April 11 – The Unjust Conspiracy

“The chief priests and the whole Council kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death.”

Matthew 26:59


The only evidence of guilt against Jesus was man–made and contrived.

The essence of the Jews’ ancient legal system is found in the Lord’s words to Moses and Israel: “You shall not distort justice; you shall not be partial” (Deut. 16:19). Therefore, it is truly amazing to consider what twisted measures the Jewish leaders resorted to in their trial of Jesus.

The Council, or Sanhedrin, was authorized to judge only those cases in which charges already had been brought. But in Jesus’ case, with no formal charges yet made and with the Jews’ rush to judgment, the Council had to act illegally as a prosecuting body to keep the chief priests’ murder plot moving forward.

As the sinless Son of God, Jesus was innocent of any wrongdoing. Therefore, the only way for the Jews to convict Him was to obtain false testimony against Him. And to do that, the leaders had to pervert the very heart of their judicial system and endorse the words of liars.

But the Jews quickly found it was not easy even to manipulate and assemble false charges. As is so often the case with liars, what they testified to was not only false but inconsistent. Mark’s Gospel notes that even the two witnesses’ more usable charges about Jesus and the destruction of the temple were not consistent (14:57–59).

It is one of the strongest affirmations in the Bible to Christ’s moral and spiritual perfection that not a single human witness could make an accusation that would convict Him of a crime. After all the desperate maneuvering by the Jews to come up with even the flimsiest testimony against the Lord, He stood innocent of any violation of God’s moral or spiritual law. Instead, it is the unjust, hateful group of men that will one day stand before God condemned for their sinful actions in falsely accusing the Savior.


Suggestions for Prayer: Pray for wisdom and integrity in the judges who make decisions in today’s courtrooms.

For Further Study: Read Deuteronomy 16:18–20 and 19:15–20. How do these passages show that Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin was based on wrong principles (list several factors)?[1]

The chief priests are mentioned separately probably because they were the primary instigators of Jesus’ arrest (see v. 47). But as Matthew makes clear, the whole Council, or Sanhedrin, was present.

The Council was empowered to act only as judge and jury in a legal proceeding. They could not instigate charges but could only adjudicate cases that were brought before them. But because they as yet had no formal charge against Jesus, they were forced to illegally act also as prosecutor in order to carry out their predetermined plan to convict and execute Him. Consequently, they kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus, in order that they might put Him to death.

Because Jesus was innocent of any wrongdoing, the only possible way to convict Him would be on the basis of false testimony. His accusers would have to be liars. Because the Council was so controlled by satanic hatred of Jesus, they now were willing to do whatever was necessary to condemn Him, even if that meant violating every biblical and rabbinical rule of justice. To accomplish their wicked conspiracy they found themselves perverting the very heart of the Sanhedrin’s purpose, stated earlier in this chapter: “to save, not destroy, life.” Their purpose now, however, was not to discover the truth about Jesus and certainly not to save His life. Their single, compelling desire was to put Him to death.[2]

If there was but one central Sanhedrin (see above), it was composed of three groups: leading priests (see comments at 21:23), teachers of the law, and elders. It had seventy members plus the high priest, but a mere twenty-three made a quorum. The “whole Sanhedrin” need not mean that everyone was present (cf. Lk 23:50–51) but only that the Sanhedrin as a body was involved. We do not know what proportion of the seventy came from constituent groups or whether the proportion had to be preserved in the quorum.

Many equate this meeting of the Sanhedrin with the one at daybreak described by Luke (22:66–71). But Matthew seems to make a distinction between the two (cf. 27:12). Perhaps the later meeting was in the temple precincts (the usual place) and was more fully attended; if so, Luke may well be conflating the proceedings.

Matthew says the Sanhedrin was looking “for false evidence” (pseudomartyria, v. 59, GK 6019) and obtained it from “false witnesses” (pseudomartyres, v. 60). It is unlikely this means that the Sanhedrin sought liars only; if so, why not simply fabricate the evidence? Rather, the Sanhedrin, already convinced of Jesus’ guilt, went through the motions of securing evidence against him. When people hate, they readily accept false witness; and the Sanhedrin eventually heard and believed just about what it wanted. Matthew knew that Jesus was not guilty and could not be, so he describes the evidence as “false.”[3]

26:59 the whole Council. See note on Jn 3:1. The great Sanhedrin was the Supreme Court of Israel, consisting of 71 members, presided over by the High-Priest. They met daily in the temple to hold court, except on the Sabbath and other holy days. Technically, they did not have the power to administer capital punishment (Jn 18:31), but in the case of Stephen, for example, this was no deterrent to his stoning (cf. Ac 6:12–14; 7:58–60). Roman governors evidently sometimes ignored such incidents as a matter of political expediency. In Jesus’ case, the men who were trying Him were the same ones who had conspired against Him (cf. Jn 11:47–50).[4]

26:59 The whole Council (“Sanhedrin”) need not denote all 70 members but may just indicate those hastily assembled in the middle of the night (23 members made a quorum). “Sanhedrin” (Gk. synedrion) could refer either to a local Jewish tribunal (e.g., “council,” 5:22; “courts,” 10:17) or, as here, to the supreme ecclesiastical court (“Council”) of the Jews, centered in Jerusalem. The Romans were ultimately in control of all judicial proceedings but allowed their subjects some freedom to try their own cases.[5]

26:59 Jewish tradition maintains that Ezra established a synod of teachers, known as the hakeneseth hagedolah (Heb.), which functioned to adapt and develop the oral tradition (cf. 15:2) to meet contemporary needs. They constituted the channel through which the knowledge of the Torah was transmitted. On this theory, when the Great Assembly ceased sometime in the third century b.c., the Sanhedrin (sunedrion, Heb.) arose to deliberate community concerns in Judea. According to Josephus, it was known as the gerousia (Gk.), “Council,” during the Seleucid period (198–167 b.c.) and Sanhedrin, “Court,” during the Roman occupation. It consisted of 71 members, including the acting high priest, who presided over the other 70 members from two parties, the Sadducees and Pharisees (26:3, 57; Mark 14:53; 15:1; Luke 22:66). Former high priests, the acting high priest, scribes, possibly members of the more privileged families from which the high priests were selected, and the elders (i.e., tribal and family representatives of the people and the priesthood) also served. During the Roman period, many local courts existed because the Romans permitted the Jews to handle many of their own domestic and religious matters. At least three judges made up the local courts which convened on the second and third days of the week. Courts in large towns had 23 members, the number needed to decide cases of capital punishment. The Sanhedrin constituted the Jewish supreme court and met in the temple area each day, except on holy days and on Sabbaths. Sanhedrins existed in several communities of Judea during the rule of the Roman procurators (a.d. 6–66). The Jerusalem Sanhedrin, however, exercised considerable authority, which varied with different monarchs. Herod the Great tried to limit its powers, but under the Roman procurators its powers extended to free regulation of religious matters and controlled regulation of civil matters. Beginning with the rule of Archelaus (4 b.c.-a.d. 6), the powers of the Sanhedrin were evidently limited to Judea, since it could not exercise authority over Jesus when He was in Galilee. After the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70, the Sanhedrin was abolished. During its existence, it had direct authority over its own police force and could order arrests (26:47; Mark 14:43), and in capital cases had the power of life and death, provided that the Roman governor gave his consent. His judgment, however, usually complied with the Sanhedrin’s demands. The Sanhedrin also heard charges of blasphemy (26:57ff.; John 19:7), transgression of the Law of Moses (Acts 22–24), and false doctrine (Acts 4). Members sat facing one another in a semicircle. Two clerks of the court, one at each end, stood to record votes of condemnation and of acquittal. Condemnation required a two-thirds majority; acquittal, a simple majority. In cases involving capital punishment, arguments for acquittal were presented first, then those for condemnation. Acquittal could be declared on the day of the trial, but condemnation awaited the following day. Disciples of the scribes attended the courts, sat in front, and argued in favor of acquittal, but not for condemnation. Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin (26:59; John 11:47), but due to His not being granted the benefit of the doubt which usually lay with the accused, the legality of His trial has been the subject of great deliberation.[6]

[1] MacArthur, J. (1997). Strength for today. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.

[2] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Mt 26:59). Chicago: Moody Press.

[3] Carson, D. A. (2010). Matthew. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew–Mark (Revised Edition) (Vol. 9, p. 619). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2006). The MacArthur study Bible: New American Standard Bible. (Mt 26:59). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[5] Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (p. 1883). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[6] Criswell, W. A., Patterson, P., Clendenen, E. R., Akin, D. L., Chamberlin, M., Patterson, D. K., & Pogue, J. (Eds.). (1991). Believer’s Study Bible (electronic ed., Mt 26:59). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.