As we contemplate the Passion and Death of Our Lord on Good Friday there are some details which we must not allow to be blurred. The overwhelming majority of the world had absolutely no idea what was transpiring in Jerusalem on that day. But those who were involved in the incident knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that at the very least that they were murdering an innocent man, if not the Son of God Himself.
To begin with Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor who ultimately allowed Jesus to be crucified, knew that Jesus had committed no crime worthy of punishment at the hands of the Roman government, much less the death penalty. St. Luke makes this fact most clear in his account of Our Lord’s trial. In verse 4 of the 23 chapter, the evangelist tells us that “Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowd, ‘I find no fault in this Man.’” After that, Pilate did everything he could to shuffle along the responsibility for Jesus on to someone else. He sent Our Lord to Herod, hoping the he would see to the matter. Once Herod sent Our Lord back to Pilate, the Roman Governor hoped the crowd would relieve him of the responsibility. He offered them the choice of releasing either Barabbas or Jesus. The crowd would not oblige him and cried out for the murderous rebel. Finally, Pilate “said to [the crowd] the third time, ‘Why, what evil has He done? I have found no reason for death in Him.’” (23:22) Finally, were that not enough to relieve all doubt that Pilate knew that he was about to condemn an innocent man to his death, he calls for a bowl and symbolically washes his hands before crying out to the crowd, “I am innocent of the blood of this just Person.” (St. Matthew 27:24) By his own words, Pilate proclaims that he knew Our Lord was an innocent man.
Likewise, the Jews of the Sanhedrin knew that Jesus was an innocent man. Most people credit the Sanhedrin with trying to preserve the Israel from the radical preacher that was Jesus. This is giving them too much credit. Remember that they paid Judas Iscariot thirty pieces of in order to betray Our Lord and reveal His whereabouts. Judas knew he had done wrong when he told the chief priests and elders, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood,” (St. Matthew 27:4) yet the amazing fact is that the chief priests and elders agreed with him! Two verses later, St. Matthew tells us, “But the chief priests took the silver pieces and said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, because they are the price of blood.’” (v. 6) They could put the money into the Temple treasury because they knew Judas was right! The money was blood money from innocent blood. Even the chief priests and the elders knew that he had done nothing to deserve death and was an innocent man.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the revelation given to those who went to arrest Jesus. St. John tells us that “detachment of troops, and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees” came with Judas to apprehend Our Lord. (18:3) The interchange which happened next is incredible. St. John reveals that,
Jesus therefore, knowing all things that would come upon Him, went forward and said to them, “Whom are you seeking?”
They answered Him, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
Jesus said to them, “I am He.” And Judas, who betrayed Him, also stood with them. Now when He said to them, “I am He,” they drew back and fell to the ground. (18:4-6)
Typically, when using the New King James version of the Bible, I will un-italicize words which are in italics. The reason being that those who first put together the original King James Version inserted some words which were not in the text for the sake of clarification, a normal and completely understandable necessity in translation. Yet, in this case, I believe that they did an injustice to the text. You see, Our Lord did not really say, “I am he,” but rather He said, “I AM.”
He did not say some Aramaic version of “Oh, that’s me!” Our Lord invoked the Divine Name, the name which was spoken by God at the revelation to Moses in the Burning Bush. (Exodus 3:14) It was the same Divine Name which Jesus used when he address the Jews at the Temple saying “Abraham rejoiced to see My day.” The Jews argued with Him and Our Lord ultimate proclaimed, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (St. John 8:56, 58) In doing so, Our Lord was proclaiming that He was God. For this, the Jews tried to stone Him.
Now, in the Garden of Gethsemane, when the guards say they are seeking Jesus of Nazareth, Our Lord declares, “I AM,” and the guards “drew back and fell to the ground.” They were knocked down by two little words. Jesus invoked the Divine Name and the guards were driven to their knees! He proclaimed He was God and they fell to the ground! It is almost beyond fathoming that they arose again and still detained him. You cannot hold the position that they believed He was guilty, you cannot even maintain the possibility that they believed He was just a man. They knew otherwise. His invocation of the Divine Name blasted them to their knees! They knew; oh, yes, they knew.
As you meditate on Our Lord’s Passion and Death this Good Friday, hold out hope for Pilate, the chief priests, the elders, and the guards. May God, in His infinite mercy, have brought them to repentance before their ultimate judgment. Scripture is silent on the matter, but various traditions discuss the repentance of those involved. We may pity them, but let us not for a moment believe they were ignorant of what was going on around. They knew full well that they were damning an innocent man to a death on the cross. Some of them, miraculously, even knew He was every bit of who He said He was.