Sermon: Who’s On Trial?

They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, the elders, and the teachers of the law came together. Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.

Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’” Yet even then their testimony did not agree.

Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent and did not answer.

Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

“I am,” said Jesus, “and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked, “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?”

They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him, they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, “Prophesy!” And the guards took him and beat him.

While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she looked closely at him.

“You were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you are talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.

When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This man is one of them.” Again he denied it.

After a little while, some of those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

He began to call down curses and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you are talking about.”

Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will disown me two times.” Then he broke down and wept.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Who is really on trial? Jesus is brought before the High Priest, the whole Sanhedrin and interrogated, but who is really on trial, who is really being judged? Peter sits outside with the guards warming himself at the fire while Jesus is questioned, but who is really on trial, who is really being judged? We will get back to that question in a minute, but I want us to take some time to walk through this story, to make sure we understand just what is happening.

So let’s look together, starting in verse 53: They took Jesus to the high priest, and all the chief priests, the elders, and the teachers of the law came together. Just before this, Judas came to Jesus accompanied by a crowd armed with swords and clubs and betrayed him with a kiss. The kiss was a signal. The crowd seized Jesus and led him away. One of the disciples – we know from the other gospels that it was Peter – drew out his sword and cut off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the High Priest. After this, all the disciples fled into the night, abandoning Jesus, including one young man who fled naked. The armed mob then brings Jesus to the house of the High Priest, Caiaphas.

At the High Priest’s house a whole group has assembled. It includes the chief priests – the leaders of the priestly families that served in the temple. It included the elders – roughly equivalent to our understanding of elders – men considered wise and respected among the people – only not an ordained office, but more of a communally recognized title. It also included the teachers of the law. These were the trained experts in the Word of God, teachers in the synagogues and schools. This group, once assembled, was known as the Sanhedrin, from the greek word for ‘sitting together,’ or ‘council.’ The Sanhedrin was made up of seventy-one members, presided over by the high priest and was the equivalent of the Supreme Court of Israel.

Mark tells us that all of them are gathered. It could mean that all seventy-one were there at the High Priest’s house or it could mean that there was enough for a quorum – in the same way we might say the all of the congregation was at a congregational meeting, even if a few people were absent.

Either way, in the middle of the night, Jesus is betrayed, arrested, deserted, and then brought before an assembly of all the leading figures in Israel, those who are supposed to be the wisest and fairest in judgement, as well as the most learned in Scripture. These are the ones who will put Jesus on trial.

Let’s continue: Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. There he sat with the guards and warmed himself at the fire.

Peter, who boldly proclaimed, but a few hours ago, that he would never deny Jesus and would be willing to die with him, joined with the rest of the disciples in fleeing when Jesus was arrested. But Peter came back. Peter is about to do something awful, but we should at least remember that Peter came back. However, Peter has already set himself up to fall.

First, he follows Jesus at a distance. He is still following Jesus, but doesn’t want to be too close. For Peter, being close to Jesus will mean being in the room with him, facing the charges, testifying to the truth, and potentially suffering and even dying with Jesus. This is what Peter said he would do. This was his bold proclamation: Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you. But that was easy to say before the crowds came, before the cost rose, before he might suffer for staying with Jesus. But now, Peter still follows Jesus, still wants to be a disciple, but he has begun to put some distance between himself and Jesus. Likely, he doesn’t yet realize what this will mean for him, but to distance yourself from Jesus is to invite disaster.

Second, Peter changes the company he keeps, which also leads him toward temptation. For the past three years, Peter has been with the disciples. He has been in the company of believers, but now he sits with the guards warming himself at the fire. This company he keeps, the people he surrounds himself with will be the occasion for his greatest temptation, a temptation Peter will fall headlong into.

Already, Peter’s position here has something to teach us. When it comes to being a disciple of Jesus, distance invites disaster. It is easy for us to say we want to follow Jesus, that we love Jesus and trust in him when things are easy, when the social, emotional, or physical cost of saying so is low. It is easy to say we are a disciple of Jesus when everyone around us is supporting this decision. But when things change, when the temperature rises, we can be tempted, like Peter, to begin by putting some distance between us and Jesus. We don’t outright deny him, we don’t abandon the faith, but we start taking subtle steps to separate ourselves from our Savior. We don’t stop believing, but we stop praying. We don’t abandon our Christian faith, but stop going to church, or at least not as often. We don’t abandon our convictions, but start to hide them a bit better.

Peter’s position provides a warning for us. Most of us would never imagine going from fervent confession of Jesus to denying we ever knew him. I imagine Peter would say the same. But it wasn’t a one step process. It began with, first, separating himself from Jesus, and, second, changing the company he keeps – no longer being surrounded by brothers and sisters in Christ. It was a dangerous road and one on which Peter stumbled.

Particularly as this season of life in the world has changed, stay close to Jesus. Don’t follow him at a distance. And keep company with the saints of God. We cannot meet in person, but still work to surround yourself with God’s people.

Let’s keep going: The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.

Right from the beginning, the trial is all wrong.

Jesus’ guilt was decided before he even got in the room and the whole point of the trial was to find evidence that will fit the verdict. There is a section of the Jewish Mishnah that tells the rules of how the Sanhedrin was supposed to conduct itself in a trial according to both the Word of God and the traditions of the people. People who have studied this say there are 14 different ways that this trial violates the rules of court. It’s at night. It is usually the shady and evil works that are ‘so urgent’ they cannot wait til morning, but take place at night. The truth will stand the light of day, but wicked deeds are done in the dark. Additionally, the Sanhedrin is both the prosecutor and the judge. They were supposed to be impartial. Even more, the group that, according to Deuteronomy 19:16-17, is supposed to prosecute and judge false witnesses is, in fact, employing them and supporting them. Any conviction should be on the strength of two witnesses, according to God’s word, but they could not find two witnesses who agreed on a charge against Jesus. In fact, their false testimonies contradicted each other. There were also no witnesses for the defense. And this is just scratching the surface.

They looked for evidence of any wrongdoing on Jesus’ part, and they did not find any. Think about that for a moment. If someone looked hard enough into each of our lives, they would find something. Depending on our lives, they may not find something that could be considered a crime in the courts of the land, but each of us has something that would be sin in the courts of God, according to his Word. But with Jesus, they looked and they looked and found nothing. Absolutely nothing.

What is abundantly clear in the gospel of Mark is that Jesus is completely innocent. The testimony against him was false, it was contradictory. Nothing they said could stick because it wasn’t true.

Mark tells us of one specific false testimony that was given against Jesus: Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with human hands and in three days will build another, not made with hands.’” Yet even then their testimony did not agree.

The best accusation they could make was that Jesus verbally attacked the temple. If true (and it wasn’t), it still would not have been worthy of a death sentence. There is a slightly similar statement to this in the gospel of John, but Jesus never says that he will destroy the temple. Instead, he proclaimed that if the temple is destroyed, he will build one in three days. Yet even here, when fabricating something closer to the truth, they cannot get their stories straight.

Then the High Priest himself stands up and takes on the role of the prosecutor, another violation of justice: Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” But Jesus remained silent and did not answer.

Faced with false accusations that would mean his death, Jesus remains silent. There is both prudence and prophesy in Jesus’ silence. It was prudent because they had already decided on his guilt. The questions were a trap. The High Priest hoped to goad Jesus into responding and trapping him in his words. However Jesus refuses to play the game. Jesus knew the Proverbs: “Do not speak to fools, for they will scorn your prudent words.” (23:9) or Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” (26:4) or “Enemies disguise themselves with their lips, but in their hearts they harbor deceit. Though their speech is charming, do not believe them, for seven abominations fill their hearts. Their malice may be concealed by deception, but their wickedness will be exposed in the assembly.” (26:24-26)

By remaining silent, Jesus silences his enemies. They bluster and accuse, but he does not dignify them with a response. Not only will nothing he says convince them, for their hearts are set on violence and not on truth, but he shows wisdom and restraint not to rise to the bait he is given.

But there is also prophesy involved in Jesus’ silence. In Isaiah 53, God reveals his servant who will bear the sins of his people and redeem them. In verse 7, it says, “He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth, he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Jesus’ silence speaks to his identity as the Suffering Servant, as the lamb being led to slaughter who will take away the sins of the world.

But the High Priest is not done. The witnesses have questioned Jesus’ words and actions, and found nothing. The High Priest now questions Jesus’ identity: Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?”

The High Priest asks if Jesus is the Messiah. The Messiah was the promised, anointed Son of David. He would liberate the people. His kingdom would have no end. He would lead the people into the full promises of God. From the moment of the Fall, but even more in the time of Moses, and then through David and the prophets, God had promised to send the Messiah. But there is nothing criminal about claiming to be the Messiah. Many had falsely claimed that before and had failed and died. Claiming to be the Messiah was not a crime, but would have been a good thing. However, the High Priest adds more to the question. He asks not just if Jesus is the Messiah, the promised anointed King, but if he is the Son of the Blessed One. He asks if Jesus is the Son of God.

“I am,” said Jesus, “and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Jesus remains silent in the face of all these accusations until he is asked about his identity. Only then does he answer. Throughout his ministry, every time someone began to understand who Jesus is, Jesus told them to keep this quiet. But now, before the High Priest, the time has come. The time for secrecy is over. Jesus responds to this question about his identity as both Messiah and Son of God with two simple words, “I am.” I AM was the name the Lord gave Moses at the burning bush. I AM WHO I AM. The personal name of the one true God. Jesus now claims this for himself. In a few short words, he not only confirms his identity as the Messiah, confirms his identity as the Son of God, but reveals his equality and unity with the Father. Jesus is God, Messiah, the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity.

But Jesus goes on. He pulls from two passages of the Old Testament, Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1, to proclaim a sign that will prove his claim about his identity. Jesus speaks of his second coming, of the day when he will descend from heaven on the clouds in judgment and glory. There is irony here. Jesus now stands before the High Priest and faces his judgment, a judgment devoid of truth where the innocent one is proclaimed guilty. However, Jesus is the one before whom the High Priest, Caiaphas, and indeed all people will one day have to stand and face his judgment, his perfect, just, true judgment. Jesus trembles not a moment in standing before Caiaphas, but Caiaphas should have been shaking to know who stood before him.

Instead, The high priest tore his clothes. “Why do we need any more witnesses?” he asked, “You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” Tearing your robes was a sign of grief, but there is nothing to indicate grief here. Since the whole point of the charade was to try and put Jesus to death, it is more likely Caiaphas feels glee than grief. He should have grieved to do such terrible injustice to Jesus. He should have grieved because the truth was just spoken to him, truth so beautiful and powerful he should have fallen on his face, but Caiaphas rejected him. He tore his robes and declared the trial over. Jesus claiming to be Messiah and Son of God was enough. It was blasphemy in their eyes. For a man to claim he was God was the greatest slight against God. Except it was true. Except Jesus was fully God and fully man. Except he was God in the flesh. Except the Word became flesh and dwelled among us and we have seen his glory the glory as of a Father’s only son, full of grace and truth. Jesus was who he said he was, but Caiaphas, the High Priest, could not accept it. It was as John proclaimed in his gospel: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.(3:16-20)

The light had come, and the people loved darkness instead. Jesus was condemned not because of all the false witnesses, but because those who stood in judgment over him could not handle the truth, but rejected it.  They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him, they blindfolded him, struck him with their fists, and said, “Prophesy!” And the guards took him and beat him. All of them condemned him. Not one held back. Not one looked at the false conflicting testimonies and saw the truth for what it was. Not one looked upon him and saw him for who he was. But that was not enough.

Condemnation was not enough, they had to humiliate him. How close do you need to get, how vile do you need to be, to spit in someone’s face? How cruel to blindfold someone and strike them. The Messiah was supposed to be a prophet in addition to a king, so they mockingly asked him to prophesy who was hitting him as they pummeled him with their fists. Yet, he said not a word. He, who could have called legions of angels, who could have struck them dead at a word, remained silent as they beat him and took him away.

Who is really on trial here? Jesus stands before the High Priest, but who is truly being judged? At Jesus’ trial, he stands innocent and the Sanhedrin stands condemned. They are the ones standing before the judgment seat, no matter what titles they have. But this is always the way of things in the world. The world seeks to put Jesus on trial. Not a year goes by that there are not magazine covers proclaiming some new information that is the secret to the identity of Jesus. But all these false testimonies never hold up and never agree with one another. The world looks at Jesus and thinks that it can judge him, when it has already made up its mind. But, in truth, it is the world which stands before the judgment of Jesus.

The High Priest’s final question is not to Jesus, but to those gathered at the trial. What do you think?

That question strikes to the heart of things. How we respond to Jesus, to his claim as Messiah and God, is THE question. What do you think? places us on the hot seat. While Jesus stands trial before the Sanhedrin we find that it is we who are truly on trial. How will we respond? Will we like the Sanhedrin condemn him or will we embrace him as Savior and Lord?

Meanwhile, Peter is outside in the courtyard. He has already placed himself in temptation alley – separated from Jesus, following him at a distance, and now surrounded by guards and servants of the High Priest. As he sits by the fire, one of the servants girls notices him. Upon closer examination, she probably recognizes him. “You were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

She is asking if Peter is one of Jesus’ disciples. Just as Jesus faces the crucial question about his identity in the High Priest’s house, Peter faces the same crucial question in the courtyard. Are you a disciple of Jesus?

“You were with that Nazarene, Jesus,” she said.

But he denied it. “I don’t know or understand what you are talking about,” he said, and went out into the entryway.

When asked if he is a disciple of Jesus, Peter denies it. He claims not even to understand what they are talking about. Peter who claimed he would never deny him, he would rather die with Jesus, fails when asked who he is. Are you a disciple? Are you with Jesus? No, Peter says, and moves out into the entryway, even farther from Jesus.

We could try and explain away Peter’s decision. He was stressed and afraid. He was stunned by Jesus’ arrest and not thinking clearly. All of that may be true, but none of it is an excuse. While Jesus says, “I AM,” Peter emphatically says, “I am not.”

When the servant girl saw him there, she said again to those standing around, “This man is one of them.” Again he denied it.

Peter faces the same question again, but instead of waking up to what is happening, he doubles down on denial. We see this kind of behavior all the time. You get caught and instead of owning up to you, you dig your heels in. Its as if you already made the statement, put all her chips in, so you might as well keep playing the hand, even if you have no cards. It feels the same with Peter. He denies knowing Jesus and when he is called on it, he just doubles down on denial. It happens a third time and things escalate: After a little while, some of those standing near said to Peter, “Surely you are one of them, for you are a Galilean.”

He began to call down curses and he swore to them, “I don’t know this man you are talking about.”

Now Peter calls down curses on himself – May God strike me dead if I’m lying, but I don’t know this man you are talking about. What a shocking turn that I doubt Peter could have anticipated. Not long ago, Peter was the one to proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah (8:29), but now he simply calls him “this man.” He won’t even speak his name, won’t even acknowledge he knows him.

Who is on trial here? While Jesus sits on trial in the High Priest’s house, Peter is on trial in the courtyard. As Jesus answers the questions about who he is, Peter is asked about his own identity. Are you with the Nazarene, Jesus? Are you one of them? Are you a disciple of Jesus? No. No. No.

Immediately the rooster crowed the second time. Then Peter remembered the word that Jesus had spoken to him, “Before the rooster crows twice, you will disown me two times.” Then he broke down and wept.

The rooster crow was likely the trumpet call for the second change of the roman guard at about 3AM. The trumpet call was known as the gallicinium, literally cockcrow. When Peter hears it, it is as if he wakes up to himself.

This is the pivotal moment for Peter. He has failed, blown it beyond any reasonable hope. But the word of Jesus comes piercing into his soul and Peter weeps. Sorrow fills him at his own sin, at his own failure, at what he has done, and he beats his breast and weeps.

This is the last scene for Peter in the gospel of Mark. Without the other three gospels, we might imagine that this is how it ends for Peter. That he has gone beyond hope. Yet, that is not how the story ends for him.

After Jesus rises from the dead, Peter is one of those who goes to the tomb. Later, Peter sits around a breakfast fire with the resurrected Jesus, who restores Peter to his place as a disciple. There is grace enough for Peter.

The pivotal moment for Peter in his trial is not just when he faced the opportunity to stand with Jesus and failed, but that when he realized his failure, he repented and wept.

Who is on trial here? Mark 14:53-72 is known as the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. However, this is truly the trial of the Sanhedrin before Jesus, it is their judgment based upon their response to Jesus Christ. But it also the trial of Peter, who faces the opportunity to stand with Jesus, but fails and weeps.

The two questions of the trial are the ones each of us face: What do you think? How will you respond to the truth of Jesus Christ, to his claim to be Messiah and Lord, God and Christ? And then, are you with the Nazarene, Jesus? Are you a disciple?

How will you respond?

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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