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Faith Bible Church, NY
July 9, 1995
No Justice Here!
What is justice? A judge opened court with this announcement. “Gentlemen, I have in my hand two checks: a bribe you might call it. One from the defendant for $15,000 and the other from the plaintiff for $10,000. My decision is to return $5,000 to the defendant and try the case strictly on its merits.”
We laugh at that, but justice is important to us. We want to be treated with justice. We do not want the law to be prejudiced against us or a judgement perverted because of a bribe. In our day we find that there are those that confuse justice and social equality, but that should not confuse us. Webster defines justice as that which “is strictly in accord with currently accepted ethical law or as decreed by legal authority.” In other words, justice has to do with equal application of the law. Final justice will be rendered under God’s law.
When we look at the justice system of ancient Israel, we find the pattern upon which our own justice system was laid. We would do well to reform our system to again reflect their practice. As a background for this morning’s sermon, let me go over some of the more important points about the Jewish system of justice at the time of Jesus’ trial.
The Jewish legal system was an extension of the principles of the Law of Moses. The central passage for this was Deut. 16:18-20 which says, 18 Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment. 19 Thou shalt not distort judgment; thou shalt not respect persons, neither take a gift: for a gift doth blind the eyes of the wise, and pervert the words of the righteous. 20 That which is altogether just shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
In working this out, a justice system was developed by which any community with at least 120 family units could form a local council called the “Sanhedrin.” This is a Greek term that simply means “sitting together.” This was low court and would be composed of up to 23 men. The Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem was made up of 71 men including the High Priest, chief priests, elders, and scribes. This group was also called, “the council of the elders,” and “the Senate of the sons of Israel.” The odd number in each of these councils would eliminate any tie votes.
The local council members were chosen because of their maturity and wisdom, and the Great Sanhedrin was to be composed of those who had distinguished themselves in a local council and had served in an apprenticeship capacity within the Great Sanhedrin. By the time of Christ, it had degenerated so that membership mostly came from political or religious favoritism. Both the Herod dynasty and Rome exerted considerable influence of it.
The fairness and impartiality required by Mosaic Law were put into rabbinical practice in several ways. The accused was held with a presumed innocence and could not be tried without formal charges. The council could not bring charges itself but only consider charges brought by someone else. The defendant was to be tried in public during the day. A criminal trial could not begin or continue into the night. He could have a defense counsel and bring forth evidence and witnesses on his own behalf. A conviction could only be made upon the testimony of two or more reliable witnesses. These witnesses had to affirm their testimony was true to the best of their knowledge and was based on their own direct experience and not on hearsay or presumption. In addition, they had to be able to recount the precise month, day, hour, and location of the event about which they testified. The defendant could not testify against himself and even if he did it would be insufficient by itself to bring conviction.
False witnesses were discouraged by adherence to Mosaic law. Deut. 19:16-19 states that a false witness was to receive the punishment the accused would have received if found guilty. For example, if the punishment would have been scourging, the false witness would have received it instead of the accused. If it was the death penalty, the false witness would have been put to death instead of the defendant. In addition, in a capital offense case, it was the accuser that had to initiate the sentence of execution when it was carried out by casting the first stone (Deut. 17:7). This may have been what Jesus referred to when he told those who where accusing the woman caught in adultery that “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). Our own system has perjury laws to deter lying on the witness stand.
In cases involving capital punishment additional precautions were taken. The governing principle was that the “Sanhedrin was to save life, not destroy it.” The courts’ justice was to also reflect the mercy found within the character of God and written in the Mosaic Law.
Of the twenty-three members of a Sanhedrin, it only took eleven votes to acquit, but 13 were required to convict. A unanimous decision to convict resulted automatically in acquittal because it would be presumed that the necessary element of mercy was lacking. The decisions of the counsel members were given from the youngest to the oldest so that the younger members would not be swayed by the older ones. If the defendant was found innocent, he was immediately freed. If the defendant was found guilty, the sentence could not be pronounced until two days later and the death sentence could not be carried out until the third day. The council members were to fast in the intervening day. Such sentences could be carried out during a feast period when fasting was prohibited.
On the third day, the council would be reassembled. If any additional evidence or witnesses for the defense were found, they were presented and then each member asked if they had changed their decision. A guilty vote could be changed but not a previous vote for acquittal could not. If the guilty sentence was reaffirmed, the prisoner was escorted through the streets to the place of the execution with a herald going before them who would state the following: The name of the prisoner, the charges against him, the names of those who witnessed against him, and that if anyone had evidence to give in favor of the man, they were to come forward. If anyone did, the whole procession would turn around, the council would reconvene and the new evidence considered. If not, the condemned would be executed after he had been given a stupefying drink to dull his senses so that his death would be less painful.
The Jewish justice system was both fair and merciful when it was followed properly. It is against a back drop that we come to religious trial of Jesus. It demonstrates the wonderful character of our Lord as He places His trust completely in the Father even as he under goes a trial that violated almost every principle of justice. The lesson for us to learn as we watch our savior in the midst of this, is that while we should strive for justice, we do not have to receive it in order for us to carry out God’s will in our lives. In fact, it maybe at the very points when we are treated with the greatest injustice that we accomplish the most for the cause of Christ.
Turn to Matthew 26:57. In our study of this chapter last week, we ended after Jesus had been betrayed by Judas and taken into custody by the mob that had come for Him. As we begin this week we read in verse 57, “And those who had seized Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas, the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were gathered together.”
As we put all the gospel accounts together, we find there are three phases to the religious trial Jesus undergoes. First we find that John 18:12,13 records an event that occurs prior to what Matthew mentions, “So the cohort and the commander, and the officers of the Jews, arrested Jesus and bound Him, and led Him to Annas first; for he was father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was high priest that year.” Later we find that the chief priest and elders also gather together in the morning to counsel together that Jesus should be put to death (Matt. 27:1).
So the first phase of Jesus trial is that He is brought before Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas the high priest. Annas had previously been the high priest and had maintained his hand in the affairs of the temple even though his son-in-law now had that position. The money exchangers and temple vendors were under Annas’ control to such an extent that the marketplace on the temple grounds were sometime referred to as the bazaar of Annas. Obviously Annas would hate Jesus for clearing out his people from the temple area and cutting into his source of income. We are not told why Jesus is first brought to Annas, but the fact that He is demonstrates Annas’ continuing power and influence.
When Jesus arrives there the injustice begins. John 18:19 records that Annas begins to question Jesus about the disciples and His teachings. This is in contradiction to the Jewish justice system. A prisoner was not to be questioned in this manner. Jesus answered Annas saying, “I have spoken openly to the world; I always taught in synagogues, and in the temple, where all the Jews come together; and I spoke nothing in secret. Why do you question Me? Question those who have heard what I spoke to them; behold, these know what I said.” This is a proper rebuke to what Annas was doing and a reminder that he could easily obtain the information he wanted legally. There were plenty of people that knew what Jesus taught.
But proud men do not like to be rebuked, especially in front of the people that are under them. One of the officers standing by Jesus immediately hit Him saying, “Is that they way You answer the high priest?” Annas was no longer the high priest, but truth has never stopped some men from living a lie. If you or I were treated with such injustice as this, I am sure we would react with some anger and maybe even some name calling as Paul does in Acts 23 when almost the exact same thing happened to him. Yet we find that Jesus does not answer with anger. Instead He again asks a question that points out the injustice of what they had just done. “If I have spoken wrongly, bear witness of the wrong; but if rightly, whey do you strike Me?” It was strictly illegal to strike a prisoner during questioning. Since Annas could get nowhere, he sent Jesus to Caiaphas and that is where Matthew continues the story.
Matthew 26:57 states that not only was Jesus before Caiaphas, but the scribes and elders were also gathered for the purpose of questioning Jesus, again, in contradiction to the established Jewish justice system. Note further from verse 58 that this is taking place at night at the home of the High Priest.
But Peter also was following Him at a distance as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and entered in, and sat down with the officers to see the outcome. Peter was trying to be brave and fulfill his boast, and so we now find him following Jesus. Peter does love Jesus and wants to know what is going to happen, but he is carefully keeping his distance lest he be recognized as one of Jesus’ disciples. From John’s account we also know that there was another disciple who was known to the high priest that was also following Jesus. This was probably John himself. He had entered the courtyard of Annas first and then was able to the doorkeeper to allow Peter in. Now Peter is not our focus this week so we set aside any further comments about him until next week.
Notice now where Peter sat down and what is going on. Peter is in a private courtyard with the officers and they are waiting to see the outcome. In verse 59 we find, Now the chief priest and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death; and they did not find any, even though many false witnesses came forward. This constitutes an illegal assembly. The council (Sanhedrin) was not supposed to meet to try a prisoner in a private place nor were they to try Him at night. In addition, we find here they are trying to find charges against Him rather than responding to charges already made, and this was illegal too. Add to this that they are hearing what they know are false witnesses and they are not bringing any punishment upon these witnesses as required. Even with many false witnesses, none of them were credible enough to make any charges.
Now think about that. Here is a kangaroo court, and by that I mean an unauthorized court that is already ignoring proper justice proceedings and they still cannot find a false witness credible enough to bring charges against Jesus. This is a strong argument for the sinless character of Jesus. Even using men who were willing to perjure themselves by making false testimony they cannot manufacture a charge that would stand the lax scrutiny of their own corrupt court because it was all so inconsistent! But of course that is the great problem liars have always had; how to be consistent in what they say. When you tell the truth, that is all you have to remember. When you tell a lie, you have to remember what you said each time you told the story.
How lax was the analysis of this court. The end of verse 60 says, But latter on two came forward, and said, “This man stated, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.'” This is the testimony of one man while Mark’s account records the testimony of the other who says, “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands'” (Mark 14:58). One witness reports Jesus said He was able to destroy the temple while the other says that Jesus said He would destroy the temple. Quite a difference between the two reports and neither one is accurate because John 2:19 records Jesus saying, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” , which John goes on to explain Jesus said concerning His own body. Jesus did not say that He would or could destroy the Temple, He said if they destroyed the Temple He would rebuild it in three days. Yet with this false testimony, Caiaphas felt He finally had something.
Verse 62, And the high priest stood up and said to Him, “Do You make no answer? What is it that these men are testifying against You?” But Jesus kept silent. Again we find them going against their own legal system in trying to get the defendant to be self-incriminating. Jesus remains calm and makes no answer. Jesus has complete trust in His heavenly Father and will wait for His leading and speak only what the Father desires. Jesus is not interested in making His own defense. He leaves that in the hands of the Father. Jesus’ silence is that of innocence, of integrity, and of dignity. He lets His silence magnify the inconsistency of what they two had testified and the travesty of justice that was being perpetrated in His presence. This only makes Caiaphas more angry. The enraged Caiaphas says, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.”
This is the most sacred oath a Jew could make, and Caiaphas used it to demand that Jesus either affirm or d eny His messiahship and deity. Again, this was against their own justice system, but justice is not what they were seeking. They wanted Jesus to make an open claim to deity so that they could charge Him with blasphemy, a charge punishable by death according to Leviticus 24:16, But a claim to deity is only blasphemy if the claim is false.
If the court had not been in such a rush, it should have been easy for them to find witnesses that would attest to Jesus’ claim of Messiahship and deity. In John 4 the woman at the well said that she knew Messiah was coming to which Jesus answered, “I who speak to you am He.” The last time Jesus had been in Jerusalem He had told the Jews He was debating with that “Before Abraham was born, I am.” They knew what that meant and had taken up stones to kill Him, but Jesus escaped. Only a few days before Jesus willingly accepted the Messianic shouts of the people, and when the chief priests and scribes had tried to get Jesus to stop the people from saying, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” Jesus told them that if the people were quiet the rocks would cry it out and that it was from these people that God had prepared praise for Himself. They could have also brought many who had witnessed Jesus’ power over wind and water, over sickness, disease and death, over demons, and the authority to forgive sins. There were plenty around to give testimony to Jesus’ claims of messiahship and deity.
Jesus now gives them what they are looking for: a clear claim to messiahship and deity. Verse 64, Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of Heaven.” Jesus tells them in effect that He was who they said, the Christ and the Son of God. Jesus then continues His answer referring to Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13 to both back up His claim and to warn them. The term “Son of Man” was a commonly acknowledged title of the Messiah and “Power” was a figurative designation of God when used this way. Jesus is telling them that He is the Christ, He is the Son of God, and that one day they would see Him glorified with God the Father in heaven and returning to earth as their judge. They were judging Him unjustly but a day will come when the roles would be reversed, and Jesus would be their judge only His judgement will be just based as it says in Revelation 20:12,13 according to whether their name was in the book of life and if not then according to all their deeds which had been written down.
Caiaphas paid no attention to the implications of what Jesus had just said. Jesus had just openly admitted that He was the Christ and the Son of God, and Caiaphas would claim was blasphemy. Verse 65 records Caiaphas’ great acting ability as he outwardly makes a big show of his supposedly offended piety while inwardly he is rejoicing. Then the High Priest tore his robes, saying, “He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy; what do you think?” They answered and said, “He is deserving of death!”
Caiaphas actually still had plenty of need of witnesses if justice was to be carried out for a defendant could not be convicted based on His own testimony alone. But what did Caiaphas and the rest of the Council care about justice, their only concern was to get rid of Jesus and now they had something they could use, even if doing so was illegal.
When Caiaphas tore his robes it was pure show. If he really cared so much about God being offended by blasphemy then he would have also cared about following God law for High Priests. Leviticus 21:10 specifically says that the High Priest should not “tear his clothes.”
Their injustice was bad enough in itself, but in their glee to finally have a ruling against Jesus, they began their mockery of Him. Verse 67, 68, Then they spat in His face and beat Him with their fists; and others slapped Him, and said, “Prophecy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit you?”
Spitting in another’s face was a supreme insult but such insult they gave to the supreme man. In their anger they struck Him with their fists and then since Jesus’ claimed to be the Christ, they mocked Him by blindfolding Him and asking Him to prophecy who it was that hit Him. Such is the display of the evil hearts of men. If they had examined the evidence they would have found that Jesus claim was true, but they had no interest in justice, only in destroying the one that in justice stood against their teachings and practices.
In the midst of all this we find that Jesus continues to maintain His composure. Why? Because He had prepared Himself in the garden and He was fully ready to suffer at the hands of sinners in order to pay the penalty for sins. This is the great love of God for us.
We should work for justice, strive for justice and correct injustice, but we should never expect justice at the hands of man, because man will always find ways to pervert it even when he does set up a system that is reflective of God’s justice. Jesus told us that we who are true Christians should expect the world to hate us because the world hated Him (John 15:18,19). Jesus told that we should expect people to persecute us for our righteousness, to insult us, and falsely accuse us because of our relationship with Jesus (Matthew 5:10,11). Yet, we are to rejoice even in that because that is the way the unrighteous have always treated the righteous. That is the way Jesus Himself was treated.
There is only one way we can respond to injustices done to us, and that is to maintain the mindset Jesus had. He lived for the Father rather than Himself, He lived with eternity in view rather than just the present. We need to follow the example of Christ and so many that have been severely persecuted because of the faith in Him.
May we be like the Christian in the second century who responded to Pliny, Roman Governor of Asia Minor. Pliny could find little fault with the man expect his faith in Christ. Pliny threatened him, “I will banish you.” The man replied, “You cannot for all the world is my Father’s house. Pliny said, Then I will slay you.” The Christian replied, “You cannot, for my life is hid with Christ in God.” Pliny declared, “I will take away your possessions.” He responded, “You cannot for my treasure is in heaven.” Pliny announced, “I will drive you away from man and you shall have no friend left.” The fellow responded, “You cannot for I have an unseen Friend from whom you are not able to separate me.”
Can injustice separate you from Christ?
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