We continue our reading notes on Matthew’s Passion narrative, in the weeks leading up to Easter.
Today’s passage is similar to yesterday’s, where the story alternates between the ordeal of Jesus and the weakness of the disciples – in this case Peter.
Matt 26:57-6157 Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled. 58 But Peter followed him at a distance, right up to the courtyard of the high priest. He entered and sat down with the guards to see the outcome. 59 The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death. 60 But they did not find any, though many false witnesses came forward. Finally two came forward 61 and declared, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.'”
Arrayed against Jesus is the whole Sanhedrin – the ruling council made up mostly of Sadducees, but containing some “teachers of the law” who are quite possibly Pharisees. Political opponents are united in wanting to get rid of the threat Jesus posed to them.
While Jesus is undergoing this (unfair) trial, Peter is going through a “trial” of his own. In verse 58, Peter “followed” (the language of discipleship) but “at a distance.” He’s currently at the courtyard of the high priest. As we read the following sections, pay attention to Peter’s location each time.
Matthew narrates the trial as a “kangaroo court,” where the judges are looking for evidence – any evidence – that will get a conviction. It seems a bit odd on first reading that they were looking for false evidence, but – despite many false witnesses coming forward – they didn’t find any. Probably it means that those who came forward with false testimony didn’t bring anything that was serious enough of plausible enough to support a conviction, particularly one that would convince the Romans to kill him. (The Jews couldn’t put people to death; the Romans retained the authority to decide on and carry out capital punishment.)
The final accusation (verse 61, that he would destroy the temple) is useful because it’s one that isn’t just about Jewish law; it’s a threat to the civil order. The Romans would be more inclined to take that seriously. It’s also plausible enough to be believed, given the similar things that Jesus had said publicly about the temple (e.g. Mt 23:38) and his metaphorical statement in John 2:19-21.
Matt 26:62-6862 Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” 63 But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, “I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” 64 “You have said so,” Jesus replied. “But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” 65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. 66 What do you think?” “He is worthy of death,” they answered. 67 Then they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him 68 and said, “Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?”
Jesus’ silence is commented on by all four gospel writers, who perhaps see in it an echo of Isa 53:7; there are hints of Isaiah 53 throughout Matthew’s account.
Unlike in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus does not directly say “I am” – simply “you have said so.” But it’s exactly the same phrase (in the Greek) that he gave in answer to Judas’s question as to whether he was the one who would betray him:26:25 “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.”
More than that, the words that follow make it But the words that follow make it more than clear that he is claiming Messiahship – and more. Jesus is claiming to be the divine figure in Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7) who is given all authority and judgement. It’ a warning to the high priest that there will soon be a day when the tables will be turned and the Son of Man will be the judge. (When will this judgement occur? It could be the final coming of the Son of Man to judge. However, I think it’s more likely the imminent vindication of Jesus in his resurrection, followed by the judgement on Jerusalem and its leadership a generation later, at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD.)
The central charge on which Jesus is convicted is both religious (for blasphemy, see Lev 24:16) and political (see Matt 27:11, “the King of the Jews”).
Jewish tradition (M.San.7.5) suggests the High Priest’s reaction is expected – almost obligatory – upon hearing blasphemy. It kept tailors in business, at any rate.
The mockery is crude and brutal, but may also be intended as a religious act: they are rejecting a false prophet (see Deut 18:20 for how to treat a false prophet). Jesus’ non-retaliation when he is slapped and punched and spat on echoes his own teaching in Matt 5:39.
Ben Witherington points out that ironically, just as Jesus is being condemned as a false prophet, his prophecy about Peter’s denial is coming true…
Matt 26:69-6569 Now Peter was sitting out in the courtyard, and a servant girl came to him. “You also were with Jesus of Galilee,” she said. 70 But he denied it before them all. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. 71 Then he went out to the gateway, where another servant girl saw him and said to the people there, “This fellow was with Jesus of Nazareth.” 72 He denied it again, with an oath: “I don’t know the man!” 73 After a little while, those standing there went up to Peter and said, “Surely you are one of them; your accent gives you away.” 74 Then he began to call down curses, and he swore to them, “I don’t know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed. 75 Then Peter remembered the word Jesus had spoken: “Before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.
Peter begins this scene in the courtyard. After he first denies Jesus, he goes out to the gateway. After the third denial, he goes outside. His words show him drawing back socially from Jesus, denying any connection with them. And then even spiritually, calling down curses on himself to verify his oath. Peter’s trial parallels Jesus’. Jesus’ increasing display of faithfulness and resolve contrasts with Peter’s increasingly strong denial of Jesus.
To think about
Why did Peter distance himself from Jesus?
When are you tempted to distance yourself sometimes bit by bit – when it looks like being associated with Jesus is going to cost you?
How is Peter’s post-resurrection restoration (in chapter 28) an encouragement?