Who Killed Jesus, The Messiah? Part I (John 18:1-27)
Several weeks ago the president of the United States faced the nation concerning the shortages of petroleum in the United States. In one part of the program, President Carter was asked in effect, “Mr. President, just who is responsible for the present shortages?” I have never had a desire to be the president of the United States, but I would have loved to have been in his shoes at that moment and to have been able to answer that particular question.
Now I am probably going to reveal my naivet concerning the energy crisis, but this is what my answer would have been. Everybody is at fault. The Arab oil cartel is guilty of pressing an unfair advantage by raising their prices dramatically over the past few months. The American petroleum industry is guilty of encouraging peak consumption levels of petroleum products in order to maximize corporate profits. The American public is guilty for using far more than its share of the world’s natural resources and for wanting government to fix the current situation with little or no increase in fuel prices and with no change in their present lifestyle. The Congress is guilty of failing to deal effectively with the situation due to their fear of adverse public reaction. Perhaps our national leaders have been guilty of failing to tell the public the whole truth, painful as it may be.
The question of the responsibility for current fuel shortages is a recent one. The question of the responsibility for the death of Jesus, the Messiah, is one that has been debated for centuries. Strangely enough, the answers to both questions were remarkably similar.
In our study of the arrest and Jewish trial of our Lord, we must conclude that the Jewish nation is unquestionably guilty of rejecting Jesus as Messiah and of precipitating His crucifixion. Having said this we must hasten to add that our next study of the Roman trial and execution of Christ will show the Gentiles to be equally guilty for the death of the Savior. Let us keep this in mind as we approach this lesson in the life and times of Jesus Christ.
The Arrest of Jesus
Judas Iscariot had left the Upper Room before the Passover meal was concluded (John 13:27-30). He knew intimately the places which our Lord frequented. It seems as though Jesus may never have stayed overnight in a house in Jerusalem, but camped outside the city in this garden in which He had just agonized in prayer.161 Judas had little trouble finding the Master in the dark of that night, and Jesus made no effort to elude His captors.
The arrest of Jesus was not going to be bungled this time (cf. John 7:44-46). A great multitude was led to the garden by Judas (Matthew 26:47). They came fully armed with lights, swords, and clubs (John 18:3). Among this delegation were both Romans and Jewish peace officers (verse 3). John tells us that it was a Roman cohort, which was normally made up of 600 men. It is difficult to determine exactly how many were present in the garden.162 While some scholars tend to play down the number actually there, we must remember that the gospels inform us that it was a ‘great multitude’ (Matthew 26:47, cf. vs. 55). Both by their weapons and their numbers it is obvious that Jesus was regarded as a formidable enemy. Accompanying the Roman soldiers were the officers of the Sanhedrin, or, as John says, ‘from the chief priests and Pharisees’ (verse 3).
Jesus did not shrink from His captors, but went out to meet them, an action which obviously unnerved the soldiers. Before they had the chance to say a word, He asked them, “Whom do you seek?” (verse 4). When Jesus identified Himself as the One they were seeking it caught them by surprise. In fear, they stepped backwards as He advanced upon them. As in any large crowd the inevitable occurred. Everyone did not retreat simultaneously, and feet became quickly entangled. They literally fell all over themselves. If the events of that night had not been so treacherous and evil, it would have been a comical scene.
Jesus’ aggressive action in this confrontation was purposeful. His captors were embarrassed and rattled by their clumsiness. Jesus had also elicited from them twice that He was the One they sought. Consequently, His disciple should be free to go, rather than to be arrested with Him. This was understood by John as another fulfillment of Jesus’ words (cf. verse 9).
If there was any moment at which the disciples should act to defend their Lord, it would be during this time of confusion. Discerning what was about to take place, the disciples asked if they should make a fight of it. “And when those who were around Him saw what was going to happen, they said, ‘Lord, shall we strike with the sword?’” (Luke 22:49). Apparently, Peter did not wait for the answer. He struck out with his sword, severing the right ear of Malchus, slave of the high priest (John 18:10). I have always wondered how this could happen. If Peter had chopped down with his sword, surely much more damage would have been done. I would suspect that Peter slashed horizontally with his sword, intending to sever the head of Malchus. Perhaps seeing what was coming, Malchus tipped his head to the side as he ducked the oncoming sword, losing only an ear in the process.
I would suggest that the Lord’s healing of Malchus (Luke 22:51) at this moment was more out of concern for His disciples than an act of compassion for His opponents. Had Malchus returned with such an injury, there would be ample evidence for the arrest of His disciples. This healing precluded such action—there was no longer any evidence of resisting arrest on the part of the disciples.
From the accounts of the gospel writers concerning the arrest of Jesus Christ, one primary truth stands out: Jesus was in complete control of the circumstances. He was not the helpless victim of a cruel and unjust system; His life was not snatched from Him; He gave Himself up. In the words of our Lord, “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down my life that I make take it up again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father” (John 10:17-18). Jesus’ surrender to His captors was the will of the Father (verse 11). Had this not been so, He could have summoned the hosts of heaven to His aid: “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53).
Jesus Before Annas and Caiaphas
Following His arrest, our Lord is subjected to a series of hearings and trials. The night of His arrest He was brought before Annas, Caiaphas (John 18:19-24), and an assembly of religious leaders which may have been an official meeting of the Sanhedrin (Matthew 26:57ff.).163 Early the next morning there was what seems to have been a perfunctory, but seemingly more official assembly of the Sanhedrin (Matthew 27:1,2). After this, our Lord was taken before Pilate, the Roman governor (John 18:23ff.), sent off to Herod (Luke 23:7ff.), and returned to Pilate (Luke 23:11-12), by whom He was finally sentenced to death.
After His arrest, Jesus was immediately brought before Annas (John 18:13). Annas was not the official high priest, but he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, who was the high priest at the time.164 For nearly 20 years now, Annas had been removed as the high priest of the nation Israel. Nonetheless he was the head of his family, and was instrumental in seeing to it that five of his sons would hold this same office. Regardless of his official title, he was seemingly the real power and brains behind the scene.165
The nature of the questions asked by Annas is revealing: “The high priest therefore questioned Jesus about His disciples and about His teaching” (John 18:19). It was obvious, even to Pilate, that the real issue behind the trial of Jesus was that of prestige, popularity and political power (Matthew 27:18). The Jewish leaders were jealous of the tremendous influence wielded by this Galilean. Annas therefore questioned Jesus concerning His disciples. He seemed to care more about the numbers that followed Jesus’ teaching than the content of His teaching.
Jesus carefully avoided any reference to His disciples, probably in order to protect them. Of His teaching there was no need to ask questions of the Master. He had spoken publicly, for all to hear and judge His words (verse 20). He did not have two teachings, one for His disciples and one for public consumption.166
But there was a legal issue which Jesus raised at this point. This was not a legal hearing in the first place. This was a personal confrontation with the unofficial high priest who had long sought the removal of Jesus. His son-in-law had previously determined that Jesus must be gotten rid of’ (verse 14). Annas no doubt wished to gloat over his apparent victory, and hopefully to obtain evidence for the upcoming trial of Jesus from His own lips.
It was because of Annas’ illegal questioning that Jesus responded, “Why do you question Me? Question those who have heard what I spoke to them; behold these know what I said” (John 18:21). In Jewish justice, as in our own system, no one can be compelled to produce testimony against himself. This was what Annas was doing. He was ‘fishing’ in his questions. Jesus refused to respond to such illegal questioning. One of the officers who stood by considered the response of Jesus insolent and struck Him (verse 22).
Some have accused Jesus of not following His own instruction to ‘turn the other cheek.’ May I suggest that the actions of Jesus are an excellent commentary on His teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus there taught that one should never lash back or seek to retaliate for personal insults. But here it was not a matter of insult so much as a question of legal rights. Jesus would not tolerate injustice. It was not a matter of personal feelings in this situation but of principle. How few there are today who will stand up for matters of principle.
John’s account of the Jewish ‘trial ‘ of Jesus is strangely brief. Jesus was brought before Annas, the king pin of the Jewish opposition against the Lord Jesus. This was no trial at all, but a mere ‘fishing expedition’ by which the ‘high priest’ had hoped to gather evidence for the trial to come. As Jesus was sent from the presence of Annas to stand before Caiaphas, the official high priest, Annas must have felt extremely frustrated. All he got out of Jesus was a rebuke for his shoddy misuse of Jewish justice.
Why did John give us an account of only this encounter with Annas? The actual trial before the Sanhedrin late the night of His arrest is barely mentioned. Primarily, it would seem to be all the report that was needed. There was no real justice in these trials, but only a sham. The other gospels spoke of them. That was enough. The audience with Annas showed the stubborn unbelief of the religious leaders of Israel. All they had in mind was getting rid of Jesus (cf. verse 14).
Matthew informs us that when Jesus was brought before Caiaphas, assembled there also were the scribes and elders. Whether or not this was considered to be an official meeting of the Sanhedrin, we cannot know for certain. Either way, it was not a legal proceeding.167
The prosecution attempted in vain to present consistent testimony against Jesus, but the witnesses could not agree. The testimonial evidence consisted of twisted versions of some of the teaching of Jesus.168 It was obvious that they were getting nowhere, so Caiaphas made one last daring challenge. Putting Jesus under oath, he demanded to know whether He was the Messiah, the Son of God (Matthew 26:63). Fully aware of the consequences, Jesus gave His answer in the clearest of terms. Not only did He say, “Yes,” but He spoke of His return in power and glory at the right hand of the Father (Matthew 26:64).
Inwardly ecstatic, Caiaphas feigned disgust and abhorrence of what He considered to be blasphemy. He tore his robes, signifying his response to Jesus’ answer. Now there was no need to carry on any further. Here was the evidence which paved the way for Jesus’ execution. The death sentence was pronounced, and these supposedly impartial jurors then engaged in the physical abuse of the Savior (Matthew 26:66-67). Whatever occurred in the meeting of the Sanhedrin on the following morning (Matthew 27:1-2), it was only a facade and a mere rubber stamp on what had already been determined, even before the arrest of Jesus.
Both the decision of the Sanhedrin and the process by which it was determined were a disgrace to the high standards of Jewish jurisprudence. Stewart169 lists five specific ways in which this trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin was illegal.
(1) The men who were trying the case were also those who had arranged for Jesus’ betrayal. They could in no way be considered an impartial body of jurors.
(2) The trial did not begin with a specific charge against Jesus, as Jewish law demanded. Throughout the trial, it was obvious that the Sanhedrin was searching for some kind of evidence which would be sufficient for a charge worthy of the death penalty.
(3) The judge who was trying the case was the leader for the prosecution. His statement in John 11:50 clearly revealed his determination to do away with Jesus.
(4) No witnesses for Jesus’ defense were produced. No opportunity for Jesus’ defense was allowed. Barclay informs us that, “in any trial the process began by the laying before the court of all the evidence for the innocence of the accused, before the evidence for his guilt was adduced.”170
(5) Finally, the trial was conducted hastily, and thereby violated several regulations concerning the trial of one accused of a capital offense. Such a trial could not be conducted at night, as it was (cf. fn. 7). The law also stated that in capital cases sentence of death must be pronounced on the day after the trial, after 24 hours had elapsed. Furthermore, such cases could not be heard on the day preceding a Sabbath or one of the great festivals.
The trial completely failed to prove any wrongdoing on the part of Jesus, the Messiah. What it did reveal was a blindness so complete, a rejection so final, that the finest in Israel made a sham of their own judicial system. In reality, it was they who were on trial, and their guilt was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Jesus Denied by Peter
We have already spoken of Peter’s failure, so we shall not linger here. Suffice it to say, as Charles Eerdman reminds us, “… it was not his faith that failed, but his courage.”171
I understand John’s purpose in this chapter as underscoring the complete rejection of Jesus by the Jewish people. Even those who were His closest friends and followers, for a brief moment in time, forsook the One Who loved them, and was to give Himself for them. The story of Jesus’ rejection by the religious leaders of the nation is therefore interwoven with the account of Peter’s three-fold denial.172
The two themes which dominate the Jewish trial of our Lord Jesus Christ are the deity of Christ and the depravity of man. Knowing what was ahead, Jesus fearlessly advanced to meet His captors. Although He was about to face a terrible death, Jesus’ concern during His arrest was for the safety of His disciples. Even in this tragic moment, there were unmistakable flashes of the deity of our Lord. His opponents fell before Him, so awesome was His personal authority and dignity. When Peter sliced off the ear of Malchus, Jesus healed him. While Jesus could have called the angels of heaven to His rescue, He surrendered to His foes. What majesty!
Some would seem to think of Jesus as a good man who fell as the helpless victim of treacherous men. Such was never the case. The Messiah laid down His life as a payment for the sins of men, but His life was never snatched from Him. No man took His life; He gave it up.
Against the backdrop of our Lord’s deity is seen the depravity of fallen man. Here was the best that Israel had to offer. The high priest (official and unofficial) was not godly and a guardian of justice, but a scheming politician who is willing to sacrifice the life of an innocent man (more than this, the Son of God) for the sake of expediency. The Sanhedrin was made up of Israel’s finest, yet they made a mockery of justice. Even Peter, under the questioning of a mere servant girl, sank to the point of denying His Lord.
Lest any of us feel a kind of smugness concerning the conduct of these men in the presence of our Lord, let me speak very candidly. Had you or I been in the place of either Peter or the high priest, we would have done the same. Even more than this, we must go on to say that the same thing goes on today as it did then. Men continue to reject Jesus as the Savior of men and to mock His name. Worse than this, they do so without even giving the matter a moment’s serious thought.
And we who name the name of Christ as our Lord so often deny Him before men. We may not necessarily publicly renounce Him with curses, but we simply keep quiet when it is the time to speak a word for Him. When the name of Christ is a reproach we simply shrink back and allow people to assume that we would have nothing to do with Him. Praise God, our salvation and our eternal security rests in the work which Jesus Christ accomplished on our behalf.
I am impressed with the fact that there was no real decision for or against Christ made by Israel’s leaders at this trial. Those decisions had long before been settled. The ‘trial’ of our Lord was a mere pretext to enact what had been previously planned. So, too, in our day, men and women often do not arrive at their decision to reject Christ in the great trials and crisis points of life—they simply confirm and carry out the decisions they have made over the days, months, and years of their lives. The great trials of life simply show us to be what we have become; they do not make us what we are. Let us carefully weigh the consequences of our decisions moment by moment.
Finally, I believe that John’s purpose in recording the trials of Jesus was to lay the foundation for the work of Christ on the cross. If Jesus Christ were not divine, His death would have been useless. If men were not depraved, His death was needless. By highlighting the deity of Christ and man’s depravity, we are reminded both of the need for Christ’s death and of its efficacy.
161 “The information that Jesus and the disciples often went to the Garden is found here only, though Luke tells us that Jesus lodged “in” the mount of Olives every night during passion week (Luke 21:37). This probably means that He and the disciples used to bivouac, sleeping in the open air, and probably in this very garden. Ryle reminds us that “Excepting at the institution of the Lord’s Supper, we have no mention of our Lord ever being in any house in Jerusalem.” “Ofttimes” would be a curious way of referring to Jesus’ custom on the present visit only. It probably indicates that He had been in the habit of using the garden through the years.” Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), p. 741.
162 “A cohort was the tenth part of a legion and thus normally comprised 600 men (though in practice the number varied a good deal) … John will not of course, mean that 600 or so soldiers took part in the arrest but that the “cohort” performed the task, i.e. a detachment was sent. Some point out that speira was used on occasion of a maniple, which was one-third of a cohort, i.e. 200 men. But even this is rather large. John is surely not saying that the whole speira was present, but rather using a form of speech like our “the police came to arrest the man.” Yet we must bear in mind that the Romans could use surprisingly large numbers of soldiers where one prisoner was in question (Acts 23:23), and that here they may well have feared a riot.” Ibid., p. 741, fn. 5.
163 “The Sanhedrin was the supreme court of the Jews. It was composed of Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and elders of the people; it numbered seventy-one members; and it was presided over by the High Priest. For a trial such as this a quorum was twenty-three.” William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 2nd ed., 1958), II, p. 390.
165 “Annas held no official position. But he wielded an immense influence and prestige, and in the Sanhedrin no man’s opinion carried greater weight. Twenty years before, he had been high priest, a title which he still received by courtesy; and no fewer than five of his sons had succeeded him in this, the highest position in the land. It is probable that it was Annas who had established, for reasons of personal gain, the traffic of the bazaar within the Temple courts which Jesus had so sternly denounced.” James S. Stewart, The Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ (Nashville: Abington, 1978), p. 196.
166 This is not to avoid the fact that Jesus eventually veiled His teaching due to the rejection of His words (cf. Mark 4:1-25, 33-34). The point here is that there was no duplicity in His teaching. He taught His disciples in much more depth and detail than the masses, but His teaching was consistent.
167 “Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:1, says that capital cases could only legally be tried in the daytime; it would in any case probably take several hours to gather the full Sanhedrin for a formal session.” R. T. France, I Came to Set the Earth on Fire (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1976), p. 145, fn. 2.
It should also be said that some scholars question some of the charges of illegality, based upon the writings contained in the Mishnah. This is because the writings of the Mishnah concerning the procedures and practices of the Sanhedrin refer to a later time than that of Jesus’ day. One must therefore assume that such later rules accurately reflect the rules for the Sanhedrin of New Testament times.
170 “The difficulty in evaluating points of procedure by comparing the Gospel accounts with the Mishnah is this, that when the Mishnah is compared with other Jewish sources, whether rabbinic writings or Josephus, which lie closer to the time of the Gospels than it does, the unreliable character of the Sanhedrin tractate clearly appears.” Everett F. Harrison, A Short Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), p. 204.
Nevertheless, we must conclude that the proceedings of the Sanhedrin regarding the trial of Christ were hasty and shoddy, and that the real decision to do away with Jesus had been made long before that dark night in Jewish history.
172 There are a number of difficulties presented by variances in the Gospel accounts. None of these, however, are insurmountable. For a helpful discussion of some of the problems involved and suggestions as to their solutions, cf. Morris, John, pp. 750-753.