Pious Villainy


Matthew 26:47-68

Text Comment

v.47     Judas is identified as “one of the Twelve” to remind us of the shocking nature of his betrayal and of the Lord’s prediction of it in the Upper Room.  It is a powerful understatement.  None of the Gospel writers make any special effort to blacken Judas’ reputation. They let the facts speak for themselves. [Morris, 672] Since Judas left the Passover meal, he has not been idle.  We can imagine him now going to the authorities and telling them that he knows where they will be able to find Jesus.  The group with him we know, comparing all the information we have, was a contingent of police and temple guards who were at the disposal of the Sanhedrin.

v.49     It was dark, this was a time before newspaper photographs make a man’s face familiar to everyone, and apparently there was no interest in arresting anyone but Jesus.  The men sent to arrest him would be perhaps among those least likely to have seen him up close.  So a signal was arranged by which they might know whom they were to arrest.

v.50     The Lord has made no effort to prevent what is about to happen and does not make any such effort now.

v.51     John provides us both with the name of the disciple who wielded the sword (Peter) and the name of the servant (Malchus) and Luke tells us of the Lord’s restoring Malchus’ ear.  Peter’s impetuous act showed some courage under the circumstances, but foolishness too.  It was a small and futile show of force, not least because Jesus had no intention of putting up resistance.  The Lord’s intervention probably saved Peter from being arrested himself.

v.54     The Lord’s policy has been one of non-resistance from the beginning and continues to be.  He could have stopped this at any time – he was the furthest thing from a helpless victim – but had he put a stop to it where would our salvation be? It was for suffering and death he came into the world.  Long before, in Isaiah 53:12 it was prophesied that the Servant of the Lord would be numbered among the transgressors.

v.56     The flight of the disciples was also predicted by the OT prophets, as Jesus had already said in v. 31.

v.57     There was, obviously, a plan already hatched to find a way to dispatch Jesus after he was arrested.  Caiaphas was, you remember, serving as high priest, and was a man who had learned to get along with the Romans.  He wanted to preserve his place and his power.

v.58     Peter lies in the background here, but we are reminded of what Jesus said about him before and what will occur in the courtyard during the Lord’s sham trial.

v.59     Knowing human nature, we should probably interpret this to mean that they wanted Jesus dead and weren’t going to be particularly careful to test the truthfulness of any evidence that served their purposes.  But this is what created their problem.  They could scarcely say to a witness, “We want you to say this…” and, not being sure what was expected, none of the witnesses who volunteered said what needed to be said.

v.61     Two witnesses in agreement were needed to impose the death penalty according to the Law of Moses.  In order to get the Romans to apply the death penalty, a right the Jews themselves no longer possessed, they needed to condemn him first themselves and for a capital crime. This is a distortion of what Jesus actually said, but it was sufficiently close to statements he had made to have the ring of truth to it.  Such was the place of the temple in Jewish life and national identity that such a statement seemed treasonous.

v.63     Jesus could have clarified what he said and rejected the false testimony, but, once again, he put up no resistance to the plans of the religious leadership to have him killed.  Their hatred and their indifference to true justice are the means by which he would come to drink the cup of God’s wrath against human sin, the very thing he had come into the world to do.

v.64     Jesus admitted that he is the Christ, that is, the Messiah, but did so in a somewhat roundabout way.  Matthew’s Greek may be taken to mean something like: “The words are yours; this much I add to them…” That kind of a reply may be explained as a further instance of the Lord’s recognition that what the Jews meant by “Messiah” and what he meant by the term were very different things.  And so he goes on further to lift the calling of the Messiah out of the realm of Jewish politics into the sphere of heaven and eternal salvation.

This amounts to a claim to a kinship with God far beyond what a typical first century Jew was ready to countenance.

v.65     We read in the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 7.5) that the tearing of clothes in such a situation was a ritual legal demonstration that blasphemy had occurred. By the standards of Jewish jurisprudence then in force, Jesus had not actually committed blasphemy because he had not pronounced the divine name.  But this court was not concerned about the fine points of legal procedure.  They wanted a guilty verdict and they had enough for one in their view.

v.68     The sham trial now descends to mob violence.  Luke tells us that they blindfolded Jesus before they hit him and asked him to identify the source of the blow.  This is hatred, anger, and mockery pure and simple.  A window into the hearts of these men.

There is something supremely grubby about all of this and Matthew makes sure that we notice the grubbiness.  It all begins with Judas, one of the Lord’s inner circle, betraying him with a kiss.  Matthew makes a point of reminding us that Judas was “one of the Twelve.”  It disgusts us as it should that one of Jesus’ close friends should have sold him for money.  It came to disgust Judas too, as we will read later, but by then, of course, it was too late.  We are just beginning.

Judas leads the authorities to Jesus at a secluded location at night.  Jesus himself points out the obvious, and Matthew lets us hear the Lord say it, that there is something shabby about it as well.  If justice were really the interest of anyone in this affair, if their concern were really for the law of God and the welfare of God’s people as they claimed, he had been a public figure for a long time, had moved among the people with no effort to hide his whereabouts, and even through the last week in Jerusalem had been teaching publicly in the temple. Honest men would have arrested him in public. Even if they had still wanted to make the arrest sub rosa, they needn’t have come with a large armed police force.  Jesus had never preached violence; his followers had never provoked it.  The authorities had nothing to fear from him. But evil men think others are like themselves, are as two-faced as they are.  What Jesus means is that the way these men did things gave them away.

And then there is the trial, or what passed for a trial.  There is, on the one hand, the obvious and more than faintly pathetic determination of the Sanhedrin to get the verdict they wanted no matter what.  We sense the building frustration as one false witness after another either contradicts previous testimony or volunteers information that provides no adequate basis for a serious charge.  They’ve got him in their clutches and can’t make a serious charge stick.  It is a measure of Jesus’ innocence that even a corrupt court had trouble convicting him! And then we watch them clutch greedily at that last testimony, even though, on its face, what is said seems to make Jesus seem more an object of pity than a threat to public order.  If he were really promising to tear down the temple and rebuild it with his own hands, then let him try it. Failure would be even sweeter vindication than death. Let everyone laugh at his bizarre prediction and his failure to deliver.  But the Sanhedrin knew not to underestimate Jesus’ power; they wanted Jesus dead, and they would take any evidence that gave them the pretence of a valid conviction.

But then, on the other hand, the hypocrisy of their solemnities.  After this seamy excuse for a trial, the high priest tears his clothes and the court renders its solemn verdict.  “There is nothing more horrible than to see deeply sinful actions undertaken in the church being accompanied by the most pious gestures.”  [van Reest, Schilder’s Struggle for the Unity of the Church, 322-323]

And, then, to prove how utterly uninterested these men were in true justice, how little this was a proceeding marked by integrity, the procedure descends into spiteful cruelty as these men who had spent the night posing as champions of justice beat a defenseless man for the sport and pleasure of it.

Now, consider the people who populate these scenes.  There are clerics and laymen.  There are soldiers and civilians.  There are teachers and businessmen – for the Sanhedrin was composed of both laymen and theologians.  The cast of characters is, in other words, a representative cross section of people.  Had you met a number of them individually you would have found them ordinary people, living ordinary lives.  Perhaps some of the soldiers would have struck you as crass, profane and vulgar men, but the members of the Sanhedrin certainly wouldn’t have.  But, when given the opportunity they did and they did most willingly the most evil thing that has ever been done in the world.

The worst sins, the most damning sins, and the most harmful are not those committed in crime-ridden ghettoes by those who have sunk most deeply into the sensual sins of lust, greed, and temper.  No, the Bible teaches us many times that of all bad men and women in the world, the worst are the moral, the upright, even the religious men and women.

C.S. Lewis put it this way.

“If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is quite wrong.  The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins.  All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronizing and spoiling sport, and backbiting; the pleasures of power, of hatred…. That is why a cold self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute.  But, of course, it is better to be neither.”  [Mere Christianity, 94-95]

Well so it was that night in Jerusalem:  putting a person in the wrong, bossing and patronizing, spoiling sport, backbiting, the pleasures of power and hatred – all are on terrible display.  Most of these people, if not all of them, would have been highly religious people.  They would have been thought upright people by the people who knew them. And these were people who would have taken satisfaction from what they did to Jesus.  They would have thought themselves sincere.  But what they did in fact was pure evil, as evil a thing as had ever been done.  They condemned to death the Son of God and the only perfect man who ever lived.

And they did it, as Mark tells us and as the Gospels tell us even Pilate could see, out of envy, jealously.  They would never have admitted it, but they resented Jesus for his popularity, for his power, for his goodness.  And they did it out of self-centered cowardice.  They feared their loss of place with the people and with the Romans.  They told themselves and, no doubt, they convinced themselves that they were doing right, that they were serving God, but then there is nothing new about that.  Evil men, especially upright, publicly moral men always claim to do what they do for the highest and noblest reasons.

Such people had made Moses’ life miserable in his day, Elijah’s life miserable in his day, and Jeremiah’s in his.  And later it would be just such churchmen who sent the noble John Chrysostom into exile and churchmen who, with pious prayers and pronouncements, sent John Huss to be burned for calling the church back to the Gospel of God.  It would be a Christian minister who would excommunicate Martin Luther for having the temerity to say that the Christian church shouldn’t raise money by teaching her people that salvation could be bought and sold.  It would be churchmen who would put the English martyrs of the 16th century and the Scottish martyrs of 17th century to the cruelest deaths.  It would be an American Presbyterian church, still full of evangelical Christians who would depose from the ministry such a man as J. Gresham Machen for daring to complain that the church’s money was being used to support missionaries who did not believe that Jesus was God or that salvation for all men was to be found by believing in him.  And they acted for the very same motives as did these churchmen at Jesus’ trial.  They wanted to be left alone to do what they pleased.  They wanted no rocking of the boat.  And most of all, they deeply resented the criticism that had been directed toward them. But such illustrations as these from church history – and there are thousands more that could be given – are only the visible outcroppings of thick strata of sin and unbelief in the church.  For every godly man or woman, every faithful follower of Christ who has been hunted to death by the church herself, there have been entire congregations who have slipped off to condemnation and death under the leadership of churchmen who loved this present world and before whose eyes there was no fear of God.

Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge, England was a church of dead men, kept dead by a worldly and unbelieving ministry, until Charles Simeon came.  For the next fifty years it was a church full of life, so much life that it overflowed from there to the four corners of the earth.  But what Simeon had done, his successors undid.  Within a generation of Simeon’s death, E.S. Woods the liberal vicar of Holy Trinity invited R.H. Kennet, the University professor of Hebrew to preach.  In his sermon Kennet denied all the biblical teaching about Christ’s redemption.  The next day an old Sunday School teacher came to the vicarage to tender his resignation.  He had been unable to sleep all night because there, in Simeon’s old pulpit, Bible truths had been belittled. Woods later commented, “I could scarcely control my amusement.”  Sleeplessness over departure from historic Christianity was comical to him.  What really is the difference between a churchman accusing the Lord of glory of blasphemy or striking him across the face, on the one hand, and, on the other, a Christian minister denying from his pulpit the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ and laughing at those who take offense?

You can reject Jesus as Messiah and as Savior just as surely in other ways than sending him to death and, since Jesus is no longer physically present to murder, people must reject him other ways.  And churchmen through the ages have found unnumbered ways of doing just that:  presenting Jesus in one way or in another, but denying that he is God the Son, come in the flesh, to lay down his life in our place and so endure the punishment our sins deserve. They too belittled him, and mocked him, as he really is, and they too made him out to be something much, much less than he was and is. This was not the sin of a few men long ago; this is the sin of everyman all the time and still today as much as then.

Every now and then we need to face the stark fact that it was the church of God that crucified the Lord of glory.  And to do so they paid a traitor to betray him, they suborned perjury, they tramped on every sacred principle of just dealing, they bore false witness and broke the ninth commandment in the most egregious way, and they reveled in their triumph over the Son of God!  And it has been that same church that times without number has opposed and persecuted and even killed the servants of the Lord Jesus from that time to this. As Luther once said, there is no sinner so great as the Christian church! [WA 34/1:276]

What is so important about this, of course, is that it forces upon us the truth about mankind, about the staggering reality of human evil, an evil that we take such pains to ignore, then to deny; but which consumes every human life.  People imagine that they would never do what these men did so willingly, but, the fact is, in the same situation, they would have done the same thing or a like thing.  And remember, while we are concentrating on the leadership here, the Sanhedrin, these are representative men. The crowds of ordinary folk will do the same thing to Jesus on the morrow and for the same selfish and spiteful reasons.  Oh no!  It is not only the ministers and elders but the whole congregation  that gnash their teeth against the Son of God.

In the great medieval work on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Cur Deus Homo, or Why did God Become Man? [Chapter xxi] Anselm asks the question that he imagines many will ask:  Why could God not simply wipe out man’s sin without requiring Christ to die? And he answers the question by saying this:  “You have not yet considered how great is the weight of sin.”  That is the grave error of most human beings and the fatal index of their peril:  they have not considered how great is the weight of sin.

But here we see the weight of sin, the true enormity of our rebellion against God, in the foul and despicable behavior of these ordinary human beings, of these people who in every way were just like everyone else, just like we are and our neighbors are today.

Believe me, if you do not believe that the people who did this to Jesus, who behaved in this way toward him, were ordinary human beings like the rest of us; if you do not believe that this same pride and selfish disdain for the truth and for another human being, this same determination to have one’s own way dominates our hearts and every human heart as really as it dominated theirs that night when the Sanhedrin conducted their mockery of a trial, then you will never understand the Christian message, you will never appreciate the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and, what is worse, you will never find salvation in him.  You have not yet considered the weight of sin.  The fact is, what these people really always were, only became clear when the opportunity was given them to see God in the flesh.  The closer he came to them, the more they hated him.  The more chance they were given to trust in him and follow him the more obvious became their unwillingness to do any such thing. Were people given the same opportunity today they would do the same thing.  It is their distance from God – and that only – that enables them to indulge the illusion that they would not do what these men did.

People think they are better than this; that they would never do such things.  But the fact is they prove a thousand times a day that they would do such things.  They do them in their heart and, if enough pressure were applied, they would do them with their hand.  A further proof is that Christians themselves, men and women who hate this selfishness in themselves, who despise their rebellious spirits that within themselves are always rising up against God and his will, who want to love Christ and serve Christ with all their hearts, their souls, their strength, and their minds, admit that they find this same spirit in them every day of their lives.

C.S. Lewis again put it this way.

“From the moment a creature becomes aware of God as God and itself as self, the terrible alternative of choosing God or self for the center is opened to it.  This sin…is the fall in every individual life, and in each day of each individual life, the basic sin behind all particular sins: at this very moment you and I are either committing it, or about to commit it, or repenting it.  We try, when we wake, to lay the new day at God’s feet; before we have finished shaving, it becomes our day and God’s share in it is felt as a tribute which we must pay out of ‘our own’ pocket, a deduction from the time which we ought, we feel, to be ‘our own.’”

That is what we are watching in the trial of Jesus, the triumph of self over God in the hearts of these men.  But it is what we see in our own hearts and in every human life every day.  It seems benign to us because we are so used to it.  But under pressure, it comes out and we see what is really there and always there in all its ugliness.

Martin Lloyd Jones, the great London preacher, recalled a conversation he had once with a Christian woman.

“She could not see how certain unbelieving people who live very good lives are not really Christian.  She said, ‘I cannot see how you can say that they are not Christian, look at their lives.’  A good Christian herself, she was really in trouble about it.  But I said, ‘Wait a minute, don’t you see what you are implying, don’t you see what you are saying?  You are really saying that these people are so good and so excellent and so noble that the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is unnecessary in their case, that the coming of the Son of God from heaven was unnecessary to them.  He need not have died upon the cross, they can reconcile themselves to God by their works and godly living.  Cannot you see that this is denying the faith; indeed by that argument you are really saying that Christ himself and his death are unnecessary?  And she saw it by working out the implications of the things she was saying.”  [Spiritual Depression, 185]

But the fact is we can say much more than that.  The problem isn’t only that Christ would be unnecessary if that were the case.  The fact is that every human being is virtually as bad as the worst human being.  We take pride on being better than others, but, if the truth be told, the difference is negligible.  We think there is a great difference between a 40 watt bulb and a 60 or a 100 watt bulb.  But hold those three bulbs up to the sun and the difference between them is annihilated.  It is inconsequential.  They are not light at all compared to the sun; none of them is.  The fact is these men who murdered Jesus were like everybody else.  They would have been thought by their friends to be moral, upright people.  They were sometimes kind to strangers, they loved their mothers, they didn’t kick dogs.  In other criminal trials they probably were scrupulous about making sure that the laws of evidence were respected.

But when God came near to them, they gnashed their teeth against him.  When the Lord of heaven and earth demanded their loyalty, we saw in that moment what they were made of, what they were really like.

The ease with which human beings adjust themselves to evil has always been a matter of sober reflection for serious minded people.  You have heard Alexander Pope’s lines before:

“Vice is a monster of so frightful a mien,

That to be trusted needs but to be seen.

Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,

We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

And how perfectly does the Roman historian, Livy, describe the contemporary culture of the modern West:

“Of late years wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sexual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death.” [History of Rome, 1.1]

How is this descent into evil so universally the experience of mankind except there is that within us all that is anti-God, we are utterly given over to self.  We see it here in these despicable men who sent Jesus to his death on trumped up charges to serve their own vanity and their own worldly desires; but what we see in them, honesty would compel us to admit we see in ourselves and in every human being.

Believe me, my friends, you are by nature much, much worse a person than you think.  It is my duty to tell you that and to help you see that awful truth about yourself not only because it is the truth, but because this truth is the gateway to all truth, to eternal life, and to peace with God.

How instructive that at the very moment that the Lord Jesus was giving up his life for the redemption of men, dying to pay for and to deliver them from their sins, we should see in such cold and pitiless fashion, in such horrific demonstration, those very sins that fill our hearts and from which we must be delivered.

There Jesus our Savior stands in the midst of sinners, himself sinless, and being condemned to die in a fury of hatred.  Here is the whole grand picture of salvation.  We would not; he would.  We could not; he could.  We did not; he did.

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned everyone to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”