The cross event entails a blameless man, unworthy of death, murdered by guilty, vile men yet also dying on behalf of dirty defiled people who need a Savior. It’s the love story of love stories. Our loving Lord, seeing our need for a Savior, who is also just and requires death for sin, sees our rebellion. Instead of declaring us traitors and pronouncing, “Off with their heads!” (which we deserve), He sends His son to die in our place, the blameless for the guilty.
Paul, summarizes this reality in Romans 5:1-10
For while we were still helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrathof Godthrough Him. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.
God’s love for us isn’t natural, if I define “natural” as how humans treat other humans. God’s love is unique . . . perhaps, better to describe it as “holy.” Peeling back the layers of love, it shines the more we focus in on the innocent dying for the guilty. If you’ve ever been falsely accused, you know how trying and difficult these situations are to navigate. If you’ve ever taken the fall for someone else, you know the cry for vindication is real and can be obsessive. Christ’s love for us allows a silent innocent man to endure what He doesn’t and didn’t deserve.
Christ’s innocence on the cross troubled Him, Matthew says he was, “grieved and distressed” (26:37). Why? Because bearing the weight of another person’s sin and guilt, and then dying for them stressed Him out . . . to the point of sweating blood (Luke 22:44). Even after wrestling through a false accusation, I’m still forced to remember reality — I’m still guilty of something. I did something wrong in life, I rebelled against God and at minimum lived unthankful and failed to praise Him (Rom 1:21). So, although I may be innocent of this false charge, I’m still guilty.
Christ’s reality was unique and set apart from humanity, He was not guilty of our charge NOR was he guilty of any charge! Innocent and Innocence describe Him perfectly. The charges against Him were false and made up, not worthy of death, (but ironically, the charges were worthy of worship); and he suffered them. From our perspective He was treated unjustly (so that we can be justified before Him).
Innocence is a major truth and theme in the Gospel. Matthew’s narrative communicates it as an over-whelming major motif requiring our notation. He intends to tell us, “Christ is innocent!” But he doesn’t communicate this following our 21stCentury guidelines. We like to #Innocence, all caps INNOCENCE, or innocence when we express emphasis. Instead Matthew tells us what happened in a very Matthew-like way. The way he organized the material and the details he provides in the story.
Look at Matthew 26-27. The two chapters describe the last few days of Jesus’s life, the trial, and the cross event. Matthew sets up the event introducing the litany of people involved and revealing their motives. The first paragraph in 26 provides important commentary, informing us how to interpret the religious government’s motives, “Then the chief priest and the elders of the people were gathered together in the court of the high priest, named Caiaphas; and they plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth and kill Him. But they were saying, ‘Not during the festival, otherwise a riot might occur among the people’” (Matt 26:3-5).
From the start, Matthew indicates many truths prevalent in this final section in His Gospel. First, the religious leaders want Jesus killed. Second, the crowd’s perception drives their motives. Third, Matthew ironically shows the religious leaders know the persuasive ability a crowd can hold among men. They will use a rioting crowd, orchestrated by them, to persuade Pilate to kill Jesus while at the same time accusing Jesus of trying to start a rebellion against Rome. I introduce these here for you to read, and time permits me only to discuss the innocence of Christ.
By proclaiming the guilt of the religious leaders, Matthew wants us to see the innocence of Christ. This comes on display most clearly in three pericopes: Jesus before the Sanhedrin (26:57-68), Judas’s remorse (27:3-10), and then before Pilate (27:11-26). If it were not for Peter’s denial (26:69-75) and Judas’s remorse (27:3-10), this section would solely be about Jesus’s trial proceedings. But instead Matthew pauses the trial to record first, Peter’s denial and second, Jesus’s innocence. The structure matters here and communicates “Innocence.”
The Sanhedrin condemns Jesus to death (26:66). However, the problem here, for them, they are not legally allowed to kill Jesus. They must therefore send him before Pilate, the governor, with the death penalty recommendation. Both trials highlight Jesus’s innocence.
Before the Sanhedrin
In the first trial, the Sanhedrin attempts to find Jesus guilty of something. Matthew says, “Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, so that they might put him to death” (26:59). What did they find? Matthew says, “They did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward” (26:60).
What did He do?
The Sanhedrin is interesting here. On the one hand, they are looking for two or more witnesses (which justice demands). “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed ” (Deut 19:15). Yet on the other hand, they don’t care if the charges are true “trying to obtain false testimony.” They want Jesus gone. Finally the Sanhedrin finds two witnesses who, at best, proclaim a half-truth. The witnesses say, “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days’” (61). Jesus said something like this when talking about himself and the resurrection, but nothing indicates he said this exactly.
It doesn’t really matter to them. When Jesus affirms He is the Son of God, the Messiah, they accuse Him of blaspheme. They rejected Him a long time ago mainly because He is not the Messiah they want. He doesn’t live up to their expectations, (ironically, they never seem to contemplate or consider, perhaps we are meant to live up to His?). Blaspheme is enough for them to want him dead (26:66). This leaves us to question the narrative.
And, if you’re paying attention to all Matthew’s narrative, you remember, “Who do you say that I am?” (16:15). Jesus is the Christ, He is the Messiah, the Son of God, Son of Man, and worthy of our worship! He is not guilty of blaspheme. The true Messiah cannot be guilty of blaspheme because He is what He is! So, to decry a penalty for something that isn’t wrong for the one to whom is worthy of the title is unjust. Christ is guilty of nothing here. He is innocent. The guilty party in the first trial are all those involved in the Sanhedrin’s plot.
The second trial confirms his innocence and man’s guilt (27:1-2; 11-26). First, notice the charge against Jesus changes. What the Sanhedrin convicts him of will not be what they bring before Pilate. Pilate couldn’t care less if Jesus blasphemes. But, if Jesus is a self-proclaimed king who wants to lead a rebellion against Rome to crown Himself king, well, that’s a different charge (and the one brought before Pilate). “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks. Why ask this? Because when the Sanhedrin approaches Pilate, this is their accusation. Ironically, He is king of the Jews! But this charge carries with it the idea of rebellion, coup, and insurrection! Pilate cannot have this. But, throughout Pilate’s investigation, Matthew highlights again, Jesus is innocent. Matthew indicates this three ways.
First, Pilate recognizes this trial for what it really is. “For he [Pilate] knew that because of envy they had handed him over” (27:18). Pilate’s investigation really draws out the Jewish leader’s envy for Jesus. Pilate sees Jesus as the Sanhedrin’s political opponent. And he recognizes their political game. He sees them isolating him, accusing him, condemning him, and then trying to destroy him (a tactic shared today by men who want to rid themselves of an opponent). Jesus’s success among the crowds and rejection of their “good-ole-boy” network annoyed them, and he must go. Pilate sees their envy (and Jesus’s innocence).
Second, Pilate’s wife knows he is innocent. “While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent him saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous Man; for last night I suffered greatly in a dream because of Him” (27:19). Matthew informs us, the Lord did not allow Pilate’s wife to sleep. We get the idea she was up all night distressed over the trial and Jesus. She is so distressed she sends Pilate a message, in the middle of the day (what man doesn’t answer his wife’s phone call at work, let he who has ears hear) to inform him of the danger involved in dealing with Jesus and persuades him to let Jesus go.
Finally, Pilate tries to wash his hands of Jesus. “He took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this Man’s blood; see to that yourselves” (27:24). Pilate both declares Jesus innocent, the Jews hypocrites, and yet declares himself guilty too. If Jesus is innocent, he should have stood up to them. Instead he caves to their demands. I speculate, Pilate doesn’t cave to them, rather he will use this as a political commodity to cash in later at an appropriate time. He has captured the Jewish leaders in their scandal, revealed their sinful (not righteous or noble motives), and will later use this to his advantage, but today isn’t that day for him.
The trials reveal an innocent man who goes to the cross to die a criminal’s death at the hands of guilty men. And of course the irony is that an innocent man dies for us, the guilty, so that we can be forgiven and adopted into God’s family. Matthew spells it out. But we haven’t even uncovered his greatest statement on innocence yet. Part 2 will uncover Judas’s declaration of His innocence . . .