Jesus on Trial


CigoliEcceHomoWe’re fascinated by courtroom dramas. From “Judge Judy” to “The People’s Court” to “Perry Mason,” seemingly we just can’t get enough. Here’s what AMC’s Filmsite says:

One of the best subject areas for dramatic films . . . [comes from] suspenseful, law-related courtroom trials, which pit lawyers against each other, and set up a tense one-on-one conflict between a prosecutor and a defendant. . . . They often involve wider issues, such as race, sex, capital punishment (life and death), and morality.
And of course, courtroom dramas usually contain some of the most fascinating thematic elements in film -- murder, betrayal, deception, perjury and sex. They often feature unexpected twists and surprise testimony, unusual motives, moral dilemmas, crusading lawyers and wrongly-accused victims. . . .

Many courtroom film dramas are based on historical events, such as the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial (in Inherit the Wind), the war crimes tribunal (in Judgment at Nuremberg), and Sir Thomas More's defense against treason (in A Man for All Seasons).

With Good Friday and Easter just around the corner, let’s look at history’s most famous courtroom drama, the trial of Jesus, as recounted in the Gospel of Mark. In it we’ll find unexpected plot twists, surprise testimony, one-on-one confrontations, hidden motives, moral dilemmas, a wrongly accused defendant, and a corrupt justice system. There’s also betrayal, deception, and violence. All in all, this drama makes great fodder for a film, novel, or television program.

It also challenges us to be unwavering witnesses for Christ.

The first unexpected element is that this account is written by John Mark, who fled naked that Friday night when Jesus was arrested (14:51-52). John Mark was a companion of Peter, and he recorded much of the apostle’s preaching in this Gospel. He likely is the same figure who assisted the apostle Paul and Barnabas in the first missionary journey, then shirked his duty, causing a split between these two great servants of God.

Yet he later reunited with Paul, who called him “useful to me for ministry.” So John Mark knew something about failing Christ when the heat is on. He also knew something about God’s grace.

Jesus, however, did not fail. Having predicted His own death three times in this Gospel (8:31–33; 9:30–32; 10:32-34), Jesus is a picture of divine serenity amid demonic fury as He moves inexorably toward the Cross.

Mark’s account of Jesus’ trial (14:53-15:20) focuses on two phases—the one before the Sanhedrin (14:53-65) and the one before Pilate (15:1-20). In both, Jesus’ life hangs in the balance. Between them is John Mark’s tragic account of Peter’s denial of Jesus during his own personal trial (14:66-72).

In Mark’s retelling of Jesus’ late-night appearances before the religious and secular authorities, we see their utter injustice.

Before the Jewish council, the witnesses’ testimony does not agree. Some try to distort Jesus’ enigmatic statement, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” They claim that this prediction of His death and resurrection is some kind of mad threat against Herod’s Temple. But Mark notes, “Yet even about this their testimony did not agree” (14:59).

Two witnesses are required in a capital case. Failing this standard, the high priest, Caiaphas, takes matters into his own hands, attempting to get the Defendant to incriminate Himself, badgering Him, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” Jesus rightly remains silent. Then the high priest goes for what he considers the legal jugular: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Pointing to the exalted Son of Man passage in the Book of Daniel, Jesus answers clearly, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”

You can almost hear the frenzied glee in the response of Caiaphas: “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” The rest declare Jesus worthy of the death penalty, physically abuse and mock Him, and ship Him to Pilate, who is in Jerusalem for the Passover just in case there is any trouble. Only Pilate has the authority to sentence someone to death.

Surprisingly, this pagan Roman governor has more concern for justice than does the Sanhedrin, which claims to be the guardian of God’s law. Unlike the Jewish leaders, who stopped the interrogation as soon as they got what they wanted, Pilate attempts to elicit more information even after Jesus claims that He is indeed “King of the Jews” (which would put Him in line for execution by Rome). As before, Jesus declines to defend Himself.

Yet the procurator still tries to get Jesus released, asking the crowd to spare Him. When they, at the instigation of the Jewish leaders, call for Christ’s crucifixion, Pilate replies almost plaintively, “Why, what evil has he done?” Pilate knows Jesus is innocent, yet, “wishing to satisfy the crowd,” he gives the Lord up for execution.

Whatever mercy Pilate may have felt toward the Condemned quickly dissolves. The soldiers lead Jesus away and abuse and mock Him even more fiendishly than did the Jewish guards. Then they take Him to the Cross. Jesus is resolutely marching to Golgotha in fulfillment of His own prophecy: “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Between these two perverted legal scenes we see Peter facing his own trial, but instead of giving his life, he saves it. Under cross-examination from one of Caiaphas’s servant girls, the usually bold apostle (who earlier that night vigorously denied twice that He would ever disown the Lord) now three times denies even knowing Jesus. Instead of courageously providing testimony for His Lord, Peter calls down curses on himself and slinks away. Puritan commentator Matthew Henry is severe in his judgment:

The sin was very great; he denied Christ before men, at a time when he ought to have confessed and owned him, and to have appeared in court a witness for him. Christ had often given notice to his disciples of his own sufferings; yet, when they came, they were to Peter as great a surprise and terror as if he had never heard of them before. He had often told them that they must suffer for him, must take up their cross, and follow him; and yet Peter is so terribly afraid of suffering, upon the very first alarm of it, that he will lie and swear, and do any thing, to avoid it. When Christ was admired and flocked after, he could readily own him; but now that he is deserted, and despised, and run down, he is ashamed of him, and will own no relation to him.

Where Jesus is resolute in His trial, Peter—whose name means “rock”—crumbles like matzah in his, ultimately breaking down and weeping (14:72). Yet we know that, just as in the case of John Mark, Peter ends up forgiven and restored (John 21:15-19). How about us in our own courtroom dramas?

Let’s face it. Following Christ is going to get harder as the culture ratifies its pernicious post-Christian verdict. "The persecution of dissenters will now begin in earnest,” says Robert P. George, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “It will be interesting to see who does and does not have the courage it will take to stand upright in the winds that will blow."

Both religious and secular authorities will pressure us to deny Christ, in one way or another. We may face the loss of our jobs or reputations if we hold to Christ and His words. We may even lose our lives.

Rather than denying, as Peter did, that this could ever happen to us, we need to prepare ourselves spiritually for whatever cross-examinations may lie ahead. And if on occasion we fail—and sometimes we will—we must be willing to accept Christ’s forgiveness. After all, that’s why Jesus went on trial in the first place.

Gandhi acknowledged that Jesus, “a man who was completely innocent, offered himself as a sacrifice for the good of others, including his enemies, and became the ransom of the world. It was a perfect act.”

And the perfect courtroom drama. What will be our role in it?

Stan Guthrie, a licensed minister, is editor at large for the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and for Christianity Today. Stan blogs at www.stanguthrie.com. His latest book is "God’s Story in 66 Verses: Understand the Entire Bible by Focusing on Just One Verse in Each Book."

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