Sometimes God uses the most unlikely of messengers to communicate His will. In Numbers 22, God even preached through the mouth of a donkey (vv. 22–35; cf. 2 Pet. 2:15–16). As Jesus advanced from Gethsemane to Golgotha He was wrongly condemned three times: first by the Sanhedrin, second by His friend Peter, third by Pontius Pilate. In each of the three unjust verdicts God communicates the gospel: The guiltless Christ suffered as a substitute for those who suffer guiltily. Throughout the interrogation and trial of Christ God preaches the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Throughout this account the overwhelming evidence is that Christ was innocent. But in the end God declared Him guilty in the place of needy believers. Sometimes the good news is preached against the darkest backdrop.
Jesus was arrested in the deepest part of the night in the shadowy garden of Gethsemane. From there He was led to an even darker locale—spiritually speaking—the high priest’s palace.
Interrogation in the High Priest’s Courtyard (Mark 14:53–72)
These verses reveal two great ironies. First, the judge of the world humbly submitted to a gross mistrial. Second, the great friend of sinners is denied publicly by one of His best friends. As we understand these ironies, they help us better appreciate the beauty of the gospel.
Jesus Before the Sanhedrin (14:53–65)
Jesus’ trial was conducted not by a few zealous renegades but by the representatives of the Jewish nation (v. 53). The Sanhedrin’s charter called for “able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness” (Exod. 18:21) to keep justice among the people. Disregarding their own law, which forbade nocturnal trials concerning matters of life and death,1 the Sanhedrin met in the middle of the night; a “legitimate” trial was held “immediately in the morning” (15:1). Determined to kill Jesus the chief priests dispatched bailiffs, sought out witnesses, interrogated the accused, and rendered judgment in an illegal trial! The only witnesses of the trial were the few servants who warmed themselves by a fire. Into this circle slipped Peter hoping to remain incognito.
Unable to find corroborating negative witnesses the chief priest practically begged Jesus to incriminate Himself (v. 60). But, because there was no legitimate charge worthy of response, Jesus (silently) invoked Proverbs 26:4. “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.” Fulfilling Scripture, Jesus “opened not His mouth” (Isa. 53:7). Peter later recalled what he witnessed that night by the flickering light of the fire: “When He was reviled, He did not revile in return . . . but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet. 2:23). In His silence Jesus shows His sinlessness; we can only imagine what we might have said in His place.
Jesus’ interrogators eventually got to the point: “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (v. 61). Jesus’ answer is striking: “I am! And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (v. 62; cf. Exod. 3:14). Jesus condemns Himself with the truth. As the faithful witness (Rev. 1:5) Jesus speaks to their need, not His convenience. His prophecy looks ahead to the Day of Judgment,2 when Jesus will be vindicated before every living soul. The Jewish leaders, like all who misjudge Jesus, will answer for their sins. The One they misjudged will judge them. Without sincerely weighing Jesus’ testimony the high priest pretentiously tore his clothes, as if he were grieving over Jesus’ “blasphemous” answer. Secretly, he was overjoyed.
Jesus had foretold that “the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death and deliver Him to the Gentiles and they will mock him, and scourge Him and spit on Him” (Mark 10:33–34; Isa. 50:6). The Sanhedrin mocked Jesus by saying, “Prophesy to us.” Jesus’ answer: “I AM!”
In condemning Christ the Jewish leaders rejected God’s chosen King and fulfilled the message of the prophets of which they were ignorant (Acts 13:27). Tragically, they spoke also for the Jewish people. He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him (John 1:11).
Jesus Before Peter (14:66–72)
After Jesus’ arrest Peter followed at a distance. If Peter’s denial is the most visible, the other disciples denied Jesus no less by their absence. At the start of Jesus’ interrogation Peter had lingered outside of the courtyard. But piggybacking on the apostle John’s credentials with the high priest, Peter entered the courtyard (John 18:15–16) to within eyeshot of Jesus (Luke 22:61). Failing to watch and pray, Peter adamantly denied knowing His Savior and Friend. The words of Psalm 88:18 are fulfilled: “You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness” (Ps. 88:18, ESV).
Understanding how Peter could have so fallen can help us to avoid his failure. Peter’s denial began with a passivity unbecoming a disciple of Christ. Frederick Krummacher suggests Peter’s denial began when he stealthily approached the fire to warm himself.3 As soon as he was called to speak, he faltered, again with an unbelieving passivity: “I don’t know what you are talking about” (v. 68; cf. Luke 22:60). Peter’s escape to the porch after this first question (v. 68) might remind us of how we try to avoid situations in which spiritual questions will likely come up. When asked about our church attendance we find it easier to say, “I’ve always gone to church” than “I go to church because I need to be fed by the gospel every week!” In his third denial Peter invoked a curse upon himself if he was lying. Ironically, the crowd accused him of being a follower of Jesus because of his accent. The louder and longer he talked the clearer it was that he was lying!4 Peter also betrayed a tendency toward self-protection. Succumbing to fear Peter denied Christ to protect himself. While his accuser was only a servant, she was the servant of the high priest. Could she be a spy? What about those listening nearby? Coupled with Peter’s fear may have been embarrassment at his Master’s apparent defeat. Peter could not yet say with Paul, “I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation” (Rom. 1:16). Let us take heed of our desire for self-protection and our fear of embarrassment, lest we fall too (1 Cor. 10:12).
Like Peter, our best prevention against denying Christ is to know and love Him more deeply. When the rooster crowed Jesus’ and Peter’s eyes met (Luke 22:61). Peter realized what he had done and was convicted of his sin. Through prayer, worship, study, and meditation Jesus becomes less deniable. “To know,” in the Bible, denotes intimacy. In a sense, Peter was right when he said, “I don’t know the man” (Matt. 26:72, 74). Knowing Christ always strengthens us against spiritual lapses.
But what do we do when the rooster’s crow reminds us that we too have denied Christ? Like Peter, we should weep over our failures and redeem available second chances. The servant girl’s first accusation might have caught Peter off guard, leading him to answer in a bewildered panic. Peter probably hated what he had done, but he was too concerned about his own safety and reputation. His heart wasn’t yet broken by his sin. When Peter truly reflected on his failure, he wept tears leading to repentance (2 Cor. 7:9–10). We might like to read that after Peter was convicted of his sin he rushed back to the fire to set the record straight, but this doesn’t happen—until Pentecost. When we find ourselves filled with regret over wasting an opportunity to speak about Christ or over outright denying Him, we should look for opportunities for redemption.
On Trial Before Pilate (Mark 15:1–15)
Having already found Jesus guilty during the night the Sanhedrin wasted no time in capping off their scheme by meeting “officially” first thing in the morning to announce the guilty verdict.5 Eager to get Jesus into the hands of Pilate, the Roman executioner, they bound Him and led Him away, like an animal, like the scapegoat of Leviticus 16:20–21. Although the Jews might have immediately stoned Jesus for blasphemy, they delivered Him to the Gentiles. God was at work fulfilling the Scriptures. He must be crucified (Gal. 3:13; cf. Mark 10:33). Christ would die an accursed death on a Roman cross.
The “Trial” Begins
Though the regions of Samaria and Judea were relatively small holdings of the Roman Empire, as an extension of Caesar’s rule, Pontius Pilate’s word was law to those beneath him. Shrewdly, therefore, the Jews downplayed the charge of religious blasphemy knowing it would hold little weight in a Roman law court. Of the many charges which the Jews presented before Pilate the three that are preserved could not be ignored by a Roman administrator: perverting the nation, forbidding the payment of tribute to Caesar, and declaring Himself to be a king (23:2; cf. John 18:29–32). In short, they presented Jesus as a politically dangerous man.
Of course, the charges are as false as they were apropos. Far from perverting the nation, as the Israel of God, Christ came to restore the nation from perversion (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15). Far from keeping the Jews from giving tribute to Caesar, He commanded it (Mark 12:17). And far from being a civil anarchist, Jesus faithfully submitted to the governing authorities. His kingdom, while opposed to Caesar’s on many points (John 19:12), is a spiritual kingdom, not of this world (18:36). Christ never physically challenged civil authority, and Pilate knew it. But because the Jews craved Jesus’ death the crime had to fit the punishment.
During the trial Jesus answered straightforward questions (14:61–62; 15:2) while at the same time refusing to refute the trumped-up charges. Jesus’ silence punctuated the lies with which He was accused. In the face of Jesus’ “good confession” (1 Tim. 6:13) Pilate marveled, “Why doesn’t He defend Himself?” Because His goal is the cross!
Probably the chief priest could tell that Pilate had no intention to execute Jesus. In fact, he was mindful to let him go. Enter Barabbas.
Jesus and Barabbas
Pilate had a custom of releasing a prisoner on Passover. On this Passover he hoped to extricate himself from an awkward political–moral dilemma by delivering Jesus. In addition to freeing this just Man, Pilate hoped also please the crowd because Jesus was despised only by the envious leaders (15:10). Interestingly, as secular history demonstrates, Pilate was no friend of the Jews. He only eventually capitulated to their demands out of self-interest. To Pilate’s surprise, the crowd rejected his offer to release Jesus. Only days ago the walls of Jerusalem resounded with declarations that Jesus was “the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38). But the religious leaders worked hard to stir up and persuade (Matt. 27:20) the crowd to have Pilate release for them Barabbas instead (Mark 15:11). How great is the power of envy! The leaders were so envious of Jesus that they stopped at no length to destroy Him. They even risked offending the crowd among which Jesus was still popular. To avoid strict divine judgment, leaders must be certain that they are leading out of heavenly motives and not self-interest. As followers, we must be certain that we are not mindlessly following ambitious leaders. After all, despite the leadership’s strong-arming, the crowd was not innocent of Jesus’ death. It was they who “delivered up and denied [Jesus] in the presence of Pilate when he was determined to let Him go” (Acts 3:13).
Jesus’ trial ended on an anticlimax with Pilate pronouncing a conflicting verdict (vv. 14–15). After examining the evidence (John 23:13–14) he found Jesus innocent. Still, Pilate cowardly tested the political waters. Caving to popular opinion, Pilate changed his verdict. He consulted the “opinion polls” to try to scratch the itching ears of the masses (2 Tim. 4:3). He wanted to gratify the crowd because, as a spineless, people-pleasing opportunist, ultimately he wanted to gratify himself. Partisan to his own special interests Pilate abdicated his position of moral leadership.
Jesus endured an outrageously unjust trial to face scourging and crucifixion, two of the most gruesome forms of punishment imaginable. With a reserved reverence the Gospels simply tell us that “Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him” (John 19:1; cf. Matt. 27:26; Mark 15:15). The scourge consisted of a handle to which were connected several ropes or leather straps. Hard objects such as stone, metal, shells, or bone could be attached to the straps. Scourging was sometimes fatal. Paul, when faced with the horrific prospect of being scourged, chose to avoid this punishment by asserting his rights (Acts 22:25). Christ accepted the scourge’s pain knowing that by His stripes we are healed (Isa. 53:5). Christ graphically describes part of the price of our salvation by saying “The plowers plowed on my back; they made their furrows long” (Ps. 129:3).
As Jesus’ arms were bound and stretched above his head for scourging, Barabbas was released from his bonds and slipped into the crowd, free. That “notorious prisoner” (Matt. 27:16), insurrectionist, robber (John 18:40), and murderer is a dark symbol of natural man. When Barabbas was loosed as Christ was bound, God is telling us that there is hope for us (cf. Matt. 5:21–22)! When Pilate delivered Jesus to death (vv. 1, 15) he, unknowingly, acted as God’s agent (Rom. 8:32; Eph. 5:2). God used Pilate’s wicked cowardice to fulfill His own predetermined purpose of saving the people whom He loved (Acts 4:27–28). Pilate’s failure exalts the leadership of Christ who quietly, faithfully, lovingly does what is necessary for our salvation. Pilate pursued justice until things got uncomfortable for him. Jesus pursued justice to the very end!
Christ’s ministry was characterized by the rejection and isolation which was most evident in the shadow of the cross. But all this rejection set up the climax of Christ’s resurrection. In the resurrection the Father reversed the verdict of Pilate and the Sanhedrin, by declaring Jesus innocent. He reversed the verdict of Peter by confessing His Son before a stunned world. The great story of the Bible is not man’s failure but God’s success. This interrogation draws our attention not to man but to the righteous and faithful God, our Lord Jesus Christ.
Living as we do, in the midst of trials and difficulties, this is exactly the message we need to hear.
1. Mishna, Sanhedrin IV.1. Cited in William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1976), 607.
2. More immediate fulfillment of Jesus’ prophesy might be found in His appearances at Stephen’s stoning and Paul’s conversion.
3. F. W. Krummacher, The Suffering Savior (Chicago: Moody Press, 1947), 156.
4. Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark, 621.
5. The word for consultation (v. 1) is always used by the Gospel writers to denote unscrupulous scheming; five times in Matthew, twice in Mark, once in Acts.
6. Form for the Celebration of the Lord’s Supper,” Psalter Hymnal (Grand Rapids: Publication Committee of the Christian Reformed Church, 1976), 144.
Points to Ponder and Discuss
1. Do you ever feel like you are following Jesus “at a distance” (Mark 14:54)?
2. How, like Peter, might we be tempted to downplay our relationship with Christ (Mark 14:68)?
3. How can we learn from Peter’s fall to follow Jesus more closely?
4. Meditate on this phrase in connection with Mark 15:1: “He was bound that we might be loosed from our sins.”6
5. When might it be wise for us to follow Jesus’ example in “answering nothing” (Mark 15:3, 5)?
6. Reflect on the dangers of asking for the opinion of others when you already know the right thing to do.
7. Reflect on the beautiful scandal of Barabbas’s release as it points to our redemption.
8. How can Christ’s wounds provide comfort for our physical pain?