There are multiple levels of irony in the Gospel narratives, especially surrounding Jesus’ arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection. One that’s commonly pointed out is that of Jesus’ confrontation with Pilate on the gospel of John. As A.T. Lincoln has shown in his Truth on Trial, we are given a narrative portrayal of Karl Barth’s theme that Christ is the Judge judged in our place.
As Jesus, the Truth, the Judge over all the earth, stands face to face with his would-be earthly judges, they end up on trial, rendering judgment upon themselves as they pass judgment on him. In doing so, they send the Judge to the cross to be judged in our place, suffering the judgment of God for their own sins.
One other irony struck me the other day, though this one comes, not in the trial with Pilate, but in Jesus encounter with the Temple leadership. Matthew recounts the first trial following Jesus’ arrest in the garden:
Then those who had seized Jesus led him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders had gathered. And Peter was following him at a distance, as far as the courtyard of the high priest, and going inside he sat with the guards to see the end. Now the chief priests and the whole council were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.’” And the high priest stood up and said, “Have you no answer to make? What is it that these men testify against you?” But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has uttered blasphemy. What further witnesses do we need? You have now heard his blasphemy. What is your judgment?” They answered, “He deserves death.” Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?” (Matthew 26:57-68)
Again, the dynamic of the Judge judged in our place is plainly here, especially in the reference to the Son of Man drawn from Daniel 7–a scene of judgment and vindication. All the same, the point that struck me was the fact the main prosecutor in the trial was none other than Caiaphas, the High Priest himself.
The irony, of course, is that, as the High Priest, his chief job was to serve as a Mediator–the Mediator–for the people of Israel. His chief task was to bringing the sacrifices for the sins of the people before the LORD in the Temple once a year on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16). His job, you might say, was to be chief intercessor and defense for the people of God, seeking mercy for their sins.
Instead, we find him in another role: the accuser, (ha satan). That’s right, for those unaware, Satan’s name comes from the role he plays in the biblical drama–the accuser, the prosecutor of the people of God. And this is the role we find Caiaphas playing on the day of Jesus’ trial, relying on false testimony and trumped up charges in order to convict the Holy One.
Now, as a friend of mine pointed out the other day, this calls to mind another passage from the prophets, Zechariah 3:
Then he showed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the LORD, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. And the LORD said to Satan, “The LORD rebuke you, O Satan! The LORD who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?” Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, “Remove the filthy garments from him.” And to him he said, “Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.” And I said, “Let them put a clean turban on his head.” So they put a clean turban on his head and clothed him with garments. And the angel of the LORD was standing by. And the angel of the LORD solemnly assured Joshua, “Thus says the LORD of hosts: If you will walk in my ways and keep my charge, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts, and I will give you the right of access among those who are standing here. Hear now, O Joshua the high priest, you and your friends who sit before you, for they are men who are a sign: behold, I will bring my servant the Branch. For behold, on the stone that I have set before Joshua, on a single stone with seven eyes, I will engrave its inscription, declares the LORD of hosts, and I will remove the iniquity of this land in a single day. In that day, declares the LORD of hosts, every one of you will invite his neighbor to come under his vine and under his fig tree.” (Zechariah 3)
(This, by the way, is where I clearly get out of my depth as a systematic theology guy.) Still, after the Exile and the return to Israel and the Land, Zechariah receives a vision of the current high priest Joshua in the heavenly council of the LORD, being accused by none other than the Satan. And yet, the LORD rebukes him. He changes Joshua’s filthy garments for new ones, cleansing him of sin, qualifying him to represent the people, and removing the basis of Satan’s accusations. Of course, besides the clear linguistic link (Joshua = Jesus in Hebrew), this screams “type of Christ”, the coming priest who has no filthy garments of his own, being perfectly sinless.
On top of this, Joshua is then given a promise of a coming “Branch”, the servant of the LORD, whom some commentators think is a blend of Isaiah’s Servant visions (40-55, cf. esp 53) with Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah’s idea of a David-like King to come. So you end up with a vision of a coming priest-king along the lines of Melchizedek. Melchizedek, the priest-king who is the type of Christ to come (Hebrews 7).
So right after this scene of the accusation of Joshua comes a dense cluster of images pointing to a coming day when God will remove all the sins of Israel in a single day, through this Branch. Of course, with Christian eyes there a million red lights flashing, begging you to draw connections between it all. Not that I’m suggesting that Matthew intended a clear literary connection, but the theological connections seem like they’re not much of a stretch.
Coming back to the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas, the long and the short of it is that, in the irony of God’s providence, like Satan in the vision of Zechariah, this false High Priest Caiaphas ends up playing the Accuser of Jesus the True High Priest, who is on the dark path he must tread to become the Atoner who goes to remove the sins of the people of God.
Soli Deo Gloria