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So far in these mid-week Lenten meditations, we have followed those who were a part of Jesusâ€™ inner circle in order to get close to Jesus during the time that we call â€˜holy week.â€™ Mary of Bethany was a close friend. Judas Isacariot, although he betrayed Jesus was one of the 12 disciples. Peter was not only one of the 12 but also one of the inner three.
There comes a point however when the inner circle can take us no further, and we have reached that point. Now, we must follow Jesusâ€™ through His enemies because only they are close to Him. We have come to that point where our Lord is truly all-alone.
Tonight we will use Caiaphas the High Priest to get close to Jesus. A bit of background about the High Priesthood, the Sanhedrin and Caiaphas might be a helpful way to begin.
A. The High Priest
1. Temple Sacrifices and Day of Atonement
The High Priest was the supreme religious leader of Israel. Individual priests carried out the sacrifices for individual people at the Temple. But the High Priest acted and spoke on behalf of the entire represented all of the people collectively to God and he represented God to all of the people collectively.
One of the chief religious functions of the High Priest was to act on behalf of the entire nation of Israel on what was called â€œthe Day of Atonement.â€ The â€œDay of Atonementâ€ was that annual day when two goats were presented to the High Priest. Lots were cast and the one goat was chosen for the sacrifice. The High Priest would take the sacrificial goat inside the temple while all the people remained outside, and sacrifice it on the altar. And then he would take some of the blood behind the great curtain and into the Holy of Holies and pour the blood directly on top of the Ark of the Covenant where God Himself was located between the Cherubim. The blood of this one goat represented the blood of â€˜all the people.â€™ The sacrificial goat was sacrificed for the sins of the whole nation and it was poured out onto God Himself and God Himself bore the sins of all.
After that, the High Priest would come out of the Temple and place his hands over the other goat and pronounce all of the sins of the entire nation upon the head of that goat and then that goat would be led out into the wilderness. That one goat, called â€œthe scapegoat,â€ â€˜took awayâ€™ the sins of the entire nation.
2. Urim and Thummim.
The High Priest wore special clothes. Most important was the â€œBreastplateâ€ that held the Urim and Thummim; two stones, each with the names of six of the tribes of Israel inscribed on them. The High Priest carried the 12 Tribes of Israel right over his heart if you will.
These two stones were used to determine the will of God. When questions were raised for God to answer, the High Priest would discern Godâ€™s answer by rolling or dropping these two stones, one which signified a â€œyesâ€ and the other a â€œnoâ€ from God. Depending on how they fell, this was understood as Godâ€™s answer to the question.
3. Presiding over Sanhedrin.
A third responsibility of the High Priest was to preside over the council that was called the Sanhedrin. The word Sanhedrin comes from a Greek word that literally means â€˜counsel.â€™ The Sanhedrin consisted of 70 elders of Israel, modeled after the 70 elders that Moses selected from the people to help him govern the people.
Initially, the High Priest of Israel was appointed for life. And as long as Israel was independent and self-ruling, thatâ€™s the way it was. But when Israel came under Roman rule, the governor of Judea, the region where Jerusalem is located, took some of the power of the High Priest by replacing him as he saw fit. The governor before Pontius Pilate replaced High Priests four times during his tenure, Caiaphas being the last. Interestingly, Caiaphas holds onto the High Priesthood for 29 years, from AD 18 â€“ 36.
His full name of Joseph Caiaphas. In December of 1990, an ossuary, (a box that holds the bones of the deceased,) was discovered in Jerusalem that dates back to the 1st century AD. Inscribed on the ossuary was the name, â€œYosef bar Kaiapha.â€ â€œJoseph son of Kaiaphas.â€
The fact that Caiaphas retained his position as High Priest for such an unusually long period of time is significant. It tells us that he is a man who knew how to maintain a balance between Israel and Rome. Caiaphas was a diplomat and politician who managed to maintain the status quo with Rome.
And that was his big problem with Jesus.
II. John 11:45-57 – The Plot
When Jesus comes onto the scene, He immediately begins to attract a lot of attention. He speaks and acts in ways that challenge the religious authorities. In fact, much of what he says is opening critical or contradictory of them. For instance, He does not observe the Sabbath day regulations that they have put into place, and when they challenge him, rather than backing down, he makes them look rather foolish in front of the people.
Besides that, He does incredible things that are hard to explain. He heals people of diseases and afflictions and cast out their demons simply by his touch or his word. Jesus is someone who is hard to explain away or simply ignore.
Jesus makes Caiaphas very nervous. At one point, Caiaphas sends a squad of Temple guards to bring Jesus in for questioning, and they return empty handed saying, â€œwe never heard anyone talk like this man.â€
Unlike others who had come along and stirred up a certain amount of revolutionary fervor, Jesus was different. He seemed to shun the attention of the crowds, scolding them for suggesting that He had come to be their king. He repeatedly told his own disciples not to tell anyone about him. Caiaphas had no grounds to bring any civil charges against him.
And yet, He was definitely a real problem. The crowds that He was attracting were bound to catch the attention of the governor. The potential for Him to organize the crowds into a pro-democracy rebellion was as threatening to them as weâ€™ve seen recently in the middle-east.
Caiaphas had been concerned about Jesus for awhile, and tensions regarding Jesus had been rising. But it was when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead and the attention that created, that Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin decided they had to do something. John reports, â€œSo the chief priest and the Pharisees gathered the Council and said, â€˜What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.â€
You see their concern. â€œOur place and our nation.â€ If the governor, Pontus Pilate thought that the Chief Priest and the Council could not control the people, he would boot them out and institute marshal law until he could appoint a new regime.
It is at this Council meeting that Caiaphas proposes a solution. â€œYou know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.â€ Caiaphas wants to make this a case study in â€˜situational ethics,â€™ although he surely distorts things the way that he puts it. It is not really that the whole would perish, but that the High Priest would be fired.
And then John informs us of something very interesting and that we usually overlook. â€œHe did not say this of his own accord, but being High Priest that year he PROPHESIED that Jesus would die for the nationâ€¦â€ Sometime earlier, Caiaphas had put on the Breastplate with the Urim and Thummim and had asked God a question, something to the effect, â€˜will this Jesus of Nazareth live or die?â€™ And the stones said, â€˜He will die.â€™
John writes, â€œSo from that day on they made plans to put him to death.â€ They donâ€™t know how or when. But they have made up their mind that this is the solution to their problems.
III. Matthew 26:57 â€“ 27:2 – The Trial
Some time after this, probably not long, comes Palm Sunday, when Jesus rides into Jerusalem to the cheers of the crowds and the acclamations that this Jesus is the â€œSon of David,â€ the great king of Israel. John records the reaction of the religious leaders, â€œLook the whole world has gone after Him.â€
Jesus rides this victory parade right to the Temple where He drives out one of the chief sources of income for the Chief Priest â€“ the selling of animals and exchange of money.
What are the Chief Priest and Sanhedrin to think? You almost feel sorry for them in their position. His popularity with the people makes it such that if they donâ€™t get rid of Him, Rome will throw them out. And if they do get rid of Him, the people will throw them out. And then, totally unexpectedly, there is a knock on the door. â€œWho is it?â€ â€œMy name is Judas, one of the 12.â€ And as a sign from heaven, they have the perfect solution.
From His arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is taken first of all to Annasâ€™ house, who is called the High Priest but is not. Actually he had been the High Priest but was given a pink slip by the governor. He was still called High Priest much the same way we refer to past presidents as â€œMr. President.â€ The guards take Jesus to Annasâ€™ house first probably just to give the Sanhedrin time to get from their homes to Caiaphasâ€™ house and get organized for the real trial.
â€œThen those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gatheredâ€¦ Now the chief priests and the whole Council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, â€˜This man said, I am able to destroy the temple of God and to rebuild it in three days.â€
Actually, He didnâ€™t offer to destroy the temple. He told them to destroy the temple. â€œDestroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.â€
â€œAnd the high priest stood up and said, â€˜Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?â€ But Jesus remained silent.â€ No answer. Jesus is not cooperating. Itâ€™s hard to make a case for the death penalty when Jesus takes the 5th Amendment.
But then Caiaphas shows why he is such a savvy politician. He knows that there is one question that Jesus must answer and that regardless of how He answers it will condemn Him. â€œI adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.â€
Jesus Himself had made a bold statement to the crowds. â€œEveryone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.â€ (Matthew 10:32-33) He cannot refuse to answer this question because that would contradict His own teaching and prove that He is a fraud. If He says that He is not the Christ, that will be a direct contradiction to what He has preached. But if He claims to be the Christ, the Son of God, they will have religiously legal grounds for the death penalty â€“ blasphemy. Leviticus 24:16, â€œWhoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death.â€
â€œJesus said to him, â€˜You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.â€
â€œThen the high priest tore his robes and said, â€˜He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we needâ€ You have now heart his blasphemy. What is your judgment? They answered, â€˜He deserves to death.â€
By now, it is very late at night. They must take Him to the governor but not in the middle of the night. They must get home to get some sleep. Jesus is handed over the Temple guards and He is placed in the High Priestâ€™s dungeon. When I was in Jerusalem, we visited the site of Caiaphasâ€™ house. The dungeon has been discovered and restored. Itâ€™s a hole in the ground which looks like a well. The prisoner was put into the pit and fastened to the wall of it with shekels around the wrists and ankles. There were several clergy in the tour group I was with and each of us was asked to take a day to do a devotion for the group. I was assigned the day we visited Caiaphasâ€™ house and I stood right next to this pit. Iâ€™ll never forget it.
Josephâ€™s brothers had thrown him into a pit until they sold him slave traders that were passing by. Now, the greater than Joseph is thrown into the pit until they can get rid of Him. â€œWhen morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. And they bound him and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate the governor.â€
What are we to take away from all of this as we come this close to Jesus through Joseph Caiaphas, the High Priest.
Well, letâ€™s try this first of all. From Caiaphasâ€™ perspective, Jesus presented a problem because He threatened the status quo that he had worked very hard to maintain. If only Jesus had been willing to compromise or be political. But Jesus simply refused to play by the rules of the game.
Jesus can be a real problem for us in the same way as He was for Caiaphas. When He comes into our little world, He may well expose some things about our lives that we have become very comfortable with, but that are actually contradictory to His Word. What are we to do?
Even with us, He refuses to â€˜play the game.â€™ He can be very inconvenient and troubling. We could live with Him and let Him live with us just fine if only Heâ€™d compromise a bit. But He doesnâ€™t do that. And so we wait until the opportunity comes along to put Him away, in a pit, to death, for the sake of our quiet, peaceful, status quo.
With that said, the second thing that we should definitely must take away from this is that when Caiaphas tears his robe, he is unwittingly announcing the end of the Old Testament High Priesthood which is now being turned over to Jesus, our great High Priest. Jesus is the High Priest par excellence in that He represents all of the people by standing in our place. He doesnâ€™t just offer the sacrificial goat, He is the sacrificial goat, whose blood is shed for the whole world. He is the scapegoat who takes away all of our sins.
In the end, what we must see, is that Caiaphasâ€™ prophesy about Jesus was most certainly true in a way that he never imagined. â€œIt is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.â€