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The most widely read about trial of all time was held in the middle of the night, with conflicting testimony and no legal counsel. It ended with a 'free for all' attack on the condemned.
Those who laid hold of Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. Peter followed him at a distance to the high priest's courtyard. And he went in and sat with the servants to see the end.
Now the chief priests, the elders, and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death. Even though many false witnesses came forward, they found none. But at last two false witnesses said, "This fellow said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God and build it in three days.'"
The high priest arose and said to Jesus, "Do You answer nothing? What is it these men testify against You?" But Jesus kept silent. The high priest said to Him, "I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!" Jesus said to him, "It is as you said. Hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven."
Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, "He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses. You have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?" They answered, "He is deserving of death."
Then they spat in His face and beat Him; others struck Him with the palms of their hands, saying, "Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is the one who struck You?"
Matthew 26:57-68 NKJV, condensed
Jesus was hauled in before the religious authorities. The flow of events indicates it is the midnight hours. We might wonder why this case was so urgent that it had to be done immediately and couldn't wait until morning. The soldiers' job is done for now, but if the prosecutors find Jesus guilty, they would be needed again. So they waited. Trials didn't take long.
Peter has followed at a safe distance and walked right into the courtyard with the others. He loitered around a fire in the courtyard from which he could watch the proceedings with the servants. Other translations call them guards, attendants or soldiers. Probably some couriers, too. Whatever their titles, Peter hid himself among the 'hurry up and wait' people who needed to bide their time and be ready if their services were required.
The primary action is taking place in the courtroom and is full of ironies. Of all the people in the world who should recognize the presence of God, wouldn't you think it would be the religious leadership! Not so. Far from it! The accusers sat behind some bench or other barrier, dressed in their official apparel, looking smart and influential. They were scribes, scholars, and old men who joined the chief priest in determining whether Jesus should live or die. This is the same band of connivers that conspired with Judas, paying him thirty pieces of silver to see that Jesus was arrested and bound. They think they have a done deal.
Jesus is where they want him now; away from the crowds with whom he was so popular. The judges need justification to make his execution legal, so they solicit witnesses to testify that Jesus made blasphemous statements. But they can't get two witnesses to report the same thing. Their stories don't agree. The narrative calls it false testimony. Favorable would also be a correct adjective. It all depends on which side of the bench one stands. Truth is a matter of convenience and is easily corrupted, especially when the judge is also the jury.
Finally two witnesses agreed on a charge that was worthy of this trial--Jesus said he possessed the power to destroy God's temple and then rebuild it in three days! Just the thought of Jesus destroying their beautiful temple is ludicrous and sounds like a threat. Everyone knows he couldn't tear it down and he absolutely couldn't rebuild it again in three days. These are the words of a lunatic. Jesus, how do you answer this charge? Silence. He couldn't possibly explain to this crowd that his body was the temple and Easter would come in three days.
Silence is hard to take and rings with contempt. So the chief priest put Jesus under oath to make sure he told the truth; isn't that an interesting twist! Because the more Jesus told the truth, the more they lashed out against him. Then the ultimate question, Are you the Messiah, the Christ, the son of God?
Jesus responded it was as they said, and added something else they all should know. Some day the tables will turn. You will see me sitting at the right hand of real Power and we'll be coming for you!
He had clearly made them uncomfortable. It was enough. They needed no further witness. Everyone had heard it and they all agreed this was blasphemy. Individually, there may have been some nagging doubts. But together they were strong and proclaimed a sentence of death.
Then they did something most undignified and unprofessional. Someone spit at Jesus, right in the face. Others blindfolded and slapped him. They made a game of it, knocking him about and teasing him mercilessly. It seems these men of the cloth were as capable of violence and cruelty as a convicted criminal. We call them the religious leaders, but what was religious, and where were they leading, in all of this!
The objective of this trial was the death of Jesus. Minds closed around the charge that Jesus was a troublemaker and a threat to the security of their nation. The trial was not about learning the truth; the important thing was holding on to their positions of power. They heard what they wanted to hear and believed what they wanted to believe. Truth was sacrificed so that their own lives could remain as is.
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: If you were going to be critical about something Jesus said, what would it be?
For many people in the crowds that had surrounded Jesus, his healing miracles served as a sign that he was sent by God. How else could he do such good? On the other hand, opponents of Jesus claimed the devil was his father, not God! He did not abide by their timeworn traditions and his teaching didn't sound like what they were accustomed to hearing. How different is that kind of reasoning from what we do today when we attempt to judge another person's authenticity?
Jesus claimed to be doing the works of God. The religious leadership thought they were doing the work of God also. Give some additional examples of conflicts wherein opposing forces both claimed to have God on their side.How does it happen that two separate groups, both claiming God's blessing, get caught up in controversy and fight it out with each other? Name some issues that cause strife within your congregation? When have you been on the losing side of one of these battles?
Reading the Gospels up to this point, nothing is said about Jesus having enemies, except for the religious leadership. Now at the end of his life we learn there were many people who would just as soon see him dead. Who do you think the "false" witnesses were and why would they testify in court against Jesus?
Jesus was charged for what he said rather than what he had done. When are words as dangerous or as powerful as deeds?
Think about Peter out on the periphery watching the proceedings. What do you imagine was going through his mind? How would he have felt when Jesus was physically attacked? Which does more harm or is more painful--verbal or physical abuse?
Why did Jesus remain silent instead of trying to say something to win over his accusers, or at least to explain himself? When have you opted for silence? Did you ever regret keeping quiet when you should have spoken?
Sometimes the Gospel comes to us in unexpected forms, places or people. What can you do to make sure you don't miss it and that your heart is open to the presence of God in whatever form God assumes?