“O Dearest Jesus, What Law Hast Thou Broken?” (Luke 23:1-56)
“O Dearest Jesus, What Law Hast Thou Broken?” Short answer: None. But then why all this pain and sorrow and death on this day when Jesus is sentenced and crucified and buried? What could possibly be good about this Good Friday? The hymn we sang will lead us into the answers.
O dearest Jesus, what law hast Thou broken
That such sharp sentence should on Thee be spoken?
Of what great crime hast Thou to make confession,
What dark transgression?
These, of course, are rhetorical questions. The expected answer is obviously “None.” No law broken, no great crime, no dark transgression. Nothing of the sort did Jesus commit. And the people in our text acknowledge this. Three times Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, declared Jesus innocent. Jesus’ opponents bring him over to Pilate on some trumped-up charges. Pilate inquires and then declares, “I find no guilt in this man.”
The opponents press the matter, and so Pilate, who was governor of Judea, sends Jesus over to Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee, where Jesus was from. Herod questions Jesus at some length and then sends him back to Pilate. Pilate declares Jesus’ innocence a second time: “After examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him. Neither did Herod, for he sent him back to us. Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him.”
But the chief priests and the scribes and the crowds they whip up are insistent: “Crucify, crucify him!” So now a third time Pilate declares: “Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no guilt deserving death.”
But their voices prevail, Pilate buckles under to the pressure, and Jesus is sentenced to be crucified that day, this day, Good Friday. Crucifixion, the most cruel, shameful, agonizing death you could imagine.
And this is the most unjust death that anyone has ever suffered. No law of God or man did Jesus break to merit such a sentence. Indeed, just the opposite. Jesus went about doing good. He healed the sick. He delivered from demons. He forgave sins. He fed the multitudes. Jesus taught the truth of God’s word with profound wisdom and astonishing authority. No one ever has done so much good and brought so much blessing as Jesus did.
Not only Pilate, but others as well recognize Jesus’ innocence. The criminal crucified next to Jesus recognizes this. He rebukes the other criminal who was mocking Jesus: “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And when Jesus dies, even the tough Roman centurion on duty declares, “Certainly this man was innocent!”
Certainly this man was innocent. Yet he is crucified. What went wrong here? Why did God let such a gross injustice take place? Was God asleep at the switch here? Why, God, why did you let this happen? This great evil, to your most dedicated servant? Either this Jesus was the greatest fraud who ever lived and finally is getting his just deserts, or else God isn’t doing a very good job as God. Those would seem to be the only two options as you look at it on the surface: Jesus the fraud, or God the failure.
Jesus clearly is no fraud. His whole life and ministry demonstrate this. So we seem to be left with the God-as-failure option. Why did God let this happen? The “Why?” question. Why does God let this or that great evil or tragedy happen to people who don’t deserve it? Why does God let this bad situation persist in my life–a sickness, a troubled marriage, a financial setback? Why, God, why?
But all our “Why?” questions fall into perspective, or maybe even fade into the background, when we look at the case of Jesus. The most unjust suffering ever known, and yet God lets it happen. In fact, it is even God’s plan–yes, his plan–to let this sorrow and agony happen to the most righteous man who ever lived.
When I gain insight into God’s plan, his redemptive plan as we find it in the Bible, and in that light I look at Jesus’ sorrows and suffering, my “Why?” is answered with an “I”: I, yes I, am the one who should have died in shame and sorrow, but Jesus, the righteous one, suffered the judgment that I deserved. We go back to the hymn:
Whence come these sorrows, whence this mortal anguish?
It is my sins for which Thou, Lord, must languish;
Yea, all the wrath, the woe, Thou dost inherit,
This I do merit.
In truth, it is my sins for which Jesus suffers. I deserve God’s judgment of death, for I have transgressed and rebelled against my Creator. When I look over my record, when I examine my conscience and see all my unholy thoughts, when I recall all my thoughtless words, when I reflect on all my ungodly actions–and all my failures to act and think and speak as I ought–then I can see what a mess I’ve made of things. I need to be honest about this, and so do you. No excuses. No rationalizations. I do not deserve any fellowship with God or blessing from him. My sins, and my whole sinful nature, preclude this. That cross should be mine. The wages of sin is death.
So what good can come out of this unjust suffering and death that Jesus endures? What good is there in Good Friday? The hymn tells us:
The sinless Son of God must die in sadness;
The sinful child of man may live in gladness;
Man forfeited his life and is acquitted;
God is committed.
It’s the great exchange. Jesus takes our sins. We receive his righteousness. He takes the judgment. We get the forgiveness. He suffers our death. We gain his life. His the sadness. Ours the gladness. Because Jesus has served the penalty for sin we deserve, God is being just when he acquits us, declares us not guilty, innocent for Jesus’ sake. This is the great pronouncement of justification that God declares for all sinners. The sins of the whole world have been paid for, in total, by the holy blood and sacrificial death of the sinless Son of God.
This gift is for you, my friend. Receive it by faith, simply by trusting in Jesus to do the whole job for you. He has. Everything you need, he has won for you. Forgiveness for your sins. Righteousness before God to stand in the day of judgment. Life that conquers death and opens up the gate to eternal life. New life even now, to live and love and to know God and to discover what life is really all about. This is the outcome of what Jesus has done for you on this Good Friday.
So it really is a Good Friday, the Very Best Friday the world has ever seen. We’ll hear more about those good results when we come again here on Easter morning. But for now take comfort and take courage in what Jesus has done for you by dying on that cross. It will change your life, it really will–as the hymn writer sings:
Whate’er of earthly good this life may grant me,
I’ll risk for Thee; no shame, no cross, shall daunt me.
I shall not fear what foes can do to harm me
Nor death alarm me.
Jesus takes the fear out of death, the Big Fear. And he even takes the fear out of life, out of living as a Christian. We live now with confidence in the strength of God, even when that strength may look like weakness. That has never been more true than in the cross of Christ. God was doing something good there, surpassingly good, even though it looked like a complete failure. And so know that God is doing good for you, even when it may not look like it. You have his word on it. You have his promise. You have his Jesus.
And when you have Jesus, you have everything you need. For life. Forever. For eternity. Jesus promises Paradise to the penitent thief, and he promises Paradise likewise to you and to all who look to him for life. This is why we can say, in the words of the hymn:
And when, dear Lord, before Thy throne in heaven
To me the crown of joy at last is given,
Where sweetest hymns Thy saints forever raise Thee,
I, too, shall praise Thee.