This sermon is part of the sermon series "Searching the Soul". See series.
Years ago Bill Hybels told about seeing a newscast of a big Vietnam veterans parade in Chicago. Part of the commemoration was a mobile Vietnam wall like the one in Washington, DC, bearing the names of all the soldiers who had died there. Hybels said, "One newscaster asked a vet why he had come all the way to Chicago to visit this memorial and to participate in this parade. The soldier looked straight into the face of the reporter and with tears flowing down his face he said, 'Because of this man right here.' As he talked he was pointing to the name of a friend whose name is etched in the wall. And as he pointed to the name, he traced the letters of his friend's name in the wall. And he continued to answer the reporter by saying, 'This man right here gave his life for me. He gave his life for me.' As the news clip ended, that sobbing soldier simply let the tears flow without shame as he stood there continuing to trace the name of his friend with his finger." It was hard for that man to get his heart and mind around the sacrifice of his friend, so he kept retracing the story. We have that problem, too. There is, of course, someone who gave his life for me. I don't want to grow dull to Jesus' death for me, but I do.
That's why we have been shaping our observance of Lent around Matthew's account of Jesus' suffering—to remind ourselves again, Jesus died for me; he died for me.
Turn to today's text, Matthew 26:47-68. Our text last week centered on Jesus' agonizing submission of his own will to the Father's, while the disciples slept through their chance to do the same. The story ended with verse 46: "Rise, let us go! Here comes my betrayer!" Now we consider Jesus' capture and a kind of kangaroo court arraignment before the Jewish authorities. Would you ask God to stir our hearts as we study Jesus self-sacrifice in these verses? How much greater our love for him will be if we run our fingers over the contours of these verses.
When Jesus faced capture he could've summoned angel armies, but for our sakes, he didn't.
Jesus' capture has the look of an innocent victim in the grip of a lynch mob. There under the Passover's full moon, a "large crowd" of soldiers, thugs and officials rush into the quiet garden brandishing torches, swords and clubs. The stillness is suddenly rattling with a menacing tension. One man comes forward out of that crowd, walks straight up to Jesus, says, "Greetings, Rabbi!", and kisses him on the cheek in the customary manner of friends.
And as the guards surge toward their target, Jesus whispers his last words to Judas, "Friend, do what you came for." The other eleven disciples, having vowed not to abandon Jesus, feel an adrenalin rush. Peter pulls his short sword from the scabbard at his waist and charges forward. There's a cry as he slashes and catches the ear of the high priest's servant, Malchus.
Things are spinning out of control. Everything has gone horribly wrong. Jesus has fallen into enemy hands. The disciples lose their nerve. All is lost!
But Jesus, despite being captured, was hardly defenseless, as seen in verse 53: "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" One Roman legion numbered 6,000 soldiers. I think Jesus might be suggesting that he could call forth from Gethsemane's shadows 6,000 angels each for him and for each of his disciples if we wanted to—12 legions. Like the celestial chariots of fire that stood watch over Elisha, there were tens of thousands of shining, mighty angels encircling that puny band of thugs who had laid hold of Jesus there in the darkness. Oh, Jesus was hardly defenseless. He certainly didn't need Peter's errant sword! Here's the point of this part of the story:
C. Jesus was not really in the grip of the soldiers, but rather in the grip of God's will, as seen in verses 54 and 56: "But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" and, "But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled." For Jesus, the Old Testament prophecies were his God-given commands. The Old Testament was heavy with expectations only the Messiah could obey—like Psalm 22, which depicts the full range of Christ's suffering (here's verse 16: "Dogs have surrounded me; a band of evil men has encircled me"); or Isaiah 53:3-4, "He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricked by God, smitten by him, and afflicted"; or Zechariah 13:1, "On that day a fountain will be opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, to cleanse them from sin and impurity." For Jesus, those prophecies were God's commands to be obeyed.
Jesus submitted to his captors out of obedience to God for our sake. Jesus died for our sin, but he also died from our sin. He died for our sin, bearing the guilt of our sin in our place; he was our sacrifice. But he also died from our sin, bearing the brunt of sin in this world; he was sin's victim.
Do you understand why he had to suffer so much sin against him? To be our sin sacrifice he had to be sinless before God, as symbolized by the Passover lamb without blemish. But it wasn't enough for Jesus to be innocent—untouched by sin; he also had to be righteous—tempted by sin but remaining utterly obedient to God. Do you remember what Hebrews 5:7-9 says? "During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him." God allowed Satan to touch all the sin buttons in the man Christ Jesus—to do all he could to provoke him to sin, so no one could ever say his righteousness was easy or inadequate. Jesus was tested in all ways that we are, yet was without sin.
There are at least two potent implications of that truth for us: First, when we ask Christ to be our Savior, he doesn't simply lay upon us a baby-like innocence, but a Christ-like righteousness. God sees that this temptation-tested righteousness of Jesus is credited to our account.
Secondly, when the enemies close in on you, when you are powerfully tempted to sin, you have One who sympathizes with you and stands ready to help.
Aren't you glad Jesus didn't summon those waiting angels? That he remained steadfastly obedient to God's Word? That when the pressure was hard upon him—betrayed, manhandled, bound, and abandoned—that he did not sin? Had he sinned, all would have been lost, and we would've been without hope. There's an old song that says, "He could have called 10,000 angels … but he died alone for you and me." Trace that truth with your finger lest you forget what it means that Jesus gave his life for you.
When Jesus faced false witnesses he could've defended himself, but for our sakes, he didn't.
There is something especially upsetting about an unjust trial. Jesus would face a series of hearings and courts that night. This one before Caiaphas breaks so many Jewish laws that some Jewish leaders today say it could have never happened. Matthew doesn't dwell on the illegal hour, or the improper venue, or the unlawful rush to judgment, but he does highlight the false witnesses: "The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward and declared, 'This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.'" (Matthew 26:59-61)
In that culture, to threaten the temple was to defame God himself, and was a crime. But John 2:18-19 records what Jesus actually said: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days."
So why didn't Jesus simply correct them? What would have been so bad about saying, "Ah, let me set the record straight here"? Why didn't he challenge the lies? What would have been so bad about that?
In fact, wouldn't it be better to hold these liars accountable and to trip up these officials in their own traps, as Jesus had done before? What was to be gained from standing there silently?
Jesus again bowed to God's will in order to be the sinless sacrificial lamb our sins required. Again, he was obeying God's Word for the Messiah: "He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; e was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth."
There it is again—the lamb. Just like in the Passover meal. Did you ever wonder why God ordained that the Passover sacrifice be a lamb, and not a full-grown sheep? God was giving his people a picture of the perfect sacrifice for sin, and the lamb combined two qualities: the lamb was spotless, without any defect—to symbolize the moral perfection needed to be a sacrifice for the sin of another; and the lamb was willing, to symbolize the requirement that the perfect sacrifice cannot go to the altar struggling against the sentence; desperate to go free. The lamb at Passover surrendered to its death because it didn't know any better. Jesus surrendered willingly and silently to death because he chose to.
Jesus remained silent before the false witnesses because he was no longer concerned about earthly justice, but rather being a silent and willing sacrifice to satisfy God's justice against our sin. The court of Caiaphas meant nothing. That verdict was empty. Jesus endured the lies and, later, the mocking and accusations, because he was God's willing and perfect sacrifice for our sin. Trace that truth with your finger lest you forget what it means that Jesus gave his life for you.
When Jesus faced a booby-trapped question he could've remained silent, but for our sakes, he didn't.
The climax of this hearing crackles with courtroom drama. Caiaphas was a wily, snarky politician. He held power for 19 years when the official term of office was only supposed to be four. Some suggest his name, Caiaphas, was more of a nickname, meaning Inquisitor. I imagine his frustration growing as all these false witnesses fizzle like cheap firecrackers. When even the most corrupt judge can't rule the way he wants, you know things are bad! He wanted to trap Jesus and it wasn't working. Kent Hughes writes, "Jesus had not uttered a word and he was winning."
So, casting off all misdirection and subtlety, Caiaphas takes a bold courtroom gamble and asks the big question, the one not even the false witnesses had been able to pin on Jesus. Verse 63: "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." Oh, that question was a ticking bomb. Jesus had three options, and none were good!
If Jesus refused to answer a question carrying such an oath, Caiaphas would use the very refusal to answer such an oath as a criminal offense.
If Jesus said no, his influence would crumble and he would become a "has-been".
And if Jesus said yes, the full force of the law would come crashing down on him for blasphemy.
In our courts, this is where a defendant would plead the Fifth Amendment—"I refuse to answer on the grounds that it may incriminate me." This was a booby-trapped question; touch it and it would explode in Jesus' face.
Jesus, despite this rigged question, answers on his own terms. In verse 64 he says, "Yes, it is as you say. But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven."
The first words of verse 64 are hard to translate. "Yes, it is as you say." Another way to translate it would be, "That is your way of putting it."
Like all his countrymen, Caiaphas could only imagine a militant Messiah—who would be a threat to the delicate balance with Rome, bent on rallying the nation to himself and to independence. Caiaphas had not room for such a revolutionary.
Jesus faces the problem of wanting to say, "That's who I am, but not the way you think." So he recasts what it means that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, by picking up language from the Old Testament and two passages in particular. One is Daniel 7:13-14: "In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory, and sovereign power; all peoples, nations, and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed." Jesus is saying, "I am the Messiah, but in a far greater sense than you realize. I belong in the courts of God, and I will reign over all the world."
The other verse Jesus is alluding to here is Psalms 110:1: "The LORD says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'" This is an outright threat to Caiaphas and all Jesus' other enemies. It is a defiant promise that eventually the tables would be turned.
Jesus answer here unleashes the full force of his enemies. Verses 65-68: "Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, 'He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?' 'He is worthy of death,' they answered. Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, 'Prophesy to us, Christ. Who hit you?'"
Blasphemy is a foreign word to us. The dictionary says "blasphemy" is "profane or contemptuous speech, writing, or action concerning God." There is absolutely no stigma in our society against blasphemy—let alone a law against it! But among the Jews it was a capital offense.
Jesus was accused of blasphemy, of course, because he—whom they took to be a mere man—claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God. Caiaphas, that slimy hypocrite, feigns shock and tears his robe from top to bottom in a show of horror. Inside, he must have been amazed at his good fortune in tricking Jesus into such a blatant misstatement. No more evidence needed. No more legal maneuvering. Cut to the chase. "What do you think?" Caiaphas huffed to his kangaroo court. "He is worthy of death," his henchmen answered, one and all.
Mark explains that they blindfolded Jesus, which makes clear this taunting in verses 67-68. Don't miss the irony here. They try to provoke Jesus to prophesy by naming the men who struck him, while Jesus has already prophesied this whole scenario, including his coming resurrection. This is a dark and dangerous scene. Kent Hughes observed, "Souls were tumbling in darkness. There was damnation and hell in that room."
Jesus proclaimed his true identity in that dark hour—he came out with it plainly—though it would condemn him to death. Ironically, while all those false witnesses failed to condemn him, it was the truth that sent him to the cross. Jesus answer was a holy taunt—a challenge—a gauntlet thrown before the forces of evil. "You will not have the last word!"
Here Jesus throws down the gauntlet before all of us. Illus.: Jeremy Bowen, the presenter of a BBC documentary on Jesus stated, "The important thing is not what he was or what he wasn't—the important things is what people believe him to have been. A massive world wide religion, numbering more than two billion people follows his memory—that's pretty remarkable, 2,000 years on."
Jesus' statement here belittles such thinking. Jesus must be reckoned with as the Lord of glory and the Coming King. He will not be ignored or sidelined or indulged. Jesus must be reckoned with as the Lord of glory and the Coming King. He will not be mocked or settle for being one religious option—jostling for attention with Mohammed, Buddha, or Mammon. Jesus must be reckoned with as the Lord of glory and the Coming King.
Remember that wonderful summary by C. S. Lewis in Mere Christianity? "I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: 'I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God.' That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to."
Believing the good news of Jesus as Savior for sinners is not really an option; it is a command. Do it or else! If you have never surrendered to this extraordinary Savior, would you do so today?
For those who have trusted Jesus as Savior, run your fingers over his name again and remember, like the man said, "He gave his life for me. He gave his life for me!" He could've called 10,000 angels, but he didn't. He could've silenced their lies, but he didn't. He could've avoided the crucible question, but he didn't. For our sakes, he didn't. Trace his name with your finger, and do not forget.
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.