At the last came two false witnesses, And said, This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.
It is that time of the year when our attention is directed to the suffering of Jesus Christ. The suffering in our text takes place on the night of His betrayal. Having been betrayed, Christ was arrested by the Sanhedrin, which was the highest Jewish tribunal, consisting of 71 members, with the high priest presiding. At the time of Christ the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem enjoyed a very high degree of independence. It not only sat in judgment in cases of civil jurisdiction according to Jewish law, but also in criminal cases. It could order arrests by its own officers of justice, sometimes with the help of the Roman soldiers. It was limited only to the extent that it did not have jurisdiction in cases that involved capital punishment. For this they needed the approval of the Roman governor.
From the history of the suffering and death of Jesus it is evident that the Jews did not intend to conduct a formal trial, but rather to put Him to death secretly, i.e., murder Him. This had been attempted before, but always failed because His hour had not yet come. In the beginning of His ministry, when He preached in the synagogue in Nazareth, they that heard Him were filled with wrath “and rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. But he passing through the midst of them went his way” (Luke 4:29, 30).
Moreover, they did not intend to put Him away on the feast day because they were afraid of the multitude that was gathering in Jerusalem for the Passover (Matt. 26:3-5).
The way of the Lord was quite different. Christ must not simply be killed, so that His body would be found somewhere later. No, He must be publicly executed, and die on the accursed tree. And it was exactly the purpose of the Lord that He should die during the feast of the Passover. This purpose was accomplished at that time through two means. First, through the raising of Lazarus. This miracle had been witnessed by many, and because of it many believed. This same thing caused the unbelieving Jews to become excited. “Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? For this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation” (John 11:47, 48). At that time, on the advice of Caiaphas, they decided to kill Him. The second thing that frustrated their plans to put Him away subtly was the dismissal of the traitor. Judas had covenanted with them to betray the Lord for thirty pieces of silver. The idea was that through this traitor they could put Christ away in secret. But this failed because at the last supper the Lord exposed Judas and then told him, “That thou doest do quickly.” Therefore the Jews could not avoid conducting a formal trial to have Jesus publicly put to death on the accursed tree, and that too, during the feast of the Passover.
After His arrest, Christ was first led to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas. No doubt Caiaphas, as president of the Sanhedrin, needed the time to gather as many members of the council as he could, for it was night. The entire trial was the confirmation of the words that Jesus had spoken shortly before: “Now is the judgment of this world: now shall the prince of this world be cast out” (John 12:31).
The trial was conducted during the night, which was illegal. Furthermore, there was no charge. Jesus was finally condemned to death because in answer to the high priest He confessed that He was the Christ, the Son of God. This was the simple truth, which could never be disproved by the Sanhedrin. Thus, the trial was the confirmation of and the testimony of the innocence of Jesus, while at the same time it constituted the condemnation of the Jewish nation through the Sanhedrin.
Nevertheless, at one moment of the trial, Jesus stood before the Sanhedrin as the temple-builder. Two false witnesses came and falsely accused Jesus that He would destroy the temple and build it in three days. Negatively, according to the words of these false witnesses, Jesus stood before them as the temple destroyer. But Christ never made that statement. He said that they, the enemies, would destroy the temple, and that too, as it was in His body, and that in three days He would rebuild the temple. Therefore, positively, in His own words, He stands there as the temple-builder. The simple fact is that man destroys and Christ builds the temple.
The meaning is plain. The temple is the house of God, where He lives with His people. It embodies the idea of God’s eternal covenant. It is essentially the relation of most perfect and intimate fellowship and friendship. The real, eternal covenant of friendship and fellowship is in God Himself. On the basis of His triune life, three persons in one being, He lives a life of perfect covenant fellowship. God’s covenant with man is but a revelation of God’s own covenant life as the triune God. Such is essentially the house of God.
This was developed in history beginning in Paradise. Man was created in the image of God, a creaturely reflection of God Himself. Therefore, man was the friend of God and lived in most intimate fellowship with his Creator. Paradise was the first house of God. Man sinned and fell away from God into darkness and death. The covenant, however, was immediately established in Christ. Christ was ordained from eternity to rebuild the temple on the ruins of sin and death, and to reestablish God’s covenant in a far higher and more beautiful form than had ever been revealed in Paradise the first.
This was realized symbolically in the tabernacle and the temple, and finally and really established in Jesus Christ our Lord. The incarnation, the union of God and man, is the most intimate fellowship of God and man in the highest sense of the word. The covenant was established in the blood of Christ, which He shed on the cross. Atonement had to be made for the rebellion and sin of man before the tie of friendship and fellowship could be realized again. The covenant was realized in the highest sense in the resurrection and ascension of Christ to the right hand of God as His covenant friend. That house is now established in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Through Him Christ dwells in our hearts, regenerates us, giving us a new life, the life of God’s covenant fellowship. He calls us by His Word, instills into our hearts living faith, cleanses us from sin and corruption, and perfects us so that with Him we may become the covenant friends of God forever. This is all now in principle, but will be perfectly realized when Christ returns and creates the new heaven and new earth where the tabernacle of God will forever be with men.
This temple-builder is now insulted. The Jews accused Him of saying that He would destroy the temple. It is evident that He did not and that it was they that through the ages had destroyed the temple and were now attempting to do the same by killing Him who was the temple-builder. The council of the Jews could not accuse Him of any sin. He could challenge them, and He did so by His very silence. Many false witnesses came, but no two could be found that agreed with each other. However, the charge that He would destroy the temple and build it in three days did not find favor in the eyes of the Sanhedrin.
This charge deeply hurt the Lord. Personally He was the Son of God, dwelling in the bosom of the Father, the Son of the everlasting love of God, who lived forever in most intimate fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Now accused of destroying the house of God? How absurd and how impossible!
This was also insulting to Him in the human nature. He is Immanuel, God of God in the human nature, in whom the most intimate union of God and man was established perfectly. He was in His own person the very representation and revelation of the temple of the living God. He had said, “The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up” (Ps. 69:9; John 2:17). At that very moment, standing before the council, He was laying the foundation of the house of God. Soon He would do so in the shedding of His atoning blood. He would rebuild what the unbelieving Jews attempted to destroy. He is now being accused of being a violator of God’s covenant, of being an enemy of God and His people. How insulting!
We see that Christ, in response, held His peace. The purpose is plain. Christ knew, the accusers knew, and the council of the Jews knew that they were lying. Christ’s very silence gave testimony to their lie. But the chief reason for His silence is that He stood there before the Jewish council in the stead of His people. We were given to Him by the Father—we, who are sinners in ourselves, the real temple-destroyers, who always violate the covenant of God. It is in our stead that Christ stood there, bearing the grievous insult that He destroyed the temple, and not only bearing that particular insult, but bearing all our sins upon His mighty shoulders. He stood there before the Sanhedrin and before His Father in heaven as the obedient Servant of Jehovah who personally knew no sin, but who so represented His people that He stood as the sinner before the face of God. He stood before God and the Jewish council bearing the iniquity of all whom the Father had given Him, in order that He might rebuild the temple of God forever by satisfying the justice of God and by blotting out all our sins on the accursed tree.
Such was His task, on the cross and in the resurrection, a task that shall not be completed until all those whom the Father has given Him shall be gathered into one, and the tabernacle of God shall be with men forever. By His Holy Spirit He works in our hearts the covenant life of God. When that work is accomplished, and Christ calls that covenant life of God to our consciousness, so that we confess our iniquity in true, heartfelt sorrow before the face of God, and enter into perfect righteousness and everlasting life through the gate of the blood of Christ, then we will learn to know the covenant life, the covenant fellowship, the covenant love of God, so that we too love Him, and walk in newness of life in the midst of the world, to the glory of His name.