THE TRIAL BEFORE THE JEWS
Those who had laid hold of Jesus led him away to the house of Caiaphas the High Priest, where the Scribes and the elders were assembled.
The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin tried to find false witness against him, in order to put him to death; but they could not find it, although many false witnesses came forward. Later two came forward and said, “This fellow said, `I can destroy the Temple of God, and in three days I can build it again.'” The High Priest rose and said, “Do you make no answer? What is it that these witness against you?” But Jesus kept silent. So the High Priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us, whether you are the Anointed One of God, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “It is you who have said it. But I tell you that from now on you will see the Son of Man seated on the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of Heaven.” Then the High Priest rent his garments, saying, “He has blasphemed. What further need have we of witnesses? Look you, you have now heard his blasphemy.
What is your opinion?” They answered, “He has made himself liable to the death penalty.” Then they spat upon his face, and buffeted him. And some struck him on the cheek saying, “Prophesy to us, you Anointed One of God! Who is he who struck you?”
The process of the trial of Jesus is not altogether easy to follow. It seems to have fallen into three parts. The first part took place after the arrest in the Garden, during the night and in the High Priest’s house, and is described in this section. The second part took place first thing in the morning, and is briefly described in Matt. 27:1-2. The third part took place before Pilate and is described in Matt. 27:11-26. The salient question is this–was the meeting during the night an official meeting of the Sanhedrin, hastily summoned, or was it merely a preliminary examination, in order to formulate a charge, and was the meeting in the morning the official meeting of the Sanhedrin? However that question is answered, the Jews violated their own laws in the trial of Jesus; but if the meeting in the night was a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the violation was even more extreme.
On the whole, it seems that Matthew took the night meeting to be a meeting of the Sanhedrin, for in Matt. 26:59 he says that the whole Sanhedrin sought for false witness to put Jesus to death. Let us then first look at this process from the Jewish legal point of view.
The Sanhedrin was the supreme court of the Jews. It was composed of Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and elders of the people; it numbered seventy-one members; and it was presided over by the High Priest. For a trial such as this a quorum was twenty-three. It had certain regulations. All criminal cases must be tried during the daytime and must be completed during the daytime. Criminal cases could not be transacted during the Passover season at all. Only if the verdict was Not Guilty could a case be finished on the day it was begun; otherwise a night must elapse before the pronouncement of the verdict, so that feelings of mercy might have time to arise. Further, no decision of the Sanhedrin was valid unless it met in its own meeting place, the Hall of Hewn Stone in the Temple precincts. All evidence had to be guaranteed by two witnesses separately examined and having not contact with each other. And false witness was punishable by death.
The seriousness of the occasion was impressed upon any witness in a case where life was at stake: “Forget not, O witness, that it is one thing to give evidence in a trial for money, and another in a trial for life. In a money suit, if thy witness-bearing shall do wrong, money may repair that wrong; but in this trial for life, if thou sinnest, the blood of the accused and the blood of his seed unto the end of time shall be imputed unto thee.” Still further, in any trial the process began by the laying before the court of all the evidence for the innocence of the accused, before the evidence for his guilt was adduced.
These were the Sanhedrin’s own rules, and it is abundantly clear that, in their eagerness to get rid of Jesus, they broke their own rules. The Jews had reached such a peak of hatred that any means were justified to put an end to Jesus.
THE CRIME OF CHRIST
Matt. 26:57; Matt. 26:59-68 (continued)
The main business of the night meeting of the Jewish authorities was to formulate a charge against Jesus. As we have seen, all evidence had to be guaranteed by two witnesses, separately examined. For long not even two false witnesses could be found to agree. And then a charge was found, the charge that Jesus had said that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.
It is clear that this charge is a twisting of certain things he did actually say. We have already seen that he foretold–and rightly–the destruction of the Temple. This had been twisted into a charge that he had said that he himself would destroy the Temple. We have seen that he foretold that he himself would be killed and would rise on the third day. This had been twisted into a charge that he had said that he would rebuild the Temple in three days.
This charge was formulated by deliberately and maliciously misrepeating and misinterpreting certain things which Jesus had said. To that charge Jesus utterly refused to reply. Therein the law was on his side, for no person on trial could either be asked, or compelled to answer, any question which would incriminate him.
It was then that the High Priest launched his vital question. We have seen that repeatedly Jesus warned his disciples to tell no man that he was the Messiah. How then did the High Priest know to ask the question the answer to which Jesus could not escape? It may well be that when Judas laid information against him, he also told the Jewish authorities about Jesus’ revelation of his own Messiahship. It may well be that Judas had deliberately broken the bond of secrecy which Jesus had laid upon his disciples.
In any event, the High Priest asked the question, and asked it upon oath: “Are you the Messiah?” he demanded. “Do you claim to be the Son of God?” Here was the crucial moment in the trial. We might well say that all the universe held its breath as it waited for Jesus’ answer. If Jesus said, “No,” the bottom fell out of the trial; there was no possible charge against him. He had only to say, “No,” and walk out a free man, and escape before the Sanhedrin could think out another way of entrapping him. On the other hand, if he said, “Yes,” he signed his own death warrant. Nothing more than a simple “Yes” was needed to make the Cross a complete and inescapable certainty.
It may be that Jesus paused for a moment once again to count the cost before he made the great decision; and then he said, “Yes.” He went further. He quoted Dn.7:13 with its vivid account of the ultimate triumph and kingship of God’s chosen one. He well knew what he was doing. Immediately there went up the cry of blasphemy. Garments were rent in a kind of synthetic and hysterical horror; and Jesus was condemned to death.
Then followed the spitting on him, the buffeting, the slapping of his face, the mockery. Even the externals of justice were forgotten, and the venomous hostility of the Jewish authorities broke through. That meeting in the night began as a court of justice and ended in a frenzied display of hatred, in which there was no attempt to maintain even the superficialities of impartial justice.
To this day when a man is brought face to face with Jesus Christ, he must either hate him or love him; he must either submit to him, or desire to destroy him. No man who realizes what Jesus Christ demands can possibly be neutral. He must either be his liege-man or his foe.
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