One of the distinctive things about the Jesus story is paradox. You often find two things placed together that ordinarily seem contradictory but actually work together in Jesus’ person and mission. Examples are statements like ‘those who want to lead must serve’ or ‘if you lose your life you will gain it.’ Scottish theologian James Stewart called it ‘the startling coalescence of contrarieties.’ Jesus’ story is the climax of the Old Testament narrative and it too is filled with such true paradoxes. Also, outside of the gospel writers, the New Testament authors’ reflections on the Messiah Jesus are littered with such surprisingly agreeable opposites. Now the crucifixion and the resurrection are often the twin foci of these startling contrarieties in Christian preaching and teaching. This is hardly surprising because they are pivotal events the New Testament is itself preoccupied with. When you look at the narrative sequence the climactic events of the gospels, there is another very important and necessary episode recorded in all gospel accounts, which I think deserves more attention than it usually receives.
In terms of the gospel narratives, the arrest and trial of Jesus are absolutely crucial but they do not get that much attention in popular Christian thought. Those events sealed Jesus’ fate but on closer inspection they did more than be a prelude to something more important. The evangelists devote so much time to them so they play a big narrative role and an important theological one as well since they expressed their theology, as most of scripture does, through story.
As far as 1st century Messianic movements go, which the early Jesus’ movement was, this was make or break since these groups never survived their leader. Jesus’ trial was the final showdown between him and the powers that be, Jewish and Roman authorities alike. To try Jesus meant his entire life and ministry came under review, his agenda and mission being scrutinised. How the gospels depict and interpret the trial are therefore an indispensable part of the Jesus story which must shape how we see him and what he did. Jesus came preaching the imminent kingdom of God and it this kingdom initiative that had come into sharp focus in the trial.
Historians disagree on exactly what happened at the most famous trial in history. When you look at the gospel records themselves the trial proceedings were far from standard and there were many questionable agendas driving the convictions. However, the oddest thing about the trial was the accused himself, Jesus of Nazareth. For someone who’s life and life’s work was about to come to a terrible end, he didn’t seem particularly fazed about it.
The first trial paradox is that no one could prove him guilty of a crime deserving death. Now that in itself is unremarkable. Sadly, there are a lot of innocent people that get wrongly convicted. His enemies could not prove his guilt and Jesus himself maintained his innocence yet from all indications, and this is where the paradox lies, he wanted the guilty verdict. He was almost entirely silent throughout the trial, never speaking in his own defence. The gospel writers depict him preternaturally foreknowing what would happen, predicting on several occasions that it would happen, and acting in very deliberate ways that it would happen. Pilate was so surprised by his behaviour that he asked him if he understood that he had the power to release him. Here was an innocent man who confidently acted as such in the trial yet he wanted the verdict to go against him. Many commentators have remarked it is as if Jesus had a death wish.
The true Messiah was never meant to be defeated much less killed. Being crucified, the most shameful death in the Roman world, meant you were God forsaken and you were definitely not YHWH’s anointed king. Jesus faced this prospect of destruction and complete humiliation yet deliberately acted in ways to help ensure that horrible end. Now martyrs, a word whose meaning we derive from the Messiah’s followers emulating his example, do embrace death in service of a greater cause. For Jesus martyrdom was just a basic reality you had to square with if you engaged in dangerous revolutionary activity. Now some Jewish martyrs in the Maccabean revolt even believed their death could be a sacrifice that had the power to help save their people (4 Maccabees 6:28-29.) Jesus’ own sacrifice fit that mould and went even further. He believed and taught it was an integral part of his messianic calling and mission, the very means through which Israel’s story found in the scriptures would be finally fulfilled. No one had envisioned the messianic vocation in that way before. It is no wonder that neither his enemies, judges or closest disciples could fathom his desire to embrace the very thing all sought desperately to avoid.
The second trial paradox flows from the first. Not only did Jesus uphold his innocence, he rather said his inquisitors stood accused. Now he was not just being defensive since he did not attempt to argue his innocence which was self-evident. It was also more than a tactic to get himself convicted by antagonising his judges. The final snippet of the famous exchange between him and Pontius Pilate recorded in John help explain his motives and reasoning.
So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” – John 19:10-11 ESV
Not only did Jesus believe that Pilate and those who handed him over were guilty, he accused them of sinning against God. They had abused their God-given power to condemn the one God had appointed as king. So while Jesus was being accused essentially of insurrection, even crucifying him in the place of a captured rebel, it was they who were the real rebels. In Acts when they reflect on the crucifixion, they squarely put the blame for Jesus’ murder on the Jewish and Roman authorities (Act 5:27-32.) They are not simply complaining about the judicial process but making a theological point. It is part of a larger theme that is made especially clear in the passion narratives of Jesus’ guiltlessness being placed in sharp contrast with the sinfulness of everyone else. The leaders who condemned Jesus, Jew and Gentile, are in the narrative representative of all people as sinners.
When you read the passion narratives through a theological lens as the gospel writers intended it, you begin to see roles reversed like what we have just seen. As Simon said, Jesus was destined for the rise and fall of many in Israel. This is consistent with the larger theme of God’s sovereign choice which inverts the world order. For example, he chose Israel not because they were great or wise but because they were small and weak. In the gospel narratives Jesus, the faultless one, is on trial while his judges are actually guilty, yet he willing takes the place of the condemned even though it is clear he is righteous. Jesus preached like the prophets before him that when God establishes his rule on earth, it would cause great upheaval. What made Jesus the accused innocent and Pilate the judge guilty was who was in charge. They were violating God’s rule by rejecting his accredited leader. Since the God of justice was the one truly in charge, the trial proceedings took on an entirely new dimension which leads to the third trial paradox.
Jesus ends his testimony before the Jewish authorities with this statement,
“…I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” – Matthew 26:63-64 ESV
Jesus invoked a court scene from the apocalyptic text of Daniel where God was the presiding judge (Daniel 7.) Not only had the role of the accused and the accuser been reversed, it was no longer a mere human affair. The whole trial had radically been flipped on its head. The Ancient of Days had taken his seat and his heavenly court was in session. Jesus’ unnervingly calm demeanour in the face of certain death was because he knew the Most High was in charge and they were in his court. He was not randomly quoting a passage of some odd Old Testament text. He was claiming that the scripture was being fulfilled in him and what was happening at the moment. His divine mission was not being curtailed at all but was being dramatically and paradoxically fulfilled.
In Daniel 7 the people of God are being persecuted by various political monsters and then God vindicates them by exalting one of their own, the enigmatic ‘Son of Man’, to power over their enemies by giving him divine authority. Jesus identified as the exalted Son of Man so in the wider the scheme of the gospel narratives Jesus was more than acquitted. He had already received divine approval through the supernatural signs that confirmed his divine commission. So instead of Jesus being on trial it was Pilate and the Jewish leaders, representative of the forces opposing God’s rule in Daniel’s vision, who were actually on trial.
It was not just the human actors who were being evaluated. In Daniel there were shadowy cosmic entities behind the oppression of God’s people. Likewise, in the Passion narratives there are dark spiritual forces manipulating events to have Jesus killed. Jesus’ true battle was never against flesh and blood but against the Satan. In putting Jesus on trial they had become agents of the Satan. In the Gospel of John, this perspective comes into sharp relief.
Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. – John12:31 ESV
It was the Satan and his evil spiritual cohorts that were really being tried. This creates an interesting situation because it meant that even though Jesus’ human accusers were guilty, they were unwitting pawns and patsies for the true rebel against God’s rule on earth. John envisions Jesus’ trial as part of a larger cosmic trial scene which includes his death and resurrection, his rising being the event that vindicates his claim to divine messiahship, bringing to an end the Satan’s tyrannical rule. Paul actually describes the resurrection as vindicatory which is legal language and that means he too saw the resurrection as part of a trial narrative (Romans 1:4.)
It is the resurrection that changes how we view Jesus’ trial and everything that happened before and after it. The resurrection is the ultimate divine invertor because in it unending life came out of death, the greatest paradox of all. Through the lens of the resurrection we can incontrovertibly see the accused was righteous after all and the rulers stood condemned. In Acts when the apostles reflected on the circumstances of Jesus’ death they said God foreknew what would happen. The trial being a crucial aspect of his death was no less divinely orchestrated, God using human folly to his glory. So it is not only in the cross that we see dramatic irony, it is also deeply embedded in the trial as well.