It is often said that silence is golden. In the text before us, it is also glorious. And it is glorious because, ultimately, the silence of Jesus was gracious. His silence had everything to do with our salvation. His silence gives us the power today to boldly cry, “Abba, Father”—even when we experience the pain of evil and injustice.
Injustice abounds in our very fallen and broken world. In some way, each of us has or will experience it. Racism, classism, police brutality, and misuse of authority by the powers that be are some of the more visible and obvious injustices. In the text before us, we see examples of some of these. But here we also encounter the kind of injustice that perhaps each of us has or will encounter: false accusations and malicious slander.
Such injustice is hard to swallow. Rather than merely gulping down the verbal abuse, we’d rather open our mouths and speak up in self-defence. There may be a place for that, but not always. Sometimes, the best defence is no defence. Sometimes, silence is louder than words.
In our text, the Lord Jesus Christ, the slandered victim, was the silent victor. He fulfilled the prophecy of the suffering servant of Isaiah: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). In biblical terms, we observe here the silence of the Lamb.
There is much for our contemplation and application. We can learn much from our Master about how to respond in a world of injustice. I trust that we will be convicted in this study and then moved to repentance and faith for our sins of injustice. Fundamentally, I pray that God the Holy Spirit will point us to the gospel, which came about because of the silence of the Lamb.
The silence of Jesus in the face of horrific injustice was necessary to secure the salvation of sinners. His silence screamed his love for those who were his enemies (Romans 3:8). The righteous silence of Jesus actually screamed the good news of the gospel. May our silence do the same. It is what we are called to.
This is a sobering chapter, which we should approach with deep reverence and serious self-examination, leading to loving and sacrificial devotion.
An Abuse of Authority
The chapter opens with an abuse of authority: “And as soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. And they bound Jesus and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate” (v. 1).
In this terrible scene of injustice Jesus, as we have seen, had been left all alone. Bound with chains, falsely charged, and maliciously slandered, he was alone. Facing a godless ruler with no appreciation for who he was, he was all alone. Clearly innocent, yet unjustly condemned to die as a criminal, he would do so alone. Though sinless and therefore innocent, he was vilified and beaten mercilessly, all alone.
Jesus being all alone is a deliberate emphasis by Mark. For you see, he alone could do what he came to do: to give his life as a ransom for many (10:45). The Lamb who was slain from before the foundation of the world was about to be sacrificed on the unjust altar of human expediency. But this would result in the justice of God being satisfied. The Lamb would die by the hand of God so that lambs like you and I could be brought into the fold.
The book of Judges tells the story of a period when there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his or her own eyes. The book highlights how horrifically wrong things goes when people do what is right in their own eyes. This is true particularly of the closing chapters (17–21). But as horrific as those closing stories are, this one is even worse.
Here, there was a king: Herod. There were Jewish rulers: a high priest, chief priests, scribes, and elders. There was a local Roman governor (Pontius Pilate). Still, every man did what was right in his own eyes. The true King was rejected. Our text makes this abundantly clear. And as in the book of Judges, those responsible for justice failed miserably and maliciously. The Lord Jesus was the victim of deep injustice. And though he was a voluntary victim, those responsible stand condemned. Each of these characters abused their authority.
Let me provide a pastoral word at this point. If you have suffered abuse at the hands of someone, find comfort in the fact that so did Jesus. Truly, he is a sympathetic High Priest who is able to identify with us and to comfort us in our affliction (Hebrews 2:16–18; 4:14–16).
The story before us opens “as soon as it was morning.” This phrase has caused no little debate among commentators. Some are of the view that this is merely a summation of the night’s proceedings (14:53–65). Others hold that the events here portray a further trial. The latter is probably correct.
The full Sanhedrin had convened, which was necessary for a verdict to be valid. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus were members of the Sanhedrin who, by all indications, had become followers of Jesus (Mark 15:42–43; John 19:39ff). Significantly, there was seemingly no significant pushback from them, probably because, like Peter and his fellow apostles, they were failing to follow. But a better day for all lay ahead.
Though Jesus being all alone was within the sovereign plan and purpose of God, we dare not excuse their failure to speak up for justice (Proverbs 31:8–9).
The Sanhedrin “held a consultation” but, of course, it was a corrupt one. The same Greek terms are used in 3:6 to Jewish leaders from Jerusalem who sought to find reason to destroy Jesus while he was ministering in Galilee. Now that he was in Jerusalem, on their turf, he had no human hope of deliverance. As we saw after his prayer in Gethsemane, he would not accept it if it were offered. Peter, in fact, had offered it but he would have none of it (8:31–33).
After convicting and condemning him, they bound him (probably with chains) and led him away to another person who would abuse by abdicating his authority: Pilate. The phrase “delivered him over to” is a loaded term. The word behind the phrase is used by Mark ten times from 14:10–15:15. Sometimes, it is translated as “betrayed.” We must note its theological thrust. Edwards explains that the term “portrays Jesus as the victim (betrayed by human wickedness) and as the means of redemption (delivered up according to God’s purpose).” God, as Peter fifty days later would inform a similar Jewish crowd, was the one delivering up Jesus while he used the diabolical delivering up by these faithless shepherds (Acts 2:23; see 4:23–28). Take comfort, Christian. When you are mistreated or experience injustice, God is not absent or careless. He is mysteriously at work, in some way, redemptively (see Romans 4:25; 8:32; Galatians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:23).
The Sanhedrin sensed the need to move quickly because it was morning and the day was getting away from them. It was well-known that Roman officials got their business out of the way early in the day so they could spend the rest of their day in their own personal pursuits, including sleep. So they came to Pilate. This was crucial because, while the Jewish authorities could pronounce a death penalty, but they had no authority to execute it. Only the Romans could do so. The Roman government would not execute someone for blasphemy. They would, however, execute for someone guilty of a crime against the state. The Sanhedrin, therefore, needed to frame the charges in such a way that Pilate would consider Jesus guilty of a capital crime.
Alan Cole notes, “So begins, not the trial before Pilate, but the trial of Pilate.”
Pilate is one of the most pathetically tragic and tragically pathetic persons in history. He was the fifth governor of Jerusalem, a post that he held from 27–36 AD. Contemporaries of the day describe him as inflexible, harsh, and ruthless. Jesus mentions him in Luke 13 and told his disciples that, on one fierce occasion, Pilate had mingled the blood of Jews who were sacrificing along with their sacrifices. From two other historical accounts, we know that he foolishly and rashly stirred great angst among the Jews by his harsh and gratuitous sacrilege.
Within a few years, he would be removed once for all from rule in Jerusalem because of his problematic and incompetent rule. Pilate was a leader who abused his authority. As already mentioned, he here abused his authority by abdicating it. But before looking at that, we want to spend a good amount of our focus on the next few verses, which serve as an amazing contrast to an otherwise dark display of depravity. Tucked between an abusive authority and an abdicated authority, we have the amazing authority of the Lord Jesus.
An Amazing Authority
Verses 2–5 highlight the amazing authority of Jesus as he stood before Pilate:
And Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” And the chief priests accused him of many things. And Pilate again asked him, “Have you no answer to make? See how many charges they bring against you.” But Jesus made no further answer, so that Pilate was amazed.
A Kingly Emphasis
This chapter contains six references to Jesus as King (vv. 2, 9, 12, 18, 26, 32). Prior to this, though implied, this particular word has not been used by Mark with reference to Jesus. This is significant. The kingdom needs a King, and here he is. Jesus is the Ruler and those whom he rules need to follow him in every way, including in persecution (13:9–13).
Remember that Mark is telling a story. He wants his audience to follow Jesus in the light of this story. He is telling the story that God sent his Son to rule as King over the kingdom of God. With the arrival of the Lord Jesus, the kingdom of God had come (1:14–15). A new era was inaugurated with the arrival of the King. But something needed to happen before the King would be enthroned. He would first need to be rejected by Jew and Gentile. He would need to be crucified before crowned. As France comments, “Jesus does enter into his true kingship, paradoxically enthroned on the cross.”
Again, Jesus was left all alone at this point. The very thing he had been preparing the disciples for—his crucifixion—was coming to pass. But the disciples had ceased to follow. Thankfully, God recorded, through the likes of Mark, just how Jesus faced the cross. This provides us with what we need in order to, like Jesus, faithfully suffer as subjects of his kingdom.
Here, the King was mistreated and persecuted because of his obedience to the divine will. What he faced was a foreshadowing of what Mark’s readers would face, and what in some way we too will face. This passage is the template for how we are to respond. “Christians could prepare themselves for their own passion narrative with faith and dignity” (Lane).
When we embrace the good news that God saves sinners, we also embrace the life that this good news calls us to: a life of following Jesus, which includes suffering (Philippians 1:29). We should not be surprised by this (8:29–31; 9:31–33; 10:31). But implied in this is the ability to suffer well, as Jesus did.
The original recipients of Mark’s Gospel were facing what Jesus had predicted (Mark 13:9–13). As they heard this read, they were being prepared for suffering for his sake. Would they fare better than the Twelve?
A Silent Confession
As we fight the good fight of faith, we are making a good confession in the presence of many witnesses (1 Timothy 6:12). Jesus did the same here.
Mark’s version of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, like most of his Gospel, is rather abbreviated. The other Gospel writers fill in the blanks and so we know that some kind of interaction had already taken place between Pilate and the Sanhedrin. Our focus, however, is Mark’s account, so we will not spend too much time focusing on other Gospel records.
Pilate asked in effect, “So, you are the King of the Jews, are you?” Doubtless the question was tinged with mockery. Jesus answered affirmatively, and probably also challengingly, “You have said so.” Edwards comments that perhaps the phrasing was intended to convey, “You would do well to consider the question.” Or perhaps Jesus was saying, “Yes, but not the kind you have in mind.”
We know from Matthew and John’s accounts that Pilate was troubled by this encounter—not by the political threat of another king (in fact, there seems to be little concern about this), but by what was transcendently different about Jesus. Perhaps the representatives of the Sanhedrin could sense that Pilate was impressed with Jesus, for they immediately jumped in with further accusations of “many things.”
Pilate responded, asking Jesus why he was not answering their charges. He was surprised that, amid these accusations (which he perhaps deemed rather absurd if not merely unbelievable), Jesus remained silent. He had witnessed many a tribunal and had never met a silent defendant. But now he had. As Maclaren writes, Jesus’ “silence was his most eloquent answer.” He would neither falsely confess guilt nor self-consciously defend himself. And Pilate, observing the silent defendant, was “amazed.” Later, he would be amazed again (15:44). We too should stand amazed, for this is grace in action. As Calvin wrote, “He was silent, that we may boast that by his grace we are righteous.”
In Mark there are several occasions when onlookers were “amazed” and “wondered” or “marvelled” at the person and work of Jesus (1:27; 5:20; 6:51; 10:24; 32; 12:17). But we need to be reminded that to be amazed at Jesus is not necessarily to be equated with believing Jesus. Pilate clearly did not believe, even though he was amazed and admired Jesus. Why was this?
A Submissive Silence
Again, the silence of Jesus was astounding, especially when you consider what was at stake. In fact, it was astounding precisely because of what was at stake. You see, Jesus was silent because he was submissive to the plan of the triune God. We see Jesus submitting in silence precisely because he had submitted his soul to the Father in Gethsemane. He acquiesced to the trial because of his victory in the previous trial in Gethsemane. Having wrestled in prayer with the Father, like Jacob (but in a far greater way!) the Lord Jesus emerged victorious, as the Prince of God (see Genesis 32). The true Jacob, the one who was the Ladder connecting heaven and earth (Genesis 28), was prepared to go all the way in the will of God. Though God’s will brought suffering, Jesus endured for the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:1–2).
This scene is replete with irony. The one with all the authority was on trial. The one with temporal earthly, political authority was actually being controlled by those who were supposed to be under his control. The one who had the ability to proclaim life or death in a judicial verdict was mesmerised by the calm authority of the defendant. Pilate, I believe, sensed a moral authority in the person of Jesus. In a very real sense, everyone in this story was out of control, except the one who, on the surface, seemingly had no control.
As you face hardship and suffer injustice and wrongs at the hands of others, be emboldened by the example of Jesus. Be hopeful as you observe the confident calmness of Jesus. Be content as you observe Jesus leaning into his Father and his promises. Knowing that Jesus rose from the dead, be willing to temporarily suffer in silence.
Someone has written that a pastor’s assignment is to move the flock from confusion to hope and from chaos to harmony. The example of the Pastor, the Lord Jesus, does precisely this (1 Peter 2:18–25).
The Silence Continues
Jesus was not only silent in response to the false accusations. Until moments before his death, he remained silent.
As his life was bartered before a hostile crowd, he was silent (vv. 6–15). When he was beaten and mocked, he was silent (vv. 16–20). When he was crucified on Calvary, and further railed upon, he remained silent (vv. 21–32). Only after he had paid the price for our sin, experiencing the wrath of holy God on our account, would he speak—with a cry of desolation followed by a loud cry of his soul’s committal.
Jesus was silent because Jesus was joyfully and confidently submissive. As we have seen, he never told the disciples about his death without also telling them of his resurrection. It was this hope in God’s promise that empowered his silence. Oh what an essential lesson for us to learn!
By nature—that is, by fallen nature—defensiveness is our default, especially when we are innocent. It is often said that there are no guilty people in prisons. Everyone is quick to claim innocence. Those who are guilty defend themselves, for a number of reasons. One reason, perhaps, is to avoid the shame that attends guilt. But most likely, a primary motivation is fear of consequences. However, when you are innocent and yet accused, well, who among us is not tempted to proclaim wide and far and loud our innocence? We fight for our justice!
Of course the Bible provides us with precepts for justly handling allegations and accusations. There are certainly times when it is righteous to break our silence and give a personal defence. Jesus sometimes did so, as did Paul in 2 Corinthians and elsewhere. But there are times when, having said what we can, we need to silence our tongues. We need to follow the example of Jesus by denying ourselves and taking up our cross. After all, those who are dead cannot speak.
A general principle we glean from this passage is that the Christian should remain silent when to do so achieves a higher good. For example, when it is clear that truth is not the goal, be silent and leave the result with God. When breaking your silence means casting your pearl before swine, rather don’t. When your opponents have already determined the verdict, there is little wisdom in you defending yourself. When breaking silence will harm the work of God, don’t. I have known or read of many a pastor who has chosen to resign from a church when they were not guilty of a particular sin because it was in the best interests of the church to do so. Silence is also called for when breaking your silence will harm someone who, at least at this point, needs grace and mercy rather than judgement.
There is so much that can be said about this. And in a day of scepticism and an abundance of cynicism, we have created lots of nuances around what is pretty straightforward. So, without any caveats, Christian, when you are slandered, when you are set up, remember the Lord Jesus and be prepared to remain silent, committing yourself and your situation to God who judges righteously. Those who choose silence are those who have God as their advocate. And he has never lost a case.
Remember the words of Isaiah 53:7: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” Yes, our Lord was silent because he was the Lamb who came to take away the sin of the world by suffering and dying for us (Mark 10:45).
An Abdicated Authority
Pilate, sadly, abdicated his authority by handing Jesus over to be crucified:
Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” And Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.
Though Pilate was amazed both by and at Jesus, his amazement made no life-changing impact. Like so many throughout history, he found Jesus admirable but not adorable. That is, he would not bow the knee to the authority of King Jesus. Instead, he bowed his knee to the crowd. As we noted, Pilate had the title deed to be in control of the verdict, but he lacked the moral and political will to do so. In the words of John describing those in authority who refused to identify with Jesus out of fear, Pilate “loved the praise of man more than the praise of God” (John 12:43). In the end, as these verses reveal, he abdicated his authority, which, I will remind you, came from God (Romans 13:1–7).
It’s clear from this passage, as well as parallel passages in Matthew and John, that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent of these trumped up charges. Mark says that Pilate “perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up” (v. 10). He was not foolish enough to think the Pharisees were concerned about a rival to Rome!
Envy can be defined as “anger or grief over the success of another” (Edwards). The religious leaders of Judea were angered over the apparent popularity of Jesus. The people, we have been told, heard him gladly and he had been hailed as the Son of David, who came in the name of the Lord. Further, he had rebuffed their attempts to shame him publicly by asking him loaded questions, all of which he wisely and powerfully disarmed. In other words, the so called shepherds of Israel realised they were losing popularity and that their status was under threat. This popular Shepherd from Galilee needed to be destroyed, for the religious authorities would brook no rivals.
Pilate wanted nothing to do with the Jews’ intramural squabble. Nor was he particularly thrilled about crucifying an innocent man. Unfortunately, he was too much like Herod and expediency ruled the day (6:14–29).
A Customary Clemency
Pilate, or perhaps some governor prior to him, had established a custom of pardoning one prisoner during Passover. He saw a gap. He could leave the decision in the hands of the Jewish populace under the influence of the Sanhedrin.
From other passages, it seems that Pilate hoped they would exercise the moral high ground and choose the release of Jesus over Barabbas, an insurrectionist, thief, and murderer. It is also possible that “the reason Pilate wanted to release Jesus was not because he was a fair-minded man, but because he wanted to spite the Jewish officials, whom he despised” (Witherington). Regardless, they chose Barabbas. When you consider the kind of person he was, you realise that he was precisely the kind of Messiah most of the Jews were hoping for: a revolutionary. This highlights a perverse irony. Someone who was a military threat to Rome was released, while the one who was not such a threat was condemned to die. In fact, Pilate released the enemy of his enemies while giving protection to the enemy of his friends!
Again, Pilate completely abdicated his God-given authority. As he told Jesus that he had authority of life or death over Jesus, Jesus boldly responded, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (John 18:9-11). Pilate was accountable to God, but he made himself the slave of public opinion and political expediency. The result was a miscarriage of justice. Though Pilate made an apparent effort to secure Jesus’ release, he was at the mercy of the crowd (vv. 8, 15), which was at the mercy of the Sanhedrin. The abuse and abdication of authority is writ large.
The crowd is a major motif in Mark. For the most part, the crowd or multitude is seen in a favourable light—until Jesus, along with his disciples, journeyed to Jerusalem. Then the crowds became characterised by hostility.
Someone has insightfully commented, “As Luther found, when he made his famous pilgrimage to Rome, piety is apt to flourish more away from a Holy City than in it; and doubtless there were many residents of Jerusalem who were far from pious” (Cole).
The authority of Jesus was just too uncomfortable. They wanted a Messiah, but not a Master. They wanted a Deliverer but not a Sovereign. They wanted a Saviour but not a Lord. And so it is in many a holy city today—that is, in so many churches. Too often, church leaders cave to the crowd and abdicate their authority. Pastors compromise and give the people what they want rather than what God says. The flock is then given a watered-down gospel and therefore one that does not save. The flock is given a crossless and therefore powerless message. The crowd is allowed to determine the rules rather than being shown God’s rules. The cumulative result is a church that has become like the world. In other words, Jesus Christ is betrayed to be crucified in the house of his friends.
Delivered to Be Crucified
The crowd was influenced by the leaders to call for the release of Barabbas and the death, by crucifixion, of the Lord Jesus Christ. The passage concludes with perhaps the most tragic words in all of Scripture: “So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.” And yet, in a very remarkably ironic way, these are also some of the most glorious words in Scripture. For you see, “Jesus is going to be killed for the sort of crime that the man set free actually committed” (Witherington). That sounds an awful lot like the gospel, doesn’t it? The biblical gospel is that the just died in the place of the unjust.
The Lamb would be slain so the lambs could, and would, be set free. As Ferguson comments, “Without knowing it, the religious leaders and Pilate and Barabbas were all part of a tapestry of grace which God was weaving for sinners.”
Mark is deliberately pointing us to the substitutionary nature of the atonement: the sinless Son of God dying in the place of sinful men and women, boys, and girls. As Calvin so helpfully puts it, “So then, the Son of God stood, as a criminal, before a mortal man, and there permitted himself to be accused and condemned, that we may stand boldly before God.” J. I. Packer had the most succinct answer when asked, “What is the gospel?” He often replied, “God saves sinners.” That is what happened here. “What was done from wickedness was still done ‘by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge’” (Edwards). And his purpose was the salvation of his sheep by the silent death of his Lamb: the one slain from the foundation of the world.
Not Forever Silent
Jesus would remain silent for another three days. But then he would rise from the grace with a mighty triumph over his foes. And even though he remained selectively silent, word would get out and the good news would be proclaimed around the globe for millennia and forever.
As we bring this to a close, Christian, let me appeal to you to follow the example of Jesus in your conflicts. Live a blameless life and then you can be silent rather than defensive. Be prepared to respond to personal injustice with silence thereby glorifying God.
Non-Christian, you may not be able to identify with Pilate, or with the corrupt Sanhedrin, but you should, like me, identify with Barabbas. We are guilty of insurrection against God the King. We have sought to throw off the bonds of his authority. We had a hand in the crucifixion of his Son. Among the crowd we can hear our own mocking voice. Having sinned against a holy God we deserve his wrath; we deserve to die for and in our sins. But King Jesus came to deliver us.
He was mocked and rejected as King and, through the deviant actions of all these people, was enthroned via his cross. But having risen from the dead, he proved he is King, who now rules and reigns and graciously intercedes for sinners. For this reason, we should heed the call of the Scripture: “Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in him” (Psalm 2:10–12).
The Lamb of God will not always be silent. Repent and believe and you will never need experience the equally true response: the “wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16).