They took Jesus away to the high priest. All the chief priests and the elders and legal experts were assembled. Peter followed him at a distance, and came to the courtyard of the high priest’s house, where he sat with the servants and warmed himself at the fire. The chief priests, and all the Sanhedrin, looked for evidence for a capital charge against Jesus, but they didn’t find any. Several people invented fictitious charges against him, but their evidence didn’t agree. Then some stood up with this fabricated charge: ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this Temple, which human hands have made, and in three days I’ll build another, made without human hands.” ’ But even so their evidence didn’t agree. Then the high priest got up in front of them all and interrogated Jesus. ‘Haven’t you got any answer about whatever it is these people are testifying against you?’ Jesus remained silent, and didn’t answer a word. Once more the high priest questioned him. ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ ‘I am,’ replied Jesus, ‘and you will see “the son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven”.’ ‘Why do we need any more evidence?’ shouted the high priest, tearing his clothes. ‘You heard the blasphemy! What’s your verdict? ’They all agreed on their judgment: he deserved to die. Some of them began to spit at him. They blindfolded him and hit him, and said, ‘Prophesy!’ And the servants took charge of him and beat him.
I remember as a child being fascinated with some really old Russian dolls. Made out of thin wood, they came apart in the middle with a satisfying squeak, revealing a smaller one inside. Then the next, and the next. Eventually you reach the smallest, a tiny little doll still perfectly formed and painted. You can, of course, set them alongside one another on the mantelpiece. But you can also put them back together and enjoy the knowledge of what’s hidden inside the one you can still see.
Many years later I came upon a set of Russian dolls that made a quirky political point. It was while Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge of the old Soviet Union, at the time when it was undergoing its astonishing transformation. So the outer doll, the biggest one in the collection, was Gorbachev himself. Inside him was Chernenko, and inside him Andropov (neither of whom ruled for very long). Inside Andropov was Brezhnev, one of the key figures in the cold war of the 1960s and 70s. Inside Brezhnev was Khrushchev, whom I remember from my young days. And inside Khrushchev (missing out Malenkov, a short-term and forgettable Soviet leader in the early 1950s) was the old man himself, Joseph Stalin, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his own people. The point was starkly clear: they’re basically all the same. Open up one and you’ll find the others.
Now there are two ways in which that illustration can help us into a fuller understanding of what’s going on in this dense and frightening scene, the confrontation between Jesus and the high priest. First, let’s open up the high priest himself, and see what we find inside.
Caiaphas was part of the ruling elite, the wealthy Jerusalem-based aristocracy. He was a politician to his fingertips, who knew all the dodges and tricks to try to balance out what Rome expected of local leaders on the one hand and what the ordinary people expected of their priests on the other. He could of course take the high moral and theological ground at the drop of a hat, as he does when he shouts ‘blasphemy’ and tears his clothes as a sign of his supposed horror at such a thing (in fact, Mark is telling us, he was delighted: Jesus had just handed him the result he wanted).
Any first-century Jew would have told you that Caiaphas was just like all his predecessors: heavily compromised, out for his own ends, staying in power at whatever cost there might be to everyone else and to the integrity of Judaism. Open him up, and you’ll find a string of other time-serving leaders going back several centuries, far longer than the leaders of Communist Russia.
But Mark is interested in going back another stage behind this. When Jesus gives his final answer, he quotes from Daniel 7: ‘you will see “the son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven”.’ Go back to Daniel 7 and see: when ‘one like a son of man’ is seen ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’ (7.13, niv) this is the heart of a great court scene in which God himself is vindicating his people against the wicked attacks of the monsters who have opposed and oppressed them. Now here, Mark is saying, is this great court scene, the climax of the gospel so far. And Caiaphas is cast in the role of the fourth and final monster, perhaps even the ‘little horn’ of Daniel 7.19 –22. Even if we think it likely that Mark envisages Rome itself as the ‘fourth monster’ in Daniel’s scheme, Caiaphas is here acting as chief spokesman. Open him up, and instead of the wise, devout leader of God’s people, we see the blasphemous, arrogant opponent of God’s kingdom.
Now try the same with Jesus. Throughout the gospel he has been seen as a prophet (6.15; 8.28). Now he’s accused of being a false prophet, announcing the destruction and rebuilding of the Temple (verses 57–58). That’s why, when they decide he’s guilty, the mocking crowd gather round, blindfold him, and invite him to ‘prophesy’, guessing who has been hitting him. (Meanwhile, as Mark’s reader then discovers, Jesus’ prophecy about Peter denying him is coming true.)
But, though being a false prophet (and speaking against the Temple) was a serious and possibly fatal charge, Caiaphas opens up the first Russian doll and peers inside. If you’re making claims about destroying and rebuilding the Temple, does that mean you think you’re the Messiah? It is, after all, the Messiah who has the rights over the Temple, ever since David planned it and Solomon built it.
Caiaphas here thinks of messiahship simply in terms of human kingship. But this time it is Jesus, and then Mark telling the story, who open the disguise still further. Yes, Jesus is a prophet, a true prophet. Yes, he is the Messiah, the one who has the right to declare the Temple redundant and to promise a God-given replacement. But inside this he is much, much more. He is the one who will be exalted, after his suffering, to sit ‘at the right hand of Power’, that is, of God.
Jesus has here combined Daniel 7 with Psalm 110.1, which became a favourite text in the early Christian movement (and which he’d already used to baffle his questioners in 12.35 –37). He has discovered in the scriptures the two texts which speak most plainly of the fact that, when Israel’s representative has completed his appointed task, he will take his rightful place beside God himself, sharing as it were the very throne of God, or perhaps sitting on a second throne right beside him. This is where we discover the secret that lay behind that dialogue of love and agony in the garden of Gethsemane. This is where we learn that within the profiles of ‘prophet’ and ‘Messiah’ there is a hidden, secret identity. Now at last, now when it can no longer be misunderstood in terms of self-serving power, now when he is bound to be misunderstood and when his judges are bound to find him guilty – now at last Jesus can do what God himself does at the moment of the Exodus (Exodus 3.13 –15). Now at last he can reveal who he really is. ‘This is our God, the Servant King.’
Lord Jesus, king and master: guiltless, you were condemned; life-giver, you were sent to death; lover of all, you were hated and mocked. We worship you and we bless your name.