The Triumphant King on Trial

In Matthew 21, the gospel presented you with the triumphant King entering Jerusalem. The royal title, “Son of David,” was shouted by the crowd. Messianic prophecies were being fulfilled. But now, in Matthew 26:63–64, that messianic , triumphant King is on trial. The high priest places him under oath as he demands to know if Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

Listen to the silence of your Savior. The King who entered Jerusalem on a donkey is on trial—but is still King. The pace of Matthew’s narrative begins to slow down as Jesus enters Jerusalem. Listen to the shouts of the crowd: “Son of David!” That’s a royal title. The people are hailing him as the messianic king, though their concept of his kingship is flawed. Matthew explicitly quotes Zechariah, pointing to Jesus as the fulfillment of that messianic prophecy. The cries of Hosanna are from Psalm 118, a psalm that not only looked back to the Exodus from Egypt and was used at the Passover, but also looked ahead to the fulfillment of that event. Don’t miss the irony that the one hailed as King on Sunday is now a prisoner on trial late Thursday night. The complex legal situation made Jesus’ trials complicated. The hearing before the Sanhedrin, over which Caiaphas, the high priest presided, was held to come up with a reason to sentence Jesus to death. But the Romans reserved to themselves the authority to execute criminals. Thus this hearing would be followed by a trial before Pilate. Many false witnesses came forward with conflicting allegations. Finally two testified that Jesus had said he was able to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, apparently an intentional twisting of his words in John 2:19. Even though the high priest baited Jesus, he refused to reply. The natural reaction would have been to object to false testimony, to correct misinterpretations of what he had said. But Jesus is silent.

Christ’s silence was for your salvation. This is not just a silence that shows disdain for the accusations. (Notice that the silence does not last.) Rather, this silence means that it is the accused, standing silently there, who really controls the process. When Jesus has spoken about the temple being destroyed and then rebuilt in three days, he used intentionally ambiguous language. It caught attention, and could be properly understood only as he explained it. Rather than explain the saying to the Sanhedrin, Jesus will fulfill it by his silent suffering, death, and glorious resurrection. Jesus is fulfilling Scripture as he suffers silently, the sin-bearer who does not open his mouth, see Isaiah 53:6,7. His silent submission to this travesty of justice was so that your sins could be forgiven, so that you could stand before God and be declared just, perfectly righteous in Christ’s righteousness. His very silence calls you to trust him. But the silence of the Savior is finally broken.

Acknowledge Jesus as the Christ. Under oath Jesus responds to the crucial question. The high priest places Jesus under oath. There are legitimate occasions for taking an oath. Jesus prohibited, not all swearing, but improper and light oath-taking. The very act of placing Jesus under oath here adds to his humiliation. An oath or vow is taken in God’s presence (“before God and these witnesses”). Jesus whole life and work was lived directly in his Father’s presence. Being placed under oath carries with it the insinuation that he might otherwise not have been truthful. But to this humiliation also, the Savior submits. The question Jesus is asked under oath is whether he is the Christ (the Messiah), the Son of God. Jesus answers affirmatively—with a qualification. The question is framed in such a way that either a simple “yes” or “no” could be misleading. Jesus had avoided the term “Messiah” as a self-designation because of the mistaken political/nationalistic implications which clung to the term. To simply say “yes” could be taken as agreeing to the popular misunderstanding of the Messiah’s work. And a “no” would be read as a denial of his Messianic role. “You said it” provides something of a qualifier. It is basically an affirmative, but expresses some reservation about how the question is framed. “Yes, it is as you say” is probably a trifle too affirming. But, lest anyone take his answer as a denial of his messiahship, Jesus expands beyond a simple answer.

The accused will come as your Judge. Jesus claims to be the glorious Son of Man. He promises that his accusers will see him coming on the clouds of heaven. Jesus draws his language from Daniel 7:13,14 and Psalm 110:1. The first three beasts in Daniel’s vision represented kingdoms which had come and gone. In a few hours Jesus would be standing before the representative of the great, terrifying beast, the Roman empire. But the one standing before Pilate, though he might appear to be simply a weak, suffering man, is actually the glorious Son of Man. With the eyes of faith recognize the power of your Savior, especially as you walk through difficult times, whether nationally, for the church, or personally. The position at the right hand of the Mighty One is the place of power, rule, and judgment. Jesus may be on trial before the Sanhedrin, but the roles will be reversed. He will appear as the final, great Judge. “Jesus in his answer acknowledges both that He is the Messiah, and that He is such in the exalted Son of God sense. On this view, His words were a confession of faith as well as a claim to office. That He attached the highest conceivable meaning to the claim which He made is evident from the prophecy which He added: ‘Ye shall see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of the Power and… coming with (Matt., “upon”) the clouds of heaven.’… Jesus obviously wished to declare before His judges that in the future the relation between them and Himself would be reversed: He would then be the judge and they would be the accused.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, p. 176) Jesus emphasizes that his judges will see him in glory. He is concerned, not just with the events at the very end of the age, but indicates that in a certain sense his glory will be evident to those who heard his words that day. The Lord in his resurrection glory, the church, powerfully equipped at Pentecost, proclaiming the name of Jesus through the earth, these are part of the clouds of heavenly glory which will envelop the Savior. Jesus is concerned, not only with the end of the age, but also with the ongoing work of his kingdom. “Christ does not prophesy the coming of the last day of judgment in a way which might suggest that He had an interest only in that last moment, when He shall return upon the clouds. For there is a continuous process of government and of the exercise of justice going on from the moment of the resurrection to the time of His return. And everything in this continuous process will culminate in that translucent final day.” (K. Schilder, Christ on Trial, p.147) The chief priest heard and understood Jesus’ words. He tore his garments (though priests were forbidden to display signs of mourning) and accused Jesus of blasphemy. The sentence was settled. It is now just a matter of persuading Pilate to agree to a death penalty. Modern man can react similarly, either with open denial of Jesus’ claim, or by (what is probably even more contemptuous) simply ignoring Jesus claim to be the messianic Judge. Jesus, by his explanation, has sealed his condemnation. But this was no fumbling of legal tactics. Jesus had to die in your place. Jesus summons you to acknowledge him as your Savior and your Judge. His great and glorious appearance on the clouds will not bring terror for you, but vindication. Because he is that great Judge, live in the power of his kingdom this week.

Whether men acknowledge him or not, Jesus is the Son of Man, the glorious Judge. You can live in rebellion against him, you can even share the attitude of Caiaphas, who seeks the ultimate solution—the death of the Messiah. Or you can humbly acknowledge that he suffered silently for you, and that through that suffering he triumphed. He is the powerful Son of Man, and he equips you to live as his people.