By Harris Franklin Rall
It is hard to realize the swift change that came with the arrest of Jesus. It had been a day of quiet for the Master and his friends, followed by the supper with its hours of retirement and fellowship free from interruption, and then by the lonely silence of the slope of Olivet outside the city walls. Now came the crowd, the lights, the arrest, and after that the events followed quickly. The arrest was probably not far from midnight; it could not have been much before that, and it may have been later. According to Mark 15. 25, the crucifixion took place at nine in the morning. The arrest, the various hearings and trials, the mockings and scourging, the sentence, the crucifixion—all this was crowded into the space of less than ten hours.
The Plan of the Sanhedrin
Their Need of Haste. —As we study the trial of Jesus, the purpose of the Sanhedrin is perfectly clear. They were not concerned about investigating Jesus' innocence or guilt. In their minds he was condemned already. Of course, they must observe the proper legal forms, otherwise sentiment might be aroused against them. But the main thing was to secure a judgment and execution at once. To hold Jesus prisoner during the feast would be dangerous. They were not sure of the attitude of the people, who had given a certain support to Jesus; a popular movement in his favor was quite possible, especially if the cry were raised that he was the Messiah. If he were to be executed before the feast, it would require the quickest action; for it was late Thursday night that Judas came to them, and the Passover began with sunset on Friday.
The Hostility of the Scribes. —The reasons are not far to seek why these leaders were determined to be rid of Jesus. First of all, he had alienated the powerful scribes and Pharisees, beginning with his ministry in Galilee. They were the religious leaders, the models of piety on the one hand, and on the other the unquestioned authority as regards the whole system of laws and rules which were the religion of the day. Jesus had flouted their laws in his own practice, healing on the Sabbath, neglecting their washings, associating with sinners. He had attacked their system of rules, asserting the religion of the inner spirit instead. He had denounced them by name.
Of the Priests. —The enmity of the priestly party was quite as bitter and more dangerous, for they held the reins of authority in Jerusalem and formed a majority of the Sanhedrin. The priestly-Sadducaic party cared little for the attacks on the Pharisees, who were their enemies, and still less for quarrels about Sabbaths and washings. But they too had been denounced before the people. They had been compelled to stand by while Jesus and his disciples destroyed their property and threw their profitable business out of the temple. In such parables as that of the vineyard he had accused them and declared that their rule was to be taken away. And the crowds had listened and upheld him, not simply in Galilee, but also here at Jerusalem.
The Disciples. —They did not concern themselves about the disciples. They had expected some resistance, and were no doubt surprised that Jesus yielded without a struggle and his followers all fled. The disciples, of course, knew that their Master was in danger, and Peter's sword would indicate that they themselves had made some preparation. Dazed by the sudden awakening from deepest sleep, seeing one of their number leading the foes, rebuked when one of them attempted violent resistance, and noting the quiet surrender of their leader, it is perhaps no wonder that they fled.
The Trials Before the Sanhedrin
The First Hearing.—It was still night when Jesus was seized, though the full paschal moon was shining. There could be no regular trial or condemnation until daybreak, but his enemies would not wait for that. John tells us that Jesus was first taken to the house of Annas, father-in-law of the high priest Caiaphas. Annas was the real leader of the priestly party, had formerly been high priest himself, and was still known by that name (John 18. 13). Here an informal hearing was held in which everything was decided except in name. Long before this they had agreed that Jesus should be put to death; their real problem was to find a charge that they could set up before the people. His attacks upon the priests and Pharisees were no basis for a trial; but the temple was the pride of the people, and Jesus' words about this might be used. The prophet Jeremiah in his day had almost been slain for speaking against the city and the temple in the same way (Jer. 26. 8-12). And so they charge him with declaring that he would destroy the temple. At least two witnesses were required to condemn a man, but the witnesses that were produced failed to agree (Mark 14. 53-59).
The High Priest's Question. —To all the charges of the witnesses Jesus answered nothing. His fate was determined; these men did not want the truth, and he had no desire for idle dispute. Now the high priest himself approached him: "Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee?" To this also Jesus made no answer. Then came the question for which he broke his silence. These shrewd leaders knew that Jesus held himself to be the Messiah. They had read his assertion of this in his triumphal entry and in his parables. And yet, as we have seen, Jesus had not asserted the claim in so many words, and thus they could not call witnesses upon this point. That is why the high priest turns now upon Jesus with the direct question: "Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?"
The Answer of Jesus. —There was profound contempt in the query, a mockery like that under the cross a few hours later when they cried, "'Thou that destroyest the temple, and bulkiest it in three days, save thyself." Despite the scorn, Jesus answered the question. Once he would not assert the name because he feared the crowds would try to acclaim him as an earthly king. There was no danger of that now. To refuse that title now, even by silence, would be to be faithless to his Father and to his own conviction. And so, in this hour of his humiliation, he asserts that which he would not claim, in the hour of his popularity : "I am: and ye shall see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven." It was a sublime triumph of faith; deserted, helpless, facing certain death, Jesus sees the sure victory that lies before him (Mark 14. 60-64).
The Verdict. —At the reply of Jesus the high priest tore his robe and cried out in horror: "What further need have we of witnesses? Ye have heard the blasphemy." We need not charge the high priest with mere acting. It is true that the claim to be the Messiah was in itself not blasphemy. This claim had been asserted by others. But that this man here before them, this prisoner, bound, helpless, this man who had defied the laws and joined himself to sinners and threatened the temple, that such an one should claim to be the Messiah of Jehovah was in their eyes blasphemous. It was joining the holy God to that which was unholy and unrighteous. And so "they all condemned him to be worthy of death."
The Formal Conviction. —This examination at the home of Annas was probably conducted by Annas himself. It was not a legal meeting of the Sanhedrin and was official in no sense. But what this shrewd and powerful man determined upon would carry with that body, not a few members of which had undoubtedly been present at this early meeting. And so it was. At the earliest moment of dawn the Sanhedrin assembled, and agreed to the charge and the verdict based upon it (Mark 15. 1).
Peter Denies His Lord. —Meanwhile another scene was being enacted near by (Mark 14. 66-72). One of the twelve, and possibly two (see John 18. 15), had followed Jesus and his captors from afar and so found themselves
at length in the courtyard of the high priest's palace. It may be that the maidservant who noticed Peter had seen him at some time with Jesus; at any rate she charged Mm with being one of Jesus' company. Driven by fear, Peter hastily declared that he did not know what she was talking about, and then slipped out "in the porch," There the maid later on found him again, and suggested to those standing by, ''This is one of them." This Peter denied again, though he still remained. But the bystanders had noticed the Galilean accent as he spoke, and they returned to the charge: "Thou art one of them, for thou art a Galilean. But he began to curse and to swear, I know not this man of whom ye speak. And straightway the second time the cock crew. And Peter called to mind the word, how that Jesus had said unto him. Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice. And when he thought thereon, he wept."
Peter's Sin. —It is easy to condemn Peter, who had protested so bravely a little while before, and who denied now so cravenly at the charge of a mere housemaid. It is only fair to remember, however, that Peter did make his way to the house of the high priest despite the danger, and that he remained there even after he was detected. Peter's denial, however, was not something that stood all alone. Sin is never a single deed. The single evil act is part of a stream of life; it is born of other deeds and thoughts, and it gives birth to still others in turn. Peter's sin was due in large part to that overconfidence which Jesus had rebuked but a little while before. The lesson of humility and dependence was not an easy one for Peter. On the other hand, that first hesitating denial prepared the way for what was worse.
The Trials Before Pilate and Herod
The Charge Made Before Pilate. —With the end of the Sanhedrin trial the task of Jesus' enemies was only begun. Some years before Rome had taken direct control in Jerusalem and put a procurator in charge. Since then the Sanhedrin had no authority to inflict the death penalty. It is true that later on in the case of Stephen they took the matter into their own hands and put Stephen to death by stoning as their own law provided (Lev. 24. 16). But, aside from possible trouble through such lawlessness, their position would be much more secure with the people if the Romans themselves executed Jesus. Their task, therefore, was to and a charge that would stand before Pilate. The Roman would pay little attention to their accusations of blasphemy based on any such grounds. But his claim to be the Messiah might easily be used against him, if they could make it appear that this involved in some way an attack upon the Roman rule. So they framed their charge that Jesus claimed to be king of the Jews and that he had stirred up the people everywhere.
The Position of Pilate. —Nothing, in fact, was farther from the real aim and spirit of Jesus than this, and Pilate, who knew these men, saw through it quickly enough. But he knew too the fanatical spirit with which he had to deal, and the possibilities of serious trouble. Had he decided according to conviction, he would have released Jesus at once. But Pilate was afraid. His course throughout the trial is that of a man who wants to do the right, but follows expediency, who shows a lofty contempt for the Jews, and yet yields to their will. In the great scenes of that last week the figure of Judas is the most tragic, the figure of Annas is the most sinister, but the most pitiable figure, with all its show of authority and proud contempt, is that of the Roman who proved to be a coward.
Jesus Sent to Herod. —Pilate begins by questioning Jesus (Mark 15. 2-5). "Art thou the King of the Jews?" he asks. It was probably spoken with a good-natured contempt, which thought of Jesus as a harmless enthusiast sprung from this strange people. Again Jesus will not deny his Messiahship. "Thou sayest," is his reply. But to all other questions from Pilate he gives no answer. In making the charges against Jesus they had referred to his teaching in Galilee, and Pilate now grasps at the word. If this man is a Galilean, then he belongs to Herod Antipas. Herod happens to be in Jerusalem at the very time; he will send Jesus over and thus be well rid of the matter. The priests probably chafed under the delay, but they had no good reason for protest.
Before Herod Antipas. —And so Jesus stands at last before Herod Antipas, crafty and cruel Herod, rightly described as "that fox" by Jesus' scornful word. Herod, it was said, had wanted to seize Jesus. In any case he had long been curious about this prophet, so much like that John whom he had put to death. He had heard of his wonders; now he would have him perform some miracles for him. He begins to question Jesus. His shallow curiosity deserved no answer, and Jesus gave none. And before the fierce and persistent accusations of the priests he was also silent. Herod took his cheap revenge of mockery, put on this "king" in ridicule a gorgeous royal robe, and then sent him back to Pilate (Luke 23. 6-12).
Pilate's Offer of Compromise. —Pilate now had a clear case for the release of Jesus, and he set it before the representatives of the Sanhedrin: "I, having examined him before you, found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse him: no, nor yet Herod: for he sent him back unto me." Seeing them still obdurate, however, he offered them a compromise. It was the brutal Roman custom to scourge criminals before execution. The scourge was made of leather thongs weighted with sharp pieces of lead or bone. The ordeal was only less terrible than the execution itself, and victims had been known to die under it. Now Herod proposed that Jesus should be thus scourged and then let go. That surely should satisfy Jesus' foes, while at the same time it would relieve Pilate from imposing a sentence that he knew to be unjust. But the cruel Roman was less cruel than these Jews (Luke 23. 13-16).
Pilate Proposes to Release Jesus. —Then Pilate made a third and last attempt (Mark 15, 6-15). It was customary, we are told, for the Jews to ask for the release of some prisoner each year as a special privilege in honor of the great feast. Matthew tells us that it was Pilate himself who now raised the question (Mark says the people); in any case it was Pilate who suggested the release of Jesus. Pilate knew better than to propose this to the leaders; he put it directly to the people, counting upon their sympathy with the accused. So far as we know, there had been no hostility to Jesus among the people during the week. Some of the many pilgrims that filled the city had joined with Jesus' followers in shouting "Hosanna!" at his entrance into the city. They had heard his attacks upon the leaders and watched him drive the traders from the temple. Their sympathy and support had kept Jesus' foes from overt action. The way seemed clear for release.
The Verdict of the Mob. —But the situation had changed. The priests and scribes had seen to it that there were enough of their party present, and these now mingled with the crowd suggesting that they call for the release of Barabbas. There was not much argument needed. What the people wanted was a leader with power, a real king who could lead against Rome. They had no interest in a "Messiah" who could not even defend himself, a helpless prisoner about to be sentenced. And then the heart of the mob is often as cowardly and cruel as it is stupid. Whether Barabbas was a common criminal or had been the leader in some petty popular revolt, we do not know. He was at least well known, "a notable prisoner," and under sentence for murder. Then Pilate made one more effort. If they desired it, he intimated, he would release Jesus in any case: "What then shall I do unto him whom ye call the King of the Jews?" Then at last the cries from the crowd became a chorus as they shouted, "Crucify, crucify him I" In memory of Pilate's cowardly yielding to the mob, still week by week, all round the Christian world, where men confess their faith in Him who died for them, they repeat those words, the ancient monument of the procurator's shame: "suffered under Pontius Pilate."
The Attitude of Jesus. —Nowhere do the completeness and divineness of Jesus' character appear more wonderful than in these hours of his humiliation. The Christian Church has been perhaps most impressed by his meekness, seeing here a wonderful fulfillment of the picture drawn by the prophet: "He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he opened not his mouth; as a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and as a sheep that before her shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth^' (Isa. 53. 7). And yet his meekness is not weakness. Men usually feel that they must become angry and strike back in order to preserve their honor and self-respect in the face of insult and injury. But as we watch Jesus, suffering and yet silent, it is his foes that lose their honor and our respect; his strength and dignity shine before our eyes. Such strength of character, such kingliness, the world has never seen. As we watch the trial, the helpless prisoner becomes the Judge before our eyes. We see the other actors in these scenes arraigned before him. His silent sentence condemns in turn the treachery of a Judas who could answer such love with betrayal, the weakness of a Peter, the cowardice of a Pilate, the shallow fickleness of the mob, and the malice of his foes pursuing one who had never done aught but love and serve.
Directions for Study
The Scripture passages: Mark 14. 53-72; 15. 1-15; Luke 23. 1-25.
Recall first the events of the preceding evening and of the night struggle in the garden. Only so can we at all understand the flight of the disciples.
The plan of the Sanhedrin: Read this section and recall the previous chapters on the cleansing of the temple and Jesus' conflicts during the last week.
Peter's denial: Recall the stories of Peter's impulsiveness and selfconfidence.
The trials before Pilate and Herod: Read the discussion above with constant reference to the Scripture passages. If possible, read the account in John after you have finished your Other study.
The Gospels differ somewhat in their account of these events. The probable order is given above. Compare the Gospels and note that there are reported six stages in the trial of Jesus, the first four being hearings, the last two being the offer of release and the sentence. Outline the events under these six heads.
Put in a few words the character and the fault of these men who sinned against Jesus: Peter, Judas, Annas, Herod, Pilate. Who seems to you most blameworthy, and why?