Today we are continuing our series, 24 Hours that Changed the World. Two weeks ago we began this journey together as we explored the setting and the important action of Jesus being the bridge that transformed the events of the Jewish Passover into what we observe as Communion. Last week we looked at the feelings Jesus experienced in the Garden of Gethsemane as he awaited to be arrested and how those feelings of agony do not have to equal defeat. Today we are going to spend some time gaining a deeper understanding of the condemnation that Jesus experienced and what we can learn from Christ's response.
Jesus' Journey to Caiaphas' House
This morning we pick up in Mark with Jesus having been arrested and bound in the Garden of Gethsemane. Remember the Garden is at the base of the Mount of Olives and it is just across the Kidron valley from the walls of the old city of Jerusalem and the temple complex. So the temple guards who have arrested Jesus have bound his hands and feet and are leading him out of the Garden to the home of the high priest Caiaphas. Also remember that last week we established that it is early in the morning hours of Good Friday, probably around midnight as Jesus is led in the dark across the Kidron Valley and down past the temple. He would have walked passed the pinnacle point of the temple where the devil had tempted him to throw himself down and prove he was the Messiah. He would have continued south past the old city of David, which was established 1,000 years prior to this as David’s center of government. He would have passed the Pool of Siloam, where in John’s Gospel it is recorded that Jesus healed a blind man by spitting into dust and making a paste that he put on the man’s eyes and then sent him to the Pool of Siloam to wash. And He would have entered the city of Jerusalem in the southern end to began climbing the stairway up the hillside to the palace of the high priest Caiaphas. Jesus’ journey that night would have been about a mile and probably in his bound state taken somewhere between 20-30 minutes to walk.
When Debbie and I were in Israel we discovered that there is a church built over every holy site we visited and it was no different when visiting Caiaphas’ house. We took the opportunity to walk outside and stand on the ancient Roman steps where Jesus would have been led up the hill and into the house for his trial. There’s a big underground complex under the church and what you find two floors down is a prison cell, what would have been an old cistern for water. And this is the place where Jesus would have been kept during his trial and lowered down into the hole with a rope around his waist. I had the privilege of doing our daily Scripture reading onsite in the pit. We read from Psalm 88, a Psalm about feelings of abandonment that concludes with the line, “the darkness is my only friend”. Our guide stayed behind upstairs and at the appropriate point in the lesson turned all of the lights off, so that we were just standing in the pit in total darkness, trying to experience what Jesus went through that night as he listened to the Sanhedrin debating his fate in the courtroom above.
The Condemnation of the Sanhedrin
It’s important for us to understand who the Sanhedrin were and how they functioned. This was a council of seventy-one elders and wise sages of the Jewish people. They would have been the most pious people in that time. There were seventy-one because when the Israelites were in the wilderness, Moses appointed seventy elders to help him rule the people in addition to himself – so seventy plus Moses equals seventy-one (Numbers 11). While the Romans were ruling over the political affairs of the time, these seventy-one men had control over the religious affairs of the people – including the temple, religious beliefs and the religious courts.
And we also need to understand that this was a very un-orthodox trial by Sanhedrin standards. Their rules called for daytime meetings held publicly in the temple courts and they never met during festivals. Yet here they are putting Jesus on trial tucked away inside Caiaphas’ house at night and in the middle of the feast of Passover. Plus according to Jewish law they need at least two witnesses who agree to convict and they can’t seem to find that. In frustration they bring Jesus up and ask him who he is: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the blessed one?” In response, the Gospel of Mark shows us that Jesus gave a very strong statement claiming identity with God which the high priests considered blasphemy. Now they need no further witnesses - Jesus was guilty and needed to die. But for me, the saddest part comes after his conviction as these pious men begin to spit on Jesus and then blindfold him so they can hit him and mock him as they ask him to tell them who is hitting Jesus. And then they turn him over to the temple guards for another beating.
Often you hear people say things like: “I’d have any easier time believing in God if he would just show up – knock on their door.” Well he did that once. God came in human flesh in the person of Jesus and this is what humanity did to him. The pious religious people of his day failed to recognize him and condemned him instead.
So Many Questions
So how did this happen? Why did they do this? Why did they fail to see and not only that, why did they act in this way towards Jesus, spitting on him and mocking him? As I thought about that this week, I realized that this story is not just about the Sanhedrin back then, but it’s also about us and our human condition. I think the answer is fear. Jesus was a threat to these men. He was a threat to everything they knew and believed in. He threatened the social order, their authority and standing within the community. Everywhere He went to preach, huge crowds would follow him. As human beings we have an innate desire for security and so when someone or something comes along that is a threat to that, even the most devout follower of Jesus can start to act out in ways that aren’t necessarily in keeping with their faith. Doing the right, moral or loving thing gets thrown out the window when we feel threatened. Fear motivates us to do things that later on we stop and say “What were we thinking?”
I think fear was also behind Peter’s denial of Jesus. He’d been brave earlier that evening. When the temple guards had come to arrest Jesus, Peter was the only one to try and defend Jesus by taking out his sword. In fact he accidentally cut off someone’s ear, which Jesus took the time to heal. Then Peter has the courage to follow Jesus to Caiaphas’ house and to go into the outer courtyard. But his courage only worked up to a point. When he was confronted by people about his relationship to Jesus, and he’s in danger of being harmed, the fear takes over and three times he denies knowing the One he had followed so faithfully.
So What Can We Learn?
So what can we learn from all of this – from Jesus’ condemnation at the hands of the Sanhedrin and Peter’s denial of his Messiah? I think there’s a couple of things to consider and remember in our own walk with Christ.
First, these stories show us that fear isn’t the answer but that perfect love casts out fear.
Our Scripture passage from I John reminds us that rather than reaching for fear, we are supposed to reach for love: “God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” The question that we ask in our personal lives and as Christians in public policy should not be what is the thing that will make me feel the most secure, but rather what is the most loving thing for me to do? For in the end, love conquers in ways that fear and hate and violence simply cannot do. That is what the Scriptures teach us about the ways of God.
Second, these stories show us that one person can make a difference.
Sometimes all it takes is for one person to speak up. What would have happened in the Sanhedrin if one or two of those men had simply said: “This isn’t right. It’s not in keeping with what God teaches us regardless of what we think about this man, this can’t be right?” Often when we find ourselves in a group of people who are all saying the same thing, we find ourselves too afraid to speak up and say something different. But that reminds me of a quote by Edmund Burke, a famous British philosopher and politician who once said: “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Keeping silent and doing nothing when you know that something is wrong is a sin as well. These stories are meant to call us to boldness in our faith.
Finally, these stories remind us that God’s grace can redeem even that which seems unforgivable.
Look at and remember Peter. How did these stories get into the Gospels? The Sanhedrin held a closed secret meeting but Peter was present outside at Christ's betrayal. Someone had to share stories. We don’t often share our failures and hold them up to the light for all to see. But we know at least that Peter did. For after Jesus’ resurrection Peter found grace when he met with Jesus. And he would preach about all of this: “Look, I know you’ve denied him and I denied him myself and yet I have to tell you that even when I betrayed the Lord he gave me grace and took me back. And if you’ve denied him, he’ll take you back too.” Peter was so convicted by what he had done that he stood up for Jesus and eventually gave his life for the Gospel. .
And what about the Sanhedrin? At least one member of the Sanhedrin, Nicodemus, helped to bury Jesus after he was crucified. And Jesus had words of forgiveness for everyone involved in his crucifixion. Instead of reaching for fear he reached for love and even from the cross Jesus poured out mercy and forgiveness on those who had put him there as he said: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Our Scripture lessons this morning show us the great danger that happens when we choose to react in fear and they help point us to a different path as people of faith. We have to reach for the loving thing in choosing our response, following Jesus’ own example of dealing with other people. We need to embrace boldness and speak up for what we know is right despite what the crowd might be telling us. But should we fall down in those attempts, Scripture also reminds us that God’s grace is still available to us and can redeem even that which seems unforgivable.