One of my favourite authors is CS Lewis. As well as writing well-known children’s stories like “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” he also wrote many Christian books for adults. Perhaps the most famous one is called “Mere Christianity”, first published back in 1952 and still read by millions today. In that book Lewis poses a puzzle that every man and woman must answer – a “trilemma” with eternal implications. He asks: “Was Jesus mad, bad or God?”. Or to put it another way, was Jesus deluded, demonic or divine? Was he a lunatic, a liar or the Lord?
If we look carefully, we find the answer to that puzzle in our passage today. A passage that describes the trials Jesus faced on the first Good Friday. One before the Jewish ruling council (known as the Sanhedrin) and a second before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. King Herod also puts in a cameo appearance as well. On that Friday morning 2,000 years ago, Jesus was subjected to interrogation by the leading religious and political leaders of his time. I guess today’s equivalent might be an inquisition by an Archbishop, followed by a cross-examination by a High Court judge or a House of Commons select committee.
As we shall see, Jesus was officially sentenced to death for blasphemy and sedition – in the eyes of men, he was condemned for being mad or bad – or both. But a closer, more careful reading of the evidence can lead to a very different conclusion. Because on that reading of events Jesus was a Heaven-sent Saviour, the Son of God who willingly went to the Cross as the perfect sacrifice for sin.
So which reading is right? Was Jesus a blasphemous liar or a blameless Lord? Well, like all good juries, we need to look at the evidence and reach our own verdict. Evidence presented for us in Luke’s Gospel this morning. But before we do so, let’s pray: Father, open our eyes to see the truth in your Word. Help us to see Christ’s sacrifice clearly in our passage today. In his name we pray, Amen.
- The Jewish trial: Guilty of blasphemy or truly God’s Son?
If you have been following the news this week, you may have seen the shocking video of a United Airlines passenger being forcibly removed from a flight in America. The airline had overbooked the flight, so sent some of their security staff on board to physically drag a passenger off the plane. I think its fair to say the force was unjustified and certainly left those who witnessed the event feeling shocked and disturbed. The poor passenger himself was left with bruises and a bloody mouth. (I think it’s fair to say he won’t be accumulating any more air miles with that particular airline!).
Two thousand years ago, the disciples of Jesus had also just witnessed their friend being manhandled and led away by armed guards. Late at night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus had been arrested by members of the Jerusalem Temple Guard and taken into custody. The disciples had fled in shock and fear, leaving Jesus to be mocked and beaten by the guards as he awaited trial. Like that United Airlines passenger, Jesus must have been left bruised and bloody by his first encounter with the Jewish authorities, as he prepared for what was to come.
At the start of our reading today, Luke tells us that Jesus’ trial before the Jewish ‘Sanhedrin’ took place at daybreak. In verse 66 Luke explains that the Sanhedrin was “the council of the elders of the people, both the chief priests and the teachers of the law.” The Sanhedrin had about 70 members, and was the highest religious and political authority of the Jewish nation.
It seems that over the previous three years, the Jewish leadership had become troubled and angered by Jesus’ public ministry. It seems that they were jealous of his popularity, scandalized by his claims to have come from God, and offended by his direct criticism of their conduct. Amongst other things, Jesus had called them hypocrites, blind guides and false teachers. Matters had reached a climax when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover festival and began overturning tradesmen’s tables in the Temple courtyard. The Jewish authorities viewed this as a direct assault on their authority – not to mention their income stream!
Luke tells us that their line of attack was to try to convict Jesus of blasphemy. To be guilty of blasphemy was to be found guilty of falsely claiming divine power or authority – a crime that in their eyes deserved death. So in verse 67 they demand Jesus to tell them if he is the Christ, the Messiah. They wanted Jesus to incriminate himself by openly claiming to be the Christ – by admitting to be the God-given king that Israel had been awaiting for hundreds of years. Jesus, of course, is wise to their plans, and refuses to give them a straight answer. “If I tell you, you will not believe me” he says.
You see, Jesus knew that he wasn’t the kind of Messiah the Jewish leaders wanted or expected. They wanted a Messiah who would throw out the Romans, claim the throne in Jerusalem, and (to misquote Donald Trump) “Make Israel great again”. But Jesus had described his messianic mission to his disciples in very different terms. Back in Luke chapter 18, for example, he had told his friends that he was travelling to Jerusalem to be killed, not to claim the throne. He was travelling to Jerusalem to fulfil the predictions of Old Testament prophets like Isaiah. Predictions that God would send a saviour for sinful mankind. A suffering servant who would be “pierced for our transgressions” and “punished to bring us peace” with God.
So, you see, if Jesus had simply said “yes” to being the Messiah, the Sanhedrin would have totally misunderstood what he meant, and merely used his words to condemn him. So instead Jesus gave his judges a warning. Very soon, he says, he will be the one in the position of authority, not them. Soon he will be the one sitting in judgement, not them.
Listen to Jesus’ words in verse 69: “from now on” he said “the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God”. With those words Jesus was claiming to be on his way to the throne room of heaven – on his way to the control room of the universe. He was claiming to have a unique relationship with God, like a chief executive to a chairman, or the Son of an all-powerful Father.
The significance of what Jesus was saying was not lost on the Sanhedrin. Because they all immediately asked him “Are you then the Son of God?” This time Jesus’ reply was positive: “you are right in saying that I am”.
The Sanhedrin seized on his words, didn’t they? “Why do we need any more testimony?” they said, “We have heard it from his own lips.” They had what they wanted – a confession to convict Jesus of blasphemy, a claim to be God’s Son.
It could have been all so different, of course. If only the Sanhedrin had known their Bibles better, or had more spiritual sensitivity or a real relationship with God! Because then they would have recognised that Jesus wasn’t being blasphemous, but merely stating the truth. They would have responded to Jesus words with repentance and faith. They would have put their trust in him to restore their relationship with God. They would have enthroned him as king of their lives and told others to do the same.
But it wasn’t to be, was it? Instead the Jewish leadership wanted him dead, and took Jesus to the one man in Jerusalem with the authority to execute a criminal – the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate.
- The Roman trial: Guilty of sedition, or a sinless substitute?
Leadership can sometimes feel like walking on a tight rope. Whether its in politics, business or the church, leaders have to juggle competing demands and conflicting interests. Different voices in each ear telling them what to do and how to do it. On almost every issue, some people try to pull you in one direction, others in the opposite one.
Any new leader will quickly discover that it is impossible to please everyone all of the time. You will inevitably upset or disappoint some people with almost every decision you make. At the end of the day, a good leader has to do what he or she believes to be right. Having weighed up the all arguments, a good leader will listen to his or her conscience and make what they judge to be the best decision.
So from a human perspective, the tragedy of the first Good Friday is that Pontius Pilate didn’t listen to his conscience. Pilate was a man who capitulated under political pressure, a leader who sacrificed someone he knew to be innocent in exchange for a quiet life.
Luke tells us that the Jewish leadership came to Pilate with three accusations against Jesus. Three reasons why he was guilty of sedition – of rebellion against Roman rule – and so worthy of crucifixion. They chose this strategy because the Roman authorities weren’t interested in blasphemy. Religious purity was not their chief concern. But preserving their power was a priority for them, something they cared deeply about. Sedition was a capital offence.
That explains why in verse 2 the Jewish leaders said to Pilate “We found this man [Jesus] subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be a king”. In verse 5 they add that “he stirs up the people all over Judea by his teaching. He started in Galilee and has come all the way here”. They wanted to persuade Pilate that Jesus and his followers were a danger to the peace, revolutionaries against Roman rule. As we read on we see that the Sanhedrin whipped up a crowd to pile the pressure on Pilate. “Crucify him” they shouted, “crucify him!” (v.21).
Yet Pilate could see for himself that Jesus was innocent. Three times in our passage Pilate says that he can see no evidence to convict Jesus of sedition. His conscience was clearly telling him that Jesus was blameless. Even Herod could see that, when Pilate gave him the opportunity to quiz Jesus.
Ultimately, however, Pilate capitulated under pressure. Luke tells us in verse 24 that he decided to grant the crowd’s demand, and condemned Jesus to crucifixion. Ultimately, Pilate was more afraid of an uprising in Jerusalem than upholding justice. He was more interested in preserving his popularity with the local religious leaders than in preserving the life of Jesus. He was more concerned about his reputation with Caesar than with obeying his conscience.
We should be left in no doubt that Jesus was neither mad nor bad when he went to the cross. Even men like Pilate and Herod could see that. Jesus died not as a guilty criminal, but as a sinless substitute. On the day itself Jesus was literally a substitute for Barabbas – an insurrectionist and murderer who deserved to die. Pilate released Barabbas to the crowd while Jesus was condemned. Jesus very literally took Barabbas’ place on the cross.
But the Bible as a whole is quite clear that Jesus was the substitute for every Christian believer. When he died on that first Good Friday he took the blame, the punishment, the penalty that we all deserve. We are all rebels – not against Rome, but against God. Whenever we do wrong we are rebelling against our Creator. Whenever we sin, we are guilty of sedition against our rightful king.
But when Jesus died he took our guilt upon himself and gave us his innocence. To be a Christian believer is to benefit from a great swap. Jesus gets our guilt and we recieve his righteousness. In one wonderful substitution, Christian believers become blameless in God’s sight, forgiven forever for Jesus’ sake. No wonder Christians call it Good Friday.
Conclusion: What’s your verdict?
So as I finish, what’s your verdict on Jesus? Having heard the evidence and listened to his trial, what do you make of him? Was he guilty of blasphemy or a God-given Saviour? Was he guilty of sedition or a sinless substitute?
Please, please follow where Luke’s evidence leads us, and where Pilate’s conscience should have taken him. Don’t reject Jesus as mad or bad, but embrace him as God’s Son. Don’t despise or ignore him but put your faith and hope in him. Take advantage of the great swap he offers us – give him your guilt and receive in return God’s forgiveness forever. Live with him as your king, and tell the world what he has done.
If you are willing to take that step of faith – perhaps for the first time here today – please join with me as I pray now: Lord Jesus, thank you for dying in my place, for taking my sin upon your shoulders. I receive your Father’s forgiveness in return, and ask that your Holy Spirit will help me live for you from now on. In your name I pray, Amen.