As Christians, we know that Jesus had to die. But we don’t often pause to reflect on why Jesus had to undergo a trial first—and not just any trial, either. The Gospel of Matthew tells the events of Jesus’ trial in such a way that shows us it was dripping with injustice.
Many of the injustices in Jesus’ trial are harder for us to see today. But for the original Jewish audience, they would have been both obvious and tragic. Here are six ways the trial of Jesus was unjust:
1. The timing was unjust.
Jesus’ trial takes place in the middle of the night. The first phase occurs in Caiphas’ (the high priest’s) house, sometime around midnight. Jewish law said that trials could only occur during the day (officially, between morning worship and the evening meal). This was so that trials could be public and open to scrutiny. Furthermore, trials were not allowed to take place on Feast days, and Jesus’ occurs in the Passover.
In our day, this would be like Jesus being arrested late Christmas Eve night, and then his trial being held, unannounced, untelevised, and with no press present, at 2 a.m. Christmas morning. If that happened with someone today, you’d know something sinister was afoot.
2. The “due process” experience was unjust.
The Jewish Sanhedrin (which was the highest ranking Jewish council of the day) was supposed to be the impartial judges in a capital case, where they would listen to the accusations and weigh the evidence fairly. Think of them as the Supreme Court of ancient Israel.
But in Jesus’ case, the Sanhedrin are the ones making the charges. Imagine you were in a courtroom where the judge came down off the bench, led the prosecution, and then went back to sit in his chair. If that happened, you would doubt whether he could really be impartial in the verdict.
Additionally, official charges are never actually brought against Jesus; he is just blasted with questions and, when he doesn’t answer the right way, he is punched repeatedly in the face.
3. The use of witnesses was unjust.
According to Jewish law, all the witnesses had to agree on the basic details of the crime, including the date, time, and place of the crimes. Much like today, if their testimonies were too contradictory, then the case would be thrown out. To add further weight to the role of witness, any witness who was found to be lying would receive the punishment the accused was supposed to receive! Well, in Jesus’ trial, the Sanhedrin keep looking for witnesses (which is inappropriate, since they are supposed to be the judges), and the few they do find can’t agree on any key details. Jesus is also never given an opportunity to bring counter-witnesses to his own defense, because, again, the whole thing is done ad hoc in the middle of the night.
Even the assembled mob is staged. The Gospels tell us that, before word had time to get out to everyone else, the Jewish leaders pull together a mob and instigate them to call out “Crucify!” when Pilate asks what he should do with Jesus.
4. The conviction process was unjust.
The conviction was supposed to take place by vote. The practice was that they would vote in order of the youngest to the oldest so that the youngest wouldn’t be pressured by the older on how to vote. To carry out an execution, the sentence had to be unanimous. No such vote ever takes place with Jesus, and we know that some of the Sanhedrin, like Nicodemus, object. Furthermore, Pilate twice gives a verdict of innocence, which is ignored.
5. The sentencing was unjust.
Jewish law required that a sentence of death be carried out by stoning, and the stoning was to be done by the accusers. The judgment had to sit on the table for three days, a delay that was supposed to give any other witnesses with exculpatory evidence time to come forward. After three days, the Sanhedrin would reassemble, read out the man’s name, his crime, the verdict, the sentence, the witnesses’ names, and then call once more for any witnesses that might have some exonerating evidence. Only then would they carry out the stoning.
Care to guess how many of these steps happened in Jesus’ trial? Zero.
6. Pilate’s final consent was unjust.
Pilate knows Jesus is innocent, but he is unwilling to act on it. He knows he’s being manipulated by the Jewish leaders, so he comes up with what he thinks is a pretty ingenious solution—and under normal circumstances, it would have been. He appeals to a custom whereby they would release one Jewish political prisoner on Passover as a sign of good will. He had hoped the crowd would release Jesus. But the plan backfires, and the crowd demands Barabbas, the worst possible option. So in order to avoid a riot, Pilate consents to Jesus’ crucifixion.
Pilate, you see, was on thin ice as a governor because he had made some really boneheaded decisions. The Jews hated him, and they were ready to riot at a moment’s notice. Roman Emperor Tiberius was so annoyed with Pilate that he had officially put him on probation, and Pilate knew that if there was one more flare-up in Jerusalem, he was going to get fired.
Pilate consents to the execution of Jesus not because he believes Jesus is guilty but to save his own skin.
But here’s what we have to remember throughout this entire unjust process: Jesus was not, strictly speaking, a victim. He was in control the entire time, and every injustice that fell on his shoulders was placed there, in mysterious sovereignty, by the Father. So why would Jesus consent to such an unjust trial process? To paraphrase some who were present that day, “He proclaimed justice for others, but he can’t find justice for himself!”
Here was the intention behind the injustice: In his trial, Jesus was identifying with every one of us who has ever had to undergo injustice—everyone who has ever been betrayed, overlooked, abused, or mistreated. He didn’t just want to die for us. He wanted to walk through the broken experience of injustice so he could say to us, “I know what you are going through, because I’ve been there.” And he entered into that injustice for us so he could redeem us from it.