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Vol. 1, Sermon 9 - Caiaphas's View of Vicarious Sacrifice

By Frederick W. Robertson


      Preached November 5, 1849

      "And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high-priest 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. And this spake he not of himself: but being high-priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation; and not for that nation only, but that also be should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad. Then from that day forth they took counsel together to put him to death." - John 11:49-53.

      On this occasion, the first resolution passed the Jewish Sanhedrim to compass the death of Jesus. The immediate occasion of their meeting was the fame of the resurrection of Lazarus. There were many causes which made the Saviour obnoxious to the priests and Pharisees. If that teaching were once received, their reign was over: a teaching which abolished the pretensions of a priesthood, by making every man his own priest, to offer spiritual sacrifices to God - which identified religion with Goodness - making spiritual excellence, not ritual regularity, the righteousness which God accepts - which brought God within the reach of the sinner and the fallen - which simplified the whole matter by making religion a thing of the heart, and not of rabbinical learning or theology: - such teaching swept away all the exclusive pretensions of Pharisaism, made the life which they had been building up with so much toil for years time wasted, and reduced their whole existence to a lie.

      This was the ground of their hatred to the Son of Man. But this was not the ground which they put forward. He was tried chiefly on the charge of treason a against the Emperor; and the argument by which the mind of the judge was principally swayed was, "If thou let this man go, thou art not Caesar's friend." The present passage contains the first trace of the adoption of that ground. "If we let him alone, the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation."

      Be it observed, then, the real ground of opposition was hatred of the light. The ostensible ground was patriotism, public zeal, loyalty, far-sighted policy; and such is life. The motive on which a deed of sin is done is not the motive which a man allows to others, or whispers to himself Listen to the criminal receiving sentence, and the cause of condemnation is not the enormity of the crime, but the injustice of the country's law. Hear the man of disorderly life, whom society has expelled from her bosom, and the cause of the expulsion is not his profligacy, but the false slander which has misrepresented him. Take his own account of the matter, and he is innocent - injured - pure. For there are names so tender, and so full of fond endearment, with which this world sugars over its dark guilt towards God, with a crust of superficial whiteness, that the sin on which eighteen centuries have looked back appalled was, to the doers of that sin, nothing atrocious, but respectable, defensible, nay even, under the circumstances, necessary.

      The judgment of one of these righteous murderers was given in remarkable terms. Apparently there were some in the council, such men as Nicodemus, who could not acquiesce in the view given of the matter. Doubtless they allowed the unfairness of the proceeding, and the innocence of the accused; upon which Caiaphas replied, "Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not." The remarkable point in this judgment is, that it contained the very central doctrine of Christianity: unconsciously, Caiaphas had uttered the profoundest of all truths, the necessity of the innocent suffering for the guilty. He had stated it in the very words which St. John could have himself adopted. But they meant one thing in the lips of holy Love, and quite another thing in the lips of tyrannical Policy. Yet St. John, contemplating that sentence years after, could not but feel that there was something in the words deeper than met the ear - a truth almost inspired, which he did not hesitate to call prophetic. "Being high-priest that year, he prophesied."

      We must not, therefore, call this merely a singular coincidence. It was the same truth viewed from different sides: the side of Caiaphas, and the side of John; the side of the world, and the side of God. That truth was the vicarious sacrifice of Christ.

      And there are two ways in which you may contemplate that sacrifice. Seen from the world's point of view, it is unjust, gross, cruel. Seen as John saw it, and as God looks at it, it was the sublimest of all truths; one which so entwines itself with our religious consciousness, that you might as soon tear from us our very being, as our convictions of the reality of Christ's atonement. Our subject, then, is the vicarious sacrifice of Christ. The words of Caiaphas contain a formal falsehood and a material truth: the outward statement, and an inspired or prophetic inward verity - so that the subject branches into two topics:

      I. The human form, in which the words are false.

      II. The divine principle or spirit, in which they are true.

      I. The human form, in which the words are false.

      Vicarious means in the stead of. When the Pope calls himself the vicar of Christ, he means that he is empowered in the stead of Christ to absolve, decree, etc. When we speak of vicarious suffering, we mean that suffering which is endured in another's stead, and not as the sufferer's own desert.

      1.The first falsity in the human statement of that truth of vicarious sacrifice is its injustice. Some one said the accused is innocent. The reply was, Better that one should die than many. "It is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not." It was simply with Caiaphas a question of numbers: the unjust expediency of wresting the law a little to do much apparent good. The reply to that was plain. Expediency can not obliterate right and wrong. Expediency may choose the best possible when the conceivable best is not attainable; but in right and wrong there is no better and best. Thou shalt not do wrong. Thou must not: you may not tell a lie to save life. Better that the whole Jewish nation should perish, than that a Jewish legislature should steep its hand in the blood of one innocent. It is not expedient to do injustice.

      There are cases in which it is expedient to choose the sacrifice of one instead of that of many. When a whole army or regiment has mutinied, the commander, instead of general butchery, may select a few to perish as examples to the rest. There is nothing here unjust. The many escape, but the few who die deserve to die. But no principle could justify a commander in selecting an innocent man, condemning him by unjust sentence, and affecting to believe that he was guilty,' while the transgressors escaped, and learned the enormity of their transgressions by seeing execution done upon the guiltless. No principle can justify - nothing can do more than palliate the conduct of the ship's crew the raft who slay one of their number to support their existence on his flesh. No man would justify the parent, pursued in his chariot by wolves over Siberian snows, who throws out one of his children to the pack, that the rest may escape while their fangs are buried in their victim. You feel at once expediency has no place here. Life is a trifle compared with law. Better that all should perish by a visitation of God, than that they should be saved by one murder.

      I do not deny that this aspect has been given to the sacrifice of Christ. It has been represented as if the majesty of law demanded a victim: and, so as it glutted its insatiate thirst, one victim would do as well as another - the purer and the more innocent the better. It has been exhibited as if Eternal Love resolved in fury to strike, and so as He had His blow, it mattered not whether it fell on the whole world, or on the precious head of His own chosen Son,

      Unitarianism has represented the Scriptural view in this way, or, rather perhaps, we should Say, it has been so represented to Unitarians - and, from a view so horrible, no wonder if Unitarianism has recoiled. But it is not our fault if some blind defenders of the truth have converted the self-devotion of love into a Brahminical sacrifice. If the work of redemption be defended by parallels drawn from the most atrocious records and principles of heathenism, let not the fault be laid upon the Bible. We disclaim that as well as they. It makes God a Caiaphas. It makes Him adopt the words of Caiaphas in the sense of Caiaphas. It represents Him in terms which better describe the ungoverned rage of Saul, missing his stroke at David, who has offended, and in disappointed fury dashing his javelin at his own son Jonathan.

      You must not represent the Atonement as dependent on the justice of unrighteous expediency.

      2.This side of viewing the truth was the side of selfishness. It was not even the calm resolve of men balancing whether it be better for one to die or many, but whether it is better that He or we should perish. It is conceivable in the case supposed above, that a parent in the horrible dilemma should be enough bewildered to resolve to sacrifice ,one rather than lose all ; but it is not conceivable that the doubt in his mind should be this - Shall I and the rest perish or this one? - yet this was the spirit in which the party of Caiaphas spoke. "The Romans will come and take away our place and our nation."

      And this spirit, too, is in human nature. The records of antiquity are full of it. If a fleet could not sail, it was assumed that the deities were offended. The purest and tenderest maiden of the royal household was selected to bleed upon the altar: and when the sharp knife passed to her innocent heart, this was the feeling in the bosoms of those stern and unrelenting warriors - of the blood and of the stock of Caiaphas - Better she should suffer than we.

      This may be the way in which the sacrifice of Christ is regarded by us. There is a kind of acquiescence in the Atonement which is purely selfish. The more bloody the representation of the character of God, the greater, of course, the satisfaction in feeling sheltered from it. The more wrath instead of love is believed to be the Divine name, the more may a man find joy in believing that he is safe. It is the feeling of the Siberian story: the innocent has glutted the wolves, and we may pursue our journey in safety. Christ has suffered, and I am safe. He bore the agony - I take the reward: I may now live with impunity: and, of course, it is very easy to call acquiescence in that arrangement humility, and to take credit for the abnegation of self-righteousness: but whoever can acquiesce in that thought chiefly in reference to personal safety, and, without desiring to share the Redeemer's cross, aspire to enjoy the comforts and the benefits of the Redeemer's sacrifice, has but something of the spirit of Caiaphas after all, the spirit which contentedly sacrifices another for self-selfishness assuming the form of wisdom.

      II. We pass to the prophetic or hidden spirit in which these words are true.

      I observe, first, that vicarious sacrifice is the Law of Being. It is a mysterious and fearful thing to observe how all God's universe is built upon this law, how it penetrates and pervades all Nature, so that if it were to cease, Nature would cease to exist. Hearken to the Saviour himself expounding this principle: "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." We are justified, therefore, in assuming the Law of Nature to be the Law of His own Sacrifice, for He himself represents it as the parallel.

      Now observe this world of God's. The mountain-rock must have its surface rusted into putrescence and become dead soil before the herb can grow. The destruction of the mineral is the life of the vegetable. Again the same process begins. The "corn of wheat dies," and out of death more abundant life is born. Out of the soil in which deciduous leaves are buried, the young tree shoots vigorously, and strikes its roots deep down into the realm of decay and death. Upon the life of the vegetable world, the myriad forms of higher life sustain themselves - still the same law, the sacrifice of life to give life. Farther still: have we never pondered over that mystery of nature - the dove struck down by the hawk - the deer trembling beneath the stroke of the lion - the winged fish falling into the jaws of the dolphin? It is the solemn law of vicarious sacrifice again. And as often as man sees his table covered with the flesh of animals slain, does he behold, whether lie think of it or not, the deep mystery and law of being. They have surrendered their innocent lives that he may live.

      Nay, farther still: it is as impossible for man to live as it is for man to be redeemed, except through vicarious suffering. The anguish of the mother is the condition of the child's life. His very being has its roots in the law of sacrifice ; and from his birth onward, instinctively this becomes the law which rules his existence. There is no blessing which was ever enjoyed by man which did not come through this. There was never a country cleared for civilization, and purified of its swamps and forests, but the first settlers paid the penalty of that which their successors enjoy. There never was a victory won, but the conquerors who took possession of the conquest passed over the bodies of the noblest slain, who died that they might win.

      Now observe, all this is the law obeyed, either unconsciously or else instinctively. But in the redemption of our humanity, a moment comes when that law is recognized as the will of God adopted consciously, and voluntarily obeyed as the law of man's existence. Then it is that man's true nobleness, his only possible blessedness, and his redemption from blind instincts and mere selfishness, begin. You may evade that law - you may succeed in living as Caiaphas did, sacrificing others instead of yourself - and men will call you wise, and prudent, and respectable. But you are only a Caiaphas: redeemed you are not. Your proper humanity has not begun.

      The highest Man recognized that law, and joyfully embraced it as the law of His existence. It was the consciousness of His surrender to that as God's will, and the voluntariness of the act, which made it sacrifice. Hear Him: "No man taketh my life from me. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again." "This commandment have I received from my Father." Had he been by the wiles of Caiaphas simply surprised and dragged struggling and reluctant to doom, He would have been a victim, but not a sacrifice; He would have been an object of our compassion, but by no means of our admiring wonder. It was the foresight of all the result of His opposition to the world's sin, and His steady uncompromising, battle against it notwithstanding, in every one of its forms, knowing, that He must be its victim at the last, which prevented His death from being merely the death of a lamb slain unconsciously on Jewish altars, and elevated it to the dignity of a true and proper sacrifice.

      We go beyond this, however. It was not merely a sacrifice, it was a sacrifice for sin. "His soul was made an offering for sin." Neither was it only a sacrifice for sin - it was a sacrifice for the world's sin. In the text, "that Jesus should die for that nation; and not for that nation only, but that also He should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad."

      Two ideas are necessary to be distinctly apprehended by us in order to understand that: the first is the notion of punishment, the second is the idea of the world's sin.

      By punishment is simply meant the penalty annexed to transgression of a law. Punishment is of two kinds: the penalty which follows ignorant transgression, and the chastisement which ensues upon willful disobedience. The first of these is called imputed guilt, the second is actual guilt. By imputed guilt is meant, in theological language, that a person is treated as if he were guilty: if, for example, you approach too near the whirling wheel of steam machinery, the mutilation which follows is the punishment of temerity. If the traveller ignorantly lays his hand on the cockatrice's den, the throb of the envenomed fang is the punishment of his ignorance. He has broken a law of nature, and the guilt of the infection is imputed to him; there is penalty, but there is none of the chastisement which follows sin. His conscience is not made miserable. He only suffers.

      Farther, according to the constitution of this world, it is not only our own transgressions of ignorance, but besides, the faults of others, which bring pain and sorrow on us. The man of irritable and miserably nervous temperament owes that often to a father's intemperance. Many a man has to struggle all his life with the penury which he reaps as the harvest of a distant ancestor's extravagance. In the strictest sense of the word, these are punishments - the consequences annexed to transgression : and, in the language of theology, they are called imputed guilt. But there is an all-important distinction between them and the chastisements of personal iniquity. If a man suffer ill health or poverty as the results of his own misconduct, his conscience forces him to refer this, to the wrath of God. He is reaping as he had sown, and, the miseries of conscious fault are added to his penalty. But if such things come as the penalty of the wrong of others, then, philosophically though you may call them punishment, in the popular sense of the word they are no punishments at all, but rather corrective discipline, nay, even richest blessings, if they are received from a Father's hand, and transmuted by humbleness into the means of spiritual growth.

      Apply all this to the sacrifice of Christ. Let no man say that Christ bore the wrath of God. Let no man say that God was angry with His Son. We are sometimes told of a mysterious anguish which Christ endured, the consequence of Divine wrath, the sufferings of a heart laden with the conscience of the world's transgressions which He was bearing as if they were His own sins. Do not add to the Bible what is not in the Bible. The Redeemer's conscience was not bewildered to feel that as His own which was not His own. He suffered no wrath of God. Twice came the voice from heaven, "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." There was seen an angel strengthening Him. Nay, even to the last, never did the consciousness of purity and the Father's love forsake Him. "Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit."

      Christ came into collision with the world's evil, and He bore the penalty of that daring. He approached the whirling wheel, and was torn in pieces. He laid His hand upon the cockatrice's den, and its fangs pierced Him. It is the law which governs the conflict with evil. It can be only crushed by suffering from it. . . . . The Son of man who puts His naked foot on the serpent's head, crushes it: but the fang goes into His heel.

      The Redeemer bore imputed sin. He bore the penalty of others' sin. He was punished. Did He bear the anger of the Most High? Was His the hell of an accusing conscience? - In the name of Him who is God, not Caiaphas, never. Something more, however, is necessary to complete our notion of punishment. It is a right estimate of law. We are apt to think of punishment as something quite arbitrary, which can be remitted or changed at will. Hence we almost always connect it with the idea of wrath; hence, the heathen tried to bribe and coax their deities to spare; and hence the sacrifice of Christ comes to be looked upon in the light of a sagacious or ingenious contrivance, a mere "scheme" of redemption.

      Now remember what law is. The moral laws of this universe are as immutable as God Himself Law is the Being of God. God can not alter those laws: He can not make wrong right. He can not make truth falsehood, nor falsehood truth. He can not make sin blessed, nor annex hell to innocence. Law moves on its majestic course irresistible. If His chosen Son violates law, and throws Himself from the pinnacle, He dies. If you resist a law of the universe in its eternal march, the universe crushes you, that is all. Consider what law is, and then the idea of bloody vengeance passes; away altogether from the sacrifice. It is not "an eye for an eye," and "a tooth for a tooth," in the sanguinary spirit of the old retaliatory legislation. It is the eternal impossibility of violating that law of the universe whereby penalty is annexed to transgression, and must fall, either laden with curse or rich in blessing.

      The second idea which it behooves us to master is that of the world's sin. The Apostle John always viewed sin as a great connected principle - One; a single world - spirit - exactly as the electricity with which the universe is charged is indivisible, imponderable, one, so that you can not separate it from the great ocean of fluid. The electric spark that slumbers in the dew-drop is part of the flood which struck the oak. Had that spark not been there, it could be demonstrated that the whole previous constitution of the universe might have been different, and the oak not have been struck.

      Let us possess ourselves of this view of sin, for it is the true one. Separate acts of sin are but manifestations of one great principle. It was thus that the Saviour looked on the sins of His day. The Jews of that age had had no hand in the murder of Abel or Zacharias, but they were of kindred spirit with the men who slew them. Condemning their murderers, they imitated their act. In that imitation they "allowed the deeds of their fathers;" they shared in the guilt of the act which had been consummated, because they had the spirit which led to it. "The blood of them all shall come on this generation." It was so, too, that Stephen looked on the act of his assassins. When God's glory streamed upon his face, he felt that the transaction going on then was not simply the violence of a mob in an obscure corner of the world, it was an outbreak of the great principle of evil. He saw in their act the resurrection of the spirit of those who had "resisted the Holy Ghost" in their day, slain the prophets, opposed Moses, crucified "the just one," and felt that their genuine defendants were now opposing themselves to the form in which Truth and Goodness were appearing in his day.

      It is in this way only that you will be able, with any reality of feeling, to enter into the truth that "your sins nailed Him to the cross;" that "the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all;" that He died "not for that nation only, but that also He should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad." If, for instance, indisputable evidence be given of the saintliness of a man whose creed and views are not yours, and rather than admit that good in him is good, you invent all manner of possible motives to discredit his excellence, then let the thought arise, This is the resurrection of the spirit which was rampant in the days of Jesus; the spirit of those who saw the purest goodness, and rather than acknowledge it to be good, preferred to account for it as a diabolical power. Say to yourself, I am verging on the spirit of the sin that was unpardonable, I am crucifying the Son of God afresh.

      If in society you bear the homage unrebuked - Honor to the rich man's splendid offering, instead of glory to the widow's humble mite - if you see the weak and defenseless punished severely for the sins which the great and strong do unblushingly, and even with the connivance and admiration of society - if you find sins of frailty placed on the same level with sins of pride and presumption - or it you find guilt of any kind palliated instead of mourned, then let the dreadful thought arise in the fullness of its meaning - I allow the deeds If those days - His blood shall come upon this generation. My sin and your sin, the sin of all, bears the guilt of the Redeemer's sacrifice. It was vicarious - He suffered for what He never did. "Not for that nation only, but that also He should gather together in one the children of God that were scattered abroad."

      To conclude: estimate rightly the death of Christ. It was not simply the world's example - it was the world's Sacrifice. He died not merely as a martyr to the truth. His death is the world's life. Ask ye what life is? Life is not exemption from penalty. Salvation is not escape from suffering and punishment. The Redeemer suffered punishment, but the Redeemer's soul had blessedness in the very midst of punishment. Life is elevation of soul - nobleness - Divine character. The spirit of Caiaphas was death: to receive all, and give nothing - to sacrifice others to himself. The spirit of Christ was life: to give and not receive - to be sacrificed, and not to sacrifice. Hear Him again: "He that loseth his life, the same shall find it." That is life: the spirit of losing all for love's sake. That is the soul's life which alone is blessedness and heaven. By realizing that ideal of humanity, Christ furnished the life which we appropriate to ourselves only when we enter into His spirit.

      Listen: Only by renouncing sin is His death to sin yours - only by quitting it are you free from the guilt of His blood - only by voluntary acceptance of the law of the Cross, self-surrender to the will of God, and self-devotion to the good of others as the law of your being, do you enter into that present and future heaven which is the purchase of His vicarious sacrifice.

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