We left Jesus in the hands of those who had arrested him in the Garden of Gethsemane and who then took him to the house of the high priest. Luke then interrupted his account of the Lord’s interrogation to recount Peter’s betrayal. We return to Jesus, now in the custody of some soldiers, as in that early morning hour the Sanhedrin was being summoned to a meeting.
We wonder from whom these details came, but there were a number of people there, or watching, some of whom we know became Christians after the Lord’s resurrection. This sort of behavior would have been typical enough of soldiers in such a situation: bullying and mockery are common enough today. Think of the similar treatment of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Bagdad a few years ago.
It is Luke who adds the interpretative comment, “blaspheming him.” You can’t blaspheme a mere human being! There are a lot of gods you can’t blaspheme either, frankly. Work real hard for ten or fifteen minutes and see if you can think a blasphemous thought about “Thor.” The Living God alone can be blasphemed. So Luke is telling you something extraordinary about Jesus Christ there.
- We learn in the Gospel of John that there had been informal interrogations conducted during the night, first at the house of Annas and then at the house of Caiaphas, but to legitimate the verdict of guilty, it was necessary to call the entire Sanhedrin into session. A great deal of study has been devoted to the procedures of this Jewish trial and it has often been pointed out that in their rush to judgment the Sanhedrin violated some of their own rules of judicial prosecution; but they were in a hurry and they could finally see the end of all the trouble Jesus had caused them. [Cf. Caird, 245-246; Bock, ii, 1792-1793]
- As had been obvious throughout the Gospel, Jesus’ concept of the Messiah was so different from that entertained by the Jews in general that a simple “yes” wouldn’t have meant what they thought it meant; they wouldn’t deign to answer questions he might ask them; and they wouldn’t have believed what he said in any case. They asked the question of Jesus in the first place precisely because the Messiah was, in their view, primarily a political/military personage. He was definitely not the savior of sinners. Jesus’ reply was effectively to say, “It is pointless to answer the question.” [Bock, ii, 1795]
As men can be called “sons of God,” it is probably significant that they asked if he were the son of God. Did he, in other words, in mentioning his soon to be seated at the Right Hand of the power of God, mean that he had some special relationship to God? That would be blasphemy, a capital offense! In the Jewish mind one did not sit with God; he must stand before him! [Bock, ii, 1799] The Lord’s reply might be rendered, “That is your word, not mine. I wouldn’t have put it like that, but since you have, I cannot deny it.” [Morris, 336] It is a “grudging admission.” [Bock, ii, 1802]
By the way, the words “So they all said…” are a generalization. There were members of the Sanhedrin who did not agree with what was happening, the measure of their protest we don’t know, but we will read in 23:51 that one of those men was Joseph of Arimathea, in whose tomb Jesus would be buried.
- The Jews had lots of reasons to want to be rid of Jesus — they were smarting from his exposure of their hypocrisy, they were envious of his following among the people, they were fearful of what he might do next, and, no doubt, they had actually convinced themselves that he was a blasphemer — but they hadn’t the authority to execute him; so they took him to the Roman governor who did have that authority.
- Pilate was not the sort of man to care about intra-Jewish religious squabbles, so they had to convince him that Jesus was a threat to the general peace or to Roman authority. They weren’t above telling him an outright lie. Jesus, of course, had never taught anyone to withhold taxes from the Roman government. The vague charge, “we found this man misleading our nation” was probably meant to make Pilate think that Jesus was fomenting rebellion.
- Pilate was prepared to find Jesus a political revolutionary, but one look at the man made that charge seem preposterous. The “you” is emphatic: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Once again, Jesus gives reluctant assent. He is the king, but not in the sense that Pilate means.
- Again, notice how indefinite the complaint is. They were hard-pressed to make a convincing case against Jesus.
- All the Gospels make clear that Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent of any charge of interest to Rome and wanted some way out of the mess the Jewish leadership had foisted upon him. So he seized on their mention of Galilee to send Jesus to Herod and so pass the buck. As a Galilean, Jesus belonged to Herod’s jurisdiction.
- Herod had heard a lot about Jesus and about his miracles and was hoping to see one for himself. Herod’s utter lack of sincerity is perhaps the reason Jesus remained silent. Only to Herod did Jesus say nothing at all.
- Unable to coax a miracle out of Jesus, Herod washed his hands of the situation, allowed his men to join in making fun of Jesus and then sent him back to Pilate dressed in some cast-off robe. [Bock, ii, 1820-1821] He should have acquitted him because he knew he was innocent, as Pilate will say in v. 15– Herod must have told him that — but he turned it into a joke instead. If you want a snapshot that reveals the nature of the world in which you live, this is it: the Savior of the world is going to his death and the witnesses think it’s funny!
I have a friend, a classmate from seminary days, a PCA minister now pastoring in Florida, who was born and raised here in Washington State. His mother was a Native American but she was a prostitute. He had twelve siblings, but none of them knew his or her own father; he might have been any of hundreds of men. He was one of the older children and often had to care for his younger brothers and sisters. It was a nightmare of a family, as, alas, one finds all too often in this modern world of ours. When he was a little boy the children would sleep six to a bed and most of them wet the bed; he did as well and had as long as he could remember. He was eventually placed in foster homes where he continued to wet the bed. Every single night he wet the bed. He was bitterly ashamed that he was a bed-wetter but was helpless to change. Every morning he woke up to wet bedclothes. One foster mother screamed at him “Bad boy; bad boy!” morning after morning. Another once held his nose in the wet bedclothes, as if she were house- training a dog. Another, if you can believe this, made him stand on the front porch, wrapped in his wet sheet, holding a sign that read, “This boy wets the bed.” That front porch, by the way, stood right across the street from the school he attended.
He tried everything. He would hide his bed-wetting by making his bed in the morning even though the sheets were wet, only to have to crawl into a still damp and now stinking bed at night. In the course of time he was given up by eight different foster homes at least in some part because he couldn’t stop wetting the bed. As you can imagine, now a boy of twelve, he lived with his shame and with his despair every single day. He was an utter failure. No one wanted him. He tried prayer, but it didn’t work. God either didn’t care about him or wasn’t there at all.
You hear a story like that, a true story, and it produces so many thoughts and feelings in your mind and heart, certainly immense pity for that little boy, but also anger and disgust at those who failed him. His mother, the men who purchased her services and fathered those children, the foster parents who found him so inconvenient and bothersome. What was wrong with those people that they should have visited such humiliation on a lost little boy — deprived of everything a little boy should have — who wanted so much to change but didn’t know how?
But, of course, what would they have said? His mother needed to make a living; she needed the drugs and alcohol that made her life bearable. She didn’t hate her kids, she wanted the best for them; she was doing the best she could. She wasn’t a bad person. The men were buying a service, they had no thought or intention of her becoming pregnant, they weren’t planning to father a child, it wasn’t their fault. The foster parents would have said that they meant to help, but he was incorrigible. What could they do? They couldn’t wash sheets every day for the rest of their lives. The boy had to change. That is the story of human life and of the human heart in a nutshell. I have given you a snapshot of the human condition in the early life of my friend. And that is what you have here.
We meet a lot of ordinary people in this account of the Lord’s sham of a trial or, better, trials, and his crucifixion. There were folks from the upper class, members of the ruling council of the Jews, wealthy, urbane, sophisticated; and there were folks from the lowest classes, such as the soldiers who guarded the prisoner. There were laymen, men with jobs of various kinds, and there were clerics, churchmen who spent their days in the work of the temple and in teaching the Word of God; and there were powerful politicians, even a king, men used to exercising authority; and, as we read in v. 4, there was a crowd of onlookers. But, I guarantee you, had you known these people, had you shared a meal with them, had you seen them at home with their families, met them at their places of business, or chatted with them in the temple, you would have found them ordinary people, typical of people everywhere. They loved their mothers, they would occasionally do something nice for someone else, and at least many of them had serious religious sensibilities. They were as we say today, people of faith. Some of the soldiers were foul-mouthed in the way soldiers so often are, but we expect that of soldiers. We don’t tend to hold it against them. In fact, in my neighborhood it is hardly uncommon to hear a cataract of vulgarity coming out of the mouths of young and old alike. It’s normal. The politicians were angling to get what they wanted without incurring any blame for what might go wrong. We expect exactly that of politicians today. We don’t expect anyone in Washington to accept personal blame for the mess we are in as a country and we certainly don’t expect them to stop acting in their own best interest. Religious leaders now as well, as religious leaders long ago, often have an agenda and are not so scrupulous about the means employed to achieve their goals.
But look at what these ordinary, typical, representative human beings did! The soldiers, no doubt with the encouragement of their masters, made sport of another human being, tired, exhausted, and wounded as he was by the blows he had received. They bullied, beat up, and made fun of someone who was helpless to respond (or, at least, so it seemed to them). These were men but this is not manhood. Why does a person do such a thing? What are his motivations? Hatred? He doesn’t even know the man. Amusement? How sick must the heart be to find this funny? Perhaps it is something deeper. Perhaps it is shame; violence against others, against those weaker than yourself is a coping mechanism; a way of being, or at least seeming to be superior to someone else. A way of salving your conscience. By dragging others down you seem to move higher.
Others here were judges, either Jewish, Roman, or, as Herod, something else again. The Jews didn’t think much of Herod — he was only partly Jewish and was not a faithful Jew — and he knew how little they thought of him. This is the Herod who had murdered John the Baptist at the behest of a dancing girl. He murdered the greatest man who ever lived save one, because he allowed himself to be duped and didn’t want to lose face before his dinner guests! How small a man do you have to be to do something like that? His mistreatment of Jesus may have had something to do with his knowing that Jesus and John were associates. Perhaps a guilty conscience motivated his mockery of the Lord. He needed to bring Jesus down, make him seem contemptible, so that his criminal act against John seem less unworthy, less despicable, less significant. In any case, as a king he was more interested in parlor tricks than justice.
In many ways Herod, known to history as Herod Antipas, was a wise ruler by the standards of the time. He built some impressive cities; he kept the peace through many years in Galilee. He was the sort of man we might honor in our day, perhaps name a street or building after him. But like so many of our civic luminaries, his personal ethics, especially in regard to his marriages and his treatment of those who had the temerity to point out his faults, were pathetically small-minded, selfish, and vicious. He could be as self-serving and cruel as the next minor king ruling at the pleasure of the Roman Empire. Jesus knew his man when he referred to Herod once as “that fox.” In any case, he was a proud man who felt himself superior to others and was not above finding amusement in the humiliation of someone else.
Pilate, on the other hand, had responsibility for maintaining order in one of the most troubled provinces of the empire. Most Roman procurators were mediocrities and Pilate was no exception. He could be pointlessly cruel as he had been already in his treatment of the Jews. He disliked the Jews intensely and knew very well that the feeling was mutual. So he was not inclined to give them anything they wanted and when forced to found ways to let them know who was boss, as with the sign he would later post above the Lord’s head on the cross. He knew Jesus was innocent. We read in Mark that he was savvy enough to know that jealousy was their prime motivation in seeking Jesus’ execution. He didn’t want to have to resolve this dispute; he shouldn’t have had to deal with a strictly Jewish matter that had more to do with religion than politics. What were they bothering him with this for? He resented everyone involved for having complicated his life at the time of year when it was most difficult to maintain peace and quiet in the capital. Pilate, like most of the characters in this drama, was a small man. If the death of Jesus were the simplest way of getting these people out of his hair, then so be it. Romans, who had a highly developed sense of justice, were not above throwing principle to the wind. Pilate had enough perspicacity to see through the duplicity of the religious leadership and to discern their real motivations — in fact, taking the Gospels as a whole, on three different occasions he would pronounce Jesus innocent of any crime — and he had the authority to make his judgment stick — if he had said “No” that would have been the end of it — but he hadn’t the character to do so. He would kill a man to make his life more convenient.
We read at the end of our passage that after this Pilate and Herod became friends. Well, they deserved one another! Pompous, self-assured, but hollow men who cavalierly treated others with cruelty — well, in the same way they judged others, they too will be judged.
And then there were the elders, the priests, and the theologians. It is one thing to disagree with the religious viewpoint of another. The rabbis of that time often disagreed with one another about this or that interpretation of the law. There were Pharisees and Sadducees in the Sanhedrin and they didn’t agree with one another about anything and hated each other. But it is another thing altogether not only to wish someone dead because of a difference in religious viewpoint, but actively to seek that man’s death. But, then, there is nothing unusual about that either is there? We have been treated to murder after murder in the name of some religious ideal throughout this past generation, in India and Pakistan, in Northern Ireland, in the Middle East — in Egypt this week for goodness sake — in the United States on 9/11, and so on. Whether religion is the true motivation for such cruelty is a fair question, but that it is invoked as the motivation is indisputable. Ordinary people are doing it all the time. No doubt, as in the case of these men long ago who were motivated by envy among other things, so-called religious murders are today as well motivated by envy, by greed, by frustration with one’s condition in life, by hatred, justified or not, and by a crushing sense of inferiority. Whatever the motivation, someone else pays the price as Jesus did here.
But this pride, this self-absorption, this aching need to be superior to others is found in every heart, it reveals itself in a thousand ways, both terrifying and petty, and is the true index of the real moral condition of human beings. It is the treatment of others that the Lord Jesus made the true measure of goodness and the mistreatment of others is, accordingly, the true measure of human badness.
C.S. Lewis put it this way in Mere Christianity (94-95):
“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.”
Well surely there must have been some better men here. Well not the Lord’s own disciples. They were in hiding, afraid for their lives, if they were not filling the air with an oath-filled rant that they had ever even met Jesus of Nazareth. And not the crowd, mentioned in v. 4, who will soon be calling for Jesus to be executed and a common thug to be released in his place. No one here at the turning point of world history appears in a favorable light except Jesus himself, who went willingly to the cross for the sins of others.
Christians, of course, understand this. They would be the last to deny that they belong with the soldiers and with the priests and with Pilate and Herod in these tragic scenes. And the more devout, the more godly, the more righteous they become by the grace of God, the more clearly they see themselves as contemptible. Here is Charles Spurgeon, the great 19th century London preacher, speaking about his life as a boy of 14 years of age.
“I do not hesitate to say that those who examined my life would not have seen an extraordinary sin, yet as I looked upon myself I saw outrageous sin against God. I was not like other boys, untruthful, dishonest, swearing and so on. But of a sudden I met Moses carrying the law…God’s ten words…and as I read them, they all seemed to join in condemning me in the sight of the thrice holy Jehovah.” [Cited in Stott, Basic Christianity, 70]
Oh yes. We know ourselves all too well: the selfishness, the pride, the pettiness, the jealousy, the mistreatment of others in thought, word, and deed, the cruelty, the indifference to others’ pain, and on and on. All such things are still in our hearts and we encounter them every day we live in our behavior. That is why we need a Redeemer; that is why we need someone to take our guilt away; and that is why Jesus endured and had to endure that humiliation and cruel death; he was the just dying for the unjust.
Don’t resent hearing this. Consider the truth of it, the obvious, undeniable truth of this fact that you are so much like these despicable but perfectly ordinary human beings who feature in the drama of the Lord’s crucifixion. You don’t need another to condemn you, you condemn yourself. You know very well how often you have violated your own code of conduct. You know very well how often you have condemned others for doing nothing more than what you do often enough. All of you pots constantly calling the kettles in your life black.
We are forced by the narrative here to confront the banality and the universality of evil. Here we see ordinary people — their mothers’ loved them; they had some altruistic impulses from time to time, I’m sure that many of them could tell a good joke and cheer you up — ordinary people doing the most evil thing that can be imagined — the murder of the Savior of the world — simply because it was so natural for them to love themselves more than their neighbor, to lie to themselves about themselves, and to choose themselves rather than God at point after point throughout the day. The fact that most people don’t think of themselves this way is beside the point. Of course they don’t. That is the index of their problem. They can’t see what everyone else can see clear as day and what they can see about everybody else clear as day. Pride and self-interest blind us to our sin. But the fact of it is undeniable. And that is why Jesus Christ came into the world to die. Our sin had to be laid upon him or we would have to suffer the penalty of its mountainous guilt ourselves. That is why the entire message of the Bible can be so simply summarized: “he who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.”
But now, back to my friend, the PCA pastor in Florida; a boy of twelve who still wet the bed every night. There was a fisherman and his wife who were too old to have children — a Christian couple — and they decided to adopt him and his sister. You might have thought this would come as a great relief to a boy who had been passed around and then rejected so many times in his young life: having been in eight different foster homes by this time. But he was terrified that he was going to ruin this as well and that when they found out that he wet the bed they would get rid of him as everyone else had done.
At their first meeting the couple took the kids to a Chinese restaurant. He didn’t know anything about Chinese food or how to eat it. It was a disaster, he thought. He didn’t come off very well. Then they went bowling. He was an awful bowler and was embarrassed by how badly he did and was wondering if they already thought they’d made a mistake in adopting him.
He figured he better prepare them for the worst so he told his new mother, “I’m going to wet the bed, I always do.” She replied, “We know that. It’s alright.” And she clutched him in a big hug and told him, “I’ve been waiting for you all my life.” That night, for the first time, he didn’t wet the bed; and he never did again!
What is the answer to our shame and the shameful behavior with which we cope with our shame, seek to hide it even from ourselves? It is love, a self-giving, sacrificial, immutable and unconquerable love. And that is what we see here and will continue to see throughout the narrative of our Savior’s crucifixion. Utterly shameful behavior being overcome by love. Jesus didn’t have to go to the cross; he could have called down legions of angels to dispatch the small-fry who thought they had him under their power.
But instead he endured to the end the viciousness of men because only in that way would he free men from that bondage to themselves and to their pride and their selfishness and their foolishness in which otherwise human beings must live forever. That’s what he did. He saved you from yourself.
Anselm, the medieval theologian, in his great work on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, Cur Deus Homo? (Why did God become Man?) asks the question he imagines many will ask: “Why could God not simply wipe out man’s sin without requiring Christ to die?” And he answers that question this way: “You have not yet considered how great is the weight of sin.”
See Jesus standing or sitting there in the midst of sinners, mocking and abusing him; pummeling him with their fists, making fun. It is a picture of ultimate reality and of the greatest conceivable news: Jesus Christ died for our sins that we might finally live with God as truly good human beings. Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!