Third Sermon on the Passion

by Johannes Brenz
translated by Timothy Rosenow

In this set of three sermons from 1564, Johannes Brenz expounds upon a harmony of the passion history. Each of the translations was completed by different individuals who are all at various locations and stages of their training for the full-time Gospel ministry. The first sermon was translated by Aaron Voss, currently a senior at Martin Luther College, the second by Jacob Haag, currently studying in Leipzig, Germany at the seminary of our sister-synod, the Evangelisch-Lutherische FreiKirche (ELFK), and the third by Tim Rosenow, a first-year student at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon. Skills cultivated in the confessional languages prove valuable to pastoral students at every point of their education and remain a blessing into their ministry. May these words of Brenz be as valuable to their readers this Lenten season as they have been to their translators.

We have led Jesus to trial before Pilate, and we have heard that Jesus, both before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate, the governor of the people, explained the essence of his kingdom: For before the Sanhedrin he affirmed that he was the true Messiah, the Son of God, “Surely you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Mighty One,” that is, “The majesty of my kingdom is not earthly, as you think, but is heavenly, in accordance with the words of the prophets. I will not sit on the regal throne of the Roman Emperor, but at the right hand of God. At God’s right hand will be my throne, and I will come to judge the world, not with a great crowd of soldiers and horsemen, but I will come in the clouds. That is why you do not need to fear that I will remove your power.” Moreover, before Pilate he said that he truly was a king, but his kingdom was not of this world. He said that he had come into this world in order to teach the true reverence and worship of God. This is the summary of the accusation brought against Christ before the Sanhedrin and Pilate. That is why, after Jesus had refuted it and explained that men were not able to hold an accusation against him on account of aspiring to external empires, from that point on Christ would speak very few words, and only twice would he utter anything until he was nailed on the cross: once when he accused Pilate of rash thought and the other when he rebuked the tears of the young women.

Therefore, let us examine what was demonstrated before Pilate. For after Pilate saw that Christ’s response was satisfactory and he understood that jealousy had handed him over, he took on the plan to free Jesus. First he himself excused Jesus and brought a testimony of his innocence. However, the chief priests continued to accuse Jesus. Jesus remained silent. The governor was amazed. The chief priests said, “He is stirring up the people from Galilee.” When Pilate heard the word “Galilee” he found another opportunity to release Jesus, and he sent him to Herod. This is that Herod, that adulterer with his brother’s wife and executioner of John the Baptist. He was hoping that he would see a miracle himself. But, indeed, Jesus did not even honor the scoundrel with a conversation, and so Jesus was tried and led off to death.

This is also one of the extraordinary parts of the passion of Christ. While Christ patiently endured this, God in the meantime planned for him the highest glory. What is shown in this chapter is that Christ is still celebrated in the Gospel and among his followers. Herod and Pilate became friends. Previously they had been enemies because of the Galileans who had been killed (as some think). You see the old argument of magistrates concerning borders. Indeed, Herod and Pilate were reconciled to each other, but because they were not reconciled with Christ, the Son of God, whom they despised, whom they hated, their agreement held no benefit. For Herod was exiled to Lyons and Pilate was removed from his office and (as some think) killed himself. This is the punishment for despising true religion, the true knowledge of Christ. This is an example of those officials who are only concerned with the defense of their borders but do not care at all about religion, which is the reason that God gave kingdoms and governments to men.

Pilate’s first plan did not succeed. Therefore he devised another plan to free Jesus. He called the chief priests and once again absolved Jesus, though he himself admitted that he would punish Jesus with another flogging, though not to the death. At the same time, it was his custom to release a prisoner on the Passover. He brought forth Jesus and Barabbas. Before Barabbas was brought out, Pilate’s wife sent a message asking that he have no business with that man because of her dream. Some have thought that Satan began to understand that the redemption of the human race was happening through Christ. Therefore just as before through a woman he introduced sin into the world, so now he wanted to prevent redemption through a woman, his ancient instrument. We know better about this woman, namely, that she was divinely prompted to bear testimony about the innocence of Jesus. The Jewish women are quiet. They murmur. A Gentile woman comes into the light in order that the innocence of Christ might be more evident. The priests moved the people to ask for Barabbas, and about Christ they shouted, “Crucify!” This is a significant part of the suffering of Christ, in which the worst thief of all is placed above him by his own people. What is the reason, then, that with such violent hatred they persecuted Jesus, who had never done anything wrong to them? He himself mentions the reason another time in John 16: “They will do such things because they have not known the Father or me,” that is, “They hate God himself.” Common man naturally hates God most violently. For first they hear that God manages all things, and nevertheless they think that there are many misfortunes, many adversities, as it seems to them, from God. Moreover, we naturally hate those who bring adversity to us. So we see among men that quarrels and wars are very easily undertaken because of the slightest injury. Then they hear that God punishes sins, and men are conscious of their sin. That is why they attack God with extreme hatred as if he were a tyrant. However, they are not able to spit out this venom on God himself, so for that reason they pour it onto his Son and on his servants and ministers. Finally, men are slaves and captives of Satan. Satan attacks God with extreme hatred, and therefore men also hate him.

Pilate handed Jesus over to be whipped. Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him. They crowned him with thorns and gave him a staff. They saluted him, slapped him, spat on him, and struck him with the staff. Here there are two kinds of suffering: one in the flogging, the other in the extreme mockery and derision, of a kind which no wretched man on earth has ever experienced.

First note who these soldiers and cohorts are. They are Gentiles, and those appointed by Rome for the protection of the people of Judah and for keeping the Jews under Roman power. See, then, what is to me the greatest injustice: dominion over the entire world belonged to Rome because of Christ. For the writers of the church thought that God brought the Roman Empire down into a single body and monarchy under Augustus to open the whole world to the Apostles as citizens and subjects of Rome. Therefore these soldiers enjoyed the benefit of Christ, and nevertheless they derided him with such an excess of insult. Second, what happened to the head also happens to his members daily. The kingdom of Christ in this world is under thorns, spit, and whips. The student is not above his teacher. Finally, Christ endured obediently, although he could have destroyed the scoundrels in a moment. For that reason he earned for us the remission of sins and the highest glory.

After he was whipped he was led out and shown: “Here is the man!” They shouted, “Crucify! We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.” Pilate was afraid. He led Jesus inside. He asked where he came from. Jesus said nothing, just as he had been silent up until this point. For he always remembered the words which Isaiah his ancient kinsman had spoken about him: “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.” The sheep and the lamb about which his kinsman Isaiah had preached eight hundred years before were meant concerning him. Nevertheless Pilate finally extracted a response from him with rashness, saying, “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”, for Jesus said, “You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above,” a necessary response.

Pilate sinned in two ways. His one sin is that he thought that he had the power to crucify Christ, although he did not have the power to move a single hair on his head, unless it had been given from heaven. This is the notable speech in which Christ teaches that no persecution ever rose against him or against his members from the power of man, but only with the will of God. Moreover, God wants the best for Christ and his followers. That is why, rightly, there must be hope in persecution. The other sin is that Pilate thought that he was not sinning even though he brought an unjust verdict against Christ, because he had been brought before him by the priests and Pilate was compelled to bring a sentence on him. However, Christ rebuked him. He said that he sinned in both ways, although he makes a distinction between them. Yet both were sins: thinking and doing.

Pilate understood not only the innocence of Jesus but also his heroic greatness, and again sought to free him, but the Jews shouted, “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar.” The Jews had Pilate by the throat. But if Pilate were a truly decent man, he would have easily been able to meet this objection: “First, Caesar did not establish me in this office to condemn the innocent but to defend them. But you have not yet proven that he is dangerous. Then, he made himself a king, but he explained both to you and to me that his kingdom is not of this world. Also, there are many kinds of kings among the Romans, some even under consuls, who nevertheless were not even of royal blood, such as the King of Nemi.”1

Pilate could have responded in this way. But so it is: the wise and powerful men of this world want to take no risk on account of rejected men and the kingdom of God, which seems to be rejected most of all. Pilate, as Josephus writes, wanted to force the Jews with his gathered force to accept the statues of Caesar. He was a brave and enduring man for constructing an idol of wood or stone. However, when he was defending a miserable and innocent man he was most impotent. Therefore since the character of magistrates were often such, the changes of the imperial power were frequent.

Nevertheless, Pilate did not cease. He said, “Here is your king.” As he was about to pronounce the sentence he washed his hands. They shouted, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” He dismissed Barabbas and handed Jesus over to be crucified. And so Jesus was now condemned by both Jews and Gentiles, that is, by the entire world. Christ’s condemnation did not cease then, but it continues now and will continue until the end of the world. For it is always the great majority of people that condemn Christ, many less recognize him. That is why we are not offended by the small number of believers.

The soldiers took off the scarlet robe and put his own clothes on him. They placed a cross on him, and after a while placed the cross on Simon of Cyrene as well. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Christ prophesied, “Let sinners and the impious fear that they may repent. For if men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”

Two other criminals were led out with Jesus. He was led to Golgotha. They offered him wine mixed with gall. He suffered a new kind of suffering now, the highest cruelty—he was crucified—in between two thieves. Here hung our life and salvation. However, Christ must be examined on the cross, not as a cow examines a gate,2 but in two ways.

First, he must be examined as if he is the most dangerous and by far the greatest sinner of all. Not in that he ever committed any sin, but in that he took sin onto himself to atone for the sins committed by all men. Then he is to be examined as the most innocent and by far the most holy of all. For this reason he removed all sins and calmed the wrath of God. For this is the perfect sacrifice for sins, which had been expected in the world up till this point. Adam looked to here; Abel looked to here with his sacrifice; Noah and all the patriarchs and prophets looked to here. David rightly looked at Christ on the cross: “The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’” Paul looked to Christ on the cross most piously and rightly when he said, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’” Likewise: “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” And also, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” All pious men ought to look to him and observe that on this cross hang their sins.

Now let us look at what was spoken on the cross. For Jesus spoke many more things on the cross than before Pilate or the high priests. First, he remembered his enemies: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” There are two kinds of priestly duties: making offerings for sins and praying for them. Jesus performed both these offices because he is a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek. Finally, since in all his suffering he fulfilled the obedience to God, that is, the true love of God, now he fulfills the law of love. He loved his neighbor as himself. He made an effective supplication for his enemies.

When he said that last phrase, “They do not know what they are doing,” he did not think to excuse their ignorance, but he only amplified his mercy and the magnitude of their sins.

Secondly, Pilate wrote an inscription in Aramaic, Latin, and Greek. It is a prophecy of proclaiming the Gospel among all tongues of the day.

Thirdly, the soldiers divided his garments. They cast lots for his tunic. The prophecies were fulfilled.

Fourthly, the women and John stood next to the cross. His mother was entrusted to John.

Fifthly, people stood watching and all kinds of insults were hurled at him by commoners, high priests, soldiers, and thieves. Christ was overwhelmed by public hatred and insults. That is why his prayer was for them who were cruel tyrants to the miserable. But Christ was most innocent, and yet he was overwhelmed by such great insults, the likes of which had never happened to any man, especially one hanging on a cross. Men are usually moved by compassion for the miserable. Here, however, they are moved by their deepest sadism against Christ.

How did God bear it? Why did Christ not descend from the cross? God endured not only because he is powerful, but also because he is patient. He now saw as present the slaughter of those impious men, because in the eyes of God forty years is not a long way away.3 He also saw Jesus descending from the cross and reigning, because his resurrection was soon approaching. He saw him coming to judge the world. That is why he endured patiently. Jesus did not descend, because he came to this hour for this reason. He wanted to be obedient and to bring total redemption to us. At the same time he also wanted to teach his Church patience in similar persecutions.

Sixthly, the other thief confessed Christ, and Christ promised him paradise. What an astonishing fact on both accounts! All were silent, even Lazarus and many others who had been healed.4 Only the thief stood out and confessed Christ. A great faith! Christ promised him paradise, and he saw on the cross what would happen to him. But he did not see only for his own sake but also for ours.

Seventhly, there was darkness until the ninth hour. Jesus cried out. Before he had seen paradise, now he sees hell. For it is hell when someone senses that there is no external help from God, but only death and carnage remain. Christ was thrown into this of necessity, not by his own fault but by ours, to atone for our sins. They thought that Jesus called Elijah because they had heard that Elijah would come before Christ and would help him.

Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” He thirsted for an external drink, he thirsted for internal comfort, he thirsted for the salvation of man. He was given a drink of wine vinegar on a sponge. Afterwards, he said, “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit.” Then he bowed his head and died.

Now Christ hung dead on the cross. But only in his former state do we regard him in this way. While living he was fixed to the cross, thus he must not simply be considered dead. For it follows rightly in the creed that after Christ had died he descended into hell. However, we must not think that this was for punishment, that he endured sorrows and was tortured by the fires of hell after his death which he had already endured in the body. For these were the fires of hell which Christ endured in the garden when he shed his blood and when he shouted on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Neither ought we to think that Christ descended in a typical bodily manner with his banner of victory for the patriarchs in limbo to lead them out limbo. There are no such stupid, carnal spectacles like this in the spiritual world. But we ought to think of it like this: after death his spirit was in the hands of God the Father and was in paradise, that is, certain joy. For he said, “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” and, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” However, it was said that he descended into hell, which seems to say that he truly perished through death, and that he was rejected by God. But now Christ was far from alienated in the sight of God. In man’s sight, Christ is in hell. However, in God’s sight, all was finished wonderfully and admirably.

For first, by this death of Christ, God prepared the greatest majesty for his Son Christ in heaven and on earth. Then by the death of Christ death itself was conquered, that those who believe in Christ may not perish in death but be preserved for eternal life. “Where, O death,” the prophet says, “are your plagues? Where, O grave, is your destruction?” And in Romans 14: “For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.” “So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.”

This must be understood for many reasons, but particularly because of this: so that we do not think that death is the final punishment. Men are accustomed to say in dangerous times, “At least I will escape with my life.” This shows that death is the death of the bodily man and anything that happens to man is tolerable only in receiving bodily life. Then they think that God only helps man when he frees him from temporal death. Moreover, God does not abandon men when he allows them to die. And it is a blessing from God to be protected in dangers so that no sudden ruin comes by way of death. But they think that death is an impiety because they think that death is the destruction of man.

For here we must consider what Christ’s death means for us. Christ brought to his death the first holy human, without any sin. That is why even though death took him, nevertheless there was no law for him to fear. He brought to death the Son of God by nature, who according to his divine nature is not subject to death. Therefore he was not able to perish in death, but he broke the very bite of death. When believers in Christ become his members through faith, then they cannot be detained by death.

Furthermore, the death of Christ was not only effective before God, but it immediately and publicly declared its effectiveness.

  1. For the curtain of the Temple was torn, by which it is signified that the souls of the Jews were now uncovered, and the entrance to heaven now lay open through the death of Christ.
  2. The world was moved, rocks were split, and graves were opened. By this miracle it is shown that the ground was not able to hold back its dead, as also many saints rose with Christ and bore witness to his resurrection in Jerusalem.
  3. The centurion and others were converted to the Christian faith. He said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
  4. The hearts of some among the masses, because of many wounding attacks, were turned, that is, they grieved about the impiety of the Jews, although they had been thinking that it would happen differently.

The women were standing and watching at a distance. They had come to see him receive the kingdom. They were hoping that their kinsman was going to receive a worldly kingdom in Jerusalem. But behold, deceived by their hope, they came to the sight of his deepest disgrace. He wanted to teach them that his kingdom was not worldly, but spiritual, and that through this disgrace he would enter into glory.

The Jews asked that his legs be broken. The legs of the thieves were shattered, but one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. The Scriptures were fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,” and, “They will look on the one they have pierced,” that is, the pious will be saved, and the impious will perish, because every impious person crucified Christ.

Joseph asked for the body of Christ and he obtained it. He bought fine linen. Nicodemus brought a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds, and they took him down from the cross. They wrapped him in the spices and buried him in a new tomb in a garden.

The chief priests gathered, and they asked that the tomb be guarded. Just as on the cross and in death, so also in the tomb Christ is perceived far differently from any other man. For other men only have their own bodies thrown into the tomb. Here not only his own body is in the tomb, but he brought all believers with him into it, so that if they lie with him in the tomb they also will rise together with him. So we are buried with Christ in the tomb through baptism. Romans 6 says, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.”

You have the story of the passion of Christ, from which you see the wrath of God and his compassion: wrath because he allowed his Son to be so cruelly afflicted because of sin, compassion and mercy because he preferred to subject his Son to a cruel death than to allow us to perish. Therefore, let us flee from sins and obey the calling of Christ our Lord, that we might reign as one with him.

Ambrose said, “Lord Jesus, I owe more to your injuries that I am redeemed than to my works that I am made new. There is no profit in being born if there is not benefit in being redeemed.”

Here ends the exposition of Dr. Johannes Brenz on the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ.

  1. The priest of Diana who served at Lake Nemi in Italy. According to legend, this position was obtained only by killing the previous priest. 
  2. A shallow and thoughtless examination of the situation. 
  3. Brenz is referring to the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. 
  4. The Gospels never mention whether or not Lazarus was present at the crucifixion. Though perhaps Brenz is not alleging that here.