He ranked highest in authority second only to Adolf Hitler. He helped orchestrate the ‘Night of the Long Knives,’ a night when Nazi police forces murdered political rivals. He approved torching Jewish businesses and synagogues, arresting tens of thousands of Jews, and imposing massive financial penalties on Jewish communities. He even helped craft the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ by establishing and feeding concentration camps. As Reichsmarschall of the Luftwaffe, he led bombing missions against Poland, Austria, France, and Britain. Now, he stood trial in Nuremberg, Germany, accused of committing crimes against humanity, war crimes, and waging a war of aggression. When asked ‘How does the defendant plead?’ Herman Goering barked at the judge: ‘Nein! Not Guilty!’
You see, according to Goering, the Third Reich achieved much. The Nazis reunified Germany. Massive unemployment became massive employment. The standard of living improved. Germany’s flourishing economy gained worldwide respect. Goering even claimed to have served as a peace-promoting diplomat. So, the reason for his plea of innocence? As a Nazi officer of an organized government, he simply obeyed orders. That, Goering claimed, is not illegal. His perceived criminal activity must be permitted because the one who gave the orders committed the crime.
His flimsy defense fell flat.
Goering’s rationale may get some chuckles— but, for a moment, dig into his logic. What drives him to spew out such worthless excuses? The question is easier to answer than you might think.
For the next six Wednesdays we will meet opponents of truth. Each adversary confronts undeniable truth, but still denies accountability. A man named Caiaphas tries covering over evil with seemingly innocent advice: ‘It is Better for One Man to Die.’
Listen to his argument: Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”
Caiaphas (and the rest of the Jewish council) battle a crisis! Jesus just raised a dead man to life! Lazarus had died. Doctors declare him dead. Morticians prepared a body. The undertaker set a lifeless body inside the tomb. Relatives mourn for three days. Still, Jesus commands: ‘Lazarus, Come out!’— and Lazarus walks out alive! (read John 11:17-44)
No one can deny these events! Attentions zip from Lazarus to Jesus. That powerful miracle demonstrates that Jesus holds power over life and death, just like God does! If God controls life and death and Jesus controls life and death, then you reach this conclusion: Jesus is God. So, many put their faith in him (11:45). Many clung to his teachings, relied on his Words, and set their hearts around his forgiveness.
The Jewish council watches this wave of support wash over to Jesus. Instead of joining Jesus, they complain: ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation’ (11:48). Do you see the reason for their hesitation? Not only do these leaders lose the support of people, but if Jesus is truly God, then they must obey him. Caiaphas and everyone else must submit to Jesus’ teachings and his authority.
They resent that! Jesus does not meet their preconceived notions of what they want from a Messiah. Catch that? The leaders already had their minds made up as to what they expect from God. They want a politician, not a teacher who exposes their proud, corrupt hearts. They want power and respect, not accusations targeting their greed for wealth and power. They want influence, not submission to God’s condemning Law. Every single opponent confronts this undeniable truth: Jesus is God. Still, every stubborn heart rejects that truth. Personal desires sit on top of God. As for Jesus, he interferes with their quest for pleasure. So, out comes Caiaphas’ foolish defense: ‘It is Better for One Man to Die.’
It sounds innocent. Kill Jesus and save the nation! Protect the people! Yet, really, it is far more convenient to kill what you do not wish to hear. It seems an effective way to silence undeniable truth!
After all, God’s truth stands quite clear: ‘Live self-controlled.’ Confront that undeniable truth and out comes flimsy excuses: ‘Yes, I know, I’m not perfect, but God, you should see my alcoholic neighbor. You should visit the meth-head. My parents fight. My brother really loses his temper. God, there’s a lot worse people than me.’ God’s Word convicts hearts, but the heart tries to squirm out from under that crushing law. We may actually believe that God is happier with us because others have more noticeable weaknesses— and because of that, God suddenly should overlook our failures.
We can silence God’s convicting Word by fabricating seemingly-acceptable reasons as to why we had to break God’s commands. ‘Yes, God, you want marriage, but …we don’t much money …our arrangement works the same as marriage …our parents divorced.’ ‘Yes, God, I should rely on you to provide, but I just don’t have the money I think I should.’ ‘Yes, God, you want gentle words, but my kids are to blame for fueling my anger.’ What about this? Are you here tonight because it is Ash Wednesday, a significant day in the Lenten season? Do you feel as though this day is very important to God? Do you feel you fulfill some religious obligation? No? Then, will you be here again next week (and the week after, and so on)? Or, are you making excuses as to why that is not possible? The heart actually thinks God accepts excuses— he accepts excuses because we want that to be true! Since we have determined this is how God functions! Then, we can keep doing evil and still look morally good!
The heart fights to remove an inconvenient Jesus from our lifestyles. It feels as though he interferes with our fleshly pursuit for pleasure. We do not like hearing that we are wrong. We do not like hearing Jesus condemn us. We do not want consequences for our foolish choices. Our stubborn hearts heart refuse to bow under our undeniable shortcomings. It refuses to accept God’s accurate accusations. Instead, we want God to conform to our list of demands.
Like Caiaphas, the heart cries: ‘It is Better for One Man to Die!’ How foolish! Get rid of Jesus and live however you wish in this world. Get rid of Jesus and you remove the only One able to bring life with God! The foolish rebel removes Jesus.
Denial does not make truth go away. God knows about this secret meeting. He controls this secret meeting. He even put his words in Caiaphas’ mouth: ‘It is Better for One Man to Die.’ The willing Substitute gathers his children.
[Caiaphas] did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So from that day on they plotted to take his life.
God’s plan always involved Jesus. That’s the reason Jesus comes. From Adam and Eve up to this very moment, hearts have wandered from their heavenly Father. Just like sheep, each of us has gone astray, even believing our disobedience carries no consequences. Just like sheep, each of us has turned to his own way, even thinking that God takes orders from us! This way of life brings a terrible reality: separation from God! That’s an undeniable truth.
That’s the undeniable truth from which Jesus rescues us. He allows himself arrested, falsely accused, and sentenced. He allows himself rejected, thrown away, crucified. He willingly sets himself under God’s angry fury in our place. He absorbs the entire punishment, hanging forsaken and cut off from God. He is thrown into death, laid in a tomb with a stone sealing the door shut.
Caiaphas wanted Jesus dead for the good of many. In his mind, he is willing to extinguish the Light of the world for his own self-interests. In reality, Jesus dying means our freedom. Because here’s another undeniable truth: Jesus is God. He powerfully dominates death, he rises to life. Jesus even powerfully dominates our death, making our lives eternal. Even more, he gathers our once-scattered hearts into his one believing nation.
Although rejected, the willing Substitute gathers his children. Us gathering tonight is evidence of God’s kept promise. The Holy Spirit has brought our hearts into one united trust that Jesus alone cleanses moral filth and makes us acceptable before the Father. That same Holy Spirit creates in us a new heart. Not a heart chasing self-centered pursuits, but a heart that pursues God’s commands. Not a heart excusing actions, but a heart broken over sin and rejoicing in God’s healing pardon. Not a heart making up what it wants from God, but a heart which loves listening to the Lord of love.
What a reason to be here tonight! To once again be reminded that God does not accept excuses. He does not accept ‘close enough.’ He accepts Jesus. He accepts you (and me) because of Jesus. The willing Substitute gathers his children.
For the next five Wednesdays we will continue meeting opponents of truth. Each adversary confronts undeniable truth, but still denies accountability. A man named Caiaphas tries covering over evil with seemingly innocent advice: ‘It is Better for One Man to Die.’
Only the foolish rebel removes Jesus. This is the purpose for Lent; this is the reason we are here. We, too, were once those foolish rebels, but now, everything has changed. The willing Substitute gathers his children. Ash Wednesday might be behind us, but Lent is not. As those gathered to Jesus, we keep gathering to thank our God! What a wonderful truth God has us hear: ‘It is Better for One Man to Die.’