We have here the arraignment of our Lord Jesus in the ecclesiastical court, before the great sanhedrim. Observe,
I. The sitting of the court; the scribes and the elders were assembled, though it was in the dead time of the night, when other people were fast asleep in their beds; yet, to gratify their malice against Christ, they denied themselves that natural rest, and sat up all night, to be ready to fall upon the prey which Judas and his men, they hoped, would seize.
See, 1. Who they were, that were assembled; the scribes, the principal teachers, and elders, the principal rulers, of the Jewish church: these were the most bitter enemies to Christ our great teacher and ruler, on whom therefore they had a jealous eye, as one that eclipsed them; perhaps some of these scribes and elders were not so malicious at Christ as some others of them were; yet, in concurrence with the rest, they made themselves guilty. Now the scripture was fulfilled (Ps. 22:16); The assembly of the wicked have enclosed me. Jeremiah complains of an assembly of treacherous men; and David of his enemies gathering themselves together against him, Ps. 35:15.
2. Where they were assembled; in the palace of Caiaphas the High Priest; there they assembled two days before, to lay the plot (Matt. 26:3), and there they now convened again, to prosecute it. The High Priest was Ab-beth-din—the father of the house of judgment, but he is now the patron of wickedness; his house should have been the sanctuary of oppressed innocency, but it is become the throne of iniquity; and no wonder, when even God’s house of prayer was made a den of thieves.
II. The setting of the prisoner to the bar; they that had laid hold on Jesus, led him away, hurried him, no doubt, with violence, led him as a trophy of their victory, led him as a victim to the altar; he was brought into Jerusalem through that which was called the sheep-gate, for that was the way into town from the mount of Olives; and it was so called because the sheep appointed for sacrifice were brought that way to the temple; very fitly therefore is Christ led that way, who is the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world. Christ was led first to the High Priest, for by the law all sacrifices were to be first presented to the priest, and delivered into his hand, Lev. 17:5.
III. The cowardice and faint-heartedness of Peter (Matt. 26:58); But Peter followed afar off. This comes in here, with an eye to the following story of his denying him. He forsook him as the rest did, when he was seized, and what is here said of his following him is easily reconcilable with his forsaking him; such following was no better than forsaking him; for,
1. He followed him, but it was afar off. Some sparks of love and concern for his Master there were in his breast, and therefore he followed him; but fear and concern for his own safety prevailed, and therefore he followed afar off. Note, It looks ill, and bodes worse, when those that are willing to be Christ’s disciples, are not willing to be known to be so. Here began Peter’s denying him; for to follow him afar off, is by little and little to go back from him. There is danger in drawing back, nay, in looking back.
2. He followed him, but he went in, and sat with the servants. He should have gone up to the court, and attended on his Master, and appeared for him; but he went in where there was a good fire, and sat with the servants, not to silence their reproaches, but to screen himself. It was presumption in Peter thus to thrust himself into temptation; he that does so, throws himself out of God’s protection. Christ had told Peter that he could not follow him now, and had particularly warned him of his danger this night; and yet he would venture into the midst of this wicked crew. It helped David to walk in his integrity, that he hated the congregation of evil doers, and would not sit with the wicked.
3. He followed him, but it was only to see the end, led more by his curiosity than by his conscience; he attended as an idle spectator rather than as a disciple, a person concerned. He should have gone in, to do Christ some service, or to get some wisdom and grace to himself, by observing Christ’s behaviour under his sufferings: but he went in, only to look about him; it is not unlikely that Peter went in, expecting that Christ would have made his escape miraculously out of the hands of his persecutors; that, having so lately struck them down, who came to seize him, he would now have struck them dead, who sat to judge him; and this he had a mind to see: if so, it was folly for him to think of seeing any other end than what Christ had foretold, that he should be put to death. Note, It is more our concern to prepare for the end, whatever it may be, than curiously to enquire what the end will be. The event is God’s, but the duty is ours.
IV. The trial of our Lord Jesus in this court.
1. They examined witnesses against him, though they were resolved, right or wrong, to condemn him; yet, to put the better colour upon it, they would produce evidence against him. The crimes properly cognizable in their court, were, false doctrine and blasphemy; these they endeavoured to prove upon him. And observe here,
(1.) Their search for proof; They sought false witness against him; they had seized him, bound him, abused him, and after all have to seek for something to lay to his charge, and can show no cause for his commitment. They tried if any of them could allege seemingly from their own knowledge any thing against him; and suggested one calumny and then another, which, if true, might touch his life. Thus evil men dig up mischief, Prov. 16:27. Here they trod in the steps of their predecessors, who devised devices against Jeremiah, Jer. 18:18; 20:10. They made proclamation, that, if any one could give information against the prisoner at the bar, they were ready to receive it, and presently many bore false witness against him (Matt. 26:60); for is a ruler hearken to lies, all his servants are wicked, and will carry false stories to him, Prov. 29:12. This is an evil often seen under the sun, Eccl. 10:5. If Naboth must be taken off, there are sons of Belial to swear against him.
(2.) Their success in this search; in several attempts they were baffled, they sought false testimonies among themselves, others came in to help them, and yet they found none; they could make nothing of it, could not take the evidence together, or give it any colour of truth or consistency with itself, no, not they themselves being judges. The matters alleged were such palpable lies, as carried their own confutation along with them. This redounded much to the honour of Christ now, when they were loading him with disgrace.
But at last they met with two witnesses, who, it seems, agreed in their evidence, and therefore were hearkened to, in hopes that now the point was gained. The words they swore against him, were, that he should say, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days, Matt. 26:61. Now by this they designed to accuse him, [1.] As an enemy to the temple, and one that sought for the destruction of it, which they could not bear to hear of; for they valued themselves by the temple of the Lord (Jer. 7:4), and, when they abandoned other idols, made a perfect idol of that. Stephen was accused for speaking against this holy place, Acts 6:13, 14. [2.] As one that dealt in witchcraft, or some such unlawful arts, by the help of which he could rear such a building in three days: they had often suggested that he was in league with Beelzebub. Now, as to this, First, The words were mis-recited; he said, Destroy ye this temple (John 2:19), plainly intimating that he spoke of a temple which his enemies would seek to destroy; they come, and swear that he said, I am able to destroy this temple, as if the design against it were his. He said, In Three days I will raise it up—egero auton, a word properly used of a living temple; I will raise it to life. They come, and swear that he said, I am able, oikodomesai—to build it; which is properly used of a house temple. Secondly, The words were misunderstood; he spoke of the temple of his body (John 2:21), and perhaps when he said, this temple, pointed to, or laid his hand upon, his own body; but they swore that he said the temple of God, meaning this holy place. Note, There have been, and still are, such as wrest the sayings of Christ to their own destruction, 2 Pet. 3:16. Thirdly, Make the worst they could of it, it was no capital crime, even by their own law; if it had been, no question but he had been prosecuted for it, when he spoke the words in a public discourse some years ago; nay, the words were capable of a laudable construction, and such as bespoke a kindness for the temple; if it were destroyed, he would exert himself to the utmost to rebuild it. But any thing that looked criminal, would serve to give colour to their malicious prosecution. Now the scriptures were fulfilled, which said, False witnesses are risen up against me (Ps. 27:12); and see Ps. 35:11. Though I have redeemed them, yet they have spoken lies against me, Hos. 7:13. We stand justly accused, the law accuseth us, Deut. 27:26; John 5:45. Satan and our own consciences accuse us, 1 John 3:20. The creatures cry out against us. Now, to discharge us from all these just accusations, our Lord Jesus submitted to this, to be unjustly and falsely accused, that in the virtue of his sufferings we may be enabled to triumph over all challenges; Who shall lay any thing to the charge of God’s elect? Rom. 8:33, 34. He was accused, that he might not be condemned; and if at any time we suffer thus, have all manner of evil, not only said, but sworn, against us falsely, let us remember that we cannot expect to fare better than our Master.
(3.) Christ’s silence under all these accusations, to the amazement of the court, Matt. 26:62. The High Priest, the judge of the court, arose in some heat, and said, “Answerest thou nothing? Come, you the prisoner at the bar; you hear what is sworn against you, what have you now to say for yourself? What defence can you make? Or what please have you to offer in answer to this charge?” But Jesus held his peace (Matt. 26:63), not as one sullen, or as one self-condemned, or as one astonished and in confusion; not because he wanted something to say, or knew not how to say it, but that the scripture might be fulfilled (Isa. 53:7); As the sheep is dumb before the shearer, and before the butcher, so he opened not his mouth; and that he might be the Son of David, who, when his enemies spoke mischievous things against him, was as a deaf man that heard not, Ps. 38:12-14. He was silent, because his hour was come; he would not deny the charge, because he was willing to submit to the sentence; otherwise, he could as easily have put them to silence and shame now, as he had done many a time before. If God had entered into judgment with us, we had been speechless (Matt. 22:12), not able to answer for one of a thousand, Job 9:3. Therefore, when Christ was made sin for us, he was silent, and left it to his blood to speak, Heb. 12:24. He stood mute at this bar, that we might have something to say at God’s bar.
Well, this way will not do; aliâ aggrediendum est viâ—recourse must be had to some other expedient.
2. They examined our Lord Jesus himself upon an oath like that ex officio; and, since they could not accuse him, they will try, contrary to the law of equity, to make him accuse himself.
(1.) Here is the interrogatory put to him by the High Priest.
Observe, [1.] The question itself; Whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God? That is, Whether thou pretend to be so? For they will by no means admit it into consideration, whether he be really so or no; though the Messiah was to be the Consolation of Israel, and glorious things were spoken concerning him in the Old Testament, yet so strangely besotted were they with a jealousy of any thing that threatened their exorbitant power and grandeur, that they would never enter into the examination of the matter, whether Jesus was the Messiah or no; never once put the case, suppose he should be so; they only wished him to confess that he called himself so, that they might on that indict him as a deceiver. What will not pride and malice carry men to?
[2.] The solemnity of the proposal of it; I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us. Not that he had any regard to the living God, but took his name in vain; only thus he hoped to gain his point with our Lord Jesus; “If thou hast any value for the blessed name of God, and reverence for his Majesty, tell us this.” If he should refuse to answer when he was thus adjured, they would charge him with contempt of the blessed name of God. Thus the persecutors of good men often take advantage against them by their consciences, as Daniel’s enemies did against him in the matter of his God.
(2.) Christ’s answer to this interrogatory (Matt. 26:64), in which,
[1.] He owns himself to be The Christ the Son of God. Thou hast said; that is, “It is as thou hast said;” for in St. Mark it is, I am. Hitherto, he seldom professed himself expressly to be the Christ, the Son of God; the tenour of his doctrine bespoke it, and his miracles proved it: but now he would not omit to make a confession of it, First, Because that would have looked like a disowning of that truth which he came into the world to bear witness to. Secondly, It would have looked like declining his sufferings, when he knew the acknowledgment of this would give his enemies all the advantage they desired against him. He thus confessed himself, for example and encouragement to his followers, when they are called to it, to confess him before men, whatever hazards they run by it. And according to this pattern the martyrs readily confessed themselves Christians, though they knew they must die for it, as the martyrs at Thebais, Euseb. Hist. 50.8, 100.9. That Christ answered out of a regard to the adjuration which Caiaphas had profanely used by the living God, I cannot think, any more than that he had any regard to the like adjuration in the devil’s mouth, Mark 5:7.
[2.] He refers himself, for the proof of this, to his second coming, and indeed to his whole estate of exaltation. It is probable that they looked upon him with a scornful disdainful smile, when he said, “I am;” “A likely fellow,” thought they, “to be the Messiah, who is expected to come in so much pomp and power;” and to that this nevertheless refers. “Though now you see me in this low and abject state, and think it a ridiculous thing for me to call myself the Messiah, nevertheless the day is coming when I shall appear otherwise.” Hereafter, ap arti—à modo—shortly; for his exaltation began in a few days; now shortly his kingdom began to be set up; and hereafter ye shall see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, to judge the world; of which his coming shortly to judge and destroy the Jewish nation would be a type and earnest. Note, The terrors of the judgment-day will be a sensible conviction to the most obstinate infidelity, not in order to conversion (that will be then too late), but in order to an eternal confusion. Observe, First, Whom they should see; the Son of man. Having owned himself the Son of God, even now in his estate of humiliation, he speaks of himself as the Son of man, even in his estate of exaltation; for he had these two distinct natures in one person. The incarnation of Christ has made him Son of God and Son of man; for he is Immanuel, God with us. Secondly, In what posture they should see him; 1. Sitting on the right hand of power, according to the prophecy of the Messiah (Ps. 110:1); Sit thou at my right hand; which denotes both the dignity and the dominion he is exalted to. Though now he stood at the bar, they should shortly see him sit on the throne. 2. Coming in the clouds of heaven; this refers to another prophecy concerning the Son of man (Dan. 7:13, 14), which is applied to Christ (Luke 1:33), when he came to destroy Jerusalem; so terrible was the judgment, and so sensible the indications of the wrath of the Lamb in it, that it might be called a visible appearance of Christ; but doubtless it has reference to the general judgment; to this day he appeals, and summons them to an appearance, then and there to answer for what they are now doing. He had spoken of this day to his disciples, awhile ago, for their comfort, and had bid them lift up their heads for joy in the prospect of it, Luke 21:27, 28. Now he speaks of it to his enemies, for their terror; for nothing is more comfortable to the righteous, nor more terrible to the wicked, than Christ’s judging the world at the last day.
V. His conviction upon this trial; The High Priest rent his clothes, according to the custom of the Jews, when they heard or saw any thing done or said, which they looked upon to be a reproach to God; as Isa. 36:22; 37:1; Acts 14:14. Caiaphas would be thought extremely tender of the glory of God (Come, see his zeal for the Lord of hosts); but, while he pretended an abhorrence of blasphemy, he was himself the greatest blasphemer; he now forgot the law which forbade the High Priest in any case to rend his clothes, unless we will suppose this an excepted case.
Observe, 1. The crime he was found guilty of; blasphemy. He hath spoken blasphemy; that is, he hath spoken reproachfully of the living God; that is the notion we have of blasphemy; because we by sin had reproached the Lord, therefore Christ, when he was made Sin for us, was condemned as a blasphemer for the truth he told them.
2. The evidence upon which they found him guilty; Ye have heard the blasphemy; why should we trouble ourselves to examine witnesses any further? He owned the fact, that he did profess himself the Son of God; and then they made blasphemy of it, and convicted him upon his confession. The High Priest triumphs in the success of the snare he had laid; “Now I think I have done his business for him.” Aha, so would we have it. Thus was he judged out of his own mouth at their bar, because we were liable to be so judged at God’s bar. There is no need of witnesses against us; our own consciences are against us instead of a thousand witnesses.
VI. His sentence passed, upon this conviction, Matt. 26:66.
Here is, 1. Caiaphas’s appeal to the bench; What think ye? See his base hypocrisy and partiality; when he had already prejudged the cause, and pronounced him a blasphemer, then, as if he were willing to be advised, he asks the judgment of his brethren; but hide malice ever so cunningly under the robe of justice, some way or other it will break out. If he would have dealt fairly, he should have collected the votes of the bench seriatim—in order, and begun with the junior, and delivered his own opinion last; but he knew that by the authority of his place he could sway the rest, and therefore declares his judgment, and presumes they are all of his mind; he takes the crime, with regard to Christ, pro confesso—as a crime confessed; and the judgment, with regard to the court, pro concesso—as a judgment agreed to.
2. Their concurrence with him; they said, He is guilty of death; perhaps they did not all concur: it is certain that Joseph of Arimathea, if he was present, dissented (Luke 23:51); so did Nicodemus, and, it is likely, others with them; however, the majority carried it that way; but, perhaps, this being an extraordinary council, or cabal rather, none had notice to be present but such as they knew would concur, and so it might be voted nemine contradicente—unanimously. The judgment was, “He is guilty of death; by the law he deserves to die.” Though they had not power now to put any man to death, yet by such a judgment as this they made a man an outlaw among his people (qui caput gerit lupinum—he carries a wolf’s head; so our old law describes an outlaw), and so exposed him to the fury either of a popular tumult, as Stephen was, or to be clamoured against before the governor, as Christ was. Thus was the Lord of life condemned to die, that through him there may be no condemnation to us.
VII. The abuses and indignities done to him after sentence passed (Matt. 26:67, 68); Then, when he was found guilty, they spat in his face. Because they had not power to put him to death, and could not be sure that they should prevail with the governor to be their executioner, they would do him all the mischief they could, now that they had him in their hands. Condemned prisoners are taken under the special protection of the law, which they are to make satisfaction to, and by all civilized nations have been treated with tenderness; sufficient is this punishment. But when they had passed sentence upon our Lord Jesus, he was treated as if hell had broken loose upon him, as if he were not only worthy of death, but as if that were too good for him, and he were unworthy of the compassion shown to the worst malefactors. Thus he was made a curse for us. But who were they that were thus barbarous? It should seem, the very same that had passed sentence upon him. They said, He is guilty of death, and then did they spit in his face. The priests began, and then no wonder if the servants, who would do any thing to make sport to themselves, and curry favour with their wicked masters, carried on the humour. See how they abused him.
1. They spat in his face. Thus the scripture was fulfilled (Isa. 50:6), He hid not his face from shame and spitting. Job complained of this indignity done to him, and herein was a type of Christ (Job 31:10); They spare not to spit in my face. It is an expression of the greatest contempt and indignation possible; looking upon him as more despicable than the very ground they spit upon. When Miriam was under the leprosy, it was looked upon as a disgrace to her, like that of her father spitting in her face, Num. 12:14. He that refused to raise up seed to his brother, was to undergo this dishonour, Deut. 25:9. Yet Christ, when he was repairing the decays of the great family of mankind, submitted to it. That face which was fairer than the children of men, which was white and ruddy, and which angels reverence, was thus filthily abused by the basest and vilest of the children of men. Thus was confusion poured upon his face, that ours might not be filled with everlasting shame and contempt. They who now profane his blessed name, abuse his word, and hate his image in his sanctified ones; what do they better than spit in his face? They would do that, if it were in their reach.
2. They buffeted him, and smote him with the palms of their hands. This added pain to the shame, for both came in with sin. Now the scripture was fulfilled (Isa. 50:6), I gave my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair; and (Lam. 3:30), He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him; he is filled with reproach, and yet keepeth silence (Matt. 26:28); and (Mic. 5:1), They shall smite the Judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek; here the margin reads it, They smote him with rods; for so errapisan signifies, and this he submitted to.
3. They challenged him to tell who struck him, having first blindfolded him; Prophesy unto us, thou Christ, who is he that smote thee? (1.) They made sport of him, as the Philistines did with Samson; it is grievous to those that are in misery, for people to make merry about them, but much more to make merry with them and their misery. Here was an instance of the greatest depravity and degeneracy of the human nature that could be, to show that there was need of a religion that should recover men to humanity. (2.) They made sport with his prophetical office. They had heard him called a prophet, and that he was famed for wonderful discoveries; this they upbraided him with, and pretended to make a trial of; as if the divine omniscience must stoop to a piece of children’s play. They put a like affront upon Christ, who profanely jest with the scripture, and make themselves merry with holy things; like Belshazzar’s revels in the temple bowls.