Six times in Luke 23 the author wants us to see that Jesus really was innocent, and this comes from the lips of four different people. Three times Pilate states that he found no guilt in Jesus (23:4, 14, 22). Sandwiched between the second and third of those concerned public declarations, Pilate tells the crowd of Herod’s verdict on this itinerant preacher: Jesus was not deserving of death, merely ridicule (23:15). Hanging alongside Jesus, staring death squarely in the face, a convicted criminal, guilty by his own admission, holds that Jesus had done no wrong (23:41). Finally we hear the shout of the Roman centurion, ‘This man was innocent’ (23:47). Luke wants us to see that the Innocent dies.
Despite Pilate’s exasperation and Herod trivializing the charges, it seemed nothing could stop the wheels of injustice that were in motion. You might ask, “Why?” The entire scene might sicken you. Perhaps, like the thief, the truth that an obviously innocent man dying for something he did not do causes you to become indignant, furious at how unfair this good man is treated. If that is how you feel then I think you have begun to understand this section of Luke’s gospel. The repeated point of Jesus’ innocence combined with the trial hurtling towards execution is paradoxical; the reader is left frustrated by the tension, the irreversible course of Jesus’ trial. The words of the thief and the centurion bring no comfort or hope; they do not alleviate the tension. Rather, with the death of the Innocent it seems that all is lost.
Are we meant to feel pity? Like we are too often forced to do today, we throw our arms up in despair as we are stunned by another case of gratuitous injustice, another miscarriage of legal system. Or maybe Luke intended to rouse and stir our hearts and emotions, as we are in awe of this valiant sufferer. He said nothing to Pilate; he gave no answer to the trumped up charges. On the cross he prayed for those who hated and scorned him; and he even offered a glorious vision of undying hope to the thief suffering alongside him. Are we left to choose between a picture of somber failure and a gallant renegade? Stanley Hauerwas highlights the singularity of Jesus’ death and cautions us against likening it to any other; the Innocent is no mere martyr. There is more we must gather from Luke’s gospel.
In the preceding chapter of Luke’s gospel we meet Jesus and hear his heart wrenching prayer on the Mount of Olives. This is the crucial backdrop to the Innocent being tried and abandoned at the cross. There on the Mount we hear an echo from Isaiah 53:10, ‘It was the LORD’s will to crush him.’ The Father’s will would be done (22:42). Derek Tidball makes the point that Jesus was not an unfortunate victim with bad timing; instead he says we should see Jesus’ death as the deliberate result of a number of powers. I think Jesus’ agonising plea for rescue, his weakness supplemented by an angel’s strenth, and the sweat like blood prevents us from saying that Jesus was bold before the death he was facing (22:42-44). At the Mount of Olives we meet a man with only one thing greater than his crippling fear: faith in God the Father.
With this point in mind I think that we can are better able to understand Luke’s intention: while Jesus’ death was the outworking of selfish and sinful men, manipulated by the destructive Satan, only one will prevailed at the cross: the Father’s. Jesus was not a victim tossed about by the evil engineering of men or the corrupting power of evil. He was the Innocent who dies according to the Father’s will in accordance with God’s promise to save those who are truly guilty and without hope. Jesus was not powerless in those last, fateful hours. It was not that the plans of men or Satan triumphed. That day was not an unflinching display of bravery, nor was it the unwitting and helpless death of weak man.
Luke wants us to see that the Innocent died for the guilty. And it could not have happened any other way because of the Father’s will and the Son’s faith.