Why was Jesus called to stand trial before the Jerusalem Council?
It won’t do to say, “Well, Jesus claimed to be the second person of the trinity (Son of God), and the high priest thought that was blasphemous.” The notion of a triune God was not formulated until much later. The high priest was not investigating a Christian dogma when he said, I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God. (26:63 ESV).
Peter had used those titles: Christ, Son of God (16:16). We saw that the Gospel writers treat the two phrases as meaning the same thing (epexegetical). The Christ is the anointed ruler who represents on earth the reign of the heavenly sovereign. In that sense, he is the son proclaimed by the eternal sovereign. That’s what son of God meant to the high priest. It was the language of kingship (Psalm 2:2, 7), the language of God’s promises to David (1 Chronicles 17:13).
But the kingship had failed. The final Psalm in Book III laments the disconnect between God’s amazing promises and their experience of the failed kingship:
Psalm 89 (NIV)
3 You said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one, I have sworn to David my servant, 4 ‘I will establish your line forever and make your throne firm through all generations.’” …
25 “I will set his hand over the sea, his right hand over the rivers. 26 He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Saviour.’ 27 And I will appoint him to be my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.” …
38 But you have rejected, you have spurned, you have been very angry with your anointed one. 39 You have renounced the covenant with your servant and have defiled his crown in the dust. …
That’s why the high priest asks Jesus whether he claims to be this anointed king, the son who is to receive the kingship from the eternal sovereign to restore the kingdom of heaven to earth.
Jesus gives no answer. We know from his joyful response to Peter that Jesus believes authority is revealed by God, not claimed by humans (16:17). The high priest does not have this revelation. There is nothing to say.
Insulted by the silence, the high priest uses his authority as the chief servant of God’s house to place Jesus under oath, forcing him to answer. Jesus’ reply is telling:
You said it. All I have to say to you all is this: From this moment you will see the son of man seated by the right hand of power and arriving with the support of the clouds of heaven. (26:64).
Making no claims for himself, Jesus directed the Sanhedrin to the description in Daniel 7 regarding how the kingship would be restored. In Daniel’s vision, the Eternal Sovereign takes the kingship from the beasts that gain power through war. He gives the kingship to someone more human, not through human force but through the backing of the clouds of heaven’s hosts. Crucially, the son of man does not take power over people; he is given power by God, sharing in God’s throne, restoring God’s kingship to the people:
Daniel 7 (NIV)
9 As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. …
13 There before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. …
27 Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.
Jesus’ defence is that he has made no claim on kingship for himself. He declared that God gives the kingship. What God has done should be recognized by people, especially the leaders of God’s people. They would see the kingship being entrusted to Jesus for the sake of God’s people, whether they want to see him enthroned or not.
The bit about being seated at God’s right hand is not in Daniel 7. That phrase is found in Psalm 110, a text Jesus has already raised with them. It says that a descendant of King David who is greater than David (his lord), will be given the kingship again. He receives it by divine decree, not by defeating his enemies. God says, Take a seat at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet … Rule in the midst of your enemies (Psalm 110:1-2).
Jesus does not need to prove to the Sanhedrin that he is the promised son of David who restores the kingship. Tragically, the enemies who want to kill David’s lord are not foreign forces but the temple leaders (26:59) who raised their swords and clubs against him as if he was a rebel leader (26:47, 55). Jesus refused to fight them (26:52) because God has instructed him to take a seat while heaven deals with his enemies (26:64).
That’s why Jesus did not look like a king. People know not to spit at a king or punch his face because he has the power to lock you up (or worse). But a king who doesn’t need to defend his authority has no need to retaliate even when he’s mocked: Hey, anointed ruler, show us your prophetic powers! Who was it that hit you? (26:68). If he really was a Spirit-anointed king, he should be able to hear and declare what the heavenly sovereign was saying (1 Samuel 10:5-13; 16:13-14; 2 Samuel 23:1-2; 1 Kings 3:5; Isaiah 61:1-2 etc).
The Sanhedrin trial was all about whether Jesus was God’s king for them. They concluded his claims were blasphemous. We’ll explore why in our next post.
Matthew 26:57–68 (my translation, compare NIV)
57 Those who captured Jesus led him off to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scholars and elders were assembled. 58 Peter was following him from a distance until they reached the courtyard of the high priest. Coming in, he took a seat with the servants to see how it would end.
59 The high priests and the whole Sanhedrin were seeking malicious witnesses against Jesus so they could put him to death, 60 and they hadn’t found any, even though many malicious witnesses came forward. 61 Eventually two came forward and said, “He said, ‘I can demolish God’s temple and build it in three days.’”
62 The high priest rose and said to him, “You have no answer for the testimony these bring against you?” 63 Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “By the living God, I command you to tell us whether you claim to be the anointed ruler, the son of God!”
64 Jesus says to him, “You said it. All I have to say to you all is this: from this moment you will see the son of man seated by the right hand of power and arriving with the support of the clouds of heaven.”
65 Then the high priest tore his garments and said, “He blasphemed! What further need is there for witnesses? Here! Now! Did you hear the blasphemy? 66 What do you think?” They answered, “He deserves death!”
67 Then they spat in his face and punched him. And those who struck him said, 68 “Hey, anointed ruler, show us your prophetic powers! Who was it that hit you?”
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 1024–1025
Jesus’ own public teaching and actions have perhaps given sufficient basis for the high priest to press him on the two alleged claims, to be “Messiah” and “Son of God.” His approach to the city as the messianic king of Zech 9:9, and the resultant Hosannas which he refused to repudiate (21:9, 15–16), would alone have been enough, but his demonstration in the temple and his subsequent teaching have increased the impression that he is putting himself in a unique category of authority, even though there has been no overt verbal claim to be the Messiah. …
In Luke 22:67, 70 the questions “Are you the Messiah?” and “Are you the Son of God?” are asked separately, though the second is provoked by the answer to the first. It has sometimes been suggested that this must have been so, since there was no Jewish belief in the Messiah as Son of God. In the light of evidence from Qumran this objection has now been generally abandoned, but it was always insecurely based in that the Qumran usage is based on two OT passages which already spoke of the anointed king as God’s son (2 Sam 7:14; Ps 2:7). In any case, the high priest is not asking a general theological question, but is probing Jesus’ alleged claims, and the parable of the vineyard alone would have been enough to suggest that he saw himself as “the Messiah, the Son of God.” Judas may also have informed him that it was with this same combination of titles that Peter had hailed Jesus in 16:16, and that Jesus has accepted the declaration with pleasure.