The Trial of Jesus, Part One

Matthew 26:57-68
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, May 19, 1996
Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew

It is impossible for sinful man to administer just judgments in this fallen world. The most unjust trial in the history of the world was the trial of Jesus by the Sanhedrin and the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. The sinful, the rotten, the corrupt, and the depraved sat in judgment of the sinless Son of God. Did they acquit Christ because of his innocence? No. Jesus' judges condemned him to the death of the cross. This passage describes how these authorities came to their conclusion in the ecclesiastical trial of Jesus Christ. Who Were the Judges?

Who were these authorities sitting in judgment on Jesus? The supreme court of the nation of Israel was called the Great Sanhedrin. Under Roman rule, this church court had some authority, but it did not have the power of the sword, which was reserved only for Romans.

The Sanhedrin consisted of seventy members and a president, who was the high priest. It originated in Numbers 11:16-17 when the Lord said to Moses, "Bring me seventy of Israel's elders who are known to you as leaders and officials among the people. Have them come to the Tent of Meeting that you may stand there with them. I will come down and speak with you there, and I will take of the Spirit that is on you and put the Spirit on them. They will help you carry the burden of the people so that you will not have to carry it alone." This ancient Sanhedrin consisted of seventy elders chosen by God. It seems that Moses was the president.

In New Testament times the Sanhedrin consisted of twenty-three priests, who held anti-supernaturalistic, Sadduceeic views; twenty-three elders, also holding Sadduceeic leanings, who belonged to the wealthy landowner class; twenty-three scribes, meaning lawyers, who had Pharisaic leanings; and two presidents, for a total of seventy-one members. Only twenty-three members representing these three factions were required for a quorum, but the number needed by law for a majority vote was thirty-seven.

The High Priests

The president of the Sanhedrin was the high priest. Two high priests, Annas and Caiaphas, are mentioned in the gospel accounts. Before Jesus appeared before the Sanhedrin, he was bound and led to Annas the high priest, as we read in John 18. And in Matthew 26:57 and John 11:51 we read about Caiaphas, who was the high priest that year.

Annas had been appointed high priest in A.D. 6 by the governor Quirinius. Although he was deposed in A.D. 15, many Jewish people still regarded Annas as high priest because the Old Testament taught that the high priesthood was for life. Annas had five sons and a grandson who also became high priests at various times. He was a sly, greedy, powerful, and wealthy person who turned the temple into a den of thieves, according to Jesus. He made enormous profits from the sale of sacrificial animals as well as from the cuts he received exchanging foreign monies to domestic money.

Joseph Caiaphas was appointed high priest by Valerius Gratus in A.D. 18. The son-in-law of Annas, Caiaphas was also powerful and extremely ruthless. He did anything to curry favor with the Romans so he that could continue in power. Like other high priests, Caiaphas was pro-Roman. He remained in office as high priest for nineteen years until he was deposed in A.D. 37.

The Rotten Judges

The law specified that members of the Sanhedrin should be men of certain character. They should be Hebrews of Hebrews, meaning both parents should be full-blooded Jews. They should be educated in the law and have prior legal experience. They should be linguists, knowing Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and other languages, so that they could converse in the language of the accused. They should be humble and of good report, and should refrain from sitting in judgment on cases relating to them.

These were the qualities specified by law for the Sanhedrin. Yet the members of the ecclesiastical supreme court that tried Jesus were extremely corrupt. How rotten were they? First, they were unbelieving. In Luke 22:67-68 we read, "'If you are the Christ,' they said, 'tell us.' Jesus answered, 'If I tell you, you will not believe me. And if I asked you, you would not answer.'"

Now these judges believed that Jesus had performed authentic miracles pointing to his Messiahship. But they were filled with unbelief. In John 11:45-47, after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, we read "many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, put their faith in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. 'What are we accomplishing?' they asked. 'Here is this man performing miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.'"

Secondly, these authorities were interested in their own survival. In John 11:49-50 we read, "Then one of them named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up. 'You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.'" "You know nothing at all!" What contempt Caiaphas showed for the other leaders! And then he gave his brilliant revelation, that there was only one way for them to perpetuate their position and power: They had to get rid of Jesus the Messiah. Because of his miracles, many people were trusting in him, which threatened the authority of the Jewish religious leaders.

Caiaphas understood that Jesus had performed a miracle in raising Lazarus from the dead. Was he interested in truth? No. He and the other members of the Sanhedrin were like politicians of today who will do or say anything to be reelected. So he and the others began plotting strategies to kill Jesus. Caiaphas told the others they needed to get rid of Jesus for the survival of the nation and the great supreme court: "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." This was a nice-sounding prophecy, but was it fulfilled the way Caiaphas intended? No. Jesus was killed, but the nation was also destroyed, and the supreme court came to an end.

Thirdly, not only were these leaders filled with unbelief and self-interest, but they were also motivated by envy. Even Pilate, the Roman governor, knew this, as we read in Matthew 27:18: "For he [Pilate] knew that it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to them." The Jews knew that Jesus was powerful, popular, righteous, morally flawless, and holy. They knew they were unholy, corrupt, and increasingly unpopular. There was a war between their own self-survival and this Savior, Jesus Christ.

Could such a corrupt court give Jesus a fair trial? In Matthew 26:3-4 we read something significant that gives us understanding of the rotten hearts of these judges. "Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill him." Could a court that wanted to kill him do anything just for Jesus?

The Illegal Preliminary Trial

After Jesus was arrested, and before he was led before the Sanhedrin, he had a preliminary trial before Annas, the high priest (John 18:19-23). Although he was not the current high priest, Annas continued to exercise power, and cases had to be cleared with him before they went on to Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin. Annas questioned Jesus about his disciples and teachings. According to Jewish law, it was illegal for the accused to stand just before one judge and be questioned directly. The accused was to stand before the whole Sanhedrin, and the accusing witnesses, who acted as their own prosecutors, were to present their testimonies before the court. The judges of the Sanhedrin were to defend the accused, and so he or she did not have to speak during the trial. The witnesses also had to agree with each other on every detail in their testimonies, especially in capital cases.

Jesus understood the law and knew he did not have to answer Annas' questions. He knew how slick, sly and ruthless this Annas was, because Jesus knows what is in a man (John 2:25). As the Holy One standing before these rotten, corrupt people, Jesus also understood their ugly motivations. He refused to answer his accusers.

Because of his refusal to answer the high priest's questions, Jesus was struck by an official of Annas. Did he turn the other cheek and ask them to hit him again? No. Jesus demanded that his accusers show what evil he had done to deserve such treatment. Jesus' actions tell us that we should not interpret the scripture about turning the other cheek literally. He asked, "If I said something wrong, testify as to what is wrong. But if I spoke the truth, why did you strike me?"

Problems with the Trial

Then Jesus, still bound, was sent to Caiaphas, the current high priest, and the whole Sanhedrin. Now we do not know if all seventy-one men were there, but there was a quorum, even though it was now about two in the morning. Would Jesus get a fair trial before this court? No. We have already mentioned the rotten character of members of the Sanhedrin, and in Matthew 26:59 we read of the prejudice of this church court. Caiaphas, Annas, and all the judges of the Sanhedrin were actively looking for false witnesses. They deliberately avoided people who spoke of Jesus' good character and searched for people who would falsely testify against Jesus.

Jesus knew what was happening. He understood that long before this trial the Sanhedrin had decided to destroy him and that the court was completely corrupt. But soon the court realized there was a problem: no false witnesses could agree in their testimonies. You see, the law demanded that the testimonies of two or three witnesses must agree in every detail. Although the court had gathered many false witnesses, they could find none who would agree.

Finally, however, two witnesses accused Jesus of making a certain statement: "I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days" (Matthew 26:61) or, as we read in Mark, "I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man" (Mark 14:58). Although destroying a temple was a capital offense in the Greco-Roman world, some Jews believed that when the Messiah came, he would destroy the old temple and build a glorious, new temple . The authorities could say that by these statements Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah, and thus, they could accuse him of blasphemy.

What statements were the false witnesses referring to? In John 2:19 when some Jews demanded a sign from him, Jesus said, "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." But Jesus was not talking about the literal temple building. John 2:21 tells us "But the temple he had spoken of was his body." Jesus was referring to his death and resurrection, not the destruction of the temple. At another time, in the Olivet Discourse, Jesus did prophesy the destruction of the temple by the Romans, but that was not the statement the witnesses referred to.

Even with the statements of these two witnesses, the authorities had a problem. What was that? In Mark 14:59 we read, "Yet even then their testimony did not agree."

Time Pressures

The Sanhedrin began to feel the pressure of time. Originally they had not wanted to kill Jesus during the Feast of Passover because they were afraid the people might riot. But through Judas they had been able to arrest Jesus somewhat privately that night, and now they were facing certain deadlines.

First, they had the deadline of nightfall. They realized the Sabbath would begin that evening at sundown. They wanted to try Jesus quickly so they could deal with him before, not after, the Sabbath observance.

Another deadline involved the requirements of their law. According to Jewish law, if the accused was declared innocent after one vote, that was the end of the matter. But in a capital case, if thirty-seven or more members of the Sanhedrin said that the accused must be put to death, they were required to go home and sleep for a night before voting again the next day. During the night these judges were supposed to pray and think of ways to acquit the accused. Rather than putting a person to death within twenty-four hours, the court, therefore, was required to take two days to convict or acquit a party. But here the court was under a time constraint. It was already about two in the morning on the eve of the Sabbath, during the Feast of Passover. They did not want to wait another day.

The third deadline involved Roman law. The Sanhedrin had agreed that Jesus was to be put to death before the Sabbath began at sundown Friday, but the Jews did not have the power of the sword. Therefore, they had to make a politically correct case before Pilate, the Roman governor. Pilate only worked early in the morning, so the Jewish leaders knew they had to bring Jesus' case in a convincing way before Pilate early that morning. They must hurry to make this deadline. Imagine, then, the frustration of this Sanhedrin! The witnesses could not agree. There were deadlines. They wanted to have some semblance of justice and law to condemn and kill Jesus, but there was none. What could these leaders do?

The Evil Genius

As we said before, the president of the Sanhedrin was supposed to be silent and the accused could not be addressed directly. To do otherwise was illegal. But in a moment of genius Caiaphas rose up and illegally addressed Jesus. He put him under the most serious and solemn oath: "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God."

This was a brilliant move. If Jesus refused to answer, he would be breaking the most solemn oath. If he said, "No, I am not the Christ," he would be lying. However, if he said that, the Jews could tell people he said he was not the Messiah, and he would shrink into oblivion. But if Jesus told the truth, if he confessed he was the Christ, he could be accused of blasphemy. What did Jesus say? He told the truth. "'Yes, it is as you say,' Jesus replied" (Matt. 26:64). In Mark 14:62 we read, "'I am,' said Jesus." In other words, Jesus publicly acknowledged that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, deity.

Jesus Is the Christ

This was not the first time Jesus had acknowledged this. In John 4:25-26, in a more private setting, Jesus told the Samaritan woman that he was the Messiah. When Jesus asked Peter, "Who do you say that I am?" and Peter answered, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," Jesus said Peter was answering through divine revelation (Matt. 16). When Jesus had said, "Before Abraham was born, I am"(John 8:58) and "I and my Father are one" (John 10:30) the Jews heard him and were ready to stone him. He had told his disciples,"Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9).

So Jesus acknowledged that he was the Messiah, but then he explained to the Council that their idea of Messiah was not his. He said, "Yes, it is as you say. . .But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." What was he doing? He was telling his judges that he was the Messiah, in a state of humiliation, obedient to the Father unto the death of the cross. In God's will they were his judges at that time. But Jesus was warning these judges that soon their roles will be reversed, and they would see him, the Son of Man, seated, enthroned, exalted, and honored as the mediatorial King at the right hand of "the power," meaning the Mighty God, coming in the clouds of heaven!

Jesus was looking into the future. He saw his death, his burial, his resurrection, his ascension, and his enthronement. He saw his cosmic rulership as the mediatorial King who exercises kingship by subjugating every enemy. He saw himself as the Son of Man.

Jesus was referring to Daniel 7:13-14, and Psalm 110:1. In Daniel 7:13-14 we read, "In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed." We read the same thing in Matthew 24:30: "At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky with power and great glory." In other words, Jesus was telling his accusers, "Listen, supreme court, Sanhedrin, Caiaphas, Annas, and every rotten and corrupt judge--our roles will be reversed. I will come again as the Cosmic Ruler and the Righteous Judge of all the earth. Then I will judge you." This was a threat.

Paul spoke of this to the educated people of Athens in Acts 17:30-31: "In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead."

Jesus Christ was preaching the gospel to these rotten, depraved judges of the Jewish supreme court. He was telling them to repent even then. He said, Know that I am the Christ, the Son of God. He urged them to believe in him and be saved. This was a warning, a sermon, and a threat.

Blasphemy or Truth?

How did the Sanhedrin respond? They convicted Jesus of blasphemy. Oh, it is not blasphemy to tell the truth! But because of their depraved hearts, these wicked judges would not believe the truth, as Jesus said in Luke 22:67. They knew he was the Messiah. They knew Jesus had performed miracles which were prophesied in the Old Testament. They knew that Jesus had raised the dead Lazarus from the tomb after four days. They knew many had put their faith in him.

Had they done some research, these leaders could have found further evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. They would have discovered that he was born in Bethlehem and was a descendent of David. They could have researched the records of the Roman government. They could have done research to find out whether he was virgin-born. Mary was still living--they could have asked her, "Tell us about this man: How was he conceived?" She would have said, "By the Holy Ghost." They could have done research into all the miracles Jesus had performed.

But despite all the evidence, these leaders would not believe. No, they were only interested in getting rid of their Messiah, Jesus, the Son of God. Yet even that was the will of God. Jesus was forsaken of God and forsaken of man. Why? For our salvation.

The Illegal Court

How many illegalities did this court commit? First, they bribed Judas to betray Jesus to them. Then they arrested Jesus and conducted the trial at night. They failed to bring Judas to court to accuse Jesus. They tried Jesus on the eve of the Sabbath and first tried him by a single judge, Annas. They made no formal indictment against him. They tried him even though they were prejudiced and had plotted to kill him long ago. They did not defend him, although that was their duty under their law. They questioned Jesus directly so that he could incriminate himself. They failed to acquit Jesus when there were no witnesses. They deliberately sought false testimonies. They slapped him for no reason. They called his testimony blasphemy when it was the truth. They put him under a most solemn oath. They did not punish the false witnesses for giving false testimony. They voted twice within a few hours of time rather than waiting twenty-four hours. They condemned Jesus to death, even though according to Jewish law, if the judges unanimously condemned a criminal, he must be acquitted, because their unanimous vote would be considered a mob action.

Despite all the illegalities, the court proceeded to vote. This rotten, corrupt Sanhedrin condemned the sinless Son of God to death.

Worship or Destroy

There is no neutrality possible when it comes to dealing with Jesus Christ. He is the Messiah, the Son of God, the Creator and Upholder of all, the Savior, the Lord of all, and the Judge of all. People will either worship him or maltreat him. If these judges had believed the claims of Christ, they would have recognized that he was worthy of worship, adoration, and total trust. They would have repented of their sins and their evil hearts, and asked him to forgive them. They would have humbled themselves and served him and become his disciples.

But Jeremiah tells us "the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" These authorities would not believe in Jesus. Even when the news came that Jesus had risen from the dead on the third day, what did these rotten-hearts do? They gave money to the guards to cover it up. That shows the corrupt nature of the human heart.

These judges had determined to maltreat and destroy Jesus, not to worship him. And so in Matthew 26:67 we read that they spat on his holy face. In that culture to spit on the face of a person was to repudiate that person. We get the word empty from the word emptuo , to spit. They emptied onto the face of Jesus, showing extreme revulsion. In effect they were saying, "You are not the Messiah. You are not the Son of God. You are not a mediatorial King or the coming Judge. You are a phony with no authority!" They spat on the face of Deity.

Then these judges struck Jesus with their clenched fists. Again, this was a repudiation of the Messiah. The Messiah was powerful; therefore, a Messiah who could be arrested, tried, and slapped is no Messiah. They slapped him and taunted him to defend himself. Next, these judges blindfolded Jesus. They continued to hit him and said, "Tell us, who hit you?" That was a repudiation that he was a prophet.

But the truth is, Jesus suffered and did not retaliate. He must drink the cup. It was the Father's will that he be obedient, even to the death of the cross, for our salvation. Long ago, Isaiah said spoke of the Messiah: "I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting" (Isaiah 50:6).

Who Is Responsible?

Who bears the blame in condemning Christ to death? We have to face that question. There are many Christians who would say that the Jews had nothing to do with it. They ask forgiveness for even suggesting that. Then there are others who go to the other extreme and say it was the Jews who put Jesus to death, and they use that as a basis for anti-Semitic behavior.

We must study the Scripture to see whose responsibility it was. First, as the Scripture says, it was the responsibility of some Jews, particularly the authorities. There were other Jews who did not participate in this criminal trial. Remember, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus? They were Jewish leaders. They buried Jesus, but they did not condemn him. So, historically, we must say that some Jews were responsible.

Secondly, there were also some Gentiles involved, particularly Pontius Pilate.

Thirdly, we must realize that every true Christian is responsible for the death of Christ. That is a theological argument, because we know that Christ died for our sins. Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. He who knew no sin became sin for us. The truth is, Jesus Christ would not have been condemned and crucified if it were not for our sins. That ought to tell us how much God loves us!

No Neutrality

There is no neutrality possible when we come to Jesus. We must either worship him or condemn and get rid of him. Jesus himself said that he came to divide humanity. Some will repent and receive forgiveness from him, and then bend their knees to worship, adore and serve him. Others will hit him, spit on him, and revile him. These are the only possible alternatives. We must either stand in the church or in the camp of the enemies of Jesus Christ.

Are modern people any different from the members of the Sanhedrin? No. In fact, we moderns are more rotten than ever.

Yet, just as the Sanhedrin did, we must face this Jesus Christ whom Scripture declares is God, Creator, Messiah, and the One who died, rose again, and is enthroned. This Jesus is the universal King who is coming in glory as the righteous Judge of all the earth. And either we will repent, believe on him and be saved to worship and serve him, or, like the Sanhedrin and Pilate, we will condemn, curse, revile and seek to get rid of him, because we cannot tolerate his morality, holiness, deity, purity, and justice.

But the question is, how do we know that Jesus is the great Judge? We have the Scriptures and we know of the risen Christ. But there is a final proof: Jesus is coming again. When he comes, he will raise us up from the dead and as the Judge, he will summon us. The roles will be reversed in this great Assize. The books will be opened and he will judge.

Soon he shall come in great glory and power and every eye shall see him. If you will not repent and believe, you will die in your sins. But he will raise you up and condemn you. How terrible will be your condition! No words can describe the horribleness of hell as described by Jesus Christ himself in the Holy Scriptures.

Young people, middle-aged people, older people, men and women, I present you Christ, the Messiah. He is the Son of God, the One who is seated on the right hand of the Mighty God, the One to whom is given all authority by the Father to subjugate every enemy. No neutrality is possible! This is not a religion or mythology that has no meaning. I offer you Christ: judge him! Either you will fall down and worship him, or you will also condemn him. My prayer is that you judge him correctly, bow down before him, and worship him.

Copyright © 1996, P. G. Mathew

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