RPM, Volume 17, Number 12, March 15 to March 21, 2015

The Scandalized

Matthew 26:57-68

By D. Marion Clark


Who is responsible for Jesus' death? Judas bears guilt. He is the disciple who betrayed Jesus into the hands of his enemies. Peter and the other disciples bear guilt. They did not defend their Lord. Judas represents those whose purpose in life is merely to get ahead, to take advantage of whatever presents itself (even religion) to meet one's own interests. The disciples represent those who put too much confidence in themselves rather than humbly seek the grace and strength of God.

What about others? Who else is culpable for Jesus' death? This morning we meet the men who plotted and carried out his downfall.


Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered.

We spent a fair amount of time last week pondering the motivation for Judas to betray Jesus. It remains a perplexing question. It is not so difficult, however, to perceive the motivation of these religious leaders. They hated Jesus. Why? Why such animosity? Quite simply, they were scandalized by Jesus. They were scandalized by what Jesus said about them, and what he claimed about himself.

First, about them. Consider this diatribe against the scribes and Pharisees.

The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat, 3 so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others….
"But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people's faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

16 "Woe to you, blind guides, who say, 'If anyone swears by the temple, it is nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.' 17 You blind fools! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?... 23 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!

25 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

27 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. 28 So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

29 "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the monuments of the righteous, 30 saying, 'If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' 31 Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. 33 You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matthew 23:1-33).

You are a respected religious leader in your community and even in your country. Would you take kindly to such a public dressing down? And this is just one instance of Jesus speaking such harsh words publicly.

The other major religious group of leaders was that of the Sadducees. Many of the chief priests came from their party. Indeed, they might be regarded as the aristocracy of the Jewish community. They are not as highlighted as the Pharisees, but they also contested with Jesus and he gave warning against them as well: "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees" (Matthew 16:6). But the incident that would have insured their hostility and that of all the chief priests was his insolence on the temple grounds:

And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. 13 He said to them, "It is written, 'My house shall be called a house of prayer,' but you make it a den of robbers" (Matthew 21:12-13).

The chief priests had the authority to allow the selling that was going on and no doubt benefited from the activity. It doesn't take a great deal of perception to see how Jesus' words and actions have created enemies.

But it was what Jesus had to say about himself that moved the leaders from merely being annoyed with Jesus to plotting his destruction. The first alarm occurs when Jesus heals a paralytic who had been lowered through the ceiling of a home. Scribes — teachers of the law — were present. Jesus, before healing the man, pronounces forgiveness for his sins. The religious teachers understandably question this: Why does this man speak like that? He is blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" (Mark 2:7). Jesus embarrasses them by publicly rebuking them and then healing the paralytic as a "in your face" demonstration of his authority. He would embarrass them again in a synagogue by healing a man on the Sabbath, a direct challenge to their interpretation of the Law. Indeed, he makes the claim one time that the Son of Man (a title he gives himself that could be construed as messianic) is lord even of the Sabbath. There no doubt were self-designated prophets who challenged the authority and character of the leaders; but Jesus moves beyond that. The leaders rightly interpret his actions as claims for his own special authority.

Something needs to be made clear. It is true that many of the religious leaders simply had hard hearts. They were not being models of true godliness. They were jealous of their positions of influence. Even so, they had more insight into Jesus' teachings and actions than most of the populace. They knew that he was staking a claim, most likely to be the anointed Messiah, and even that he was taking it to the dangerous level of divine stature. As John explains, This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (John 5:18). And it is clear in John's gospel that he regards God as his Father to indicate a unique relationship that he has. By the way, by "the Jews," John means the Jewish religious leaders.

Consider other examples. Jesus calls himself the bread of life; he gives living water; he even calls himself the Resurrection and the Life. But the most galling claim he makes takes place during an acrimonious debate with the leaders. It comes to a close when Jesus says, Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am. John says that they then picked up stones to throw at him (John 8:58-59). Why such a hostile reaction? Jesus had committed blasphemy. He gave himself God's holy name of Yahweh — "I Am." That is an offense deserving death.

Well, now, these scandalized leaders have Jesus in their hands. Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered….

What is this gathering? It is a meeting of the Sanhedrin. Also known as the Council, it is composed of seventy men from three groups: the chief priests, the scribes and Pharisees, and the elders. The high priest presides over the assembly. Mostly not all the men are present. This is a hastily called meeting, and it violates the usual procedures of a trial. As we will see, even Caiaphas and his fellow instigators appear unprepared. They had planned for Jesus to be taken after the Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread, which still had a week to go. Judas' entry into the scheme and quick action have them acting not as organized as they no doubt would have liked to have been.

The meeting takes on the air more of an inquest or investigation, rather than a trial.

59 Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, 60 but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward 61 and said, "This man said, 'I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.'"

We know already that they want Jesus dead. But as the duly appointed authority, they must demonstrate cause of guilt. For such a purpose, they must by law have the testimony of two witnesses. That they are having difficulty indicates a couple of things. They are truly trying to come up with real witnesses. When Matthew speaks of "false testimony" and "false witnesses," I think he is not so much referring to them as liars, but making the real point that Jesus is truly the Messiah. The witnesses are not testifying to the true identity of Jesus and thus are false witnesses. The leaders behind Jesus' arrest, however, believe they have just cause. As Jesus himself says, he has taught openly; to use a familiar phrase: he has said enough to hang himself.

Even so, the witnesses coming forward still cannot get their stories straight, no doubt exaggerating what they thought they heard. At last two come up with something, that Jesus claimed he could destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. This is promising. The temple is the most sacred of all landmarks; it is the dwelling place of God, and to threaten it is to pronounce war against God. But even on this account, Mark reports that the witnesses could not agree on what he actually said, and for good reason: Jesus never made such a statement.

The leaders are in a quandary. They need clear testimony of blatant blasphemy to get their verdict, at least to justify their verdict. Jesus is popular. They need to produce irrefutable evidence of his blasphemy. Someone might respond, Why can't they make up the evidence? Because, though these men may be hard-hearted, they have not shown themselves to be liars. They may be jealous of Jesus, but they do have a real complaint against him for blasphemy.

Caiaphas makes the move. 62 And the high priest stood up and said, "Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?" 63 But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God."

He demands of Jesus on the basis of the most solemn oath binding to answer his question. James Boice points out the shrewdness of the question. If he had merely asked for Jesus to acknowledge that he is the Messiah, there was no capital offense to make such a claim. Others had and would do it. If he had asked if Jesus was the Son of God only, Jesus had previously avoided the charge of heresy by quoting Psalm 82:6 which refers to men as "sons of the Most High." By combining the terms, he was asking Jesus to affirm or deny that he is the Messiah who is God, or at least possessing a divine nature. To affirm such would draw the charge of blasphemy.

64 Jesus said to him, "You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven." 65 Then the high priest tore his robes and said, "He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy.

You have said so is the literal rendering, and it is an ambiguous reply. But Jesus' next statement makes clear that he is affirming the question. He is alluding to Daniel 7:13-14:

behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.

Caiaphas and the rest of the Sanhedrin also know their scriptures and that Jesus is claiming divine status. Tearing his robes is an official act expressing the offense of hearing blasphemy.

66 What is your judgment?" They answered, "He deserves death." 67 Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, 68 saying, "Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?"

The men who spit in Jesus' faith most likely included members of the Sanhedrin court. Perhaps some of them even struck him, though that was just as likely the task of the soldiers. The leaders would have spit in his face to demonstrate their righteous contempt for blasphemy. They were the protectors of God's honor. In our courts, the judge and jury are expected to display little emotion as they dispassionately dispense justice. For these leaders to do the same would have revealed that all they really cared about was getting rid of Jesus. No, they had to demonstrate their contempt, which they seemed quite willing to do.


We should be unnerved by this scene because it shows a travesty of justice committed against not merely an innocent man, but against the true Messiah, the Son of God. It is awful to witness injustice and brutality; it is terrifying to witness the men who by their positions are commissioned by God to welcome the arrival of God's Deliverer…it is terrifying to witness these men believe that he is a blasphemer, a child of Satan.

They believed Jesus was a bad man. They believed his teachings were heretical, that he lead people away from the holy God of Israel. That is scary. How could one behold Jesus, hear him teach, witness his miracles, and then conclude that "He is possessed by Beelzebul"?

Jesus knew how. The problem was their "hardness of heart" (Mark 3:5). They did not know what they had become. They saw themselves as the true zealots for God. They loved and upheld the law. They were the ones devoted to the study of the law, to its interpretation and enactment. But what they could not do is the hardest job of all, and that is to examine their own hearts by the light of the law. If they had, they would have discovered their true sins, and they would have seen the face of the Messiah when he appeared. As Jesus said, There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. If you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me (John 5:45-46).

These men are no different from the millions who continue to reject Jesus. When Jesus made his claim, why did they not check it out? Why did they not look to the scriptures and examine his actions and teachings through their light? Because they had long made their decisions. Jesus came on his own terms and no one else's. He did not try to endear himself to anyone already sure of themselves, already comfortable with their own opinions. The result is that most people rejected him.

Certainly in American society almost everyone can study the claims of Jesus. There is no lack of materials — be they books or tracts or movies or TV shows or radio and now the internet. Even so, the claims of Jesus are quickly dismissed, just as the religious leaders dismissed his claims back then. There are plenty of ways to rationalize the dismissal. Surely science disproves miracles; certainly in light of so many religions no one can make a claim for the only truth about God; obviously the Bible contradicts itself and is filled with errors; could God really care what someone believes? Why then bother to actually examine the claims about Jesus?

Or there are other reasons not to bother. I had a bad church experience. I know hypocrites who claim to be Christian. I'm just not into religion, but I'm a good person. I just don't have time.

People don't know what they have become. They see themselves as tolerant, open-minded people willing to consider reasonable claims, but in reality they've closed themselves to any claim for the truth of Christ. As Boice notes, they are no more open to the claims of Christ than Caiaphas or the other religious leaders who pronounced judgment upon him.

And you are pronouncing judgment. Most people consider themselves neutral on the subject of Jesus. It makes them seem humble. Who are they, after all, to claim to know the truth? But the real question is this: Who are they to so casually reject Jesus' claims? He has made a claim, and everyone must respond. No one is neutral; everyone casts a vote either exalting him or rejecting him. He gives us no other choice.

I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this? (John 11:25-26). That is Jesus' question to us all. He wants an answer.

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