Christ before the High Priests

DNA evidence has recently resulted in a number of convictions for cold case crimes. It has also, on occasion, proved that innocent people have been accused and convicted. John 18:12-24 describes the ultimate miscarriage of justice as Jesus, the great High Priest, is led, bound, before the high priests and a “trial” conducted by the highest court, the Sanhedrin.

Jesus draws you into his trial. Marvel at the audacity of guard who arrest the Son of God and bind him. He has just displayed his power when he confronted the armed men in the garden and they fell back. Now they lead him to Annas, and then, Caiaphas. And Jesus goes. He is led as a lamb to the slaughter. He is the Passover sacrifice, about to be offered for his people (note Caiaphas’ unwitting prophecy). Annas had served as high priest until being removed from office by the Romans. But he retained authority and influence (think Godfather!). Five sons followed him in office, and now a son-in-law. But much of the authority seems to have remained in the hands of Annas.

Many irregularities surrounded this trial of Jesus. It was held at night, contrary to law. A man could not be executed on the same day he was tried (perhaps explaining why there were appearances before both Annas and Caiaphas).

Annas may well have been a Sadducee. Though denying the resurrection, angels, and spirits, they held fiercely to the five books of Moses. That law made clear that a man could be convicted only after witnesses had testified to his guilt. He could not simply be interrogated. But that is what Annas does.

The line of questioning is strange. You might expect it to begin with, “Who are you?” But he is asked first about his disciples. The insinuation seems to be that he might have been training them for some evil purpose. Then he is asked about his teaching. As you read of the charges carried by the Sanhedrin to Pilate, the interrogation must have explored the possibility of treasonous teaching, secret plots.

Jesus’ response is that none of his teaching has been in secret. One did not need a seminary education, a theological degree, or rabbinic training to understand him. In fact, he tells Annas to ask the people who heard him what he had said. Let them bear witness. The problem is not a lack of understanding of complex, obscure, secretive teaching. The problem, rather, is hardness of heart that is unwilling to take the claims of Jesus at face value.

Ask them who heard me.” Ask the men who cut wood. Ask the women who carry water from the wells. Ask the people who listened to my sermons and parables. He invites the high priest, the representative of the court of the land, to bring in his hearers as witnesses. (Keep in mind that John intersperses this account with the story of Peter’s triple denial of Jesus.) Jesus involves you in his trial. You too have heard him as he has come to you in the preaching and reading of the Word. You are called to bear witness to who he is. As scholars debate whether the sayings of Jesus are genuine, you can testify to what he said, to who he really is. As Schilder puts it, “Reply now, and tell Annas, and say to Caiaphas, and to the whole world, that in reference to Christ there is but one appropriate thing to do: to surrender and to be willing to believe.” (Christ on Trial, pp. 44-45). Are you ready to tell who Jesus is?

But the travesty of a trial goes on. The Shepherd was struck to be your Savior. Zechariah 13 had spoken of the Shepherd being struck. While this is a prophecy of the arrest of Jesus and the scattering of his disciples, it also anticipates the way that the Good Shepherd would be treated. One of the underlings strikes Jesus, who is still bound, in the face. The law that Annas knew so well clearly prohibits the punishment of a yet uncondemned, merely accused person.

Do you see what is happening? That blow does not condemn Jesus. It puts him outside the realm of the law. Its protections do not apply to him. He is not just the lamb to be offered. He is the scapegoat, excluded from the camp.

Jesus, with his hands bound, does not strike back. But even with his hands tied, he hurls an accusation. He seeks justice. If he is guilty, bring forth the witnesses against him. But if not, why the blow?

John tells us that Jesus was led first to Annas, then Caiaphas. He seems to pass over the trial over which Caiaphas presided, though you find details of it recounted in the other Gospels. Some suggest that the high priest in v. 19 refers to Caiaphas, and then translate v. 24 to read, “had sent.” But that is less natural. Annas, as the former high priest and still the power behind the scenes could well have been referred to as high priest.

If that is the case, and I believe it is, John seems to be dismissing the entire “legal” proceeding before Caiaphas with the reference to his prophecy in v. 14. This was no trial. It was an empty show. The outcome had already been determined. Jesus was going to die, and all that was needed was to find a (semi-)legal excuse.

Jesus, who could have summoned legions of angels when he was arrested, could have stopped this travesty of justice. But he endured it because he was giving his life for his people. Caiaphas’ words were more true than he realized. One man gave his life for the nation.

Have you heard him describe himself as the Good Shepherd? Do you know him as your High Priest? Do you trust him? Has he given his life for you?

About jwm

I serve as pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church, Newberg, Oregon.
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