Death Sentence

In December 2005 I became the second alternate juror on a murder for hire trial where the prosecution was requesting the death penalty. For the next three weeks, I listened to the testimony for a fairly gruesome murder. During the time when the judge, the prosecuting attorney and the defense attorney were interviewing the jurors, they asked me pretty much how I would conduct myself as a juror. I can’t remember my full answer, but I remember that I said something to the effect that I would strive to understand and follow the law as much as possible and to take being in the position of possibly having someone else’s life depend on my decision very, very seriously.

In addition, on this jury were also a pastor’s wife, and two other women whom I remember as also being fellow believers in Jesus Christ. At the same time I discovered that there was a friend of mine on another jury with 200 count indictment and guilty plea for murder that was gong on at the same time. I remember that they were able to face horror of hearing repeatedly about the murders seriously, without wilting or folding under the pressure or intensity. I suspect that they had through their lives also found the need to bring the strength of God to face the hardest and most difficult situations and not shy away from them. I think that all this is part of growing into spiritual maturity and not remaining in extended spiritual infancy or adolescence as a believer in Jesus Christ. Indeed, I’ve often seen that, while sometimes there are young people who are spiritually mature beyond their years, more often spiritual maturity levels are often linked to maturity level in life, as people grow and learn through facing the challenges of this world in the strength of Jesus Christ.

The last night and day of Jesus Christ during his earthly life and ministry  can be some of the most difficult passages of the Bible to consider and study in depth. Yet these hours are all described in detail in all four gospels. I think that it’s part of the spiritual immaturity and emotional immaturity and weakness of so many in our age that we so rarely preach and teach on these passages very much. Part of the problem is that we tend to spend too much time going into the mechanics of how crucifixion worked when we get to the crucifixion. Often, though, we don’t seem to see the need to think, meditate, and preach and teach on the last hours of Jesus, even though a considerable amount of the gospels deal with these hours. But it is part of having the spiritual foundation not to wilt at what is happening and to understand what he endured was for us; it is at least enough for us to understand that all this was what he endured for loving us to the death on the cross. It at least calls for respectful and reverent consideration on a regular basis from us, to remember the price of our salvation. I think that seriously considering these passages from time to time will remind us that our faith is not spiritual fluff, an escape from reality, or getting an emotional buzz, but the strong foundation to be able to face the greatest tragedies, injustices and even horrors that this world can bring against us, as long as we do it with him, since he was there first before us to face them and conquer them.

So here’s how the adjudication the death sentence on Jesus happened. Jesus Christ had a number of hearings and adjudications on the last night and morning of his earthly life. He had what seems to have been a preliminary hearing before Annas, the retired Jewish High Priest, and then a larger trial before Joseph Caiaphas, the current Jewish High Priest, the next, secular trials after dawn before Pontius Pilate and Herod Antipas. These trials, hearings and adjudications show the religious, political and criminal justice system gone criminally unjust. They show the religious and political machinery of this world through hatred, envy, indifference and incompetence driving an innocent man to capital punishment of a particularly brutal and degrading kind. Yet the injustice of the trial was also the condemnation of the world and provided the innocent victim for the sins of the world. The actual innocence before the laws of man and God, civil and divine justice shown in these hearings, trials and adjudications, and most of all in the trial before the Jewish ruling council and the high priest. They show his utter innocence before the laws of man that was part of his utter innocence that was necessary to take on the sins of the entire world. Through these trials, the redemption of the world came because of a false verdict from the machinery of civil justice gone criminally un just, and they produced a verdict and a sacrifice which God had foreseen from before the creation of the world.

“And the chief priests and the whole Jewish ruling council were seeking testimony so that they could execute him, and they weren’t able to find any, because many were perjuring themselves, and no testimony held together. And some stood up and perjured themselves as they said, “We heard him as he said, ‘I will tear down this Temple that was made with hands and in three days I will build up another that is not made with hands,” but their testimony did not hold together either.”

“And the High Priest stood up in the middle and asked Jesus, ‘Aren’t you going to give any answer? Why are they testifying against you?”’

“But he was silent and gave no answer.”

“Again, the High Priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Most Blessed One?’”

“And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

“And the High Priest tore his garments and said, ‘What need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. So how does it seem to you?’”

“And they all condemned him as worthy of death. And some began to spit on him, and they covered his face and beat him as they said to him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the attendants delivered blows to him.”

(Mark 14:55-65, Dale’s sight translation)

The redemption of the world required an innocent volunteer. As the trials ground onward, the innocence of Jesus was one of the extraordinary things which was acknowledged by pretty much everyone about him. Even more, his innocence was further corroborated by the actual testimony at the trial in the twisted attempt at civil justice, as the testimony of the different witnesses ground against each other and crumbled into dust before everyone. The legal failure of false testimony nevertheless established the innocence of Jesus. False accusations and demonstrably and obviously false accusations have never been the establishment of actual guilt anywhere at any time, and it was the same as Jesus as he came before the bar of civil justice and proved it horribly wrong and twisted.

The trial started out this way:  vv. 55-59: “And the chief priests and the whole Jewish ruling council were seeking testimony so that they could execute him, and they weren’t able to find any, because many were perjuring themselves, and no testimony held together. And some stood up and perjured themselves as they said, “We heard him as he said, ‘I will tear down this Temple that was made with hands and in three days I will build up another that is not made with hands,” but their testimony did not hold together either.”

The parade of false witnesses against Jesus, one after another, was part of the setup by the high priest and the Jewish ruling council to get the verdict that they were seeking. These were public officials responsible for justice who were themselves suborning perjury and that in itself was and remains a deep and malicious crime upon their own ledger. It was unjust then, just as it is unjust and illegal now. With all that was said at that time, they could not yet could not find any testimony of anything that would bring a death sentence, even as they strove to bring at least a pretense of legality and public justice to these proceedings. There was probably some kind of record of the testimony, since in the ancient world there were several known forms of shorthand available. As the testimony was coming out, it was obviously insufficient and inconsistent testimony. According to the Old Testament Law, according to Deuteronomy 14:16, the testimony had to agree among at least two witnesses to establish that a capital crime had been committed. The narrative indicates that they were looking for proof of false teaching and public sedition which were capital crimes under the Jewish and Roman Law. It finally came down to the false testimony based upon twisting of something like he really said, which was quoted in John 2:19. Yet even then the trial could not produce anything like the consistent testimony required for a death sentence, since the false witnesses still contradicted each other in some way.

But still, see how much Jesus had to endure standing there before malicious, lying lips seeking to end his life. This round of false testimony probably took at least an hour and probably several hours where he stood in silence before all before the false witnesses seeking to provide testimony that would end his life. Yet there was purpose behind this also, since this was something that had been portrayed in the Psalms as part of the suffering of the Righteous One to come. And as he was standing there, it is a remarkable comfort and encouragement to believers in Jesus for all the ages since then. It seem like something that has been a common situation for believers of all ages as well to stand before others who have been offering false accusations against them, and behind them the instigator of the false accusations has been the Enemy of their souls and the souls of all mankind. Ever since then, one of Satan’s common weapons against Christians have been false accusations:

“Keep up such good conduct among the Gentiles, so that, in that time when they slander you as evildoers, they will still see your good actions with their own eyes and then glorify God in the day of his return” (I Peter 2:12; see also I Peter 4:3-4).

“Blessed are you when they scorn you and persecute you and say every kind of dirty word against you falsely for my sake” (Matthew 5:11,  see also Luke 6:26).

Also, a cursory glance through the Psalms will show that there were many, many times the Psalmist endured false accusations.

So then, if you are a follower of Christ, then be prepared for false accusations. They may come against you and they may even be of unimaginable depravity. They may even be gaslighting accusations, such as Festus shouted to Paul that he was insane when he was given a chance to speak before him in an informal hearing. It’s possible that we may even find ourselves in situations where it seems like everyone is seeing us through the eyes of our haters and detractors, and nothing that we say to set forth the truth about ourselves seems to find anyone willing to give us a fair hearing.

Furthermore, at the same time, this is never something that any believer should ever do to any other believer deliberately, persistently and stubbornly, and no believer in the church of Jesus Christ should continually have to deal with false accusations from fellow believers. The body of Christ, the fellowship of believers, should be the one place where false accusations go to die. But recently, I heard the great line from an old song on the radio: “The talk is cheap when the story is good . . .” Unfortunately, that’s often the situation among many people in our churches. Many people in our churches have never grown beyond the level of social maturity that they had when they were in high school, and the gossip that may fly around even under spiritual pretenses may include stretching the truth beyond recognition, wild insinuations and exaggerations, and false accusations sometimes of the most outrageous, lurid and fatuous sort – sometimes based on something no more reliable than they saw on television or on a website about someone else somewhere else at some other time.

No believer in Jesus Christ should have to live under a cloud of suspicion, rejection and disdain in the fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ because of someone else’s overactive imagination and uncontrolled tongue. Unfortunately, some may have grown up and sought attention by being the breathless tattletales about the faults or (highly exaggerated) mistakes of others, or there may be the religious narcissist among us who spreads horrible accusations behind the back against those who may call him or her to account for his or her bad behavior. Some others repeat the same things about the same person for decades, even, and never face the person even to get a fair hearing. We need to deal with such people with the love, consideration and firmness of Jesus Christ. Neil Anderson in one of his books suggested these questions for the purveyor of this kind of backstabbing gossip, which I’ve adapted here:

  1. What is your reason for telling me/anyone this?
  2. Where did you get your information?
  3. Have you gone directly to the source?
  4. Have you personally allowed yourself to be quoted on this?
  5. Will you allow yourself to be quoted on this?

And briefly, note that false accusations are also a normal part of the abnormal situation of abuse, since it seems to be necessary for the abuser to dehumanize the target to make some kind of self justification for their treatment of another human being, to pour out their self nurtured bitterness the result from often exaggerated and fabricated list of wrongs. Note also that both spousal abuse – husband to wife and wife to husband – and child abuse are contrary to clear scripture, such as  Colossians 3: 8,19, 21: “But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. . . . Husbands, love your wives and do not pour out your bitterness upon them . . . Fathers, do not make your children bitter, or they will become discouraged.”

Even where there are a slew of false charges, the innocent do not always have to answer the false charges. False testimony may fail by itself and this is what happened with the false testimony against Jesus. It may well be part of our following him in our lives not only to face false accusations but perhaps even to remain as silent as he was before these false accusations. I don’t think that there’s a hard and fast rule here – some well meaning believers may say, “Never defend yourself,” but I see throughout the Bible many godly people asserting the truth about themselves in the face of false testimony. But in all this we can know that he has gone through it also: “ . . . for we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but who was tested in every way in a similar way, yet without sin. So then, let us come with boldness to the throne of grace, that we might receive mercy and we might find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16).

So, as all this was going on, Jesus remained silent:

“And the High Priest stood up in the middle and asked Jesus, ‘Aren’t you going to give any answer? Why are they testifying against you?”’

“But he was silent and gave no answer.” (verses. 60-61a).

The silence of Jesus during all the false testimony was dramatic but not intended for dramatic effect. He knew whatever he said would be twisted and used against him. Caiaphas, whose real first name was Joseph, had been give a name which meant something like, ‘the inquisitor.’ So when he invited Jesus to take the opportunity to defend himself against the false witnesses, he was not acting as someone who was on side side of Jesus, let alone someone who was on the side of justice. Even more, it was not the responsibility of the high priest to ask this question on why Jesus did not defend himself or the next question. Underneath Joseph Caiaphas was growing more and more irritated and baffled, and it seemed that this false friendliness was intended to bait Jesus into saying something incriminating about himself in response to the false testimony. That it had come to this point demonstrated the frustration that the false testimony had given to their murderous intentions. Certainly the silence of Jesus was entirely appropriate in a legal sense, since it was not necessary to answer and refute false testimony, which he could have done easily.

The responsibility of Jesus during this trial, though, while all this false testimony was happening, was not to defend himself. Rather, his responsibility was the fulfillment of prophecy of the Messiah of Isaiah, from his concern from the conclusion to Gethsemane, that the scriptures would be fulfilled in him. He was then living out before the Jewish ruling council Isaiah 53:7: “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.” Years later, the apostle Peter, who seems to have watched this from a safe distance, described it in this way: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (I Peter 2:23).

When false accusations come, then, choose the Christlike reaction. Know that before this world Jesus was there first and your reaction is to be like his, This does not mean that there will not be legitimate concerns for personal safety or civil justice from the brutality of this world; certainly both Jesus and Paul did point out illegalities during the proceedings when they were on trial. But know this, that in the power of Christ it possible not to answer or become angry in turn no matter how ridiculous or maddening the false accusations are and how false and hateful the accusers become, and above all, do not hate the haters in return. Live out Romans 12:17-21: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Living like Jesus in this world even in the face of the most maddening and infuriating experiences is part of what it means for us to be in the world but not of the world. But even more, knowing what he went through gives the assurance that even in the hour of darkness, there was no darkness in him. His victory over the darkness included his coming through without a stain through all the accusations that were thrown against him. This was a part of his sinless life, of how he came to and lived through this fallen world without a stain of sin upon him, even through the worst that the twisted machinery of human justice tried to throw at him. So then, with his utter innocence and his utter willingness, he was utterly worthy to be the sacrifice for the sins of the entire world. Because he had no sins of his own so therefore he could take on the sins of all humanity, and so his worthiness took away our unworthiness in the cross.

But even more, the redemption of the world required the death of the Son of God. The redemption of the world required not just someone completely innocent, or even an innocent volunteer, but someone who was able to shoulder the sin of the entire world and take it away forever.

One remarkable fact came from the trial of Jesus. It brought forth the plain acknowledgment from Jesus of his being the Messiah. At the climax of the trial he acknowledged before the world who he was. The frustration of the High Priest drove him to ask Jesus plainly whether the was the Messiah, in terms no one could misunderstand. . vv. 61b-62:

“Again, the High Priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Most Blessed One?’”

“And Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.’”

In a way, the question which came to Jesus was a trick question, but it received a plain and forthright answer. The plain question was asked in a way as if Jesus had been under oath to answer. In fact, the High Priest could not have asked the question in a more serious and compelling way in a Jewish court proceeding. He plainly asked Jesus if he were the Messiah, and Messiah as the Son of the living God. The reaction shows that Caiaphas did not mean it just as a traditional Messianic title, but as a virtual admission of personal Deity. He was in effect, trying to trick Jesus into an admission which might be interpreted just as a traditional title, but which he would twist into a virtual admission of personal Deity.

And Jesus answered the question. He gave his answer in the language of Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13, before the entire ruling council. The answer of Jesus was solemn acknowledgement of his Messiahship before the entire ruling council. If he had been silent and had refused to answer, that would have been denial and disrespect to the office of the High Priest and to the name of God. In that moment; his own public testimony told the truth about himself to the entire Jewish ruling council;. He was already before the highest court in the land, but his answer also implied and carried a warning that he would one day be their judge. And their rejection of his Messiahship would in fact secure his exaltation and his glory yet to come as King, Judge and Conqueror. And his answer was also the indirect explanation also as to why he was not there yet in glory as the conquering Messiah, since his glory was yet to come. He identified himself as the right person, but pointed to the ultimate fulfillment of how they expected him to come to the future.

The world without Christ also puts the believer in Christ on trial constantly. We may not necessarily be called to stand for Christ in a court trial for our lives, though many believers worldwide have had to face that even in our day. Still, our confession of Jesus before the world is what he expects from us when the world challenges us, asks us whether we are what we say we are, whether we are genuine. The answer we need to give and live out is the answer that God expects, though, not the answer that the world expects and want. Though Jesus’s confession of himself before the world for who he was gave the answer that led to his sacrifice for the sins of the world, our truthful answer will likewise be redemptive in a way, in that our witness before the world will lead to some to faith in Christ. Once a rabbi introduced Corrie ten Boom, to a meeting of Jewish friends, and she told them that she had come to tell them about her greatest friend, the Jew Jesus. At that point some tried to leave, but they were told to sit down and listen respectfully. At the end, one doctor said, “When I hear Corrie ten Boom tell about the joy and security she had from her Jesus, even in such difficult circumstances, and what love he had given her for her enemies, I almost envy her and get a longing to know the Lord Jesus more intimately.”

The confession before the world did not meet with the acceptance of the world, though, but rather the most extreme rejection that the world had to offer:

“And the High Priest tore his garments and said, ‘What need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy. So how does it seem to you?’”

“And they all condemned him as worthy of death. And some began to spit on him, and they covered his face and beat him as they said to him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the attendants delivered blows to him.” (verses. 62-65).

When Jesus made the plain acknowledgment that he was the Messiah, the Son of the living God, he met with an immediate summary judgment and its aftermath. The death penalty for blasphemy normal in OT Law (Leviticus 24:16, I Kings 21:10, in the case of Naboth. He could have offered a credible defense of his self identification as the Messiah, based on his words and deeds. Indeed, he could have given a discourse like he had given the men on the road to Emmaus, on the day of his resurrection, as he “ . .  began from Moses and from all the prophets explained to them from the scriptures all concerning himself . . .” (Luke 24:27). But all this would have fallen on deaf ears. Indeed, he wasn’t even given an opportunity to mount a credible defense once the words left his mouth.

The answer of Jesus was taken as self incrimination before the Jewish High Council. It was the only play they had left in face of the inability to get other testimony earlier that would have warranted a death sentence. There was deliberate high drama of the high priest tearing his garment to get the verdict, since he had to make it as dramatic as possible. Still, they had no legal authority to perform the execution. As a conquered nation subject to the Roman governor, they still had the legal requirement then to take it to Pontius Pilate for the actual execution. Later, in Mark 15:1, the official sentencing took place at the crack of dawn to meet the letter of the law in the legal requirement that it not be at night. But let us also note right here, finally and forever, that this verdict was the responsibility of the men that were there at that time in that century. There is no justification ever after for any of the idiotic and brutal pogroms and persecutions of Jews that took place centuries later with the horrible epithet of calling them “Christ killers.” Any Christian who takes the Bible at all seriously at this point must bow his or her head in shame at how some groups of professed and utterly ignorant Christians tried to use this to justify their brutality toward the innocent Jews in their midst.

But – to go on further about the events of that day — immediately, after Jesus had spoken and they all agreed to the death penalty, the trial degraded to the beating and mockery from some members of the ruling council and by the Temple guards which preceded the beating and mockery of the Roman guards later, in 15:16-20 (see Abused for a further explanation of this passage). This beating by the Temple guards, though was itself an official, legal act as taking place under the authority of the high priest, and marked an official rejection of the purported blasphemy. The blindfolding was a weird Messianic test based upon Isaiah 11:2-4, the idea that ‘the Messiah does not need to see’. But the reality is that he was fulfilling Isaiah 50:6: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.”

So when it comes down to us, the world will often reject our testimony to the Messiah. So do not expect them to accept your confession of Jesus. They may immediately reject our testimony and make up all sorts of false tests for us in the form of “if you were really a Christian you would do this.” And these false tests, like they made up for Jesus, will often something be humiliating, selfish and ridiculous, as if they were the authorities on what it means to be a Christian, as if they were living up to their own standards and as if they were trustworthy to stand in judgment on the credibility of the testimony of believers. Yet again, remember that this also how they treated Jesus, as he was there first also; and also their rejection of our testimony to him is also their continuing rejection of him. But even so,  some will respond to our testimony. This means that there is still the need for believers to continue and realize expendability in the mission, as we follow Jesus in this world. It’s incumbent upon us also to recognize that we’re expendable in the mission, as Nate Saint did, before he and three others were martyred by the Auca Indians: “During the last war, we had to be willing to be expendable. A missionary constantly faces expendability.” His understanding of his expendability was echoed by Jim Elliott: “If that’s the way God wants it to be, I’m ready to die for the salvation of the Aucas.”

Too often the church has mistaken being glib and talkative with knowing the truth and being called to speak the truth, and the simple forthrightness of Jesus is too often missing, though it is the mark of those who have truly been with Jesus. Though this world challenges us to be genuine and will not accept it when we are genuine, nevertheless there will still be those for whom our confession of Jesus before them and before the world will mean salvation from this world and its judgment. Though the time will come when this world will accept the ultimate phony, the ultimate counterfeit from the phony factory of Satan, yet the believer in Christ can be assured that the eternal Son of God has come, has taken the sins of the world upon his shoulders and has taken them away for our eternal salvation.

IN THE TRIAL BEFORE THE WORLD, THEY JUDGED THE PERFECT SON OF GOD TO BE A PHONY. THE ONE WHO HAD COMMITTED NO SIN OR DECEIT WAS SENTENCED TO DEATH FOR TELLING THE TRUTH ABOUT HIMSELF BEFORE A WORLD WHICH DID NOT ACCEPT IT. THE SON OF GOD THEN WENT TO THE CROSS TO DIE FOR US AS THE PERFECT SACRIFICE FOR OUR SINS, AND THERE HE TOOK THE SIN OF THE WORLD UPON HIS SHOULDERS. BECAUSE OF HIM WE DON’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT, TO HAVE PERFECTLY FULFILLED THE MORAL LAW OF GOD WHICH WE AND THIS WORLD HAS REJECTED, MOCKED AND TRAMPLED. WE SIMPLY HAVE TO BE FORGIVEN, TO HAVE RECEIVED HIS SALVATION, AND TO BE GENUINE IN OUR FAITH IN HIM ALONE FOR OUR ETERNAL SALVATION, TO BE GROWING IN LOVE AND PURITY TO GLORIFY HIM. AND THEN WHEN YOU MAY STAND BEFORE A WORLD WHICH REJECTED HIM AND WHICH MAY ALSO HAVE ALREADY JUDGED YOU TO BE A PHONY BECAUSE YOU HAVE RECEIVED THE SALVATION IN JESUS THAT THEY REJECT, KNOW THAT JESUS WAS THERE BEFORE YOU. BECAUSE OF THEIR OWN UNBELIEF THEY CANNOT STAND FOR YOU TO BE GENUINE IN YOUR FAITH IN CHRIST, BECAUSE THAT WOULD MAKE THEM OUT TO BE THE PHONIES, IN THEIR OWN CLAIMS OF RIGHTEOUSNESS, RELIGION, AND PIETY.

Be ready to confess your faith before the world no matter how you anticipate the world may react to the plain confession of Jesus Christ, and be ready to live like Jesus in the face of the rejection of this world. This is a strong reason to walk more closely to Jesus, to experience his power to live the risen and changed life; his power also to be able to testify with holy boldness to the change which he has made. And understand that this is the Jesus who died on the cross for you. His love was there for you for now and to eternity, and this is the love which you need to receive to experience truly. So then receive him now through repentance and faith as Lord and Savior.

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