by Matthew W. Bassford

How do you convict a sinless man of a crime serious enough to warrant His execution? It might sound like a logic puzzle to us, but for the chief priests, it was a serious problem. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, they determined that He had to die. However, they couldn’t just murder Him because of the pushback from the people and maybe the Romans too. Instead, they had to find a way to sentence Him to death under the color of law.

We tend to assume that the game was over after Jesus’ arrest in the garden, but the arrest was only the beginning of the process. The chief priests needed not merely to arrest Him, but to convict Him of a crime. As Mark 14:55-64 reveals, they rounded up a bunch of false witnesses, but none of them could agree that Jesus had done anything criminal. By Mark 14:59, the prosecution has failed, and the chief priests are going to have to release Jesus unless something changes.

Jesus on trial before Pilate (John 18:28)

At this point, Caiaphas the high priest takes a gamble. He asks Jesus a question: “Are You the Christ?” This is very dangerous; Jesus has spent the past several years humiliating opponents who ask Him questions. However, much to Caiaphas’ delight and probable surprise, Jesus gives the answer that will condemn Him—that He is the Son of God. Caiaphas declares that the whole Sanhedrin are witnesses to Jesus’ “crime” of blasphemy, so they vote to convict Him.

However, this does not end the chief priests’ difficulties. They can convict Jesus, but they can’t sentence Him to death. That’s a Roman prerogative. Thus, their next hurdle is to convince Pilate, the Roman governor, that an innocent man ought to die.

This does not go well. Even an unrighteous man like Pilate doesn’t want to condemn the guiltless. The Jewish leaders, however, prompt Pilate to ask Jesus if He is a king. This is another massive risk, but it pays off too. In John 18:36-37, Jesus affirms that even though His kingdom is not of this world, He is a king.

Thereafter, Pilate continues to press for Jesus’ release, but now the Jews have leverage. In John 19:12, they threaten Pilate. If he lets Jesus go, they’re going to report to Caesar that he is a friend to rebels, not Caesar. When he hears this, Pilate agrees to Jesus’ crucifixion. Doing the right thing is infinitely less important to him than saving his own skin.

In this narrative, two main forces are evident: the chief priests’ persistent hatred. . . and Jesus’ acquiescence in His own death. As Isaiah 53:7 predicted would happen, Jesus does not speak to defend Himself. Rather, He is the prosecution’s star witness. His twin affirmations of His deity and kingship are the two reasons why He is condemned.

In worldly terms, this is madness. Jesus knew, though, that it had to happen for Him to carry out His Father’s will. If Jesus is not the victim of great injustice, there will be no sinless sacrifice to enable God to be both just and the justifier. Jesus knowingly brought that injustice upon Himself—all so that He could ransom us.

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