Christ on Trial

Ques. Why did He suffer under Pontius Pilate as judge?

Ans. That He, being innocent, and yet comdemned by a temporal judge, might thereby free us from the severe judgment of God to which we were exposed. Question 38, Lord’s Day 15, Heid. Catechism

The hour had come. 

Throughout our Lord’s earthly ministry He spoke repeatedly of the hour that had not yet come. He referred to it as His hour, which was always before His consciousness and which He approached on every step of the way. He knew that this was God’s hour, prepared from all eternity for Him to bring the ransom for the sins of His people, and thus to lead many sons to glory. It was the hour of the cross, the grave, the resurrection, and the ascension into glory. On the eve of His crucifixion Jesus declared in His sacerdotal prayer, “Father, the hour is come; glorify Thy Son, that Thy Son may glorify Thee” (John 17:1). 

This is what impresses us in that night of horrors, when all hell broke loose and “both Herod and Pontius Pilate; with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together” against God’s Holy Child Jesus. On the part of those who were seeking to kill Jesus there was nothing but confusion, frustration, and even desperation, while from God’s point of view everything was running on schedule, with clock-like precision, to carry out His work of salvation for His people, that is, “for to do whatsoever Thy hand and Thy counsel determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27-28). 

It is for that reason that Jesus could say to the temple guard and the mob that came to the garden to take Him prisoner, “This is your hour, and the power of darkness.” God surrendered His Son into the hands of wicked men to be crucified, to die, and to rise again on the third day, according to the Scriptures. The Scriptures as God’s revelation of His plan of salvation through His obedient, suffering Servant were being carried out to the letter. This is the aspect from which our Catechism discusses the trial and condemnation of our Savior in this Lord’s Day. 

The Perfect Lamb. 

After the capture in the garden God so directed the events, that Christ was first led to Annas, who was the real highpriest, even though he had been replaced by Caiaphas. Annas was of the line of Aaron. Therefore it was his official duty to inspect the Passover Lamb to see whether it was the perfect sacrifice, without spot or blemish. God brings Jesus to Annas, so that Jesus may pass inspection before him. 

It all began actually already on Sunday, when Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem, while chief priests and rulers stood helplessly by, not able to touch or imprison the Man Whom they had branded as public enemy number one. On Monday Jesus cleansed the temple. On Tuesday He taught the people openly, and no one dared to touch Him. On Wednesday the rulers bargained with Judas to wait until after the feast, when they would secretly murder the Christ. On Thursday evening Jesus celebrated His Supper with His disciples. It was then that he sent Judas out into the night to carry out his dastardly betrayal. Thus the rulers had a prisoner on their hands at the time when thousands milled through the Holy City for the feast. They had a prisoner without a formal charge against Him. It was left to that cunning Annas to try to extract from Him some statement that could be used to condemn and kill Him. 

God set the spotless Lamb, the Sinless One, before Annas with the charge that he inspect Him thoroughly to see whether he could find anything at all that would prove the Lamb unworthy to be the sacrifice for sin. O, how Annas searched! How desperately he tried, not sympathetically, but in cruel hatred against God and His Anointed, to find some blemish somewhere that would disqualify Him for the purpose He must serve. But, search as he would, he could only conclude, as was so often repeated during the trial of Jesus, “In this Man can no fault be found.” The spotless Lamb was ready to be delivered into the hands of His accusers. 

Condemned as the Lamb of God. 

Our Savior moves from Annas to Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. Here is assembled the highest civil court and the most powerful ecclesiastical assembly in Israel. This body has the power to exercise the keys of the kingdom, to declare a person within or outside of the kingdom, blessed or accursed of God. Until their power had been restricted by Caesar they also could execute the death penalty. 

All semblance of decency and good order is lacking in this “consistory” room. The Sanhedrists were called out of their beds to try Jesus in the dead of night, even though they might meet only in daylight. They were supposed to meet in the temple, but since the temple was closed at night, they meet in the palace of the highpriest. They have a prisoner on their hands against whom no formal charges have been issued, and no witnesses stand ready to confirm the charges. In their determination to kill Jesus, now that they have laid hands on Him, they are ready to trump up charges and to seek false witnesses against Him, in order to condemn Him. Our Lord will have no part in this wicked perversion of justice, but only strongly condemns it with His powerful, majestic silence. He forces Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin to face the real issue and to demand of Him, “I adjure Thee by the living God, that Thou tell us whether Thou be the Christ, the Son of God” (Matthew 26:63). In other words, “Are You, or are You not the promised Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world?” 

When Jesus answers in the affirmative, Caiaphas hides his glee with a pretense of offended piety by rending his robe and declaring the words of Jesus to be blasphemy. The act of rending his robe spells the end of the Old Testament priesthood. The great Highpriest has come, has claimed the Highpriesthood, and has presented His credentials. What need have they of further witnesses? They reveal the wickedness of their hearts by casting out God and His Christ, condemning Him as having no place in their lives, as worthy of death. Our Lord, on the other hand, is ready to surrender Himself to the altar of the cross to bring the ransom for all those given to Him of the Father. 

The Lamb led to the slaughter. 

According to God’s eternal purpose the Christ must still be led before the Roman governor to be condemned to a death by crucifixion. The Sanhedrin would have liked to drag Jesus out of the city at dawn and finish their evil work by stoning Him. But they were afraid. They feared the Roman governor, who by God’s providence was also brought to Jerusalem for this occasion. And they feared still more the great mass of people at the feast, many of whom still looked to Jesus as the promised Messiah. So let Pilate carry the blame of passing the death sentence on Him. They hoped that Pilate would take their word for it that this man must die, without bothering with a formal trial. But Pilate knew the Jews and still had enough sense of justice that he felt the need of a bit of investigation. Woeful day for Pilate that he ever allowed himself to get involved in this travesty of justice! For no matter what charges the rulers brought against Jesus, Pilate is only the more convinced that this innocent man deserves to be protected from the raging lions. God forces Pilate to repeat over and over again, “I find no fault in this Man.” Yet he squirms in anxiety, for the powers of Jewry threaten to dethrone him if he does not consent to their wishes. So with a guilty conscience that still plagues him today in hell he gives an innocent Man, the Christ of the Scriptures, over into the hands of His slaughterers. 

God is carrying out His purpose in all this. The whole word is brought to trial on this day of days, the precursor of Judgment Day. Jew and Gentile, rulers and kings, even men, women and children are confronted with the question, “What shall I do with Jesus, Who is called the Christ?” With one accord they answer, each on their own responsibility, “Let Him be crucified.” 

I pause a moment to ask: dare I sit in judgment over them? Am I better than they? Do not I myself deny Him, reject Him, even cast Him out by my silence when I should speak, by my failure to love and trust in Him as I should, by my sins against Him, which I commit every day? With shame I hang my head and in holy wonder I watch Him hastening on His way, even quickening His step to die for such a sinner as I am. 

Behold, the Lamb for sinners slain. 

The whole world stands on trial in Jerusalem. Satan and his demons are brought to trial. The chief priests, the rulers of the Jews, the rulers of the great world empire of mankind as represented in that day, the church and the world, including men, women, and children, yes, including you and me, we all stand before the God of heaven and earth be exposed as God’s enemies. The whole world together seals its own condemnation in pouring out its bitter wrath. The Word of Jesus, spoken shortly before this, is fulfilled, “Now is the judgment this world: now shall the prince of this world cast out” (Jn. 12:31).

God’s purpose in Christ could not be attained with stoning Him to death. Our Lord had to be crucified, which was the Roman form of execution. Crucifixion was a slow, painful, and shameful death. It spoke of the curse. Christ had to become even before the eyes of men the Outcast, the Accursed of God! For God laid upon Him the iniquity of us all. As the completely innocent, and the perfectly righteous Lamb of God He is led to the altar of the cross to be sacrificed for our sin. 

In our Savior is perfect submission. Was thinking, somewhere along that road to Calvary, the words of the prophet, “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before the shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth”? Was singing in the depths of His soul His own Psalm,

“It is for Thee I am reproached,

For Thee I suffer shame,

Until My brethren know Me not,

And hated is My name.”?

We can only surmise, yet we do know that our Lord was so deeply conscious of us, His people, who joined ourselves with the whole world against Him, that His first prayer on the cross was that the Father should lay our sins to His charge. Yes, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” 

With the church of the ages we confess: “Therefore God commendeth His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us…. Therefore shall my mouth and heart show forth the praise of the Lord from this time forth forever more. AMEN.” (Communion Form)