As we come to another Easter, our minds and hearts will be drawn back to the cross and the empty tomb. This is the central hinge of human history, and ground zero of our faith. As followers of Christ, we should never stray too far from his passion if we are going to follow him well, do good theology, or seek to offer hope in this world. We are a people birthed, marked, shaped, and transformed by the cross and the empty tomb.
God gave us four Gospels, and all four essentially offer a preparatory retelling of the ministry years of Jesus, followed by a slower and more detailed account of the Passion Week. That means we have many column inches given to other aspects of that first Easter. As well as the crucifixion and the resurrection, we also have a lot of details about Jesus’ clashes with the authorities, the Last Supper and Upper Room, Gethsemane, and the arrest and trials of Jesus. Let’s take just the trials, in particular. What might we notice as we move towards another Easter?
1. The trials did not all happen in one night. There are six trial hearings that occur between the arrest of Jesus and his crucifixion. However, the Jewish authorities had long determined that he was guilty and deserved to die. As we read through the Gospels we find their growing animus, their utter rejection of his authority, and their determination to put him to death. This final night of trials was the end of a process, it was not the beginning.
2. The trials are divided between the religious and the Roman. Jesus was arrested by a group of temple guards, with some Roman soldiers added to the posse. He was taken first to Annas for what is effectively a pre-trial hearing, then to Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin during the night, and then for a brief ratification of their decision at first light. The focus of these religious trials was Jesus’ teaching and identity. Then the Jewish leaders took him to Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, for the Roman trial. Here the focus was his threat to Roman rule, and the emphasis had to shift to political concerns. Pilate offered a political peace offering to King Herod, a Roman-installed Tetrarch who had previously sent a complaint about Pilate to Caesar. Herod had wanted to meet Jesus but soon sent him back to Pilate for the sixth and final trial of that night/morning. Three religious trials. Three Roman trials.
3. The trials feel rushed and disorganized. The Jewish authorities had planned to arrest Jesus and deal with him before he could slip away from Jerusalem, but not during the feast. And then, during the Last Supper, Jesus revealed to Judas that he knew about the planned betrayal. Their secret was out, and so they rushed a plan into action. The rush resulted in them struggling to find two witnesses that would agree in front of the defendant during the night trial, and then coming to Pilate without a clearly defined charge in the morning. It all seems so chaotic and rushed – because it was. They were not planning to execute Jesus on that particular day. We can see that God’s plan for the timing required crucifixion on that particular day. The authorities were not in control.
4. The trials helpfully point us to other key characters. As we read through the trial accounts, we come across a number of incidental characters. There are soldiers mistreating Jesus (quite likely to have been Samaritan conscripts, since the Jews would not have joined the Roman ranks). There are the members of the Sanhedrin gathering in the shadows. There is Pilate’s wife, whose dream only increases Pilate’s superstitious nervousness around this decision. And there are some major characters too – Pilate was the most powerful man in the region. He was used to criminals cowering and begging for mercy but was amazed at the silent strength of Jesus. Peter had promised to die for Jesus, tried to kill for him in the garden, and then found himself in a series of mini-trials by the fire in the courtyard. Peter wept bitterly at his failure, but Judas’ grief was different. He was confronted by the deathly darkness of despair and plunged to his death that night. As you read the trial accounts, notice everyone who is mentioned.
5. The trials shine a glorious light on Jesus. And as you read the trial accounts, be sure to focus particularly on Jesus himself. The arresting party wasn’t in control. The mafia don of Jerusalem, Annas, was not in control. The High Priest was not in control. Nor Pilate the governor. Certainly not Herod the visiting King. No, the only one showing control, dignity, clarity of purpose, and strength of character, was Jesus himself. Watch for when he remains silent. Take note of what he says when he speaks. See how he supplies the Old Testament quotes that the High Priest needed to seal the decision. Recognize his gravitas before Pilate. Just as Jesus’ words from the cross help to shape our theology, so should his words in these trials. Jesus came to rescue us at such a great cost. And Jesus came to reveal the heart of his Father with such great clarity.
As we head into another Easter, let’s be sure to watch Jesus closely in the biblical text. He is our humble and regal Redeemer, rescuing us and revealing God to us. Thank God for Jesus, and thank God for the beautiful way he navigated those last hours before the cross.
Join us for a mini-series that show how to study the Bible: