But let us not end with such words. Rather, dear brethren, let us yield to His patient beseechings; let Him teach us our evil and our sin. Listen to His great love who invites us to plead, and promises to pardon—'Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.'
THE REAL HIGH PRIEST AND HIS COUNTERFEIT
'And they that had laid hold on Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. 58. But Peter followed Him afar off unto the high priest's palace, and went in, and sat with the servants, to see the end. 59. Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put Him to death; 60. But found none: yea, though many false witnesses came, yet found they none. At the last came two false witnesses, 61. And said, This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days. 62 And the high priest arose, and said unto Him, Answerest Thou nothing? what is it which these witness against Thee? 63. But Jesus held His peace. And the high priest answered and said unto Him, I adjure Thee by the living God, that Thou tell us whether Thou be the Christ, the Son of God. 64. Jesus saith unto him, Thou hast said: nevertheless I say unto you, Hereafter shall ye see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven. 65. Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard His blasphemy. 66. What think ye? They answered and said, He is guilty of death. 67. Then did they spit in His face, and buffeted Him; and others smote Him with the palms of their hands, 68. Saying, Prophesy unto us, Thou Christ, Who is he that smote Thee?'—MATT. xxvi. 57-68.
John's Gospel tells us that Jesus was brought before 'Annas first,' probably in the same official priestly residence as Caiaphas, his son-in-law, occupied. That preliminary examination brought out nothing to incriminate the prisoner, and was flagrantly illegal, being an attempt to entrap Him into self-accusing statements. It was baffled by Jesus being silent first, and subsequently taking His stand on the undeniable principle that a charge must be sustained by evidence, not based on self-accusation. Annas, having made nothing of this strange criminal, 'sent Him bound unto Caiaphas.'
A meeting of the Sanhedrin had been hastily summoned in the dead of night, which was itself an illegality. Now Jesus stands before the poor shadow of a judicial tribunal, which, though it was all that Rome had left a conquered people, was still entitled to sit in judgment on Him. Strange inversion, and awful position for these formalists! And with sad persistence of bitter prejudice they proceeded to try the prisoner, all unaware that it was themselves, not Him, that they were trying.
They began wrongly, and betrayed their animus at once. They were sitting there to inquire whether Jesus was guilty or no; they had made up their minds beforehand that He was, and their effort now was but to manufacture some thin veil of legality for a judicial murder. So they 'sought false witness, ... that they might put Him to death.' Matthew simply says that no evidence sufficient for the purpose was forthcoming; Mark adds that the weak point, was that the lies contradicted each other. Christ's presence has a strange, solemn power of unmasking our falsehoods, both of thought and deed, and it is hard to speak evil of Him before His face. If His calumniators were confused when He stood as Prisoner, what will they be when He sits as a Judge?
Only Matthew and Mark tell us of the two witnesses whose twisted version of the word about 'destroying the Temple and rebuilding it in three days' seemed to Caiaphas serious enough to require an answer. Their mistake was one which might have been made in good faith, but none the less was their travesty 'false witness.' Their version of His great word shows how easily the teaching of a lofty soul, passed through the popular brain, is degraded, and made to mean the opposite of what he had meant by it. For the destruction of the Temple had appeared in the saying as the Jews' work, and Jesus had presented Himself in it as the Restorer, not the Destroyer, of the Temple and of all that it symbolised. We destroy, He rebuilds. The murder of Jesus was the suicide of the nation. Caiaphas and his council were even now pulling down the Temple. And that murder was the destruction, so far as men could effect it, of the true 'Temple of His body,' in which the fulness of the Godhead dwelt, and which was more gloriously reconstituted in the Resurrection. The risen Christ rears the true temple on earth, for through Him the Holy Ghost dwells in His Church, which is collectively 'the Temple,' and in all believing spirits, which are individually 'the temples' of God. So the false witnesses distorted into a lie a great truth.
The Incarnate Word was dumb all the while. He 'was still and refrained' Himself. It was the silence of the King before a lawless tribunal of rebels, of patient meekness, 'as a sheep before her shearers'; of innocence that will not stoop to defend itself from groundless accusations; of infinite pity and forbearing love, which sees that it cannot win, but will not smite. Jesus is still silent, but one day, 'with the breath of His lips shall He slay the wicked.' Caiaphas seems to have been annoyed as well as surprised at Jesus' silence, for there is a trace of irritation, as at 'contempt of court,' in his words. But our Lord's continued silence appears to have somewhat awed him, and the dawning consciousness of his dignity is, perhaps, the reason for the high priest's casting aside all the foolery of false witnessing, and coming at last to the real point,— the Messianic claims of Jesus.
Caiaphas was doing his duty as high priest in inquiring into such claims, but he was somewhat late in the day, and he had made up his mind before he inquired. What he wished to get was a plain assertion on which the death sentence could be pronounced. Jesus knew this, and yet He answered. But Luke tells us that He first scathingly pointed to the unreality and animus of the question by saying, 'If I tell you, ye will not believe.' But yet it was fitting that He should solemnly, before the supreme court, representative of the nation, declare that He was the Messiah, and that, if He was to be rejected and condemned, it should be on the ground of that declaration. Before Caiaphas He claimed to be Messiah, before Pilate He claimed to be King. Each rejected Him in the character that appealed to them most. The many-sidedness of the perfect Revealer of God brings Him to each soul in the aspect that most loudly addresses each. Therefore the love in the appeal and the guilt in its rejection are the greater.
But Christ's self-attestation to the council was not limited to the mere claim to the name of Messiah. It disclosed the implications of that name in a way altogether unlike the conceptions held by Caiaphas. When Caiaphas put in apposition 'the Christ' and 'the Son of God,' he was not speaking from the ordinary Jewish point of view, but from some knowledge, of Christ's teaching, and there are two charges combined into one.
But Jesus' answer, while plainly claiming to be the Messiah, expands itself in regard to the claim to be 'Son of God,' and shows its tremendous significance. It involves participation in divine authority and omnipotence. It involves a future coming to be the Judge of His judges. It declares that these blind scribes and elders will see Him thus exalted, and it asserts that all this is to begin then and there ('henceforth'), as if that hour of humiliation was to His consciousness the beginning of His manifestation as Lord, or, as John has it, 'the hour that the Son of Man should be glorified.' Nor must we leave out of sight the fact that it is 'the Son of Man' of whom all this is said, for thereby are indicated the raising of His perfect humanity to participation in Deity, and the possibility that His brethren, too, may sit where He sits. Much was veiled in the answer to the council, much is veiled to us. But this remains,—that Jesus, at that supreme moment, when He was bound to leave no misunderstandings, made the plainest claim to divinity, and could have saved His life if He had not done so. Either Caiaphas, in his ostentatious horror of such impiety, was right in calling Christ's words blasphemy, and not far wrong in inferring that Jesus was not fit to live, or He is the everlasting 'Son of the Father,' and will 'come to be our Judge.'
JESUS CHARGED WITH BLASPHEMY
'Then the high priest rent his clothes, saying, He hath spoken blasphemy; what further need have we of witnesses?'—MATT. xxvi. 65.
Jesus was tried and condemned by two tribunals, the Jewish ecclesiastical and the Roman civil. In each case the charge corresponded to the Court. The Sanhedrin took no cognisance of, and had no concern with, rebellion against Caesar; though for the time they pretended loyalty. Pilate had still less concern about Jewish superstitions. And so the investigation in each case turned on a different question. In the one it was, 'Art Thou the Son of God?' in the other, 'Art Thou the King of Israel?' The answer to both was a simple 'Yes!' but with very significant differences. Pilate received an explanation; the Sanhedrin none. The Roman governor was taught that Christ's title of King belonged to another region altogether from that of Caesar, and did not in the slightest degree infringe upon the dominion that he represented. But 'Son of God' was capable of no explanation that could make it any less offensive; and the only thing to be done was to accept it or to condemn Him.
So this saying of the high priest differs from other words of our Lord's antagonists, which we have been considering in recent pages, in that it is no distortion of our Lord's characteristics or meaning. It correctly understands, but it fatally rejects, His claims; and does not hesitate to take the further step, on the ground of these, of branding Him as a blasphemer.
We may turn the high priest's question in another direction: 'What further need have we of witnesses?' These horror-stricken judges, rending their garments in simulated grief and zeal, and that silent Prisoner, knowing that His life was the forfeit of His claims, yet saying no word of softening or explanation of them, may teach us much. They are witnesses to some of the central facts of the revelation of God in Christ. Let us turn to these for a few moments.
I. First, then, they witness to Christ's claims.
The question that was proposed to Jesus, 'Art Thou the Christ, the Son of the living God?' was suggested by the facts of His ministry, and not by anything that had come out in the course of this investigation. It was the summing up of the impression made on the ecclesiastical authorities of Judaism by His whole attitude and demeanour. And if we look back to His life we shall see that there were instances, long before this, on which, on the same ground, the same charge was flung at Him. For example, when He would heal the paralytic, and, before He dealt with bodily disease, attended to spiritual weakness, and said, 'Thy sins be forgiven thee,' ere He said, 'Take up thy bed and walk,' there was a group of keen-eyed hunters after heresy sitting eagerly on the watch, who snatched at the words in a moment, and said, 'Who is this that forgiveth sins? No man forgiveth sins, but God only! This man speaketh blasphemies!' And they were right. He did claim a divine prerogative; and either the claim must be admitted or the charge of blasphemy urged.
Again, when He infringed Rabbinical Sabbath law by a cure, and they said, 'This Man has broken the Sabbath day,' His vindication was worse than His offence, for He answered, 'My Father worketh hitherto, and I work.' And then they sought the more to kill Him, because He not only brake the Sabbath, but also called God His own Father, making Himself equal with God.' And again, when He declared that the safety of His sheep in His hands was identical with their safety in His Father's hands, and vindicated the audacious parallelism by the tremendous assertion, 'I and My Father are One,' the charge of blasphemy rang out; and was inevitable, unless the claim was true.
These outstanding instances are but, as it were, summits that rise above the general level. But the general level is that of One who takes an altogether unique position. No one else, professing to lead men in paths of righteousness, has so constantly put the stress of His teaching, not upon morality, nor religion, nor obedience to God, but upon this, 'Believe in Me'; or ever pushed forward His own personality into the foreground, and made the whole nobleness and blessedness and security and devoutness of a life to hinge upon that one thing, its personal relation to Him.
People talk about the sweet and gentle wisdom that flowed from Christ's lips, and so on; about the lofty morality, about the beauty of pity and tenderness, and all the other commonplaces so familiar to us, and we gladly admit them all. But I venture to go a step further than all these, and to say that the outstanding differentia, the characteristic which marks off Christ's teaching as something new, peculiar, and altogether per se, is not its morality, not its philanthropy, not its meek wisdom, not its sweet reasonableness, but its tremendous assertions of the importance of Himself.
And if I am asked to state the ground upon which such an assertion may be vindicated, I would point you to such facts as these, that this Man took up a position of equality with, and of superiority to, the legislation which He and the people to whom He was speaking regarded as being divinely sent, and said, 'Ye have heard that it hath been said to them of old time' so and so; 'but I say unto you': that this Man declared that to build upon His words was to build upon a rock; that this Man declared that He—He—was the legitimate object of absolute trust, of utter submission and obedience; that He claimed from His followers affiance, love, reverence which cannot be distinguished from worship, and that He did not therein conceive that He was intercepting anything that belonged to the Father. This Man professed to be able to satisfy the desires of every human heart when He said, 'If any man thirst let him come to Me and drink.' This Man claimed to be able to breathe the sanctity of repose in the blessedness of obedience over all the weary and the heavy laden; and assured them that He Himself, through all the ages, and in all lands, and for all troubles, would give them rest. This Man declared that He who stood there, in the quiet homes of Galilee, and went about its acres with those blessed feet for our advantage, was to be Judge of the whole world. This Man said that His name was 'Son of God'; and this Man declared, 'He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father.'
And then people say to us, 'Oh! your Gospel narratives, even if they be the work of men in good faith, telling what they suppose He said, mistook the Teacher; and if we could strip away the accretion of mistaken reverence, and come to the historical person, we should find no claims like these.'
Well, this is not the time to enter into the large questions which that contention involves, but I point you to the incident which makes my text, and I say, 'What need we any further witnesses?' Nobody denies that Jesus Christ was crucified as the result of a combination of Sanhedrin and Pilate. What set the Jewish rulers against Him with such virulent and murderous determination? Is there anything in the life of Jesus Christ, if it is watered down as the people, who want to knock out all the supernatural, desire to water it down—is there anything in the life that will account for the inveterate acrimony and hostility which pursued Him to the death? The fact remains that, whether or not Evangelists and Apostles misconceived His teaching when they gave such prominence to His personality and His lofty claims, His enemies were under the same delusion, if it were a delusion; and the reason why the whole orthodox religionism of Judaism rejoiced when He was nailed to the Cross was summed up in the taunt which they flung at Him as He hung there, 'If He be the Son of God, let Him come down, and we will believe Him.'
So, brethren, I put into the witness-box Annas and Caiaphas and all their satellites, and I say, 'What need we any further witnesses?' He died because He declared that He was the Son of God.
And I beseech you ask yourselves whether we are not being put off with a maimed version of His teaching, if there is struck out of it this its central characteristic, that He, 'the sage and humble,' declared that He was 'likewise One with the Creator.'
II. Secondly, note how we have here the witness that Jesus Christ assented always to the loftiest meaning that men attached to His claims.
I have already pointed out the remarkable difference between the explanations which He condescended to give to the Roman governor as to the perfectly innocent meaning of His claim to be the King of Israel, and His silence before the Sanhedrin. That silence is only explicable because they rightly understood the meaning of the claim which they contemptuously and perversely rejected. Jesus Christ knew that His death was the forfeit, as I have said, and yet He locked His lips and said not a word.
In like manner when, on the other occasion to which I have already referred, the Pharisees stumbled at His claims to forgive sins, He said nothing to soften down that claim. If He had meant then only what some people would desire to make Him mean when He said, 'Thy sins be forgiven thee'—viz., that He was simply acting as a minister of the divine forgiveness, and assuring a poor sinner that God had pardoned him—why in common honesty, in discharge of His plain obligations of a teacher, did He not say so—not for His own sake, but for the sake of preventing such a tremendous misunderstanding of His meaning? But He let them go away with the conviction that He intended to claim a divine prerogative, and vindicated the assertion by doing what only a divine power could do: 'That ye may know that the Son of Man hath power enough on earth to forgive sins, He saith unto the sick of the palsy, Take up thy bed and walk.' There was no need for Him to have wrought a miracle to establish His right to tell a poor soul that God forgave sin. And the fact that the miracle was supposed to be the demonstration and the vindication of His right to declare forgiveness shows that He was exercising that prerogative which belongs, as they rightly said, to God only.
And in precisely the same manner, the commonest obligations of honesty, the plain duty of a misunderstood Teacher, to say nothing of the duty of self-preservation, ought to have opened His lips in the presence of the Jewish authorities, if they understood wrongly and set too high their estimate of the meaning of His claims. His silence establishes the fact that they understood these aright.
And so, all through His life, we note this peculiarity, that He never puts aside as too lofty for truth men's highest interpretations of His claims, nor as too lowly for their mutual relation the lowest reverence which bowed before Him. Peter, in the house of Cornelius, said, 'Stand up! for I myself also am a man.' Paul and Barnabas, when the priests brought out the oxen and garlands to the gates of Lystra, could say, 'We also are men of like passions with yourselves.' But this meek Jesus lets men fall at His feet; and women wash them with their tears and wipe them with the hairs of their head; and souls stretch out maimed hands of faith, and grasp Him as their only hope. When His apostle said, 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,' His answer was, 'Blessed art thou, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee,' and when another exclaimed, 'My Lord and my God!' this Pattern of all meekness accepted and endorsed the title, and pronounced a benediction on all who, not having seen Him, should hereafter attain a like faith.
Now I want to know whether that characteristic, which runs through all His life, and is inseparable from it, can be vindicated on any ground except the ground that He was 'God manifest in the flesh.' Either Jesus Christ had a greedy appetite for excessive adoration, was a victim to diseased vanity and ever-present self-regard—the most damning charge that you can bring against a religious teacher—or He accepted love and reverence and trust, because the love and the reverence and the trust knit souls to the Incarnate God their Saviour.
III. And so, lastly we have here witness to the only alternative to the acceptance of His claims.
He hath spoken 'blasphemy,' not because He had derogated from the dignity of divinity, but because He had presumed to participate in it. And it seems to me, with all deference, that this rough alternative is the only legitimate one. If Jesus Christ did make such claims, and His relation to the Jewish hierarchy and His death are, as I have shown you, apart even from the testimony of the Evangelists, strong confirmation of the fact that He did—if Jesus Christ did make such claims, and they were not valid, one of two things follows. Either He believed them, and then, what about His sanity? or He did not believe them, and then, what about His honesty? In either case, what about His claims to be a Teacher of religion? What about His claims to be the Pattern of humanity? That part of His teaching and character is either the manifestation of His glory or it is like one of those fatal black seams that run through and penetrate into the substance of a fair white marble statue, marring all the rest of its pale and celestial beauty. Brethren, it seems to me that, when all is said and done, we come to one of three things about Jesus Christ. Either 'He blasphemeth' if He said these things, and they were not true, or 'He is beside Himself' if He said these things and believed them, or
'Thou art the King of Glory, O Christ; Thou art the everlasting Son of the Father.'
Now I know that there are many men who, I venture to say, are far better than their creed, and who, believing it impossible to accept, in their plain meaning, the plain claims of Jesus Christ to divinity, do yet cleave to Him with a love and a reverence and an obedience which more orthodox men might well copy. And far be it from me to say one word which might seem even to quench the faintest beam of light that, shining from His perfect character, draws any heart, however imperfectly, to Himself. Only, if I speak to any such at this time, I beseech them to follow the light which draws them, and to see whether their reverence for that fair character should not lead them to accept implicitly the claims that came from His own lips. I humbly venture to say that if we know anything at all about Jesus Christ, we know that He lived declaring Himself to be the Everlasting Son of the Father, and that He died because He did so declare Himself. And I beseech you to ponder the question whether reverence for Him and admiration of His character can be logically and reasonably retained, side by side with the repudiation of that which is the most distinctive part of His message to men.
Oh, brethren, if it is true that God has come in the flesh, and that that sweet, gracious, infinitely beautiful life is really the revelation of the heart of God, then what a beam of sunshine falls upon all the darkness of this world! Then God is love; then that love holds us all; did not shrink from dying for us, and lives for ever to bless us. If these claims are true, what should our attitude be but that of infinite trust, love, submission, obedience, and the shaping of our lives after the pattern of His life?
These rejectors, when they said, 'He speaketh blasphemies,' were sealing their own doom, and the ruined Temple and nineteen centuries of wandering misery show what comes to men who hear Christ declaring that He is the Son of the living God and the Judge of the world, and who find nothing in the words but blasphemy. On the other hand, if we will answer His question, 'Whom say ye that I am?' as the apostle answered it, we shall, like the apostle, receive a benediction from His lips, and be set on that faith as on a rock against which the 'gates of hell' shall not prevail.
'SEE THOU TO THAT!'
'I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? See thou to that. 24. I am innocent of the blood of this just Person: see ye to it.'—MATT. xxvii. 4, 24.
So, what the priests said to Judas, Pilate said to the priests. They contemptuously bade their wretched instrument bear the burden of his own treachery. They had condescended to use his services, but he presumed too far if he thought that that gave him a claim upon their sympathies. The tools of more respectable and bolder sinners are flung aside as soon as they are done with. What were the agonies or the tears of a hundred such as he to these high-placed and heartless transgressors? Priests though they were, and therefore bound by their office to help any poor creature that was struggling with a wounded conscience, they had nothing better to say to him than this scornful gibe, 'What is that to us? See thou to that.'
Pilate, on the other hand, metes to them the measure which they had meted to Judas. With curious verbal correspondence, he repeats the very words of Judas and of the priests. 'Innocent blood,' said Judas. 'I am innocent of the blood of this just Person,' said Pilate. 'See thou to that,' answered they. 'See ye to it,' says he. He tries to shove off his responsibility upon them, and they are quite willing to take it. Their consciences are not easily touched. Fanatical hatred which thinks itself influenced by religious motives is the blindest and cruellest of all passions, knowing no compunction, and utterly unperceptive of the innocence of its victim.
And so these three, Judas, the priests, and Pilate, suggest to us, I think, a threefold way in which conscience is perverted. Judas represents the agony of conscience, Pilate represents the shuffling sophistications of a half-awakened conscience, and those priests and people represent the torpor of an altogether misdirected conscience.
I. Judas, or the agony of conscience.
'I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood.' We do not need to enter at any length upon the difficult question as to what were the motives of Judas in his treachery. For my part I do not see that there is anything in the Scripture narrative, simply interpreted, to bear out the hypothesis that his motives were mistaken zeal and affection for Christ; and a desire to force Him to the avowal of His Messiahship. One can scarcely suppose zeal so strangely perverted as to begin by betrayal, and if the object was to make our Lord speak out His claims, the means adopted were singularly ill-chosen. The story, as it stands, naturally suggests a much less far-fetched explanation.
Judas was simply a man of a low earthly nature, who became a follower of Christ, thinking that He was to prove a Messiah of the vulgar type, or another Judas Maccabaus. He was not attracted by Christ's character and teaching. As the true nature of Christ's work and kingdom became more obvious, he became more weary of Him and it. The closest proximity to Jesus Christ made eleven enthusiastic disciples, but it made one traitor. No man could live near Him for three years without coming to hate Him if he did not love Him. Then, as ever, He was set for the fall and for the rise of many. He was the 'savour of life unto life, or of death unto death.'
But be this as it may, we have here to do with the sudden revulsion of feeling which followed upon the accomplished act. This burst of confession does not sound like the words of a man who had been actuated by motives of mistaken affection. He knows himself a traitor, and that fair, perfect character rises before him in its purity, as he had never seen it before—to rebuke and confound him.
So this exclamation of his puts into a vivid shape, which may help it to stick in our memories and hearts, this thought—what an awful difference there is in the look of a sin before we do it and afterwards! Before we do it the thing to be gained seems so attractive, and the transgression that gains it seems so comparatively insignificant. Yes! and when we have done it the two change places; the thing that we win by it seems so contemptible—thirty pieces of silver! pitch them over the Temple enclosure and get rid of them!—and the thing that we did to win them dilates into such awful magnitude!
For instance, suppose we do anything that we know to be wrong, being tempted to it by a momentary indulgence of some mere animal impulse. By the very nature of the case, that dies in its satisfaction and the desire dies along with it. We do not wish the prize any more when once we have got it. It lasts but a moment and is past. Then we are left alone with the thought of the sin that we have done. When we get the prize of our wrong-doing, we find out that it is not as all-satisfying as we expected it would be. Most of our earthly aims are like that. The chase is a great deal more than the hare. Or, as George Herbert has it, 'Nothing between two dishes—a splendid service of silver plate, and when you take the cover off there is no food to eat—such are the pleasures here.'
Universally, this is true, that sooner or later, when the delirium of passion and the rush of temptation are over and we wake to consciousness, we find that we are none the richer for the thing gained, and oh! so infinitely the poorer for the means by which we gained it. It is that old story of the Veiled Prophet that wooed and won the hearts of foolish maidens, and, when he had them in his power in the inner chamber, removed the silver veil which they had thought hid dazzling glory and showed hideous features that struck despair into their hearts. Every man's sin does that for him. And to you I come now with this message: every wrong thing that you do, great or small, will be like some of those hollow images of the gods that one hears of in barbarian temples—looked at in front, fair, but when you get behind them you find a hollow, full of dust and spiders' webs and unclean things. Be sure of this, every sin is a blunder.
That is the first lesson that lies in these words of this wretched traitor; but again, here is an awful picture for us of the hell upon earth, of a conscience which has no hope of pardon. I do not suppose that Judas was lost, if he were lost, because he betrayed Jesus Christ, but because, having betrayed Jesus Christ, he never asked to be forgiven. And I suppose that the difference between the traitor who betrayed Him and the other traitor who denied Him, was this, that the one, when 'he went out and wept bitterly,' had the thought of a loving Master with him, and the other, when 'he went out and hanged himself,' had the thought of nothing but that foul deed glaring before him. I pray you to learn this lesson—you cannot think too much, too blackly, of your own sins, but you may think too exclusively of them, and if you do they will drive you to madness of despair.
My dear friend, there is no penitence or remorse which is deep enough for the smallest transgression; but there is no transgression which is so great but that forgiveness for it may come. And we may have it for the asking, if we will go to that dear Christ that died for us. The consciousness of sinfulness is a wholesome consciousness. I would that every man and woman listening to me now had it deep in their consciences, and then I would that it might lead us all to that one Lord in whom there is forgiveness and peace. Be sure of this, that if Judas Iscariot, when his 'soul flared forth in the dark,' died without hope and without pardon, it was not because his crime was too great for forgiveness, but because the forgiveness had never been asked. There is no unpardonable sin except that of refusing the pardon that avails for all sin.
II. So much, then, for this first picture and the lessons that come out of it. In the next place we take Pilate, as the representative of what I have ventured to call the shufflings of a half-awakened conscience.
'I am innocent of the blood of this just Person,' says he: 'see ye to it.' He is very willing to shuffle off his responsibility upon priests and people, and they, for their part, are quite as willing to accept it; but the responsibility can neither be shuffled off by him nor accepted by them. His motive in surrendering Jesus to them was probably nothing more than the low and cowardly wish to humour his turbulent subjects, and so to secure an easy tenure of office. For such an end what did one poor man's life matter? He had a great contempt for the accusers, which he is scarcely at the pains to conceal. It breaks out in half-veiled sarcasms, by which he cynically indemnifies himself for his ignoble yielding to the constraint which they put upon him. He knows perfectly well that the Roman power has nothing to fear from this King, whose kingdom rested on His witness to the Truth. He knows perfectly well that unavowed motives of personal enmity lie at the bottom of the whole business. In the words of our text he acquits Christ, and thereby condemns himself. If Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent, he knew that he, as governor, was guilty of prostituting Roman justice, which was Rome's best gift to her subject nations, and of giving up an innocent man to death, in order to save himself trouble and to conciliate a howling mob. No washing of his hands will cleanse them. 'All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten that hand. But his words let us see how a man may sophisticate his conscience and quibble about his guilt.
Here, then, we get once more a vivid picture that may remind us of what, alas! we all know in our own experience, how a man's conscience may be clearsighted enough to discern, and vocal enough to declare, that a certain thing is wrong, but not strong enough to restrain from doing it. Conscience has a voice and an eye; alas! it has no hands. It shares the weakness of all law, it cannot get itself executed. Men will get over a fence, although the board that says, 'Trespassers will be prosecuted' is staring them in the face in capital letters at the very place where they leap it. Your conscience is a king without an army, a judge without officers. 'If it had authority, as it has the power, it would govern the world,' but as things are, it is reduced to issuing vain edicts and to saying, 'Thou shalt not,' and if you turn round and say, 'I will, though,' then conscience has no more that it can do.
And then here, too, is an illustration of one of the commonest of the ways by which we try to slip our necks out of the collar, and to get rid of the responsibilities that really belong to us. 'See ye to it' does not avail to put Pilate's crime on the priests' shoulders. Men take part in evil, and each thinks himself innocent, because he has companions. Half-a-dozen men carry a burden together; none of them fancies that he is carrying it. It is like the case of turning out a platoon of soldiers to shoot a mutineer—nobody knows whose bullet killed him, and nobody feels himself guilty; but there the man lies dead, and it was somebody that did it. So corporations, churches, societies, and nations do things that individuals would not do, and each man of them wipes his mouth and says, 'I have done no harm.' And even when we sin alone we are clever at finding scapegoats. 'The woman tempted me, and I did eat,' is the formula universally used yet. The schoolboy's excuse, 'Please, sir, it was not me, it was the other boy,' is what we are all ready to say.
Now I pray you, brethren, to remember that, whether our consciences try to shuffle off responsibility for united action upon the other members of the firm, or whether we try to excuse our individual actions by laying blame on our tempers, or whether we adopt the modern slang, and talk about circumstances and heredity and the like, as being reasons for the diminution or the extinction of the notion of guilt, it is sophistical trifling; and down at the bottom most of us know that we alone are responsible for the volition which leads to our act. We could have helped it if we had liked. Nobody compelled us to keep in the partnership of evil, or to yield to the tempter. Pilate was not forced by his subjects to give the commandment that 'it should be as they required.' They had their own burden to carry. Each man has to bear the consequences of his actions. There are many 'burdens' which we can 'bear for one another, and so fulfil the law of Christ'; but every man has to bear as his own the burden of the fruits of his deeds. In that harvest, he that soweth and he that reapeth are one, and each of us has to drink as we ourselves have brewed. You have to pay for your share, however many companions you may have had in the act.
So do not you sophisticate your consciences with the delusion that your responsibility may be shifted to any other person or thing. These may diminish, or may modify your responsibility, and God takes all these into account. But after all these have been taken into account there is this left—that you yourselves have done the act, which you need not have done unless you had so willed, and that having done it, you have to carry it on your back for evermore. 'See thou to that,' was a heartless word, but it was a true one. 'Every one of us shall give an account of himself to God,' and as the old Book of Proverbs has it, 'If thou be wise, thou shalt be wise for thyself: and if thou scornest, thou alone shalt bear it.'
III. And so, lastly, we have here another group still—the priests and people. They represent for us the torpor and misdirection of conscience.
'Then answered all the people and said, His blood be on us and on our children.' They were perfectly ready to take the burden upon themselves. They thought that they were 'doing God service' when they slew God's Messenger. They had no perception of the beauty and gentleness of Christ's character. They believed Him to be a blasphemer, and they believed it to be a solemn religious duty to slay Him then and there. Were they to blame because they slew a blasphemer? According to Jewish law—no. They were to blame because they had brought themselves into such a moral condition that that was all which they thought of and saw in Jesus Christ. With their awful words they stand before us, as perhaps the crowning instances in Scripture history of the possible torpor which may paralyse consciences.
I need not dwell, I suppose, even for a moment, upon the thought of how the highest and noblest sentiments may be perverted into becoming the allies of the lowest crime. 'O Liberty! what crimes have been done in thy name!' you remember one of the victims of the guillotine said, as her last words. 'O Religion! what crimes have been done in thy name!' is one of the lessons to be gathered from Calvary.
But, passing that, to come to the thing that is of more consequence to each of us, let us take this thought, dear brethren, as to the awful possibility of a conscience going fast asleep in the midst of the wildest storm of passion, like that unfaithful prophet Jonah, down in the hold of the heathen ship. You can lull your consciences into dead slumber. You can stifle them so that they shall not speak a word against the worst of your sins. You can do so by simply neglecting them, by habitually refusing to listen to them. If you keep picking all the leaves and buds off the tree before they open, it will stop flowering. You can do it by gathering round yourself always, and only, evil associations and evil deeds. The habit of sinning will lull a conscience faster than almost anything else. We do not know how hot a room is, or how much the air is exhausted, when we have been sitting in it for an hour and a half. But if we came into it from outside we should feel the difference. Styrian peasants thrive and fatten upon arsenic, and men may flourish upon all iniquity and evil, and conscience will say never a word. Take care of that delicate balance within you; and see that you do not tamper with it nor twist it.
Conscience may be misguided as well as lulled. It may call evil good, and good evil; it may take honey for gall, and gall for honey. And so we need something outside of ourselves to be our guide, our standard. We are not to be contented that our consciences acquit us. 'I know nothing against myself, yet I am not hereby justified,' says the apostle; 'he that judgeth me is the Lord.' And it is quite possible that a man may have no prick of conscience and yet have done a very wrong thing. So we want, as it seems to me, something outside of ourselves that shall not be affected by our variations. Conscience is like the light on the binnacle of a ship. It tosses up and down along with the vessel. We want a steady light yonder on that headland, on the fixed solid earth, which shall not heave with the heaving wave, nor vary at all. Conscience speaks lowest when it ought to speak loudest. The worst man is least troubled by his conscience. It is like a lamp that goes out in the thickest darkness. Therefore we need, as I believe, a revelation of truth and goodness and beauty outside of ourselves to which we may bring our consciences that they may be enlightened and set right. We want a standard like the authorised weights and measures that are kept in the Tower of London, to which all the people in the little country villages may send up their yard measures and their pound weights, and find out if they are just and true. We want a Bible, and we want a Christ to tell us what is duty, as well as to make it possible for us to do it.
These groups which we have been looking at now, show us how very little help and sympathy a wounded conscience can get from its fellows. The conspirators turn upon each other as soon as the detectives are amongst them, and there is always one of them ready to go into the witness-box and swear away the lives of the others to save his own neck. Wolves tear sick wolves to pieces.
Round us there stand Society, pitiless and stern, and Nature, rigid and implacable; not to be besought, not to be turned. And when I, in the midst of this universe of fixed law and cause and consequence, wail out, 'I have sinned,' a thousand voices say to me, 'What is that to us? See thou to that.' And so I am left with my guilt—it and I together. There comes One with outstretched, wounded hands, and says, 'Cast all thy burden upon Me, and I will free thee from it all.' 'Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows!' Trust in Him, in His great sacrifice, and you will find that His 'innocent blood' has a power that will liberate your conscience from its torpor, its vain excuses, its agony and despair.
THE SENTENCE WHICH CONDEMNED THE JUDGES
And Jesus stood before the governor: and the governor asked Him, saying, Art Thou the King of the Jews? And Jesus said unto him, Thou sayest. 12. And when He was accused of the chief priests and elders, He answered nothing. 13. Then said Pilate unto Him, Hearest Thou not how many things they witness against Thee? 14. And He answered him to never a word; insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly. 15. Now at that feast the governor was wont to release unto the people a prisoner, whom they would. 16. And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas. 17. Therefore when they were gathered together, Pilate said unto them, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus which is called Christ? 18. For he knew that for envy they had delivered Him. 19. When he was set down on the judgment seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that just man: for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of Him. 20. But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus. 21. The governor answered and said unto them, Whether of the twain will ye that I release unto you? They said, Barabbas. 22. Pilate saith unto them, What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ? They all say unto him, Let Him be crucified. 23. And the governor said, Why, what evil hath He done? But they cried out the more, saying, Let him be crucified. 24. When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just Person: see ye to it. 25. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children. 26. Then released he Barabbas unto them: and when he had scourged Jesus, he delivered Him to be crucified.'—ST. MATT. xxvii. 11-26.
The principal figures in this passage are Pilate and the Jewish rulers and people. Jesus is all but passive. They are busy in condemning Him, and little know that they are condemning themselves. They are unconsciously exemplifying the tragic truth of Christ's saying, 'Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken.' They do not dislodge it, but their attempt to dislodge it wounds them.
I. Matthew gives a very summary account of our Lord's appearing before Pilate, but, brief as it is, and much as it omits, it throws up into strong light the two essential points,—Christ's declaration that He was the King of the Jews, and His silence while a storm of accusations raged around Him. As to the former, it was the only charge with which Pilate was properly concerned. He had a right to know whether this strange criminal was dangerous to Rome, because He claimed kingship, and, if he were satisfied that He was not, his bounden duty was to liberate Him. One can understand the scornful emphasis which Pilate laid on 'Thou' as he looked on his Prisoner, who certainly would not seem to his practical eyes a very formidable leader of revolt. There is a world of contempt, amused rather than alarmed, in the question, and behind it lies the consciousness of commanding legions enough to crush any rising headed by such a person. John's account shows the pains which Jesus took to make sure of the sense in which the question was asked before He answered it, and then to make clear that His kingship bore no menace to Rome. That being made plain, He answered with an affirmative. Just as He had in unmistakable language claimed before the Sanhedrin to be the Messiah, the Son of God, so He claimed before Pilate to be the King of Israel, answering each tribunal as to what each had the right to inquire into, and thus 'before Pontius Pilate witnessing the good confession,' and leaving both tribunals without excuse. Jesus died because He would not bate His claims to Messianic dignity. Did He fling away His life for a false conception of Himself? He was either a dreamer intoxicated with an illusion, and His death was suicide, or He was—what?
The one avowal was all that Pilate was entitled to. For the rest Jesus locked His lips, and He whose very name was The Word was silent. What was the meaning of that silence? It was not disdain, nor unwillingness to make Himself known; but it was partly merciful—inasmuch as He knew that all speech would have been futile, and would but have added to the condemnation of such hearers as Caiaphas, Herod, and Pilate—and partly judicial. Still more was it the silence of perfect, unresisting submission,—'as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth.' And it is a pattern for us, as Peter tells us in his Epistle; for it is with regard to this very matter of taking unjust suffering patiently and without resistance that the apostle says that Jesus has 'left us an example.' There are limits to such silent endurance of wrong, for Paul defended himself tooth and nail before priests and kings; but Christ's followers are strongest by meek patience, and descend when they take a leaf out of their enemies' book.
II. The next point is Pilate's weak attempt to save Jesus. Christ's silence had impressed Pilate, and, if he had been a true man, he would not have stopped at 'marvelling greatly.' He was clearly convinced of Christ's innocence of any crime that threatened Roman supremacy, and therefore was bound to have given effect to his convictions, and let Jesus go. He had read the motives of the priests, which were too plain for a shrewd man of the world to be blind to them. That Jews should be taken with such a sudden fit of loyalty as to yell for the death of a fellow-countryman because he was a rebel against Caesar was too absurd to swallow, and Pilate was not taken in. He knew that something else was working below ground, and hit on 'envy' as the solution. He was not far wrong; for the zeal which to the priests themselves seemed to be excited by devout regard for God's honour was really kindled by determination to keep their own prerogatives, and keen insight into the curtailment of these which would follow if this Jesus were recognised as Messiah. Pilate's diagnosis coincided with Christ's in the parable: 'This is the Heir; come, let us kill Him, and the inheritance shall be ours.'
So, willing to deliver Jesus, and yet afraid to cross the wishes of his ticklish subjects, Pilate, like other weak men, tries a trick by which he may get his way and seem to give them theirs. He hoped that they would choose Jesus rather than Barabbas as the object of the customary release. It was ingenious of him to narrow the choice to one or other of the two, ignoring all other prisoners who might have had the benefit of the custom. But there is also, perhaps, a dash of sarcasm, and a hint of his having penetrated the priests' motives, in his confining their choice to Jesus or Barabbas; for Barabbas was what they had charged Jesus with being,—a rebel; and, if they preferred him to Jesus, the hypocrisy of their suspicious loyalty would be patent. The same sub-acid tone is obvious in Pilate's twice designating our Lord as 'Jesus which is called Christ.' He delights to mortify them by pushing the title into their faces, as it were. He dare not be just, and he relieves and revenges himself by being cynical and mocking.
III. Having referred the choice to the 'multitude,' Pilate takes his place on his official seat to wait for, and then to ratify, their vote. In that pause, he perhaps felt some compunction at paltering with justice, which it was Rome's one virtue to administer. How his wife's message would increase his doubt! Was her dream a divine warning, or a mere reflection in sleep of waking thoughts? It is noticeable that Matthew records several dreams which conveyed God's will,—for example, to Joseph and to the Magi, and here may be another instance; or some tidings as to Jesus may have reached the lady, though not her husband, and her womanly sense of right may have shaped the dream, and given her vivid impressions of the danger of abetting a judicial murder. But Matthew seems to tell of her intervention mainly in order to preserve her testimony to Jesus' innocence, and to point out one more of the fences which Pilate trampled down in his dread of offending the rulers. A wife's message, conveying what both he and she probably regarded as a supernatural warning, was powerless to keep him back from his disgraceful failure of duty.
IV. While he was fighting against the impression of that message, the rulers were busy in the crowd, suggesting the choice of Barabbas. It was perhaps his wife's words that stung him to act at once, and have done with his inner conflict. So he calls for the decision of the alternative which he had already submitted. His dignity would suffer, if he had to wait longer for an answer. He got it at once, and the unanimous vote was for Barabbas. Probably the rulers had skilfully manipulated the people. The multitude is easily led by demagogues, but, left to itself, its instincts are usually right, though its perception of character is often mistaken. Why was Barabbas preferred? Probably just because he had been cast into prison for sedition, and so was thought to be a good patriot. Popular heroes often win their reputation by very questionable acts, and Barabbas was forgiven his being a murderer for the sake of his being a rebel. But it was not so much that Barabbas was loved as that Jesus was hated, and it was not the multitude so much as the rulers that hated him. Many of those now shrieking 'Crucify Him!' had shouted 'Hosanna!' a day or two before till they were hoarse. The populace was guilty of fickleness, blindness, rashness, too easy credence of the crafty calumnies of the rulers. But a far deeper stain rests on these rulers who had resisted the light, and were now animated by the basest self-interest in the garb of keen regard for the honour of God. There were very different degrees of guilt in the many voices that roared 'Barabbas!'
Pilate made one more feeble attempt to save Jesus by asking what was to be done with Him. The question was an ignoble abdication of his judicial office, and perhaps was meant as a salve for his own conscience, and an excuse to his wife, enabling him to say, 'I did not crucify Him; they did,'—a miserable pretext, the last resort of a weak man, who knew that he was doing a wrong and cowardly thing.
V. The same nervous fear and vain attempt to shuffle responsibility off himself give tragic interest to his theatrical washing of his hands. The one thing that he feared was a riot, which would be like a spark in a barrel of gunpowder, if it broke out at the Passover, when Jerusalem swarmed with excited crowds. To avoid that, the sacrifice of one Jew's life was a small matter, even though he was an interesting and remarkable person, and Pilate knew Him to be perfectly harmless.
But no washing of hands could shift the guilt from Pilate.
'Will all great Neptune's ocean wash this blood Clean from my hand? No.'
His vain declaration of innocence is an acknowledgment of guilt, for he is forced by conscience to declare that Jesus is a 'righteous Man,' and, as such, He should have been under the broad shield of Roman justice. We too often deceive ourselves by throwing the blame of our sins on companions or circumstances, and try to cheat our consciences into silence. But our guilt is ours, however many allies we have had, and however strong have been our temptations; and though we may say, 'I am innocent,' God will sooner or later say to each of us, 'Thou art the man!'
The wild cry of passion with which the multitude accepted the responsibility has been only too completely fulfilled in the millennium-long Iliad of woes which has attended the Jews. Surely, the existence, in such circumstances, for all these centuries, of that strange, weird, fated race, is a standing miracle, and the most conspicuous proof that 'verily, there is a God that judgeth in the earth.' But it is also a prophecy that Israel shall 'turn to the Lord,' and that the blood which has so long been on them as a crime, carrying its own punishment, will at last be sprinkled on their hearts, and take away their sin.
'And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull, 34. They gave Him vinegar to drink mingled with gall: and when He had tasted thereof, He would not drink. 35. And they crucified Him, and parted His garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted My garments among them, and upon My vesture did they cast lots. 36. And sitting down they watched Him there; 37. And set up over His head His accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. 38. Then were there two thieves crucified with Him, one on the right hand, and another on the left 39. And they that passed by reviled Him, wagging their heads, 40. And saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save Thyself. If Thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross. 41. Likewise also the chief priests mocking Him, with the scribes and elders, said, 42. He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He be the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. 43. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him: for He said, I am the Son of God. 44. The thieves also, which were crucified with Him, cast the same in His teeth. 45. Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. 46. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me? 47. Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said. This Man calleth for Elias. 48. And straightway one of them ran, and took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave Him to drink. 49. The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save Him. 50. Jesus, when He had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.' —MATT. xxvii. 33-50.
The characteristic of Matthew's account of the crucifixion is its representation of Jesus as perfectly passive and silent. His refusal of the drugged wine, His cry of desolation, and His other cry at death, are all His recorded acts. The impression of the whole is 'as a sheep before his shearers is dumb, so He openeth not His mouth.' We are bid to look on the grim details of the infliction of the terrible death, and to listen to the mockeries of people and priests; but reverent awe forbids description of Him who hung there in His long, silent agony. Would that like reticence had checked the ill-timed eloquence of preachers and teachers of later days!
I. We have the ghastly details of the crucifixion.—Conder's suggestion of the site of Calvary as a little knoll outside the city, seems possible. It is now a low, bare hillock, with a scanty skin of vegetation over the rock, and in its rounded shape and bony rockiness explains why it was called 'skull.' It stands close to the main Damascus road, so that there would be many 'passers by' on that feast day. Its top commands a view over the walls into the temple enclosure, where, at the very hour of the death of Jesus, the Passover lamb was perhaps being slain. Arrived at the place, the executioners go about their task with stolid precision. What was the crucifying of another Jew or two to them? Before they lift the cross or fasten their prisoner to it, a little touch of pity, or perhaps only the observance of the usual custom, leads them to offer a draught of wine, in which some anodyne had been mixed, to deaden agony. But the cup which He had to drink needed that He should be in full possession of all His sensibilities to pain, and of all His unclouded firmness of resolve; and so His patient lips closed against the offered mercy. He would not drink because He would suffer, and He would suffer because He would redeem. His last act before He was nailed to the cross was an act of voluntary refusal of an opened door of escape from some portion of His pains.
What a gap there is between verses 34 and 35! The unconcerned soldiers went on to the next step in their ordinary routine on such an occasion,—the fixing of the cross and fastening of the victim to it. To them it was only what they had often done before; to Matthew, it was too sacred to be narrated, He cannot bring his pen to write it. As it were, he bids us turn away our eyes for a moment; and when next we look, the deed is done, and there stands the cross, and the Lord hanging, dumb and unresisting, on it. We see not Him, but the soldiers, busy at their next task. So little were they touched by compassion or awe, that they paid no heed to Him, and suspended their work to make sure of their perquisites,—the poor robes which they stripped from His body. Thus gently Matthew hints at the ignominy of exposure attendant on crucifixion, and gives the measure of the hard stolidity of the guards. Gain had been their first thought, comfort was their second. They were a little tired with their march and their work, and they had to stop there on guard for an indefinite time, with nothing to do but two more prisoners to crucify: so they take a rest, and idly keep watch over Him till He shall die. How possible it is to look at Christ's sufferings and see nothing! These rude legionaries gazed for hours on what has touched the world ever since, and what angels desired to look into, and saw nothing but a dying Jew. They thought about the worth of the clothes, or about how long they would have to stay there, and in the presence of the most stupendous fact in the world's history were all unmoved. We too may gaze on the cross and see nothing. We too may look at it without emotion, because without faith, or any consciousness of what it may mean for us. Only they who see there the sacrifice for their sins and the world's, see what is there. Others are as blind as, and less excusable than, these soldiers who watched all day by the Cross, seeing nothing, and tramped back at night to their barrack utterly ignorant of what they had been doing. But their work was not quite done. There was still a piece of grim mockery to be performed, which they would much enjoy. The 'cause,' as Matthew calls it, had to be nailed to the upper part of the cross. It was tri-lingual, as John tells us,—in Hebrew, the language of revelation; in Greek, the tongue of philosophy and art; in Latin, the speech of law and power. The three chief forces of the human spirit gave unconscious witness to the King; the three chief languages of the western world proclaimed His universal monarchy, even while they seemed to limit it to one nation. It was meant as a gibe at Him and at the nation, and as Pilate's statement of the reason for his sentence; but it meant more than Pilate meant by it, and it was fitting that His royal title should hang above His head; for the cross is His throne, and He is the King of men because He has died for them all. One more piece of work the soldiers had still to do. The crucifixion of the two robbers (perhaps of Barabbas' gang, though less fortunate than he) by Christ's side was intended to associate Him in the public mind with them and their crimes, and was the last stroke of malice, as if saying, 'Here is your King, and here are two of His subjects and ministers.' Matthew says nothing of the triumph of Christ's love, which won the poor robber for a disciple even at that hour of ignominy. His one purpose seems to be to accumulate the tokens of suffering and shame, and so to emphasise the silent endurance of the meek Lamb of God. Therefore, without a word about any of our Lord's acts or utterances, he passes on to the next group of incidents.
II. The mockeries of people and priests. There would be many coming and going on the adjoining road, most of them too busy about their own affairs to delay long; for crucifixion was a slow process, and, when once the cross has been lifted, there would be little to see. But they were not too busy to spit venom at Him as they passed. How many of these scoffers, to whom death cast no shield round the object of their poor taunts, had shouted themselves hoarse on the Monday, and waved palm branches that were not withered yet! What had made the change? There was no change. They were running with the stream in both their hosannas and their jeers, and the one were worth as much as the other. They had been tutored to cry, 'Blessed is He that cometh!' and now they were tutored to repeat what had been said at the trial about destroying the temple. The worshippers of success are true to themselves when they mock at failure. They who shout round Jesus, when other people are doing it, are only consistent when they join in the roar of execration. Let us take care that our worship of Him is rooted in our own personal experience, and independent of what rulers or influential minds today say of Him.
A common passion levels all distinctions of culture and rank. The reverend dignitaries echoed the ferocious ridicule of the mob, whom they despised so much. The poorest criminal would have been left to die in peace; but brutal laughter surged round the silent sufferer, and showers of barbed sarcasms were flung at Him. The throwers fancied them exquisite jests, and demonstrations of the absurdity of Christ's claims; but they were really witnesses to His claims, and explanations of His sufferings. Look at them in turn, with this thought in our minds. 'He saved others; Himself He cannot save,' was launched as a sarcasm which confuted His alleged miracles by His present helplessness. How much it admits, even while it denies! Then, He did work miracles; and they were all for others, never for His own ends; and they were all for saving, never for destroying. Then, too, by this very taunt His claim to be the 'Saviour' is presupposed. And so, 'Physician, heal Thyself,' seemed to them an unanswerable missile to fling. If they had only known what made the 'cannot,' and seen that it was a 'will not,' they would have stood full in front of the great miracle of love which was before them unsuspected, and would have learned that the not saving Himself, which they thought blew to atoms His pretensions to save others, was really the condition of His saving a world. If He is to save others He cannot save Himself. That is the law for all mutual help. The lamp burns out in giving light, but the necessity for the death of Him who is the life of the world is founded on a deeper 'must.' His only way of delivering us from the burden of sin is His taking it on Himself. He has to 'bear our griefs and carry our sorrows,' if He is to bear away the sin of the world. But the 'cannot' derives all its power from His own loving will. The rulers' taunt was a venomous lie, as they meant it. If for 'cannot' we read 'will not,' it is the central truth of the Gospel.
Nor did they succeed better with their second gibe, which made mirth of such a throne, and promised allegiance if He would come down. O blind leaders of the blind! That death which seemed to them to shatter His royalty really established it. His Cross is His throne of saving power, by which He sways hearts and wills, and because of it He receives from the Father universal dominion, and every knee shall bow to Him. It is just because He did not come down from it that we believe on Him. On His head are many crowns; but, however many they be, they all grow out of the crown of thorns. The true kingship is absolute command over willingly submitted spirits; and it is His death which bows us before Him in raptures of glad love which counts submission, liberty, and sacrifice blessed. He has the right to command because He has given Himself for us, and His death wakes all-surrendering and all-expecting faith.
Nor was the third taunt more fortunate. These very religious men had read their Bibles so badly that they might never have heard of Job, nor of the latter half of Isaiah. They had been poring over the letter all their lives, and had never seen, with their microscopes, the great figure of the Innocent Sufferer, so plain there. So they thought that the Cross demonstrated the hollowness of Jesus' trust in God, and the rejection of Him by God. Surely religious teachers should have been slow to scoff at religious trust, and surely they might have known that failure and disaster even to death were no signs of God's displeasure. But, in one aspect, they were right. It is a mystery that such a life should end thus; and the mystery is none the less because many another less holy life has also ended in suffering. But the mystery is solved when we know that God did not deliver Him, just because He 'would have Him,' and that the Father's delight in the Son reached its very highest point when He became obedient until death, and offered Himself 'a sacrifice acceptable, well pleasing unto God.'
III. We pass on to the darkness, desolation, and death. Matthew represents these three long hours from noon till what answers to our 3 P.M. as passed in utter silence by Christ. What went on beneath that dread veil, we are not meant to know. Nor do we need to ask its physical cause or extent. It wrapped the agony from cruel eyes; it symbolised the blackness of desolation in His spirit, and by it God draped the heavens in mourning for man's sin. What were the onlookers doing then? Did they cease their mocking, and feel some touch of awe creeping over them?
'His brow was chill with dying, And His soul was faint with loss.'
The cry that broke the awful silence, and came out of the darkness, was more awful still. The fewer our words the better; only we may mark how, even in His agony, Jesus has recourse to prophetic words, and finds in a lesser sufferer's cry voice for His desolation. Further, we may reverently note the marvellous blending of trust and sense of desertion. He feels that God has left Him, and yet he holds on to God. His faith, as a man, reached its climax in that supreme hour when, loaded with the mysterious burden of God's abandonment, He yet cried in His agony, 'My God!' and that with reduplicated appeal. Separation from God is the true death, the 'wages of sin'; and in that dread hour He bore in His own consciousness the uttermost of its penalty. The physical fact of Christ's death, if it could have taken place without this desolation from the consciousness of separation from God, would not have been the bearing of all the consequences of man's sins. The two must never be parted in our grateful contemplations; and, while we reverently abjure the attempt to pierce into that which God hid from us by the darkness, we must reverently ponder what Christ revealed to us by the cry that cleft it, witnessing that He then was indeed bearing the whole weight of a world's sin. By the side of such thoughts, and in the presence of such sorrow, the clumsy jest of the bystanders, which caught at the half-heard words, and pretended to think that Jesus was a crazy fanatic calling for Elijah with his fiery chariot to come and rescue Him, may well be passed by. One little touch of sympathy moistened His dying lips, not without opposition from the heartless crew who wanted to have their jest out. Then came the end. The loud cry of the dying Christ is worthy of record; for crucifixion ordinarily killed by exhaustion, and this cry was evidence of abundant remaining vitality. In accordance therewith, the fact of death is expressed by a phrase, which, though used for ordinary deaths, does yet naturally express the voluntariness of Christ. 'He sent away His spirit,' as if He had bid it depart, and it obeyed. Whether the expression may be fairly pressed so far or no, the fact is the same, that Jesus died, not because He was crucified, but because He chose. He was the Lord and Master of Death; and when He bid His armour-bearer strike, the slave struck, and the King died, not like Saul on the field of his defeat, but a victor in and by and over death.
THE BLIND WATCHERS AT THE CROSS
'And sitting down they watched Him there.' —MATT. xxvii. 36.
Our thoughts are, rightly, so absorbed by the central Figure in this great chapter that we pass by almost unnoticed the groups round the cross. And yet there are large lessons to be learned from each of them. These rude soldiers, four in number, as we infer from John's Gospel, had no doubt joined with their comrades in the coarse mockery which preceded the sad procession to Calvary; and then they had to do the rough work of the executioners, fastening the sufferers to the rude wooden crosses, lifting these, with their burden, filing them into the ground, then parting the raiment. And when all that is done they sit stolidly down to take their ease at the foot of the cross, and idly to wait, with eyes that look and see nothing, until the sufferers die. A strange picture; and a strange thing to think of, how they were so close to the great event in the world's history, and had to stare at it for three or four hours, and never saw anything!
The lessons that the incident teaches us may be very simply gathered together.
I. First we infer from this the old truth of how ignorant men are of the real meaning and outcome of what they do.
These four Roman soldiers were foreigners; I suppose that they could not speak a word to a man in that crowd. They had no means of communication with them. They had had plenty of practice in crucifying Jews. It was part of their ordinary work in these troublesome times, and this was just one more. Think of what a corporal's guard of rough English soldiers, out in Northern India, would think if they were bidden to hang a native who was charged with rebellion against the British Government. So much, and not one whit more, did these men know of what they were doing; and they went back to their barracks, stolid and unconcerned, and utterly ignorant of what they had been about.
But in part it is so with us all, though in less extreme fashion. None of us know the real meaning, and none of us know the possible issues and outcome of a great deal of our lives. We are like people sowing seed in the dark; it is put into our hands and we sow. We do the deed; this end of it is in our power, but where it runs out to, and what will come of it, lie far beyond our ken. We are compassed about, wherever we go, by this atmosphere of mystery, and enclosed within a great ring of blackness.
And so the simple lesson to be drawn from that clear fact, about all our conduct, is this—let results alone. Never mind about what you cannot get hold of; you cannot see to the other end, and you have nothing to do with it. You can see this end; make that right. Be sure that the motive is right, and then into whatever unlooked-for consequences your act may run out at the further end, you will be right. Never mind what kind of harvest is coming out of your deeds, you cannot forecast it. 'Thou soweth not that body that shall be, but bare grain.... God giveth it a body as it pleaseth Him.' Let alone that profitless investigation, the attempt to fashion and understand either the significance or the issues of your conduct, and stick fast by this—look after your motive for doing it, and your temper in doing it; and then be quite sure, 'Thou shalt find it after many days,' and the fruit will be 'unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.'
II. Take another very simple and equally plain lesson from this incident, viz., the limitation of responsibility by knowledge.
These men, as I said, were ignorant of what they were doing, and, therefore, they were guiltless. Christ Himself said so: 'They know not what they do.' But it is marvellous to observe that whilst the people who stood round the cross, and were associated in the act that led Jesus there, had all degrees of responsibility, the least guilty of the whole were the men who did the actual work of nailing Him to the cross, and lifting it with Him upon it. These soldiers were not half as much to blame as were many of the men that stood by; and just in the measure in which the knowledge or the possibility of knowledge increased, just in that measure did the responsibility increase. The high priest was a great deal more to blame than the Roman soldiers. The rude tool that nailed Christ to the cross, the hammer that was held in the hand of the legionary, was almost as much to blame as the hand that wielded it. For the hand that wielded it had very little more knowledge than it had.
In so far as it was possible that these men might have known something of what they were doing, in so far were they to blame; but remember what a very, very little light could possibly have shone upon these souls. If there is no light there cannot be any shadow; and if these men were, as certainly they were, all but absolutely ignorant, and never could have been anything else, of what they were doing, then they were all but absolutely guiltless. And so you come to this, which is only a paradox to superficial thinkers, that the men that did the greatest crime in the whole history of the world, did it with all but clean hands; and the people that were to be condemned were those who delivered 'the Just One' into the hands of more lawless, and therefore less responsible, men.
So here is the general principle, that as knowledge and light rise and fall, so responsibility rises and falls along with them. And therefore let us be thankful that we have not to judge one another, but that we have all to stand before that merciful and loving tribunal of the God who is a God of knowledge, and by whom actions are weighed, as the Old Book has it—not counted, but weighed. And let us be thankful, too, that we may extend our charity to all round us, and refrain from thinking of any man or woman that we can pronounce upon their criminality, because we do not know the light in which they walk.
III. And now the last lesson, and the one that I most desire to lay upon your hearts, is this, how possible it is to look at Christ on the cross, and see nothing.
For half a day there they sat, and it was but a dying Jew that they saw, one of three. A touch of pity came into their hearts once or twice, alternating to mockery, which was not savage because it was simply brutal; but when it was all over, and they had pierced His side, and gone away back to their barracks, they had not the least notion that they, with their dim, purblind eyes, had been looking at the most stupendous miracle in the whole world's history, had been gazing at the thing into which angels desired to look; and had seen that to which the hearts and the gratitude of unconverted millions would turn for all eternity. They laid their heads down on their pillows that night and did not know what had passed before their eyes, and they shut the eyes that had served them so ill, and went to sleep, unconscious that they had seen the pivot on which the whole history of humanity had turned; and been the unmoved witnesses of 'God manifest in the flesh,' dying on the cross for the whole world, and for them. What should they have seen if they had seen the reality? They should have seen not a dying rebel but a dying Christ; they should have looked with emotion, they should have looked with faith, they should have looked with thankfulness.
Any one who looks at that cross, and sees nothing but a pure and perfect man dying upon it, is very nearly as blind as the Roman legionaries. Any one to whom it is only an example of perfect innocence and patient suffering has only seem an inch into the Infinite; and the depths of it are as much concealed from him as they were from them. Any one who looks with an unmoved heart, without one thrill of gratitude, is nearly as blind as the rough soldiers. He that looks and does not say—
'My faith would lay her hand On that dear head of Thine; While like a penitent I stand And there confess my sin,'
has not learned more of the meaning of the Cross than they did. And any one who looks to it, and then turns away and forgets, or who looks at it and fails to recognise in it the law of his own life and pattern for his own conduct, has yet to see more deeply into it before he sees even such portion of its meaning as here we can apprehend.
Oh! dear friends, we all of us, as the apostle says in one of his letters, have had this Christ 'manifestly set forth before us as if painted upon a placard upon a wall' (for that is the meaning of the picturesque words that he employs). And if we look with calm, unmoved hearts; if we look without personal appropriation of that Cross and dying love to ourselves, and if we look without our hearts going out in thankfulness and laying themselves at His feet in a calm rapture of life-long devotion, then we need not wonder that four ignorant heathen men sat and looked at Him for four long hours and saw nothing, for we are as blind as ever they were.
You say, 'We see.' Do you see? Do you look? Does the look touch your hearts? Have you fathomed the meaning of the fact? Is it to you the sacrifice of the living Christ for your salvation? Is it to you the death on which all your hopes rest? You say that you see. Do you see that in it? Do you see your only ground of confidence and peace? And do you so see that, like a man who has looked at the sun for a moment or two, when you turn away your head you carry the image of what you beheld still stamped on your eyeball, and have it both as a memory and a present impression? So is the cross photographed on your heart; and is it true about us that every day, and all days, we behold our Saviour, and beholding Him are being changed into His likeness? Is it true about us that we thus bear about with us in the body 'the dying of the Lord Jesus'? If we look to Him with faith and love, and make His Cross our own, and keep it ever in our memory, ever before us as an inspiration and a hope and a joy and a pattern, then we see. If not, 'for judgment am I come into the world, that they which see not may see, and that they which see might be made blind.' For what men are so blind to the infinite pathos and tenderness, power, mystery, and miracle of the Cross, as the men and women who all their lives long have heard a Gospel which has been held up before their lack-lustre eyes, and have looked at it so long that they cannot see it any more?
Let us pray that our eyes may be purged, that we may see, and seeing may copy, that dying love of the ever-loving Lord.
TAUNTS TURNING TO TESTIMONIES
'... The chief priests mocking Him ... said, 42. He saved others; Himself He cannot save. If He be the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. 43. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him.' —MATT. xxvii. 41-43.
It is an old saying that the corruption of the best is the worst. What is more merciful and pitiful than true religion? What is more merciless and malicious than hatred which calls itself 'religious'? These priests, like many a persecutor for religion since, came to feast their eyes on the long-drawn-out agonies of their Victim, and their rank tongues blossomed into foul speech. Characteristically enough, though they shared in the mockeries of the mob, they kept themselves separate. The crowd pressed near enough to the cross to speak their gibes to Jesus; the dignified movers of the ignorant crowd stood superciliously apart, and talked scoffingly about Him. Whilst the populace yelled, 'Thou that destroyest the Temple and buildest it in three days, come down,' the chief priests, with the scribes, looked at each other with a smile, and said, 'He saved others; Himself He cannot save.' Now, these brutal taunts have lessons for us. They witness to the popular impression of Christ, and what His claims were. He asserted Himself to be a worker of miracles, the Messiah-King of Israel, the Son of God, therefore He died. And they witness to the misconception which ruled in the minds of these priests as to the relation of His claims to the Cross. They thought that it had finally burst the bubble, and disposed once for all of these absurd and blasphemous pretensions. Was it credible that a man who possessed miraculous power should not, in this supreme moment, use it to deliver Himself? Did not 'Physician, heal Thyself,' come in properly there? Would any of the most besotted followers of this pretender retain a rag of belief in His Messiahship if He was crucified? Could it be possible that, if there was a God at all, He should leave a man that really trusted in Him, not to say who was really His Son, to die thus? A cracked mirror gives a distorted image. The facts were seen, but their relation was twisted. If we will take the guidance of these gibes, and see what is the real explanation to the anomaly that they suggest, then we shall find that the taunts turn to Him for a testimony, and that 'out of the mouths of mockers there is 'perfected praise.' The stones flung at the Master turn to roses strewed in His path.