The Theological Implications of the Trial of Jesus – Part 1

Did Jesus receive a fair trial? Part 1 of this study examines the nature of the Lord’s path through the legal system of the time.
By Wayne Jackson | Christian Courier

No narration available

In the second chapter of the book of Acts, the historian Luke records a summary (cf. vs. 40) of the stirring gospel message delivered by the apostle Peter on the day of Pentecost, the birthday of the kingdom of Jesus Christ. A portion of that discourse reads as follows:

You men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs which God did by him in the midst of you, even as you yourselves know; him, being delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, you by the hand of lawless men did crucify and slay (22-23).

There are two important matters to be emphasized in this passage. First, there is the affirmation that the death of Jesus Christ was not a mere accident of history. Rather, it was the vital component in the divine scheme of human redemption. The Savior’s crucifixion came out of the “determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God.” Grammatically, the expressions “determinate counsel” and “foreknowledge” both are modified by the genitive “of God” (Wuest, 23). This point needs to be driven home. The death of Christ was orchestrated by the divine Godhead.

Second, God, in the mysterious workings of his providence, used human instruments to facilitate the sacrifice of his Son. God respects human free will; but when men are inclined to evil, the Lord can so order events as to bring about the fulfillment of his own purpose (cf. Isaiah 44:24-45:7; Jeremiah 25:8-14).

But let us focus upon Peter’s affirmation that “by the hand of lawless men” the Lord was slain. What is the significance of the expression “lawless men”? Some see it as simply a description of the “wicked” (KJV) inclination of the Jewish leaders, who influenced the Roman authorities to crucify Jesus (McGarvey, 33). On the other hand, many commentators argue that “lawless” is but an allusion to the Romans (i.e., Gentiles), those who were without a formal written law from God (Barnes, 38).

But there may be more here than a mere reference to either Jews or Gentiles as such. The Greek word rendered “lawless” is anomon. The compound term derives from two components —a (without), and nomos (law). The term actually suggests one who acts outside the bounds of law —an outlaw! A.T. Robertson declared that the term signified: “Men without law, who recognize no law for their conduct, like men in high and low stations today who defy the laws of God and man” (IV.29).

In association with this passage, let us consider another reference in the same book. In Acts 8, Luke records the account of the treasurer from Ethiopia who, having been to Jerusalem to worship, was returning to his native land. As the official journeyed in his chariot, he was reading aloud from the Greek translation of Isaiah, chapter 53. The messianic prophecy upon which his attention was fixed, when he was intersected by the evangelist Phillip, reads as follows:

He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; And as a lamb before his shearer is dumb, So he openeth not his mouth: In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: His generation who shall declare? For his life is taken from the earth" (32-33).

Phillip, “beginning from this scripture, preached unto him Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Of special interest is the clause: “In his humiliation his judgment was taken away.” What is the force of this expression?

It is the view of many authorities that the meaning of the phrase is this: Jesus, because of his humble, passive disposition, i.e., his refusal to defend himself, was robbed of justice. His proper judgment of acquittal was thwarted, and the Lord was convicted as a felon. It is a matter of historical record that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, found Jesus guilty of no crime; nonetheless, the Savior was turned over to the frenzied mob for crucifixion. Consider the comments of several respected scholars.

E.H. Plumptre of King’s College in London, and one of the distinguished translators of the English Revised Version of the Bible (1881), wrote that Christ’s “judgment (i.e., the righteous judgment which was His due) was taken away” (53). Professor H.B. Hackett of Newton Theological Institute, and one of the committee members of the American Standard Version (1901), declared that Jesus’ “judgment was taken away, viz. the judgment due to him; he had the rights of justice and humanity withheld from him” (120).

Recent scholars concur. Polhill, on this passage, speaks of the “deprivation of justice” (225), and William Larkin, Professor of New Testament Greek at Columbia Biblical Seminary, also says that Christ was “deprived of justice, an innocent man condemned” (134). We believe that Kistemaker is correct when he notes that: “The wording prophetically points to the unjust trial and subsequent death of Jesus” (316).

The Death of Christ in the Divine Plan

At this juncture we must make two very important points. According to the teaching of the Bible, if humanity was to have any hope of redemption from the horrible consequences of sin, two things were absolutely imperative.

  1. Jesus Christ would have to die as a ransom for human sin.
  2. As a substitutionary offering, dying in our stead, the Lord would have to be an innocent victim.

Let us explore these two matters momentarily. We first must emphasize that God, as an absolutely perfect Being, always must act consistent with his own nature; this is because he is a God of truth (cf. Jeremiah 10:10; John 3:33; 17:3; Romans 3:4; 1 Thessalonians 1:9; 1 John 5:20). One aspect of the divine nature is that of holiness; the Creator is a morally perfect Being. God himself cannot be tempted with sin (James 1:13), nor, being a God who is just (Psalm 89:14; Revelation 16:5), can he simply overlook evil in his creation offspring (Acts 17:28-29). Jehovah is “too pure to look upon evil;” he “cannot tolerate wrong” (Habakkuk 1:13, NIV). Heaven’s justice, therefore, demands that a penalty be paid for sin. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).

The dilemma thus is: Either we must pay the penalty for our own sins, or someone else, qualified to do so, must pay the price on our behalf.

Since all responsible human beings have sinned (Romans 3:10,23; 1 John 1:8,10) —(Jesus Christ excepted), it is perfectly obvious that we are not in a position to redeem ourselves from the consequences of our rebellion (Ephesians 2:8; Titus 3:5). What, then, is the human plight? Eternal ruin —unless there is a divine plan to remedy this situation.

Thanks be to God, there is a heavenly solution (2 Corinthians 9:15). Because God is a being of love (1 John 4:8), and is “rich in mercy” (Ephesians 2:4), he did not desire that the human family remain beyond the pale of redemption. He is unwilling that any person should perish, with no hope of deliverance (2 Peter 3:9). Out of his infinite counsel (Acts 2:23; 3:20), therefore, came a plan. The divine Word (John 1:1), i.e., the preincarnate Christ (John 1:14), would become a human being (Philippians 2:5-8). Jesus would share our very nature (Hebrews 2:14), even to the point of being tempted in every area of human weakness (Hebrews 15). If he passed the test, living a perfect life, the Son of God would be qualified to be the Author (Cause or Source) of our salvation (Hebrews 5:8-9). In such a case, the justice of God could be preserved, and yet he could offer justification to all who submitted to his Son (Romans 3:23-26).

Well, the fact of the matter is this. There is overwhelming evidence that Jesus passed the test with flying colors. He lived for a third of a century upon this earth without ever sinning. He confidently declared that he “always” practiced the things pleasing to God (John 8:29); he even challenged his enemies: “Which of you convicteth me of sin?” (John 8:46). Christ “knew no sin” (2 Corinthians 5:21), which means he never experienced it. Though he was tempted in all points, like any other human, he was “without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). When Peter affirmed that Jesus “did no sin” (1 Peter 2:22), he employed a Greek tense which suggests that the Lord never sinned, not even once! Christ was, therefore, a perfect sacrifice on our behalf. He was “a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:19).

The Unjust Trial of Jesus

The critics of Christianity have a retort to the case set forth above. They allege that Christ was not an innocent victim; rather, supposedly, he was a blasphemer —a violator of the Jewish law under which he lived. It is further charged that he was properly tried, found guilty in a court of law, and justly executed consistent with the legal code of his day. How shall we respond?
There is ample historical evidence as to the nature of Jesus’ trial twenty centuries ago. Corley affirms: “As a fact of history the trial and death of Jesus of Nazareth is a matter beyond dispute. It is better attested and supported with a wider array of evidence than any other comparable event known to us from the ancient world” (841).

Over the years, several scholarly writers have demonstrated forecfully that the so-called trial of Christ (both the Jewish and Roman phases) was flawed egregiously with numerous moral and legal irregularities.

In the early 1800s, Dr. Joseph Salvador, a learned Jewish physician residing in Paris, produced a work entitled History of the Institutions of Moses and the Hebrew People. One chapter of this production concerned the administration of justice among the Hebrews. A portion of that section was designated “The Trial and Condemnation of Jesus,” in which the esteemed author attempted to demonstrate, appealing to the Gospel records themselves, that the Lord’s trial, considered merely as a legal proceeding, was entirely consistent with Jewish law.

After the publication of his essay, Dr. Salvador sent a copy of his work to a M. Dupin, one of the most eminent lawyers of the French Bar. Monsieur Dupin was asked if he would give consideration to the argument presented, which, happily, he consented to do, producing, in 1839, an essay titled: Analysis: Of The Chapter Of Mr. Salvador, Entitled “The Administration Of Justice” Among The Jews. Both Salvador’s piece and Dupin’s review, were subsequently published in a remarkable book titled: The Testimony of the Evangelists Examined by the Rules of Evidence Administered in Courts of Justice, authored by Simon Greenleaf, Dane Professor of Law at Harvard University, and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the nature of legal evidence. A copy of this volume is in the author’s possession.

In 1954 a book appeared under the title A Lawyer Reviews the Illegal Trial of Jesus. The volume was written by prominent criminal defense attorney, Earle H. Wingo, Past President of the Mississippi State Bar Association, and the author of a textbook on criminal law and procedure. Mr. Wingo for many years had made a special study of the conditions which prevailed in Judea during the time of Christ, particularly concerning the procedures of the Jewish Sanhedrin, as well as those pertaining to the Roman system. His conclusion was:

A careful study and analysis of all the Jewish laws in existence when Jesus was tried brings one to the definite conclusion that the entire proceedings were no more than a mockery and a farce. Every protective law was ignored when dealing with Jesus (Pre-face).

In April of 1963 an article was circulated via the auspices of the Associated Press, under the title: “Trial And Sentencing of Jesus Illegal, Says Judge.” The article quoted Judge Elmer N. Holmgren of the Cook County Superior Court, who, for more than thirty years had studied the legal facts of Jesus’ trial. “Delving into ancient Jewish and Roman law, he found that various aspects of the trial before Jewish authorities and Pilate violated both legal systems.”

In 1952 an important work issued from the press. The title is Hebrew Criminal Law and Procedure, Mishnah: Sanhedrin —Makkot. It was authored by Hyman E. Goldin, a prominent Jewish rabbi. This volume is an authoritative guide to the complex subject of Hebrew criminal jurisprudence, as such existed in the centuries before and after the Christian era. It is an important reference work in that it establishes the extent to which the Jewish code operated in ensuring that an accused person was provided a fair trial in capital cases. The evidence clearly reveals how perverted the proceedings were with reference to Jesus. I have consulted this work generously in this discussion. (Note: Though the legal rules catalogued in the Mishnah were not put into written form until about A.D. 170, they reflected an older oral tradition.)

In Part 2, we will discuss in detail some of the gross infractions of law perpetrated in connection with the trial of Christ.

  • Barnes, Albert (1956 Reprint), “Acts,” Notes on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker).
  • Corley, Bruce (1992), “The Trial of Jesus,” Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Joel Green & Scot McKnight, Eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
  • Greenleaf, Simon (1903), The Testimony of the Evangelists Examined By The Rules Of Evidence Administered In Courts Of Justice (Newark, NJ: Soney & Sage).
  • Goldin, Hyman E. (1952), Hebrew Criminal Law and Procedure (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc.).
  • Hackett, H.B. (1879), A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles (Andover: Warren F. Draper).
  • Kistemaker, Simon (1990), Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Baker).
  • Larkin, William (1995), Acts (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).
  • McGarvey, J.W. (1963 Reprint), Original Commentary on Acts (Bowling Green, KY: Guardian of Truth Foundation).
  • Plumptre, E.H. (1959 Reprint), “Acts,” Ellicott’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, C.J. Ellicott, Ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan).
  • Polhill, John B. (1992), “Acts,” The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman).
  • Robertson, A.T. (1930), Word Pictures In The New Testament (Nashville: Broadman).
  • Wingo, Earle H. (1954), A Lawyer Reviews the Illegal Trial of Jesus (Hattisburg, MS: Earle H. Wingo Publications).
  • Wuest, Kenneth (1943), The Practical Use of the Greek New Testament (Chicago: Moody).