5 Easter Lessons from the Trials of Jesus

As we come to another Easter, our minds and hearts will be drawn back to the cross and the empty tomb.  This is the central hinge of human history, and ground zero of our faith.  As followers of Christ, we should never stray too far from his passion if we are going to follow him well, do good theology, or seek to offer hope in this world.  We are a people birthed, marked, shaped, and transformed by the cross and the empty tomb.

God gave us four Gospels, and all four essentially offer a preparatory retelling of the ministry years of Jesus, followed by a slower and more detailed account of the Passion Week.  That means we have many column inches given to other aspects of that first Easter.  As well as the crucifixion and the resurrection, we also have a lot of details about Jesus’ clashes with the authorities, the Last Supper and Upper Room, Gethsemane, and the arrest and trials of Jesus.  Let’s take just the trials, in particular.  What might we notice as we move towards another Easter?

1. The trials did not all happen in one night.  There are six trial hearings that occur between the arrest of Jesus and his crucifixion.  However, the Jewish authorities had long determined that he was guilty and deserved to die.  As we read through the Gospels we find their growing animus, their utter rejection of his authority, and their determination to put him to death.  This final night of trials was the end of a process, it was not the beginning.

2. The trials are divided between the religious and the Roman.  Jesus was arrested by a group of temple guards, with some Roman soldiers added to the posse.  He was taken first to Annas for what is effectively a pre-trial hearing, then to Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin during the night, and then for a brief ratification of their decision at first light.  The focus of these religious trials was Jesus’ teaching and identity.  Then the Jewish leaders took him to Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, for the Roman trial.  Here the focus was his threat to Roman rule, and the emphasis had to shift to political concerns.  Pilate offered a political peace offering to King Herod, a Roman-installed Tetrarch who had previously sent a complaint about Pilate to Caesar.  Herod had wanted to meet Jesus but soon sent him back to Pilate for the sixth and final trial of that night/morning.  Three religious trials.  Three Roman trials.

3. The trials feel rushed and disorganized.  The Jewish authorities had planned to arrest Jesus and deal with him before he could slip away from Jerusalem, but not during the feast.  And then, during the Last Supper, Jesus revealed to Judas that he knew about the planned betrayal.  Their secret was out, and so they rushed a plan into action.  The rush resulted in them struggling to find two witnesses that would agree in front of the defendant during the night trial, and then coming to Pilate without a clearly defined charge in the morning.  It all seems so chaotic and rushed – because it was.  They were not planning to execute Jesus on that particular day.  We can see that God’s plan for the timing required crucifixion on that particular day.  The authorities were not in control.

4. The trials helpfully point us to other key characters.  As we read through the trial accounts, we come across a number of incidental characters.  There are soldiers mistreating Jesus (quite likely to have been Samaritan conscripts, since the Jews would not have joined the Roman ranks).  There are the members of the Sanhedrin gathering in the shadows.  There is Pilate’s wife, whose dream only increases Pilate’s superstitious nervousness around this decision.  And there are some major characters too – Pilate was the most powerful man in the region.  He was used to criminals cowering and begging for mercy but was amazed at the silent strength of Jesus.  Peter had promised to die for Jesus, tried to kill for him in the garden, and then found himself in a series of mini-trials by the fire in the courtyard.  Peter wept bitterly at his failure, but Judas’ grief was different.  He was confronted by the deathly darkness of despair and plunged to his death that night.  As you read the trial accounts, notice everyone who is mentioned.

5. The trials shine a glorious light on Jesus.  And as you read the trial accounts, be sure to focus particularly on Jesus himself.  The arresting party wasn’t in control.  The mafia don of Jerusalem, Annas, was not in control.  The High Priest was not in control.  Nor Pilate the governor.  Certainly not Herod the visiting King.  No, the only one showing control, dignity, clarity of purpose, and strength of character, was Jesus himself.  Watch for when he remains silent.  Take note of what he says when he speaks.  See how he supplies the Old Testament quotes that the High Priest needed to seal the decision.  Recognize his gravitas before Pilate.  Just as Jesus’ words from the cross help to shape our theology, so should his words in these trials.  Jesus came to rescue us at such a great cost.  And Jesus came to reveal the heart of his Father with such great clarity. 

As we head into another Easter, let’s be sure to watch Jesus closely in the biblical text.  He is our humble and regal Redeemer, rescuing us and revealing God to us.  Thank God for Jesus, and thank God for the beautiful way he navigated those last hours before the cross.


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Highlight the Apologetic Value of Details

Sometimes in preaching we will cover details that have apologetic value.  This will probably not be the main thrust of the passage, but if time allows, why not note the inference that can be made so that our listeners are strengthened in their view of the accuracy of the Bible?  Our churches would be stronger in this day and age if more believers had a fact-based robust evangelical bibliology.  We don’t have to wait for the next DaVinciCode-esque attack on the Bible, we can be reinforcing a proper view of the Bible through our preaching.

Consider, for example, Mark’s accurate knowledge of names and languages. The more we study, the more we discover that the gospels have exactly the pattern of names and languages we would expect them to have if they were true.  The more common names in Judea/Galilee at the time of Christ have qualifiers added to help the reader know which John (brother of James / son of Zebedee, or the baptizing one) or which Judas (brother of Jesus, Iscariot, or son of James).  On the other hand, no information needed to identify the Thaddeus (39th most popular name), or Philip (61st).   This may not seem that significant, but at that time, the 2nd most popular name among Jews in Palestine was 68th most popular in Egypt.  The writers (especially Matthew and Mark on this issue) demonstrate real accuracy in their choices of names and when to add clarification details – was this sophisticated research leading to accurate fiction, or was it just plain accurate history?

For another example, consider Mark’s knowledge of local languages. In 14:70 he knows local differences in accent.  In 5:41 he gives the correct Aramaic for that time and place (see also 7:11; 7:34).  In 11:9 he gives the right pronunciation for the locals saying “Hosanna,” rather than the Old Testament “Hoshiana” (in the Talmud the Rabbis apparently complain about the local crowd mispronouncing the “sh” as “s”).  Yet at the same time, Mark knows accurate Roman Latin – see 6:27 (speculator); 15:39 (centurio); 12:42 (quadrans) . . .  all details, but the kind of evidence you’d expect for an eyewitness testimony written in Rome.

As Peter Williams of Tyndale House, Cambridge, recently stated, “The gospels have exactly the pattern of names and languages we would expect them to have if they were true.  The pattern is too complex for an ancient forger to reproduce (it would be a level of sophistication never seen in antiquity!)”

(Thanks to Peter Williams for his great teaching on this subject, and he would point to Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses as a key source.)

Planning a Gospel Series – Four More Suggestions

Here are four more suggestions for planning a gospel series:

Decide how many messages the series will last, then select accordingly. You might only deal with a part of the gospel (such as the Upper Room Discourse).  You might select exemplary units that point to the flow in which they sit (such as Luke 19:1-10 with reference to the preceding flow of stories).  You might choose to preach larger chunks in order to cover the whole text in some way. 

Commit to learning the theology and terminology of whichever gospel writer you are preaching. Try to preach John in John’s terms and emphasizing John’s theology.  Luke has his own distinctive set of vocabulary.  Mark has his own style.  Try to let the details of the messages reflect the book from which they are taken. 

Preach the gospel you are in, not all four. Use cross-checks in a gospel harmony only to make sure you see what is emphasized in your focus gospel, and to make sure you don’t preach historical inaccuracy.  Avoid the temptation to preach the event rather than the text (the latter is inspired).

Try to plan the series to consistently reflect the uniqueness of the gospel. For instance, Matthew alternates between discourse and narrative sections – you might alternate messages from these sections (samples from within the two or three chapter chunks, or overview messages of those sections).

What other suggestions would you make for the effective planning of a gospel series?

Planning a Gospel Series – Four Suggestions

It is a good idea to preach a series from one of the gospels, but it is not easy to plan.  There are so many events, parables and teaching sections that a series which simply goes from one NIV heading to the next would last for years.  Here are some suggestions:

Get to grips with the gospel before you plan the series. Some good study in a gospel will give you a sense of the flow and structure, of the big themes, the major chunks and so on.  This will all help to plan the series creatively.

Recognize that individual units are strung together to make a broader point. As I presented here recently, Luke 18:9 reaches on through 19:10 at least.  Seeing how these units work together will help to understand the larger sweep of the book.

Wrestle with the flow of the whole. John’s themes of the deity of Christ, belief and life, recur throughout the book of signs, culminating in the climactic miracle of the raising of Lazarus.  Mark’s two overarching questions of who is Jesus and what does it mean to follow him control content throughout the gospel.  Once the disciples finally recognize and declare who Jesus is, they discover that they cannot have the Messiah without the cross – so in the end it is the climactic statement of the Centurion that pulls it all together.  Try to relate the parts to the whole so that the series has evidence of unity in the way it is presented.

Consider giving an overview sermon at the start and/or end of the series. This can really help listeners to see the flow of the whole and orient them to the message of the book.

Tomorrow I’ll add more, but I’d love to hear more input on this subject.

Preaching Easter (Pt3): Harmonization and the Gospels

Whenever we preach from the gospels we need to be aware that there may be up to four accounts of the story before us. In the past a great deal of emphasis was placed on harmonizing the gospel accounts. That is to say, placing all four side by side and seeking to combine them in order to have the “full” story. There is certainly a place for this practice, but how much of this should we concern ourselves with as preachers?

There are many elements in the Gospels that only appear in one gospel. In this case the issue of harmonization is largely irrelevant. But then there are events found in all of the gospels. The passion narrative, obviously, is found in all four.

Check all four gospels for accuracy in your preaching. If you are preaching from, say, Luke’s account, then it is helpful to check the other three. You wouldn’t want to undermine your preaching by telling the story in such a way that you make errors because you forgot to check the other gospels.

Preach the text rather than the event. Having checked the other gospels to make sure you are not presenting an error in your sermon, be sure to actually preach Luke’s account (or whichever you have as your preaching text). The gospel writers did not simply recount a transcript of a video taken the first Easter. They selectively chose the details to include in order to write an historically accurate theological presentation. Seek to preach the emphasis of the text you are in.

Review: Preaching the Gospel from the Gospels, by George Beasley-Murray


This book is far more a book on the Gospels than it is on preaching.  It would serve well as a reference tool for the gospels, having an accessible scripture index included.  Yet while not addressing homiletics very much, what it does is share a fundamental conviction that the gospels were written out of preaching, by preachers and are ideally suited to the contemporary preacher wishing to preach the truth of the gospel today.

George Beasley-Murray is a top gospels scholar.  This book was forty years in the writing, beginning as a series of lectures, then published, then revisited and rewritten in light of developments in the field.  Preaching the Gospel from the Gospels is an academic work with a door left open for ease of access for preachers.  While aware of aspects of form criticism, the historical Jesus quest, British and German scholarly traditions, etc. the book does not get weighed down with such matters. 

The book, as you might expect from a series of lectures, consists of five lengthy chapters.  The first chapter focuses on the relationship between preaching and the writing of the Gospels – it is worth the value of the book.  As Martin Dibelius said, “In the beginning was the sermon.” 

Certainly the evangelists were collectors and compilers of known stories, sayings and events of the life of Christ.  However, they were more than that.  Through the process of redaction they were theologians with unique and distinct emphases to bring out regarding the work and mission of Christ.  One great insight from redaction criticism is that of how the gospel was presented to a specific audience.  As we see the evangelists using the history for a specific group of people, there is scope for the modern evangelist to see how the story of the gospel can likewise be used for a different contemporary audience.

The remaining four chapters deal with the life, the miracles, the teaching and the parables of Jesus.  Each writer began conceptually with the resurrection of Christ, then told the story, theologically, according to their specific goals.  The stories from the life of Christ, such as the miracles, are designed with the gospel as central rather than appended.  The teaching and parables are grouped and explained in five categories each.

In conclusion Beasley-Murray finishes with a postscript that affirms Jesus himself to be the parable of God.  As such, the truth of His teaching is ultimately found in His person.  This would be true of the whole book – His parables, but also His miracles, His teaching, His life, His passion.  Jesus is the revelation of God.  In preaching Jesus, the gospel is preached.  I suppose the big message of the book is that you don’t have to hunt through the gospels to find a gospel message.  If the content of the gospels are preached faithfully to their original intent, then the gospel will be preached.