When ardent proponents of separation of church and state turn to the constitution for support of their anti religious stance, and quote the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” they often fail to quote the entire line that goes on to say, “or prohibit the free exercise thereof.”

After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the religious leaders in Jerusalem knew they had to do something to stop this worker of miracles who was becoming more and more looked on as the Messiah. So they turned to their constitution (the Law), and found an amendment to the Ten Commandments that read, “Any prophet who falsely claims to speak in my name or who speaks in the name of another god must die” (Deu. 18:20).

So they set out to prove that Jesus was illegally claiming to speak on God’s behalf and was therefore deceiving the people. Being religious leaders, if they did not stop this self-appointed prophet from succeeding they would be held accountable for their inaction. But like the proponents of separation of church and state of today, they too did not read the whole text. Because in Deuteronomy 18:18-19 it says clearly, “I will raise up a prophet like you (speaking to Moses) from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him. I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf.”

Thus the religious leaders found themselves between a rock and a hard place. If this truly was the Messiah then they would be held accountable by God for not listening to His message. On the other hand, if He was a false prophet, they needed to make sure He paid for it with His life.

Most Christians know about Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, but many do not realize that this was a case of double jeopardy. Before He ever went before Pilate, Jesus had another trial before the Jewish Council in Jerusalem, and it has some interesting turns and twists.

John tells us that after Judas marked Jesus as the man they were looking for, which was done so they would not be charged with making a false arrest, the soldiers, their commanding officer, and the Temple guards tied Jesus’ hands, or as we would say today, they handcuffed Him. The first thing they did was take Him to Annas, the father-in-law of the current High Priest Caiaphas. Within most criminal justice systems a preliminary hearing, or evidentiary hearing, is a proceeding after a criminal complaint has been filed by the prosecutor to determine whether there is enough evidence to require a trial. In such hearings the judge must find there is probable cause that a crime was committed. This was a crucial moment in the religious leaders’ attempt to silence this Jesus of Nazareth who was a growing threat to their authority and power within the Jewish community.

This hearing took place at the residence of Annas the son of Seth. He had been appointed as the first High Priest of the newly formed Roman province of Judea by the Roman legate Publius Sulpicius Quirinius in 6 AD. Annas officially served as High Priest for ten years (6–15 AD), when at the age of 36 he was deposed by the procurator Valerius Gratus because he wasn’t pro-Roman enough. Yet, even though he had been officially removed from office, he remained as one of the nation’s most influential political and social individuals. Some also believe that Annas was behind the attempt to kill Lazarus after Jesus raised him from the dead (see John 12:9-11). That’s why other scholars also believe that Jesus chose Annas as His “Rich Man” in the parable about the rich man and the beggar Lazarus. Annas had five sons, but in the parable they were portrayed as the five brothers.

Once inside the residence, Annas began asking Jesus about his followers and what he had been teaching them. Jesus was a genius at handling such open-ended questions thrown at Him on the spur of the moment. They were designed to trip Him up; to have Him say something that was self-incriminating. That way they wouldn’t need any witnesses or other evidence.

But Jesus took it in stride and responded, “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. Instead of 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. Annas approved of this slap in the face, they did the same thing to Paul (see Acts 23:2). In response Paul confirms the fact that Annas was not the High Priest (Acts 23:5).

By doing this, the Temple guard had openly proven the bias and injustice that this hearing represented. It only made sense to request witnesses. That was how the process of justice was supposed to work. The Jewish law only required two witnesses to agree and it would be accepted by the court. So Jesus does not allow the guard’s indiscretion and bad behavior make Him defensive or say something that could be held against Him, so He looks back at Annas and says, “If I said anything wrong, you must prove it. But if I’m speaking the truth, you have no reason to punish me.”

Annas realized he was totally unprepared to find any witnesses or gather evidence, especially at this hour when the Passover Feast was coming up shortly and something had to be done before then. So John tells us Annas had Jesus handcuffed again and sent him to his son-in-law Caiaphas, the current High Priest (John 18:12-24). Caiaphas was his Greek name, his full Hebrew name was Yosef Bar Kayafa. But this really put Jesus in real danger of not receiving justice, because as a Sadducee, Caiaphas did not believe in the resurrection. So he was especially dumbfounded when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. He preferred to destroy this man who challenge to his beliefs, instead of supporting justice under the law for a falsely accused individual.

Now Matthew and Mark give us the scene that took place at Caiaphas’ residence. Matthew says, “Then the people who had arrested Jesus led him to the home of Caiaphas, the high priest, where the teachers of religious law and the elders had gathered. Meanwhile, Peter followed him at a distance and came to the high priest’s courtyard. He went in and sat with the guards and waited to see how it would all end.” Mark writes, “They took Jesus to the high priest’s home where the leading priests, the elders, and the teachers of religious law had gathered. Meanwhile, Peter followed him at a distance and went right into the high priest’s courtyard. There he sat with the guards, warming himself by the fire.”

But what about this Caiaphas? Was he going to be an impartial judge? Was he going to listen to both sides of the case? If so, he’d have to listen to Jesus who serving as His own defense lawyer. John gives us a clue. He tells us that Caiaphas was the one who told the other Jewish leaders earlier, “It’s better that one man should die for the people.” Oh yes! That’s right! Preceding this account in his Gospel John tells us that after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead (11:47), “the leading priests and Pharisees called the high council together. ‘What are we going to do?’ they asked each other. ‘This man certainly performs many miraculous signs. If we allow him to go on like this, soon everyone will believe in him. Then the Roman army will come and destroy both our Temple and our nation.’ Caiaphas, who was high priest at that time, said, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about! You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.‘”

It appears that Jesus’ request for witnesses had been conveyed to Caiaphas, because Matthew goes on to say, “Inside, the leading priests and the entire high council were trying to find witnesses who would lie about Jesus, so they could put him to death. But even though they found many who agreed to give false witness, they could not use anyone’s testimony.” Mark had the same record, “Inside, 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 him, but they contradicted each other.”

Things were getting desperate by this time, but the prosecution seemed to catch a break when Matthew tells us, “Finally, two men came forward who declared this man said, ‘I am able to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” Mark reports the same incident, “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!” This was especially frightening to Caiaphas, because as high priest and chief religious authority in the land, among his many important responsibilities was having control of the Temple treasury, managing the Temple police and other personnel, as well as performing religious rituals. If Jesus did succeed in destroying the Temple it would leave Caiaphas and his cohorts penniless and powerless.

Now it was crunch time for the prosecution, even with the advantage they had in the fact that Jesus did not have a lawyer and was representing Himself. Matthew describes it: “Finally, the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, ‘Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?’ But Jesus remained silent.” Mark noted the same questioning, “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.”

By this time things got heated, tempers began to flare, so Matthew writes, “Then the high priest yelled at Him, ‘I demand in the name of the living God – tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.’” Mark gives a more demure exchange, “Then the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?‘” What more evidence did Jesus need than the crowds who followed Him, the miracles He performed in healing the sick, walking on water and calming the storm on the sea, casting out demons, and raising the dead. He knew they wanted to find Him in violation of Deuteronomy 18:20. Matthew informs us that Jesus replied, “You have said it. And in the future you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Mark records, “Jesus said, ‘I Am. And you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven.‘” Here we have the opportunity of putting what Matthew recalls and what Mark remembers together. After He was asked by the high priest if he was the Messiah, Jesus replied, “You said it, yes I am.”

That was all the high priest was looking for. Now he had his evidence, he had what he needed to procure a conviction. So Matthew lets us know that in typical religious indignation, “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.’” Mark has the same story, “Then the high priest tore his clothing to show his horror and said, ‘Why do we need other witnesses? You have all heard his blasphemy.’”

Then turning to the Council and those gathered there as ad hoc jury members, Matthew and Mark both report that the high priest asked them, “What is your verdict? ‘Guilty!’ they shouted. ‘He deserves to die!‘” Then a most unprofessional and undignified scene unfolds. Matthew says, “Then they began to spit in Jesus’ face and beat him with their fists. And some slapped him, jeering, ‘Prophesy to us, you Messiah! Who hit you this time?‘” Mark heard a little bit more about what happened, “Then some of them began to spit at him, and they blindfolded him and beat him with their fists. ‘Prophesy to us,’ they jeered. And the guards slapped him as they took him away.

But wait a minute, what about cross examination. Did not Jesus have the right to bring up Deuteronomy 18:18-19 in his defense? What about His witnesses? The cleansed lepers; the widow of Nain’s son; the Centurion’s servant; the blind man at the pool, the woman at the well in Samaria? But it was not to be. Luke tells us that “at daybreak all the elders of the people assembled, including the leading priests and the teachers of religious law.” John who was there remembers, “Jesus’ trial before Caiaphas ended in the early hours of the morning.”

It was time for sentencing. Luke says, “Jesus was led before this high council, and they said, ‘Tell us, once again, do You claim to be the Messiah?’ Jesus knew the plan God had laid out for Him, but He also knew how cold and hard their hearts were. So he looked back at them and said, Even if I tell you, you won’t believe me. And if I ask you a question, you won’t answer. But from now on the Son of Man will be seated in the place of power at God’s right hand.”

Luke says, “They all shouted, ‘So, are you claiming to be the Son of God?’” Jesus replied, “That’s your charge against me.” The smug religious leaders turned to each other and said, We don’t need any more witnesses, we heard Him say it ourselves.” John remembers, “Then he was taken to the headquarters of the Roman governor.”

Now they had to prove to Pontius Pilate that they had a blasphemer on their hands. However, He would now be tried under Roman Law, not Jewish law. They never got their wish to have Him pronounced guilty. Instead, Pilate tried a little maneuvering with a Passover tradition of releasing one convicted criminal and they chose Barabbas over Jesus. This is no mystery. They couldn’t have chosen Jesus anyhow because Jesus didn’t qualify. He was not a convicted criminal. Pilate found Him not guilty. So they had really only been given one choice, and that was Barabbas!

When Pilate asked somewhat sarcastically, what am I going to do now with this man who calls Himself your king? They crowd responded almost as if it had been choreographed, “Crucify Him!” That cry and subsequent crucifixion changed the course of history and the world forever. It was not a moment of defeat, it was a moment of triumph. The prosecution did not win the case, nor was the defense given a win due to a mistrial. Jesus came to die on the cross for the forgiveness of sin and nothing would stand between Him and His destiny. Even though Annas and Caiaphas continued to persecute the fledgling church (see Acts 4:5-7), it was said later among those in the Syrian Church that Caiaphas had been converted to Christianity. It seems that the resurrection of Jesus, the testimony of Peter, and the miracles that continued in Jesus’ name was enough to convince him that this man truly was the man from heaven, the Messiah, the Son of God.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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