Analysis of a Courtroom Fiasco

Selected Scriptures
Sermon Series: Jesus: The Greatest Life of All

Introduction

Jesus was the only person to live His entire life without doing anything wrong. Yet, He was arrested, tried, convicted, and condemned to suffer a punishment normally reserved for the Roman empire’s worst criminals. His arrest was a betrayal and His trials a farce, His convictions illegal and His punishment a travesty of justice. Yet through it all, He remained calm, He answered questions honestly, He spoke the truth with dignity, and He calmly resolved to allow the Father to vindicate Him at the proper time. We would do well to imitate Christ in our response to the injustices we experience in our lives.

Exposition

1. General Observations about Jesus’s Trials

After celebrating the Passover meal with His disciples, Jesus suggested they walk to their familiar retreat at the base of the Mount of Olives, a garden called Gethsemane. Jesus knew that Judas was carrying out his treacherous plan to betray Him to Israel’s religious leaders, and He also knew that He was beginning a long, torturous ordeal which would lead to an agonizing death on a cross. He spent His last night of freedom praying for courage to quell the overwhelming feeling of dread and for strength to endure with dignity the coming trial. But most of all, Jesus was praying for the Father’s sovereign plan to prevail.

The assault at Gethsemane set in motion a series of six trials; three before the Jewish religious authorities and three before the civil authorities of Rome. In this study, we will examine the first three trials of Jesus.

Sometime during the night, a cohort of Roman soldiers and several Jewish officers quietly surrounded the garden. Judas then greeted his Master with a kiss, signaling to the assailants hidden in the shadows. While the religious leaders came prepared for a fight, Jesus offered no resistance, even suppressing Peter’s impulse to take on the small army with his dagger. A few simple words reveal Jesus’s perspective, helping us understand how He could endure the outrageous injustices of the next several hours: “The cup which the Father has given Me, shall I not drink it?” (John 18:11).

First-century Israelites were a law-conscious people and they maintained a strict procedure for hearing civil and criminal cases. A document called the Mishnah, compiled around AD 200, records the oral traditions handed down by the Jewish people from one generation to another over several centuries. A portion of this document describes the guidelines that governed the Jewish ruling council, called the Sanhedrin, which was responsible for hearing cases, rendering judgment, and passing sentence on the guilty. This document very likely describes the traditions that governed the Sanhedrin during the time of Jesus. A chart listing some of the rules in the Mishnah is provided below, as well as the biblical accounts of the trials of Jesus.

Mishnah: Sanhedrin Guidelines for Capital Cases

 RulePrimary SourceSecondary SourceActual Practice
1 No trials were to occur during the night hours (before the morning sacrifice). Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:1 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. Jesus was taken to Annas, Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin at night.
2 Trials were not to occur on the eve of a Sabbath or during festivals. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:1 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. The trials occurred at night during the Passover celebration.
3 All trials were to be public; secret trials were forbidden. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 1:6 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. Jesus was taken before the Sanhedrin at night for questioning and was immediately declared “guilty.” Only his official sentencing took place during the day.
4 All trials were to be held in the Hall of Judgment in the temple area. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 11:2 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. Jesus was first taken to Annas then Caiaphas before put before the Sanhedrin.
5 Capital cases required a minimum of twenty-three judges. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:1 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. We don’t know how many judges were present. The trials took place at night during a festival.
6 An accused person could not testify against himself. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 3:34 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. The Sanhedrin convicted Jesus on His own words and did not see the need for witnesses.
7 Someone was required to speak on behalf of the accused.   Darrell L. Bock, “Jesus v. Sanhedrin: Why Jesus ‘Lost’ His Trial,” (Christianity Today, Vol. 42, No.4, April 6, 1998), 49. No one spoke for Jesus, and when He objected to the illegality of the proceeding, He was struck in the face.
8 Conviction required the testimony of two or three witnesses to be in perfect alignment. Deuteronomy 17:67, 19:15-20   The prosecution sought witnesses against Jesus, but their testimony conflicted.
9 Witnesses for the prosecution were to be examined and cross-examined extensively. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:1   Witnesses were sought against Jesus for the purpose of conviction, not to acquit Him or even find the truth.
10 Capital cases were to follow a strict order, beginning with arguments by the defense, then arguments for conviction. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:1 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. No one spoke in Jesus’s defense, neither before the accusations, nor after.
11 All Sanhedrin judges could argue for acquittal, but not all could argue for conviction. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:1 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. The chief priests and the council sought witnesses against Jesus.
12 The high priest should not participate in the questioning.   Darrell L. Bock, “Jesus v. Sanhedrin: Why Jesus ‘Lost’ His Trial,” (Christianity Today, Vol. 42, No.4, April 6, 1998), 49. Both Annas and Caiaphas interrogated Jesus directly, asking questions designed to incriminate Him.
13 Each witness in a capital case was to be examined individually, not in the presence of other witnesses. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 3:6 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. We don’t know how many witnesses were brought to testify at any given time.
14 The testimony of two witnesses found to be in contradiction rendered both invalid. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 5:2 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. The testimonies of those who testified against Jesus did not agree.
15 Voting for conviction and sentencing in a capital case was to be conducted individually beginning with the youngest, so younger members would not be influenced by the voting of the elder members. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:2 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. The members of the Sanhedrin voted simultaneously and nearly rioted.
16 Verdicts in capital cases were to be handed down only during daylight hours. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:1 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. The Sanhedrin convicted Jesus and condemned Him right away, then reconvened the next day to give the appearance of order.
17 The members of the Sanhedrin were to meet in pairs all night, discuss the case, and reconvene for the purpose of confirming the final verdict and imposing sentence. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:1   We see only a rush to judgment and no indication that the judges met for any reason, least of all to find Jesus “not guilty.”
18 Sentencing in a capital case was not to occur until the following day. Mishnah: Sanhedrin 4:1 Laurna L. Berg. “The Illegalities of Jesus’ Religious and Civil Trials,” (Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 161, No. 643, JulySeptember, 2004), 330342. The Sanhedrin convicted Jesus and condemned Him right away, then reconvened the next day to give the appearance of order.

2. The First Trial (John 18:1223)

During the first century, the high priest in Israel held essentially the same type of authority as a king; however, his appointment had to be approved by Rome and he governed under the authority of the Roman procurator. Though Caiaphas officially held the office, many recognized his father-in-law, Annas, as the true power behind the office.

Annas was originally appointed high priest in AD 6 by Quirinius, the governor of Syria, but he was later deposed by Valerius Gratus in AD 15. Nevertheless, he remained the head of a vast empire of organized corruption in Jerusalem. After his removal from office, he wielded power through his son, Eleazar, and then through his son-in-law, Caiaphas. In fact, his family held a virtually unbroken line of succession through four more sons after Caiaphas and then a grandson.

In addition to enjoying the benefits of Sadducean aristocracy, Annas held a monopoly on animals deemed acceptable for sacrifice in the temple. According to the Law of Moses, the priests were to determine which animals were of sufficient quality for sacrifice. And, of course, Annas controlled the priests.

Jesus first appeared before Annas, the former high priest and father-in-law of the current high priest.

[Annas] then questioned Jesus about His disciples, and about His teaching. Jesus answered him, “I have spoken openly to the world; 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; they know what I said.” When He had said this, one of the officers standing nearby struck Jesus, saying, “Is that the way You answer the high priest?” Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike Me?” (John 18:1923 NASB)

At least a half-dozen points of order had been ignored in the proceedings. The trial took place at night, during the week of Passover, behind closed doors, and away from the temple. If Annas was going to pretend he had jurisdiction and presume to play the role of high priest, he was not to participate in the questioning, and the answers he sought would have compelled the accused to testify against himself. Furthermore, as Jesus pointed out, witnesses should have been easy to find, but none had been summoned.

3. The Second Trial (Matthew 26:5768; Mark 14:5365; Luke 22:6365; John 18:24)

In His second trial, Jesus appeared before the high priest, Caiaphas. The Sanhedrin pressed their case against Jesus, which was itself a violation of the council’s own rules. According to their law, the role of the Sanhedrin was to presume innocence and even argue for the acquittal until accusers and corroborating witnesses left them no alternative than to convict the defendant. Witnesses were to be questioned individually and if their stories conflicted, both testimonies were to be thrown out. The high priest was to preside over the trial, facilitate debate among the seventy members, and was forbidden to question the accused. But none of these rules were followed.

The high priest stood up and came forward and questioned Jesus, saying, “Do You not answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” But He kept silent and did not answer. Again the high priest was questioning Him, and saying to Him, “Are You the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Tearing his clothes, the high priest said, “What further need do we have of witnesses? You have heard the blasphemy; how does it seem to you?” And they all condemned Him to be deserving of death. (Mark 14:6064)

A casual observer might have been impressed by the religious zeal of Caiaphas, who “tore his clothes and said, ‘You have heard the blasphemy!’” when Jesus claimed to be the Messiah. In reality Caiaphas and Annas wanted Jesus dead for two other reasons. First, Jesus dared to defy the high priest’s sovereign control over the temple. Second—and more importantly—Jesus was bad for business.

The trial described in Mark 14:5365 (see also Matthew 26:5768 and John 18:24) took place immediately after Jesus’s hearing before Annas, so it stands to reason that it took place at night. As the second trial concluded, the members of the Sanhedrin and others in attendance vented their anger on Jesus before retiring for the night.

4. The Third Trial (Matthew 27:12; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:6671)

In His third trial, Jesus appeared before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. The religious authorities had some problems to solve if they were to rid themselves of Jesus. They were “not permitted to put anyone to death” (John 18:31); Rome reserved capital punishment for its own use. The empire had two prevailing interests in any given region: peaceful submission to Roman authority and the steady flow of taxes into Rome. The empire generally avoided involvement in local squabbles unless something threatened these two primary concerns. So, the religious authorities needed to convince Roman officials that executing Jesus would serve the interests of the government. And perhaps more important, Jesus was an immensely popular teacher. Due to their fear of the people’s response, the religious authorities had to discredit Him in order to avoid widespread dissent when Rome executed Jesus.

By the end of the third trial, the religious leaders had what they felt they needed. Jesus claimed to be the Christ, the one whom Jews widely regarded as their hope of expelling their Roman oppressors. Certainly, the empire would want to rid itself of a potential revolutionary, and if Jesus were executed by the Romans, the people would reject Him as just another false Messiah. It was an ideal solution that brought together an unlikely alliance of Pharisees (scribes and lay teachers), Sadducees (priests), and Zealots (underground revolutionaries). These enemies found common ground to destroy a common enemy: God’s Son.

The rules of the Sanhedrin had, for generations, safeguarded the innocent from false accusations. To that end, the Sanhedrin acted not only as judge and jury but also as counsel for the defense. But in the case of The Sanhedrin v. Jesus, something went terribly wrong, and the trials became a courtroom fiasco.

But Jesus’s trials were the scheming of corrupt men jealously guarding their power. And to make matters worse, they draped their outrageous behavior in the august robes of religious purity.

The religious authorities successfully cast Jesus in the role of villain and accepted the applause and even the admiration of an unwary public. They successfully covered their tracks so that no one could see their impropriety, their lust for power, and their shameful conspiracy to destroy an innocent. Nor did the Jewish people comprehend the astounding blessings they were forfeiting by killing their Messiah.

Application

Very few situations in life are more frustrating than suffering injustice alone and unnoticed. Outrage demands justice, bitterness demands revenge, hopelessness begs heaven for relief, and loneliness cries out to be heard as a watching world stands aloof. During those dark, painful, and lonely times, the silence from heaven can be deafening.

If this is presently your experience, rest assured, you are not alone. The Lord does see your suffering, and He will not allow it to go unanswered. He will see that justice is done, though probably not at the time or in the manner you would like. Nevertheless, the agony you suffer will not go to waste. If you go through it, this experience can be the means by which God brings you His greatest blessings.

Stop trying to be heard and stop striving for vindication. Speak the truth—in love and without apology—to the appropriate parties. And submit yourself to the sovereign will of God, understanding that He may also be using the situation to give you a needed dose of humility.

Conclusion

Jesus accepted that He would not receive justice from men. He knew that the world was dominated by sin and governed by corrupt people. He did not look to the courts for justice or to the people for approval and affirmation. Instead He submitted Himself to the will of the Father. He spoke the truth and refused to allow anger or bitterness to distract anyone from seeing it. He entrusted Himself to the One who will ultimately and inevitably judge every soul righteously.

Adapted from Charles R. Swindoll, Jesus: The Greatest Life of All (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 187202. Copyright © 2008 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. Also from Insight for Living, Jesus: The Greatest Life of All Bible Companion (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), 119129. Copyright © 2007 by Charles R. Swindoll, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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