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The Life of Jesus - Series 13: Episode 3

Jesus tried by the Sanhedrin

| Martin Charlesworth
Matthew 26:57-68
Mark 14:53-65
Luke 22:63-65

Jesus is taken to Annas, and then to the High Priest's house where he is tried by the Sanhedrin and found guilty of blasphemy. He remains silent except when asked a direct question under oath.

Jesus is taken to Annas, and then to the High Priest's house where he is tried by the Sanhedrin and found guilty of blasphemy. He remains silent except when asked a direct question under oath.


Hello and welcome to Series 13 and Episode 3, in which Jesus is to be tried by the Jewish ruling council known as the Sanhedrin. We are going to be studying in Matthew 26: 57 - 68.

Introduction and Recap

If you have been following the episodes in Series 13, and the end of Series 12, you will see we are in a very tense time in the story, with high drama and the stakes are high on all fronts. We are in that period of time which is the last week of Jesus' life which has been the subject of Series 11, Series 12, and now Series 13, and will take us right the way through to the end of our studies in Series 14. If you followed the events, you will see that there has been an accelerating conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities, which has now come to a direct confrontation, where the religious authorities have taken a decisive step and arrested Jesus. Let's remind ourselves of how we got to this point. Jesus came into Jerusalem on Sunday at the beginning of this particular week, in a very excited moment of crowds cheering him and waving him on, singing songs and chanting phrases from the Old Testament claiming Jesus as the Messiah. That was the starting point. The religious authorities were very angry, concerned and upset about that because they considered him a false messiah and they wanted to arrest him and execute him. Jesus made it even harder for them on the Monday because he went straight into the Temple compound and turned the tables over of the moneychangers, and those exchanging animals and birds for the sacrificial system. That was an act of major confrontation. Then, on the Tuesday, there was a tense stand-off between Jesus and the authorities in the Temple compound as they came with different groups to question him and try and trip him up, which was unsuccessful and Jesus held his ground. As he left, he spent time with his disciples on the Mount of Olives telling them about the future, particularly predicting the judgement that God would bring on the nation of Israel because its leaders were rejecting the Messiah. He also talked about the Second Coming and the longer term future.

The events that we are describing here were triggered by something that happened on the Wednesday. Jesus was in Bethany, a nearby village a few kilometres outside the city, where he appeared to be staying. Whilst the meal was being eaten there and shared together with Jesus' disciples and local hosts, Judas Iscariot made the decision to go to the authorities and offer to help them find Jesus and arrest him. It was an act of betrayal. On Wednesday, he is there talking to the religious leaders. They want to find a time to arrest Jesus which is very private and discreet so that they don't have to face the crowds, who would be very hostile to this. Judas said that he thought he could find a way of doing that. On Thursday, the main event of the day was the Last Supper and we spent the second half of Series 12 looking at all the detailed events and things that happened in the Last Supper. This included a lot of teaching from Jesus, the institution of the Lord's Supper and the washing of the disciples' feet by Jesus. It was a very intense experience - a Passover meal which Jesus knew would be his last meal with his disciples. During the meal, Judas Iscariot made his final critical decision; he decided that this was the moment that he was going to betray Jesus. He left the meal and went straight to the religious rulers and told them where he thought Jesus would be later that evening.

He predicted correctly that Jesus would leave the upper room in the city of Jerusalem, which had been prepared in a friend's house, and he would go with his disciples, late at night, towards the Mount of Olives and Bethany, and stop at a place called the Garden of Gethsemane where he had stayed and spent some time with them before, in similar circumstances. That led to the events of the last two episodes, which we need to keep in mind as we come to what happens here. Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane with his disciples and he prayed with a sense of urgency and distress while they slept. Judas then came to the garden, with a crowd from the religious authorities, armed guards, with lots of lanterns and torches so that they could shed light on the scene. He betrayed Jesus with a kiss, which was the agreed sign so that they knew which person to arrest in the darkness, and that is the situation that is described in the last episode.

Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin

John added that they took Jesus first of all, to the father-in-law of the High Priest. The High Priest was Caiaphas and his father-in-law's name was Annas, and he was still a respected figure who initially just questioned Jesus for a few minutes. Probably during this time, the High Priest, Caiaphas, was assembling members of the ruling council in his home, in order to have a trial of sorts of Jesus. He gathered the rulers who are part of the council known as the Sanhedrin. It is these people who gathered in the home of the High Priest and interrogated Jesus late at night, probably into the early hours of Friday morning. They had been summoned hastily, from their homes, from their beds, from their sleep to be there with Caiaphas, for this urgent moment. Let us read the text; Matthew 26: 57 - 68,

57‘Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the Teachers of the Law and the elders had assembled. 58But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome. 59The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. 60But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward 61and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” 62Then the High Priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63But Jesus remained silent. The High Priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 64“You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65Then the High Priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. 67Then they spat in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him 68and said, “Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?”’

Matthew 26:57-68, NIV

This is a dramatic scene, a very painful scene to think about and a very humiliating experience for Jesus. Let us think about it for a moment before we go into the text in any detail, ‘Who are these people who gathered and what is their status?’ These are members of the Jewish ruling council known as the Sanhedrin. We have evidence in other Jewish sources about how this council operated at different times, and from the evidence we have there and in the gospels, and I have mentioned it before on numerous occasions but now is the time to look at it in more detail. This was the council that regulated the religious life of the Jews and oversaw the Temple. Traditionally speaking, there were 70 members and it was generally chaired by the High Priest. Members would include other priests such as the Sadducees, Pharisees, Teachers of the Law - a variety of different religious leaders and groups, all of whom we have encountered in the Gospels previously. The Pharisees were well represented on the ruling council. It was supposed to meet regularly and to meet in public, not in someone's house privately, and it would deal with all sorts of questions that would come up before it. These would include legal issues, to do with whether people had followed the Jewish religion correctly or not. The Roman authorities tolerated this Sanhedrin council. They allowed them to rule over the Jews in terms of their religion, because they knew that if they took the power away they would create a lot of discontent. But the Roman authorities did not allow them the authority to execute, or kill anyone. They could rule over religious matters only; they could issue certain demands for punishment for things that people had done wrong, but they could not execute people under any circumstances. That authority rested with the Roman governor.

Testing Claims to be the Messiah

One of their jobs was to assess any Jew who claimed to be the Messiah because all the Jews believed the Messiah would be coming. There were different expectations of who the Messiah would be and how he would come. We discussed these in other episodes but there was a process of assessment that was necessary, in order to work out whether anyone's claims were correct, or to be believed. Most people think they had three phases of investigation: they would observe somebody in action who was claiming to be the Messiah; they would interrogate or question them; and then they would make a final decision in their council. There is clear evidence, in the Gospels, that they have gone through this process of observation, interrogation and adjudication already, informally; they have come to the conclusion that Jesus is a false messiah. There were always people in Judaism, claiming to be the Messiah. For example, in Acts 5:37, Judas the Galilean is mentioned, as someone who rebelled against the Romans and claimed to be a religious leader. We are clear from the Gospels that the decision had already been made. They did not like Jesus, they did not like his claims and the Sanhedrin undoubtedly would have supported the words of the Pharisees, who in Matthew 12:24, when a great miracle took place, stated

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons that this fellow drives out demons.”

Matthew 12:24, NIV

That is the claim that Jesus is a false messiah. Just before Jesus' Triumphal Entry, we have evidence of what the Sanhedrin was thinking, in John 11: 47, it says

‘Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin, “What are we accomplishing?” they asked, “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our Temple and our nation.”’

John 11:47-48, NIV

Verse 57;

‘The chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was, should report it so that they might arrest him’.

John 11:57, NIV

That's pretty clear. That took place just before the Triumphal Entry. So, they had been looking for a way to arrest him and they wanted to try him formally, publicly as it were, to confirm what they had already agreed. Caiaphas was the leader and he had been the High Priest for quite a number of years.

The Trial Before the Sanhedrin

As we look at this trial, and we consider the text that we have just read, we can make a number of observations about what is going on. It is clear the intention was to condemn Jesus and to hand him over to the Romans and ask them to execute him. Some of the things that were going on in the minds of these religious leaders are evident from the context. Almost certainly they wanted to get revenge on Jesus; they wanted revenge because he had outwitted them so far that week. The Triumphal Entry had been a point of humiliation for them; the overturning of the market tables at the Temple was a point of extreme humiliation, their failure to trip him up with trick questions had been a humiliation for them. The crowds were on his side against them. They probably wanted revenge.

They were probably very angry because Jesus, in Matthew 23, had denounced the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law and described them unambiguously, firmly and repeatedly as hypocrites because they didn't actually carry out the religious life that they claimed to lead. They were willing, it appears, to use false witnesses. People among their number were beginning to make things up against Jesus, and false evidence when they said, for example in verse 61

‘this fellow said “I'm able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.”’

Matthew 26:61, NIV

He never said that; there was no record of that. There is something similar to that recorded in John 2: 19 and the following verses, where Jesus is referring to himself as being able to be raised up after three days if he was destroyed by death, which is a prophecy of his resurrection. He never said anything about the Temple that implied that he was going to destroy the Temple itself personally. They were manipulating his words because he was not actually attacking the Temple. The interesting thing about this story is the fact that Jesus said hardly anything, he remained silent when he was being criticised. The dignity and poise of Jesus is very evident, ‘but Jesus remained silent’, says Matthew.

The key moment in the trial of course is the High Priest's question and we need to give a little attention to this; verse 63 - 64.

‘The High Priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the son of God.”’

Matthew 26:63, NIV

That was the key question. When charged under oath, Jesus was forced to speak. Was he the Messiah, the son of God? This was the claim that everyone was making, this was the claim that they were refuting. What was Jesus going to say when asked this direct question in a Sanhedrin meeting?

‘”You have said so”, Jesus replied, “but I say to you from now on you'll see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the mighty one, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”’

Matthew 26:64, NIV

Three Names to identify Jesus

It is interesting here that three different names that identify Jesus are given in these verses - the Messiah, the Son of God and the Son of Man. These are titles we are familiar with from the story of Jesus - different ways that Jesus used to make an identification of who he was: the Messiah - the promised deliverer, the Son of David; the Son of God - his eternal nature as a God, the Son of the heavenly Father; and the Son of Man was his preferred title.

When he makes the statement in verse 64, he is quoting from two passages in the Old Testament, both of which are considered to have a real significance amongst the Jews as messianic statements. First of all, from Psalm 110, which is considered a messianic Psalm and we have referred to it before, the first verse says

‘The Lord says to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet’

Psalm 110:1, NIV

The concept of being at the right hand of the Almighty comes from there. The second verse is very significantly Daniel 7: 13, where Daniel has a remarkable prophetic and eschatological dream.

‘In my vision at night I looked in there before me was one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. (Verse 14); He was given authority, glory and sovereign power, all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.’

Daniel 7:13-14, NIV

This passage speaks of God, the Ancient of Days, in close association with a human being, a Son of Man - an exalted son of man, a special son of man - a special human being who is going to be given the power of the Ancient of Days, the authority to rule over mankind, sitting at the right hand of the mighty one and coming on the clouds of heaven. Jesus' answer refers to two key messianic texts that the Sanhedrin would immediately recognise. His answer is in the affirmative. ‘Yes he is the Messiah, the son of God’. Mark adds the phrase, ‘I am’ in answer to the question. Matthew says ‘You said so’, and Mark said ‘I am’ - very affirmative. The High Priest's verdict is that this is blasphemy. Blasphemy probably meant a misuse of Scripture, dishonouring the name of the God of Israel and a false claim to messiahship, those three ingredients. Blasphemy was considered by the Sanhedrin to be a sufficient reason for execution.

The Outcome of the Trial

The trial ends with the mocking of Jesus, spitting in his face and striking him with the fist, the sheer anger of these religious leaders against Jesus, that has been pent up, waiting an opportunity to be expressed, is now expressed with force. They have now got him where they wanted him for so long. He has been outwitting them. He has been on the move. He has been popular, performing miracles, and well received by the crowds and now he is threatening to take over the whole of the city of Jerusalem - their stronghold. But now they have got him. This trial comes to an end.

When we add in the information of Luke 22 : 66 - 71, they probably reconvened at daybreak to formalise this discussion, which is the implication of what Luke says. As dawn came, they made a final judgement and immediately handed him over to the Roman authorities, went over to see Pontius Pilate, and that is a subject of a future episode.


What conclusions do we come to, what thoughts and feelings do we have and what reflections do we have, when we are thinking about this trial? The first thing that comes to mind is the incredible courage and dignity of Jesus. He has conducted himself with such amazing dignity during these incredibly difficult times. First of all, in the Garden of Gethsemane, so patient with his disciples - they fall asleep when he is in a life-threatening situation. Then he is very gracious with Judas Iscariot calling him a friend even as Judas kisses him with the kiss of betrayal. He is gracious with the servant of the High Priest who Peter has injured with his sword and heals him; then he doesn't resist arrest and he goes where he is taken. Then he is polite to Annas when he goes to Annas' house, the father-in-law of the High Priest, and here he listens to all these absurd allegations and he is silent. The only thing he is recorded as saying is, answering under oath a direct question, and he gives a direct, clear and gracious answer. We see a wonderful indication here of the character of Jesus Christ - the sheer grace with which he faced humiliation and suffering.

As we read this, it can make us feel frustrated and angry because this is all so unjust. It is unjust for all sorts of reasons. We ask ourselves a very simple question ‘How can a man be put on trial without having any defence in any legal system?’ The Sanhedrin itself had a number of rules by which it conducted itself. We have information about these rules that come to us from Jewish sources; we can't be entirely sure which rules were applied at which exact time of history, but for the most part the Sanhedrin did not try people unless they had someone defending them; the Sanhedrin did not meet at night; the Sanhedrin did not meet during a religious feast; the Sanhedrin, did not meet in a private house. All these guidelines have been violated here; this isn't a legally constituted Sanhedrin meeting. It is a hastily gathered group of people in a desperate situation, trying to rid themselves of Jesus, at breakneck speed before the crowds hear about what they are doing, and threaten their power and try to get Jesus released. They want to do this in the cover of darkness. The crowds are asleep; the crowds don't know what is happening. Jesus has been arrested at night; he has been tried at night; he is going to be handed over at the earliest possible moment in the morning; they are going to ask Pilate to execute at the earliest possible moment on Friday; and by then it is too late, the crowds can't do anything; and Jesus will be dead and gone - they hope.

There is a creative tension here between Jesus first coming and his second. In his first coming, which we're studying in the Gospels, he came in humanity and humility and he was willing to undergo this terribly painful suffering at the end of his life. The suffering has begun and, of course, it will intensify greatly when he is handed over to the Romans and ends up on a cross. All the time, there is a creative tension between this and the Second Coming. He is going to return in power and glory.

‘From now on you'll see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the mighty one and coming on the clouds of heaven’.

Matthew 26:64, NIV

Jesus predicts prophetically, this is not the end; this death is just a momentary thing for him; he will rise again from the dead, he will ascend to God's right hand and he will come again in power and authority to rule the world. Jesus is utterly secure that he knows he is doing his Father's will, fulfilling the prophetic Scriptures and that he will be rescued from the death to which he is going to be subjected, by a combination of the Jewish ruling authorities and the Roman political leaders. There is more to be said about this story and in the next episode. We are going to look at some of the tragic things that happened to the disciples at this time, as they were scattered and confused after the arrest of Jesus. I hope you will join us then.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How do you react to injustice? How did Jesus react?
  • Discipleship
    1. Why do you think God allowed such injustice to occur here? He had all the power and authority to intervene but he didn't!
    2. Why does God sometimes appear to allow bad things in our modern world to occur?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Using tagging as an aid to research justice in the Jewish and Roman world.
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