Once Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested in Gethsemane things got uglier. Our Savior was subjected to suffering through not one but two trials within the span of a few hours. To call them trials is laughable, though. They were more vindictive inquisitions than fair hearings and the resulting sentence was nothing less than court-sanctioned murder. Without a doubt there’s never been a more egregious travesty of justice in history. First, Christ was dragged before the Jewish Sanhedrin to endure what can only loosely be termed an ecclesiastical trial and later hauled before a very annoyed Roman prefect for a civil trial. Because Jesus was being charged (falsely) with a capital offense the evil-minded Sanhedrin cadre couldn’t condemn Him to death by themselves. That required an official ruling from Pontius Pilate. You see, Rome granted to all the nations they’d conquered a modicum of self-government. The Caesars were ruthless but not dumb. They’d learned the hard way that letting folks pretend they had some say in the management of their local affairs kept things relatively peaceful/orderly, especially in the remotest of their territories. Yet when it came to lethal executions Rome insisted on having the final word. That’s why our Lord was so unceremoniously and roughly escorted from one locale to another across Jerusalem that Thursday night and Friday morning. Keep in mind that typically when two or more people witness or hear about an event the timeline will contain slight variations. This episode is no exception but the core facts of what happened are undisputed.
All the men involved in the case were “professionals” yet their behavior was so self-serving as to be appropriately labelled uncivilized if not downright barbaric. And of the two entities the Sanhedrin was unquestionably the worst. The story goes that following His apprehension by the Temple’s secret police goons Jesus was brought before Annas. This must’ve been a routine courtesy because, while Annas held no official position, he was nonetheless a very powerful dude. It’d been two decades since he’d held the revered title of high priest and since then five of his sons had occupied the #1 spot so Annas kinda ruled the roost by proxy, so to speak. It was probably Annas who’d instituted and was still overseeing the disgraceful “pay-for-penance” scheme in the Temple courtyards that’d made him rich and made Jesus so incensed. Therefore it’s not illogical to identify Annas as being the principal mastermind behind the plot to eliminate the troublesome Nazarene who was costing him money.
Old as Annas was, he likely danced with delight to see his main adversary bound in chains. Annas erroneously figured he’d throw a few loaded questions at Jesus and within no time He’d say something inflammatory that’d prove He was a dangerous enemy of Rome. “…The high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. Jesus replied, ‘I have spoken publicly to the world. I always taught in the synagogues and in the temple courts, where all the Jewish people assemble together. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said. They know what I said.’ When Jesus had said this, one of the high priest’s officers who stood nearby struck him on the face and said, ‘Is that the way you answer the high priest?’ Jesus replied, ‘If I have said something wrong, confirm what is wrong. But if I spoke correctly, why strike me?’” His prisoner was making too much sense so Annas quickly realized this wasn’t going to be easy-peasy after all. As the saying goes, “When in doubt, delegate” and that’s just what he did. “Then Annas sent him, still tied up, to Caiaphas the high priest” (John 18:19-24).
Now, the reigning high priest was to the Jews what the Pope is to the Catholic Church. There was no higher-level human authority. He was the God of Abraham’s personal representative on earth. Caiaphas was also the interpreter of Jewish law and the only one who could annually enter the “Holy of Holies” on behalf of the chosen race and manage to walk out alive. Yet despite being the king of the Jewish hill in Israel it was Caiaphas who condemned the Jews’ long-promised Messiah to death! Obviously being a spiritual icon doesn’t mean one is necessarily wise or even fully aware of what’s really going on. James S. Stewart opined, “It’s disconcerting but true that it was precisely those who were loudest in religious profession who, on encountering Jesus, were loudest in censure and protest.”
Even though it was the dead of night, news of Christ’s capture spread like juicy gossip among the members of the Sanhedrin and they all scurried to Caiaphas’ headquarters within minutes. The fact they couldn’t legally convene before sunrise was conveniently overlooked because their pressing need to take care of the “Jesus problem” took precedence over observing protocol. In essence, the lawmakers didn’t mind breaking their own laws when they felt those laws warranted being broken. The witnesses that testified to having heard Jesus’ “conspiratorial” sermons only succeeded in contradicting each other so a very perturbed, impatient Caiaphas cut to the chase. He approached our Lord and asked, “’Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ said Jesus, ‘and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming with the clouds of heaven’” (Mark 14:61-62). This bold (but oh so true) statement sent the room into an uproar. Caiaphas had gotten what he’d hoped to get – an open confession of intentional blasphemy from the mouth of the defendant. Caiaphas could work with that. He planned to spin it into something a lot more sinister before Pilate.
Everything about this farce of a “trial” is so very wrong. Thus it behooves us to dissect and closely examine it as the epitome of human connivance it is. Suffice it to say mankind has never stooped lower. How many times did the Sanhedrin blatantly defy their strict, hallowed statutes? Let us count the ways! First, the court itself had been an accomplice in Jesus’ betrayal. The two-faced bigwigs in charge had paid the traitorous Judas to reveal his Master’s whereabouts and now they had the gall to sit in judgment of Christ. Hardly an impartial jury! Second, Jewish law demanded a definite charge be issued against any defendant before a tribunal was convened. The Scriptures reveal they really didn’t have a legitimate charge at all. They just collectively despised Jesus, His disciples and His revolutionary teachings. When all that Christ’s accusers accomplished was muddying up the proceedings Caiaphas should’ve stopped the circus right then and declared a mistrial. But he wouldn’t dare. He let it continue in clear violation of the law they’d all vowed to dutifully abide by. Third, the head judge, Caiaphas, was also the lead prosecutor! Now, if that ain’t a rigged game I don’t know what is. Why, it was none other than Caiaphas who’d earlier said to a gathering of chief priests concerning Christ, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is more to your advantage to have one man die for the people than for the whole nation to perish” (John 11:49-50). Therefore it’s no surprise that when the star witnesses turned out to be useless Caiaphas the judge took on the role of interrogator. Unbiased? Yeah, right.
Fourth, Jesus had no legal representation whatsoever. He wasn’t even allowed to call any witnesses for His defense so it was literally “Christ versus the world” in that noisy room. Last but not least was the hurry the whole dubious shebang was conducted in. I mean, who holds a trial at two in the morning, only minutes after the culprit’s been taken into custody? Especially when the “esteemed membership” of the Sanhedrin knows full well what they’re doing is blatantly unlawful! It was also common knowledge a death sentence could only be pronounced 24 hours after a trial ended but they didn’t care. On top of that they knew the Law expressly forbid their even hearing a case the day before a Sabbath or a religious festival. None of this bothered anybody, it appears. They’d become an unruly, vengeance-seeking lynch mob bent on killing an innocent man and to hell with any technicalities that got in their way. They were out for blood. Period.
The Sanhedrin’s kangaroo court adjourned. Their unanimous verdict, guilty; the punishment, death by crucifixion. Yes, they’d done their dirty deed illegally but come sunrise they’d simply rubber-stamp their overnight decision, declare it all copacetic and no one would suspect any improper shenanigans had occurred. Who’d risk objecting? After the “righteous elite” and their brutal team of licensed thugs perpetrated unspeakable acts of sadistic violence upon the gentle Lamb of God they rushed Him off to Pilate. He’d been the Roman procurator of Judea for six long years and it’d been anything but a smooth ride. The Emperor Tiberias had stationed him there to ride herd over the stiff-necked Israelis who resented his iron-fisted way of governing them. Pilate had grown to loathe his job and his Jewish subjects who did nothing but complain. He didn’t give a flip about their sacred traditions but he had to let them “do their thing” else he’d land in hot water with his boss back home. And now, in the wee hours before dawn, a bunch of them came knocking on his palace door demanding drive-thru justice. Though aggravated, he knew he had to keep his cool and hear the hypocrites out. Stewart wrote, “Neither the Sanhedrin nor the mass of common people had much love for Pilate; but the spur of necessity works wonders, and it was now the main hope of Caiaphas and the rest to make a good impression on their governor and win him to their side, and so secure the death of Jesus.” Still, the Sanhedrin jerks stayed outside so as not to become defiled by association. Oh, the irony!
Pilate understood his role but he wasn’t a pushover by any means. He demanded to know the main charge against Jesus. Somewhat snarkily the Jewish reps barked back, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you!” (John 18:30). In other words, don’t fret over details, just do your duty, Hoss! Pilate, probably nursing a hangover, was in no mood for sarcasm and instructed them to take care of their own business. But get this. Suddenly obeying the Law was important to them! They griped, “We cannot legally put anyone to death” (John 18:31). The nerve! Next they resorted to lying, telling Pilate they’d found Jesus guilty, not of blasphemy, but of treason against Rome; that He was systematically poisoning the impressionable minds of the uneducated masses; that He’d urged them to not pay taxes and that He’d crowned Himself king of the realm. They were shameless. Pilate opted to have a private chat with the badly-beaten prisoner.
I’ve always been fascinated by this particular meeting. While Pilate’s judging the bloodied and bruised stranger Jesus is still intent on saving the man’s soul. It didn’t take long before Pilate recognized there was something astonishingly different about the defendant. Despite the cruel abuse that’d been foisted upon His flesh, Jesus was remarkably composed and dignified standing tall before him. Pilate’s curiosity piqued, he conversed with Christ for a while before exclaiming “’So you are a king!’ Jesus replied, ‘You say that I am a king. For this reason I was born, and for this reason I came into the world – to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’” Sensing he was way out of his league with Christ, Pilate could only mumble, “What is truth?’” (John 18:37-38). Too bad he didn’t wait around to receive Jesus’ answer to that profound query. Pilate was eager to be done with the whole sordid affair so he told the restless mob he’d found Christ “not guilty”. Well, they weren’t buying any of that so Pilate decided this mess was Herod’s problem, not his, so off his soldiers went, Christ in tow. Herod took one look at Jesus and sent Him back pronto with the message, “Thanks, but no thanks. I wouldn’t dream of depriving you of your well-deserved privileges of authority, my man. Good luck.”
Pilate switched to plan B. He went outside and broached the Passover custom of releasing a Jewish criminal (a gesture of Roman mercy), suggesting Jesus should be the lucky Joe that year. No go. They preferred the hooligan Barabbas, instead. Pilate was stumped so he had our Lord flogged to within an inch of His life and then brought Him back outside for viewing. Surely the surly gang would be satisfied with vicious mutilation. Nope. They screamed, “Away with him! Crucify him!” (John 19:15). Pilate still hesitated to hand Jesus over until they threatened to report him for insubordination. They shouted, “If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar! Everyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar!” (John 19:12). That’s when panic gripped Pilate’s stony heart. He scrubbed his hands clean and told the Sanhedrin to do whatever they wanted with Christ. Pilate succumbed to what amounted to political blackmail, tucked tail and chickened out. So much for a Roman “fair trial.” J. I. Packer wrote, “Pilate, having symbolically washed his hands of the matter – the goofiest gesture, perhaps, of all time – gave the green light for judicial murder, directing that Jesus, though guiltless, should die all the same to keep people happy. Pilate saw this as shrewd government; how cynical can you get?”
Things aren’t always what they appear surface-wise. Stewart wrote, “Everyone who studies the narratives has the strange feeling that the tables are being turned before their very eyes and that what they’re seeing isn’t Jesus on trial before Caiaphas or Pilate or Herod; what they’re seeing is Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod on trial before Jesus. Face to face each of them stood with the Son of Man for a brief hour; and His searchlight played upon their souls, revealing their inmost nature and showing them up for all the world and for all time to see.” Their names will live in infamy. Not for being upstanding, brave men but for exemplifying the very worst in people whose pride won’t let them surrender their heart to the miraculous, life-changing healing Christ offers. Annas was jealous of Jesus’ popularity. Caiaphas would do anything to maintain his prestige. Herod was completely self-absorbed. And Pilate was a coward, no bones about it. The truth is that those “judges” were the ones being judged by the ultimate judge of all mankind. There’ll be a judgment day for each of us, too, so we must all ask, not only ourselves but of everyone we encounter, “What’ll you do with Christ?” Our eternal destination rides on the answer we give.