From the beginning of Christ’s passion, it becomes devastatingly obvious that all around Him need saving. They’re obnoxiously serve serving. And this is a commentary not simply on their need for a Savior but on ours. As St. John tells us at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, “Jesus did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all men, and had no need that anyone should testify of man, for He knew what was in man.” Of course He did. That’s why the eternal Son became a man Himself. Because He knew what was in man, that though He created us to know Him and love Him and love one another, our first impulse is always us, our interest, our life, our cares, our wants, our desires. Our modern philosophers and evolutionary theorists have made a virtue out of this selfishness and our culture has championed it as the freedom of choice, but it’s no virtue and it’s most certainly no freedom. It’s enslavement to an empty life that really is no life, because God is life and He is love, and serving ourselves not only compels us to horrible choices and thoughts and words and actions that end up hurting ourselves and others, it separates us from the God who created us, from the life and love He made us to enjoy forever. That’s what becomes so clear in the passion, as everyone abandons Jesus. Their self-serving literally separates them from Jesus, from their God. There’s this empty promise that if we serve ourselves we’ll get happiness, we’ll be safe, but it’s all a lie. And the only remedy is the truth. The only remedy is Jesus, who is the truth and came to bear witness to the truth by spilling His blood for us. He is the light. He is freedom. He is life. And His passion, all of it, teaches us this.
Pilate asks, “What is truth?” When you’re serving yourself, the question of what is and is not true doesn’t matter. That’s why people lie to get out of trouble. We all know this; we’ve all experienced it. Your instinct is not to tell the truth but to cover up your mistake. Pilate knows very well that Jesus is innocent. He announces it several times, “I find no fault in the man.” But he hands him over to be crucified anyway. Because the truth doesn’t matter. What is truth? How is it going to help me now, as a mob is forming outside and I’m in danger? What matters is that a riot is starting. Pilate has no interest in risking his political power by unsettling very influential leaders in Jerusalem. So he lets them kill an innocent man. What is truth?
Caiaphas, the high priest, says it very well. It is expedient that one man die for the people rather than that the entire nation perish. There’s no concern for truth here. It’s raw political cynicism, self-interest thinly veiled in the guise of public concern. The priests and Pharisees and scribes, the Sanhedrin, they’re concern is not for truth, but for their own fame, authority, power, and the comfort they’re afraid of losing.
And the list goes on. The truth simply doesn’t matter to anyone in this history. Only self-interest. The disciples all abandon Jesus. They talk big. They insist they will stay with Jesus no matter what, even die with him if they have to. Peter even cuts off a man’s ear in a vain attempt to protect Jesus against hundreds of troops. But in the end, they all flee. They save their own skin. They let their Lord suffer alone. They serve their own interest.
The same self-interest compels Peter to deny his Lord over and over again, even as his Lord suffers for Him. And Judas, the great lover of money, becomes so annoyed at Jesus for not caring about wealth and the market price of spikenard, that he betrays him for thirty pieces of silver. This is self-interest. And it extends to everyone. The soldiers aren’t just doing their job, arresting an innocent man and beating him and crowning him with thorns. No, they’re looking out for themselves. Self-interest dominates every soul there, from the least to the greatest.
The American gospel song asks the question, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord,” and the answer is emphatically no, but if you were there, be assured of this, you would have done no better than Peter or the soldiers or Pilate or the priests or even Judas. There, but for the grace of God go I. And without His grace, the only thing we know how to do is look out for our own interests as if we knew how to, as is we know what’s best for us.
So then look at Jesus. He comes to redeem us from this. Specifically. It’s not enough simply to say He comes to pay for our sins. Not today. Not as we hear the sinless Son of the Father cry out in agony. What is this sin of ours? And how does the Lord redeem us from it? The sin we see. The very same self-interest you see in everyone in this passion history, you see in yourself. Don’t look away from it. See its ugliness. Realize that we are right to sing, “Yea, all the wrath the woe Thou dost inherit, this I do merit.” Make this the confession of your soul, “Ah I also and my sin, caused thy deep affliction. This indeed the cause has been of thy crucifixion.” The selfishness of our sinful flesh, our preference for ourselves, our ignoring the God who made us, our foolish fear of death, our trust in money, our dread at political and societal decay, all the selfishness you know and feel in your soul, see that it all surrounds the Lord Jesus as He suffers, this is what drives the thorns into his sacred head, this is what dirties his face with spit, this is what mocks him and torments him and betrays him and finally causes His Father to forsake Him on that cross. So cry out with St. Paul, “Who will deliver me from this body of death,” and see your Lord Jesus’ deliverance.
The contrast couldn’t be more glaring or beautiful. His interest is not for Himself; it’s for you, for His Father’s will. And that will is to put Him to grief for your sake. It was the Lord’s will to bruise Him, Isaiah says. And the Lord Jesus from the very beginning does and speaks and thinks and wills always for us. He tells the troops that meet him with clubs and swords and torches that He is the One they want, to let his disciples go. He refuses to make any defense for Himself, refuses to bend the truth or compromise it to get Himself off. And even when He’s in the throes of suffering and every man has forsaken Him and God Himself has turned His face from Him, He looks out for His mother as she weeps. He’s careful to fulfill every last word of the Scriptures, so that we can have the certainty and finality of His last cry, “It is finished.”
So God suffers and dies in our place, and in this suffering and dying He shows us what it means to be a man, to be a human being. “Behold, the man!” Pilate says. And you see a man bloodied and bruised and mocked and suffering, but you see more. You see the God-man who does what man was created to do – love, love God and love us, no matter the cost to Himself. And so He answers perfectly our sin and covers our selfishness. He overcomes it, atones for it, by His selflessness.
He tells Pilate, “I have come to bear witness to the truth.” And Pilate answers with the cynicism of our selfish flesh. “What is truth?” I don’t have time for that. No, it is the only thing you have time for. This is the truth that makes life worth living, that takes away all vanity and cynicism, that makes it possible for us to live life not for ourselves but for the God who has so loved us that He would bear our punishment, to know this God and to have communion with Him.
Jesus shows Pilate what the truth is. He shows us. By suffering and dying. And there is no uncertainty here. There is no guessing about God. No doubt about His intentions toward us. There is no lying or covering up. Everything is bared. Here is truth, pure truth, truth on which to build life. Our sin drives God to die. And God dies willingly. He makes children out of His enemies. He dies for those who rejected Him. He passes through the death and the pain He cannot bear to see us pass through. He saves us, redeems us, for life with Him. Whoever treasures my Word will by no means see death forever. So Jesus promises. And so He finishes it. He meets that death for us. He is separated from God so that we never will be.
And the life He wins for us is a life lived before God now and forever, knowing Him as Father by His Spirit, cleansed of all sins by the blood of His Son, a life where we have no need to exalt ourselves or seek our own interest, because we live trusting in the God who exalts us in His Son and constantly cares for our true interests here in this world and forever in eternity, from whose love in Christ Jesus nothing in heaven or on earth can separate us forever. It is this truth that sets us free to live true life before our God with a clean conscience and love for the God who has so loved us.