Ok, so maybe you know some things about Jesus. Maybe you know a little about His life and His teachings. Perhaps you’ve heard about the miracles and healings He performed. If you’re like most people, you’ve probably at least heard the story of how Jesus was crucified on a cross.
Some things about Jesus (like His crucifixion) are pretty well known to most people but many people don’t seem to know a lot about the events that lead up to that crucifixion. If you happen to be one of these people, then get ready to read an incredible story- one unlike any courtroom drama you’ve ever seen.
If you don’t know the whole story of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion it might be easy to assume that Jesus was taken right to the site of His crucifixion and immediately put to death. The reality however is much different. Believe it or not, Jesus was put through six separate trials in the hours before He was crucified.
To look at the first of these trials we need to start at John’s gospel where he details Jesus’ first stop after His arrest…
“So the Jewish police, with the soldiers and their lieutenant, arrested Jesus and tied him. First they took him to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the High Priest that year… Inside, the High Priest began asking Jesus about his followers and what he had been teaching them.
Jesus replied, ‘What I teach is widely known, for I have preached regularly in the synagogue and Temple; I have been heard by all the Jewish leaders and teach nothing in private that I have not said in public. Why are you asking me this question? Ask those who heard me. You have some of them here. They know what I said.’
One of the soldiers standing there struck Jesus with his fist. ‘Is that the way to answer the High Priest?’ he demanded. ‘If I lied, prove it,’ Jesus replied. ‘Should you hit a man for telling the truth?’ Then Annas sent Jesus, bound, to Caiaphas the High Priest” (John 18:12-13, 19-24).
This sort of “pre-trial” at Annas’ home is believed to have occurred around 2:00 am. Annas himself had once served as the High Priest and you’ll notice that he is still referred to by that title, much as we might refer to a retired coach or military officer by their former title or rank today.
As a former High Priest, Annas certainly had a great amount of respect and influence which is probably why Jesus was taken to him first after His arrest. It probably also didn’t hurt that Annas was the father-in-law of the then-current High Priest, a man named Caiaphas.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that Jesus was treated very fairly during this “interview.” Besides the fact that this whole affair took place in the middle of the night, notice that there were no charges or evidence presented against Jesus.
Then there was the matter of Annas himself. As a part of a group of men who had once plotted to kill Jesus (see Matthew 26:3-5), Annas certainly could not be considered as a fair judge. If that wasn’t enough, notice that these men responded to what little testimony Jesus did give by punching Him out. Just imagine if we treated people in court like that today.
Nevertheless, Jesus was hustled off to His second trial of the night following this appearance before Annas. This second trial is found in Mark 14 and probably was held around 3:30 am…
“Jesus was led to the High Priest’s home where all of the chief priests and other Jewish leaders soon gathered…. Inside, the chief priests and the whole Jewish Supreme Court were trying to find something against Jesus that would be sufficient to condemn him to death. But their efforts were in vain. Many false witnesses volunteered, but they contradicted each other.
Finally some men stood up to lie about him and said, ‘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!
Then the High Priest stood up before the Court and asked Jesus, ‘Do you refuse to answer this charge? What do you have to say for yourself?’ To this Jesus made no reply.” (Mark 14:53, 54-61a)
Jesus’ second trial of the night was held before a sort of unofficial meeting of the High Priest, the chief priests, the elders and the scribes known all together as the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin formed the highest governing body among the Jewish people of that time and was somewhat like the Supreme Court in America today. The Sanhedrin had the final say over all civil, religious and governmental matters provided that they didn’t violate Roman law or authority.
When you look at the story of what happened during Jesus’ second trial, it becomes clear that this second trial is even more unfair and unjust than the first. Think about it: if you were the defendant, do you think you could reasonably expect to get a fair trial inside the judge’s house at about 3:30 in the morning? If that wasn’t enough, we’re also told that some people stood up and gave false testimony against Jesus at this hearing but even then they couldn’t get their stories right.
What makes this scene so bad is that the men sitting in judgment on Jesus were supposed to be accurately representing God by following and applying His laws. But instead of following the Biblical rules for putting people on trial these men were actually crushing the Old Testament law that they were supposed to be upholding and teaching to others.
You see, the Old Testament had some built-in protections for people who -like Jesus- were accused of committing a crime. The most basic protection is known to us today as the 9th Commandment:
“You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor” (Exodus 20:16 NIV).
Another important law is found in Deuteronomy 19:15-19…
“Never convict anyone on the testimony of one witness. There must be at least two, and three is even better. If anyone gives false witness, claiming he has seen someone do wrong when he hasn’t, both men shall be brought before the priests and judges on duty before the Lord at the time. They must be closely questioned, and if the witness is lying, his penalty shall be the punishment he thought the other man would get. In this way you will purge out evil from among you.”
These guys weren’t purging out the evil- they were encouraging it. But for His part, Jesus remained silent and refused to play along with their “trial.” This must have made Caiaphas so angry that he finally asked Jesus the bottom-line question…
“Then the High Priest asked him. ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?'” (Mark 14:61b)
That’s a pretty direct question but that’s not all Caiaphas said. You see, the Gospel of Matthew tells us something else the High Priest said to Jesus. You’ll find this additional detail in Matthew 26:63…
“…Then the High Priest said to him, ‘I demand in the name of the living God that you tell us whether you claim to be the Messiah, the Son of God.'”
Pretty strong stuff, huh? The word translated “demand” here is an intense form of the word that means to extract an oath from someone. In other words, these men were forcing Jesus (we might even say commanding Jesus) in the strongest possible verbal terms to testify against Himself (which, by the way, is something that is not allowed in U.S. courts).
In response to the question of being the Messiah, Jesus said this…
“Jesus said, ‘I am, and you will see me sitting at the right hand of God, and returning to earth in the clouds of heaven.’
Then the High Priest tore at his clothes and said, ‘What more do we need? Why wait for witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your verdict?’ And the vote for the death sentence was unanimous.
Then some of them began to spit at him, and they blindfolded him and began to hammer his face with their fists. ‘Who hit you that time, you prophet?’ they jeered. And even the bailiffs were using their fists on him as they led him away” (Mark 14:62-65).
Sadly, the most important thing to these judges was not whether Jesus really was the Messiah or not. The most important thing to these men was that Jesus had finally said something they felt could be used against Him. You see, Leviticus 24:16 says that anyone who blasphemes (or “curses”) the name of God must be put to death. In their eyes, Jesus’ statement was an insult to God and therefore worthy of the death sentence.
So after this declaration of blasphemy by the High Priest some of the judges started to show their true feelings towards Jesus by spitting on Him, blindfolding Him and beating Him up. Now if this was all that had occurred to Jesus, it would have been bad enough. Unfortunately, there was more to come…
“Early the next morning at daybreak the Jewish Supreme Court assembled, including the chief priests and all the top religious authorities of the nation. Jesus was led before this Council and instructed to state whether or not he claimed to be the Messiah.
But he replied, ‘If I tell you, you won’t believe me or let me present my case. But the time is soon coming when I, the Messiah, shall be enthroned beside Almighty God.’ They all shouted, ‘Then you claim you are the Son of God?’ And he replied, ‘Yes, I am.’
‘What need do we have for other witnesses?’ they shouted. ‘For we ourselves have heard him say it.’ Then the entire Council took Jesus over to Pilate, the governor” (Luke 22:66-23:1).
After finishing their unofficial trial, the Sanhedrin next met officially to follow up their case against Jesus. We’re told that this action began at daybreak so we can pinpoint this trial- Jesus’ third in about four hours- at approximately 6:00am.
Like the previous trials we’ve already seen, this third proceeding against Jesus featured some things that no real system of justice would ever allow. As you read the story of what happened, it seems pretty obvious that the court again pressured Jesus to testify against Himself. Next, this hearing featured no witnesses against Jesus as the defendant. Finally, the court sent Jesus off to another trial without giving Him an opportunity to defend Himself.
This third trial before the Jewish Supreme Court marked the last time Jesus would appear on trial before the various religious leaders. After this, Jesus’ final three trials would all be held before representatives of the Roman government. We’ll look at those trials next.