Caiaphas: Close But Not Close Enough
March 24, 2007
Thursday, April 5, AD 33. 5:45 AM The sun pushes its way over the Eastern horizon as the great city wakes up. Merchants roll off their hard mattresses, animals begin to stir in their stalls, here and there a stray dog barks. Slowly the mists of the night leave and within minutes almost everyone is awake. It’s going to be another hot day in Jerusalem. In the southwest corner of the city a great palace slowly comes to life. It is the palace of Caiaphas, high priest of the Jews.
In that house Caiaphas dons his priestly robes. He feels better today than he has in many weeks. And well he should. Today was the last of the preparation days for the Passover. Already the city was jammed to capacity with tourists, pilgrims, and throngs of Jews from every part of the land. As he put on the last part of his robes, This was his fifteenth Passover and though he knew the routine by heart, he never tired of it. After all, even lasting this long as high priest was extraordinary. Before him, there had been three high priests in as many years. Small men, coming and going before you knew who they were. But not Caiaphas. Somehow he always managed to stay in power. He was the consummate politician who knew how to keep the Romans happy by keeping the radical Jewish element in check. He knew how to work the angles, he knew the Torah, he could be eloquent when he needed to be, and he knew how to work a crowd. Like many leaders who stay in power a long time, his primary gift was expediency. He would cut a deal when it served his purposes.
8:00 AM The day is fully begun now. The streets are crowded with pilgrims flocking to the booths buying pigeons, lambs, and bitter herbs for the Passover supper. In the temple itself, the merchants are putting up their stalls again and cautiously beginning to do business once more. That troublemaker Jesus of Nazareth had come through earlier in the week shouting and calling them thieves. He overturned their tables and nearly caused a riot. A Strange man.
In the great palace Caiaphas prepared to leave for the temple. Things were almost ready. He had said the morning prayers, eaten breakfast, and now gave the command for his retinue of servants and friends to lead the way to the temple. But his mind was on something else. He, too, was thinking about that Galilean called Jesus. But he could never think about him very long without getting angry. He was nothing but a radical upstart troublemaker. From the very time he heard about this Jesus, Caiaphas had not liked him. Not many days earlier he had told the Sanhedrin that it would be better for Jesus to die than for the nation to perish at the hands of the Romans. Better for one man to die for the people rather than the whole nation to perish. And that bit of political expediency—sacrifice the one for sake of the many–had led to the plot that had delivered Jesus into his hands. Jesus was a threat to the public order, a disturber of the peace, a menace to society, and there were even those who called him the King of the Jews. If the Romans got wind of that, there would be serious trouble. Michael Sadgrove calls Caiaphas’ words to the Sanhedrin “a polished speech by a man of the world who knows his audience, knows what they are afraid of, and at the same time holds them in contempt: ’you know nothing at all.’ And underneath the contempt? A barely concealed self-interest in dealing swiftly with dissent and neutralise it. And above all, the smell of fear.” Jesus had to die. The sooner, the better. Caiaphas’ anger turned to a smile. Soon enough he would take care of Jesus once and for all.
11:15 AM The hot sun beat down on the city. Not a cloud in the sky. The temperature neared 80 degrees. And still the crowd swelled. This was the final day and the tempo was picking up in every corner stall. The merchants were doing a great business, the animal-traders figured to sell more than ever.
Caiaphas meets with a few of his closest friends. But this was no prayer meeting. This was a top-secret strategy session. It was a final review of the plans to kill this man called Jesus. The discussion went back and forth. What was the best way to handle it? It was a ticklish problem. Much to Caiaphas’ displeasure Jesus had quite a following. Some had come down from Galilee. Others had simply heard about his miracles. At the very least, they had to be careful at Passover time. With the city crowded, the Romans were edgy, and rumors spread like wildfire. If word of their plot got out, the results would be disastrous.
The big break had come on Wednesday. That was the day that some fellow named Judas had defected from Jesus and offered to help capture him. Actually, the whole affair had caught Caiaphas by surprise. He didn’t know Judas and, frankly, judging from his appearance he would just as soon keep his distance.
Caiaphas wondered to himself, looking back, why Judas had come in secret, offering to lead the soldiers to Jesus at night. He gave no reason, and no one asked for one. It made no difference. Things were falling into place. And that’s why Caiaphas was smiling as the noonday sun shone overhead.
5:00 PM The sun edges toward the west, still beating hot as the city slows down after the hectic day. Here and there last minute shoppers bought animals for the Passover meal or haggled over the price of vegetables in the marketplace. But the work was almost done.
Outside the city a little band of men prepared to enter for the Passover meal. Two had gone ahead to make sure everything was ready. In just a few minutes this little group of 13 men would enter the city at the southeast corner, following the southern wall of the lower city, through another gate, and into the upper room of a borrowed home. There these men would share the evening together. By strange coincidence the house they used was not far from the palace of Caiaphas.
Now the force of events begins to take over. Caiaphas knows that events must come to a climax tonight. Little does he know the man he stalks eats the Passover with his disciples less than a quarter mile away.
8:30 PM Throughout the city families gather to share the Passover meal. In houses along every street fathers explain to sons the symbolism of the meal, the remembrance of God’s deliverance of his people from hand of Pharaoh in Egypt. Outside, the streets are not empty – they never are in Jerusalem – but mostly so. Here and there one hears the chanting of prayers as the faithful celebrate.
And in that borrowed house Jesus meets with his disciples for the final time. Without warning he announces “One of you shall betray me.” Looks of shock, anger and fear come on every face. Quickly they wonder out loud. “Is it I?” Only one does not wonder. Judas knows the truth, looks Jesus in the eye and says, “Surely not I,” Jesus answered, “You yourself have said it.” Apparently no one else hears or understands. Judas stands, excuses himself, and leaves.
It’s only a short walk up the road to the palace of Caiaphas. The leaders are waiting for him inside. Judas makes his way to Caiaphas and says “Tonight. I can take you to him tonight.” “Wonderful, wonderful.” As quickly as he comes, Judas vanishes into the night.
In his mind Caiaphas plots the next move. He cannot go with the soldiers to take Jesus. That would be too obvious. Besides, something might go wrong. It could be a trap. No, he will stay and others will go. No sense getting himself involved too soon. And that was one reason Caiaphas had stayed high priest so long. He was clever, ruthless, brutal and brilliant. Always thinking of every angle.
11:00 PM By now the meal in the borrowed house is finished. Jesus leads the eleven men out of the city the way they came in, unnoticed in the darkness. Across the Kidron valley outside the city they went to the slopes of the Mount of Olives. No one was surprised. This had always been one of Jesus’ favorite spots for quiet meditation. Tonight in the garden of Gethsemane he comes to pray.
Meanwhile, Caiaphas waits anxiously. Why don’t they have him yet? All in all, he would just as soon get it over with. It’s now nearly midnight and no sign of this Jesus or of Judas for that matter. But there is nothing to do but wait. And so Caiaphas, high priest of the nation of Israel, the most important Jew in the land, waits nervously in his large house for something–anything–to happen. The day that had dawned so bright and hopeful only 18 hours ago seemed now to never end. He sat and waited. And wondered.
12:15 AM Friday morning. Now the city is sound asleep. Here and there Roman soldiers stand guard. The lights are out, the animals are in their stalls, everyone rests before the great day of the Passover.
Outside the city, events come to a climax. A parade of torches shines through the darkness as a group of men wind their way through the olive trees along the western slope of the mountain. They are heading for the garden where there was an oil-press, a place called Gethsemane. Very soon they will have their man. They round the last tiny curve and make their way into the grove. “There he is,” Judas says. But he’s too late. Jesus has already seen them. He knew the hour of his betrayal had come.
There was a kiss, a whispered conversation, angry words from the disciples, and it was all over. The whole affair lasted less than five minutes. The men left the garden and made their way back down the slope, across the valley and back into the city. They have their prisoner in tow.
1:00 AM Caiaphas hears the sound of voices in the courtyard, and in comes the guard. And with him the man from Galilee called Jesus. Caiaphas cannot help smiling. He has his man.
Now the prearranged plan unfolds. The chief priests and elders retire into an inner room for the trial. Caiaphas knew he had to maintain every appearance of keeping the law.
1:15 AM Jesus stands in the middle of the room, Caiaphas and his men are seated around him. The first witness comes in, but he obviously doesn’t even know who Jesus is. Then another and yet another until over a dozen have testified. All tell of various crimes but their words do nothing to implicate Jesus. Witnesses openly conflict each other and their own testimonies. Some smell of wine, others mispronounce the name of the accused. Caiaphas groans to himself. At this rate, it will take all night to pronounce a sentence.
2:05 AM Finally two witnesses are found who manage to blurt out a useful story. They accuse Jesus of saying he will tear down the temple and build it again in three days. It wasn’t exactly what Jesus had said. He was speaking of his own body that would be raised from the dead. He wasn’t leading an insurrection to tear down Herod’s temple. But Caiaphas didn’t care about the fine points. The accusation was close enough to something Jesus had said that at this late hour it would do just fine.
Caiaphas was still not satisfied. The accusation wasn’t really enough to put a man to death. And something else bothered him. Why hadn’t this Jesus made any defense? Witness after witness had spoken against him. Was this man mad? Did he not care?
Finally the strain of the hours, the plotting in secret, the anxious waiting took their toll and Caiaphas stood up and asked the question that had been on his mind from the first.
“I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Time stopped. No one moved. The sleepy leaders suddenly woke up. This was the great question, the one they all wondered about. Who was this man? Could he be……..? Was it possible?
And this was the moment Jesus had been waiting for. He looked Caiaphas in the face and replied, “It is as you say.” From somewhere came a gasp. This man claimed to be the Son of God. The rumors were true. Jesus then added a word they didn’t expect. “Caiaphas, you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming in the clouds of Heaven.”
He was claiming to be God. Caiaphas had heard enough. He stood up, tore his clothes and cried out “Blasphemy.” Caiaphas turned to the assembled men who still were too shocked to move and asked, “What do you think?”
They hadn’t expected that. After all, who knows who this man really is? Why shouldn’t Caiaphas decide? But too late for that. Now they must say. As one man they buried their doubts. First one and then another said “He is guilty of death.” Never mind that they didn’t have the authority to carry out the sentence, never mind that they weren’t supposed to meet in the middle of the night, never mind the false witnesses. This man must die. He is too dangerous to be alive.
And so the deed was done. Caiaphas got what he wanted. At last he was rid of this troublemaker Jesus. He turned to leave the room. It was now nearly 3:00 AM He could get three hours sleep if he hurried. As he left the others gathered around the unfortunate man and spit on him.
6:00 AM Jesus is tried before the Sanhedrin
6:30 AM He is brought to Pilate
7:15 AM Taken to Herod
7:45 AM Back to Pilate
9:00 AM Outside the city on the hill shaped like a skull the man called Jesus is crucified
9:15 AM Caiaphas gets the news and smiles to himself, “At last I am rid of that man.”
But you’re wrong, Caiaphas. You’re not through with him yet. You will see him again.
Caiaphas, Caiaphas, wherever you are, can you hear me? You asked the right question. He gave you the true answer. And you wouldn’t believe it. Do you believe it now, Caiaphas? Do you know who this man is now? I think you do, but it’s too late for you.
So Close But Not Close Enough
We must not miss the ultimate irony of Caiaphas’ story. A week earlier, when word spread that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, the Sanhedrin met to consider how to handle the “Jesus problem.” The Jewish leaders could not deny the signs he had done. They knew Lazarus had been dead and now he was alive. So they said, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” Politicians, even religious politicians, always think the same way. They fear anything that upsets the status quo. That’s when Caiaphas uttered his most famous line. “It is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” When John told the story, he adds that Caiaphas said more than he knew because his statement was a prophecy of the death of Christ, how his bloody death would provide salvation for everyone who believes in him. In just one sentence Caiaphas uncovered the heart of the gospel.
One man dies for the many.
The innocent dies for the guilty.
The just dies for the unjust.
The Son of God takes the place of guilty sinners.
He paid the price.
He took the punishment.
He suffered in your place.
If there is even one sin that Christ did not pay for, or even one evil thought that he did not bear, if he did not bear all our sins, then there is no hope for you or for me. But he has finished the work of salvation. He suffered so that we will not suffer for our sins. The price was fully paid.
Better he should die for us than we should die for our own sins.
Caiaphas was so close to the truth. So close but not close enough. He was a religious leader who ought to have known that everything in the Old Testament pointed to Christ. His story proves that being a religious leader doesn’t guarantee any degree of spiritual enlightenment. He was so blinded by his hatred of Christ that he could not see who he really was. He even spoke the truth unknowingly and prophesied what Christ would accomplish by his death.
As I write these words, we are only a few days away from Holy Week. There is no better time to ponder what happened to Caiaphas. If we merely pity him, we miss the point of the story that God would impress upon our hearts. He was religious, and it was his religion that blinded his eyes. Yet the religion he followed was the religion God revealed through Moses. We need not spend any time arguing that the Jews had drifted away from the perfection revealed on Mt. Sinai. That this is true, no one can deny, but it hardly matters because all of us have drifted from the divine ideal, and while we can argue which church comes the closest, none of us can claim perfection. In sending Christ away to be crucified, Caiaphas thought he was doing God’s will. Thought he was doing what Moses would have done. Thought he was following the law of God. Thought that he was doing the prudent thing by ridding the country of this miracle-working imposter who stirred up the people and invited Roman reprisal. Caiaphas thought he was following God in those early hours on Friday morning. As the chief religious leader of the Jews, he was the blind leading the blind.
Let us not think that we are immune to the same tragic mistake. In our zeal to serve God, we may actually end up opposing him. Our only hope is to cast ourselves upon the Lord, admit our weakness, and pray for true enlightenment that comes from the Holy Spirit.
And that leaves us with the question the high priest asked his men sometime after 2 AM on Friday morning. “What do you think?” Caiapahas had every reason to come to the right answer to that question, and somehow he missed it. He could have known the truth–and should have known it–because one fateful night in Jerusalem the Truth was standing right in front of him.
That night Jesus stood on trial before Caiaphas–only it wasn’t Jesus who was on trial. It was Caiaphas. He stands exposed as a religious leader who feared what he did not understand and hated what he could not control, who condemned to death a man he could not intimidate. When he condemned Jesus, he condemned himself for sacrificing justice in the name of expediency.
Let his story stand as a solemn warning, especially to every religious person reading these words. Jesus is still a problem for the world. He is still on trial in every human heart. Each one of us must choose what we believe about the Man from Galilee. Let us take our stand with Jesus and the example of Caiaphas will not have been given in vain.