Over the Kedron, up the slope to the
city, through the gates, along the silent streets,
the procession passed, with Jesus in the midst; midnight
stragglers, perhaps, hurrying forward from point to
point to ask what was ado, and peering towards the
Prisoner’s face, before they diverged again
towards their own homes. He was conducted to the
residence of the high priest, where His trial ensued.
Jesus had to undergo two trials-the
one ecclesiastical, the other civil; the one before
Caiaphas the high priest, the other before Pontius
Pilate the governor.
The reason of this was, that Judaea
was at that time under Roman rule, forming a portion
of the Roman province of Syria and administered by
a Roman official, who resided in the splendid new
seaport of Caesarea, fifty miles away from Jerusalem,
but had also a palace in Jerusalem, which he occasionally
It was not the policy of Rome to strip
the countries of which she became mistress of all
power. She flattered them by leaving in their
hands at least the insignia of self-government, and
she conceded to them as much home rule as was compatible
with the retention of her paramount authority.
She was specially tolerant in matters of religion.
Thus the ancient ecclesiastical tribunal of the Jews,
the Sanhedrim, was still allowed to try all religious
questions and punish offenders. Only, if the
sentence chanced to be a capital one, the case had
to be re-tried by the governor, and the carrying out
of the sentence, if it was confirmed, devolved upon
It was at the instance of the ecclesiastical
authorities that Jesus was arrested, and they condemned
Him to death; but they were not at liberty to carry
out their sentence: they had to take Him before
Pilate, who chanced at the time to be in the city,
and he tried the case over again, they of course being
the accusers at his bar.
Not only were there two trials, but
in each trial there were three separate stages or
acts. In the first, or ecclesiastical trial,
Jesus had first to appear before Annas, then before
Caiaphas and the Sanhedrim during the night, and again
before the same body after daybreak. And in
the second, or civil trial, He appeared first before
Pilate, who refused to confirm the judgment of the
Jews; then Pilate attempted to rid himself of the
case by sending the Culprit to Herod of Galilee, who
happened also to be at the time in Jerusalem; but the
case came back to the Roman governor again, and, against
his conscience, he confirmed the capital sentence.
But let me explain more fully what
were the three acts in the ecclesiastical trial.
Jesus, we are informed by St. John,
was taken first to Annas. This was an old man
of seventy years, who had been high priest twenty years
before. As many as five of his sons succeeded
him in this office, which at that period was not a
life appointment, but was generally held only for
a short time; and the reigning high priest at this
time, Caiaphas, was his son-in-law. Annas was
a man of very great consequence, the virtual head
of ecclesiastical affairs, though Caiaphas was the
nominal head. He had come originally from Alexandria
in Egypt on the invitation of Herod the Great.
He and his family were an able, ambitious and arrogant
race. As their numbers multiplied, they became
a sort of ruling caste, pushing themselves into all
important offices. They were Sadducees, and were
perfect types of that party-cold, haughty,
worldly. They were intensely unpopular in the
country; but they were feared as much as they were
disliked. Greedy of gain, they ground the people
with heavy ritual imposts. It is said that the
traffic within the courts of the temple, which Jesus
condemned so sternly a few days before, was carried
on not only with their connivance but for their enrichment.
If this was the case, the conduct of Jesus on that
occasion may have profoundly incensed the high-priestly
caste against Him.
Indeed, it was probably the depth
of his hatred which made Annas wish to see Jesus in
the hands of justice. The wary Sadducee had in
all likelihood taken a leading part in the transaction
with Judas and in the sending out of the troops for
Christ’s apprehension. He, therefore,
waited out of bed to see what the upshot was to be;
and those who took Jesus brought Him to Annas first.
But whatever interrogation Annas may have subjected
Him to was entirely informal.
It allowed time, however, to get together
the Sanhedrim. Messengers were dispatched to
scour the city for the members at the midnight hour,
because the case was urgent and could not brook delay.
None knew what might happen if the multitude, when
it awoke in the morning, found the popular Teacher
in the hands of His unpopular enemies. But, if
the trial were all over before daybreak and Jesus
already in the strong hands of the Romans before the
multitude had learnt that anything was going on, there
would be nothing to fear. So the Sanhedrim was
assembled under cloud of night; and the proceedings
went forward in the small hours of the morning in
the house of Caiaphas, to which Jesus had been removed.
This was not strictly legal, however,
because the letter of the law did not allow this court
to meet by night. On this account, although the
proceedings were complete and the sentence agreed upon
during the night, it was considered necessary to hold
another sitting at daybreak. This was the third
stage of the trial; but it was merely a brief rehearsal,
for form’s sake, of what had been already done.
Therefore, we must return to the proceedings during
the night, which contain the kernel of the matter.
Imagine, then, a large room forming
one side of the court of an Oriental house, from which
it is separated only by a row of pillars, so that
what is going on in the lighted interior is visible
to those outside. The room is semicircular.
Round the arc of the semicircle the half-hundred
or more members sit on a divan. Caiaphas,
the president, occupies a kind of throne in the centre
of the opposite wall. In front stands the Accused,
facing him, with the jailers on the one side and the
witnesses on the other.
How ought any trial to commence?
Surely with a clear statement of the crime alleged
and with the production of witnesses to support the
charge. But, instead of beginning in this way,
“the high priest asked Jesus of His disciples
and of His doctrine.”
The insinuation was that He was multiplying
disciples for some secret design and teaching them
a secret doctrine, which might be construed into a
project of revolution. Jesus, still throbbing
with the indignity of being arrested under cloud of
night, as if He were anxious to escape, and by a force
so large as to suggest that He was the head of a revolutionary
band, replied, with lofty self-consciousness, “Why
askest thou Me? Ask them that heard Me what I
have said unto them; behold, they know what I said.”
Why had they arrested Him if they had yet to learn
what He had said and done? They were trying to
make Him out to be an underground schemer; but they,
with their arrests in secrecy and their midnight trials,
were themselves the sons of darkness.
Such simple and courageous speech
was alien to that place, which knew only the whining
of suppliants, the smooth flatteries of sycophants,
and the diplomatic phrases of advocates; and a jailer,
perhaps seeing the indignant blush mount into the
face of the high priest, clenched his fist and struck
Jesus on the mouth, asking, “Answerest Thou the
high priest so?” Poor hireling! better for him
that his hand had withered ere it struck that blow.
Almost the same thing once happened to St. Paul in
the same place, and he could not help hurling back
a stinging epithet of contempt and indignation.
Jesus was betrayed into no such loss of temper.
But what shall be said of a tribunal, and an ecclesiastical
tribunal, which could allow an untried Prisoner to
be thus abused in open court by one of its minions?
The high priest had, however, been
stopped on the tack which he had first tried, and
was compelled to do what he ought to have begun with-to
call witnesses. But this, too, turned out a pitiful
failure. They had not had time to get a charge
properly made out and witnesses cited; and there was
no time to wait. Evidence had to be extemporized;
and it was swept up apparently from the underlings
and hangers on of the court. It is expressly
said by St. Matthew that “they sought false
witness against Jesus to put Him to death.”
To put Him to death was what in their hearts they
were resolved upon,-they were only trying
to trump up a legal pretext, and they were not scrupulous.
The attempt was, however, far from successful.
The witnesses could not be got to agree together
or to tell a consistent story. Many were tried,
but the fiasco grew more and more ridiculous.
At length two were got to agree about
something they had heard from Him, out of which, it
was hoped, a charge could be constructed. They
had heard Him say, “I will destroy this temple
that is made with hands, and within three days I will
build another made without hands.” It was
a sentence of His early ministry, obviously of high
poetic meaning, which they were reproducing as the
vulgarest prose; although, even thus interpreted,
it is difficult to see what they could have made of
it; because, if the first half of it meant that He
was to destroy the temple, the second promised to
restore it again. The high priest saw too well
that they were making nothing of it; and, starting
up and springing forward, he demanded of Jesus, “Answerest
Thou nothing? What is it which these witness
against Thee?” He affected to believe that
it was something of enormity that had been alleged;
but it was really because he knew that nothing could
be founded on it that he gave way to such unseemly
Jesus had looked on in absolute silence
while the witnesses against Him were annihilating
one another; nor did He now answer a word in response
to the high priest’s interruption. He did
not need to speak: silence spoke better than
the loudest words could have done. It brought
home to His judges the ridiculousness and the shamefulness
of their position. Even their hardened consciences
began to be uneasy, as that calm Face looked down
on them and their procedure with silent dignity.
It was by the uneasiness which he was feeling that
the high priest was made so loud and shrill.
In short, he had been beaten along
this second line quite as completely as he had been
along the first. But he had still a last card,
and now he played it. Returning to his throne
and confronting Jesus with theatrical solemnity, he
said, “I adjure Thee by the living God that
Thou tell us whether Thou be the Christ, the Son of
God.” That is to say, he put Him on oath
to tell what He claimed to be; for among the Jews
the oath was pronounced by the judge, not by the prisoner.
This was one of the great moments
in the life of Christ. Apparently He recognised
the right of the high priest to put Him on oath; or
at least He saw that silence now might be construed
into the withdrawal of His claims. He knew,
indeed, that the question was put merely for the purpose
of incriminating Him, and that to answer it meant death
to Himself. But He who had silenced those by
whom the title of Messiah had been thrust upon Him,
when they wished to make Him a king, now claimed the
title when it was the signal for condemnation.
Decidedly and solemnly He answered, “Yes, I
am”; and, as if the crisis had caused within
Him a great access of self-consciousness, He proceeded,
“Hereafter shall ye see the Son of Man sitting
on the right hand of power and coming in the clouds
of heaven.” For the moment they were His
judges, but one day He would be their Judge; it was
only of His earthly life that they could dispose,
but He would have to dispose of their eternal destiny.
It has often been said that Christians
have claimed for Christ what He never claimed for
Himself; that He never claimed to be any more than
a man, but they have made Him a God. But this
great statement, made upon oath, must impress every
honest mind. Every effort has, indeed, been
made to deplete its terms of their importance and to
reduce them to the lowest possible value. It
is argued, for example, that, when the high priest
asked if He were “the Son of God,” he meant
no more than when he asked if He were “the Christ.”
But what is to be said of Christ’s description
of Himself as “sitting on the right hand of power
and coming in the clouds of heaven”? Can
He who is to be the Judge of men, searching their
hearts to the bottom, estimating the value of their
performances, and, in accordance with these estimates,
fixing their eternal station and degree, be a mere
man? The greatest and the wisest of men are
well aware that in the history of every brother man,
and even in the heart of a little child, there are
secrets and mysteries which they cannot fathom.
No mere man can accurately measure the character
of a fellow-creature; he cannot even estimate his own.
How this great confession lifts the
whole scene! We see no longer these small men
and their sordid proceedings; but the Son of man bearing
witness to Himself in the audience of the universe.
How little we care now what the Jewish judges will
say about Him! This great confession reverberates
down the ages, and the heart of the world, as it hears
it from His lips, says, Amen.
The high priest had achieved his end
at last. As a high priest was expected to do
when he heard blasphemy, he rent his clothes, and,
turning to his colleagues, he said, “What need
have we of witnesses? behold, now ye have heard His
blasphemy.” And they all assented that
Jesus was guilty, and that the sentence must be death.
Sometimes good-hearted Bible-readers,
in perusing these scenes, are troubled with the thought
that the judges of Jesus were conscientious.
Was it not their duty, when anyone came forward with
Messianic pretensions, to judge whether or not his
claim was just? and did they not honestly believe
that Jesus was not what He professed to be? No
doubt they did honestly believe so. We must ascend
to a much earlier period to be able to judge their
conduct accurately. It was when the claims of
Jesus were first submitted to them that they went astray.
He, being such as He was, could only have been welcomed
and appreciated by expectant, receptive, holy minds.
The ecclesiastical authorities of Judaea in that
age were anything but expectant, receptive and holy.
They were totally incapable of understanding Him, and
saw no beauty that they should desire Him. As
He often told them Himself, being such as they were,
they could not believe. The fault lay not so
much in what they did as in what they were.
Being in the wrong path, they went forward to the
end. It may be said that they walked according
to their light; but the light that was in them was
darkness. Their proceedings, however, on this
occasion will not tend to soften the heart of anyone
who looks into them carefully. They had hardly
the least show of justice. There was no regular
charge or regular evidence, and no thought whatever
of allowing the Accused to bring counter-evidence;
the same persons were both accusers and judges; the
sentence was a foregone conclusion; and the entire
proceedings consisted of a series of devices to force
the Accused into some statement which would supply
a colourable pretext for condemning Him.
But it was by what ensued after the
sentence of condemnation was passed that these men
cut themselves off forever from the sympathy of the
tolerant and generous. A court of law ought to
be a place of dignity; when a great issue is tried
and a solemn judgment passed, it ought to impress
the judges themselves; even the condemned, when a death
sentence has been passed, ought to be hedged round
with a certain awe and respect. But that blow
inflicted with impunity at the commencement of the
trial by a minion of the court was too clear an index
of the state of mind of all present. There was
no solemnity or greatness of any kind in their thoughts;
nothing but resentment and spite at Him who had thwarted
and defied them, lessened them in the public estimation
and stopped their unholy gains. A perfect sea
of such feelings had long been gathering in their
hearts; and now, when the opportunity came, it broke
loose upon Him. They struck Him with their sticks;
they spat in His face; they drew something over His
head and, smiting Him again, cried, “Christ,
prophesy who smote Thee.” One would wish
to believe that it was only by the miserable underlings
that such things were done; but the narrative makes
it too clear that the masters led the way and the
There are terrible things in man.
There are some depths in human nature into which
it is scarcely safe to look. It was by the very
perfection of Christ that the uttermost evil of His
enemies was brought out. There is a passage
in “Paradise Lost,” where a band of angels,
sent out to scour Paradise in search of Satan, who
is hidden in the garden, discover him in the shape
of a toad “squat at the ear of Eve.”
Ithuriel, one of the band, touches him with his spear,
whereat, surprised, he starts up in his own shape,-
no falsehood can endure
Touch of celestial temper, but returns
Of force to its own likeness.”
But the touch of perfect goodness
has often the opposite effect: it transforms
the angel into the toad, which is evil’s own
Christ was now getting into close
grips with the enemy He had come to this world to
overcome; and, as it clutched Him for the final wrestle,
it exhibited all its ugliness and discharged all its
venom. The claw of the dragon was in His flesh,
and its foul breath in His mouth. We cannot
conceive what such insult and dishonour must have been
to His sensitive and regal mind. But He rallied
His heart to endure and not to faint; for He had come
to be the death of sin, and its death was to be the
salvation of the world.