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Jesus had just observed the Passover with his disciples. He instituted what is now known as the Lord’s Table. He agonized in the garden of Gethsemane. There we witness the struggle of Jesus and how he acted under pressure. We see his absolute surrender to the will of the heavenly Father. Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus with a kiss and Christ was arrested. Much had happened but more was about to unfold. Here is an account of the Lord’s trial before the Sanhedrin. In this trial, Jesus is accused and condemned by the very people he came to this world to save. They are in the presence of the promised Messiah, but they do not recognize him, acknowledge him or submit to him. The account in John’s Gospel reveals that Jesus was first taken to the home of Annas. (Jn. 18:13) He was the father-in-law of the High Priest Caiaphas and a man of considerable influence. When Annas finished questioning Jesus, he sent him, bound, to Caiaphas.―John 18:24.
The text deals with the Lord’s trial before the Sanhedrin. This council was the seventy member supreme court of Israel. The word “Sanhedrin” literally means, “to sit together.” They were the official rulers of the nation. The members of this body were chosen for their maturity and wisdom. They were expected to be fair and impartial in all their rulings. The High Priest was in charge of the proceedings. These people were already convinced of Jesus’ guilt. They merely went through the motions of securing evidence against him. They behaved like prosecutors, rather than independent and impartial arbiters of justice.
The Trial Was Illegal
However, this was an illegal trial. It was illegal because of when it was held. Under Judaic laws, which regulated the court system, a trial at night was prohibited. Luke’s account says “daybreak.” But that must refer to the second trial as other Gospel accounts put it at night. This is corroborated by Peter’s denials, which were before the cock crowed at daybreak. It was also illegal to hold a trial on a feast day, and this was the Passover feast. Having a trial at such a time might prevent the entire council from gathering. And it would prevent the accused from mounting an effective defense as it would make it more difficult for witnesses to come to the trial. So, this trial obviously violated these regulations since it was held at night and on the Passover.
This trial was rigged. The slightest inconsistency in the evidence of witnesses should have been enough to acquit Jesus. There were insufficient grounds to convict. Christ’s condemnation was based on the testimony of false witnesses and erroneous accusations. This passage of Scripture reveals the true character and condition of the human heart. His trial took place at night, but as soon as dawn begins to break, the Sanhedrin convened again to legitimize the illegal decisions they reached during the night.
However, it was also illegal because of where it was held. Jewish law mandated that all trials conducted by the Sanhedrin were to be held in The Hall of Hewn Stones. This was located in the temple grounds. This rule was violated because the preliminary trial was first held in the home of Annas. And then transferred to the private residence of the High Priest. (Luke. 22:54) The Sanhedrin was behaving more like a private club than a public body elected to oversee judicial proceedings in a fair manner. It was also illegal because of the way it was held. There are many problems with the trial of Jesus that night. Among the illegalities of his trial are the following:
- Trials were illegal on the eve of the Sabbath because Jewish law required a one day adjournment in the event of a conviction.
- A guilty sentence could only be handed down the day after a trial.
- The Sanhedrin could not bring charges against a defendant. They could only investigate charges that had been made by others.
- The charges against Jesus were changed during the trial. He was first charged with threatening to destroy the temple. Later, he was charged with blasphemy. Then, when he stood before Pilate, his charges were changed again. This time he was charged with claiming to be the King of the Jews and forbidding the paying of taxes to Rome.
- Jesus was not allowed a defense before the court.
- All charges against him should have been thoroughly investigated.
- And he should have been allowed time to call his own witnesses.
- The Sanhedrin pronounced the death sentence (v.64). But under the law, the Sanhedrin could not convict or pass down a death sentence. Under Roman rule, they could not execute the sentence of death. Their remit only allowed them to examine the prisoner and pass judgment. This had to be ratified by the Roman authorities
This trial was illegal because of why it was held. It was not about seeking the truth of a man’s guilt or innocence. In the eyes of the Sanhedrin, Jesus was guilty before the trial ever began. He had no chance of leaving this trial with anything but a guilty verdict and a sentence of death. This trial was illegal because of the witnesses they called. The Jewish leaders have a problem. The men actually went out and sought witnesses to testify against Jesus (v.55). Effectively, they recruited false witnesses, “…many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree.” (14:56). There were many who came forward that night willing to lie. They lied against the one who had done nothing but good and who had said nothing but the truth. Furthermore, their testimonies were inconsistent with one another. According to the law, the testimony of witnesses in a trial had to be in perfect agreement, “On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.” (Deut. 17:6). A couple of chapters later there is further comment, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.”―Deuteronomy 19:15.
Finally, some people informed the court that Jesus had threatened to destroy the temple and to build it again in three days. But again their versions of what Jesus said didn’t agree (v.59). The word “temple” in (v.58) refers to the Holy Place, not the entire temple grounds. So, they are accusing Jesus of threatening to demolish the holiest place in all of Israel. To their ears, it was utterly sacrilegious. Add to that the ludicrous claim that he would rebuild the temple in three days. When it had already been under construction for forty-six years and it is evident that such crass literalism in the interpretation of Christ’s words regarding the temple was a convenient and cynical ploy to destroy him. Actually Jesus never said what they claimed he said. The Lord said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn. 2:19). He was not referring to the temple in Jerusalem. He was referring to his own body that would be destroyed on the cross and raised from the dead three days later (John. 2:21). Jesus never said that he would destroy anything. At best, this accusation was based on a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of what Jesus said.
The Gospels make it clear that these were false accusations. It is astonishing that not a single person came forward in the Lord’s defense that night. His accusers were not looking for his friends. They were looking for those who would testify against him. It is sad to think that there were some there who could have stood up for Jesus. Peter and John were nearby. (John. 18:15) They were too afraid to come forward and speak up. If the Sanhedrin had searched they would have found many who could give favorable testimony about Jesus. People like:
- former lepers
- a man who had been paralyzed but was restored to mobility
- Jairus and his daughter
- the widow of Nain and her son
- the Gadarene demoniac (now in his right mind)
- the woman who once had an issue of blood for twelve years
- and others
However, they were only interested in finding fault and ridding themselves of Jesus once and for all. It is amazing that with all the people Jesus had helped, ministered to, fed, healed, blessed and taught, no one stood with him on that terrible night. However, many were willing to put their lives on the line to falsely accuse Jesus:
Deuteronomy 19:16-19 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
16 If a malicious witness rises up against a man to accuse him of wrongdoing, 17 then both the men who have the dispute shall stand before Jehovah, before the priests and the judges who shall be in office in those days. 18 The judges shall investigate thoroughly, and if the witness is a false witness and he has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
If a man was proven to be a false witness, he was to receive the same punishment that would have come to the man he lied against. Jesus stands alone among his enemies. These men did not care that Jesus was innocent. They hated him because he was a threat to their way of life and the power and status they had in society. They hated him so much that they were willing to lie, to break their own laws and to condemn an innocent man to death.
It is still the same today! Many religious institutions exercise power abusively. There are still people in our world who hate the name of Jesus so much that they will do anything in their power to discredit or destroy him and all those who follow him. Atheism is becoming more aggressive and secularism more militant. Jesus said: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”―John 15:20.
As the trial continues, Caiaphas has a real problem. It is impossible to convict Jesus with the testimony of conflicting witnesses, so he changes tactics. He is frustrated with the proceedings thus far so he assumes the role of prosecutor and goes on the attack. He is mystified by the fact that Jesus has not opened his mouth to refute the lies the false witnesses have told about him. So he calls on Jesus to defend himself. In response to Caiaphas’ demands, Jesus remains silent. Here Jesus fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth.” (Isa. 53:7). Caiaphas attempts to force Jesus to declare his deity. He is trying to get Jesus to incriminate himself on record. Caiaphas asks Jesus: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” Jesus does not disappoint Caiaphas. He answered, “I am…” He tells them that they judge him now, but he will ultimately judge them. The Sanhedrin thought they were in control that night, but they were terribly wrong. When Caiaphas hears these words of Jesus, he has heard all that he needs to hear.
Caiaphas rips his own clothes. This was a dramatic reaction to what he considered blasphemy. It was a symbolic display designed to convey horror in the face of a terrible crime against God. In fact it is something he ought not to have done as it was expressly forbidden, “The priest who is chief among his brothers, on whose head the anointing oil is poured and who has been consecrated to wear the garments, shall not let the hair of his head hang loose nor tear his clothes.” (Lev. 21:10). When Caiaphas ripped his garments, he (unintentionally) disqualified himself from the office of High Priest.
The one standing before him was qualified for that office as the great High Priest. What a contrast between the behavior of Caiaphas and the behavior of Christ! The whole council renders their guilty verdict. After Jesus is condemned, the true nature of these men comes out. These educated, refined, religious leaders turn on Jesus like thugs. They spit in the Savior’s face ~ though it is not overtly stated that the Sanhedrin were the ones who spat at Jesus and beat him. It is clear that the soldiers beat him, but others did as well.
The Sanhedrin was central to the proceedings that night, and if they did not participate in this violence they permitted it. They certainly had the power to stop it if they so desired. It is very likely that they were the very ones who engaged in this physical violence against the Lord. After all, they were determined to kill him and plotted to murder him and carried out that wicked scheme under the cloak of justice. They had been frustrated in many such attempts up to now and here they most likely gave vent to those frustrations through violent action. But, it is the fulfillment of prophecy, “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.”―Isaiah 50:6.
Peter says, “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” (1 Pet. 2:23) Jesus endured all this in order to redeem those who would turn to him in repentance and faith. Whether we know it or not everyone stands before Jesus in judgment. Like those religious Jews, people must decide whether they will believe him or reject him. What will you decide? When you see Jesus one day (and you will) will you see him as your Lord and Savior? Or, will you face him as your Judge? Will you embrace him in gratitude for the price he paid to redeem sinners? It is time for you to decide where you stand in regard to Jesus. Is he a liar or lunatic to be rejected? Or, is he to be loved and obeyed as Savior and Lord?
 Anyone who doubts that Jesus claimed to be God should take note.