Four Trials

Original Date: 
Sunday, March 25, 2012

Luke 22:63-23:25 60 Hours That Changed the World: Four Trials

Parrot Food
In the book the consistory is reading together right now called The Cross-Centered Life, C.J. Mahaney tells this story:

On Monday, Alice bought a parrot. It didn’t talk, so the next day she returned to the pet store.

“He needs a ladder,” she was told. She bought a ladder, but another day passed and the parrot still didn’t say a word.

“How about a swing?” the clerk suggested.

So Alice bought a swing. The next day, a mirror. The next day, a miniature plastic tree. The next day a shiny parrot toy. On Sunday morning, Alice was standing outside the pet store when it opened. She had the parrot cage in her hand and tears in her eyes. Her parrot was dead.

“Did it ever say a word?” the store owner asked.

“Yes,” Alice said through her sobs. “Right before he died, he looked at me and asked, ‘Don’t they sell any food at that pet store?”

Mahaney then makes this point:

Many good causes and activities can occupy a Christian’s time and attention. But just as no amount of parrot-cage amenities can make up for a lack of parrot food, nothing can replace the [cross] in a Christian’s life. Without it our souls will become like Alice’s pet—starving in a crowded cage. (pgs. 18-19)

Here’s the strange thing about Christianity: We believe that Jesus is the Son of God, divinity in human flesh; and we believe He was the wisest, most loving, most perfect person to ever walk the planet; and yet the most important thing we believe about Him is that He died a criminal’s death on an instrument of torture. The cross is absolutely central to our faith. Without the cross, we have no faith at all.

What we are going to look at today is how Jesus ended up on the cross. We’re going to see the story—from an earthly perspective—of how Jesus went from being a miracle-working hero of the people to a bloody, pathetic convict condemned to die.

Our text is Luke 22:66-23:25. It’s a long passage, so we won’t read it as a block. But we’ll cover most of the text as we move along. And it’s going to show that Jesus stood trial four times—4 trials—and in each case we’re going to see that Jesus was an innocent man who did not deserve to die.

The Chief Priests and the Teachers of the Law
First, we have the trial of Jesus before the council of elders. Verse 66:

At daybreak the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and teachers of the law, met together, and Jesus was led before them.

We start with a time marker. We are now into the daylight hours of Good Friday. Approximately 6 am. The first trial takes place in front of the Jewish religious authorities. This is what was happening at about the same time that Peter was pretending not to know Jesus.

I said a couple of weeks ago that Jesus was a public relations nightmare for the Jewish religious leaders. As Jesus grew in popularity the influence of the old tradition keepers tended to decline. So, in one sense, the chief priests and the elders saw Jesus as a threat to their authority.

But to just say that these folks were jealous of Jesus is unfair. Their dislike for Jesus is actually much more complicated than that.

As a part of the vast Roman Empire, Israel had reached an uneasy agreement with Rome. The Israelites had given up their political freedom--the right to self-rule--in exchange for religious freedom. That is, so long as the Jews paid their taxes to Rome and accepted the presence of Roman troops in their villages and succumbed to the governance of Roman appointed rulers like Pilate and Herod, they were able to continue to worship Jehovah.

This was a totally unique situation in the Roman Empire. Everywhere else Rome conquered, they forced people to convert to the worship of Roman gods. It was part of their effort to create a sense of unity. But with the Jews, Rome found it was easier to let them continue their own religion than to try to enforce a change. It was an uneasy peace.

And these "elders of the people" saw themselves as the keepers of that peace. They weren’t crazy about being controlled by the Romans, but they felt loyalty to Jehovah was worth swallowing their pride.

My point is: these were not godless individuals. They really loved God. And they were operating from a position of religious sincerity. Their council, called the Sanhedrin, was made up of the 71 most pious and wise men of the day. They were not inherently evil.

But their greatest fear was that someone like Jesus would come along and give Rome an excuse to crack down and take their right to worship God away. That's why they want to know if Jesus is claiming to be the Christ. Verse 67:

"If you are the Christ," they said, "tell us."

The word "Christ" is another word for "Messiah." The Scriptures told Israel to expect a Messiah—or a hero—who would come and establish a great kingdom. One far greater then Rome. Unfortunately, in the past few years several individuals had already claimed to be the Messiah, and met with the fury of Rome. The elders do not want a repeat. Verses 67-69:

Jesus answered, "If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I asked you, you would not answer. But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God."

The gospel of Luke has already told us that Jesus is the Christ (Luke 9:20ff), but that doesn’t mean what these folks think. So, instead of explaining what they will not accept, Jesus identifies Himself as the Son of Man--making a clear reference to the prophecy of Daniel 7 which equates "one like the son of man" with Almighty God Himself (see Daniel 7:13-14).

For His inquisitors, this is even worse than the claim to be the Christ. This is a claim to be on an equal standing with God. Verses 70-71:

They all asked, "Are you then the Son of God?" He replied, "You are right in saying I am." Then they said, "Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips."

For these lovers of the laws of Moses, this was the worst possible offense. This was a direct violation of the first commandment. Jesus was claiming to be the Son of God. He was saying that He was, in effect, God.

Now, it’s easy to paint the chief priests and the teachers of the law as the bad guys in the story of Jesus. The Scribes, the Pharisees, the temple guard--these are the guys who keep crossing Jesus' path and they are the first instigators in arranging Jesus' death. But their motivation is not entirely bad. If these words had been uttered by anyone other than Jesus, the response of the elders would make perfect sense.

The mistake that they made was that they failed to examine the evidence. They thought that they had God all figured out and so they dismissed out of hand the idea that Jesus really might be the Son of God. They left no room for the possibility that they might be mistaken.

Because, you see, Jesus really was the Son of God. If they had examined the prophecies (such as Daniel 7 and Isaiah 53 and Micah 5 and so on) a little more closely they would have seen that Jesus really was the promised Messiah. If they had paid a little more attention to Jesus' miracles, they would have seen that they confirmed the Father's approval of Him.

These chief priests and teachers of the law subverted justice by rushing to judgment. They condemned Jesus without really considering the evidence.

So Jesus got a guilty verdict at His first trial, but the Jewish Elders didn’t have the authority to carry out a death sentence (see John 18:31). Remember, the governing authority in Israel is Rome. So there has to be a second trial, in front of Pilate. Chapter 23, verse 1:

Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate.

Pontius Pilate was the Roman governor in Judea for about 10 years. Non-Biblical histories from this time remember him as greedy, inflexible and cruel. He was no friend to the Jews or their religious traditions. More than once he mocked the Jews by carrying out Roman military exercises on the temple mount. On another occasion he had a number of Galileans killed while they were offering their sacrifices at the temple (see Luke 13:1). Because of these foolhardy actions, he was disliked by the Jews and on politically shaky ground with the Roman emperor.

There can be little doubt, then, that when the Jewish leaders came before him, there was tension on both sides. Verse 2:

And they began to accuse him [that is, Jesus] saying, "We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king."

The accusation against Jesus is threefold: He was leading a rebellion, He advocated not paying taxes, and He claimed to be a king. But Pilate is only interested in the third charge: "Are you the king of the Jews?" Jesus answers, "Yes, it is as you say." (verse 3)

The gospel of John records a longer conversation between Jesus and Pilate, but as far as Luke is concerned, the most important thing is the conclusion Pilate arrives at. Verse 4:

Then Pilate announced to the chief priests and the crowd, "I find no basis for a charge against this man."

In Pilate’s opinion the pathetic, exhausted figure in front of him posed no threat to Rome. He was prepared to let Him go.

But this was not acceptable to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. Verse 5-7:

But they insisted, "He stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here." On hearing this, Pilate asked if the man was a Galilean. When he learned that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction, he sent him to Herod, who was also in Jerusalem at that time.

Here Pilate thinks he has an out. When he finds out that Jesus hails from the region of Galilee--which is technically the jurisdiction of Herod Antipas--he decides to pass the buck. It just so happens that Herod is also in Jerusalem for the Passover so he directs the mob and their prisoner to go and deal with him.

Now, of course, Pilate's little ploy isn't going to work out so well. Herod is eventually going to bounce Jesus right back to him and he is the one who is going to ultimately pass the death sentence, but we have probably seen enough of Pilate to see what his mistake was.

Pilate's mistake was doing what was easy instead of doing what was right.

One thing that is clear from Luke's account is that Pilate recognized Jesus' innocence. At least three times (v. 4, v. 15, & v. 22) he announces that he finds no basis for a charge against Him and certainly nothing warranting death.

But, at the same time, Pilate is a political operative. He doesn't want to see the Jews riot during the Passover nor does he want to be accused of disloyalty to Caesar. So, for the sake of his own political preservation, Pilate passes the buck and then eventually signs off on Jesus' execution. He subverts justice by doing what was easy instead of doing what was right.

So the chief priests and teachers of the law bear responsibility for Jesus' death, and Pilate bears responsibility for Jesus' death. But Jesus has to stand a third trial on this Friday morning, this one before Herod. Verse 8:

When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform some miracle.

This is Herod Antipas, not to be confused with Herod the Great, his father, who had all the babies killed when Jesus was born. This Herod is perhaps most well-known for his run-in with John the Baptist.

You remember the story: Herod married his brother's wife, who also happened to be his niece. When John the Baptist criticized this marriage, Herod had him arrested. He put John in the prison at his palace and--when the mood struck him--he brought John out to listen to him. Then, one night, at the end of a particularly raucous party, his stepdaughter came in and danced a sensual dance for him. He rashly promised her anything in his kingdom and--at her mother's prompting--she asked for the Baptist's head on a platter. Though he regretted it, he kept his vow. (Mark 6:14-29)

Simply put, Herod was creepy.

He was apparently one of those rulers who thought his subjects were there for his amusement. Like the emperors who thought the Roman Circus was entertaining and the kings who ordered wars just for fun, Herod thought the world existed just to make him happy.

You can see this when the Jewish leaders show up with Jesus. He can hardly contain his glee. He's heard about Jesus and for the longest time he's just wanted to see Him. This is the miracle worker and--Oh Boy!--maybe Herod will get to see a miracle or two.

Unfortunately for Herod, Jesus doesn't want to be a part of some dog and pony show. Verses 9-10:

He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him.

You can just imagine the scene: Herod is asking all kinds of questions, like: "Hey Jesus, why don't you turn my dog into a lion? Jesus, can you make this wall disappear? Jesus, how about turning some water into wine?"; and all these Jewish elders are screaming accusations and trying to get Herod to stop playing around; and Jesus just stands in the middle of it without saying a word.

Eventually Herod gets tired of this game. Jesus won't entertain him so he entertains himself by joining his soldiers in ridiculing and mocking Jesus (v. 11 and 12). He finds no reason to condemn Jesus (in fact, Pilate says in verse 15 that Herod also found the charges to be unfounded) but he refuses to take the initiative to set Jesus free. Thus Herod also bears responsibility for Jesus' death.

So, what mistake did Herod make? He made the mistake of preferring entertainment to justice. He thought Jesus was there to please him, and when Jesus didn't do what he wanted, he passed on justice in favor of a few laughs. Herod subverted justice for the sake of his own amusement.

The Crowd
So, the Jewish leaders bear responsibility for Jesus' death, Pilate bears responsibility for Jesus' death, and Herod bears responsibility for Jesus' death. There is yet one more trial Jesus has to stand, before the crowd. Verses 13-16:

Pilate called together the chief priests, the rulers and the people, and said to them, "You brought me this man as one who was inciting the people to rebellion. I have examined him in your presence 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. Therefore, I will punish him and then release him."

Pilate still sees no reason to condemn Jesus, so he seeks a compromise. Maybe if he has Jesus severely beaten, that will appease the anger of the leaders. But what Pilate doesn't count on is the bloodlust of the crowd.

In a verse missing from the better manuscripts of Luke, but found in both Matthew and Mark, we learn that Pilate had a custom of releasing one man at the time of the Passover feast. Here again, he thinks he has struck upon a plan that will keep him from having to condemn Jesus. He offers to free either Jesus or Barabbas, perhaps the most notorious criminal in Jerusalem at the time. Surely, he thinks, the crowd would rather have Jesus back on the streets then a known insurrectionist and murderer.

But the crowd shocks him, and us. Verses 18-19:

With one voice they cried out, "Away with this man! Release Barabbas to us!" (Barabbas had been thrown into prison for an insurrection in the city, and for murder.)

Pilate tries to reason with them, but they won't listen. They take up the chant: "Crucify him! Crucify him!" (verses 20-21).

For a third time, Pilate speaks to the crowd. For a third time he declares his belief in Jesus' innocence. He has Jesus whipped with the cat-o-nine tails. But his appeals fall on deaf ears. The mind of the crowd is made up.

Verses 23-25:

But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand. 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.

This is a shocking turn of events. Throughout the gospel, the crowd has been on Jesus' side. Back at the beginning of chapter 22, the Jewish officials were looking for some way to arrest Jesus in private because they were afraid of what the crowd might do. Now, less than 24 hours later, it is the crowd which provides the final push to the cross.

What happened?

The answer, I believe, lies in the mistaken idea the crowd had about what the Messiah would do. Just as Peter was disappointed when Jesus healed the ear of the servant instead of fighting in the garden, I believe the crowd was disillusioned when they saw Jesus beaten and shackled instead of strong and triumphant. When they cheered Him on Palm Sunday they thought He was going into Jerusalem to take on Rome. When He stood in front of them meek and disheveled, they decided He wasn't worth their time.

And so the crowd bears a responsibility for the death of Jesus. They made the mistake of expecting Jesus to fulfill their expectations, instead of conforming their expectations to His. They subverted justice because things didn't go their way.

Lessons to Learn
So, what can we say about all of this? Clearly, all these people bear a responsibility for Jesus' death. Luke is careful to document each party's contribution to this miscarriage of justice. The Jewish Elders presumed to know what God was thinking without examining all the evidence. Pilate chose to do what was easy instead of what was right. Herod was more concerned about being entertained than carrying out justice. And the crowd wanted things to go their way or they didn't want anything to do with Jesus at all.

And we can learn lessons from these people, and take warning.

We must be careful, lest like the chief priests and teachers of the law, we think we have God all figured out. As evangelicals we run the risk of spiritual pride. We presume to know what God wants and sometimes fail to examine the evidence.

Or again, like Pilate, we face a constant temptation to choose what is easy instead of what is right. There are so many opportunities for us to make a quick buck if we just check our morals at the door. There are so many times when it is easier to tell a quick lie instead of telling the truth and facing the consequences.

Or again, God forbid that we become like Herod. America is fast becoming an entertainment driven culture. Would we rather be amused than see justice done?

And finally, we must be careful that we don't treat Jesus the way the crowd did. We must make sure we are not trying to mold Him into our narrow expectations rather than seeing Him for who He is. We must not be fickle in our faith.

The Whole Story
So we see that Jesus was an innocent man who did not deserve to die. We see how each of these groups bears a responsibility for His death. But is that it? Is that all this is? Is this just a tragic story of a wrongfully accused man being put to death? A sad tale of the subversion of justice?

No. That would never explain why the cross is so central to our faith.

About 7 weeks after these trials ended, the Apostle Peter got up in the middle of another crowd in Jerusalem to explain what had happened. He talked about Jesus and how He had been accredited to them by God through His miracles, wonders and signs. He talked about the events which led up to the trial, which many of the people in his audience had witnessed. He talked about how those same people "with the help of wicked men, put [Jesus] to death by nailing him to the cross." But then he shocked the crowd by telling them that, while they bore responsibility for Jesus' death, it was "God's set purpose and foreknowledge" that led to the cross (see Acts 2:22-23).

In other words, if you would have asked Peter who killed Jesus, Peter would have answered: God did. It was God's decision for Jesus to go to the cross.

Remember what I told you a couple of weeks ago when we were looking at the Last Supper: Jesus is never out of control. Even during the trial, when it looks like He is being railroaded to a horrible judgment, things are still going according to God's plan. The story of Jesus' trial is a tragic story of corrupted justice, but it is not a senseless tragedy. There was a point to it.

Elsewhere in scripture, the apostle Paul writes: "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?" The reason Jesus went as an innocent man to the cross, the reason God did not spare Him but gave Him up to these wicked people, was for us. It was part of His plan. Jesus died so that God could give to us all things--forgiveness of our sins, victory over death, eternal life, and more.

And so, in that sense, we could say that it is you and I who killed Jesus. It was for our sin that he went. As we have seen, we are not so different from the Jewish Religious Authorities. We have plenty in common with Pilate. And with Herod. Had we been in the crowd, we could have done exactly what they did. We still do.

The old negro spiritual asks: “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” And our answer has to be yes. Because it was for our sin that He went. It was to pay our debt that the Father sent Him to die. The song we are going to sing to close puts it well: “It was my sin that held him there, until it was accomplished.”

John Stott writes:

Before we can begin to see the cross as something for us (leading us to faith and worship), we have to see it as something done by us (leading us to repentance)… On the human level, Judas gave him up to the priests, who gave him up to Pilate, who gave him up to the soldiers, who crucified him. But on the divine level, the Father gave him up, and he gave himself up, to die for us. As we face the cross, then we can say to ourselves both ‘I did it, my sins sent him there’ and ‘he did it, his love took him there.’ (The Cross of Christ, 59-60, 61)

And so, our take away this morning is that Jesus’ death was the greatest miscarriage of justice in history. Sinful people with cruel intentions put Jesus on the cross. And we are not so different from them.

But at the same time, Jesus’ death was the greatest sacrifice ever made; the purest act of love ever carried out. Ultimately, Jesus’ death was for our good, to cancel our sins, to make a way for us back to God.