This Lenten devotion is from 1958. To learn more about the history behind it, click here.
Now the chief priests and the whole council sought false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.’” And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But Jesus was silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes, and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. Why do we still need witnesses? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spat in his face, and struck him; and some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” Matthew 26:59-68 (RSV)
This evening we follow the Lord into the judgment hall. After the betrayal in the garden He was led to the palace of Annas, the former high priest and father-in-law of Caiaphas, who conducted his own investigation until the high council could be called together. This former high priest was not satisfied with the answers the Lord gave, so one of the officers struck Christ. “I will smite the shepherd and the sheep shall be scattered,” we read in the Old Testament.
At last the members of the high council were roused from their beds for the extraordinary session. This was the highest Jewish court, composed of 71 priests, scribes and elders, and presided over by the high priest. The members of the court had already decided on the course of action to be taken against Jesus. It has happened many times in history that men were condemned before they were tried and judged before they had an opportunity to face their accusers. The same thing happened with the Lord. The judge had advised the members of the council that “it is better if one man should die for the people.”
The court session opened with Caiaphas, the high priest, presiding. All eyes were upon the defendant, but He was given no opportunity to defend himself. Witnesses appeared. Many false witnesses came forward, yet none whose testimony could prove anything. Finally two false witnesses appeared and accused Him of saying, “I will destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.”
The testimony of the two witnesses was certainly false. But these witnesses do not stand alone. The sin of accusing God and His Son is a universal sin; it is a sin of all mankind. This sin is as old as humanity.
The first man to accuse God was Adam. After eating of the forbidden fruit he accused God of being responsible. He blamed not only Eve, his wife, but also God. He said, “The woman who you made to be with me, gave me of the fruit and I ate.” Why did you give me a woman like this one? You should have given me a better one in the first place and nothing would have happened. He accused God.
The people of Israel were on their way through the wilderness. With a mighty hand God had brought them out of Egypt, had separated the waters of the sea for them in an hour of emergency. He supplied them with food and water and meat in a wilderness where no harvest was possible. Manna was on the ground every morning. Water was given them out of rocks. God spoke to them through Moses, and went before them by night in a pillar of fire and by day in a pillar of clouds. They camped near Mt. Sinai where God gave them special instructions. They came to the border of the promised land. They murmured against God and against the leader God had given them. They accused God of letting them rot in the wilderness, until God said, “You all shall die in the wilderness. Turn around and spend the next forty years in this barren land.” They murmured and accused God from beginning to end. The accusers in the palace of the high priest in Jerusalem were not the only accusers. They do not stand alone. The sin of accusing God is universal. Even Job and his wife accused God, at least his wife. She blamed God for all the misfortune, and said to her husband, “Curse God and die.” Curse God, He is to be blamed for all the troubles we have.
Have you ever felt and said that God is not giving you a fair deal? You had some disappointment, sickness, unexpected trouble. You looked at others. They advance. They have all the luck in the world and you feel that God is not giving you a square deal. Did you notice that resentment in your heart, that murmur against God, that accusing voice. Yes, you accuse God and the Son of God. Maybe you prayed for something and waited for quite a time. Now you blame God for not hearing and answering your prayer. Or you feel that Christ is asking too much of you — too much of your time, your talent, your treasure. What is this but accusing God of being unfair or unfaithful?
As soon as we start accusing God we are not much different from those who accused His Son before the tribunal of Caiaphas and the court of Pilate. Were you there when they accused the Lord?
Let me come back once more to the accusation they brought against Christ. After all the other witnesses had failed, two appeared and said, “We heard this fellow say, I can destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.” What a distortion of a statement Jesus had made concerning His death and resurrection on the third day. He had once mentioned that they will destroy the temple of His body and in three days He will raise it up. People who accuse usually brush aside the truth and build on lies or things that are only half-true.
At one time or another we all had to learn the Ten Commandments. Let me just mention one of them; “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” Whenever we accuse God we bear false witness. We can all agree that the two witnesses in our story did not care for this commandment. They knew that their testimony was false. Luther explains the commandment this way: “We should fear and love God so that we do not deceitfully belie, betray, backbite, nor slander our neighbor, but apologize for him, speak well of him and put the most charitable construction on all that he does.” We never do this when we falsely accuse others or God. False accusations are not confined to a courtroom. It has been said that for every person falsely accused in court there are thousands who have been slandered by gossip at parties or over the backyard fence. There are always those who are ready to lend a willing ear to accusations of others. But to accuse God and His son goes far beyond that. Our text tells us of the accusations brought against Christ. Were you there when He was accused? Do you ever speak harshly of your neighbor or accuse God of not giving you a square deal? Then you are one of them.
Let us look for a moment at the accused. Whom do we see? An innocent man. Again and again Pilate declared Him innocent. “I find no fault in Him. I am not guilty of the blood of this innocent man.” These are the words Pilate spoke. But He was more than an innocent man. He was the Son of God, sinless, pure, and righteous. What does Jesus say in His own defense?
He held His peace. What divine composure. Silence in the face of false accusations. “As a sheep before his shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth.” What an example He gave us. We always believe that we have to defend and to clear ourselves. With a flood of words we try to prove our innocence. Our Lord was silent. “I have given you an example that you should follow in my footsteps.” When his person was attacked, Christ did not respond, but when the truth concerning His sonship, His work as Redeemer, was at stake, then He answered. When the high priest said, “I adjure you by the living God to tell us whether you are Christ, the Son of God,” His reply was affirmative. Silence here would have been a denial of His sonship, His royal priesthood. He must reply and He does reply.
The whole Sanhedrin, the elders, the Scribes, the Pharisees and Sadducees, Pilate, Herod, all shall hear that He is the Son of God. You and I must hear it. Your neighbors, this city, this county, this state, people in Japan, in Africa, in India, in China, they shall all hear it. Christ is not silent. His voice speaks to men everywhere. He speaks now through us. We shall say it. Our church shall say it. Christ is the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world, the One that died that we may live, the One who bought us with a price, not with silver and gold, but with His blood.
There is a time to be silent, but there is also a time when we must speak. When the truth is at stake, when God’s Word and God’s honor is at stake, we must speak. Christ gave us this example. “Yes,” He said, “I am the Son of God, and I tell you even more; hereafter ye shall see me, the Son of Man, sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.” That is still His message. “I shall come again. All power is given unto me in heaven and on earth. I shall return after preparing a place for my children and they shall be with me forever.”
Were you there when He was accused? Have you ever accused Him? Did you notice His divine composure? He was silent when accused, but spoke when truth was in danger. Learn from Him today. Did He not say, “Learn from me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, ye shall find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
4th Wednesday in Lent, 1958