As a young Christian, there was a period of time when I would read the records of Christ’s sufferings in the Gospels and wonder, “Why do the Gospel writers note that Jesus ‘answered nothing’ (Matt. 27:12), ‘answered not one word (27:13)’ and ‘kept silent and answered nothing’ (Mark 14:61) when He stood before earthly judges?” After all, Jesus was sinless and absolutely blameless. Of all men, He alone had the right to open His mouth and vindicate Himself. Clearly it was in fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the suffering Servant, “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:7). In this way, I understood that it happened to build us up in faith in the long-awaited, suffering Servant Redeemer. But, it seemed to me that there had to be some other reason. Not long after I began wrestling with this question, I stumbled across the most wonderful explanation in John Calvin’s Sermons on the Passion of our Lord. Calvin wrote:
Now to end it and come to the conclusion, it is said, “Our Lord Jesus having been led before Pilate answered nothing. Pilate asked him, saying, ‘Do you not speak at all? Do you not see the witnesses they have brought here against you?’ And he held his peace, so that the judge marveled greatly.” In the first place we have to keep in memory, when our Lord Jesus Christ is judged before, an earthly judge, that it was in order that we might be exempt and absolved from the condemnation which we deserved before the heavenly Judge. We know that we cannot escape what is written by the Prophet Isaiah, that every knee must bow before God. (Isaiah 45:23.) Since God is the Judge of the world, how can we subsist before His face and before His majesty? There is not one of us who is not constrained to condemn himself a hundred thousand times. When we have lived only a year in the world, there are already a hundred thousand faults, by which we deserve to be condemned. There is no one who has not this testimony engraved upon his heart, and who is not convinced of it. Now God, Who sees much more clearly than we, how will He not condemn us when each one is constrained to condemn himself, indeed, in so many ways? But here our Lord Jesus is subjected to this extremity of being accused before an earthly judge, even before a profane man, before a man who was pushed only by his greed and his ambition. When, then, the Son of God is humiliated to that extent, let us know that it is in order that we may be able to come with heads raised before God, and that He may receive us, and that fear may no longer cause us to draw back from His judgment-seat, but that we may dare to approach it boldly, knowing that we shall be received there in mercy. We even know that Jesus Christ acquired authority and power and sovereign dominion to be Judge of the world. And when He is thus condemned by Pilate, it is in order that today we may come boldly to Him, indeed, knowing that power is given to Him to judge us. Since He stood there, may we know that He wished to bear our condemnation and that He did not intend a trial to justify Himself, also knowing well that He had to be condemned, indeed, in our person. For although He was without spot or blemish, He bore all our sins upon Himself. We need not be astonished, then, that He stood there as if He had been convicted. For otherwise He could not have performed the office of Mediator except by accepting sentence and confessing that in our persons He had deserved to be condemned. That, then, is what the silence of our Lord Jesus Christ implies, in order that today we can call upon God with full voice, and that we can ask Him for pardon for all vices and offenses.1
Again, Calvin explained:
Our Lord Jesus so offered Himself of His own will as a sacrifice to make reparation for all our iniquities by His obedience and He was willing to be condemned to wipe them out. That is why it is said that He did not answer at all the accusations that were raised against Him. He had enough wherewith to answer, but He was silent, as is also mentioned by the Prophet Isaiah. That was not only to show his patience, but in order to acquire for us liberty to be able today to glory in being righteous and innocent before God (indeed, notwithstanding that our conscience accuses us and condemns us), knowing that God has received us in mercy, and that all our faults are abolished by the perfection which was found in our Lord Jesus Christ. That, then, is how the Son of God acquired for us the liberty to be able to glory boldly that we are the children of God and reputed righteous before Him, that is, when He willed to offer no reply to show His integrity. Besides, one might at first find it strange that He is thus captured and nevertheless responds that He is King of the Jews. For these things seem contradictory; but Saint John proceeds still further, and says that He declared that His Kingdom was not of this world, and then He declared also that He was Son of God, indeed, He protested that He had come into the world to maintain the truth. But all this agrees easily. For our Lord Jesus surely had to declare Himself to be King of the Jews, unless He wished to reject the Prophecies. Also He had to be declared Son of God. But that did not lead to His absolution. It was rather that there might not be a long drawn-out trial, but that He might be condemned. Let us note well, then, when the silence of Jesus Christ is spoken of, that it was inasmuch as He did not wish to offer any excuse. As for His person, He kept His mouth closed. However, He did not cease to make such confession as He had to make. That is also why Saint Paul says that He made a good confession before Pontius Pilate (1 Timothy 6:13). For if it had been a matter of Jesus Christ’s entering into His own self-defense, already the judge was persuaded of His integrity. He could, then, easily have won His case by speaking. That is what amazes Pilate. Yet our Lord Jesus Christ did not cease to render such testimony as God had committed to Him—not tending to instruct (for this was not the place) but to confirm and ratify the doctrine to which He had previously borne witness.2
Recently, I came across one of the most profound textual connections between Romans 3:19 and the Gospel writers’ witness to the silence of Jesus. In his sermon on Romans 3:1-20, Sinclair Ferguson drew together the sad reality of our innate desire to open our mouths with self-justifying arguments before God and the silence of Jesus in the day when he was judged. He explained:
[Paul] says…this is our chief problem. We will keep on talking. We will keep on justifying ourselves. We will keep on using arguments. We will keep on pleading our own sufficiency and our own superiority–and Paul, as it were, lifts us up before the judgment throne of God at the last assize and says, “Stand there a moment my friend…and listen to the silence, listen to the silence, listen to the silence.” Because when a man or woman stands before the judgment throne of God and sees His infinite holiness and has unraveled in the their lives the seemingly infinite sinfulness, for the very first time in their lives they hear total silence, not only outside but inside. Because on that day says Paul, Every mouth will be shut and the whole world held guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty before God.
And you see why he does this. I’m sure that it was as painful to him as it is to us when he expounds his teaching. Because he wants to bring us to silence before God’s judgment now, in order that before God’s judgment then we may be able to open our mouths and say the one word in all the universe that is acceptable in His sight and makes us acceptable in His sight. And this is the glory of the Gospel that he will go on to expound—that as we stand silent before the judgment seat of God because we have nothing in ourselves to plead before Him, the only One in all the history of human creation who had the right to speak in the presence of God’s judgment and call Him ‘Father’ came into the world to take our place, to bear our sin—silently. “Like a Lamb that was brought to the slaughter and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb,” Isaiah said of Him, “so as He went to judgment He opened not His mouth.” And as in His need upon the cross He hung feeling the weight of God’s judgment on the sins of those for whom He died, He opened His mouth to say the only thing that sinners can say, in and of themselves, in that judgment throne, “My God, You have forsaken Me.” And under the solemn judgment of God in the darkness of the Jerusalem afternoon as He hung there between heaven and earth, as a kind of no-man’s land of desolation, He died in silence, bearing our sins that we might go in triumph and speak His name.
The Apostle, you see, is, in a sense, saying to us—as he expounds the Gospel—the thing that marks the Christian believer out from everyone else is that the Christian is someone whose mouth has been shut already in this world, and into it God has given a name of grace to speak and to say, “Jesus, save me from the wrath of God.”3
1. An excerpt taken from John Calvin’s “Fourth Sermon—Matthew 26:67-27:10” in Sermons on the Passion of our Lord
2. An excerpt from Calvin’s “Fifth Sermon –Matthew 27:11-26” in Sermons on the Passion of our Lord
3. An excerpt taken from Sinclair Ferguson’s sermon on Romans 3:1-20.