Miscarriage of justice

Sermon: Sunday, 12th March, 2023
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Luke 22:63 – 23:25

The greatest miscarriage of justice in all of history was when Jesus was sentenced to death by crucifixion. The most innocent man who ever lived is treated as guilty not only by a Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, but also by a Roman one, presided over by Pontius Pilate. In our passage today, Jesus is taken from the Sanhedrin to Pilate, and then to Herod and then back to Pilate again. It is as if Jesus is rejected by the whole world, both Jew and Gentile. This total rejection was something prophesied about 1000 years before.

‘1 Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.’ Those who were normally enemies, the Jews and the Romans, unite in their rejection of Jesus.’ (Psalm 2:1-3)

How do we know that Psalm 2 speaks about the Sanhedrin and Pilate? We know, because in Acts chapter 4, the Sanhedrin orders Peter and John to stop speaking about Jesus. They refuse, saying: ‘We cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.’ (Acts 4 v20) Peter and John return to the believers, and there’s a time of prayer. Psalm 2 is quoted in prayer and its fulfilment is clearly marked out in the trial of Jesus: ‘Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen’ (Acts 4:27-28)

1. A hating world

As we take a bird’s-eye view of Jesus’ trials, it’s clear and striking that, throughout the world, there’s hatred towards Jesus Christ. This is just as true today as it was then. It doesn’t really make sense, because Jesus is so kind, and wise, and loving and trustworthy. So why all the hatred? Why the enmity? I think the answer is found in John 3:19-20, where Jesus is spoken of as the light: ‘This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.’ This is a sad truth – people love moral darkness. They love to live in a selfish way, just living their lives any way they want. They don’t want King Jesus, the true King, ruling over their lives, and challenging them to live in a different way.

What’s all this got to do with us today, we might ask. Well, that’s why it takes a real miracle of God, a supernatural work of God if people are to be saved. Secondly, in John’s Gospel, Jesus shows how this hatred of him affects all of Jesus’ followers: ‘If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also.’ (John 15:18-20) This means that at school, university, work, in our families and in our communities, some people will treat us with varying degrees of hatred just because we follow Jesus. We need to accept that, so that when it happens, we aren’t surprised. And like the early disciples, we must not let this reaction silence us, but must say with them: ‘We cannot help speaking about Jesus.’

2. Jesus’ identity revealed

Let’s home-in on Jesus on trial before the Sanhedrin. This is the supreme court of the Jewish nation, made up of the most religious people in the land. You might think they, of all people, would give Jesus a fair trial. They do not. They are not interested in finding out the facts or weighing up the evidence. They say to Jesus: ‘If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer.’ (Luke 22:67-68) But Jesus answers in this way because he knows their minds are closed to the truth about him. They do not understand the kind of Messiah he is. His kingdom is not a political one but a spiritual one. We also see in Mark’s account that the court has no real interest in justice, but only in getting rid of Jesus: ‘The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.’ (Mark 14:55-56) And were Jesus to ask them searching questions about the true nature of the Messiah’s work, they would not be able to discuss it. In other words, Jesus know they are totally prejudiced against him and it doesn’t matter what he says.

Next, Jesus says something quite extraordinary. He looks into the future, after his resurrection and ascension, and says: ‘But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.’ In Daniel chapter 7, the Son of Man is a divine figure who is worshipped by the nations; Jesus is revealing his true identity in a remarkable way. He is also signing his own death warrant, as the Sanhedrin assumes this must be blasphemy. How can Jesus be divine? Why does Jesus speak of himself as seated at the right hand of mighty God? This picture is rooted back in Psalm 110, and speaks of Jesus sharing in reigning over the universe and judging the world.

“They understood him to be claiming virtual equality with God, both in position and power, and they were delighted with the statement because to them it was the height of blasphemy and gave them ample grounds for having him executed.” (David Gooding)

Let’s picture Jesus standing before the Jewish Sanhedrin. He is on trial before them. However, Jesus reveals his own identity as one who is both the Messiah and divine. One day, the roles will all be reversed, and Jesus will return from Heaven and judge everyone on the earth. I couldn’t help thinking that today, so many people like to put God in the dock, and put Jesus on trial and then reject him. Perhaps you have done that yourself. You might blame God for the way your life has worked out (or not worked out) or blame him for the evil and suffering in the world. And even though he is innocent, you might find him guilty and reject him from your life. This would be a grave mistake, because one day, the roles will be reversed, and we will have to give an account of our lives to King Jesus.

God is on trial before the Sanhedrin and they find him guilty. But he is not guilty – they are. They’re full of prejudice and corruption and hatred. Their court might appear to be just on the outside, but it is rotten to the core. They have no interest in finding out the truth. They just want to get rid of Jesus. We can be just like the Sanhedrin today. In our arrogance, we put God on trial and blame him for all that’s wrong in the world. We are prejudiced against him. We ignore the evidence. We ignore the fact that Jesus healed the sick, calmed the storm, raised the dead, and rose again himself. All these things point to the fact that Jesus truly is the Son of God and the Son of Man. Ultimately, he is not answerable to us but we are answerable to him.

If the Sanhedrin has found Jesus guilty of blasphemy, why do they need to take him to a Roman court? The answer is straightforward – they have no authority to execute anyone. For that, they need the approval of Rome. The Sanhedrin know full well that Rome has no interest in their Jewish claims of blasphemy. And so, they invent accusations which Rome will take more of an interest in, claiming that Jesus had refused to pay his taxes and was setting himself up as a rival king to Caesar. These charges were very serious indeed. It the time of the Passover, when Jewish nationalism was at its highest, and so the last thing Rome needed was some kind of a rebellion.

Of course, they were lies. In fact, as we know, Jesus had said they exact opposite: ‘Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.’ (Luke 20 :25). We see in John’s gospel that Jesus informs Pilate that his kingdom is ‘… not of this world.’ (John 18:36) Luke does not record this conversation. But there is one thing in particular that Luke wants us to notice: Jesus is totally innocent.

3. Jesus’ innocence made clear

‘Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no basis for a charge against this man.’ (John 23:4)

‘I have examined him in your presence and have found no basis for your charges against him.’ (John 23:14)

‘For the third time he spoke to them: ‘Why? What crime has this man committed? I have found in him no grounds for the death penalty.’ (John 23:22)

Pilate is an experienced ruler and has seen many revolutionary fighters in his time. But when he looks at Jesus, he sees no such thing. In fact, he can see through the Sanhedrin’s lies and knows their accusations stem from envy and hatred. Pilate is the one who has the power to set Jesus free and that’s exactly what he ought to have done. He does not.

The Jewish crowd are determined to have Jesus executed and do not accept Pilate’s plan to have Jesus released. They shout: ‘Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!’ And we read in John’s gospel that the Jewish leaders keep shouting: ‘If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar’ (John 19 v12). Pilate has a dilemma. If he releases Jesus, which is the right things to do, he risks trouble with the emperor and losing his own job. If it gets back to Caesar that Pilate has sided with a dangerous rebel, then it could potentially cost him a great deal.

So, in Pilate’s heart, justice and truth give way to convenience and self-gain. He tries to pass the problem on to Herod, but in the end, this doesn’t change a thing. The crowd is still baying for Jesus’ blood. Pilate shows his weak leadership by capitulating to their demands: ‘23 But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. 24 So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 25 He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, the one they asked for, and surrendered Jesus to their will.’ Pilate is meant to be a just judge. Again and again, he expresses Jesus’ innocence, and yet still he hands him over to be killed. What has the trial of Jesus got to do with us today? What impact ought it to have on our lives?

Consider Jesus’ silence. It’s striking that the only words Luke records Jesus saying are in response to Pilate’s question: Are you the king of the Jews? Jesus just says: ‘You have said so.’ (Luke 23:3)

Before Herod we read: ‘He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.’ (Luke 23:9) Why is Jesus so slow to defend himself? Doesn’t he know his life is on the line here? When he wanted to, Jesus could take the hardest of questions and answer them with such wisdom and depth of insight that his enemies had nothing left to say. He does not do that here. Why not?

I think the answer is found in Isaiah. ‘He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.’ (Isaiah 53:7) Generally speaking, we defend ourselves in court in order to escape punishment. But Jesus does not want to do that, because he knows that if he defends himself, then he will not die in our place, for our sins. If he defends himself, he effectively condemns us. And so, this perfect, sinless man, the only innocent person who has ever existed, allows himself to be condemned to death for us. He is silent, as if he really was guilty of blasphemy and treason, not because he was, but because we are guilty of these things, and he will die in our place.

Luke emphasises Jesus’ innocence, because only a totally innocent man could lay down his life for others. ‘For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect.’ (1 Peter 1:18-19)

Finally, let’s consider a beautiful release. ‘He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder.’ (Luke 23:25) The innocent Jesus is condemned to a cruel death, and a murdering rebel is released; what could be beautiful about that? It’s beautiful because it’s a picture of the heart of Christianity. We are like Barabbas. Sure, we’ve probably not murdered anyone, but we have rebelled against God, broken his rules, and are under a just sentence. We deserve to be punished. Barabbas lives because Jesus dies. That’s the bottom line. And the same is true for us. We are forgiven because he was condemned. We are accepted because he was rejected. And we live forever because he died for our sins.