personal devotion on this Good Friday led me to some familiar passages that depict the trials of Jesus before Pilate and Herod. The passage is found in Matthew 27:11-26; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-25; John 18: 28-40. The point that has often been emphasised is that Jesus remained silent in the face of His adversaries. I have often read and heard about the silence of Jesus, but the question, why was Jesus silent at this particular time, and can his silence be an example of our silence today, has never so occupied my mind before.
This question has become crucial for me at this juncture, not in the least because I am in the ‘profession’ of thinking about the ways of communicating the gospel more clearly and contextually, and I indeed often struggle about not just how to speak but even when and where to speak. This is further complexified by the myriads of avenues we have at our disposal to speak, including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and many more.
There seems to be a twofold purpose of Jesus’s silence: to fulfill Isaiah’ prophecy of the silent Lamb, and to teach us that our speech should not be deceitful but truthful, and not intimidating but gracious
But I find this question has come to be more urgent because of the times that we are situated in, where fake news and propaganda against Christian community have become the norm of the day. In such an environment, speaking has often been misunderstood and misrepresented as arguing and cajoling, and, therefore, we have romantically come to believe in the idea that “speech is silver, silence is gold”. Jesus for us then becomes our ahimsavadi hero, the one adored by the likes of Gandhi and Mother Teresa. When we buy into this false romanticism, we litter our Facebook walls with the quotes and phrases that place the value of good works above a good speech, a false binary. We find a biblical support to our silence in Jesus’ silence before Pilate. We assume then that Jesus practiced an impassive silence in all situations, and we too should. If we can’t do it always, we may well reason, we should do it at least when our accusers are hard-hearted fanatics like Pilate or Jewish leaders or Herod, and since there is no possibility of change in the outcome of the conversation anyway, it’s best to keep our mouths shut.
Jesus’ silence, however, has nothing remotely to do with this attitude. Firstly, because Jesus’ silence before his accusers is not a norm in the Bible itself. To assume otherwise would mean to imagine a stoic Jesus, a figment of our imagination, that is out of sync with the Biblical Jesus who calls out the Pharisees and Scribes as the “whitewashed tombs” (Matthew 23:27-28).
But secondly, more importantly and even more surprisingly, though Matthew, Mark and Luke talk about the silence of Jesus during His trial, John does not. In fact, John describes a detailed conversation between Jesus and Pilate (John 18:33-38). Notice how patiently and persuasively Jesus answers every question that Pilate asks. Does this mean that the synoptic gospels are contradictory to what John says? The exegetical and syntactical explanations of these episodes can be left to the New Testament scholars.
What is interesting (and perhaps easier than exegetical and syntactical analysis) is that the prophecy of the silent Lamb is mentioned in two other places of the New Testament.
In Acts 8, the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah 53:7-8 is approached by Philip, who then “began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:35). Philip here successfully convinces the eunuch that Jesus is the silent Lamb of Isaiah 53. .
The second passage is found in 1 Peter 2:21-25. Here Peter, though does not talk directly about the silence of the Lamb, he quotes from Isaiah 53:9 to point out that no deceit was found in the mouth of Jesus. He informs his readers, particularly slaves, to learn from the example of Jesus. And so he understands that Jesus’s attitude was not just the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy (53:7-8), but that a tongue without deceit was also to be an exemplary behaviour for all of us. He further explains what this behaviour is like: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Peter 2:23).
I think it is here that we return to the golden principle: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, season with salt, so that you may know how to answer”
So then, there seems to be a twofold purpose of Jesus’s silence: to fulfill Isaiah’ prophecy of the silent Lamb, and to teach us that our speech should not be deceitful but truthful, and not intimidating but gracious. The former is crucial for Jews, who know the Law (including non-Jews such as the Ethiopian eunuch), and the latter is applicable to all the disciples of Jesus.
It may be quite interesting to know that this explanation fits well with the picture provided by all four gospels: notice that Jesus is silent before Herod and the chief priests (Matthew 27:12; Mark 15:3-5; Luke 23:9), but not before Pilate (John 18:33-38; even in Mark 15:3-5 where Pilate is amazed by Jesus’ silent, he reveals that his silence was against the accusations of the chief priests, and not his own questions). For Matthew, Mark and Luke, most of their immediate readers are Jews, who are aware of Isaiah 53, and so Jesus’ silence before the Jewish leaders could have persuaded them to acknowledge it as the fulfillment of the prophecy. For John, however, the focus is larger than reaching out to the Jewish audience. And so he elaborates on Jesus’ conversation with Pilate on political philosophy (what is kingdom?) and ontology (because the question is not so much what is truth, rather who is truth?). In other words, to the accusing Jews, Jesus spoke through His silence, and to the non-Jew Pilate, with His words.
We return to our query then. Can we use Jesus’ silence during His trial as an example to maintain silence in the face of our accusers at all times? Does Jesus’ trial teach us that we should be silent, all the more at these times when those who accuse us are as hard-hearted as Pilate and Herod, beyond the possibility of redemption, or so it seems to us? From what I have indicated here, it seems to me that such an application would be an example of eisegesis. Jesus’s silence in His trials is not the norm for the believers to gloss over the glory of silence. Silence is important (Proverbs 17:27), and in fact a crucial part of Christian discipline, but the passages in the gospels about the trial of Jesus are not written to teach us the importance of silence. They are meant to inform us that Jesus is the prophesied Lamb of Isaiah 53. If there is a norm in these passages, it is that our speech is to be truthful (without deceit) and gracious (not retaliatory).
Where does this leave us in our times when there is a constant onslaught of misinformation about Christians and Christianity? Should we spiritualise our ignorance by hailing the virtue of silence or should we engage, respond, critique those falsities and become vulnerable to be critiqued? I think it is here that we return to the golden principle: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, season with salt, so that you may know how to answer” (Colossians 4:6). Now how do we answer can be reflected upon, discussed and argued, but what stands true is that we must answer — to some with words or to others without them!