus inside and asked the question, "'Where do you come from?' but Jesus gave him no answer" (John 19:9).
Pilate had tried to set Jesus free because he knew he was innocent, but he could not. He was threatened by the crowd, knowing they would appeal to Tiberius if he released Jesus. As far as Pilate was concerned, the Jerusalem crowd held all the cards. Pilate could not be a friend of Caesar if he refused to destroy anyone who claimed to be a king, because anyone who claimed to be a king was against Caesar.
Friend of Caesar or Friend of God?
The question facing Pilate now was whether to be politically correct or to stand for truth and justice. In other words, Pilate, do you want to be a friend of Caesar? Friend of Caesar was a technical term. It was a passport to all success in the Roman world. So the question for Pilate was, "Do you want to remain a friend of Caesar and climb up the ladder of success, power, fame, and recognition in the world, or do you want to destroy yourself?" PGM Isn't this the question we all have to face? Do we want to be friends of Caesar--rich, famous, and powerful in this world--or do we want to be friends of truth and friends of Jesus, who came to testify to the truth?
What did Jesus say to Pilate? "Everyone on the side of the truth listens to me" (John 19:37). Pilate heard those words, but he did not listen. Why? He was not on the side of the truth. But Pilate had a choice to make which he could not escape. No one can be a friend of Caesar and a friend of Jesus at the same time. No one can serve two masters. And so Pilate made his choice, deciding to remain a friend of Caesar. By doing so, he reasoned, he would become rich, famous, and powerful. So he charged Jesus with the highest possible crime, that of being a seditionist who called himself king of the Jews, and sentenced him to death. Pilate gave in to the pressure of the mob.
Pilate told the crowd, "Here is your king!" But the crowd shouted, "Take him away! Take him away! Crucify him!" "Shall I crucify your king?" Pilate asked incredulously. Then the chief priests made this most horrible, fatal statement: "We have no king but Caesar." And by this statement they rejected the King of the Jews, the heaven-sent Messiah, the One who came in fulfillment of the promises made by all the prophets. By this statement they rejected the covenant of God and ceased to be the people of God as a nation. They decided they would also join Pilate and be friends of Caesar. They joined with Esau and sold their birthright for a cup of soup, as it were, to obtain an interest in this world.
The Rejection of the Messiah
Jesus was not taken by surprise at the actions of the crowd and the priests. In fact, he had prophesied these events in Matthew 21:42-43. He spoke about the stone the builders rejected becoming the capstone, and then said "The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit" because they had rejected the Stone, who was Jesus, the Messiah. Yes, Jesus knew he would be despised and rejected by Judas, Caiaphas, Annas, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the scribes and the mob of Jerusalem. He knew he would be rejected by Gentiles like Pilate and the soldiers. He knew they would all reject him, symbolizing the rejection of the Messiah by the whole world.
Jesus was familiar with Isaiah 50:6 which says, "I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting," and with Isaiah 52:14, "Just as there were many who were appalled at him--his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness. . ." Jesus was gruesome looking as a result of the abuse he had already suffered from the Sanhedrin and the soldiers: the hitting, the spitting, the plucking of his beard, and the beatings, but he knew what Isaiah prophesied in Isaiah 53:3, "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hid their faces, he was despised and we esteemed him not."
Jesus knew he would be abused, disfigured and rejected, but he was the perfect, sinless, God-become-man. He was God, the Messiah, the King. He was the Prophet, the Savior, the Creator, and the Redeemer. He was the unique Son of God. He "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant," St. Paul says, "being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death, even the death of the cross" (Phil. 2:7, 8).
Jesus Became Curse for Us
Thus the vacillating Pilate, the weakling judge, did the politically correct thing and capitulated to the desires of the mob of Jerusalem who insisted that Jesus be crucified. Why did they want him to crucified? They wanted to demonstrate that in their view Jesus was cursed of God. According to Jewish law, anyone who hung on a tree was under God's curse (Deut. 21:23). They wanted Jesus to be crucified and identified as a cursed person.
But we must ask, how could Jesus, the perfect man, the sinless God incarnate, be under a curse? How could he be crowned with a crown of thorns, which was the very symbol of curse? How could God be crucified, which was the punishment for those under God's curse?
We find the answer in the New Testament, specifically in the book of Galatians. In Galatians 3:13 Paul tells us, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us"--huper hemon, in behalf of us-- "for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.'"
Yes, the crowd cried for crucifixion, and Jesus was condemned and sentenced by Pilate to be crucified. Yet the real reason Jesus was crucified was that it was the determinate purpose and counsel of God that someone else be cursed in our stead and in behalf of us. So we see Christ crowned with a crown of thorns, the very symbol of sin and guilt, because he is the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world. The Crowd Assumes Blame
By this time Pilate was full of anxiety. His conscience was not working right and he was miserable. Superficially washing his hands, he tried to rid himself of all the guilt. The crowd saw his actions and began to comfort him, and we can just imagine what they said: "Oh, Pilate, you did the right thing. Don't let your conscience bother you. Don't worry that you committed a gross injustice. You will be exempt from any guilt. There will be no repercussions for shedding the blood of Jesus. We are doing the right thing. He is a blasphemer and the law requires that he be killed. We may say, 'Let his blood come upon us and our children,' but we are saying this only because we know there will be no consequence for killing him. In fact, we are certain that God will bless us and you and our children for dealing with this blasphemer."
But we must say, "Not so fast, crowd! Don't exempt yourself from the responsibility of shedding the blood of this one, this innocent one, the Son of God, the Savior of the world." Jesus spoke about this in Luke 11:50-51: "Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all." Jesus was telling them that all the blood that had been shed without justice was crying out, beginning with the blood of Abel. Not so fast, crowd!
We must realize that without the shedding of the blood of Jesus, there is no forgiveness for our sins, but everyone will be held responsible for shedding that blood unjustly. If the blood of Abel and the prophets cry out for retribution, surely the blood of Jesus, unjustly spilled, will cry out for justice. In fact, Jesus said this was true. In John 19:11 Jesus told Pilate that he, Caiaphas, and the crowd were all guilty. "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 was guilty. Caiaphas was guilty. The crowd was guilty. All those who claimed to be recipients of God's word but demanded Christ's death were guilty. They should have worshiped and bowed down before Jesus, the Savior of the world sent for their salvation, and thus their guilt was greater. Christ Bore Our Guilt
The truth is, we all are guilty, aren't we? Read the first three chapters of the book of Romans. There you will find that everyone is guilty because everyone has sinned and come short of the glory of God. There is no one righteous, no one who seeks God, no one who does good, Paul writes. But the key is huper hemon. Jesus Christ became a curse huper hemon --in behalf of us.
We have all violated God's law. We are the rebels and enemies of God. We are the guilty ones, whether we are Jews, Gentiles, Greeks or barbarians. We are the ones who ought to be rejected, scourged and condemned. But the great surprise is that in our place and in our behalf God rejected, forsook, condemned and punished another--his own Son, who was perfect God and perfect man, in accordance with his own eternal plan of salvation.
How Do We Respond?
If we are realize we are guilty, what can we do? What can we do to be saved? The answer of the Bible is, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." Without the shedding of blood--not just any blood but the blood of this Jesus Christ--there is no pardon and forgiveness of sins. We must cry out to God and say, "Have mercy upon me, a sinner. I was guilty, but now I understand. I trust in Jesus Christ who died in my behalf. I believe he died for me, even for me." And in John 6:53 Jesus said, "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you." His life gives us life. How do we receive it? By placing our faith in his person and his work alone.
If we refuse to believe in Jesus Christ, we will be joining with Judas, Pilate, Caiaphas, and the crowd of Jerusalem. We will be agreeing with their verdict, that Jesus is a criminal, a fraud, a false king, and a blasphemer, and must be crucified.
There is no other way. This choice is not just given to Pilate and Caiaphas. Every person who lives must judge this Jesus and pronounce a verdict, and the vast majority of the people in this world will follow Pilate. Why? Like him, they want to become famous, powerful, and well-connected politically. They want the kingdom of this world. They want a piece of the pie. Thus, they will reject Jesus.
The True Judge
I am sure that when Pilate and Caiaphas were finished judging Jesus, they thought that was the end of the story. But we are told in the Bible that all judgment is given to Jesus Christ, the victim of Pilate's unjust judgment. In fact, Pilate's own authority to judge came from Christ, because all judgment is given to Jesus Christ by the Father.
In Matthew 24:30 we read, "At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory." Jesus Christ is the Judge, and he is going to come again. Look at Matthew 26:64. What did Jesus tell those judging him? "'Yes, it is as you say,' Jesus replied. 'But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.'"
In Revelation 6:12-17 St. John wrote, "I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to the earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?'"
Jesus was judged and condemned to death. But that was not the end of the story, Pilate. Satan, that was not the end of the story. Gentiles, Jews, barbarians--whoever you are--that was not the end of the story. Jesus is coming again. He will judge the Sanhedrin, Pilate, the crowd, and the soldiers who mocked him. He will judge all Jews and Gentiles who continue to reject him and refuse to trust in him to be saved.
We Must Decide
We all must face Jesus. We must declare our verdict. You may say, "I don't want to decide," but to not decide is to decide. Either we trust in Christ's blood that was shed and we are saved and justified, or his blood will be upon us. There is no other choice. We will be judged by him to whom is given all judgment, who alone is the Judge of all the earth. Behold the man! Behold the King! Behold the Judge of all the earth, who was despised, rejected, condemned and punished for us! Behold him who gave his life as a ransom in our stead, that we may be accepted rather than rejected!
Do you feel rejected? Wait until Jesus comes again--then you will see real rejection. If you are a believer who is being rejected by the world, then understand that it makes no difference. If you are accepted by Christ Jesus and your heavenly Father, then everything is all right. The antidote to all the rejections of the world is to discover that we are accepted in Jesus Christ. We are accepted in the Beloved.
What do you say about Jesus Christ? There is absolutely no neutrality possible. When we introduce Jesus and his absolutely unique claim that he is the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the King of kings and Lord of lords, humanity will divide into two groups. One group will fall down and worship him, glorying in the phrase huper hemon --for us. They will say, "For us he was despised, rejected, tried, and crucified that we may be saved. For us he died." But the other group will hate Jesus. There are only two ways.
Have you bowed your knees to Jesus Christ? This is not the end of the story. Jesus is coming again, and St. Paul tells us that every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord for the glory of God the Father. It is the will of the Father that we honor his Son and find our life in him.
May God have mercy upon us! May he deliver us from phoniness and the desire to become rich, famous, powerful and the friend of Caesar. May we place our hope, not in this world, but in God's Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and worship him with all our heart, mind, soul and strength. Soon we will come to the end of our lives on earth and we will enter into the beginning of judgment. May we examine ourselves today and see whether we have the tremendous assurance that we have bowed our knees to Jesus Christ and are saved. Then we can say without a shadow of doubt, "I believe in Jesus Christ, for I believe Christ died for me--even for me, a sinner." Amen.
Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew
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