A closer look at the laws the Jewish leaders broke to bring Jesus to trial and crucifixion at the cross
No One Wants to Die on a Cross
If we should suddenly be revealed to those around us on the outside as Almighty God sees us within our souls, we would become the most embarrassed people in the world. If that should happen, we would be revealed as people barely able to stand, people in rags, some too dirty to be decent, some with great open sores. Some would be revealed in such condition that they would be turned out of skid row. Do we think that we are actually keeping our spiritual poverty a secret, that God doesn’t know us better than we know ourselves? But we will not tell Him, and we disguise our poverty of spirit and hide our inward state in order to preserve our reputation.
We also want to keep some authority for ourselves. We cannot agree that the final key to our lives should be turned over to Jesus Christ. Brethren, we want to have dual controls—let the Lord run it but keep a hand on the controls just in case the Lord should fail!
We are willing to join heartily in singing, “To God Be the Glory,” but we are strangely ingenious in figuring out ways and means by which we keep some of the glory for ourselves. In this matter of perpetually seeking our own interests, we can only say that people who want to live for God often arrange to do very subtly what the worldly souls do crudely and openly.
A man who doesn’t have enough imagination to invent anything will still figure out a way of seeking his own interests, and the amazing thing is that he will do it with the help of some pretext which will serve as a screen to keep him from seeing the ugliness of his own behavior.
Yes, we have it among professing Christians—this strange ingenuity to seek our own interest under the guise of seeking the interests of God. I am not afraid to say what I fear—that there are thousands of people who are using the deeper life and Bible prophecy, foreign missions and physical healing for no other purpose than to promote their own private interests secretly. They continue to let their apparent interest in these things serve as a screen so that they don’t have to take a look at how ugly they are on the inside.
So we talk a lot about the deeper life and spiritual victory and becoming dead to ourselves—but we stay very busy rescuing ourselves from the cross. That part of ourselves that we rescue from the cross may be a very little part of us, but it is likely to be the seat of our spiritual troubles and our defeats.
No one wants to die on a cross—until he comes to the place where he is desperate for the highest will of God in serving Jesus Christ. The Apostle Paul said, “I want to die on that cross and I want to know what it is to die there, because if I die with Him I will also know Him in a better resurrection” (see Philippians 3:10-11). Paul was not just saying, “He will raise me from the dead”—for everyone will be raised from the dead. He said, “I want a superior resurrection, a resurrection like Christ’s.” Paul was willing to be crucified with Christ, but in our day we want to die a piece at a time, so we can rescue little parts of ourselves from the cross….
People will pray and ask God to be filled—but all the while there is that strange ingenuity, that contradiction within which prevents our wills from stirring to the point of letting God have His way….
Those who live in this state of perpetual contradiction cannot be happy Christians. A man who is always on the cross, just piece after piece, cannot be happy in that process. But when that man takes his place on the cross with Jesus Christ once and for all, and commends his spirit to God, lets go of everything and ceases to defend himself—sure, he has died, but there is a resurrection that follows!
If we are willing to go this route of victory with Jesus Christ, we cannot continue to be mediocre Christians, stopped halfway to the peak. Until we give up our own interests, there will never be enough stirring within our beings to find His highest will.
Many remarkable trials have characterized the judicial history of mankind.
The trial of Socrates before the dicastery of Athens, charged with corrupting Athenian youth, with blaspheming the Olympic gods, and with seeking to destroy the constitution of the Attic Republic, is still a sublime and thrilling chapter in the history of the Athenians.
The trial of Charles the First of England sealed with royal blood a new covenant of British freedom, and erected upon the highway of national progress an enduring landmark to civil liberty. A philosopher of history declares that these condemnatory and executory proceedings against a Stuart king worthy of all the epoch-making movements that have glorified the centuries of England constitutional growth.
The trial of Aaron Burr is the blackest chapter in the annuals of our republic. Burr was the most extraordinary man of the first half century of American national history. His arraignment at the bar of public justice on the charge of high treason – that he sought to destroy the Country of Washington, the Republic of Jefferson – was the sad and melancholy close of a long and lofty life.
But these trials, one and all, were tame and commonplace when compared with the trial and crucifixion of the Galilean peasant, Jesus of Nazareth. The trial of the Nazarene was before the high tribunals of both heaven and earth; before the Great Sanhedrin, whose judges were the master’spirits of a divinely commissioned race; before the court of the Roman Empire that controlled the legal and political rights of men throughout the known world, from Scotland to Judea and from Dacia to Abyssinia.
The trial of Jesus was twofold: Hebrew and Roman, or Ecclesiastical and Civil. The Hebrew trial took place before the Great Sanhedrin. The Roman trial was held before Pontius Pilate, Roman governor of Judea, and before Herod, Tetrarch of Galilee. These trials – all made one, were links in a chain, and took place within a space of time variously estimated at from ten to twenty hours.
During these trials, the legal rights of the man Jesus at the bar of human justice under Jewish and Roman law were under suspicion. Upon what were the complaints against Jesus based? What were the rules and regulations of Hebrew and Roman law directly applicable in the trials before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate? Were these rules and regulations followed during Jesus’ trial? As we take a closer look at the trial of Jesus, we hope these questions will be answered fully.
The gospels of the New Testament form almost the entire record of fact available on the trial of Jesus. Except for a line from Philo, a passage from Josephus, a mention from Tacitus, and a few fragments from the Talmud, all else is darkness except for the gospel records. The trial of Jesus is recorded in Matthew 26:47-28:26; Mark 14:43-15:15; Luke 22:47-23:24; John 28:3-29:16.
The Pentateuch and the Talmud form the double basis of Hebrew jurisprudence. The Mosaic Code furnished the necessary platform of justice; ancient tradition and Rabbinic interpretation contained in the Talmud supplied needed rules of practical application. The Pentateuch was the foundation, the cornerstone; the Talmud was the superstructure, the gilded dome of the great temple of Hebrew justice.
Thirty-six capital crimes are mentioned by the Pentateuch and the Talmud. Hebrew jurisprudence provided four methods of capital punishment for these crimes – beheading, strangling, burning and stoning. Other noncapital punishments included imprisonment, flagellation (scourging), slavery, and internment.
Hebrew tribunals were three in kind: the Great Sanhedrin, the Minor Sanhedrin, and the Lower Tribunal or Court of Three. The Great Sanhedrin was the high court of justice and the supreme tribunal of the Jews. It sat in Jerusalem, and numbered seventy-one members. Its powers were legislative, executive, and judicial. It exercised all the functions of education, government and religion. The Great Sanhedrin was divided into three chambers – the chamber of priests, the chamber of scribes, the chamber of elders. Theoretically, each chamber consisted of twenty-three members, who)along with two presiding officers, total~ the seventy-one members. The officers were the president (High Priest) and vice-president.
Membership in the Great Sanhedrin required certain member qualifications. To qualify for membership the person had to:
- Have been a Hebrew and a lineal descendent of Hebrew parents.
- Have had judicial experience.
- Have been thoroughly proficient in scientific knowledge.
- Have been an accomplished linguist.
- Have been popular, modest, of good appearance, and free from haughtiness.
- Have been pious, strong, and courageous.
Disqualification automatically occurred if the person:
- Never had any regular trade, occupation or profession.
- Was a gambler, dice player, bettor, usurer, or slave dealer.
- Had dealt in the fruits of the seventh year.
- Had obtained the position by fraud or unfair means (monetary payment).
Disqualification could also occur on specific cases before the court if a member of the Sanhedrin:
- Was an aged man, never had any children, or was an illegitate child.
- Was concerned or interested in the matter to be judged.
- Was a relative of the accused person.
- Would benefit from the death or condemnation of the accused person.
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 following points catalogue the major breaches of justice in regard to Jesus’ trials (especially according to the Mishnaic tractate Sanhedrin):
- He was arrested through a bribe (i.e., blood money).
- He was arrested without a clear charge.
- Trials could not be held at night or on feast days.
- They used physical force to try to intimidate Jesus during the trial.
- False witnesses offered conflicting testimony against him.
- Witnesses were not supposed to testify in the presence of each other.
- Jesus was asked to incriminate himself, which he really didn’t do!
- Jesus was not given the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses.
- The high priest never asked for a vote from the Sanhedrin, which should have started with the youngest and gone to the oldest.
- He was charged with blasphemy and temple violation at his Jewish
- trial but the charges were changed at his civil trial to claiming to be king, causing disturbances, and refusing to pay taxes. 11. He was convicted and executed the same day as his trial.
The Sanhedrin convened as occasion required. Mondays and Thursdays were regular court days. The court sat from the close of the morning sacrifice to the time of the evening sacrifice. The official hours for holding court were between the morning sacrifice and noon; but a suit entered upon during the legal hours could be carried on until evening and civil cases could be continued even after nightfall. But in no case of a criminal nature could the court continue its session during the night.
Twenty-three members constituted a quorum of the Great Sanhedrin. In criminal trials a majority of one vote was sufficient for an acquittal. For condemnation, a majority of two was necessary. A very peculiar rule of Hebrew law also provided that a simultaneous and unanimous verdict of guilty rendered on the same day of the trial had the effect of an acquittal. Appeals were allowed from a Minor Sanhedrin to the Great Sanhedrin, but there was no appeal from a mandate, judgment, or decree of the Great Sanhedrin.
There were no lawyers or advocates in Hebrew trials. There were no bodies similar to today’s Grand jury. There were no public prosecutors or State’s attorneys. No court could consist of a single judge. Three judges were required for the lowest court, three and twenty for the next highest, and seventy-one for the Great Sanhedrin.
Certain witnesses were disallowed in Hebrew trials – Gentiles, women, minors, slaves, idiots and lunatics, deaf mutes, blind men, gamblers, usuers, illiterate or immodest persons, persons convicted of irrrligion or immorality, relatives by affinity or consanguinity, and all persons interested in the case. Two witnesses were required to convict an accused person; the prosecuting witness being included, three were necessary. Witnesses were required to agree in all essential details, their testimony was invalid and had to be rejected. No oath of the witnesses was required.
Trial witnesses were examined by a special committee of the Sanhedrin. They were kept separate and two distinct sets of questions were asked of each. The first set consisted of an established series of seven questions relating to the time and place of the crime – ~Was it during a year of jubilee? Was it in an ordinary year? In what month? On what day of the month? At what hour? In what place? Do you identify this person? The failure of any witness to answer satisfactorily any of these seven questions entitled the accused to immediate acquittal.
The second set of questions embraced all matters not brought out by the first set of seven questions. However certain questions could not be asked of the witnesses – evidence of character good or bad; previous convictions of the accused; and evidence as to the prisoner’s antecedents. By Hebrew law, false witnesses were to suffer the penalty provided for the commission of the crime they sought by their testimony to fix upon the accused.
The accused was never compelled to testify against himself’ but was permitted and encouraged to offer testimony in his own behalf. His confession of guilt was accepted in evidence and considered in connection with other facts of the case, but was never permitted to stand alone as the basis of a conviction. Hearsay and circumstantial evidence was irrelevant under Hebrew law. Written or documentary evidence was also inadmissible. Some oral testimony (vain and standing) was also not allowed.
One interesting part of Hebrew law without parallel in the jurispridence of the world was called “Antecedent Warning”. This simply meant t~ no person charged with a crime involving life and death, or even corporal punishment, could be convicted, unless it was shown by competent testimony that immediately before the commission of the crime the offender was warned that what he was about to do was a crime and that a certain penalty was attached to its commitment.
The principal features of a Hebrew capital trial included (1) the Morning Sacrifice, (2) the Assembling of the 3udges in the Hall of Hewn Stones, (3) the Examination of the witnesses, and (4) the Debates and Balloting of the 3udges on the guilt or innocence of the accused. Three scribes were present to record the proceedings. The first recorded the names of the judges who voted for the acquittal of the accused and the arguments on which the acquittal was grounded. The second recorded the names of the judges who voted for the condemnation of the accused and the arguments on which the conviction was based. The third kept an account of both matters so as to be able to supply omissions or check inaccuracies that the other scribes reported. Hebrew law made no provision for a judge to change his vote once he had voted for acquittal. Only a vote for conviction could be changed to acquittal in later balloting.
When voting began, the youngest of the council members were required to vote first, to prevent them from being influenced by older members. To vote, the concil member rose from his position, declared his vote, and gave a short explanation for voting as he did. A majority of two was necessary to convict A majority of one was necessary to acquit. In event of conviction, sentence could not be pronounced until the next afternoon and the session of the court was accordingly adjourned until the following day. There were always two trials in every Hebrew capital case.
The Accusations Against Christ
- Extra-judicial Charges
- He was a preacher of turbulence and faction.
- He flattered the poor and inveighed against the rich.
- He denounced whole cities.
- He gathered about him a rabble of Publicans, harlots and drunkards under a mere pretense of reforming them.
- He subverted the laws and institutions of the Mosaic commonwealth and substituted an unauthorized legislation of his own.
- He disregarded not only all distinctions of society, but even those of religion, and commended the idolatrous Samaritan as of greater worth than the holy priest and pious Levite.
- Though he pretended to work miracles, he had invariably refused to preform them in the presence and at the request of the Rabbis of the church.
- He had condemned the solemn sanctions of their holy religion
- He had sat down to eat with publicans and sinners.
- He ate with unwashed hands.
- He had disregarded the obligations of the Sabbath.
- He had attended the Jewish feasts with great irregularity or not at all.
- He had declared that God could be worshiped in any other place as well as in his Holy Temple.
- He had openly and violently interfered with the temple’s sacred services by driving away the cattle gathered there for sacrifice.
None of these extra-judicial charges were ever brought against Jesus during his trial, but they would have been in the back of the judges’ minds as they tried Jesus for the actual judicial charges brought against him during his trial.
- Judicial Charges
The judicial charge of sedition was dropped during the trial when the witnesses’ testimony did not agree.
The charge of blasphemy was ultimately the only judicial charge brought against Jesus and the one he was finally convicted of by the Sanhedrin.
The following illegalities took place during Jesus’ arrest and trial:
- The Arrest of Jesus
- The arrest took place at night.
- The arrest was effected through the agency of a traitor and informer.
- The arrest was not the result of a legal mandate from a court whose intentions were to conduct a legal trial for the purpose of reaching a righteous judgment.
- The Private Examination of Jesus before Annas (or Caiaphas)
- The examination was conducted at night.
- No judge, or magistrate, sitting alone, could interrogate an accused judicially or sit in judgment upon his legal rights.
- Private preliminary examinations of accused persons were not allowed.
III. The Indictment Against Jesus
- The accusation, at the trial, was twofold, vague, and indefinite
- The accusation was made in part, by Caiaphas, the high priest, who was one of the judges.
- The Proceedings of the Sanhedrin Against Jesus
- The proceedings were conducted at night.
- The proceedings were conducted on the day preceding a Jewish Sabbath.
- The proceedings were conducted on the first day of the Feast of Un~eavened Bread.
- The proceedings were conducted on the eve of the Passover.
- The trial proceedings were conducted within one day.
- The sentence of condemnation was founded upon Jesus’ uncorrobated confession.
- The verdict against Jesus was unanimous.
- The sentence of condemnation was pronounced in a place forbidden by law.
- The High Priest rent his clothes.
- The balloting was irregular.
- The members of the Sanhedrin were disqualified to try Jesus.
- The merits of the defense were not considered
The Sanhedrin was competent to take the initiative in the arrest and trial of Jesus on the charge of blasphemy, this being a religious offense of the most awful gravity. The court was also competent not only to try but to pass sentence of death upon Jesus if he should be found guilty of the charge. However, even though the council had these rights, they forsook their own laws and traditions in many instances to bring about the condemnation of Jesus. By actual count, at least twenty laws and traditions of the Pentateuch and Talmud were broken during Jesus1 arrest and trial.
The Sanhedrin were so fixed on the outcome they wanted to see occur that they, supposedly the most righteous and religious men of the Hebrew nation, intentionally broke their own laws to effect the desired outcome. They purposely ignored parts of their own laws to bring Jesus to the crucifixion. In the case of Jesus, it was okay to ignore and bend the laws, because the end result was for good, at least in their own eyes.
Isn’t this the way many so-called Christians practice their religion today? They pick and choose only those parts of God’s religion that fits them for the occasion they find themselves in. They ignore the parts that seem to get in their way, that crimp their style, that hinder their daily lives. Theirs is a cafeteria-style religion where they go through the line many times a day, picking and choosing what best fits their needs at the time. For them, its okay to be religious, but it better not ever get in the way of their everyday lives!
What type of religion are you following today? Is all of God’s word entering your heart or do you screen out portions that make you uncomfortable or don’t quite fit your everyday activities? Are you crucifying Jesus with your own style of religion – like the Sanhedrin did? You are if you aren’t taking all of God’s word and applying it to your own life. Is it time for you to stop and evaluate your attitude and practices in light of all of God’s word?
Christ was tried six times, three times before the Romans and three times before the Jewish tribunals:
- Before Annas
- Before Caiaphas
- Before the Sanhedrin
- Before Pontius Pilate
- Before Herod Antipas
- Before Pilate again
The First Trial
Matthew omitted the first trial and arraignment before Annas, the ancient head of the high priestly conclave who was doubtless the prime mover of the cabal against Jesus. Annas lived into his nineties and appears in history as a venomous and zealous bigot, deformed in mind and body. He covered his deformed hands with silken gloves, but there was no covering for the mind of this man who was described by the infidel Reman as a “fit architect indeed to fashion the death of Christ.” Annas remained head of religious Jewry, although his excess in ordering the death of one of his enemies had resulted in his being deposed upon the accession of Tiberius in 14 A.D. In spite of his deposition, however, Annas for more than half a century retained the power of the office, and was accorded the title by the Jews; but the LEGAL title and office rotated among the sons and sons-in-law of Annas. It was significant that Christ was first arraigned before Annas.
The Second Trial
This was conducted before Caiaphas who also later presided over the convention of the Sanhedrin at daybreak (Luke 22:66). Luke’s arrangement of the details is more chronological. Matthew’s topical summary naturally includes portions of the narrative out of chronological sequence. However, it is plain that Peter’s triple denial took place at the long night-trial, at which only a part of the Sanhedrin was present, and during which Christ was mocked, taunted, smitten, and abused throughout the night by the soldiers. Presumably, during this long travesty on judicial procedure, Caiaphas and his aides were trying to formulate some pattern of the charges they would prosecute before the whole Sanhedrin at daybreak.
Matthew 26:58 But Peter followed him afar off, unto the court of the high priest, and entered in, and sat with the officers, to see the end.
The court and the house of the high priest were the same. Peter’s following the Lord “afar off” in this instances has been cited as one of the reasons that he faltered and denied Jesus. Had he been with Jesus as was that “other disciple,” presumably John, he might have endured without denying his Lord (John 18:13). Other preconditions that led to Peter’s fall are seen in that he: (1) contradicted Jesus’ word, (2) relied on his own strength, (3) turned to carnal weapons, (4) sustained the Lord’s rebuke, (5) followed afar off, (6) accepted a place in the company of Christ’s enemies, and (7) warmed himself at their fire.
Matthew 26:59 Now the chief priests and the whole council sought false witness against Jesus, that they might put him to death.
Having changed their strategy from murdering Christ secretly to the more open method of seeking a legal execution, the high priests and their followers worked throughout the long night to put together some kind of case that would stand up against Christ. This frenzied endeavor on their part continued all night and into the third trial and was the consuming passion at both the second and third trials. It is evident that considerable consternation came upon that evil company as the long night wore on. Things were not going according to plan. False witnesses indeed came, but their testimony was so absurdly false and unconvincing that it was unusable. Furthermore, if they had thought that Judas would provide the inside details needed to sustain a capital charge against the Lord, they were utterly confounded when Judas returned the money, confessed his own sin, and proclaimed the innocence of the Master. Those wily hypocrites were caught in their own net. They would not be able to extricate themselves until the whole sorry business, and their REAL reasons for seeking Jesus’ death would be spat out in public before the Roman governor. It must have been a long night for Caiaphas, as well as for Jesus!
Matthew 26:60 And they found it not, though many false witnesses came. But afterwards came two and said, This man said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.
If such a tale as these words of the false witnesses was all they had to report, one must be amazed at the plight of the evil men who had relied on it. This was nothing more than a garbled version of what Christ had said, not of the temple but of himself, who is the greater Temple (John 2:19). After searching all night that was all they had, and no one knew any better than Caiaphas that it was not enough for their purpose. Matthew’s “afterwards” indicates that that weak and inconclusive charge was all that could be culled from a whole night of coaching and hearing false witnesses. It was hardly enough to justify convening the entire Sanhedrin, as Caiaphas’ subsequent actions proved.
The Third Trial
This trial was the formal arraignment and prosecution before the whole Sanhedrin and immediately following the all-night circus in the house of Caiaphas, where it may be assumed that Christ made limited answers if any at all. He well knew the preliminary trial was only a fishing expedition and that the issue would be decided before the whole council after daybreak. The night runners had fanned out over the dark city, and the emergency meeting of the most sacred court of the Hebrews got under way very early, perhaps by four o’clock in the morning, as the first rays of morning light brightened the summit of the Mount of Olives. The trial began, Caiaphas presiding; the arraignment was made; the suborned witnesses came on with their lie re: “destroying the temple and building it in three days”! Much to the discomfiture of Caiaphas, Jesus did not even reply. Why? It was not necessary. Nothing stated even by the suborned and lying witnesses could be made the grounds for demanding of Pilate the death penalty for Christ. Caiaphas stood up. The judicial bench had suddenly become a very hot seat for him. The whole wretched business was badly out of hand, and they were at their wits’ end to know how to get out of it. Little did they dream that at the precise moment decided by Christ, he would stand forth in all his solemn majesty and hand them, of his own volition, the key to his crucifixion; but it would not be upon their terms, but upon his!
Matthew 26:62 But Jesus held his peace.
He held his peace until the full import of the impasse in which the Sanhedrin found itself was apparent to all of them. Without him, they could do nothing. It was true of them no less than of Pilate, to whom Christ said, “Thou wouldst have no power against me except it were given thee from above” (John 19:11). Christ could surely have escaped execution at the hands of that court, merely by continuing to be silent. They were already defeated.
Then came the climax of that third trial, like a stroke of lightning!
Matthew 26:63 And the high priest said unto him, I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou art the Christ, the Son of God.
That was the very instant toward which Christ had unerringly moved from the very first moment of his public life to that precise moment. At last, there was no danger of being misunderstood as a seditionist; there, before the assembled elders of his nation, in solemn convocation, before the sacred Sanhedrin, the high priest placed the Christ upon judicial oath, lifting his hands over his own head after the customs of Israel, and intoning the solemn oath, “I adjure thee by the living God, tell us whether thou art the Christ,” the Son of God. The answer of Jesus as recorded by Mark (Mark 14:62), while more satisfactory to English ears, is not so dramatic as Matthew’s before the Hebrew court where it was delivered. Both accounts record the dramatic shock with which Jesus’ words were received.
The Illegal, Unjust Trial of Christ (Matthew 26:57-68)
And those who had seized Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were gathered together. But Peter also was following Him at a distance as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and entered in, and sat down with the officers to see the outcome. Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death; and they did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward, and said, “this man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.'” And the high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do you make no answer? what is it that these men are testifying against You?” But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes, saying, “He has blasphemed! what further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy; what do you think?” They answered and said, “He is deserving of death!” Then they spat in His face and beat Him with their fists; and others slapped Him, and said, “Prophecy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit You?” (26:57-68)
The Jews had always prided themselves on their sense of fairness and justice, and rightly so. The judicial systems in the modern Western world have their foundations in the legal system of ancient Israel, which itself was founded on the standards set forth in their Scriptures, the Old Testament.
The essence of the Old Testament system of jurisprudence is found in Deuteronomy:
You shall appoint for yourself judges and officers in all your towns which the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial, and you shall not take a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts the words of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the Lord your God is giving you. (16:18-20)
As the Hebrews worked out specific judicial procedures following those general principles, they determined that any community that had at least 120 men who were heads of families could form a local council. In later years, after the Babylonian exile, that council often was composed of the synagogue leadership. The council came to be known as a sanhedrin, from a Greek term (sunedrion) that had been transliterated into Hebrew and Aramaic, as it now is into English. It literally means “sitting together.” A local sanhedrin was composed of up to 23 members, and the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was composed of 70 chief priests, elders, and scribes, with the high priest making a total of 71. In both the local and Great sanhedrins an odd number of members was maintained in order to eliminate the possibility of a tie vote.
When referring to the national body in Jerusalem, sunedrion is usually translated “Council” in the New American Standard Bible (see, e.g., Matt. 26:59; Mark 14:55) and when referring to a local body is translated “court” (see Matt. 5:22; 10:17; Mark 13:9). As we learn from Luke, the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was also sometimes referred to as “the Senate of the sons of Israel” (Acts 5:21) or “the Council of the elders” (Luke 22:66; Acts 22:5).
Members of local sanhedrins were to be chosen because of their maturity and wisdom, and the Great Sanhedrin was to be composed of those who had distinguished themselves in a local council and had served a form of apprenticeship in the national council. But long before Jesus’ day membership in the Great Sanhedrin had degenerated largely into appointments based on religious or political favoritism and influence. The Herods, especially Herod the Great, exercised considerable control over the Great Sanhedrin, and even the pagan Romans sometimes became involved in the appointment or removal of a high priest.
The general requirements of fairness and impartiality prescribed in Deuteronomy 16:18-20 and elsewhere in the Mosaic law were reflected in the rabbinical requirements that guaranteed an accused criminal the right to a public trial, to defense counsel, and conviction only on the testimony of at least two reliable witnesses. Trials were therefore always open to public scrutiny and the defendant had the right to bring forth evidence and witnesses in his own behalf no matter how damning the evidence and testimony against him might be.
To guard against false witnessing, whether given out of revenge or for a bribe, the Mosaic law prescribed that a person who knowingly gave false testimony would suffer the punishment the accused would suffer if found guilty (Deut. 19:16-19). A person who gave false testimony in a trial that involved capital punishment, for example, would himself be put to death. For obvious reasons, that penalty was a strong deterrent to perjury and an effective protection of justice. An additional deterrent was the requirement that accusing witnesses in a capital case were to initiate the execution, making them stand behind their testimony by action as well as words (Deut. 17:7). It was that law to which Jesus made indirect reference when He told the accusers of the woman taken in adultery “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Rabbinical law required that a sentence of death could not be carried out until the third day after it was rendered and that during the intervening day the members of the court were to fast. That provision had the effect of preventing a trial during a feast, when fasting was prohibited. The delay of execution also provided additional time for evidence or testimony to be discovered in the defendant’s behalf.
Simon Greenleaf was a famous professor of law at Harvard University in the last century. In his book The Testimony of the Evangelists ([Jersey City, NJ: Frederick P. Linn, 1881], pp. 581-84) a section written by lawyer Joseph Salvador gives fascinating and significant information about proper Sanhedrin trial procedure. Because a defendant was protected against self-incrimination, his confession, no matter how convincing, was not sufficient in itself for conviction.
On the day of the trial, according to Salvador, the court officers would require all evidence against the accused person to be read in the full hearing of open court. Each witness against him would be required to affirm that his testimony was true to the best of his knowledge and was based on his own direct experience and not on hearsay or presumption. Witnesses also had to identify the precise month, day hour, and location of the event about which they testified. A council itself could not initiate charges against a person but could only consider charges brought before it by an outside party.
A woman was not allowed to testify because she was considered to lack the courage to give the first blow if the accused were convicted and sentenced to death. Children could not testify because of their immaturity, nor could a slave, a person of bad character, or a person who was considered mentally incompetent.
There was always to be presumption of innocence, and great latitude was given the accused in presenting his defense. In a local council, eleven votes out of the total of twenty-three were required for acquittal, but thirteen were required for conviction. If the accused was found innocent, he was freed immediately. But if he was found guilty, the sentence was not pronounced until two days later and, as mentioned above, the council members were required to fast during the intervening day. On the morning of the third day the council was reconvened, and each judge, in turn, was asked if he had changed his decision. A vote for condemnation could be changed to acquittal, but not the reverse.
If a guilty verdict was reaffirmed, an officer with a flag remained near the council while another officer, often mounted on horseback, escorted the prisoner to the place of execution. A herald went before the slow-moving procession declaring in a loud voice, “This man [stating his name] is led to punishment for such a crime; the witnesses who have sworn against him are such and such persons; if any one has evidence to give in his favor, let him come forth quickly.” If, at any time before the sentence was carried out, additional information pertaining to innocence came to light, including the prisoner’s recollection of something he had forgotten, one officer would signal the other, and the prisoner would be brought back to the council for reconsideration of the verdict. Before the place of execution was reached, the condemned person was urged to confess his crime, if he had not already done so, and was given a stupefying drink to dull his senses and thereby make his death less painful.
The governing principle in capital cases was: “The Sanhedrin is to save, not destroy, life.” In addition to the above provisions, the president of the council was required to remind prospective witnesses of the preciousness of human life and to admonish them to be certain their testimony was both true and complete. No criminal trial could be begun during or continued into the night, the property of an executed criminal could not be confiscated but was passed to his heirs, and voting was done from the youngest member to the oldest in order that the former would not be influenced by the latter. And if a council voted unanimously for conviction, the accused was set free, because the necessary element of mercy was presumed to be lacking.
It is obvious that, when properly administered, the Jewish system of justice was not only eminently fair but merciful. It is just as obvious that the system did not operate either fairly or mercifully in Jesus’ trial, because the Sanhedrin violated virtually every principle of its own system of jurisprudence. Jesus was illegally tried without first having been charged with a crime. He was tried at night and in private, no defense was permitted Him, and the witnesses against Him had been bribed to falsify their testimony. He was executed on the same day He was sentenced, and, consequently, the judges could not have fasted on the intervening day that should have transpired and had no opportunity to reconsider their verdict. The only procedure that was properly followed was the offering of the stupefying drink, but that was done by Roman soldiers, not by representatives of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:23).
As is clear from the gospel accounts, Jesus had two major trials, one Jewish and religious and the other Roman and secular. Because Rome reserved the right of execution to its own courts and administrators, the Sanhedrin was not allowed to dispense capital punishment (John 18:31). The fact that it did so on several occasions, as with the stoning of Stephen (Acts 6:12-14; 7:54-60), does not prove the legality of it. It is likely however, that many illegal executions by the Sanhedrin were simply overlooked by Roman authorities for the sake of political expediency. For them, the loss of a single life was a small price to pay to keep order and peace. The only blanket exception that Rome granted was for the summary execution of a Gentile who trespassed a restricted area of the Temple.
It is also significant that both the Jewish religious and Roman secular trials of Jesus had three phases, meaning that, within about twelve hours, Jesus faced legal proceedings on six separate occasions before His crucifixion. The Jewish trial began with His being taken before the former high priest Annas in the middle of the night. Annas then sent Him to the presiding high priest, Caiaphas, who had quickly convened the Sanhedrin at his own house. Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin met a second time after daylight on Friday morning.
After the Jewish religious leaders had concluded their sham hearings, they took Jesus to the Roman procurator, Pilate, first of all because they could not carry out a death sentence without his permission. But they also went to him because a Roman crucifixion would help obscure their own nefarious involvement in what they knew were totally unjust proceedings and condemnation.
When Pilate discovered Jesus was a Galilean, he sent Him to Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, who was in Jerusalem for the Passover. After being questioned and treated with contempt by Herod and his soldiers, Jesus was sent back to Pilate, who reluctantly consented to His crucifixion.
Matthew 26:57-68 reveals at least five aspects of that illegal and unjust treatment of our Lord: the convening of the Sanhedrin (vv. 57-58), the conspiracy to convict Jesus without evidence (vv. 59-61), the confrontation to induce His self-incrimination (vv. 62-64), the condemnation based on false charges and testimony (vv. 65-66), and the conduct of the court in the physical and verbal abuse of Jesus (vv. 67-68).
The Illegal and Unjust Convening of the Sanhedrin
And those who had seized Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were gathered together. But Peter also was following Him at a distance as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and entered in, and sat down with the officers to see the outcome. (26:57-58)
After the disciples fled in fear, the Temple police, Roman soldiers, and the others who had seized Jesus then led Him away. But we learn from John that, before they took Him to Caiaphas, they “led Him to Annas first; for he was father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year” (John 18:13).
Some twenty years earlier, Annas had served as high priest for a period of four or five years. But although he had been replaced as ruling high priest, he not only continued to carry the title but also continued to wield great influence in Temple affairs, largely through the five sons who succeeded him and now through Caiaphas, his son-in-law.
It was God’s design for high priests to serve for life. But the position had become so politicized that some of them served only a few years or even months, because they came into disfavor with a king or a Roman official. Some scholars believe that Annas had been removed from office by Rome because they feared too much power was being amassed by one man.
Annas controlled the Temple money changers and sacrifice sellers to such an extent that their operations were sometimes referred to as the Bazaars of Annas. It is likely that no Temple merchant could operate without being approved by Annas and agreeing to give him a large percentage of the profits.
A Jew never came to the Temple empty-handed. He always brought either a gift of money or a sacrifice to offer the Lord. But he could not offer Gentile coins, because they often carried the likeness of a ruler, which was considered a form of idolatry. Since the vast majority of coins used during New Testament times were either Roman or from a Gentile country under Roman control, Jews had to exchange such coins for Jewish ones before they could place their offerings in the bell-shaped receptacles in the Temple. And because the money changers in the Temple held a monopoly, they were able to charge exorbitant exchange fees.
A Jew who came to offer a sacrifice to God had to use an unblemished animal that had been certified by the priests. And although he could legitimately bring one of his own animals, the corrupt priests who were in charge of certification would seldom accept an animal not bought from a Temple merchant. Like those who, needed to exchange their money, Jews who wanted to sacrifice were at the mercy of Annas’s Temple establishment. It was for that reason that Jesus had twice cleansed the Temple of the money changers and sacrifice sellers, declaring in anger that they had profaned His Father’s house of prayer by making it a den of robbers (John 2:13-17; Mark 11:15-17). It was immediately after the second cleansing that the infuriated Temple authorities “began seeking how to destroy Him” (Mark 11:18).
Jesus was a persistent threat to Annas’s power, prestige, security and prosperity for which He was bitterly despised by the high priest. In addition to that, Annas resented Jesus for His holiness, truth, and righteousness, because those virtues were a judgment on his own vile character. Everything Jesus said and did angered Annas, because, like Judas, his absolute rejection of Christ had placed him utterly in the hands of Satan, the great choreographer who was staging this heinous travesty against God’s Son. Annas was one of a large cast of characters who were now manipulated by hell.
Annas may have instructed the arresting officials to bring Jesus to him first, or the officials may have reasoned that a charge against Jesus by such a powerful dignitary would not be contested when He was brought before the Sanhedrin for trial. In any case, taking Him first to Annas allowed Caiaphas time to assemble the Sanhedrin at his own house (see v. 59).
Although Annas had many personal reasons for hating Jesus and wanting Him dead, his first comments to the Lord indicate that he was still searching for a capital charge that would appear legal. In questioning Jesus “about His disciples, and about His teaching,” (John 18:19), Annas violated two major procedural requirements. First, he had Jesus arraigned before an indictment was brought against Him, and, second, he tried to induce Jesus to incriminate himself.
Jesus did not answer the question directly but His response was a stinging exposure and indictment of Annas’s duplicity and chicanery “I have spoken openly to the world,” He said; “I always taught in synagogues, and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret. Why do you question Me? Question those who have heard what I spoke to them; behold, these know what I said” (John 18:20-21). Jesus merely pointed out the obvious. Countless thousands had heard Him teach and preach and could testify first-hand about who His disciples were and about what He taught. Jesus also, in effect, challenged Annas’s illegal attempt to make Him testify against Himself.
Annas was embarrassed, infuriated, and frustrated. Because of their complicity the entire assemblage was also angered, and “one of the officers,” perhaps to help his superior save face, “gave Jesus a blow, saying. ‘Is that the way You answer the high priest?'” (John 18:22).
Some years later, the apostle Paul was brought before the Sanhedrin and, like His Lord, was struck simply for telling the truth. But unlike His Lord, he became angry and vehemently rebuked the presiding officer for his illegal treatment. Only when he learned that he was addressing the high priest did he apologize (Acts 23:1-5).
Jesus, however, never lost His composure, accepting His abuse with perfect calmness. He simply said to the officer who struck Him, “If I have spoken wrongly bear witness of the wrong; but if rightly why do you strike Me?” (John 18:23).
In complete exasperation and having no other recourse, “Annas therefore sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest” (v. 24). It was the middle of the night, perhaps shortly after midnight, because cock crowing, which normally began about 3:00 a.m., had not yet started (see Matt. 26:74).
Jesus was then brought before Caiaphas, the high priest, at whose house the scribes and the elders were illegally gathered together as the supreme Jewish Council (see v. 59). Contrary to expectations, however, no charge had yet been brought against Him. The high court of Judaism had been illegally convened at night to illegally try a man who had not even been indicted.
Though not as clever as his father-in-law, Caiaphas was equally devious and corrupt. He, too, was greedy unprincipled, materialistic, and power hungry. He, too, despised Jesus, truthfulness and righteousness because they were a judgment on his own wretched ungodliness.
During this time, Peter also was following Jesus at a distance, first to the house of Annas and then as far as the courtyard of the high priest Caiaphas. Out of a conflicting mixture of cowardice and commitment, Peter tried to be as near His Lord as prudence permitted without being discovered, and he sat down with the officers to see the outcome.
The fact that Peter and others were sitting in the courtyard of the high priest reveals still another infraction of Jewish legal protocol. As previously noted, the Sanhedrin was permitted to hold a trial involving capital punishment only in the Temple and only in public. The private meeting at Caiaphas’s house clearly violated both stipulations.
The Illegal and Unjust Conspiracy to Convict Jesus
Now the chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death; and they did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. But later on two came forward, and said, “this man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.'” (26:59-61)
The chief priests are mentioned separately probably because they were the primary instigators of Jesus’ arrest (see v. 47). But as Matthew makes clear, the whole Council, or Sanhedrin, was present.
The Council was empowered to act only as judge and jury in a legal proceeding. They could not instigate charges but could only adjudicate cases that were brought before them. But because they as yet had no formal charge against Jesus, they were forced to illegally act also as prosecutor in order to carry out their predetermined plan to convict and execute Him. Consequently they kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death.
Because Jesus was innocent of any wrongdoing, the only possible way to convict Him would be on the basis of false testimony. His accusers would have to be liars. Because the Council was so controlled by satanic hatred of Jesus, they now were willing to do whatever was necessary to condemn Him, even if that meant violating every biblical and rabbinical rule of justice. To accomplish their wicked conspiracy they found themselves perverting the very heart of the Sanhedrin’s purpose, stated earlier in this chapter: “to save, not destroy life.” Their purpose now however, was not to discover the truth about Jesus and certainly not to save His life. Their single, compelling desire was to put Him to death.
But try as they would, they did not find any legitimate charges against Him, even though many false witnesses came forward. During that first attempt to manufacture a charge, even the many false witnesses who were willing to perjure themselves could not devise a story that would stand scrutiny even in that corrupt and biased proceeding! Their testimonies not only were spurious but grossly inconsistent with each other (Mark 14:56), as is typically the case with liars.
The frustration of the assembly continued to mount until later on two witnesses finally came forward with a charge that seemed usable. They asserted that Jesus stated, “I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.” Mark’s more detailed account reports that they claimed Jesus said, “I will destroy this temple made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands” (Mark 14:58). Or perhaps Matthew reported one of the witness’s words and Mark the other’s, in which case the testimony even of those two men was not consistent.
Jesus’ actual words were, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19), and His hearers concluded that He was referring to the Jerusalem Temple building He had just cleansed (v. 20). The two false witnesses not only shared that false assumption but accused Jesus of saying, on the one hand, that He Himself was able to destroy the temple of God, and on the other, “I will destroy this temple” (Mark 14:58, emphasis added). Mark notes that “not even in this respect was their testimony consistent” (v. 59).
In addition to the inconsistency of their statements, which itself made the testimonies inadmissable in a legitimate hearing, the two men did not relate the year, month, day and location of the incident they claimed to have witnessed, as they were required to do by law.
The fact that not a single witness could be found to convict Jesus of wrongdoing is one of the strongest apologetics in all of Scripture for His moral and spiritual perfection. If any fault could have been found in Him it would have come to light. Even if demons had to provide the information, it would certainly have been presented. Demons are not omniscient, but they would have known of any sin Jesus committed had He been guilty of it, and they would have rushed to produce such evidence against Him through their wicked minions in the Sanhedrin. But neither Jesus’ human nor demonic enemies could find in Him the least transgression of God’s moral or spiritual law. His only transgressions had been against the man-made, legalistic, and unscriptural rabbinic traditions.
The ones who were ultimately on trial that day were those who stood in judgment of the perfect, sinless Son of God. That tribunal of sinful, unjust, and hate-filled men will one day stand before God’s heavenly tribunal and themselves be eternally condemned to the lake of fire.
The Illegal and Unjust Confrontation to Induce Self-Incrimination
And the high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do you make no answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (26:62-64)
The frustration of the Council members became unbearable as they desperately tried to get the trial concluded before dawn, when people would start milling about the city and their illegal venture would risk being discovered. They also, no doubt, wanted to conclude the affair quickly so they could make preparations for their own Passover sacrifices and duties that afternoon.
Trying again to steer Jesus into self-incrimination, the high priest and presiding officer therefore said to Him, “Do you make no answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” Probably gazing squarely into Caiaphas’s eyes, Jesus kept silent, adding still more to the high priest’s consternation. Since the testimonies of the two men were inconsistent, they should have been rejected by the court. A rebuttal by Jesus not only would have been futile but would have given the false testimony and the entire illegal proceedings the appearance of legitimacy.
Jesus stood majestically silent. It was the silence of innocence, the silence of dignity the silence of integrity the silence of infinite trust in His heavenly Father. It was a silence in which the lying words against Him reverberated in the ears of the guilty judges and of the false witnesses they had bribed. Goaded by that silence, which accentuated the travesty of justice over which he presided, the enraged high priest continued to badger Jesus, saying, “I adjure You by the Living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Appealing to the most sacred oath a Jew could utter, Caiaphas demanded that Jesus either affirm or deny His messiahship and deity. He was saying, in effect, “Answer my question truthfully on the basis that You are standing before the living God, who knows all things.”
Although none of the Council, except Joseph of Arimathea, if he was still present, believed in Jesus’ deity they were strongly hoping He would openly make that claim for Himself so that they could charge Him with blasphemy. The Mosaic law provided that “the one who blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death.” (Lev. 24:16).
But a claim to deity would be blasphemous only if it were false, which it would be for any human being ever born—except Jesus. Although He had never flaunted or made public issue of His messiahship and deity, He had given numerous attestations to both, beginning early in His ministry. In the synagogue at His hometown of Nazareth, He read a well-known messianic passage from Isaiah and then declared, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:18-21). His first specific claim to messiahship was made to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well. In response to her statement that “Messiah is coming (He who is called Christ),” Jesus said, “I who speak to you am He” (John 4:25-26). He had readily accepted the messianic epithets shouted to Him as He entered Jerusalem the previous Monday (Matt. 21:9). He continually referred to God as His heavenly Father, which the Jewish leaders rightly interpreted as a claim of deity (John 5:17-18), and He had declared to the unbelieving Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, “Before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58), taking that ancient appellation of God (see Ex. 3:14) for Himself.
Jesus finally gave the affirmation the Sanhedrin had been waiting to hear. You have said it yourself; He replied. Mark’s account makes the acknowledgment of messiahship and deity even more explicit, as he quotes Jesus’ saying directly “I am” (Mark 14:62).
Then, referring to Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13, Jesus added, “Nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” “Not only am I the Messiah and the Son of God,” He was saying, “but one day you will see Me glorified with My Father in heaven and returning to earth as your Judge.” (cf. Matt. 25:31-46).
Son of Man was a commonly acknowledged title of the Messiah, the one Jesus most often used of Himself, and Power was a figurative designation of God. Because the ungodly members of the Sanhedrin had refused to receive Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they had sealed their doom to face Him at the end time as their Judge and Executioner. The accused would then become the accuser, and the judges would become the judged.
The Illegal and Unjust Condemnation of Jesus
Then the high priest tore his robes, saying, “He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy; what do you think?” They answered and said, “He is deserving of death!” (26:65-66)
Upon that unambiguous confession by Jesus, the high priest tore his robes in horror, saying, “He has blasphemed!” The unbelieving members of the Sanhedrin had long ago discounted Jesus’ claims of deity. He had pleaded with them, “If I do not do the works of My Father, do not believe Me; but if I do them, though you do not believe Me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in Me, and I in the Father” (John 10:37-38). In other words, even if they could not believe the divine source of His teaching, how could they argue against the divine power behind His countless public miracles?
They had closed their minds to the truth, and no amount of evidence would open their eyes to it. Like many people throughout the ages who have rejected Christ, it was not that they had carefully examined the evidence about Him and found it to be untrue or unconvincing but that they refused to consider the evidence at all. Even God’s own Holy Spirit cannot penetrate such a willful barrier to His truth and grace. Miracles do not convince the hard-hearted.
When the high priest ceremoniously tore his robes, he did so not out of grief and indignation over the presumed dishonor of God’s name but rather out of joy and relief that, at last, Jesus had placed Himself into their hands, condemning Himself out of His own mouth. Although Leviticus 21:10 strictly forbade the high priest’s tearing his garments, the Talmud held that judges who witnessed blasphemy had a right to tear their robes if they later sewed them up. By his traditional and theatrical display, Caiaphas dramatically gave the appearance of defending God’s name, but inwardly he gloated over the illegal, unjust, and devilish victory he imagined he had just won.
“What further need do you have of witnesses?” he asked the Council rhetorically. And with that he asked for an immediate verdict: “Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy; what do you think?” He did not bother to have the members polled individually and the results tabulated by scribes, as judicial protocol required, but simply called for verbal support of the predetermined conclusion of guilt.
With one voice they answered and said, “He is deserving of death!” The decision was unanimous as “they all condemned Him to be deserving of death” (Mark 14:64). The unanimous vote to convict should have given Jesus His freedom automatically because the necessary element of mercy was lacking. But by this time the Sanhedrin had relinquished even the semblance of legality and justice. Because we know that Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Council but did not consent to Jesus’ condemnation (Luke 23:50-51), he obviously had left the proceedings before this final judicial farce transpired.
The verdict of guilty and the sentence of death were not based on careful consideration of full and impartial evidence and testimony. It was a senseless mob reaction, much like the one which, a few hours later, these same leaders would instigate and orchestrate regarding the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus (Matt. 27:20-21).
The Illegal and Unjust Conduct of the Court
Then they spat in His face and beat Him with their fists; and others slapped Him, and said, “Prophecy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit You?” (26:67-68)
Discarding the last vestige of decorum and decency the supreme court of Israel degenerated into a crude, mindless rabble. With total lack of inhibition, the religious aristocracy of Judaism—the high priest and chief priests, the elders, the scribes, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees—revealed their true decadence, as some of them spat in Jesus’ face and beat Him with their fists.
To Jews, the supreme insult was to spit in another’s face (see Num. 12:14; Deut. 25:9). The impressive tomb of Absalom is still standing in the Kidron Valley just outside Jerusalem. But for thousands of years that monument has been spat on by Jewish passersby to show their contempt for Absalom’s treacherous rebellion against his father, David.
Others in the Council, perhaps the less rowdy older members, merely slapped Him. And instead of spitting on Jesus they threw verbal abuse in His face. After blindfolding Him (Luke 22:64), they demanded sarcastically “Prophecy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit You?”
Luke also reports that “they were saying many other things against Him, blaspheming” (22:65). The true blasphemers here were the accusers, not the accused. Jesus had not blasphemed because He was indeed God, but the ungodly Sanhedrin blasphemed repeatedly as they condemned, humiliated, and abused the sinless Son of God. And when these judges of Israel tired of tormenting Jesus, they turned Him over to the Temple police for further maltreatment (Mark 14:65).
As the later mob reaction before Pilate would prove conclusively the ungodly religious leaders who rejected and profaned Jesus were a microcosm of the Jewish nation. Spiritually and morally Israel was a rotting carcass waiting to be devoured by vultures, as indeed it was devoured by Rome less than forty years later. In a.d. 70 the Temple was burned and razed, most of Jerusalem was destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of its citizens were slaughtered without mercy.
Every person who rejects Christ spits in His face, as it were, and is guilty of blasphemy against God, who sent His beloved Son to save that person and all mankind from sin. The irony is that all who misjudge Jesus will themselves be rightly judged by Him one day. Men continually misjudge Jesus, but He will never misjudge them. The tables will be turned. The criminals will no longer unjustly condemn and crush the innocent but will themselves be justly condemned and crushed.
Even in the midst of the cruel injustice against Him, our Lord’s grace shined undiminished. Throughout His ordeal, “while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). This was His divinely-appointed time, and He resolutely and gladly faced hell’s moment of seeming victory. He would not turn or be turned from suffering and death, because only in that way could He bear “our sins in His body on the cross, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (v. 24).
From Holman Bible Dictionary
SANHEDRIN (san hee’ drihn) The highest Jewish council in the first century. The council had 71 members and was presided over by the high priest. The Sanhedrin included both of the main Jewish parties among its membership. Since the high priest presided, the Sadducea priestly party seems to have predominated; but some leading Pharisees also were members (Acts 5:34; 23:1-9).
The word Sanhedrin is usually translated “council” in the English translations of the Bible. Because of the predominance of the chief priests in the Sanhedrin, at times the words chief priests seem to refer to the action of the Sanhedrin, even though the name itself is not used.
According to Jewish tradition, the Sanhedrin began with the 70 elders appointed by Moses in Numbers 11:16 and was reorganized by Ezra after the Exile. However, the Old Testament provides no evidence of a council that functioned like the Sanhedrin of later times. Thus, the Sanhedrin had its origin sometime during the centuries between the Testaments. See Intertestamental History; Jewish Parties.
During the first century, the Sanhedrin exerted authority under the watchful eye of the Romans. Generally, the Roman governor allowed the Sanhedrin considerable autonomy and authority. The trial of Jesus, however, shows that the Sanhedrin did not have the authority to condemn people to death (John 18:31). Later, Stephen was stoned to death after a hearing before the Sanhedrin, but this may have been more a mob action than a legal execution authorized by the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:12-15; 7:54-60).
The Gospels describe the role of the Sanhedrin in the arrest, trials, and condemnation of Jesus. The Sanhedrin, under the leadership of Caiaphas the high priest, plotted to have Jesus killed (John 11:47-53). The chief priests conspired with Judas to betray Jesus (Matt. 26:14-16). After His arrest they brought Jesus into the council (Luke 22:66). They used false witnesses to condemn Jesus (Matt. 26:59-60; Mark 14:55-56). They sent Him to Pilate and pressured Pilate into pronouncing the death sentence (Mark 15:1-15).
The Book of Acts describes how the Sanhedrin harassed and threatened the apostles. The healing of the man at the Temple and Peter’s sermon attracted the attention of the chief priests. Peter and John were called before the council and warned not to preach anymore in the name of Jesus (Acts 4:5-21). When the apostles continued to preach, the council had them arrested (Acts 5:21, 27). The wise counsel of Gamaliel caused the council to release the apostles with a beating and a warning (Acts 5:34-42). Stephen had to appear before the Sanhedrin on charges that sounded like the false charges against Jesus (Acts 6:12-15).
After Paul was arrested in Jerusalem, the Roman commander asked the council to examine Paul to decide what was Paul’s crime (Acts 22:30; 23:28). Paul identified himself as a Pharisee who was on trial for his hope of resurrection. This involved the council in a debate of the divisive issue of the resurrection (Acts 23:1-9). The chief priests and elders were part of a plot to have Paul assassinated as he was led to another hearing before the council (Acts 23:13-15, 20).