Before the Lord Jesus ascended to heaven after his resurrection, he told his disciples, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). When the apostles chose a replacement for Judas, they stipulated that he must be “a witness with us of the resurrection” (Acts 1:22). On the day of Pentecost Peter declared that he and others with him were “witnesses” of the risen Lord (Acts 2:32; see also 3:15). In Jerusalem, amid great conflict, the apostles “were giving their testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 4:33). They declared to the Sanhedrin that they were “witnesses” of the risen Lord (Acts 5:32). Peter told Cornelius and his household that the apostles were “witnesses” of the Lord (Acts 10:39, 41). In Pisidian Antioch, Paul confirmed how Jesus gathered with the disciples after his resurrection and they were “his witnesses” (Acts 13:31). When the Lord saved Paul, he told him that he would be his “witness” (Acts 22:15). And witness he did (1 Corinthians 2:1). Towards the end of the New Testament we are told of one named Antipas who was Christ’s “faithful witness who was killed among you” (Revelation 2:13).
“Witnesses” (and “witnessing”) is the vocation of the Christian. We are to tell the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ, who is “the true and faithful witness” (Revelation 3:14). The text before us morning provides ample testimony to this description.
In this passage, we have a contrast between a true witness and false witness. We also see a contrast between the confident witness of the Lord Jesus and the initially courageous but, in the end, failed of witness of Peter. “Jesus and Peter come to the place of their testing and trial, but the outcome in each case is very different.” (Witherington). In fact, this forms one of those “Marcan sandwiches.”
R Kent Hughes highlights that, in this scene, we have the account of two rocks—Jesus our dependable Rock, and Peter an undependable rock—and how, in the face of immense pressure, Jesus, our Rock, didn’t crack. He is the same Rock on whom we can rely today (see 1 Corinthians 10:4).
A Hostile Congregation
The text introduces us to a hostile congregation: “And they led Jesus to the high priest. And all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes came together” (v. 53).
It was late at night; most likely, early hours in the morning. Having been betrayed by Judas (who was now off in a corner counting his silver), abandoned by his disciples, and manhandled by the temple guard, Jesus had been brought to the courtyard of Caiaphas’s palatial home. We know from other Gospel accounts that they first went to the house of Annas, the former high priest and Caiaphas’s father-in-law.
“Caiaphas” means “interrogater” and he must have been good at his job because he served in this position for nineteen years. He was actually a religious fraud for everything about this trial was corrupt. This congregation of religious leaders was anything but holy. Ever since 3:6, they had sought to put Jesus to death. They were simply waiting for the opportune moment (14:1). It now presented itself.
How ironic that the high priest would actually be standing before the High Priest!
An Honourable Courage
Peter meanwhile has followed from a distance and is an area below warming himself by a fire: “And Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest. And he was sitting with the guards and warming himself at the fire” (v. 54). This was actually a very courageous action on Peter’s part.
Perhaps after he fled from Jesus and washed his sword, his conscience struck him and he decided that, after all, he would die with the Lord. So he followed the crowd.
The fact that he was by a fire indicates he was willing to be seen, for the flames would have illuminated his face. He is to be commended. And yet, this is as close as he would come. He meant well, but all that sleeping in Gethsemane did little to prepare him to stand firm.
Perhaps you can relate. Like Peter, your courage rises and falls. You want to faithfully witness and yet you find yourself faltering. We need to look to Jesus to see how to stand. That is why Mark made this sandwich: so we can feast on Jesus’ glorious example.
A Hypocritical Council
We are now introduced to the council that would try Jesus:
Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking testimony against Jesus to put him to death, but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, but their testimony did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, “We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” Yet even about this their testimony did not agree.
Quite a crowd has assembled, among which was a quorum from the Sanhedrin, including various chief priests, elders, and scribes. Ever since 3:6, Mark has let us know how this group sought the destruction of the troublemaking Jesus of Nazareth, the one people were claiming was Messiah. And though he seemed to avoid this designation, nevertheless his recent deeds and dialogues in the temple seemed to confirm that this indeed was his claim. They were not amused.
As the judicial counsel of Israel, the Sanhedrin were bound to rules. Among those were provisions that no trial was to be held at night, trials had to be held at the temple precinct, and capital trials could not take place during Passover. Three strikes, and this trial should have been out. But facts and justice were not their concern. Getting rid of Jesus was.
Among the representatives from the Sanhedrin were various witnesses. It seems clear that this hearing had been arranged in conjunction with their deal with Judas. But as the informal trial began, there was already a problem. The gathered witnesses all had different stories and “their testimony did not agree” (v. 56). Small wonder since we are told that they, in fact, bore false against him. A consistency of lies is awful hard to maintain for long. As Cole comments, “As usual, it was harder to agree on a consistent lie than to tell the simple truth.”
According to old covenant law, a charge had to be confirmed by two or three witnesses. This trial was not going well. It was a travesty. Those responsible for truth were ignoring it.
Of course. we discern the hypocrisy early on. Their minds were already made up and so there was no need to present facts (14:1, 55). Their sole purpose in following the letter of the law when it came to corroborating witnesses was to protect their preconceived verdict. Psalm 7:11 says, “God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.” Oh how indignant he would have felt on this day.
Their next unjust attempt at “justice” concerned the allegation Jesus claimed, “I destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.” Mark does not record this claim, though he does record Jesus’ pronouncement of God’s destruction of the temple (chapter 13). John, however, records similar words by Jesus (John 2:19).
This seems to have been a deliberate ploy to exacerbate the charge, making it look like Jesus had come to overthrow the worship of the one true God (see Jeremiah 26:7–9). Of course, we have seen hints throughout this Gospel that Jesus has come to build a new temple: the temple of his body, the new covenant church (cf. Ephesians 2:19–22; 1 Peter 2:1–5; 1 Corinthians 3:6; etc. ). In chapter 12, Mark records Jesus’ pronouncement of judgement upon Israel and her leaders who would have the vineyard (see Isaiah 5) taken from them and given to others. Reading between the lines, the Sanhedrin understood exactly what he was saying (12:12). They realised that he was saying that their rule and Jerusalem’s supremacy was coming to an end, including the temple. In fact, this council was serving to fulfil Jesus’ words of the parable (12:7–9).
In the ancient world, to destroy a religious temple was an ultimate act of sacrilege. The Jews viewed the temple as the dwelling place of God. Therefore, to speak of its destruction while at the same time claiming that you would personally rebuild it was tantamount to blasphemy. Further, it would also be seen by the Romans as an act of political upheaval—even treason—which they would not tolerate. The Jewish leaders were looking for grounds to call for the death penalty. This surely fit the bill. But they encountered the same problem: “Yet even about this their testimony did not agree.”
It seems that their open-and-shut case was not, in fact, open and shut! Therefore, they pursued another course. Their murderous intent would not be denied.
A Holy Confidence
In stark contrast to the kangaroo court we see Jesus’ holy confidence:
And the high priest stood up in the midst and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
Here, we see the confident authority of the Lord Jesus. The high priest, it would seem, assumed that these (false) charges would provoke Jesus to a response. “Have you no answer to make?” To drive this home: “What is it that these men testify against you?” (Or, “Have you no answer to what these men testify against you?”) The high priest was effectively saying, “These are serious charges? Do you have no response?” Because the testimonies did not agree, it seems the high priest was taunting so he would implicate himself. But of course he was attempting to taunt the wrong person. Jesus chose to remain silent. This hints at Isaiah 53:7: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth.” As Calvin observes, “Christ was again silent, not only because the objection was frivolous, but because having been appointed to be a sacrifice, he had thrown aside all anxiety about defending himself.”
Many years ago a seasoned pastor counselled me that, when falsely accused, “You don’t owe self-justification to your enemies.” I think the reason is because it is of little use anyway. One’s enemies have already made up their mind and so there is little you can do to convince them otherwise. Jesus would not take the bait. He remained silent, which spoke volumes. When you are confident, you can remain silent. And usually, you should.
The Truth Hurts
But Jesus soon broke his silence. “Again, the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?’” He carefully avoided using the name “God,” yet Witherington notes, “The priest is so cautious about the name of God but quite careless about God’s honour and justice in the way he adjudicates these proceedings.” Jesus was being asked, “Are you Messiah?” But he was also being asked if he was God’s Son. To claim to be the son of David (Messiah) was not a capital offence, but claiming to be God’s Son was considered blasphemy and therefore grounds for capital punishment.
Throughout Mark, Jesus had largely avoided directly answering whether he was Messiah. However, by his person and work, and in the light of his recent teachings in the temple, his Messianic identity had come to the fore.
But let us remember that the high priest was not looking for the answer. He was certainly not looking for the Messiah! The Messiah was too much a threat to his position, prestige, and power. The high priest was in no way looking for the High Priest. Rather, the high priest was looking for a way to get rid of the High Priest! Hence the question.
Jesus’ answer was direct, truthful, powerful, and unambiguous. And it was received, not with humility, but with hatred.
“And Jesus said, ‘I am.’” This simple statement was a profound declaration. It was God’s name revealed to Moses in Exodus 3: The “I AM, WHO I AM” (Exodus 3:14). If this was not clear enough, the rest of Jesus’ response made it abundantly clear: “And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” By this statement Jesus was claiming both to be God’s Son and Judge of all—their Judge!
It was taught by the rabbis that only Yahweh could identify the Messiah and only Yahweh could appoint him to his right hand (a place of highest honour). Further, the reference to coming on clouds was an Old Testament phrase pointing to God in his glory. Jesus was unapologetically confessing that his deity.
Jesus, of course, as in 13:26, was referencing his ascension, when he received his kingdom. Here, Jesus was referencing both Psalm 110:1 and Daniel 7:13. He was answering the high priest’s question and proving at the same time the depravity of Israel’s shepherds. “Jesus stands on trial before the Sanhedrin but the Sanhedrin will stand trial before the Son of Man when he returns in glory” (Edwards). Or, as Ferguson notes, “Jesus, whom the Sanhedrin proposed to judge, was claiming to be king and judge of all the earth!”
Confident Profession of Faith
When you consider the content of his confession, Jesus was making quite a profession of faith. He knew that he was soon to die and yet he told these men that they would see him inaugurated as King. “Power” was used here in the place of God’s name, and “coming with the clouds of heaven” refers to, as in Daniel 7, Jesus coming to the Father in heaven, not to coming to earth. How, and when, would the high priest and these men “see” this?
Of course, there are many who say that, in the future (our future), these and all others will see this at Christ’s second coming. While it is true that Jesus is coming back and that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord to the glory of the Father (Philippians 2:9–11), this is not what Jesus was referring to here. Rather, he was saying that these very people would soon see this. In what way? By the empty tomb. By the building of the new temple of the new covenant church (Ephesians 2:19–22; 1 Peter 2:1–5) and by the end of their generation, signified by the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem.
It should be noted that, in the early chapters of Acts, the apostles and the early church were opposed and oppressed by these same chief priests, high priests, scribes, and elders (e.g. Acts 4:1–6ff). These men knew that, in the name of Jesus of Nazareth, a paralysed man had been made to walk (Acts 3:1–10). Peter and John testified before the same Sanhedrin that it was the living and reigning Lord Jesus (4:10) who had done this miracle. For those who had eyes to see, they could see Jesus “seated at the right hand of Power, coming in the clouds of heaven” (see Acts 4:11–22).
People today with eyes to see can see that Jesus is reigning by the lives he transforms. His reign is obvious by people who persevere faithfully in times of overwhelming trial.
Again, this was a profession of faith on the part of Jesus. He knew he was going to die but also knew that he would live and rule and reign. Such confidence provided calmness in this time of calamity. The prisoner is the one who is in control.
We can learn from this. In fact, we must learn from this that our confidence when facing trial depends on our confidence in God’s revealed plan—revealed, of course, in his word.
Jesus had no doubt about where all of this was heading. Having prophesied his betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion, he equally knew of his resurrection and ascension. He came preaching the arrival of God’s kingdom (1:14–15) and he was aware that he was King of that kingdom. In the face of every possible kind of adversity—demons, death, discouragement, and depravity—Jesus was confident of the outcome. This doesn’t mean that he didn’t feel immense suffering. As we saw in Gethsemane, he was deeply distressed, even to the point of death. As he contemplated becoming sin and consequently knowing that he would be abandoned by God, he sorrowed to the point of death. It was killing him. And yet it did not kill his faith. His persevering prayer demonstrates this, as does his confident composure here.
This applies to our witnessing amid a scoffing world. The world all around us is terribly fearful. The uncertainties surrounding the coronavirus are producing massive anxieties leading to bad decisions and even physiological damage due to stress.
During the 1918 Spanish Flu outbreak, Chicago’s health commissioner, speaking of the fears among the public said, “It is our duty to keep people from fear. Worry kills more people than the epidemic. For my part, let them wear a rabbit’s foot on a gold watch chain if they want it, and if it will help them to get rid of the physiological action of fear.”
Christian, in God’s providence, we have been given an opportunity to be confident witnesses amid such fears. And we have something far better than a rabbit’s foot: We have God’s word.
Of course, we don’t know when the pandemic will end. We have no way of knowing the ultimate death toll or what our world will look like post-COVID. But we do have God’s word that his kingdom will come, his will will be done on earth, and his name will be hallowed. We know that the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will cover the earth one day as the waters cover the sea. We know that Jesus Christ will build his church. We know that God’s Word will not return void. We know that God will be glorified and that his people will be glorified. We know that God will meet all of our needs because he owns all the cattle on the all the hills. We know that God will provide his peace which passes all understanding. We know that cares for us and therefore we can cast all our care upon him. We know that he knows even that which we do not know.
When we live with such confidence, then, even in the middle of our night, surrounded by opposing, cynical, and even mocking voices, we can confidently testify to the truth of what God has promised. Jesus’ confident composure demonstrates the truth that God’s people live by faith, not by sight.
A Hateful Condemnation
Our text closes with a hateful condemnation:
And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death. And some began to spit on him and to cover his face and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” And the guards received him with blows.
The high priest and the council condemned Jesus of blasphemy, thus condemning him to death (vv. 63–64). Lane explains how blasphemy was understood: “Applied to God it meant to dishonour him by diminishing his majesty or depriving him of rights to which he is entitled.” France points out that this was actually self-condemnation by the high priest because “the condemnation of the high priest is not simply that he did not believe the claim, but that he did not even ask himself whether it was true or false.”
The Real Blasphemy
The accusers, rather than acknowledging their sin and bowing to the Son of God, accused God of blasphemy! Of course, the real blasphemers were these men.
The high priest “tore his garments.” This was not primarily an emotional outburst (though I wouldn’t discount the possibility of some drama here) but rather a judicial declaration: “Guilty as charged!” He then called upon the jury: “What is your decision?” He got the official answer that they had already unofficially made (vv. 1, 55): “And they all condemned him as deserving death” for blasphemy carried the death penalty.
Under Jewish law, the death penalty was carried out by stoning. In the case of blasphemy, the rabbis had determined that, once the blasphemer was put to death, his or her body would be hung on a tree as the ultimate sign of rejection (Deuteronomy 21:23). However, Israel was no longer functioning as a theocracy. Therefore, only the Roman government could carry out the death penalty. The Romans would not care that a Jewish court had found Jesus guilty of blasphemy. But claiming to be God was a different story. To the Romans, Caesar was lord. If Jesus claimed to be Lord, he would be put to death for treason. As we will see, this is precisely what happened. Rome would not tolerate a rival king.
No Fear of God
King David lamented that, among the wicked, “there is no fear of God before their eyes” (Psalms 36:1; 55:19; 57:11; see Romans 3:18). He was speaking about Gentiles. But in the scene before us, the Jewish leaders were worse than those who had no knowledge of the true God, for these shepherds of Israel dared to spit on the Good Shepherd. This was one of the lowest ways to show disrespect for someone (Numbers 12:14; etc.). Then they covered his face and struck him. Lane explains, “The spitting and the administering of blows … were conventional gestures of rejection and repudiation.”
They did all this while mocking him: “Prophesy!” Worthless shepherds, indeed (Zechariah 11:17).
In their taunting—“Prophesy!”—we note a mockery of Jesus’ Messianic claim. Isaiah 11:2–4 records the character and conduct of Messiah. Verse 3 says, “His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear.” The rabbis mistaught that Messiah could see by smell, which explains why they blindfolded Jesus. What fools! Their mistreatment at this very moment was fulfilment of his prophetic words as recorded in 10:33–34: “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him, and kill him.” And his most recent prophecy in 14:62, which they were scorning, would also come to pass for “after three days he will rise” (10:34).
The final phrase “and the guards received him with blows” informs us that the people had become just like the priests. The temple guards followed the evil example of their spiritual leaders. Shepherds—that is, fathers, mothers, elders, disciplers—be careful!
So, what can we take away from this passage? Why is it here?
Words relating to witness occur some seven times in this passage. There are false witnesses and there is the true witness. “The courage and faithfulness of Jesus within such a context is contrasted to false witness and denial” (Edwards). The Lord Jesus demonstrated that he is “the faithful and true witness” (Revelation 3:14). Jesus is the Rock. Is he your Rock?
France observes, “It is a study in witnessing under pressure, in how to do it and how not to do it. As such, it could be expected to offer serious food for thought to Mark’s readers as they assessed their own faithfulness and built up their strength for witness in a potentially hostile world.” As we meditate upon our Rock, we are emboldened to stand as witnesses to him and to his truth. As we have seen, we are then empowered to live confidently in an unconfident world.
The Blameless Witness
But of course, the main purpose of this passage is not to demonstrate how we should be witnesses. Rather, this passage serves as a witness to the glory of Jesus Christ and therefore points us to his gospel. It points us to the good news of what God has done through the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Calvin comments, “This will also be a pledge of the astonishing love of Christ toward us, that he spared not himself, but willingly submitted to wear fetters on his flesh, that our souls might be freed from fetters of a far worse description.”
The ransom that Jesus paid for sinners was acceptable because of the life he lived and the death he died. According to this trial, the life he lived was blameless.
These witnesses, seconded by the Sanhedrin, we are informed, were false witnesses. In order to find Jesus guilty of death, they needed to bear false witness against him because he was sinless. Jesus’ life was characterised by integrity: moral and legal wholeness. This was part and parcel of his holiness. Apart from this, we could only look at Jesus as a martyr. But because he is the sinless Son of God, we look to him as our Saviour. As Maclaren says, “This is more than an uncomplaining martyr. This is the sacrifice for the world’s sin; and his bearing of all that men can inflict is more than heroism.”
Christian, having embraced the sinless Son of God as your Saviour, we are to follow him as our Lord. Yes, we are to pursue holiness. We are to seek to live a life that is blameless. But we are also to follow him as our example when it comes to our witness. We are to be true to God’s testimony of his Son (1 Corinthians 2:1–3). We are to be willing to stand for him and to proclaim truth in the face of opposition: in the workplace; at school; in our community; and in the public square (Isaiah 59:14).
But there is another way in which we are to follow Jesus: in the matter of our response to false accusers. Jesus, as Peter would tell us, exemplified how we are to respond to those who do us wrong, including those who bear false witness against us.
Peter, you will recall, was an eyewitness to this. And he never forgot it. Many years later he would write,
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
(1 Peter 2:21–23)
When slandered and attacked, if you are like me, your default is to defend and vindicate yourself. That rarely ends well. Rather, let God be your defence. Psalm 7:11 tells us: “God is a righteous Judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.” In other words, God does not take lightly when his people are falsely accused. The destruction of Jerusalem is Exhibit A.
When you have integrity, you can be silent in face of false accusations. When you are secure in your relationship with the Lord, you can be silent when slandered. When you have prepared beforehand through prayer, you can be calm and quiet in the eye of a depraved storm.
Christian, as tempting as it is—and oh how powerful the temptation!—resist defending yourself. Remember that, like Jesus, when you refuse to defend yourself you are not sacrificing justice. Rather, you are leaving justice to the one who says, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” (Romans 12:19).
It’s easy for you and I to sit in judgement on this council of men. But we need to be careful lest we forget our own sins against Jesus Christ.
Christian, Jesus Christ paid the penalty for your sins and for mine. We are not innocent bystanders in this courtyard. The blows he received were partly delivered by us. As the song says, “Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers.”
We don’t know the final response of these council member, or of the temple guard, to the Lord Jesus Christ. Did some of them later come to faith in Christ? We know that men like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea became followers of the Lord Jesus (John 19:38ff). We are also told in Acts 6 that many priests believed. Sadly, it is probably true that most of these remained hardened against Christ, but we can remain hopeful. After all, the gospel is the power of God for salvation. If God’s power can overcome this kind of depravity, it could overcome their individual depravity.
If you are not a Christian, you need to become one! Repent of your sin embracing the Lord Jesus Christ as your Saviour. Then come and join us as his witnesses.