Note: This is the meditation I’m giving tonight at our Good Friday service.
Text: Luke 22:66-71
It was the dawn of the last day for the Son of Man. The morning sun was stretching into a courtroom already buzzing with action. Luke’s account is terse and to the point, but Matthew and Mark help us paint in around the edges. This “trial” was no careful, judicious affair. It was pure chaos. Men were being brought in from all over the city, the rabble-rousers and usual suspects, to accuse the Son of Man. Money was switching hands under the table to convince false witnesses to make up accusations, but none of the charges would stick. Nobody could agree; they were simply yelling contradictions.
In the midst of it all was Jesus, humiliated, chains on his wrists, facing the men said to be the holy leaders ofIsrael. He wasn’t pleading for his life. He wasn’t giving some rousing defense. No, the gospels tell us that he stood silent, unwavering, not speaking a word as every attempt to fabricate his guilt fell to pieces. How uncomfortable it must have been for those seeking to accuse him. He didn’t speak, didn’t give them the chance to argue or twist his words. He didn’t even have the dignity to treat them like the judges they believed themselves to be.
Finally, exasperated, the council silences the crowds and addresses Jesus directly. They ask the question that has stood in the shadows behind every false accusation: “Is this your claim? Are you the Christ, the Messiah? Tell us.”
If we are to understand this question and the enormity of what Jesus does in his response, we must realize what the council was asking.Israel, God’s chosen people, had been in bondage now for hundreds of years. As a judgment for their sins, God had broken the nation He loved into pieces and let those pieces by carried away into captivity. There had been partial restorations, but any faithful Jew knew things weren’t as they should be They could look out his window, see the centurions standing on the corners and know that all was not right. David’s throne was empty. David’s kingdom was a shadow of its former glory. God’s judgment was still onIsrael. God’s people still bore the weight of their sins.
The answer, according to the prophets, rested with the Messiah – the Son of Man, the Christ (which means ‘annointed one’). His coming would end their judgment; the Messiah would lift the weight ofIsrael’s sin. The Messiah forIsraelwas a promise of salvation.
These men who sat facing Jesus had waited a long time for this salvation. More than waiting, they had been preparing themselves. They were the religious elite – the holy men, the righteous, the faithful of Israel– at least in their own eyes. They had kept the law. They had walked the temple court. The Messiah’s coming salvation, in their eyes, meant their validation.
This was the hope of the council – a salvation that was really validation. Their Messiah was going to come and pat them on the backs, give them golden crowns and thank God (or, umm, himself) that there were men like them leading Israel. Oh sure, they recognized that sin was an issue forIsrael. There were sins ofIsrael’s past that brought judgment. There were sins among the masses of the common Israelite, and sins of the Gentiles who ruled over them. They were sure that the Messiah’s coming meant judgment for all those sinners, all those other people. What they could not grasp, could not even consider, was that their sins were deserving of judgment as well.
This is why the silent, bruised man who stood before them was such a threat. He would not recognize their righteousness. He would not bow before their authority. Indeed, many scholars have noted that by standing silent Jesus was acting out the role, not of defendant, but of prosecutor. As they sought to stand in judgment over Jesus, somewhere deep in their hearts they realized that they were really sitting before the true Judge – and that they were wanting.
This is why Jesus’ admission that He is the Christ was such an affront to the council. When Jesus finally spoke, there was not a hint of validation in his words. Instead, it was condemnation. “If I tell you, you will not believe; and if I ask you, you will not answer,” he says. It is not their obedience, their righteousness which the Messiah points to. It is instead their unbelief. When He says “from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God,” he is denying their rights. They aren’tIsrael’s leaders, the ones deserving glory. He is, and He is alone.
In the end, Jesus was not the Messiah the council was looking for. This explains the ambiguity of His final statement: “You say that I am.” Make no mistake – this is a statement of agreement. Jesus is declaring Himself to be the Son of God, God’s promised salvation. Yet he was not the kind of savior these men were looking for. He is, in essence, saying “I am – but not in the way you think.” Jesus had not come to bring validation. Instead, He knows where His profession will lead – past this unjust trial to a hill where He would die a sinner’s death on an agonizing cross.
The imminent crucifixion of Jesus is the hinge on which this story turns. The council ofJerusalemcannot possibly understand the place of the cross in the Messiah’s ministry because the salvation they seek wouldn’t require it. A religion of validation expects a pat on the back. What it cannot understand is instead a nail driven through a hand.
This is the offense which Jesus gave these pious men – the offense of a salvation achieved through execution. A salvation not about recognizing their righteousness, but about atoning for their sin. A promise not of validation, but of justification.
You see, Jesus the Messiah had indeed come to deal with Israel’s sin, but to deal with it in a way which didn’t let anyone keep their righteousness intact. For all their rigor and outward righteousness, the council was just as complicit in Israel’s sin as anyone else. The only way for them to receive God’s salvation was through giving up their place of judgment and instead standing with all the other sinners before the true Judge and begging His mercy. To give up their right to validation and instead embrace the free offer of justification. And this was the thing they would not, could not do.
This is where I think this story of Jesus’ trial meets us today, on this Friday when we remember Christ’s death. Jesus didn’t come only for Israel’s sins, but by opening the floodgates of salvation, to work justification for us as well. Yet like the council, we often fall prey to the desire for a savior who validates us rather than one who justifies us.
For some of us, this desire manifests as we stand outside Christianity. We cannot enter in because we are sure that we aren’t like those sinners, those bad people. We cannot accept Christ because the salvation He offers cannot be for “good folk” like us.
Others of us are used to this story of the cross. We have repented, we have received forgiveness, we have experienced God’s justification. Yet how often do we end up acting like the council too? We who should know better still trust in our own righteousness. We coopt a salvation we say is only of God’s free grace and make it a tool for our own validation just the same. We know that we are sinners like everyone else, but some niggling, deep-down part of us tells us that we must be better in some way in order for Jesus to save us.
The affront to all of us this evening is Jesus standing silent before the council that seeks his approval. Jesus on His way to the cross. We cannot tell Jesus’ story without gazing over and over at that cross which looms large at its middle. It is a continual reminder of our deep sin and our need for justification. It is the obstacle over which we must all stumble, again and again, to be brought to our knees in repentance.
As we recognize this centrality of the cross, I would suggest there are two tasks we must commit ourselves to, today and every day, for the rest of our lives. Two things which Good Friday should stir us to focus on each year.
First, we must seek to die to our desire for validation. The cross-shaped salvation of Jesus means we must give up every shred of our own pious sense of entitlement. The events of Good Friday are unavoidable proof of our sin – yours and mine and that of every wicked man and saint that has ever lived. There is no faithful few of whom we can be members. We must recognize that before God we are all just as good, just as bad, and just as in need of justification. When we are tempted to be angry at God for not giving us what we deserve, we must remember that this is precisely what the cross tells us – that we are getting not what we deserve, but something unimaginably better. When we are tempted to dismiss our fellow man, we must remember that we all stand on the same sinful ground and are saved by the same undeserved mercy.
Second, we must seek the freedom of justification. As much as desiring a place in the council of the righteous seems to stroke our pride, it actually chokes our souls. The beauty of justification is that it no longer makes our standing depend on us. The horrors of the cross, as much as they show us our sin, also show us that that sin is not ours any longer. We don’t have to clean up our acts to escape God’s judgment; the Messiah, Jesus the Christ, has come, and our sins have been paid in full. The hope for all of Israel, the hope for all mankind, is that we aren’t the validated – we are the justified.
It was the dawn of the last day for the Son of Man. As he stood silent before the council, as he deprived them of their sense of righteousness, as he turned their expectation for salvation on its head, he also did something else. He bowed his head and took upon himself the judgment of those not fit to judge. He submitted himself to trial, to humiliation, to execution on a cross. He undid our attempts to make ourselves righteous, and instead worked true righteousness on our behalf. It was the dawn of the last day for the Son of Man – but it was the dawn of the day of salvation for all those who believe.