The Setting (Matthew 26:57-58)
[March 4, 2012] Last Sunday, when we began our meditation on the Lord’s Passion, Jesus resolved Himself to drink the cup that the Father had willed. After that, He was handed over by Judas and arrested by men who were on orders from the high priestly family (from Annas, the father-in-law of the present high priest, Caiaphas), accompanied by a contingent of Roman soldiers from the Antonio Fortress adjacent to the Temple. These details are not recorded in Matthew, the first gospel that was written; they were recorded by John, who had close connections to the high priestly family. After the men took Jesus to the house of Annas, they took him to the house of Caiaphas, built around a courtyard.
Peter who had fled from the olive grove when Jesus was seized, followed at a distance (accompanied by the disciple John) and (with John’s help) got into the Caiaphas’ courtyard where the household servants (slaves?) and attendants of the high priest were milling about and keeping themselves warm by a fire. He sat by the fire to see the outcome. After running away in fright, this showed a measure of his loyalty to Christ and courage in the face of danger, though it was still based on self-reliance. Peter, who was unquestionably the model disciple, who knew who Christ was by the revelation of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 16:16-17), did not yet know himself. A false knowledge of himself prevented him from understanding the light that the Holy Spirit had given him (16:21-23). The cross was still a stumbling block to him instead of the key that opened the gate of heaven.
The Failure to Frame Jesus (26:59-63a)
It might be easy to be misled by Matthew’s description of the assembly that gathered at the high priest’s house. Because he uses the term, “the whole Sanhedrin,” in verse 59, auditors assume that this was a legal gathering of the high counsel of the Jewish people. It was not. The term is puzzling, but a legal gathering could not have taken place in Caiaphas’ house, it could not have taken place at that time of night, and it could not have been determining the sentence of death with that speed. Matthew, then, is using the term loosely to refer to the coterie of Caiaphas’ own supporters, Temple scribes and chief priests and elders, members of the high counsel. Not all the members of the counsel were there, however. The meeting was probably covert and not all the members were even informed.
This means that what took place was not a trial. This is the other misunderstanding that auditors of the gospel might have. Jesus was brought before Pilate to be tried (though that too turned out not to be a legal trial). What took place in the house of Caiaphas, however, was neither a legal assembly of the high counsel, the Sanhedrin, nor an attempt at a trial.
What was it then? It was an attempt to come up with charges against Jesus so they could hand him over to Pilate, the Roman governor. Jesus was an embarrassment to them, a nuisance, and potentially a threat to the public order, which it was necessary for them to maintain in order to have peace with the Roman occupation. The high priest’s position depended on the Roman governor who held the key to the high priestly vestments; in other words, the high priest could not function as such and perform his duties without the permission of the governor. The political and therefore economic status of the high priestly family, and the rest of the Jewish aristocracy, depended therefore on their being in favor with the governor. (The chief priests were priests who were members of the aristocracy.)
It was not, however, the “Jews” nor even the people of Jerusalem who wanted Jesus dead. There were people who wanted Jesus dead, for sure, and Caiaphas was probably among them, but Jesus was not arrested on their initiative, not this time, even though the Temple authorities made previous attempts to arrest him. Contrary to the view of many, it was not the scene in the outer court of the Temple, when Jesus overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, which caused Jesus’ arrest. I refuse to accuse “the Jews” or “Judaism” or the Jewish “religion” or the “Law” of condemning Jesus; they did not.
The initiative for Jesus’ arrest came from the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. He wanted Jesus executed. From an historian’s point of view, it was probably Jesus’ anointing and triumphal entry into the city several days earlier, when He was hailed by the crowd as the Son of David and King (i.e., the Messiah), that prompted Pilate to act. The final charge against Jesus was that He claimed to be, or His followers claimed Him to be, “The King of the Jews.” We only see this designation used by Gentiles. The Jews spoke of the King of Israel. Whether or not Pilate took Jesus seriously (he probably did not), he was not going to tolerate any contenders, and he was determined to make an example of Jesus before the multitudes that had gathered during in Jerusalem for the Passover festival. The death of Jesus was going to be a warning to anyone who questioned Roman rule.
There was just one problem. He did not want to take the blame for the execution. He would order it, but he wanted the Jewish authorities to hand Jesus over to him to reinforce the public impression of their support of Roman authority. They could take the rap for it, and in doing so everyone would know that they agreed with the claim that the Romans made on the Jewish land. The patriarch Annas was the real authority behind Caiaphas and a series of high priests. Caiaphas held the office the longest of them, giving us the impression that he must have pleased the Romans the most. He played the game well. Pilate, however, worked through Annas and gave him the cohort of Roman soldiers (in addition to the Temple police that Caiaphas already had under his command) to make the covert arrest. The arrest was to be done at night—the night of the Seder—and the execution was to take place early in the morning before the public would even know about it, much less have time to object. What Pilate wanted from the high priest, besides the arrest itself, was a charge, an indictment, something of which to formally accuse Jesus.
This they failed to do. Matthew says explicitly that they sought false testimony against Jesus. Apparently they knew they did not have a real legal charge against him. Even if His followers claimed He was a King, He made no such public statement, nor did Jesus question the paying of taxes. Nor was there anything else that Jesus said or did that formed the basis for a legal accusation. So they sought false testimony. They needed at least two witnesses to agree on something fabricated. They did not have any success.
Finally two witnesses came forward and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the Temple of God and build it in three days.’” From what we know (John 2:18-22), Jesus did not say that He would destroy the Temple of God but that if they destroyed it He would “raise it up” in three days. The accusation therefore was close but not entirely accurate. It also was not the kind of accusation that the high priest was looking for.
In frustration Caiaphas turns to Jesus, hoping that perhaps Jesus Himself would supply them with something indictable, and says to Him, “Do You answer nothing? What is it that these testify against You?” Now he tries to resort to bullying. But Jesus remained silent. He was not going to allow that. He refuses to cooperate with injustice. We might call this a true instance nonviolent resistance (though the term has come to mean “nonviolent” agitation and coercion of those wielding power). Faithfulness sometimes takes the form of silence.
The Witness and Confession of Jesus (26:63b-66)
Right here, as we consider the faithfulness of Jesus, we might consider the unfaithfulness of the high priest and of all these elders and chief priests gathered with him. The high priest now demands that Jesus takes an oath and swear: “I charge You to swear by the living God to tell us if You are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus refuses to swear, but simply says, “You have said” (su eipas: probably idiomatic for “what you have said is correct.”) Why did Jesus break His silence at this point? Probably because the accusation is no longer a false one. For where would the high priest have come up with this accusation? It was from the lips of Jesus Himself when He told the parable of the tenant farmers and the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-45). He addressed this parable to the chief priests and elders (21:23; also the Pharisees, verse 45), who were now present in Caiaphas’ house and who probably reported this to Caiaphas.
In the parable, the people of Israel (or Jerusalem) are the vineyard, and the chief priests and elders and leading teachers (the Pharisees) are the tenant farmers or vinedressers. They are responsible for rendering the spiritual harvest of the people to God, who is the owner of the vineyard. They are the stewards of the vineyard. Here they are the stewards of the Temple and of the people of Jerusalem and of all the people of Israel. After the tenants reject the slaves whom the owner of the vineyard sends them to collect what is owed him, the owner sends them his son, the heir. Caiaphas takes this allegorical usage and makes it into a literal accusation: does Jesus claim to be the Son of God? Of course, in the Old Testament the king is called God’s son, as is Israel itself, and perhaps the high priest though the title also belonged to himself. The term Messiah (Anointed One) could refer to a prophet, priest or king, and the Messiah was conceived along all those lines. The term “Son of God” is interesting because Caiaphas would have construed this from this very parable.
The irony is that parable accuses the stewards of the Lord’s vineyard, including the high priest himself, of robbing God by claiming the vineyard for themselves by killing the Son (“This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and take possession of his inheritance.”) By protecting their own “right” to the Lord’s inheritance (with respect to the Romans who gave it to them), they were fulfilling exactly what the parable foretold. By charging Jesus with claiming to the Son of God they were indicting not Him but themselves—before God. Jesus remains faithful, but they prove their unfaithfulness to the responsibility that has been given to them.
It is the same principle with respect to today’s people. No one owns the earth and all the creatures of the earth, but humanity has been given responsibility (dominion) to guard and protect and defend what belongs to God, even to provide like a shepherd for the habitat and nurturance of its creatures. We have been utterly unfaithful to this charge, and the day of reckoning is coming, as it came for those stewards of Israel in the Roman War of 66-70 CE (see Matthew 22:7).
That awful catastrophe came upon Jerusalem not only because of the betrayal of their King, but because people took for themselves what belonged to God. The vineyard—the Jewish people—have since been given to other stewards, to Rabbinic Judaism which replaced the Sadducean and priestly establishment of the Second Temple period. They do not (yet) recognize Jesus’ sonship, but they cannot be accused of murderous intentions, even though Christians have been false to them, who are the apple of God’s eye. If this was the consequence of—those stewards whom Jesus addressed—their unfaithfulness, what will be the consequence to us who have attempted to steal the earth from God? Our time for repentance is running out.
Jesus bore witness to Himself by answering the high priest in the affirmative. He went on to say, “Nevertheless”—that is, even though you may kill the son of the owner of the vineyard—“From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Jesus counters His accusers with a threat. He refers to Daniel 7:13-14—“And there with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming; and He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages might serve Him. His dominion is an eternal dominion, which will not pass away; and His Kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.” Verse 13 seems to speak of the ascension of Jesus to heaven in a cloud (Acts 1:9). He “will come in the same way as you beheld Him going into heaven” (verse 10). In His resurrection He was given all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18) and in His ascension He was seated at the right hand of God in the heavenlies “far above all rule and authority and power and lordship and every name that is named not only in this age but also in that which is to come; and He subjected all things under His feet” (Ephesians 1:20-22). Of course this will not be manifested until He comes in glory, but it is already true. Jesus confessed who He was before these men.
It was also an unconcealed threat, referring to the words that followed the parable in chapter 21: “Have you never read in the Scriptures, ‘The stone which the builders reject, this has become the head of the corner’? He who falls on this stone shall be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it shall crush him to powder and scatter him like chaff.” For “the kingdom of God shall be taken from you”—the Jerusalem Sadducean priestly and teaching establishment along with the Pharisees in cahoots with them.
Apparently Jesus’ words about the Son of Man had no effect on them. In what follows they continue to taunt Him as “Messiah” (26:68) and “Son of God” (27:43).
As Jesus bore witness to Himself, they bore witness to themselves by condemning Him. Why was He worthy of death? The Father bore witness to Jesus’ sonship at His baptism and transfiguration. Jesus’ crime was thinking of Himself the way the Father thinks of Him, and confessing this. We are also called to confess Jesus—Jesus as revealed to us by the Father, that is, acknowledging the Father’s own assessment of who Jesus is. If we do so, the world will react to us as it did to Jesus.
Of course, while Caiaphas and his party agreed that Jesus was worthy of death, they still did not have something indictable with which to hand Him over to Pontius Pilate. Their attempt to frame Jesus was a failure.
The Unfaithfulness of Peter (26:69-75)
Caiaphas represents the world, but bearing the responsibility that God has given Him. He is also the epitome of all the unfaithful in Israel. He even epitomizes his enemies among the Pharisees and the “zealous,” for they too sought to steal the Lord’s vineyard and claim the inheritance as their own. Their idea of establishing the Kingdom of God by their own zeal for the Torah (other more humble Pharisees, like Hillel and Gamaliel, represented the opposite tendency) carried the same presumption and arrogance, even while they opposed the priestly establishment. Both groups, at polar odds with each other, were responsible for the disaster of the Jewish War.
Peter, however, represents, as always, the disciples. Oh my! For here he denies the Lord, concerning which Jesus said, “Whoever will deny Me before men, I also will deny him before My Father who is in the heavens” (Matthew 10:33). Instead, we are to deny our self (16:24) and confess Him before men (10:32). Peter does just the opposite.
Whereas Jesus refuses to use an oath to speak the truth, Peter uses an oath to deny having any association with Jesus, a lie.
The servant girls twice accuses Peter of being “with Jesus,” and others accused Peter of being “one of them.” Those whom Matthew tells us were ‘with Jesus” include Mary, Jesus’ mother (2:11), tax-collectors and sinners (9:11), Peter (here), one of the disciples in the Garden (26:51), Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and the twelve or eleven disciples. Confessing Jesus is also acknowledging one’s solidarity with the church, the community of believers. Belong to Jesus cannot be separated from belonging with these others, as scandalous as that might be. The world sees us—correctly—with each other, and Jesus behooves us to acknowledge our connection. This agrees with Jesus’ teaching concerning the church in chapter 18. We cannot distance ourselves from these embarrassing others and pretend to truly confess Jesus.
As the leader of the disciples, Peter’s denial becomes a severe warning to the rest of the disciples. The community itself is always vulnerable to this temptation. When Jesus taught us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation [peirasmos],” it is this very temptation He probably had in mind, the temptation to deny Him. Our usefulness in the world depends on our willingness to deny or confess Him. Peter’s denial shows how close we all are to falling.
Peter’s failure was the result of his self-confidence. “If all will be stumbled because of You, I will never be stumbled,” Peter said to Jesus. “Even if I must die with You, I will by no means deny You.” And all the disciples, we are told, said likewise; so this was not a problem peculiar to Peter. It describes all of us.
When the rooster crowed, Peter remembered—the word we use for the Lord’s Table. He remembered what that the Lord had told him so and how he had fought with the Lord on this. “And he went out and wept bitterly.” What was so crushing for Peter was the self-knowledge that he came into. To realize what we truly are, our weakness and despicableness, our self-centered arrogance, the delusion in which we hold onto ourselves, might cause a person to despair and give up or become cynical and apathetic. But Peter not only saw himself as the sinner that he was, he saw himself in the light that Jesus shone on him by His words. That is, he saw himself as Jesus saw him (a little bit). This was what was redeeming. For it was the knowledge that the Lord knew him, even though at the time he did not know himself, and that the Lord still clung to him, even though he now realized that he was unable to cling to the Lord, that enabled him not to be lost in self-pity and sorrow. He wept bitterly—this was the right reaction—how could he not, for he was utterly disillusioned with himself. His faith in himself could not recover. There were no excuses or justifications with which he could pick himself up. All he had was the mercy and love of Jesus. The mercy that he had seen Jesus extend to tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes was the same mercy for him, only he needed it more than they at this point. It was the knowledge that Jesus had chosen him knowing full well that he was unworthy of Jesus’ attention and love that kept Peter in the darkness of that night.
Peter of course probably did not feel “kept.” I’m sure he felt lost. Yet he was not lost. He was utterly devastated. He must have felt so empty, because all the illusions that he held on to and depended on suddenly vanished. And now Jesus was going to the cross as He had said. He was going to die, as He had said. Peter was abhorred by the idea. Yet it was happening. He must have been emptied and wrung dry more than we can readily imagine. As Jesus rested in the tomb, Peter stewed and simmered in the darkness of his mind and heart, staying with his fellow disciples to whom he had thought himself so superior. Now he knew he was no better than the least of those whom he had looked down upon.
Yet this was precisely the affect that God intended for Peter. It was this humiliation in the depths of the truth about himself that prepared him for real leadership. He was indeed no better than the least of Jesus’ siblings. He could not be relied on, in his own strength, to stand on his own two feet much less to strengthen his siblings. Unless he found his strength in Jesus and in His indwelling presence, Peter knew there was no strength, no courage, no stamina in himself. Those who seek leadership for themselves do not yet know this way, the way of spiritual leadership.
Jesus drank the cup that the Father gave Him with a strength and courage that we cannot comprehend. It was human strength and courage, but it was superior to ours because He was without sin and without delusion of self, and He was conscious, not of an artificially constructed self (such as we identify with, that is a self that is inextricably tied to the matrix of the world), but of His true personhood as the “I AM” of God. This did not make it easier for Him. Indeed, it made it infinitely more difficult, for in His holiness He saw the horror of human sin and the judgment of God that it brought down upon itself and He knew that He was surrendering Himself to that judgment—to an extent that no soul in heaven or on earth ever had or ever shall again. No one else could have endured that vision, yet Jesus endured it and was faithful to the Father with devotion and love to the very end, the dissolution of His own holy soul in death. We cannot imagine what this was like. It would perhaps destroy us. But we ought to appreciate it, and realize that He who did endure and accomplish this dwells in us by the Holy Spirit.
It is by the indwelling Spirit, by Jesus the faithful One who dwells in us, that we can confess His name before a hostile world. We do so with pain, knowing what poor disciples we are and knowing how the world can rightfully accuse us. We do so with humility, hopefully aware that we are really Peter in the courtyard, but we do it nonetheless by His strength. And we do it for the sake of the world that others may believe. There is no glory for us, except before God. May others see Jesus in us and, we pray earnestly, may it not be us that they see—unless God gives them grace and they can see us kindly for what we are with love.