The Silence of the Lamb

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Isaiah 53:7

Many people know how to praise God with words or songs, but it is also possible to glorify God with our silence.

Isaiah 53 – the “Gospel According to Isaiah” – describes in remarkable detail the sufferings of Jesus Christ. Though written centuries before, this portrait of the suffering servant of God conforms perfectly to the actual experience of Jesus. It’s almost as though in his passion and death Christ – along with everyone else involved – was following a pre-written script, prepared by the Author of history and published by the pen of the prophet Isaiah. We read here what Christ’s sufferings would be: loneliness, insults, rejection, sorrow, physical abuse, spiritual torment. We also are told the reason why he endured all these things. His death was a substitution for our own; he suffered because he offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world.

Now in the seventh verse of this chapter, Isaiah tells how Jesus would face his suffering:

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.

(v. 7

THE FULFILLMENT OF THE PROPHECY

This description of the silence of the lamb before its slaughter, like every other detail in Isaiah 53, is shown to be fulfilled in the historical account of Jesus’ passion in the New Testament gospels. All four gospels record in detail the trials of Jesus. I say “trials” because during the night of his betrayal and arrest Jesus was brought for questioning to a series of different religious and political authorities. These were not fair trials in any sense; in fact, they were not what we would recognize as trials at all, for they were not intended to discover Jesus’ guilt or innocence, but to come up with a pretext for his condemnation and execution.

In each case the historical record testifies to Jesus’ striking refusal to speak up at his own trial. Here are the accounts of the gospel writers:

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer?” . . . But Jesus remained silent and gave no answer.

(Mark 14:55-61)

Later, Luke tells us, when Jesus was sent to appear before King Herod,

He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer.”

(Luke 23:9)

The last and most important of Jesus’ trials took place before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor. This is the account from Matthew and from John:

Meanwhile, Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge – to the great amazement of the governor. . . . “Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?” Jesus answered, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above.”

(Matt. 27:11-14; John 19:10-11)

THE NATURE OF CHRIST’S SILENCE

As a careful study of the historical record indicates, the silence of Christ during the last hours of his life was not total or absolutely strict. He did open his mouth to say some things. When he was sworn under oath to acknowledge whether he was the Christ, the Son of God, he said that he was. When Pilate asked him if he was the king of the Jews, he replied quietly in the affirmative, going on to add quickly that he was a different sort of king than Pilate imagined. Later, there were seven brief words spoken from the cross and that was all he said. The silence which so impressed all the observers was not a stubborn refusal to speak any word at all. Christ spoke carefully and clearly when he had to, in order to bear witness to the truth about himself. Christ’s silence was not that he didn’t say anything; it was that he refused to say some things.

First and foremost, Jesus would not speak to defend himself. He made no attempt at all to win acquittal when he stood on trial for his life. What happened at Jesus’ trial was worse than a simple miscarriage of justice or mistaken verdict. He was not just an innocent man wrongly condemned; he was a man publicly declared innocent at his own trial by the very judge who then sentenced him to death. Jesus’ execution was a judicial murder for reasons of political expediency. When Pilate the judge saw how things stood, and that the crowd was screaming for Jesus’ blood, he called for water, washed his hands, and publicly tried to disassociate himself from the whole business. And yet Jesus himself did not protest. He made no reply to his accusers, no appeal for justice, or even for mercy, no complaint against what was happening to him. Instead, he maintained an awful silence. Like a lamb led to the slaughter he opened not his mouth – except that a lamb is silent because it doesn’t know what is coming. Jesus’ silence was deliberate and knowing, and was the means by which he accepted his fate.

Secondly, Jesus would not speak to avenge himself. As he was tortured and abused, he held his tongue instead of lashing out against his enemies. Throughout all the hours of torment and pain, not one single harsh or bitter or hateful word escaped his lips. This was the thing that so impressed his disciple Peter, who, before his courage broke and he denied his Lord, followed along for a while and watched what happened to him. “He committed no sin,” Peter wrote years afterwards, recalling that terrible scene in the courtyard of the judgment hall. “He was guilty of no falsehood. When he was abused, he did not retaliate. When he suffered, he uttered no threats” (1 Peter 2:22,23 reb). Of those who beat him and struck him, who mocked and ridiculed him, who spat upon him and hurled insults at him, who dragged him to the hill of Golgotha and pounded spikes through his hands and feet, he said only this: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

Here is the amazing and wonderful silence of Christ. No matter what happened, he would not speak to defend himself. He made no complaint against the farcical proceedings, nor any effort to defeat the trumped-up charges brought against him. And he would not speak to avenge himself. He resisted the temptation to fight back against his tormenters with angry or contemptuous speech.

THE REASONS FOR CHRIST’S SILENCE

I want to suggest that this silence of the Lamb of God has a deep significance for anyone who believes in Christ and wants to be like him. Jesus’ silence is not the product of pride, or a mark of the stoic courage that refuses to give one’s enemies the satisfaction of hearing one make a sound. Rather, his refusal either to speak on his own behalf or to attack his enemies serves a deeper, divine purpose.

What is this deeper meaning? Two things can be said about it. First, Jesus kept silent in order to accomplish God’s saving work. He chose to be silent before the law so that the law’s condemnation of sinners might fall upon him instead of upon them. His silence was the way by which Jesus voluntarily accepted the punishment of death in the sinner’s place. He is indeed the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. He, although innocent, was condemned to death so that those who put their trust in him, though guilty, might be pardoned and might live.

Don’t you think that if he had wanted to, Jesus could have escaped the cross by his words alone? Don’t you suppose that he who had such wisdom and eloquence, who spoke with such authority, could have won acquittal at his own trial? Is it hard to imagine how one whose powerful word could command the wind and raise the dead might have easily overthrown all his enemies with a single shout? But he did not. Instead, he opened not his mouth. He did that so that he could embrace his Father’s will and drink the cup of judgment upon sin down to the bitter dregs. Jesus kept silent because he loved God more than his life. Because he loved God he delighted to do the will of God; and the will of God was to save sinners who were otherwise hopelessly lost. Jesus kept silent because he too shared God’s love for a world that could be redeemed only through his own death. Jesus kept silent because he thought more of serving God’s glory and peoples’ need than of protecting himself.

A second reason behind Jesus’ silence was to set us an example of how to behave when we face suffering ourselves. Christians – we who have put our faith in Jesus Christ – want to be like him in all things. We learn from him not only how to live and what to say, but also when to be quiet. Jesus teaches us to keep still in the face of personal attack and injustice. His example of how to respond when we are treated wrongly stresses forbearance and forgiveness rather than revenge and retaliation. The refusal to defend ourselves against personal criticism, insult or injury honors God because it shows confidence in him. It’s not that we don’t care about justice or that we refuse to fight for it on behalf of others, but for ourselves, we know God is the ultimate judge. He will defend us. He will vindicate us. Our silence testifies to our faith in God’s justice. So “let us glorify God by our silence,” wrote John Calvin, the great theologian.

We also learn from Jesus to keep silent even when we suffer at the hands of God himself. You know, there is a personal Golgotha for everyone to endure. How will you face yours? How will I get through mine? With curses and bitter complaints, or by glorifying God with our silence? That doesn’t mean we may never cry out or question God. Jesus himself prayed for deliverance from the cross. He cried, “My God, my God, why?” But in the end he bowed and said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” How we face suffering says more about our faith than anything else. The crucible of pain and loss reveals what we really think and feel toward God. It’s easy to praise God when he showers blessings upon us, when we’re sitting in beautiful surroundings, comfortable and well-filled, with those we love best gathered around, all healthy and happy. Then we murmur, “Oh, God is so good; thank you, Lord.” And we are right. But what happens when the days turn dark, and setbacks and disappointments and pain and grief rain down upon our heads? What then?

If you can refuse then to give in to gnawing despair, if you can put your hand over your mouth like Job, if you can check the words that well up from within – “God is cruel. God is absent. God is dead. There is no loving heavenly Father” – if you can say instead, “God is still good, and though he slay me, yet will I serve him,” then you know how to glorify God with your silence. Then you are one with Christ.