God on trial

We all remember courtroom trials when the bad guy got away or the good guy got sent away.

It irks us.

Occasionally a judge is paid off or a jury is manipulated or evidence is suppressed, and a murderer walks. It’s wrong, and infuriating.

In many ways it’s worse when they put the wrong guy in jail, though, especially if his accusers frame him because of envy or greed, or to protect their reputations.

There’s no court case that can rival this one, however.

They put the holy and innocent and completely righteous Son of God on trial and pronounced him guilty.

No greater travesty ever occurred.

And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together. . . . Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ ” Yet even about this their testimony did not agree. And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows (Mark 14:53, 55-65).

You’ve probably heard all the reasons this trial was a sham.

Trials couldn’t be held at night, and verdicts in capital cases couldn’t be reached until the second day. Witnesses must be warned to relate only true, firsthand testimony. Trials couldn’t be held in the palace of the high priest. And so on.

That’s just a sample of the laws that were broken when they put God on trial.

But that’s not the worst part.

Jesus never sinned, not once. He never fell short in the slightest way, and he was being tried by people who had made a mockery of God’s law.

Imagine the scene: sinners accuse God of a crime worthy of death. People who deserved to die pronounce a death sentence on the One who would die to save his accusers.

Throughout the whole ordeal Jesus stood firm.

He never wavered, using the expression “I am” perhaps to identify himself with the divine name of Exodus 3:14 (“I am who I am”).

What was the worst part of the cross for Jesus?

Was it a Judas’ betrayal?

His friends’ abandonment?

Gethsemane’s horror?

Or was it perhaps hearing people he loved lie and cheat and blaspheme so they’d have some kind of pretense to execute him?

It’s interesting, though. Jesus was tried and declared guilty so he could declare us innocent.

The innocent received the death penalty so the guilty could walk.

You’ll never find a prettier picture of grace.

A place for openness

A little humility is refreshing.

A man who isn’t so concerned about saving face that he can’t admit he’s wrong.

A woman who confesses her faults.

I think there’s a collective sigh of relief when we hear it.

Wow, I thought was the only one with issues, we think.

It seems that’s what Mark did with this curious section of his gospel as he writes about the night before Jesus’ death:

And a young man followed him, with nothing but a linen cloth about his body. And they seized him, but he left the linen cloth and ran away naked (Mark 14:52-52).

That’s probably Mark’s signature in the corner of his work, the only self-identification in his entire book. Mark himself is the young man who runs away naked.

He had just been pointing out all the mistakes the apostles made.

“So Judas betrayed Jesus, then Peter and James and John and all the other apostles fled in a panic.”

And he starts feeling somewhat guilty, remembering a particularly embarrassing episode from that same night.

So he includes a short confession:

“Oh yeah, I almost forgot. I ran too. Fast. Nude.”

It’s almost funny, isn’t it?

He probably threw a sheet around him as he ran out into the night. Before he knew it soldiers had grabbed him, so he decided being a naked runner was better than being a clothed prisoner.

Writing about this night years later he felt the need to confess what he’d done.

The apostles weren’t the only ones who abandoned Jesus.

I was just as guilty as they were.

His candor is refreshing, and it’s encouraging as well when we see it today.

Have you ever tried it?

I’m not suggesting you go around and confess everything you’ve ever done to everyone you see, but there’s a place for openness and honesty.

A place we can confess our sins without fearing judgment or condemnation.

A place we’ll be forgiven and loved and encouraged.

And I think that place is the church.

Shouldn’t the community of forgiven sinners be a place where we can all admit that’s what we are?

God doesn’t need our help

I suppose Peter was ready to take on the whole army.

At this point, at least, he was determined to stand behind what he’d said a couple hours earlier when he’d bragged about his conviction that he would never abandon Christ.

And here was his first opportunity to show that he meant what he said.

But one of those who stood by drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. And Jesus said to them, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. But let the Scriptures be fulfilled.” And they all left him and fled (Mark 14:47-50).

John identifies the unnamed swordsman as Peter (18:10).

We might criticize Peter for his denials later this same night, but we probably shouldn’t question his courage. He was ready to die to defend Christ.

His problem at this point wasn’t a lack of bravery, but rather that he didn’t really understand the nature of the Lord’s kingdom.

He was defending a spiritual kingdom with physical means.

We look at this now and wonder how he could’ve misunderstood so badly. Surely he should’ve understood that Jesus didn’t intend to advance his movement with an army, right?

But it’s possible that we might make the same mistake.

Do we ever try to help the church grow by programs or plans that emphasize the physical over the spiritual?

Do our worship services ever become more of a show for people than a spiritual offering to God?

Do we plan and strive and work to solve our problems more than we turn them over to a loving God who loves us and wants what’s best for us?

That might not be so different from what Peter did.

He thought he needed to help Jesus, when of course Jesus needed no help.

And in the same way, God really doesn’t need our help now either.

The kiss of betrayal

Judas kissed him.

Can you believe that?

It seems like it even surprised Jesus, because Luke tells us that the Lord asked him, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?”

Here’s Mark’s account:

And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man. Seize him and lead him away under guard.” And when he came, he went up to him at once and said, “Rabbi!” And he kissed him. And they laid hands on him and seized him (Mark 14:43-46).

Kissing was a common way for a student to greet his teacher, but it was also an act of endearment between two people.

What makes it worse is that the verb translated “kissed” is an intensive form of the word and likely means a prolonged or elaborate kiss (J.A. Brooks).

I guess when Judas decided to walk away from Christ, he went all the way, didn’t he?

His conscience had apparently become seared . . . his treachery knew no boundaries.

Beyond that, though, this whole story just adds to the shamefulness of what Jesus was enduring.

Mark points out that Judas was “one of the twelve,” a not-so-subtle reminder that one of Jesus’ hand-picked companions gave him up.

Not only did he endure horrible physical suffering, but he faced the shame of betrayal.

He had selected Judas, trained him, mentored him, gifted him, and loved him.

And Judas betrayed him.

With a kiss.

It simply couldn’t have been any worse.

So when we read this we ought to do more than shake our heads at Judas.

God planned it this way so that we would know our Savior stood there and took everything Satan had to give.

He faced the disappointment of abandonment and the shame of betrayal and resolutely made his way to the cross.

And he did it all for us.

The struggle within us

One of the great dilemmas of faith is why we do wrong when we want to do right.

We don’t always fall short, of course, and sometimes we think we’re making real progress.

And we are.

But then, inexplicably, we let God down.

Again.

Why do we do that?

It’s certainly not what we want to do, or at least it’s not what the real us wants to do, but sometimes we do it anyway.

The explanation lies in the age-old struggle of two contrary wills within us: the spirit and the flesh.

Unfortunately, it reared its ugly head when the Lord needed his friends’ presence the most.

And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand” (Mark 14:37-42).

Peter and the others wanted to stay awake to be present for Christ, but their flesh was so weak. They just couldn’t do it.

But the Lord is pointing to something bigger than that. He’s alluding to the struggle that all believers face.

The battle of what we ought to do versus what in the moment we want to do.

Between God’s will and our sinful will.

Good versus evil.

The new us and the old us.

This side of heaven we’ll never conquer the flesh, not completely. We’ll feel its power and we’ll struggle against its influence. We’ll resist at times, and sometimes we’ll succumb.

But we shouldn’t let our inconsistency discourage us. God is stronger than the evil that tempts us, and as we mature in our faith we learn to listen to him more and more.

Jesus’ reference to the spirit in this passage was an allusion to Psalm 51:11-12, which is a prayer we ought to whisper often.

“Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit.”

A terrible night

What was the worst part of the cross for Jesus?

It may actually have been the night before.

Usually we focus on how excruciating it must’ve been for Jesus to be crucified, but the gospels actually speak more explicitly about how much he suffered in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Mark used particularly strong language when he describes the Lord’s experience there.

And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:32-36).

It’s really a fascinating passage.

One commentator writes: “Mark’s description of Jesus is shocking. [He] employed words that express the strongest possible anguish” (J.A. Brooks, NAC).

Read these alternate translations of verse 33:

“Horror and dismay came over him” (NEB).

“Horror and anguish overwhelmed him” (REB).

“He began to be deeply distressed and horrified” (HCSB).

And then Jesus says something equally shocking: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.”

I doubt we can fathom what Jesus was enduring, and we certainly can’t put it into words.

But God wants us to know that the Thursday-Friday experience for Jesus was horrific.

Did he dread the physical agony of the cross?

Certainly, but that wasn’t all of it.

He must’ve wished for a different possible solution to the sin problem than for him to become a sin offering.

And so here in Gethsemane, in his humanity, he asked for another way.

It’s heartbreaking, isn’t it?

The holy and sinless and human Son of God broke down in the Garden and begged for something besides Calvary.

God wanted us to know that in his humanity Jesus truly suffered. He was spared no pain—whether physical or emotional—because of who he was.

Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift.

It’ll never happen to me

There’s a place for confidence, bravado, the I-can-do-it spirit.

We want our kids to be able to face a world that chews up the timid, so we teach them to stand up straight, look people in the eye, and shake hands firmly.

Believing you can do it is half the battle, we tell them.

Only that’s not exactly right.

Peter certainly had the swagger, didn’t he?

You can almost see his dismissive gesture toward his friends as he puffs out his chest and says something that absolutely wasn’t true, though he didn’t know it at the time.

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away, for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though they all fall away, I will not.” And Jesus said to him, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said emphatically, “If I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And they all said the same (Mark 14:26-31).

It’s hard to believe Peter had enough confidence in himself to correct Jesus. He probably did it respectfully, but that’s still essentially what he did.

His problem wasn’t necessarily overconfidence; it was just misplaced.

His parents taught him well. He fully believed he’d be up to the test whenever it came.

Notice his emphasis:

I will not.”

“If I must die with you, I will not deny you.”

No lack of self-confidence, yet he failed.

Ever made a Peter-like boast?

Hearing about a friend’s marriage-gone-bad, perhaps you’ve said “I’d never cheat on my spouse.”

Or someone’s questions . . . “I’d never doubt God.”

Or another’s success . . . “I’d never let money get between me and Christ.”

Don’t misunderstand—God wants us to be confident.

But he wants us to be confident in him.

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

Jesus told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and Paul would later write, “I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Timothy 1:12).

It is God’s Spirit who strengthens us with power in our inner beings (Ephesians 3:16).

In the evening before Jesus was arrested, Peter was confident he’d stand up for Christ no matter what.

Within a few hours he realized he’d been wrong, and that’s a mistake we might make.

The answer is to put our faith in God—his grace, his power, his guidance.

Trusting self just doesn’t work.

A simple memorial

The most poignant war memorial I’ve visited is the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. The simple beauty of Maya Lin’s design encourages reflection, solemnity, and healing.

Perhaps you’ve been there, or maybe to Gettysburg or Normandy, and the experience has stirred feelings deep within you.

Or maybe you’ve been brought to tears at a gravestone that bears the name of someone you love.

It’s hard to overstate the power of memorials to evoke gratitude, sadness, conviction, patriotism.

Every Sunday Christians throughout the world meet together—in homes, buildings, huts, meadows, wherever the church comes together.

We assemble to observe a simple, but powerful, memorial, one that represents the greatest sacrifice the world’s ever seen.

Jesus actually planned its observance in advance, and Mark records an abbreviated account of what he said.

And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:22-25).

It’s interesting that the supper honoring Jesus isn’t complicated or ornate. It’s not flashy or showy.

Its power lies in what it represents.

When we eat the bread we think about the body of Jesus that was punctured by nails and thorns.

When we drink the wine we think of his blood.

Throughout the memorial, both elements remind us of the significance of what happened at Calvary when Jesus died.

Most national memorials remind us of those who died for a just cause—perhaps our freedom or way of life—and they help to create a sense of national pride and identity.

But the Lord’s Supper helps us think about one who died in our place. It reminds us that our sins put him there.

When we worship God, let’s approach the Supper with a renewed commitment to remember and reflect.

Let’s fight the distractions and center ourselves on the cross.

Let’s refuse to allow the Supper’s frequent observance to cause it to be monotonous or trite.

A weekly memorial like the Lord’s Supper has tremendous power to help us in our discipleship.

It’s easy to let the events of the week distract and confuse us, but on Sunday God uses this simple memorial to remind us again of what really matters.

Our Passover Lamb

It was just another Passover to most of the Jews who entered Jerusalem about 2,000 years ago.

They would offer the sacrifices they always had. They’d eat the meal, drink the wine, observe the ritual. They’d remember God’s deliverance from Egyptian slavery.

And then they’d return home.

What they didn’t know was that this Passover would change everything.

Everything.

This was the day God had been looking toward when he sent the last plague over Egypt some 1,500 years earlier. It was even the day he was thinking about when he called Abram to be the father of a great nation some 500 years before that.

This day was huge.

Notice how Mark carefully sets the time frame as Jesus enters Jerusalem.

And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover (Mark 14:12-16).

During this week Jews came from all over the world and offered sacrificial lambs, and they thanked God forpassing over them in Egypt. Instead of striking down their firstborn, God saved them.

But on the night Jesus entered Jerusalem for Passover, something way bigger was happening.

Thousands of lambs would be sacrificed, as always.

But one Lamb would render the others obsolete.

He would die like no one had ever died, because he would die as an innocent man.

Not just innocent, but sinless. As the Old Testament code required of all sacrifices, he had no blemishes, no spots, no imperfections.

When God died on the cross, his blood sealed the covenant between God and us.

When Jesus died, he saved us from the death we deserved.

By his blood he redeemed us from slavery.

By his blood he gave us new life.

Because of that, we’re saved.

We’re forgiven sinners.

We’ve got hope for tomorrow.

And I hope that makes this typical Thursday something better than typical for you.

I hope you’re reminded today that your Lamb gave himself for you to give you a better life, a redeemed life, a forgiven life.

You’ve probably got struggles, worries, and concerns, but you’re saved by the Passover Lamb.

That’s something special, and I hope it’ll give you a greater outlook on life.