The Counsel of Caiaphas



And one of them, named Caiapkas, being the highpriest that same year, said unto them: Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not.

S. John xi. 49, 50.
Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity, 1871.

Last Sunday I took as the subject of my sermon one of the principal agents in the passion of our Lord; to-day I purpose taking another. Last Sunday it was Judas; to-day it shall be Caiaphas. By the collusion of these two the result was attained, the death was compassed—fatal at once to Judas, fatal soon after to the Jewish priesthood, but bringing light and life and hope to untold generations of men and women yet unborn. Caiaphas spoke truly. It was expedient, though not as he understood it—not expedient for himself, the speaker, or for his order; not expedient for the Jewish priesthood or for the Jewish polity ; but expedient for the saving of the nations, that this one man should die.

And what a contrast between the two chief conspirators in this crime! Last Sunday we followed the history of an isolated individual cherishing a fatal passion in secret. We traced the temptations, the misgivings, the self-excuses, the dark windings of that single, silent, traitorous heart. Now we are thrown into the midst of an ecclesiastical assembly, with its many voices, its diverse counsels, its tumultuous passions, till at length the master-spirit by force of character, and prestige of office, and definiteness of purpose, sways it to his own view, and all unite in the resolution,' It is expedient for us, that one man—this one man—should die.' There we had the tempted; here we have the tempters. There we had the intimate friend, the chosen disciple, allured into the basest perfidy: here we have at least consistent enemies, who felt instinctively that the doctrine of this new Teacher must be fatal to their ascendency, and were only abiding their time to compass His destruction. And when the conspiracy is successful, and the deed is done, what a contrast still 1 Look at the agony of despair there; the heartless satisfaction here. 'I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood.' 'What is that to us? See thou to that.' It were almost better, we are tempted to think, to be like Judas crushed under the burden of that one unremitted sin, than like Caiaphas, and the colleagues of Caiaphas, rejoicing in the success of their criminal stratagem, and answering with a cold, cutting sneer the agonized remorse of their miserable dupe.

And I think too that in applying the lesson to ourselves, we feel something of this contrast. We cannot realise the crime of Judas; we repudiate it; we do not recognise any likeness to ourselves; we try to persuade ourselves that his history has no warning for us. His sin is so unique and monstrous. But, when we turn to the Jewish priesthood and the Jewish populace, the case is different. A secret misgiving arises in us that, if we had been there, we might have been found in the majority, nay, more probably than not, we should have been found in the majority. And a cold shudder creeps over us at the bare thought that, seated in that priestly gathering, we should have agreed with Caiaphas in the expediency of this one man's death; that, standing among that popular throng, we should have cried out to save Barabbas the robber, and to crucify Jesus the Christ.

Not that we have any sympathy with the counsel of Caiaphas. How could we have any? Even if no world-wide issues had depended on the result, even if He, Whose life was trembling in the balance, had been an ordinary man, still this counsel would have been base, utterly base. It was unjust; it did not even profess to take account of right or wrong; whether the accused deserved to die or not, was wholly beside the question; there was a political necessity, and to this He must be sacrificed; it was expedient for them that He should die. Again, it was untruthful; the reasons, which Caiaphas and those with him put forward, were not the reasons which influenced them in their secret heart. They pleaded the danger of a popular demonstration and the anger of the Romans in consequence. 'They will come and take away our place and nation.' But mark them at a later stage, and judge whether the avowed pretext was the real motive. Then it was Pilate, the Roman governor, who could have saved Jesus; while by clamour and threat and insult these chief-priests drove him against his inclinations and against his judgment to shed the innocent blood. Again it was based on a conspiracy. This assembly was a motley group, composed of various members differing on essential questions of doctrine, and agreed only on this one point, that this Galilean must at all hazards be put out of the way. The greater part were Pharisees; Caiaphas himself, and the heads of the priesthood, were Sadducees. The Pharisees believed in the immortality of the soul; the Sadducees denied it. Could any more vital difference be conceived? But now they made common cause. Jesus was hateful to both alike. He was hateful to the Pharisees; for He had denounced their pride, their formalism, their hypocrisy, their spiritual tyranny, in no measured language. He was hateful to the Sadducees; for the raising of Lazarus, wrought in the very suburbs of Jerusalem and attracting crowds from the city itself, was a flat refutation of their leading doctrine, the denial of a resurrection. So they conspired against Him. And lastly it was selfish, intensely and cruelly selfish; for why should He, the blameless Galilean teacher, He Who had ever inculcated obedience to the powers that be, Who had enjoined His hearers always to render to Caesar the things that are Csesar's—why should He be sacrificed—in pretence, that the whole nation might not perish: in reality, that they, the priests, they, the Pharisees—their order, their prestige, their interests, they themselves—might not suffer?

And now, when we look back on the act in the light of revelation, with the experience of time—now, when we realise the full significance of putting this one man, this Galilean carpenter, to death, the injustice, the hypocrisy, the collusion, the selfishness, the baseness of the deed excite a repulsion and an abhorrence which no words can describe.

And yet, notwithstanding our abhorrence of the crime, we are half-forced to acknowledge that we, with the Jewish priests, with the Jewish mob, might have been partners in the guilt, that we with them might even have claimed as a privilege the responsibility of the act; 'His blood be on us, and on our children'—words lightly spoken then, words terribly significant afterwards.

Nay, we feel a half inclination to palliate their conduct. Their religious feelings were excited; their leaders worked upon their fears and their fanaticism; what was first the deliberate counsel of a few bold spirits was accepted as the thoughtless resolution of all. They did that collectively, which they would have shrunk from doing individually.

There is something inexpressibly shocking in the thought that the injustice and the wickedness of a large assembly—even of a deliberative assembly—is greater than the injustice and the wickedness of an individual. Yet so it is. The passionate are excited; the timid are silenced; the immoral feel themselves shielded from any evil consequences by numbers; the more moral calm their consciences by pleading divided responsibility.

Yes, here is the crowning delusion. A divided responsibility! How can you divide your responsibility? Is there any other man, or any other body of men, master of your conscience, or you of theirs? You may have the majority with you, or you may have it against you; but for your voice, your sentiment, your vote, you will give as strict an account before the All-righteous and All-seeing Judge, as though it had stood alone, as though it singly were the sole arbiter of the event. He, who raises his voice for the murder of a man, is equally a murderer, though it be drowned in ten thousand others, clamouring for the same man's death. Does not the law itself teach this? When a conspiracy to commit a crime is proved, it treats the conspirators as all guilty; it does not divide the legal penalty into so many fractions and apportion one to each; but it visits all alike with the full punishment due to that crime. Apply this righteous principle then to responsibilities of members composing an assembly. If as a member of a board you vote for an unrighteous or oppressive measure, because your party puts some pressure upon you; if as a member of a synod you condemn or denounce the innocent, because it is expedient for your Church or your order that he should be condemned; if as a member of a body of electors you vote for an unfit or a less fit candidate, because your interests or your fears prevail with you; if as a member of a trades S. P. S. 6

union you consent to or connive at an act of violence and tyranny against a fellow-workman or an employer, because you do not like to go against the rest of your class; then be assured, that for that unrighteous measure, for that unjust verdict, for that unfit election, for that act of coercion, you are equally guilty as though it were your own doing, for you have made it your own. In that forest of uplifted hands your hand may have passed unnoticed; in that hubbub of clamorous voices your voice may have been unheard; but be assured it has gone up to heaven— clear and distinct, with all its individuality, with all its peculiar emphasis—as though it had startled the silence and awakened the echoes in the solitude of a desert.

'But,' you will say, 'let all this be granted; suppose that I feel the full responsibility of my individual vote, yet what safeguard can I have that I should not have gone wrong, conscientiously wrong, in such a case as this? Here was prestige, authority, office on one side. The priests, the rulers, the rabbis, recommended this course. Could I refuse to obey those who sat in Moses' seat?'

To this the obvious answer is; that the cause which pleads, ' It is expedient,' and cannot plead, ' It is right, it is just, it is true,' must be bad, by whatever authority it may be recommended. Though an angel from heaven should preach this doctrine to you, yet hold it accursed. No expediency can make the condemnation of the innocent right .

'But the religious question—the doctrine of Jesus and the doctrine of the Pharisees—how judge between these? What faculty is given to me, what faculty had these Jews, by which they could discriminate between the two? Was it not excusable, was it not natural, nay, was it wrong, to follow constituted authority and time-honoured prescription here?'

Yes, give its proper weight to authority, to prescription; and yet show we you a more excellent way. There are times, when God wills to break down the barriers of the past, to lead men into unexplored fields of truth, in short to give them a new revelation. The crisis, of which we are speaking, was one of these— the most momentous of them all. At such times the hearts of the thoughtful and conscientious and devout will be filled with anxiety. At such times authority fails, and reason fails, and liberalism fails. The only safe guides, counsellors, confessors, are love and the Spirit.

To the Pharisees both these were wanting. Love was the fulfilling of the law: and yet they saw in the law only a rigid system, which gave into their sole keeping the keys of heaven, which enabled them to bind on men's shoulders a burden too heavy for them to bear. Love is the mind of God; and those who have no love cannot enter into His mind, cannot read His purposes. Love is that electric sympathy, which finds its like, which is drawn by a natural attraction to whatever is lovely and beautiful and good. The mission, the words, the life, the love, of Christ spoke to the loving heart. They spoke to Peter and to John and to Nathanael, to Israelites without guile, in tones clear enough. But to Caiaphas and to the Pharisees they were inarticulate, unmeaning—to Caiaphas, the cold and heartless, who for his own selfish ends ruthlessly put the innocent One to death; to the Pharisees, the proud and self-complacent, who devoured widows' houses, while for a pretence they made long prayers.

And the close ally of love is the Spirit. I use the term as opposed to the letter, the form. I mean that faculty, which pierces the outside shell, and discovers the hidden soul of things. I mean that habit of mind, for which mere formalities without any accompanying idea are valueless, which seeks to endow all its acts with a meaning, a reality, a life. Time was when the strict observances of the Pharisees were not mere formalities. At a great national crisis the Pharisees had banded themselves together to resist aggression from foreign tyrants; they had set themselves to preserve the commandments of the Law and the teachings of the Old Testament intact against the degrading polytheism and the low morality of the surrounding nations. To effect this, it was necessary to be strict, over-strict, in ceremonial observances. Thus they had deserved well of their country: they had wrought and suffered in the cause of true religion. This we must not forget. But lapse of time, and change of circumstance, and increase of worldliness had done their work; and while the forms remained, the spirit had gone; just as one will go on repeating the hymn learnt long ago at the mother's knee year after year in a heartless, listless, unmeaning way, because through indifference and apathy he has allowed the cold shadow of the world to deepen upon him, and has neglected to renew his spiritual faculties from day to day at the source of all true freshness of life, at the fountain of the Holy Spirit.

Only by the spiritual faculty are things spiritual discerned. To the Pharisees their rabbinical learning, their strict observances, their religious zeal, were useless here. Their spiritual vision had been blinded by long disuse, and they could not see.

So will it be with us. Without love, without the Spirit, we cannot judge aright. When the alternative is offered, we shall blindly follow the counsel of Caiaphas; we shall prefer Barabbas the robber to Jesus the Christ; and in a moment of recklessness, perhaps in an excess of religious zeal, we shall crucify the Son of God afresh.

Man proposes, but man cannot dispose. Man devises means, but man cannot control the event. God takes our rough-hewn counsels and shapes them to His finer ends. He uses the worldly ambition of one prince for the overthrow of idolatry, the selfish profligacy of another for the establishment of a reformation. The injustice and the cruelty and the arrogance, the scheming and the success of Caiaphas are supple as clay in His hands.

'It is expedient, that one man should die.' We all acknowledge the truth of this prophecy, as the Evangelist acknowledged it. But what would Caiaphas himself have said if he had foreseen the result? I turn over the pages of history, and I find that a few years after these words were uttered, Caiaphas was deposed from the high-priesthood by these very Romans whom he was so very eager to conciliate. I look further, and I read that some thirty years later still, while many present at this council of priests and Pharisees were yet living, the Romans did come and take away both their place and nation; and this, because in place of believing on the true Christ Whose kingdom was not of this world, Who commanded to give tribute to Csesar, they chose as their leaders false Messiahs, political adventurers, whose schemes of earthly dominion were dangerous to the power and the majesty of Rome.

So it is that God takes our selfish, arrogant, empty utterances, and fills them with a meaning of His own. A powerful European people only the other day, having declared war against a neighbouring nation and thirsty with the greed of conquest, sped forth its departing armies on their errand of expected victory with cries, 'To the enemy's capital.' To the enemy's capital they indeed go; but they go as prisoners, not as conquerors. By a Divine irony the letter of their wishes is granted; the substance is withheld. They entered upon the war with a light heart; they came out of the war in much sorrow and heaviness, their finances broken, their armies destroyed, their empire curtailed, their prestige and their supremacy gone.

Thus an overruling providence guided and interpreted the words of Caiaphas. Moreover there was eminent fitness in the witness chosen for this prophetic announcement. 'This he spake,' says the Evangelist, 'not of himself, but being highrpriest that year.' To him as high-priest the duty pertained of offering the yearly sacrifice of atonement, and entering within the veil to make intercession for the people. That year —the year in which he spoke, the year of all years, the acceptable year of God—the one great Atoning Victim was offered, in Whom these continually recurring sacrifices were abolished at once and for ever, Who was Himself' a full, perfect, and sufficient Sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.' By the iniquitous counsel of Caiaphas the Victim was slain; by the unconscious testimony of Caiaphas the Atonement was foretold. In this exercise of his high-priestly functions the irony of Divine providence was complete. The wisdom of God triumphed over the passions and the follies of men.

But let us turn for a moment, before we part, to another scene. Let us leave the conspirators, and let us seek the Victim. At the very time, when these priests and Pharisees were holding their latest assemblies and perfecting the designs of Caiaphas, He with His chosen few has retired from that last supper to the solitary garden, and there, in the stillness of the night, bowed down with agony is pouring out His soul to God.

Look at the contrast. Against the overbearing insolence of Caiaphas, 'Ye know nothing at all,' set the perfect resignation of Christ, 'Not My will, but Thine be done.' Against the selfish and cruel policy of Caiaphas,' It is expedient for us—for you and for me—that one man should die,' set the absolute renunciation of Christ, 'I lay down My life for My sheep.' 'It is expedient for you, that I go away.'

The law of life with Caiaphas is to sacrifice others to himself; the law of life with Christ is to sacrifice Himself for others. Could any contrast more complete be imagined? Was it possible that Caiaphas could be other than the determined antagonist, the relentless persecutor, of Christ?

And to you and to me—to every member of this congregation—the alternative is offered, and the choice must be made. Do you adopt as your guide in life the rule of Caiaphas, or the rule of Christ? If the former, then you will endeavour to get through life easily, to avoid everything that is inconvenient and unpleasant, to throw your burdens on other men's shoulders, to give as little and to take as much as you can; and, if you are clever, you may get the reward you seek; you may be successful, as the world counts success; you may secure ease or pleasure or position. But I know that no one here would consciously and deliberately reject the better and choose the worse. I know that, however specious may be the suggestions of a so-called utilitarian doctrine, however strong and however over-mastering may be your individual temptations to selfishness in practice, still the spirit and the conscience of everyone here would revolt against the baser alternative. You do acknowledge—you cannot help acknowledging—in your heart of hearts that it is better to live for others than to live for yourselves, it is higher and nobler to suffer for others than to let others suffer for you. If you acknowledge it, then practise it. Spurn the counsel of Caiaphas henceforward in your conduct, as you have spurned it already in your conscience. Leave Caiaphas to his selfish intrigues and his transient successes. And follow the Son of Man, Who went about not receiving but doing good, notwithstanding His troubles and His failures. Choose the better part at once. As you go home this afternoon, determine by God's grace that you will devote yourself more unselfishly to those, with whom your existence is bound up. Search out at once some dark spot in the life of parent, or child, or brother, or friend, or neighbour, which may be made purer, brighter and happier by your care. Begin with this, and from this beginning go on; that so, advancing daily step by step on the path of self-denial, you may at length confess with perfect conviction and with heartfelt gratitude, that it is indeed ' more blessed to give than to receive.'