After his arrest, Jesus was tried in a mock court by Jewish authorities and then later rushed off to Pilate for trial in the Roman system. The Jewish council was responsible for sending Jesus to the Roman authorities after they had reached their judgment, but both Jews and Gentiles were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
NOTE - Jesus was sent back and forth between Jewish leaders and Roman. He goes to Annas first for an informal examination (John 18:12-14, 19-23), then to the trial before the Sanhedrin as we have here, then to Pilate (27:1-2; Luke 22:66-71), then to Herod (Luke 23:6-12), and then back to Pilate.
Sadly, throughout the history of the church, many have been guilty of anti-Semitism. They have put the whole blame of Christ’s death upon the Jews. That is a gross error. No one group or no one person is more responsible for his mistreatment and death than another. There is a sense in which “God could rightly point the finger at every one of us and legitimately claim that we killed his Son” (Blomberg). Our sins nailed him to the cross! Every sinner for whom Christ died is responsible!
But the Jewish authorities must share the blame in sending the Son of God to his death. The innocent Christ was tried and found guilty by the Jewish Sanhedrin. It is that trial that we shall examine today.
The account of the trial is laden with problems. “There are numerous apparent illegalities in the officials procedures” (Blomberg). The authorities were so zealous in their desire to be rid of Jesus that they failed to follow the legal operating procedures.
The rules they broke are as follows:
•Jews were not to hold trials at night or during festivals. •A capital verdict could not be reached in a day. •The accused should have been permitted counsel for the defense. •The testimony received was too flimsy to hold up. •The procedure for calling witnesses made a shamble of the law.
As you can see, there were many irregularities in the trial of Jesus conducted by the Jewish authorities! But they so longed to dispose of this “trouble-maker” that they circumvented the law in order to do it.
We turn now to examine the trial as told by Matthew.
I. The Court (57-58)
The men who arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas’s house. Caiaphas was the high priest (John tells of a courtesy call made to the ex-high priest, Annas, before going to Caiaphas’s house - John 18:13). The trial took place at this location. It was at his house that the plot to arrest Jesus was worked out (26:3-4).
Caiaphas would have been the judge at the trial. He presided over the court.
Caiaphas the Jewish high priest (A.D. 27-36) at the beginning of our Lord's public ministry, in the reign of Tiberius (Luke 3:2) and also at the time of his condemnation and crucifixion (Mt 26:3,57; John 11:49; 18:13,14) He held this office during the whole of Pilate's administration. His wife was the daughter of Annas, who had formerly been high priest, and was probably the vicar or deputy (Heb. sagan) of Caiaphas. He was of the sect of the Sadducees (Ac 5:17) and was a member of the council when he gave his opinion that Jesus should be put to death "for the people, and that the whole nation perish not" (John 11:50) In these words he unconsciously uttered a prophecy. "Like Saul, he was a prophet in spite of himself." Caiaphas had no power to inflict the punishment of death, and therefore Jesus was sent to Pilate, the Roman governor, that he might duly pronounce the sentence against him (Mt 27:2; John 18:28) At a later period his hostility to the gospel is still manifest (Ac 4:6) (Easton).
But there was a jury, also. We are told that “the scribes and the elders” were already assembled at his house. They are referred to as “the council” in verse 59. This is the Sanhedrin, the governing body of Israel. The Sanhedrin would have been a mix of Pharisees and Sadducees. The Pharisees are especially prominent throughout the ministry of Jesus as enemies. They were very influential in the towns and in the synagogues, but don’t have quite the power in this body. They are not mentioned by name in the judgment proceedings against Christ. Messengers would have been sent to their homes to inform them of this specially called meeting. It was not normal for them to be called out in the middle of the night, but the opportunity had arisen for them to put Jesus away. Out of the 71 members (70 actual members and the high priest), one-third was recognized as a quorum (France). So all that was necessary for them to convene was 23 members.
Not only do we have mentioned the judge and the jury, there also were observers of this trial. Verse 58 tells how Peter came into the courtyard of the high priest’s residence. “He went in and sat with the servants to see the end.” Peter appears “midway between courage (51) and cowardice (70)” (Carson).
The observers would not have seen and heard everything, but they were close enough to follow the legal maneuverings. They were there to see what the outcome would be. Court was in session at a strange hour and they would wait “to see the end.”
II. The Witnesses (59-60)
To condemn someone as deserving death, there must first be an offense and then witnesses that the person charged is in fact guilty. The Sanhedrin must, therefore, find witnesses who will testify that Jesus has broken the law. Convinced of his guilt, they must now secure evidence against him.
Their search for witnesses is not a search for the truth. Their objective was to put Jesus to death so they sought any kind of evidence that they could use in getting a guilty verdict. A false witness would do if they could bend the testimony that would be given to have just the mere semblance of truth. Matthew refers to their procedure as a search for “false testimony” given by “false witnesses,” because he knew that Jesus was not guilty and could not be (Carson).
According to Jewish law, it was essential to have two independent witnesses in agreement if someone was to be legally condemned to death (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; 19:15). Since the Jewish authorities had no evidence themselves, they had to find witnesses who would testify to his guilt on some trumped up account. To put him to death they had to demonstrate that he had committed an offense worthy of death.
They searched and they searched for witnesses. All who came with evidence against Jesus didn’t have sufficient credibility or their information was to weak to hold up. But finally, two witnesses were found who had a charge that might stick!
III. The Case (61)
The testimony against Jesus was a report of something he once said. The witnesses took the stand and testifies that they had heard Jesus say, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.”
Jesus did say something like this, though the witnesses did not state exactly what he said. But not only was Jesus misquoted, he was also misunderstood. Jesus was speaking of his own death and resurrection! John says he was speaking of “the temple of his body” (John 2:21). But this did not matter to them. They had a charge that they could now use to put him to death!
For anyone to speak of destroying the temple was a serious matter. “It was both sacrilegious and treasonable” (France). The temple was a holy place and could not be so desecrated without incurring judgment. The temple was the focal point of the nation, so high treason as well as profanation of the most holy place was crime enough to warrant death. This was the charge hastily gathered in the middle of the night that would be used against Jesus. The case was made. Now it was a matter of getting the charge to stick.
IV. The Interrogation (62-64)
Now it is time to question the defendant. How would the One charged respond to the testimony that had been placed in evidence against him? The high priests, who was presiding over the court, demanded a reply to the charge. He said to Jesus, “Do you answer nothing? What is it that these men testify against you?” (62). He would now try to get Jesus to incriminate himself.
But Jesus refuses to speak. Matthew writes, “But Jesus kept silent” (63). “He is not here to defend himself legally any more than he defended himself physically in Gethsemane. He has rather come to suffer, according to God’s will” (Blomberg).
Jesus could have denied the charge against him but he does nothing to prevent the unfolding of the events which are against him. Had he done so, another charge would have been found. The outcome was inevitable. His silence is a fulfillment of Isaiah 53:7.
The high priest puts him under oath. He says, “I adjure you by the living God that you tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” (63). This is the crux of the matter—this is what they had heard said of him so now they want to know if he claims to be the Messiah or not! The question had been raised many time before, in one form or another (12:38-42; 16:1-4; 21:1-11, 14-16, 23).
NOTE - The high priests equates the Messiah with being the Son of God. The two titles are equivalent.
Jesus replied with the same words he used in replying to Judas in verse 25—“It is as you say.” This is an affirmative reply. We would paraphrase it like this, “That is your way of putting it,” or “The words are yours.” Jesus does not deny that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, what he would deny is the understanding of the Messianic office by the high priests. “He is the Christ, the Son of God, when those titles are rightly interpreted” (Blomberg). Carson says, “Jesus is indeed the Messiah and so must answer affirmatively. But he is not quite the Messiah Caiaphas has in mind; so he must answer cautiously and with some explanation.”
That is why he goes on to qualify his affirmative reply with the words, “Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (64).
There are two OT passages that form the backdrop of Jesus’ statement: Daniel 7:13 - “I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, Coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, And they brought Him near before Him.” Psalm 110:1 (already seen in 22:41-46) - “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’”
Note the things which Jesus declares of himself. He is the heavenly Son of Man. He occupied the honored and powerful position at God’s right hand. He will return again some day to judge those who are now judging him!
This is no ordinary man who stands before the Sanhedrin!
V. The Judgment (65-66)
The self-revelation Jesus gives of himself gave the Jewish authorities better weapons to condemn him than the witnesses who testified against him. After hearing Jesus say this, the high priest “tore his cloths” and cried out, “He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard his blasphemy!” (65).
For anyone to make the claim Jesus did, if it were not true, would be guilty of blasphemy. But they never investigated whether it was true or not; they never bothered to call witnesses for the defense who could give evidence that his claim was true. They closed the case upon hearing Jesus speak and condemned him to death.
Blasphemy in the OT carried the death penalty (Lev. 24:10-23). It was a capital offense in Jewish law, therefore, they now had their warrant to call for his death. They could not put him to death, but they could now take the case to the Roman authorities who could carry out the punishment. Tearing cloths is a sign of either grief or outrage (2 Kings 18:37; Acts 14:14). In this case, outrage is more the predominant feeling.
The high priest puts the question to the jury, to the convening members of the Sanhedrin, “What do you think?” They answered and said, “He is deserving of death” (66).
Jesus was condemned on the charge of blasphemy but it was never investigated whether his claim to be the Son of God had any validity or not. He was railroaded, as we would say. This was a kangaroo court, the decision having been made to condemn him to death before he ever was brought in. A Kangaroo Court is “A mock court set up in violation of established legal procedure.” It is “A court characterized by dishonesty or incompetence.”
VI. The Mockery (67-68)
After the sentence of death was declared, the participants in the court proceedings did two things.
1. “They spat in his face and beat him” (67). Such treatment seems beneath the dignity of the chief priests and elders of Israel, but their hatred and disgust of Jesus was so great, they vented their anger in this insulting and hostile way. In OT days, a blasphemer would have been stoned—since under Roman law they could not do this, they spat on him and beat him instead.
2. “Others struck him with the palms of their hands, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is the one who struck you?’” (67-68). Mark tells us that Jesus was blindfolded, which explains this episode a little better (Mark 14:65). They were taunting Jesus. The taunt was a test of his claims. If he really was the Messiah, he would be able to say who it was who hit him, even though he was blindfolded. Not only could the Messiah answer who had hit him, he would also vanquish his foes by his mighty power. The fact that he did not retaliate when abused was a signal to them of false pretensions.
Let us keep in mind the reason Jesus voluntarily submitted to the indignities heaped upon him. It was in order to redeem miserable sinners as we are (Ryle)!
The high priest in OT days would place his hands upon the head of the goat before it was slain, and now Caiaphas, the high priest, declared sin to be upon the head of Jesus before he was led away to be crucified. As the lamb was led away to the slaughter, so Christ was led away to death as the sinners substitute.
Thanks be unto God! He was cruelly mistreated and punished that we might be graciously treated and forgiven!