And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together. 54 And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire. 55 Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. 56 For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. 57 And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ ” 59 Yet even about this their testimony did not agree. 60 And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” 61 But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” 62 And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” 63 And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? 64 You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. 65 And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows.
It is a chilly spring night and you are fast asleep, buried under the covers. You awake to the sound of someone beating on your front door. You stumble out of bed and manage your way downstairs by lamplight. You open the door to find a servant from the high priest summoning you to the palace for a criminal trial. “What’s the case?” you inquire as you attempt to stifle a yawn.
“Rabbi, some man who is claiming to be Messiah and stirring up trouble in the temple has been arrested; his followers all fled, but he is in custody,” the servant replies. “My lord the high priest requests your presence for trial at once.” Being a member of the Sanhedrin, the 71 men who compose the high court of Israel, you are bound to comply.
As you trudge back up the stairs to get dressed, you find yourself smirking at the irony of an arrested man who claims to be Messiah! Could Messiah possibly be mistaken for a common criminal? Would Messiah even allow himself to be deserted, betrayed, and humiliated by arrest? “This shouldn’t take too long,” you think to yourself.
Mark’s account of Jesus’ trial gives us three things to consider: (1) Jesus’ true witness; (2) Israel’s rejection of the truth; and, (3) God’s just verdict.
JESUS’ TRUE WITNESS
Faithful Among Faithless
In Rev. 1:5, John calls the Lord Jesus, Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth (Rev. 1:5). In the passage before us, Jesus is the ONLY faithful witness in the entire scene! Mark has told us the rulers of Israel had sought to put Jesus to death from the very beginning of his public ministry. It reminds you of those old western movies where the sheriff would say, “We’re gonna give you a fair trial, followed by a first-class hangin’.”
There is a popular line of teaching claiming Jesus’ trial was illegal; commentators often apply modern British and American legal standards to a culture two millennia apart from their own. What seems to confuse most of these commentators is the difference between civil trials (private lawsuits involving money) and criminal trials (lawsuits between the state and an individual accused of a crime). According to Jewish writings compiled several hundred years after the time of Jesus, civil trials could not be held at night. Civil trials could not be held on holy days or even during this particular holy month of Nissan.
But Jesus is arrested on criminal charges. So, the fact that he is brought before the court at night is not in itself a travesty. It was normal to try persons immediately after arrest on a criminal charge since Jewish criminal law made no provision for either pre-trial detention or bail. In other words, Jesus couldn’t be held in a jail somewhere awaiting trial because the law didn’t allow for that. He had to be tried when arrested, night or day, holy day or not.
Mark tells us the whole council (v. 55) was present, though he may intend for us to understand that at least the required quorum of 23 out of 70 members would have been present. The court consisted of the previous high priests, the current high priest (thus, the phrase “chief priests”), the commander of the Temple Guard, the steward of the Temple, the three Temple treasurers, the scribes and the elders. The “elders” were wealthy lay people; together with the chief priests, they constituted Jerusalem’s ruling class. The scribes were the lawyers and seminary professors of the day from the middle class.
The members of the Sanhedrin served the dual role of both judge and jury, with the high priest acting as the chief judge of the council’s deliberations. All the members would normally be seated in a semi-circle with court reporters seated on both the right and left sides of the semi-circle; seats in the middle were provided for witness and the accused.
The Law required there be at least two witnesses (Deut. 17:6; 19:15; Num. 35:30) to present the charges. Witnesses acted as their own prosecutors and the accused acted in his own defense.
Witnesses gave their evidence individually and verbally in the presence of the judges and the accused (NOT in front of the other witnesses). If testimony differed from one witness to the other even in minor details, the testimony was considered false and the defendant was freed. That gives some insight into Jesus’ silence; he didn’t need to respond to conflicting testimony. It also tells us that either (1) the rulers of Israel were somewhat shoddy in their preparation for a sham trial (since they didn’t get the witnesses’ stories straight beforehand), OR (2) they were being scrupulous about following the law to the letter in a legal trial. Given the picture we have of them in the gospels, I think they were striving to follow proper procedure in every detail: a fair trial followed by a first-class hangin’.
Attention to legal detail was extremely important to the priests, Scribes and Pharisees. The Law was their savior and they were using the Law to save them from Jesus and all of the consequences turning to him would bring: dependence, humility, surrender of self-will and self-governance and human power and their share of the temple’s wealth (for the chief priests were very wealthy). We see two things about Jesus stand out in this trial: his innocence and his identity.
It is clear that Jesus is innocent of the accusations leveled against him by the prosecuting witnesses. Verse 55 reads, Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. Mark tells us the Sanhedrin is not simply seeking witnesses to testify about Jesus, it was seeking witness that would convict Jesus of a deathworthy offense. Mark has been writing of their hatred toward Jesus since the beginning of his gospel account.
Notice the Sanhedrin’s desire to follow their procedural rules to the letter! They are seeking to kill Jesus, but they are determined to do it legally. And I would submit to you that is exactly what they do! Look at verses 56-58: For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. 57 And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, 58 “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’ ” 59 Yet even about this their testimony did not agree.
Each prosecuting witness had to withstand three rounds of questioning from members of the court and in this trial their testimony did not hold together. If the Sanhedrin was not following its rules of procedure and evidence, if this truly was the illegal trial some have claimed it to be, these conflicting testimonies would have made no difference. The Sanhedrin would simply have voted to kill Jesus anyway. But they believe the Law is their savior.
No matter what evil is in their hearts, they will stick to the rules; they WILL be outwardly holy and religious as they kill off the true Messiah. This, of course, has been Jesus’ devastating criticism of the rules of Israel: their “outside the cup,” “whitewashed tomb” religion. Inside their hearts was DEICIDE, a burning intent to kill God. But outside, they maintained a fanatical devotion to the appearance of holiness and justice: a fair trial, followed by a first-class hangin’.
Jesus silence is both his defense AND his testimony that he is Isaiah’s suffering servant.
Isa. 53:7 — He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. Verse 61 says, But he remained silent and made no answer.
The accusation against Jesus was utterly serious, for throughout the Greco-Roman world the destruction or desecration of places of worship was regarded as a capital (death worthy) offense.
When Jeremiah announced the catastrophe that would overtake the first temple, he too was accused of a death-worthy crime (Jer. 26:1–19). Threatening to destroy a temple certainly would be a charge for which Romans would crucify Jesus. But that charge against Jesus had to be dismissed. However, Rabbis taught Messiah would come to build a new and glorious temple. Though not admissible as evidence, the witnesses had inferred a messianic tone to Jesus’ alleged statements. For that reason, Caiaphas asked Jesus pointedly if he claimed to be the Messiah. Caiaphas gets to the point of Jesus’ identity.
Verse 61: Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” The text reads more like a charge than a question: You are the Christ, the son of the Blessed One? No more orthodox, Christological affirmation of Jesus’ identity could possibly be made! Peter had made the very same claim: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God (Mk. 8:29; Matt. 16:16).
Jesus answers with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Jesus brings together 3 OT passages in his answer: Ex. 3:14 (“I am that I am”), Ps. 110:1 (“Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”), Dan. 7:13 (“behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.”
As Jesus is giving his true testimony that will condemn him, Peter is downstairs lying to save himself, and Caiaphas is tearing his robes in horror. The Rabbis of Jesus’ time held the phrase “son of God” was understood solely in a human, messianic sense. Messiah would be merely an extraordinary man, but in NO sense was he to be God. Jesus has claimed not only to be Messiah, he has also claimed equality with the Blessed One. He is claiming to be the God-Man, utter blasphemy to the council.
Priest and Lamb
The witnesses’ testimony was not sufficient to convict Jesus. So, the high priest must take control of the Lamb. One of the priest’s duties in the Mosaic Law was to prepare the sacrifice for the alter. He was required to inspect the offering and ensure that it was fit for death. It had to be of a proper age and be without any blemish or defect. Then the animal would be taken and killed. The offering had to be brought to the priest, approved by the priest, prepared by the priest and then sacrificed by the priest.
The fact that Caiaphas tears his garments suggests that he is wearing the same kind of plain garment the priest was required to wear while preparing a sacrifice, as opposed to his expensive priestly robes. This selection of Jesus as the accused, this trial, this pronouncement of guilt and death, even the savage beating that follows, are all preparation of the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. It was Caiaphas who prophesied far better than he knew of the Lamb in Jn. 18:14, “it would be expedient that one man should die for the people.”
Rejection is Selection
Jesus has made a good and true confession; but the high court of Israel rejects him and condemns him. 63 And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? 64 You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?”
If the mighty God became incarnate, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, then we’d expect peerless goodness, matchless power, stupendous wisdom and immeasurable love. That is what you find in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.
We listen to Jesus and we have heard no blasphemy; we believe that he is God. Today we have gathered and sung our praises to him and spoken to him in prayer. If he is not God, then that is blasphemy. We are told, “The high priest tore his clothes” (v.63). The 72 members of the Sanhedrin looking on would have been startled. They knew that David and all the men with him had torn their clothes in grief at the news of King Saul’s death.
They knew that when King Hezekiah heard the blasphemies of the Assyrian army commander, he rent his garments (2 Kings 19:1). It was an act of profound dismay and anxiety.
Caiaphas was putting Jesus in the same category as a blaspheming Gentile who sought the destruction of Jerusalem, and of Saul the rejected King of Israel. But the practice of rending one’s garments was forbidden to the priest. “The high priest … must not let his hair become unkempt or tear his clothes” (Lev. 21:10). The high priest was not allowed to grieve or express anguish over anything! His eye was to be kept unswervingly upon the living God as his hope and joy. All of his time and strengths and gifts were to be given over entirely to the Lord.
Why did Caiaphas violate the Law when he had been so scrupulous to follow it to the letter in this trial so far? He was saying that Jesus of Nazareth was a dead man. “We have to get rid of this transgressor from our midst if we are going to survive. Alas that Abraham should have given birth to such a son! Alas that someone of the line of David should blaspheme the name of the Lord!” Caiaphas is pressuring the counsel to stand in solidarity with him in his condemnation of the Messiah. Discussion is over and debate has ended. The Lamb of God has been selected for sacrifice: “it would be expedient that one man should die for the people.”
What had Jesus said? “I am the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One.” Is this so impossible? Wasn’t a Messiah promised? Wasn’t it prophesied that he would be of the line of Abraham and David? Didn’t Scripture say that he would be born in Bethlehem, and that the Spirit of the Lord would rest upon him? Wouldn’t there be another one to go before him preparing his way, making straight in the desert a highway for our God?
On scholar has counted no less than 332 Messianic prophecies are fulfilled by Jesus. Is Caiaphas waiting for another Messiah? Is he longing for the promises of God? The Sanhedrin didn’t need ANY Messiah; they worshipped themselves: their fastidious rule-keeping, their power, their wealth. They had their religious system to save them. Rome needed to know where the Sanhedrin’s loyalties lay. “We have no king but Caesar” they would shortly declare as they shouted of Jesus: “Crucify him!”
Caiaphas cried, “‘Why do we need any more witnesses? . . . You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’ Mark writes, “They all condemned him as worthy of death” (v.64). Every group and faction and party in the Sanhedrin condemned him to death. Every family, every age-group, every district of Jerusalem said “Death.” The wisest said, “Death,” and the most foolish said, “Death.” Now they can continue without threat to their power or insult to their religious system. “It is expedient that one man should die for the people.” Verse 64b, “And they all condemned him as deserving death.”
It IS a fair trial, followed by a first-class hangin’.
GOD’S JUST VERDICT
They all condemned him as worthy of death. And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows. Here is one like a lamb without spot or blemish; here is one of whom God says, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased;” here is God incarnate, the Lord of glory being held as a convict, condemned as worthy of death by the Law of God. He has been stricken and smitten by God; the Lamb of God has been judged by heaven itself.
He is the Lamb slain before the foundation of the earth. So, the Sanhedrin must find him guilty and condemn him. This was God’s plan, and whatever God decrees in eternity men will choose in time. I urge you to take hold of God’s justice by making your entire plea NOT your own wretched life, but JESUS’ life and death alone. Lay your sins on the Lamb of God!
It is in one name, and one man, and one life, and one death alone that salvation is to be found. Take your stand in him. Find your acceptance in him. Identify your cause with his. Sing with Isaiah, “Surely he has borne my griefs and carried my sorrows. Surely, he was wounded for my transgressions and bruised for my iniquities. Surely the chastisement of my peace was upon him, and with his stripes I have been healed. Surely the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of all my sin.”
Laying on of Iniquity (14:65)
We see the some of man’s iniquity in verse 65.
And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows. Here is the cream of the religious crop of Israel. Here are the most respected, learned, and successful men of their day. Have they all rent their garments in grief? Are there tears in their eyes as they condemn this man of blasphemy and sentence him to death? Do they exit in a silent, solemn procession weighed down with the burden of their duty and haunted by the weight of their verdict? Perhaps some did.
But Mark says some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The temple guards must wait their turn to beat the Lamb of God. First, these great religious scholars must strike the Savior. They try to give him a black eye, or break his nose, or his cheek bone, or sink their fists into his stomach. And then they shout at him, “Prophesy! Prophesy! Who’s hitting you now?” Bang! Bang! Another punch! And the students of these august Rabbis are laughing and joining in the fun.
Jesus HAD prophesied. Downstairs in the courtyard, the cock is crowing as Peter is cursing and denying the charges against him, just as Jesus had prophesied. Above, the Lamb of God is absorbing the hatred of Israel for having testified truthfully under oath.
Jesus knows very well who it is that strikes him! Every time their fists bruise his face or slam into his ribs, he answers to himself, “It is God! It is God smiting me. It has pleased the Lord to bruise me. He has put me to grief.”
That refrain has been the balm of suffering, persecuted Christians for 2,000 years, in the flames, or on the rack, or on the gallows, being hung, and drawn and quartered, or watching their husbands and wives and even their children suffering for their true testimony. They have known, “It is the Lord.” He is there with them comforting and strengthening them. God has not abandoned them as He had to abandon the Lamb!
The earthly high priest rent his garments in violation of the law to feign a show of false grief. But the true High Priest has his eyes firmly fixed upon heaven as the Law required:
“…let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:1-2).
It is natural for us, when we read of this abuse at the hands of the holiest men of Israel, to despise them for their cruelty and hatred. How could these supposedly holy men do such awful, terrible things? But the only right way to read this verse is to see yourself punching and spitting and mocking. God’s just verdict upon His Lamb is right and true NOT because Jesus deserves to die, but because YOU and I deserve to drink the cup of the wine of the wrath of God for even the most minor infractions of his holy Law.
The One who kept the Law perfectly must die for us who break it daily! The One who told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth throughout his entire life must be put under oath by liars to die for liars like Peter, and you, and I. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Rom. 5:6-10).
The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.
Lane, W. L. (1974). The Gospel of Mark. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (531). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Id. at 532.
Id. at 533.
Id. at 534.
Id. at 535.
 Thomas, G.