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Jesus on Trial

Philip Graham Ryken

There were many illegalities in Christ's trial, among them the absence of any formal charge, the intervention of the high priest in the proceedings, and the lack of a defense. But underneath these many illegalities ran a strong undercurrent of adherence to certain points of law. Most obvious was the calling of witnesses. Mark indicates what was happening when he records, "The chief priest and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree" (Mark 14:55-56).

The Witnesses

At last two witnesses came with a piece of evidence that put the trial on a promising footing, at least as far as Jesus' enemies were concerned. Mark recorded their testimony: "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man'" (Mark 14:58). This was important testimony because, in the first place, apparently it was true. The fact that two witnesses testified to substantially the same thing suggested its truthfulness. This was also serious testimony because, if substantiated, it could be construed as sacrilege, since the temple was the most holy place in Israel.

We should also consider the phrase "in three days." Jesus had used this phrase on other occasions when he was prophesying his resurrection, an event that would vindicate his claim to be the unique Son of God. A man as shrewd as the high priest could hardly have been unaware of what Jesus' enigmatic saying implied. He understood it perfectly, realizing it was a claim to divinity, and thus in his view a form of blasphemy.

So the situation was this: Jesus was accused of having claimed to be God and of saying that he was able to prove it by rising from the dead. It was a serious accusation, with potentially fatal consequences. Yet strikingly, as important as it was, the testimony of the two witnesses was overthrown. Mark says that this was because "their testimony did not agree" (Mark 14:59). We do not know why, but it was probably due to some minor contradiction.

A Bold Stroke

At this point, seeing his case dissolving, the high priest turned to the prisoner and demanded, "Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?" (Mark 14:61). What he did was illegal, because he was forbidden to intervene in a capital trial, but his intervention was brilliant for two reasons. First for its wording. If he had merely asked whether Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus could have answered "Yes" without jeopardy, for it was not a capital offense to make such a claim. Time would prove it to be either right or wrong. Again, if he had merely asked whether Jesus was the Son of God, Jesus could also have answered "Yes" safely, for many Jews were called "sons of God" (John 10:34-36). However, by linking the two parts as he did, Caiaphas was not asking whether Jesus was the Messiah or a son of God in some general sense, but whether he was the Messiah who was God. If Jesus said "Yes" to that, he could be convicted of the capital crime of blasphemy.

Second, although Jesus was not obliged to give evidence against himself, being a pious Jew he would not refuse answering such a charge. So although he had been silent to this point, Jesus finally spoke up, saying, "I am. . . . And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven" (Mark 14:62).

The high priest tore his clothes. "Why do we need any more witnesses?" he asked. "You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?" (Mark 14:63-64). Unanimously they condemned Jesus as "worthy of death."

A Glaring Omission

Assuming that a case of guilt had been made--as it seems to have been, in spite of the evidence having been illegally obtained--what should have been the next legal step? Clearly the Sanhedrin should have begun to inquire into the truth or falsity of the claim. The scribes were masters of the Old Testament. The elders were charged with the defense of anyone in danger of being put to death. They should have asked whether Jesus' claims matched what the Old Testament taught concerning the Messiah. If the elders had done this fairly, they might have discovered that Jesus' life fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies (see Micah 5:2 and Luke 2:1-7; Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:24-25; Isaiah 11:1-2 and Matthew 1:1-16; Psalm 41:9 and Matthew 26:14-15, etc.).

†And what about the second part of the accusation, that Jesus had claimed to be God's Son? This was a shocking claim to those who were steeped in the Judaism of Christ's day. It must have been deeply abhorrent. But still, the Sanhedrin could have asked in fairness whether anything of this nature could possibly be suggested by the Scriptures. If they had done this, they might have observed that there are references in the Old Testament to precisely the kind of unique Son of God Jesus claimed to be (Psalm 2:7; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6). Other passages, such as Genesis 18 and Daniel 3:25, contain references to the appearances of God on earth in human form, and a fair reading of the passages would have suggested that Jesus met every reasonable test to determine if he was the Promised One. Still, the Sanhedrin might not have been convinced; indeed, they probably would not have been. But this is still a reasonable defense, and its absence from the trial exposes the closed minds and jealous hearts of those who judged Christ.

A Reasonable Defense

These leaders were not substantially different from millions of careless people in our day. Christ is proclaimed as God's unique Son, but millions reject that claim and turn their backs on the defense. There is a defense. It is presented regularly in countless Christian churches, on radio and television, and in books, magazines, and other forms of communication. But they will not hear it. What shall we say of such people? Are they honest? Are they open to the truth? Are they seeking it? No more than the high priest and the other religious leaders of Christ's day.

Yet the important thing is not what others are doing. It is what you are doing. Have you considered Christ's claims? Have you pondered his defense? If not, I challenge you to do it. Because, in the last analysis, it is not Jesus who is on trial. That is over. You are the one who is on trial now, and the question before you is: What will you do with Jesus?

Excerpted from Jesus on Trial by James Montgomery Boice and Philip Graham Ryken, ©2002, Crossway Books. Permission kindly granted to Faith and Reason Forum by Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois, 60187. This material is not to be electronically transferred. Down-load for personal use only.