14:53-65 – The trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin reveals the guilt not of the man on trial, but of the judges. Instead of seeking to ascertain the truth of what Jesus had said and what he meant by it, they instead begin with a desire to have him condemned and sentenced to death. Some of this, no doubt, was due to his public rebukes of many of their practices; some of it was certainly due to their envy of the crowds of religious seekers that he was attracting. But something even more inflammatory was going on: the priests and the Sanhedrin had clearly heard in Jesus’ teaching a proclamation that threatened the very core of their religious system. He had been speaking out about the end of the Temple, of its destruction and of his act of replacing it with a new, spiritual temple. This, in fact, is the only bit of content from the witness testimony of the trial that Mark records for us (vv.57-58), so it must have been important. We must remember that the Temple was the absolute heart of Jewish religion at that time, particularly for the sect of Sadducees (whom most of the priests were aligned with), and so Jesus’ proclamations against the Temple and his act of kingly authority in cleansing the Temple courts were perceived as an existential threat to the priests’ way of life and to the very fabric of Israelite religion. But, because of disagreeing witness testimonies, they couldn’t make any capital charge stick against Jesus. So the high priest challenges him directly to answer one of the rumored identity-claims that had been circulating about Jesus: “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (v.61) In phrasing the question this way, the high priest is probably not implying the same sort of theological content that we understand in the title of “Son of God”; rather, he probably had in mind a common designation of a messianic figure, much as Israel’s kings, like David and Solomon, had occasionally been referred to in such terms, in a wholly symbolic manner. Jesus’ answer, however, goes far, far above and beyond such a simple conception of “Son of God.” Mark depicts Jesus as replying directly, and in terms that led directly to the blasphemy charge: “I am.” The fact that this two-word phrase is isolated, and that Jesus didn’t say, “Yes, I am the Messiah,” but instead used it as a standalone response, is a clear indicator that he is claiming the divine name for himself, YHWH, the great “I AM” who revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush. And just to make sure that the priests haven’t missed his point, Jesus then makes it unmistakable—he is claiming to be “the Son of Man,” the divine figure from Daniel’s vision (Dan. 7:13-14), who is coming on the clouds of heaven, enthroned with the Ancient of Days/Mighty One, and to whom all nations will render worship (see Dan. 7:14). The high priest clearly understands what Jesus is claiming here, because is reaction is one of having heard the highest sort of blasphemy. Presumably he would not have reacted this strongly if Jesus was just making a case for being a human messiah, a “Son of God” in the symbolic manner of the old kings. But Jesus is claiming to be God, and the priest understands that quite clearly. This, in the eyes of Jewish religious jurisprudence, was a crime worthy of death. A further point is worthy of reflection, as we seek to apply this passage. There are many times in the Christian life where we sinfully put our motives first, where we seek to corner God into doing or saying things such that we can do what we wanted to do in the first place—must as the priests are doing here. There are even times when we might accuse God—perhaps for failing to answer a prayer in the way we wanted, perhaps for a perceived absence of his presence in a time when we needed him. Like Jesus at his trial, God hears our accusations and sees all our hidden motives, and to all these things, he simply proclaims the truth beyond all truths—that he is God alone.
Note to My Readers: from mid-June to mid-August (6/18 - 8/20), I will be taking a summer break from posting new articles for my Thursday and Friday slots. This will only affect my Thursday series on the global growth of Christianity, and my Friday series, the "Theological Bestiary" of birds, both of which will resume in late August. During the summer, I'll be dusting off some of my best essays from the first few years of this blog (a decade ago), as well as my verse play "Thus Ends the World," and re-posting them in the Thursday and Friday slots. All other weekdays will continue to feature new material throughout the summer.