24: The Longest Day of Jesus’ Life: Sanhedrin – Blind Justice In A Kangaroo Court
Like the wildly popular television series entitled “24,” the last 24 hours of Jesus’ life were filled with intrigue, conspiracy, betrayal, injustice, terror, torture, and, of course, death. It was by any reckoning the longest day of Jesus’ life. During these Sundays before Easter, we are looking together at the events which took place during that 24-hour period.
Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane. Thus began a sequence of events which would produce the two greatest miracles the world has ever known. One of those miracles, of course, was Jesus being raised from the dead. The other miracle was… well, let me come to that a bit later.
After Jesus was arrested, He was taken down across the Kidron Valley then up to the palace of Caiaphas, the High Priest. There He was placed on trial before Caiaphas and all the members of the Sanhedrin, the council of the religious leaders in Jerusalem. Did I call it a trial? Oh, that’s a bit of a stretch. There was nothing legal about it. It was a “kangaroo court,” dealing with trumped-up charges and manufactured evidence. It wound up delivering the worst miscarriage of justice the world has ever seen. Let’s look closely at what happened.
First, there was a preliminary hearing.
As you are no doubt aware, the symbol for justice is a lady holding a scale in one hand, a sword in her other hand, while wearing a blindfold over her eyes. It is a beautiful symbol which indicates that justice is blind. lt is impartial. It is based on laws and principles rather than on personalities. However, I want to suggest that that symbol of justice can be interpreted in two ways. Ideally, it does mean that justice is fair and impartial, but it also could be interpreted to mean that justice does not always see what it does not wish to see. It should not surprise us then to learn how blind justice was on that long ago night in Jerusalem.
After Caiaphas assembled the Sanhedrin, there began a mad scramble to find any evidence to back up the charges they intended to bring against Jesus. We have no record of what was happening to Jesus during those hours after His arrest. There was no one present at that point who was sympathetic to our Lord who could later on record the events. However, I think we can be assured that it was a time of intense interrogation and more than likely a time of torture. Jesus was tossed down into a dark, cold, dank, bottle dungeon—that is a dungeon carved down into the rock in the shape of a bottle with a small opening at the top—no light, no ventilation, no hope of escape. I am confident that that is where Jesus was placed, because you can visit the site of the palace of Caiaphas in Jerusalem today. In recent years, a magnificent church has been built on that spot, but under the church, archeological excavators have unearthed those bottle dungeons which were part of the palace complex. Of course, we do not know for sure all that happened to Jesus during those hours. It is a time of shadow, a time of darkness in the Gospel story.
But then that shouldn’t surprise us either. There are many such shadowed times in the story of Jesus. We know of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem and what happened immediately thereafter, but then we know nothing more of His life until He was 12 years old. We are then told of His visit to the Temple; however, once more the curtain of silence falls. When next we learn of Him, He is 30 years old and embarking upon His earthly ministry. Yet even then, details tend to be limited. The Gospels tell us of events which occurred over the last three years of His life, but those events taken together and placed on a timeline cover less than six months in actual time. So clearly most of what happened during those years is not a part of the Gospel record. I think there is a good reason for that. We are not given all of the many details of the earthly experience of Jesus in order that we might not focus all our attention upon those years. We are not to understand Jesus simply as an historical figure out of the past. We are not to build dusty shrines to a dusty Jesus of yesteryear. No! Instead, we are to see Him as our eternal contemporary—with us now. We are not to study Him as we might study Alexander, Napoleon, or Lincoln. Instead, we are to seek Him in the living of our times and our lives right here and right now.
So while we do not know precisely what happened to Jesus during those first hours when He was held in the palace of Caiaphas, we can be reasonably certain that it was a time of terror and torture.
Next the court was convened.
The entire Sanhedrin was present—all 71 strong—and Caiaphas was present—the High Priest, the chief judge. Caiaphas was in his 18th year in office. It would be his last year, but, at this point, he did not know that. He also did not know that this so-called trial would be the most important event of his life. For what happened that night constitutes the only significant record written on history’s pages by Caiaphas. It was, in fact, the greatest opportunity he ever had—and he missed it!
Now I do not wish to go further in this sermon without emphasizing that this is a moment of opportunity in your life. Once I was the guest preacher for what is called “The Great Appalachian Preaching Mission” up in east Tennessee. One night after the services—it was late—I was in my hotel room preparing for bed. The phone rang. The voice at the other end said, “I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, but I’m down in the lobby. I know it’s late, but I wonder if you could come down to visit with me for a moment. I heard you preach tonight, and I need to talk to you.” I went down to the lobby. There I encountered a man who proceeded to tell me that he had hit a low ebb in his life. He was having severe problems at home and at work. Earlier that evening he had gone out walking, wondering if life was worth living anymore, pondering the possibility of suicide. As he walked, he saw crowds of people going into the Freedom Hall there in Johnson City. For no good reason, he decided to follow the crowds. Once inside, he got caught up in the spirit of the music. He listened to the sermon, and suddenly he had the feeling that there was an opportunity to start putting his life back on the track again. However, he was afraid that if he didn’t do something about it right away, the opportunity would be gone. Well, I’ve never forgotten him, and everytime I think of him, I am reminded that we don’t know how many opportunities we are going to have to be confronted by the reality of Jesus Christ—the truth about Him, the power that is in Him, the claim that He makes upon us. So if you have never made that simple surrender to Jesus Christ in your life; if you’ve never gotten to the point where you say, “Lord, I don’t have all the answers, but I offer whatever there is of my life to You”—if you’ve never been able to say that before, then don’t miss the opportunity to do that today. We never know how many more opportunities there will be. Come to Jesus Christ today!
Caiaphas, confronted with the greatest opportunity of his life, missed it.
Then the trial began.
It was illegal right from the very start. You see the Jewish law decreed that trials could begin only between sunrise and high noon. In this instance it was the middle of the night. Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin were so afraid of Jesus’ popularity with the multitudes in the city that they wanted to have the whole thing wrapped up by dawn. They sought to do their dirty work then under the cover of darkness.
The well-known short-story writer, O. Henry, was actually named Sydney Porter. He was an altogether disreputable man. He betrayed his family; he welshed on his debts; he was an alcoholic; he was convicted of several crimes. But when he was dying, he called out to his nurse, “Please turn up the lights. I don’t want to go home in the dark.” Strange, don’t you think? I mean, he tried to get away with all of his life lived in the dark, but, suddenly when death was near, he was afraid of that darkness. I submit to you today that anyone who tries to delude God, anyone who tries to hide something from the Almighty, anyone who tries to live life in the dark places of evil and wrong doing will know a similar anxiety.
So Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin conducted the trial of Jesus under the cover of darkness. They tried to get away with that which was wrong, while no one was looking.
At last, the verdict was rendered.
In Jewish law when the judge put a question directly to a person, it was a criminal offense not to answer. So Caiaphas stood and gathered about himself the robes of his self-righteousness, and his question put directly to Jesus rang throughout the assembly hall. “Are You the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God”? This time Jesus didn’t work a miracle—instead Jesus declared that He is the miracle. Jesus said for all the world to hear, “I am!” So the two greatest miracles the world has ever known are these: God coming to earth in Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ being raised from the dead. Sometimes you hear the atheists or the agnostics say, and sometimes you even hear preachers, teachers, or leaders of the church say, “Jesus never claimed to be God.” Rubbish. Here it is. Jesus, under oath before the Supreme Court of the Jewish people, said, “I am the Son of God.”
C. S. Lewis is one of my heroes of the faith. One of his books, Mere Christianity, was recently named “the best and most influential Christian book of the last 100 years.” Let me lift a paragraph from that remarkable book, “People often say about Jesus: ‘I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept His claim to be God.’ That is the one thing we cannot say. A man, who was merely a man, and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg—or else he would be the devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was and is the Son of God or else a mad man or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool; you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon, or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”
Jesus didn’t leave that open to Caiaphas either. He said to the High Priest, “I am the Son of God.” Caiaphas then cried, “That is blasphemy. He is guilty.” And the rest of the Sanhedrin responded, “Yes, guilty. He deserves death by crucifixion.” They called it “justice,” but if that was justice, it was justice, tragically blind.
We have our own verdict to render in this case. This is one jury from which no Christian can ever be excused. We have to make our choice. We have to acknowledge the miracle that God has come to us in Jesus Christ, or we have to dismiss Jesus Christ as a deluded fool. We have to crown Him, or we have to crucify Him. The choice is ours to make. Crown Him—or crucify Him? Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin said, “Crucify Him!” Crown Him or crucify Him?
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what say you?