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Nazareth Revisited


"Set at Naught."

Sentence of death upon Christ having been resolved on, though not formally passed, by the Jewish Council (and the Council having retired), the officers of the court who had charge of Jesus felt at liberty to make brutal sport of their noble victim. The head swims at the indignities heaped upon him. Some spat upon him: if personal humiliation could be deeper or more bitter, it was when they blindfolded him, and struck him, first one and then another, probably with foot and fist promiscuously, calling upon him in ribald mirth to name the smiter in the exercise of what to them was but his professed supernatural power. The very servants caught their spirit, and made blows at him with open palm on the cheek as they could get a chance. Think of this, carried on at intervals through the sleepless night. What a preparation for the awful morrow! Early in these heart-breaking transactions, the maid-servant who kept the doors and had admitted Peter, observed him cowering among the servants at a fire in the waiting hall, outside the Council Chamber of the palace. The waiting-hall was on a lower level than the Council Chamber, but within view of the chamber through the pillars, so that what was said and done in one place could be heard and seen from the other. The maid-servant, looking at Peter narrowly, said, "Thou also wast with Jesus of Nazareth." Peter was 'taken aback. He had come -- not as one of Christ's disciples, but as a neutral onlooker, "to see the end," as it is expressed. He had obtained admittance to the palace as an acquaintance of John, who "knew the high priest." Painful curiosity had prompted him to get thus near the Lord in his last moments. Not as a declared friend, but as a disciple incognito he had "followedafaroff," and crept into the place of his Lord's humiliation. Though he had protested that he would follow him to death, he felt very unlike it now, in the presence of scoffing enemies, and in the cold of midnight, after a fatiguing day, and in the confused state of the faculties which succeeds to such snatches of sleep as he had had in the Garden of Gethsemane while Christ was praying. The servant-maid's challenge, therefore, threw him off his balance altogether. Acknowledgment of his connection with Christ would likely lead to participation in his fate. From this he shrank in the utter weakness of this unguarded hour. It was not wickedness; it was the instinct of self-preservation acting without control. Wickedness would have led him to take part, like Judas, in the plans to destroy Christ. This was furthest from his thoughts. At the same time, he felt unable to own to discipleship. He could but deny the maid-servant's statement, and seek refuge in professed ignorance of her meaning. "I know not what thou sayest." It was a terrible failure under trial, but it was a failure with ameliorating circumstances, which secured his forgiveness. It was a failure that actually qualified him in one way for the work he had to do, as the chosen mouth-piece of the Apostolic witnesses of Christ's resurrection. It humbled himself in his own eyes for ever, and fitted him to wear the honours of his position afterwards, in which it was fitting that God only should be exalted.

Peter's prompt repudiation of the impeachment appears to have thrown the bystanders off the scent; and he wandered off to the porch in the terrible uneasiness of his position. Here, after a little time, another maid called attention to him. "This is one of them: this fellow also was with Jesus of Nazareth." Those who were standing about the porch took up the cry, "Thou art also of them." Peter, at terrible war with himself, ejaculated, "Man, I am not." "Did I not see thee in the garden with him?" said a kinsman of Malchus, whose ear Peter had cut off. "I do not know the man," replied Peter. Again-repulsed, the loiterers leave him alone, and disconsolately hanging about for an hour in the cold and misery of the night, he finds his way back to the hall, where he becomes an object of renewed attention on the part of the group near the fire, whose suspicions of him had become excited. They gathered round him, and protested that he must be one of Christ's disciples, for his very dialect betrayed him. Peter met this renewed suggestion with renewed emphasis of denials, cursing and swearing, and saying, "I know not this man of whom ye speak." It is probable that Peter forgot or did not realise that his words were audible in the open Council Chamber overhead. At all events, it happened that at this juncture, "the Lord (in the hand of his captors) turned and looked on Peter." Peter noticed the movement and caught Christ's eye. There are circumstances in which a look is more impressive than the most eloquent and convincing harangue. Such a look must this have been. It was probably not so much a look of reproach as a solemn reminder. The absence of reproach would make it all the more crushing to Peter. "Though all forsake thee, yet will not I;" so Peter had boasted. The Lord had answered: "Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice." And lo, here was the agonising fulfilment. A look was enough to force it into Peter's inmost soul. He could not endure it. He went straight out and in the darkness and solitude of the night, poured out his broken heart in bitter tears.

When the light began to dawn, there appears to have been a second and fuller muster of the Council, with the whole of their immediate associates among the scribes and priestly classes, all of whom would be deeply interested in the case. In their numerous and attentive presence, Jesus, after the miseries of that night, was more formally arraigned than at the hasty gathering of the previous night. "Art thou the Christ?" said they; "tell us." Jesus knew the question was insincere. He, therefore, answered, "If I tell you, ye will not believe; and if I also ask you, ye will not answer me nor let me go." Then we may imagine a pause, during which whisperings would pass among the members of the Council, to the effect that at the night sitting, Jesus had openly professed his Messiahship but was now afraid to do so. His reticence now might perplex them as to their next procedure. If so, Jesus ended their perplexity by repeating the declaration of the previous night. "Hereafter shall the Son of Man sit on the right hand of the power of God." Eagerly catching at this, which was not sufficiently explicit for them, they all said, "Art thou then the Son of God?" -- to which Jesus signified his assent. This ended their dilemma. "We ourselves have heard of his own mouth:" what further need of legal ceremony or delay? The way was open to hand him at once over to the Roman Governor, without whose concurrence, they could not have the sentence of death carried out (for at this time the power of death had been taken away from the Jewish Council). So, binding him as if he were a dangerous criminal, they led him away to the house of Pontius Pilate, connected with which there was a Roman "hall of judgment." Into this, Pilate having taken his seat on the bema or judgment seat, Jesus was taken by the officers and placed before Pilate, with request that there might be order for execution.

At this point, Judas reappears on the scene. He had anxiously followed the course of events, evidently expecting that Jesus, would deliver himself from the hands of his captors by the power that he knew he possessed, and which he had seen him put forth in self-preservation on more than one occasion before. When he now saw that all hope in this direction was at an end, and that Jesus was a doomed victim of authority in the hands of those to 'whom he had betrayed him, his spirit sank under the remorse excited by the full sense of what he had done. "I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood." He now hated the money he had made by his treachery. He felt he would give all he had to reverse the events of the past 48 hours. In vain. He could at least return the 30 pieces of silver. In a frenzy of despair, he went back to the officials in the Temple, from whom he had received the money, and threw the money before them in an agony of self-accusation. "What is that to us? See thou to that." Is it a wonder that "Judas departed and hanged himself?"

The members of the Council did not go into the actual precincts of the judgment hall to which Jesus was conveyed, but remained outside, fearing ceremonial defilement on the eve of the passover. This necessitated Pilate going out to them occasionally during the hearing of the case. There would be an audience of the common Jews inside, in addition to the officers, and the members of the Sanhedrim and their immediate friends outside. Having inside received the application for capital sentence, Pilate came out to the priests, and asked them what the accusation against the prisoner was; for it was a law with the Romans not to grant sentence against any man without just charge and hearing. Their first answer revealed the weakness of their case against Christ. "If he were not a malefactor (an evil doer), we would not have delivered him up to thee." In an ordinary case, they would have specified the charge; but they had no charge such as Roman law could recognise, or Jewish either, unless it were blasphemy, which they could not prove. Therefore they answered in the language of pique and wounded pride. "Do you think we would have brought him as a criminal to you without just cause?" But this was not enough for Pilate. He must have some allegation of offence. They then put their charge into a shape that would engage the sympathies of Pilate against the prisoner. "We found this fellow perverting the nation, and forbidding to give tribute to Cesar, saying that he himself is Christ, a King." This was a charge of high treason which, on proof, would subject Jesus to the capital penalty of Roman law. Pilate had, therefore, something that he could enquire into. He returned to Jesus, and enquired, "Art thou the King of the Jews?" Christ's answer was an enquiry of Pilate whether the question was spontaneous on his part or whether others had suggested it: "Am I a Jew?" responded Pilate. As much as to say, "How could I know anything on such a subject myself, being a Roman?" "Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: What hast thou done?" Then Jesus proceeded to indicate that he had done nothing that could bring him within the law. It was true that he was a King, and that he claimed a kingdom, but not now. He was not a competitor as other kings were one of another. He was not a political intriguer, or a stirrer-up of insurrection. He did not belong to the present order at all. His Kingdom was not of this world. If it were, his servants would fight, which was what he had expressly forbidden them to do. His Kingdom was "not from hence." It was "from thence" -- from heaven at another time. "Thou art a King then, though not now?" was in substance Pilate's rejoinder. Well, yes: this was the truth, and that he might bear witness to the truth was the very object of his present appearance among the Jews. And then, as reflecting on the attitude of the chief priests, he added, "Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice." As much as to say, if they had been of the truth, they would not have been his accusers and calumniators. This excited a momentary curiosity in Pilate. What could this "truth" be which Jesus made so prominent. He asked him, "What is truth?" But he did not stay to get an answer. He had no earnest solicitude on the point one way or other. He was a hard-headed practical Roman who, like another after him, "cared for none of these things," except as they came in his way. He had evidently come to the conclusion that Jesus was a harmless person of the philosophic stamp, whom the chief priests had arrested from envy because of his influence with the people, and whom it would be wise policy on his part to discharge under the custom that had for some time prevailed of surrendering one prisoner to amnesty at the passover feast. He therefore went out to them and said, "I find no fault in this man; but ye have a custom that I should release unto you one at the passover. Will ye, therefore, that I release unto you the King of the Jews?"

There is no doubt that if the priestly company outside the judgment hall had at this moment been in a peaceable, or even in a fairly well-disposed mood, Pilate's proposal would have taken effect, and Jesus would have been liberated. Instead of this, they were animated by a hatred that could not even simulate the decencies of judicial impartiality. They burst into a tempest of clamour against Christ, in which they were supported by the voices of the fickle mob. They had no objection to the release of a prisoner, according to custom; but it must not be Jesus, but Barabbas, a recently arrested robber. For Jesus they demanded death. Pilate was embarrassed. "He stirreth tip all Jewry," shouted the priests, "beginning from Galilee to this place." The mention of Galilee gave Pilate a momentary escape from the inconvenient clamour. He asked if Jesus were a Gililean, and being answered in the affirmative, he said he should send Jesus to Herod, whose jursidiction lay in Galilee and who himself was at that moment on a visit to Jerusalem. Upon this he gave the needful instructions, and Jesus was led away to Herod, the people tumultuously following. Then ensued another and more galling humiliation for the suffering Lamb of God.

Herod was one of the worst of mankind -- so infamous in every way that there was an open outburst of national joy at his death: so Josephus informs us. Before this brute -- ("that fox," Jesus had styled him) Jesus was now placed. He had long had a wish to see Jesus, because of the fame of his miracles. He now hoped to make him perform some of them before him, and to have the gratification afforded to the vulgar by the performance of a conjuror's tricks. With the eager insulting glare of a libertine, Herod plied him with many questions. But Jesus was silent: To Pilate he condescended to some opening of the mind: to this man, he had nothing whatever to say. The chief priests and scribes stood round, vehemently accusing him. To their words he made no answer. Probably Herod would promise to set him free on condition of his working some miracles, but to all Herod's questions and suggestions he was absolutely impenetrable. Herod's mood then changed to exasperation. He jeered at him and mocked him, and was at a loss to express the intensity of his angry scorn and contempt. In this he was supported by his officers and soldiers, who easily and eagerly made sport of a prisoner who was the butt of their master's rage. They procured a gorgeous caricature of the robe that kings only wore, and arrayed him in it with brutal mirth, and without gentleness we may be sure. "They set him at naught and mocked him." Then Herod despatched him to Pilate. We can imagine the derisive shouts of laughter with which they would greet his departure from Herod's presence, in the exaggerated robes of royalty. We cannot imagine the Lord's lacerated feelings under such treatment. They are fully described in the words of the psalmist, foreshowing his sufferings: "I am a worm and no man, a reproach of men and despised of the people. All they that see me laugh me to scorn. They shoot out the lip; they shake the head, saying, He trusted in the Lord that he would deliver him; let Him deliver him, seeing He delighted in him ... Trouble is near. There is none to help: Many bulls have compassed me; strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round. They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.... Dogs have compassed me. The assembly of the wicked have enclosed me ... Thou hast known my reproach and my shame and my dishonour. Mine adversaries are all before thee. Reproach hath broken my heart, and I am full of heaviness. I looked for some to take pity, and there was none: and for comforters, but I found none ... I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax. It is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws: and thou hast brought me into the dust of death."

That Herod, who had been at enmity with Pilate, should have become reconciled to him again, through such a transaction, only added a further ingredient of bitterness and humiliation to the sufferings of Christ. Flattered with Pilate's attention in sending Jesus to him, Herod sent Jesus back to him for final adjudication; which Pilate, in his turn, accepted as a pleasant compliment, and returned to sentiments of amity. It is no new thing for bad men to become friends, over the destruction of the righteous. But what about the vindication, when "God shall judge the secrets of men by Christ Jesus?" Ah!

We behold Christ marched back through the street, in the midst of a jeering mob, to Pilate's "Hall of judgment." Arrived there, Pilate sends for all concerned: "the chief priests and the rulers of the people," to lay the result of Herod's investigations before them, and to secure their concurrence in the release of Christ. His uneasiness about Christ, and his anxiety to release him, had been quickened by a message received from his own wife: "Have thou nothing to do with that just man, for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him." There may have been nothing in the dream of Pilate's wife but the idle reflex of the current city-excitement. At the same time, there is nothing improbable in the supposition that it was something more -- that her dream was of divine origin with the object of influencing Pilate in Christ's favour, and leading him to proclaim the innocence of Christ, in a position from which his words would (afterwards) be heard by all the world. It was a judicial vindication of Christ at the very moment of his condemnation, and threw the whole responsibility of that condemnation on "the Jews, his own nation," who have since tried in vain to get rid of it. The chief priests having assembled, Pilate briefly addressed them: "Ye have brought this man unto me as one that perverteth the people: and behold I, having examined him before you, have no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him; no, nor yet Herod; for I sent you to him, and, lo, nothing worthy of death is done unto him. I will, therefore, chastise him, and release him." Men swayed by reason would have acquiesced in this decision, and quietly gone their way; but the audience before Pilate were far from this state of mind. His words excited them to the utmost pitch of clamour. They cried out all at once, and with deafening persistency, "Away with this man, and release unto us Barabbas." Pilate recoiled before the demonstration. He asked what he was to do with Jesus, whose only fault was that he called himself King of the Jews. "Crucify him!" shouted they at the top of their voices; "crucify him! crucify him!" "Why should I crucify him: what evil hath he done? I have found no cause of death in him: I will, therefore, chastise him, and let him go." It is useless reasoning with hatred. Pilate's question was drowned in the storm of their hateful demand for crucifixion. "Crucify him! crucify him!" was all that could be heard. Pilate felt he must make some concession, or there might be serious riot, for which he would be held responsible at headquarters. His desire to release Christ was not strong enough to withstand the pressure of personal danger. So he signified compliance with the demands of the crowd, and secured peace and infamy by one and the same act. Pilate gave sentence that it should be as they required. "And he released unto them him that for sedition and murder was cast into prison, whom they had desired but he delivered Jesus to their will." The first and ordinary preliminary to crucifixion was "scourging." To this Jesus was now subjected. Horror of horrors! Think of it ye who have been "bought with (such) a price." Hark at the resounding blows on that noble form! If the usual practice was followed, which there is no reason to doubt, he was publicly stripped where he stood, and made to kneel down with his hands tied to a pillar, and many blows inflicted by a strong man on his bare back with a knotched and knotted bludgeon, which tore the flesh and drew blood at every stroke. It is said that those subjected to this terrible torture frequently died under it. It would have been well for Jesus in a human sense if this had been his experience, for he survived it only to undergo more terrible sufferings.

The scourging at an end, he was handed over to the soldiers of the Pretorium, who "called together the whole band" to get sport out of their bleeding prisoner in their barrack room before conducting him to execution. The heart (already broken) reels at the sight of what follows. The robe that Herod had put upon him having been taken off for the scourging, they roughly array him in a mock imperial purple, and force on his head a crown constructed out of a thorn plant, the spikes of which would inflict the utmost pain. They force him to hold in his hands a rod in imitation of a sceptre. Then, in brutal mirth, they go through the mockery of pretending to salute him as king, and mingling their obeisances with a grotesque admixture of blows and insults, which elicit the loud laughter of the band. While this was going on, Pilate was in a state of indecision. He had verbally given in to the clamour of the people, but had not yet made out the execution warrant. It seems to have occurred to him to make a last effort on behalf of Christ, or, at all events, to wash his own hands of all complicity in his death. He sends order to the centurion to bring Christ again to the hall of judgment, and meanwhile going before the un-dispersed assembly outside, says, "Behold, I bring him forth to you that ye may know that I find no fault in him." At this moment Jesus appears in the fantastic guise in which the soldiers had apparelled him, "wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe." Pilate announces him: "Behold the man." Instantly the chief priests and their supporters repeat the insane shout to which Pilate had already yielded: "Crucify him! Crucify him!" Pilate responded: "Take ye him and crucify him; for I find no fault in him." Christ having retired into the judgment hall, the Jews said: "We have a law, and by our law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God." This only increased Pilate's perplexity. His wife's message had perturbed him. The prisoner's extraordinary bearing had impressed him, and now the claim of divine sonship reported to him was calculated to stagger him. He rose from his seat and went straight to Christ in the judgment hall behind him, and said unto him, "Whence art thou?" Jesus made no answer. Already condemned, and deeply suffering in body and mind, it was natural he should think all further communication useless. But Pilate was too much in earnest, though it might be the earnestness of superstition, to be put off. "Speakest thou not unto me ! Knowest thou not that I have power to crucify thee, and power to release thee?" This roused Jesus to assert the true character of the situation: "Thou couldest have no power at all against me except it were given thee from above: therefore he that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin." Pilate was touched with this recognition of his position, though it is improbable that he understood the meaning of Christ's words. Christ was but affirming the truth apparent throughout the Scriptures that "God ruleth in the kingdoms of men and giveth them to whomsoever He will -- putting down one and setting up another," as the providential exigencies of His purposes require. He meant to say that Pilate's power, though real and personal for the time being, was not his own, though he might think it was, but was divinely con ferred, and could only be exercised conformably with Heaven's object in the gift: that, as the executive of Roman authority divinely permitted over Jehovah's land and people for the time being, he might not be personally responsible for its exercise: that the real sin lay with those who were using that authority for the private ends of malice and wickedness.

Whether Pilate understood or not, Christ's answer pleased him, and he returned to the Jewish assembly outside with an increased determination to release him. But it was all in vain. The more he argued in favour of release, the more tumultuous the Jews became in their opposition. At last they used an argument at once dishonourable to themselves and fatal to Pilate's further friendly efforts on behalf of Christ: "If thou let this man go, thou art not Cesar's friend; whosoever maketh himself a king, speaketh against Cesar." What, O Israel? "Whosoever?" Your own promised Messiah also? Ye say that this Jesus of Nazareth is not he; but do ye not believe that he will in due time appear? And do ye say that when he comes, he must be rejected for "making himself a king?" To what a depth of faithlessness and darkness must Israel have sunk to employ an argument that shut the door thus against the promises of God; or into what mental perversity they must have come to use an argument against Christ which, if correct, would exclude the Messiahship for ever. It was so that "darkness had blinded their eyes." Pilate was dark-minded, but not in the same way. He felt a regard for Christ that would have been gratified at his release: but he felt a much greater regard for his own skin. Consequently, when he heard an insinuation of treason that might be turned against himself, he felt he must not trifle with the case. He decided again that he must let the Jews have their will -- not, how. ever, without a final and feeble struggle, like the parting shots of a vessel that sheers out of action. He recalls Jesus from the judgment hall. On his emergence, in presence of the multitude, Pilate says, "Behold your king." "Away with him," shout the crowd; "Away with him! crucify him!" "What!" exclaims Pilate, "shall I crucify your king?" "We have no king but Cesar, "was the insane response. Pilate saw that further opposition was unavailing, and he surrendered, but under protest -- made as ceremonially solemn as he could. He called for a basin of water, and washing his hands before them, said: "I am innocent of the blood of this just person; see ye to it." "His blood be on us and on our children," replied they in one tumultuous shout. And surely the imprecation has rested on them in tenfold severity. Let the afflicted experience of the Jews for 18 centuries testify. That afflicted experience is now near its end: and the day is near when, "having received at the Lord's hand double for all her sins," Jerusalem will again see Christ, but this time to say, "Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord."

Pilate having given his final consent to crucifixion, the soldiers took Jesus aside, and divesting him of the mock imperial robe, they put on him his own clothes and led him away to be crucified. Two others who were under sentence of crucifixion were brought out to be crucified at the same time. These were common thieves. Perhaps the centurion intended their joint-execution as an economy of arrangement; whatever his idea was, such an association was the last and bitterest drop of "the wormwood and the gall." To be numbered thus with the transgressors! As he was led through the streets, many people followed him who had had no part in his condemnation, including many women, "who bewailed and lamented him." To these latter, at a certain stage in the journey, Jesus turned and said: "Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children, for the days are coming in which they shall say, Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bare, and the paps that never gave suck. Then they shall begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us, and to the hills, cover us, for if they do these things in a green tree, what shall be done in the dry?" -- a proverbial expression contrasting Israel's fitness for the consuming fire of judgment shortly to be kindled, as compared with himself, who was as damp wood on which the fire could not catch. If such terrible things were done to him, with whom God was pleased, what might not a "wicked and adulterous generation" expect who were thus putting him to death? The narrative of Josephus, of the events attendant on the overthrow of the Jewish state, is the full and awful answer.

It was customary with the Romans to make the prisoner who was doomed to crucifixion carry on his shoulders to the place of execution the cross on which he was to be crucified. That this custom was observed in the case of Jesus is evident from the statement of John that "he went forth bearing his cross." But why the other statement that as "they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to bear his cross?" Tradition reports that Jesus, enfeebled and exhausted with his previous sufferings, was unable to carry the cross, and fell under it after walking a few steps, and that his guardians were compelled to get another to carry it. It is not improbable there may be truth in the report, (1) because it is not likely the Romans would willingly omit any aggravating circumstance of execution, and (2) because they would not be likely to have impressed a stranger into this service if Jesus had been able to carry the cross himself.

And thus in uttermost humiliation marched the Man of Sorrows to that sacrifice for the sins of the world which the Father required at his hands -- he in the middle with hands tied behind his back -- on each side, a file of soldiers -- behind him, a strong man carrying the piece of rude carpentry on which he was to be nailed, and before and behind, a rabble of running, vulgar, callous sightseers. Only the reflection that it is all past, and that soon the dreadful ignominy was wiped away in the glad healing of the resurrection morning, enables the heart to endure the terrible scene. Prefigured in the offering ,of Isaac, bound as he now was, near the very spot to which he was now on the way; typified in the Passover lamb, the very hour for whose annual national eating had now arrived; and pointed forward to in every slain animal offered on the Mosaic altar under whose very shadow he was now passing: "Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world."

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