“The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they could not find any.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Every now and then we learn of the simultaneously joyous and heartbreaking story of a man being released from prison after spending decades locked up for a crime he did not commit. Each one of these instances – far, far too many borne on the backs of black men who were unjustly locked up by a system laden with subtle racism that has proven far more difficult for our culture to eradicate than we once thought – is a tragedy. Innocent people being made to suffer unjustly is an outrage to all clear-thinking citizens of any nation. And the greater the suffering of the innocent, the more it should enrage those who learn of it. It certainly does our God who is fundamentally just in the core of His character. This is what makes the death of Jesus of Nazareth so scandalous. Have you thought of it in those terms before? We celebrate it because of what it accomplished for us, but this morning let’s pause a moment to remember that it also represented the absolute pinnacle of injustice.
The chief priests were absolutely dead set on removing Jesus from the picture. If the rumors of His many confrontations with others of the religious elite of the Jews from the past couple of years weren’t enough, the fiery confrontations He had had with just them over the past week were enough to convince them of the absolute necessity of this course of action. Time and time again Jesus had publicly flouted the Law and time and time again had claimed authority to do so on the grounds of that very Law. Yet each time they tried to out argue Him to show the people He could not possibly be correct in His teachings and interpretations, He managed to win the point.
They had finally suffered enough public embarrassment. Their position was a delicate one. This is what the people simply didn’t realize. They were the guardians of Jewish society. Everything the people around them were blithely enjoying depended on the work they did. Their whole way of life was constantly teetering on the brink of extinction. Rome just barely tolerated the Jews. They had been incorrigible in their opposition to Rome’s paganism enough times that the Empire had finally given them a pass on it. But while that allowed them to continue practicing their religion as the Law commanded, it engendered no small amount of frustration and ill will on the part of the Romans toward them. For the average Roman citizen, practicing the paganism of the Empire wasn’t about being faithful to one religion or another, it was about being good citizens. These Jews had refused to play ball like everyone else did long enough that the government finally threw up their hands and let them have their way. That meant they were having to tolerate these dissidents living among them all the time. Didn’t they know they were jeopardizing the whole of Roman society by their curmudgeonly refusing to even offer the most insignificant prayer in the temples? What if they angered the gods and the gods decided to take away their blessings that made Rome such a strong, safe, generally peaceful place to live? There was great resentment for the Jews and for the weak government as well. This was all to say nothing of the resentment among the average Jewish person for Rome. Resentment was flowing in abundance, and in Palestine at least that meant everyone was living on edge.
Jesus was threatening all of this every time He opened His mouth. He was undermining confidence in the Law, in them, and in the whole of the society they kept in balance. He was a threat to everything they knew and held dear. If the people only realized the truth, they would turn on Him in an instant instead of constantly thronging to celebrate Him as a possible Messiah and hanging on His every word. It was disgusting the way they loved Him.
The real trouble was, though, that Jesus was perfect. Of course He wasn’t without sin. No one held that distinction. But as much as they looked and as deep as they dug, they couldn’t find any dirt on Him. They tried to trip Him up with a series of theological and political debates, but He always managed to say the right thing to come out looking brilliant and leave them looking foolish. It all had to stop.
They didn’t know what they were going to do until one of His own followers came and offered to hand Him over to them. What motivated this young man they didn’t know and didn’t care. They promised to reward him handsomely for his efforts and set their plans into motion.
It started by acting at night. They knew they couldn’t arrest Jesus in broad daylight. The people were still too high on Him to think they could get away with taking Him into custody publicly. Thankfully, Judas had a solution to that. After the Passover this Friday, Jesus and His disciples were going to be in the Garden of Gethsemane praying. That was easy. They would send a small force to take Him into custody when no one was around to see it. Then there was the matter of securing a conviction. Again, they knew if they tried to do this during the day, the people would catch wind of it and it would quickly become clear they didn’t actually have any real grounds for taking action against Him. Yes, law and tradition both held that trials like this had to take place during the day, but this was an extreme circumstance and so it demanded a little leeway. Besides, there was nothing in the actual Law of Moses prohibiting what they were doing so they were on fairly solid ground.
Once the trial began in the middle of the night, though, it quickly became clear that things were not going their way. They had brought in (i.e., paid off) more than one witness to speak against Jesus that night. They received testimony after testimony of things Jesus had done wrong. It would seem from that like the evidence for moving forward was overwhelming. Except it wasn’t. The stories kept not adding up. Testimonies from two different people about the same charge contradicted one another. Others were so obviously fabricated that even they couldn’t allow them into evidence. As Mark notes here, try as they might, they couldn’t find any reasonable grounds for eliminating Jesus from the picture.
Now, there’s more to His trial and we’ll talk about that in the days ahead, but for now, don’t miss this one little point: Jesus was innocent. We know it, sure, but sometimes we don’t really know it. Jesus was completely innocent. He hadn’t done anything wrong. At all. There was no dirt for the chief priests to uncover. He had no closets with skeletons hiding in them. He hadn’t said anything to anyone that put Himself in a bad light. He hadn’t gone behind what He thought was a closed door and acted in a way that was inconsistent with what He said and did out in public. There was nothing. Jesus was perfect. Yes, the chief priests finally found something with which to accuse Him (namely, that He refused to deny the charge that He believed Himself to be the Messiah), but even this was a pretty thin gruel. Pilate, for his part, saw right through their ruse and gave them a rightly hard time about it as we’ll talk about in the next couple of weeks. But in the final analysis, Jesus was innocent of any and all charges…and they sentenced Him to death anyway.
This was an injustice of the highest order. It was worse than any man having to sit for years in prison for a crime he did not commit. It was even worse than someone being falsely accused of a capital crime and put to death for it before exculpatory evidence is discovered. When someone else suffers for some fabricated wrong, while he may not be guilty of that particular charge, there is usually other sin for which he is guilty. Even if the sentence is death, the penalty for sin is death, and so he’s paying a due sentence for his sins, even if the immediate circumstances of his conviction and sentence are unjust. (Just so we’re clear: this is not by any means to suggest that we as a society should not still do everything possible to make sure that the accused and convicted but innocent are justified, set free, and compensated generously for the trouble we have unjustly caused them.) In Jesus’ case, though, He was innocent of everything. Period.
That’s all really bad. Here, though, is where things get really good. Even though Jesus’ death was the gravest injustice ever committed in the whole history of humanity, God in His graciousness declared His death as a sufficient substitute for the death the rest of the world justly owed to Him because of our collective and individual sin. In other words, Jesus’ unjust death nonetheless satisfied the justice of God. That tragedy became the greatest victory the world has ever known, second only to the even greater victory coming on the third day. Because Jesus was so pristinely innocent of all crimes, He was the perfect, spotless lamb who was able to pay the price for the sins of the world. This was the greatest reversal of history. The ultimate injustice became the greatest gift of justice. Only a God like the one revealed in the pages of Scripture could pull of something so spectacular. A God like this is worthy of your time and attention. Better yet, He is worthy of your very life. I urge you to give it today and receive the justice He is waiting to give you.