Theme: On trial in a case of life or death.
This weeks lessons show that we are the ones on trial.
And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
There were many illegalities in Christ’s trial, among them the arrest and trial by night, the use of a traitor to identify and secure Jesus, the absence of any formal charge, the rushed one-day duration of the trial, the intervention of the high priest in the proceedings, the lack of a defense, and the unanimous verdict. But underneath these many illegalities ran a strong undercurrent of adherence to certain points of law. Most obvious was the calling of witnesses, Matthew indicates what was happening when he records, “The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward” (vv. 59,60).
If the trial were not so evil and the character of the accusers so base, one could almost feel sorry for the members of the Sanhedrin who had gathered for this trial. They were clearly unprepared; for if they had been prepared, they would have had the charge against Jesus and the witnesses to prove their charge ready. As it was, they seem to have acted suddenly only when Judas unexpectedly offered to betray Jesus to them.
Most problematic was the matter of witnesses. Where in Jerusalem in the middle of the night were they to find witnesses to Jesus’ alleged crimes? The judges could not be witnesses themselves, Jewish law excluded this possibility. Witnesses would have to be rounded up from those who might have heard Jesus say some incriminating thing. But even if witnesses like this could be found, they would still have to provide evidence according to the strict requirements of Jewish law,
There were three categories of testimony according to the Mishnah, or Jewish oral law: 1) a vain testimony, 2) a standing testimony, and 3) an adequate testimony. A vain testimony referred to accusations that were irrelevant or worthless and could therefore be eliminated at once. It corresponded to words which in our courts are “stricken from the record” and which the jury is instructed to “disregard.” Standing testimony was testimony that had relevance and was permitted to stand until it was either confirmed or disproved. Adequate testimony was relevant testimony on which two or more witnesses agreed. Only testimony in this third category could convict.
Most of the testimony collected at this late hour was vain testimony, though there was much of it. Matthew reports that “many false witnesses came forward” (v. 60). Nothing of any substance was disclosed. A great deal of valuable time, probably hours, would have been wasted in what we would call a fruitless fishing expedition.
At last two men came with a piece of evidence that at once put the trial on a new and promising footing. Matthew says that they testified: This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days(v. 61). This was important because, in the first place, it was apparently true. The fact that two witnesses testified to substantially the same thing pointed to its truthfulness.
In fact, in one of those unintentional but striking corroborations of one or more of the gospels by another, John actually gives the incident in which these words were spoken. He says that on the occasion of the first cleansing of the temple, Jesus replied to the demand for a sign by saying, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). John does not refer to this in his account of the trial, but he indicates that the words were spoken in the courtyard of the temple, therefore within the hearing of the very types of people who were likely even now still to be hanging around the temple in the service of the priests.
This was also a serious bit of testimony because, if substantiated, it might be construed as sorcery, since no one could destroy the temple and rebuild it except by “black magic.” Or it could be construed as a threat of sacrilege, since the temple was the most holy place in Israel.
There is something else we should consider, something Frank Morrison stresses in his study of Jesus’ trial and resurrection.1 Morrison observes that although the saying is reported with variations in wording, the highly unlikely phrase “in three days” occurs in each case. This was a phrase Jesus had used on other occasions in which it was evident that he was prophesying his resurrection, an event that would vindicate his claim to be the unique Son of God. A man as shrewd as Caiaphas could hardly have been unaware of what Jesus’ enigmatic saying implied. He must have understood it perfectly, realizing that it was a claim to divinity, even though it was not in a form sufficiently clear to secure a formal condemnation.
That Caiaphas and the others did actually understand Jesus’ words in this way is proved by something that happened after the crucifixion. Matthew says that the leaders went to Pilate, saying, “Sir,.. we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first” (vv, 63,64). These men understood “after three days” to refer to Jesus’ predicted resurrection.
So the situation was this: Jesus was accused of having claimed to be God and of saying that he was able to prove it by rising from the dead. It was a fatal accusation. Yet strikingly, important as it was, the testimony of the two witnesses was overthrown. Mark says that it was because “their testimony did not agree” (Mark 14:59). We do not know why exactly, but it was probably due to some minor contradiction. They may have disagreed about the exact place these words had been spoken. Or they may have reported them with minor variations. After all, the incident had occurred three years before,
Caiaphas must have been frustrated and seething with anger. He had taken a chance in arresting Jesus at a late hour in Passover week. He understood what Jesus had been claiming. He had a good case. But he could not secure a legal verdict. He was right. He was close. But the situation was slipping from his grasp.
1 Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), p. 24. First edition 1930.
List the illegal actions that occurred during Jesus’ trial.
Why was the matter of witnesses so problematic
Why was Caiaphas unable to secure a legal verdict?
What is the significance of the phrase, In three days?