At the end of our last lesson, Jesus was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane by a mob of Roman soldiers and Jewish haters. From the time of His arrest to His actual crucifixion, He is going to be moved through six phases of judicial hassle. There will be three Jewish phases followed by three Roman phases.
THE FIRST JEWISH PHASE: BEING QUESTIONED BY ANNAS
At the end of our last lesson, we learned that those who arrested Jesus hauled Him off to the home of a man named Annas. Annas served as high priest a few years back, and being an ex-high priest makes a man big stuff in Jewish society. So even though Annas isn’t the high priest anymore, he still gets to use the title and he has a lot of political clout. Remember that in this Jewish society, religion and government were inseparable. To be hauled off to a court of law was supposed to mean you were going to be held accountable to the tenants of Yahweh’s Old Covenant, as spelled out in the books of Moses (aka, the Torah). Even though they didn’t really care in the least about pleasing Yahweh, the rulers of Jewish society found His laws quite handy for getting rid of troublemakers. Jesus is definitely a troublemaker, and the goal now is to try and trap Him in some obvious violation of Yahweh’s Covenant laws. To this end, Annas now lays into Jesus and starts grilling Him about what He’s been teaching His followers.
Jesus replied, “Everyone knows what I teach. I have preached regularly in the synagogues and the Temple, where the people gather. I have not spoken in secret. Why are you asking Me this question? Ask those who heard Me. They know what I said.”
Then one of the Temple guards standing nearby slapped Jesus across the face. “Is that the way to answer the high priest?” he demanded.
Jesus replied, “If I said anything wrong, you must prove it. But if I’m speaking the truth, why are you beating Me?” (Jn. 18:20-23)
Jesus knows the games these guys play and He’s playing it right back by reminding them that Yahweh required there to be proof of a crime before any punishment was doled out. Witnesses were a key form of that proof, but one witness wasn’t enough. There had to be at least two. Since Jesus has been teaching publicly, Annas knows as well as anyone else what Jesus has been preaching, so Jesus challenges Annas to come up with some legitimate accusation. But Annas has a reputation to protect, and there’s a limit to how involved he wants to be with this troublemaker. This is really High Priest Caiaphas’ headache, so Annas now sends Jesus off to his son-in-law’s house.
THE SECOND JEWISH PHASE: BEING QUESTIONED BY CAIAPHAS & THE SANHEDRIN
The Sanhedrin was New Testament Israel’s equivalent to the American Supreme Court. It was a group of Jewish men composed of three main groups. The chief priests would have included former high priests like Annas, and top members of the Temple staff. The elders were wealthy and influential laymen. The scribes were from the middle class. The chief priests and elders would be Sadducean while the scribes would have been Pharisaic. This of course created tension, since these two groups hated each other. But at this point, everyone is in agreement that Jesus needs to be exterminated, and what’s going to happen here is a mock trial. A real trial would have been conducted at the Sanhedrin’s official meeting place, not in Caiaphas’ personal home. The usual regulations are being disregarded here because everyone’s in a rush to get Jesus’ execution underway. This would be like you getting hauled off to a barn where some powerful judge, the police chief, the district attorney, and several policemen have all gotten together to put on a pretense of giving you a fair shot at justice. But the very fact that you’re in a barn and not a real courthouse makes the whole affair have a very shady and illegal tone to it. This is the Sanhedrin on this night: they’re being very shady and everyone knows it.
Now forget about physical evidence like DNA and fingerprints. All these Jewish leaders want is to find some folks who will make up a bunch of slanderous guff about Jesus which will make it sound like He’s committed a crime deserving of execution. Happily, Yahweh has many such crimes spelled out in the Torah, and guilty verdicts could be reached simply by corroborating the testimonies of a couple of witnesses. The problem is that skilled liars are in maddeningly short supply at this hour of the night. The testimonies being put forth either aren’t incriminating, or they’re so ridiculously fake that the Sanhedrin can’t afford to go with them. We have to appreciate the dilemma here: there are many people witnessing this mock trial, and Jesus has gained a lot of zealous fans with His life changing miracles. If the Sanhedrin is interpreted as butchering Him for no valid reason, there could be serious ramifications. Riots are always a major concern, especially with so much tension between the Jews and the Romans. So even though the members of the Sanhedrin don’t care about justice in this moment, they really do need to come up with some convincing charges if they’re going to keep control over the people.
The leading priests and the entire high council were trying to find evidence against Jesus, so they could put Him to death. But they couldn’t find any. Many false witnesses spoke against Jesus, but they contradicted each other. Finally, some men stood up and gave this false testimony: “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple made with human hands, and in three days I will build another, made without human hands.’” But even then they didn’t get their stories straight!
Then the high priest stood up before the others and asked Jesus, “Well, aren’t You going to answer these charges? What do You have to say for Yourself?” But Jesus was silent and made no reply. (Mk. 14:55-61)
Well, this is maddening. Someone has to do something. Caiaphas finally takes a gamble and tries to bait Jesus into committing the ultimate blasphemy: claiming equality with the magnificent Yahweh.
Then the high priest said to Him, “I demand in the Name of the living God—tell us if You are the Messiah, the Son of Yahweh.”
Jesus replied, “You have said it. And in the future you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at Yahweh’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Matt. 26:63-64)
Mark records Jesus as beginning His answer with that supercharged title of, “I AM.” That, plus Jesus’ intentional allusion to Daniel 7:13, in which the prophet Daniel sees Jesus sitting at the right hand of Yahweh, gives Caiaphas exactly what he wants. He can now accuse Jesus of committing blasphemy by claiming equality with Yahweh. At last, a juicy excuse to execute Yahweh’s Messiah! But first, Caiaphas has to put on a theatrical pretense of devotion to Yahweh by acting shocked and horrified by this blasphemy. His hypocrisy knows no bounds.
Then the high priest tore his clothing to show his horror and said, “Blasphemy! Why do we need other witnesses? You have all heard His blasphemy. What is your verdict?”
“Guilty!” they shouted. “He deserves to die!”
Then they began to spit in Jesus’ face and beat Him with their fists. And some slapped Him, jeering, “Prophesy to us, Messiah! Who hit You that time?” (Matt. 26:65-68)
Take a good look: this is how the Jews thank Jesus for doing countless miracles for their people. You can’t buy people’s devotion with favors, healings, and free food. These people hate Yahweh, and they hate Jesus. They really don’t care what Jesus has done for anyone in the past. Right now, it’s just about enjoying the sadism.
At this point, it’s early in the morning of the next day. Peter has been up all night. Unlike Jesus, he’s a human being. So he’s tired, and he’s emotionally fried, and he’s scared. There’s nothing comfortable about sitting in the courtyard of the home of the most powerful man in Israel when you know that man is upstairs trying to murder your hero. And on top of that, it’s cold, so Peter is trying to take the chill off by hanging around the fire with some other people who are also up at this hour. One of them is a slave girl with a big mouth. She recognizes Peter as someone who she’s seen hanging around Jesus. Instead of keeping her observation to herself, she has to start making a big deal out of it. She’s probably trying to earn points with her boss by helping to round up another criminal, which is going to be very easy with so many Jewish law enforcers hanging around.
A servant girl noticed him in the firelight and began staring at him. Finally she said, “This man was one of Jesus’ followers!”
But Peter denied it. “Woman,” he said, “I don’t even know Him!”
After a while someone else looked at him and said, “You must be one of them!”
“No, man, I’m not!” Peter retorted.
About an hour later someone else insisted, “This must be one of them, because he is a Galilean, too.”
But Peter said, “Man, I don’t know what you are talking about.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the rooster crowed.
At that moment the Lord turned and looked at Peter. Suddenly, the Lord’s words flashed through Peter’s mind: “Before the rooster crows tomorrow morning, you will deny three times that you even know Me.” And Peter left the courtyard, weeping bitterly. (Lk. 22:56-62)
Wow, talk about having a bad night. And seriously, what would you have done? You can hear them beating Jesus up just a short distance away—are you really going to raise your hand and say, “I’m with Him”? No, you’re going to act like a spineless coward because that’s what we humans do. We’ve got this strong instinct of self-preservation hardwired into us by God and it has a way of turning us into selfish beasts at the worst moments. Peter runs away feeling like a total heel. We can just imagine the brick load of shame that he has crashing down on him. He hasn’t slept all night. The Guy he loves is getting beat up right in front of him and he can do nothing to stop it. Peter’s life is suddenly a miserable mess and of course all of his earlier declarations to stand by Jesus through thick and thin are probably clanging in his mind and only adding to his shame. Can you identify? Have you ever pulled a Peter? It’s called being human, and it’s not an unpardonable sin. So if you’re stuck in the past, it’s time to ask the Holy Spirit to get you unstuck. God doesn’t write us off for being cowards. He responds to our soul’s desire to please Him, and He doesn’t confuse that with our courage under fire. Peter loved Jesus on a soul level, and him hightailing it into the night didn’t change that.
THIRD JEWISH PHASE: AT THE SANHEDRIN’S CHAMBERS
Now that Caiaphas has a verdict to work with, Jesus is hauled off to the official meeting place of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem where all of the officials have gathered. This second Sanhedrin meeting had a full representation of Sanhedrin members while the first was probably only a quorum. The official verdict is passed: Jesus is to be executed. Unfortunately, the Romans don’t let the Jews kill whoever they want, so now Jesus will have to be formally presented to a Roman official along with some convincing reason for why Jesus needs to be killed. The Romans don’t care in the least about some promised Messiah, nor do they care about someone blaspheming against the national God of Israel. As far as the Romans are concerned, Yahweh is some weenie who was trumped by the superior Roman gods—how else could Rome have gained supremacy over Yahweh’s territory? So whining about Jesus insulting Yahweh simply won’t work. Jesus will have to be accused of different crimes—ones that threaten the Romans’ political interests.
Well, now that Jesus has been officially charged, He’s tied up and roughly escorted off to see Governor Pilate. Suddenly Judas is having serious regrets about what he’s done.
When Judas, who had betrayed Him, realized that Jesus had been condemned to die, he was filled with remorse. So he took the thirty pieces of silver back to the leading priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he declared, “for I have betrayed an innocent Man.”
“What do we care?” they retorted. “That’s your problem.”
Then Judas threw the silver coins down in the Temple and went out and hung himself.
The leading priests picked up the coins. “It wouldn’t be right to put this money in the Temple treasury,” they said, “since it was payment for murder.” After some discussion they finally decided to buy the potter’s field, and they made it into a cemetery for foreigners. That is why the field is still called the Field of Blood. This fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah that says,
“They took the thirty pieces of silver—the price at which he was valued by the people of Israel, and purchased the potter’s field, as Yahweh directed.” (Matt. 27:3-10)
This is Matthew talking, and whenever Matthew starts quoting the Old Testament, you need to be wary. The guy often gets it wrong, and he really bombs it here by naming the wrong prophet, and then quoting a passage that doesn’t exist. No one in the Old Testament bought a patch of land known as “the potter’s field.” After acting out a strange shepherding allegory, the prophet Zechariah was the one who was paid the thirty pieces of silver by some Jews. Yahweh then told Zechariah to throw the money to the human potter in the Temple. Fields were never mentioned (see Know Your Bible Lesson 39: The Great Divorce). Decades earlier, Jeremiah once purchased a field which had nothing to do with pottery. Neither of these events had bumpkus to do with a future Messiah being betrayed by one of His disciples. So Matthew is confusing his prophets, mangling passages, and making some ridiculous inferences about what Zechariah and Jeremiah were doing back in the day, but hey, who says the Bible is infallible? Oh, that’s right, the Church does. Well, the Church is as brilliant as Matthew is when it comes to interpreting the contents of Scripture. Check out the cross-references for yourself and you’ll see scholars trying hard to save Matthew’s reputation. But you can’t salvage this one. It’s a bunch of guff. Matthew was a human, and no human is perfect (see Messianic Passages According to Matthew).
It really doesn’t matter one iota if Judas is going through prophetic motions or not. The point is that he regrets what he did, and the chief priests really show their carnal colors by the way they respond to him. Remember that these were ex-high priests. They were supposed to be the moral elite—the guys who entered into the Most Holy Place to atone for the sins of the people. As spiritual leaders, these guys were supposed to take Judas’ confession very seriously. They should have shown concern both for him and for the one he had falsely accused. Bearing false testimony against someone was a serious crime under the Old Covenant. But these guys just blow Judas off. This would be like having some Catholic man come up to the pope weeping and confessing to some terrible sin only to have the pope wave him away and say, “Go away, I’m eating lunch.” This is very shocking behavior for Israel’s spiritual leaders, and we need to not miss this indicator of how spiritually dark Israel is at this time. If the high priests no longer care about honoring God, who is left?
FIRST ROMAN PHASE: GOVERNOR PILATE
Pilate is the Roman military governor. He moves around, and wherever he is currently staying is called the Praetorium. Often some rich guy’s house was chosen for the honor of housing the Roman governor. But since Pilate is an icky Gentile, and Jews aren’t supposed to socialize with Gentiles, the snooty Sanhedrin officials certainly don’t want to soil themselves by actually going into the governor’s headquarters. So they hand Jesus off to be defiled by the presence of an icky Gentile, while they themselves stay outside. Don’t miss the irony that the same guys who just told Judas to stuff it when he tried to confess his sin are now acting oh so concerned about becoming unclean in the sight of God.
Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas ended in the early hours of the morning. Then He was taken to the headquarters of the Roman governor. His accusers didn’t go inside because it would defile them, and they wouldn’t be allowed to celebrate the Passover. So Pilate, the governor, went out to them and asked, “What is your charge against this Man?”
“We wouldn’t have handed Him over to you if He weren’t a criminal!” they retorted.
“Then take Him away and judge Him by your own law,” Pilate told them.
“Only the Romans are permitted to execute someone,” the Jewish leaders replied. (Jn. 18:28-31)
Pilate doesn’t want to be hassled with every petty gripe these foreigners come up with. The Sanhedrin officials know this, so they make Jesus out to be anti-Rome.
They began to state their case: “This Man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming He is the Messiah, a king.” (Lk. 23:2)
Pilate certainly doesn’t like the sound of some Jewish guy declaring himself to be a king. That could definitely lead to trouble. So he goes inside to grill Jesus, and he’s looking for evidence that Jesus is the revolutionary type. But after a brief interview, he’s just not convinced.
Then Pilate went back into his headquarters and called for Jesus to be brought to him. “Are You the king of the Jews?” he asked.
Jesus replied, “Is this your own question, or did others tell you about Me?”
“Am I a Jew?” Pilate retorted. “Your own people and their leading priests brought You to me for trial. Why? What have You done?”
Jesus answered, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, My followers would fight to keep Me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But My Kingdom is not of this world.”
Pilate said, “So You are a king?”
Jesus responded, “You say I am a king. Actually, I was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. All who love the truth recognize that what I say is true.”
“What is truth?” Pilate asked. Then he went out again to the people and told them, “He is not guilty of any crime.” (Jn. 18:28-38)
Jesus is a certainly an odd duck who doesn’t give straight answers, but He doesn’t come across as a threat. Pilate doesn’t feel this problem is worth spending any more energy on, so he tries to dump Jesus back onto the Jews, but the Jews aren’t having it.
But then they became insistent. “He is causing riots by His teaching wherever He goes—all over Judea–from Galilee where He started, and even to here!” (Lk. 23:5)
What’s this about Galilee? That’s Herod Antipas’ jurisdiction, and Herod happens to be in Jerusalem at the moment. How very convenient. Pilate now packs Jesus off to go see Herod.
SECOND ROMAN PHASE: BEFORE HEROD ANTIPAS
Herod was very glad to see Jesus; for a long time he had wanted to see Him because he had heard about Him and was hoping to see some miracle performed by Him. So he kept asking Him questions, but Jesus did not answer him. The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing Him. Then Herod, with his soldiers, treated Jesus with contempt, mocked Him, dressed Him in a brilliant robe, and sent Him back to Pilate. That very day Herod and Pilate became friends. Previously, they had been hostile toward each other. (Lk. 23:8-12)
THIRD ROMAN PHASE: BEFORE PILATE AGAIN
Well, rats. Jesus was useful in smoothing out tensions with Herod, but now Pilate is stuck with Him again, and there are other things that Pilate would rather be doing. How can the Jews really be so steamed up over this Guy? He seems so docile. Weird, but docile. Wait—here’s an idea: it’s time for the annual tradition of the Roman governor officially pardoning some Jewish prisoner as an act of mercy. Some other Jews are reminding Pilate of this and wanting him to continue the tradition. At this time, there is an infamous murderer behind bars—a true insurrectionist named Barabbas.
So when they had gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Who is it you want me to release for you—Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Messiah?” For he knew they had handed Him over because of envy.
While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s bench, his wife sent word to him saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous Man, for today I’ve suffered terribly in a dream because of Him!”
The chief priests and the elders, however, persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to execute Jesus. The governor asked them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?”
“Barabbas!” they exclaimed. (Mt. 27:17-21)
At this point, Pilate knows in his gut that the Jewish leaders are being shady and that Jesus is innocent. Plus, his wife has had a disturbing dream, and the Romans were as suspicious as the Jews and very open to divine omens. What if the gods are warning Pilate not to mess with this Jesus fellow? Surely there’s a way to calm these Jews down. Perhaps if they see Jesus getting scourged, they’ll be satisfied. So Pilate orders the brutal whipping and lets his soldiers have a bit of sadistic fun by jamming a crown of thorns onto Jesus’ head and dressing Him in a purple robe.
And the soldiers repeatedly came up to Him and said, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and were slapping His face.
Pilate went outside again and said to the Jews, “Look, I’m bringing Him outside to you to let you know I find no grounds for charging Him.”
Then Jesus was brought out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Here is the Man!”
When the chief priests and the Temple police saw Him, they shouted, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”
Pilate responded, “Take Him and crucify Him yourselves, for I find no grounds for charging Him.”
“We have a law,” the Jews replied to him, “and according to that law He must die, because He made Himself the Son of God.”
When Pilate heard this statement, he was more afraid than ever. He went back into the headquarters and asked Jesus, “Where are You from?” But Jesus did not give him an answer. (Jn. 19:3-9)
First Pilate’s wife receives some kind of omen, now Jesus is claiming to be the Son of a God. The Romans believed in human-god hybrids. So now Pilate is very anxious about assaulting some powerful being, but Jesus is being impossibly silent.
So Pilate said to Him, “You’re not talking to me? Don’t You know that I have the authority to release You and the authority to crucify You?”
“You would have no authority over Me at all,” Jesus answered him, “if it hadn’t been given you from above. This is why the one who handed Me over to you has the greater sin.”
From that moment Pilate made every effort to release Him. But the Jews shouted, “If you release this Man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Anyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar!”
When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside. He sat down on the judge’s bench in a place called the Stone Pavement (but in Hebrew Gabbatha). It was the preparation day for the Passover, and it was about six in the morning. Then he told the Jews, “Here is your king!”
But they shouted, “Take Him away! Take Him away! Crucify Him!”
Pilate said to them, “Should I crucify your king?”
“We have no king but Caesar!” the chief priests answered. (Jn. 19:10-15)
Look at how devoted to Rome these Jews have suddenly become. Pilate is really sweating now. He’s even calling Jesus a king and at the same time offering to release him—that’s rather lax for a military governor. But Pilate really does not want to be the one who is guilty of murdering Jesus. After all, what if the Man actually is the son of some kind of god? But now the Jews are getting ugly and suggesting that Pilate isn’t loyal to the emperor. Yikes, Pilate can’t afford to let those kinds of rumors start.
When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that a riot was starting instead, he took some water, washed his hands in front of the crowd, and said, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood. See to it yourselves!”
All the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then Pilate released Barabbas to them. But after having Jesus flogged, Pilate handed Him over to be crucified. (Matt. 27:24-26)
Well, that was an embarrassing disaster. Pilate is feeling seriously coerced. He’s not going to risk his own neck over some Jewish Guy who has managed to outrage His own leaders to such a degree.
Crucifixion is work, and it’s more efficient to do it in batches. So Jesus and two other condemned criminals are led away together to a nearby execution spot named Golgotha (aka, The Place of the Skull). Normally criminals were made to carry their own crosses, but by now Jesus is putting on a convincing act of being too weak to handle the burden. Let’s remember that Jesus is God, not some mere mortal. So is He really feeling overwhelmed with pain right now? Not hardly. But no one knows this, so the Romans grab an onlooker named Simon of Cyrene and make him carry Jesus’ cross for Him. That’s a nerve-wracking assignment. Who’s to say the Romans will let Simon go once they reach Golgotha? But Roman soldiers could take these kinds of liberties with people, and they did so often. So Simon doesn’t have a choice, and now a huge crowd is following to watch the gory exhibition. In accordance with their cultural tradition, some Jewish women are making a loud, wailing ruckus and pretending to be oh so upset about what’s happening to Jesus. Are they really upset? Probably not. In Luke 23:28-31, we find Jesus turning around and saying some rather crisp words to these dramatic mourners. He essentially says, “Mourn for yourself, not Me, because dark days are coming for you.” Remember that Jesus has prophesied that the Jews are going to get a major spanking from Rome shortly after His departure from earth.
Now by arranging a Roman crucifixion for Himself, Jesus has surrounded Himself with a mixed audience of Jews and Gentiles. In our next lesson, we’ll find out how various individuals from these groups react to Jesus’ death.
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