I want to tell you about a man who was tried, convicted and unjustly executed for blasphemy. His name is Jesus. That’s not what we usually focus upon at Easter and the death and resurrection of Christ. But it’s a crucial part of the story that’s important not to separate or overlook. Because at the heart of the Gospel, is a call to challenge injustice…
American historian, Professor Douglas Linder, is the author of the Famous Trials website, hosted by the University of Missouri. The website examines more than fifty prominent trials. Of the trial of Jesus, Professor Douglas writes that ‘...no other trial in human history has so significantly affected the course of human events’.
An affront to the powerful
The events that led to Jesus’ execution accelerated on what we call Palm Sunday. A week before Easter, Jesus entered Jerusalem, crowded with pilgrims for the Passover celebration, riding on a donkey. This would have been recognised as a sign that he was the Messiah. The whole city was stirred by his arrival, including the religious authorities (Matthew 21:1-11).
The next morning, Jesus went to the Temple. It should have been a holy place, used for prayers and sacrifices. But, at that time, it was also a central market: a plentiful source of income for the religious rulers. Jesus drove out all who were buying and selling, then overturned the money-changers’ tables. And the benches of those selling sacrificial doves to people – second class sacrifices for poor people, to cover their sins so they could approach God.
Disabled and outcast people who were being exploited by the money-changers and dove sellers, recognised Jesus for his compassion. They came to him and were healed. Free of charge.
The chief priests and the teachers of the law were also witnesses to Jesus’ authority and miraculous deeds, but remained indignant. They were happy with the injustice, so long as they kept their positions of power and profited as a result. This Jesus threatened all of these things. He had to be stopped (Matthew 21:12-15).
Over the few days leading up to his arrest, the religious authorities constantly confronted Jesus (Matthew 21:23-27, 22:15-45). His teaching was an affront to the powerful: the kingdom belongs to little children, not high priests (Matthew 19:14). Rich people should give up their possessions to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19:16-26). Whoever is great must become a servant (Matthew 20:26). The last will be first, and the first will be last (Matthew 20:16).
These were not the things they wanted to hear. Or that they wanted others to hear.
Eventually, they gave up asking questions (Matthew 22:46). They didn’t like Jesus’ answers. So they plotted secretly to silence him, to have him arrested and killed (Matthew 26:1-4.) Jesus knew what was coming and warned his disciples. He explained that they would all fall away, leaving him alone. Peter was adamant he never would… (Matthew 26:18-35).
The accusers come for Jesus
When the accusers came for him, Jesus offered no resistance. The disciples, even Peter, ran away. Jesus was taken before an assembly of teachers of the law and elders, with the high priest Caiaphas presiding. The authorities deliberately sought false evidence to convict Jesus. Eventually, Caiaphas declared that Jesus had spoken blasphemy. The assembled teachers of the law and elders called for his death and then beat Jesus up for good measure (Matthew 26:47-68).
Peter was hiding out nearby. When he was recognised as one of Jesus’ followers, three separate times he denied knowing Jesus. When the cock crowed, as Jesus had told him it would, Peter recognised his betrayal and wept bitterly. He thought he had missed his chance to stand up for justice, for his Lord. For his friend (Matthew 26:69-75).
The next morning, the chief priests and elders furthered their plans to have Jesus executed. They took him to the head of the occupying force, the Roman governor Pontious Pilate. The governor, probably aware that this was a plot to execute an innocent man, tried to get Jesus to answer the charges. Jesus again remained silent.
So Pilate, who had the authority to release one prisoner during the Passover festival, appealed to the crowd with a choice between releasing Jesus and a well-known criminal, Barabbas. The crowd called for Jesus to be crucified. Pilate – accepting no responsibility for the act – gave the crowd, the priests and elders what they wanted. Although he suspected Jesus was innocent, to refuse would have caused Pilate a lot of trouble (Matthew 27:11-26).
So, an innocent man was stripped, beaten, mocked and publicly executed. Delighted that their plans had succeeded, the chief priests, teachers of the law and elders came to hurl insults and jeer at Jesus as he hung on the cross.
When Sunday is a long way off
On Good Friday we are often told, ‘it's Friday, but Sunday’s coming’. It’s a reminder that Jesus did not stay on the cross, nor in his tomb. But it’s important not to fast-forward that moment of ultimate betrayal. Or skip through the whole series of events that led to the worst miscarriage of justice in history. Because injustice is still happening, innocent people suffer and die while powerful people and authorities profit. For many, Sunday is still a long way off.
Some – like the chief priests and elders – don’t just tolerate injustice, they pursue it for their own gain, knowing that what they do is wrong. Others, like Pilate, put up with injustice because it makes life easier for them, even though they have the authority to bring about justice. Many, like Peter the apostle, see injustice happening but feel powerless to do anything to challenge it.
But Peter’s story doesn’t end on Friday either. After Jesus has risen, he seeks out Peter – not for retribution, but for restoration. Jesus shows him, and us, that true justice is about forgiveness and reconciliation. And Peter becomes the rock on which the church is built. Jesus’ followers regroup to tell the story, the good news of Jesus’ resurrection.
The early church, despite the threat to their own lives, also took a stand for justice. As the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus notes, ‘When, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love [Jesus] did not cease... And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared.’ If the disciples and Jesus’ wider followers had not spoken out, if they had ceased, the story of Jesus would be believed to have been of a failed leader of a religious sect who was tried and convicted of blasphemy then lawfully put to death.
What does the Lord require of you?
It is in the DNA of the Church to be a powerful force to call out and counter injustice. Throughout history, Christians have been at the centre of many movements to challenge injustice – from the abolition of the slave trade, the American civil rights movement, to the Jubilee Debt Campaign. And sometimes – to our shame – Christians have been the perpetrators of injustice, either by deliberate action, by inaction, or simply by remaining silent. For that, we need to walk humbly, seek forgiveness and reconciliation.
There are many injustices today that you can be a part of challenging. It could be the climate crisis, where the people who have done least to cause temperatures to rise are suffering its worst effects. Or vaccine inequality, that demonstrates we are not 'all in the same boat' during the global pandemic as many of the countries Tearfund works in are last in the queue to access vaccines. Or racial injustice, where those from indigenous groups and communities of colour, suffer because of their background or ethnicity.
There are injustices closer to home that we are also called to challenge and overcome too. It could be in your workplace, at your local school, in your family. Even in your own home. As Christians and followers of God, we are still being asked the question in Micah 6:8, ‘What does the Lord require of you?’ The answer is, ‘To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’
This is the challenge of Jesus dying on the cross: an innocent man executed because rulers and authorities wanted him silenced for their own gain. On this Good Friday, what injustice is the Lord asking you to speak out about?
We commit to being a force for justice and compassion in this world where, too often, people are treated unjustly. We ask that you convict us in areas of our lives where we haven’t spoken up for or pursued justice, or have been the perpetrators of injustice.
Lord God, we want to answer your call to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with you. Challenge us today, as we mark the day that Jesus was unjustly executed, to be a voice and a force for justice in our lives, our communities and across the Earth.