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The Trial and Abandoning of Jesus - a study of Matthew 26:63-75

Jesus is a lot more loyal to us than we are to Him.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 26:63-75

Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, who will reign eternally. But that didn’t stop His opponents from giving Him a sham trial and convicting Him to death. Sadly, Peter wasn’t ready to face the cost of Christianity, so He abandoned Jesus. We need to ask ourselves just how loyal we are to Jesus.

But Jesus kept silent. Matthew 26:63

[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About


Your leader guide recommends this topic, and I really like it because it also gives us a chance to talk about something very important going on in our society that affects Christianity. I explain myself in more detail on the next page. Ask your class, “Does loyalty have the same value that it did 30 years ago?” The answer is “Of course not” and importantly, that is the world our kids are growing up in. Ask what people tend to be loyal to. I’m thinking of things like vehicle brands, clothing brands, colleges, employers, doctors, phone companies, game consoles, churches, and so on. While people may tend towards one brand over another (and sometimes for the silliest of peer-pressure reasons), they can “switch loyalty” at any moment.

Why is that? Ask your class what has made them switch brands in the past. I highly value loyalty, but not blindly. When differences in price, quality of service, or quality of product exceed my tolerance (which is admittedly vague), I have no problem ending long-standing business relationships (after giving that partner the chance to keep my business).

Here’s why it matters to us: people lump Jesus/church into that same category. Certainly, much of that is with “church hopping” (“I’m not happy with something here, so I’ll starting going there”), and while that’s a concern, it’s not nearly as serious as those people who think they can treat Christianity like that. “I’m not happy with Jesus, so I’m going to leave Jesus.” That’s not how it works! But now that we live in a world where loyalty means very little, we have to teach newcomers that loyalty is not only important, it’s what God created us for! Loyalty to Jesus, that is.

Famous Trials.

If you don’t think your class would be interested in that topic, you can always talk about trials. The background for all of this is Jesus’ kangaroo trial before the Sanhedrin (and later Pilate). But be careful! This is the kind of subject that can rile folks up in a hurry . . . What have been your experiences on a jury? What trials have you kept up with in the news? Which verdicts have you been extremely upset with and why? I’ve read headlines about some outrageous awards from juries, but I think most of the discussion will be about wrongful convictions and wrongful acquittals of police shootings (on both sides). Those trials are gut-wrenching as it is, but to hear that they are being used as part of a social or political agenda is maddening. However, you can really stir the pot by Googling “show trial” and reading some of the results. That is a trial in which guilt has already been determined and the trial only takes place to publicly humiliate the defendant or make a strong political statement. Note that no one (except for conspiracy theorists) will say that show trials happen in America! But they will say that money and power regularly “stack the deck” in many cases. (This is why it is so important to know who our judges are and elect people who will not be influenced by those shenanigans.) You can also look up “kangaroo court” to really get people going. But keep the conversation on a short leash! The point is that Jesus never had a fair trial.

This Week's Big Idea: The Death of Brand Loyalty

I don’t know if there’s any way you want to use this in Sunday School, but I find it fascinating and really important. I recently read an article called “The Death of Brand Loyalty” on that included the lines:

Consumers are not inclined to be loyal to brands as they once were because the underlying value of loyalty itself is no longer particularly relevant. In the old world, loyalty was good and something we aspired to give and receive across all aspects of life . . . with friends, family, employers, dentists, doctors, bankers, and maybe even the federal government. But generational experiences have made sticking with “tried and true” a sucker bet. Loyalty means remaining the same. Not exploring alternatives. Putting your head in the sand and maybe even missing a beach party.

Over the last three generations, major trends in marriage, religion, politics, and corporate America have reframed expectations for surviving and thriving in this world. The consistent theme is that change is not something to be feared or avoided. Change is inherently good. And the hankering for change is increasing at an accelerated rate.

The article goes on specifically to discuss the areas of work, religion, romance, trust, and thinking, explaining how people no longer demonstrate loyalty. (For example, Millennials do not trust the government (82%), the press (88%), or big banks (86%).) On the one hand, the article gives reasons for it. For example, we have learned that many of those brands are not loyal to us, so why should we be loyal to them? (Including corporate takeovers and layoffs, mismanagement, greed, etc.) If the brand does not have our best interests in mind but simply uses us for profit, then loyalty is meaningless. Of course, that’s not the way it has always been, nor is every brand like that, which makes this question all the more compelling. People’s very thought processes about loyalty have changed, so what are we supposed to do about it?

I blame two major trends. (1) Globalization. The further removed a brand owner is from the consumer/community, the less motivated that owner is by loyalty. Plus, globalization means more competition, which puts more pressure on making a profit. And more competition means more choices. It’s simply easier to flip from one brand to another. And that is all compounded by (2) The Me-First World. Loyalty is no longer valued because loyalty demands some kind of sacrifice. We now live in a world where the highest value is getting what I want at all costs. Now, there is some ridiculous hypocrisy and double-standard at work in that worldview, and we are already seeing how self-destructive it is, but it’s too late to go back and ask everybody to be reasonable, honest, and forward-thinking.

To non-Christians like the article author, this is no big deal. We just accept the fact that people continuously need to be wowed and impressed (or they take their business/attendance elsewhere). To committed Christians, this is a big challenge. Not only do we need to share Jesus, but we also have to convince potential Christians to “stick it out” with us long enough to become rooted.

Connection: “Hardship” in Millennial America

What does brand loyalty or anything like that have to do with our Bible lesson on Peter denying Christ? Well, why did Peter deny Christ? Because he was afraid—he was afraid for his life. We can study church history to know that throughout periods of intense persecution, there have always been groups of Christians who have run away in fear (only later to regret it and try to come back). Now transport that to modern America where people will leave a restaurant because of one unpleasant waiter (and broadcast it to the world on Twitter!). When life gets hard, how many people will stick with a church or (more importantly) a relationship with Jesus? If one truly is a transformed Christian, then this will go very differently if one is not! But here’s my point: if someone has been brought up for a lifetime of being taught to run away every time you don’t like something, that’s going to take some reeducation and some training. It probably won’t change overnight!


Part 1: Affirmed by Scripture (Matthew 26:63-64)

But Jesus kept silent. Then the high priest said to Him, “By the living God I place You under oath: tell us if You are the Messiah, the Son of God!” “You have said it,” Jesus told him. “But I tell you, in the future you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”

Here is the outline of the “whole” trial. No Gospel tells the complete story (and it is rather complicated). John 18 tells us that after the nighttime arrest, Jesus was taken to

  1. A hearing before Annas. Annas was a former high priest and the father-in-law of the current high priest who still wielded considerable power. Then our passage tells us that Jesus was sent to

  2. A hearing before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. Caiaphas was the current high priest. All of this is still taking place before dawn. Caiaphas declared that Jesus calling Himself the Son of God was blasphemy. But because capital crimes could only be sentenced during daylight, Matthew 27, Mark 14, and Luke 22 all mention

  3. A sentencing before Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin. This seems to be an echo of the earlier trial with the result that Jesus would be sent to Pilate. The Roman trial also had three stages. There was first in Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23, and John 18

  4. a hearing before Pilate. Pilate wanted nothing to do with this trial, so when he found out that Jesus was from Galilee, Luke 23 says Pilate sent Him on to

  5. a hearing before Herod Antipas. Herod was in town for the festival, and he wanted to meet Jesus, but when Jesus would not “play ball”, he sent Him back to Pilate for

  6. a final appearance before Pilate. This was the public trial during which Pilate sat on the judge’s bench and the Jewish leaders incited the crowd to call for Barabbas instead of Jesus. All of this takes place in about 12 hours. Can you imagine?

Anyway, our lesson focuses just on a few verses of this entire trial. It is very obvious that the high priest is not terribly interested in the truth; he just wants a charge that can stick to Jesus. Their big charge, that Jesus would destroy the Temple, was weak. So Caiaphas went with a vague “Son of God/blasphemy” question. We really don’t know what he meant by “Son of God”. He certainly didn’t mean it in a divine sense! But Jesus’ response was clear. Jesus knew He had to die for God’s rescue plan to work, so He decided to educate the Jews on who the Messiah really was. This was a warning to them: one day all of them would see exactly who the Messiah was: more than a man.

Here, Jesus is clearly appealing to Daniel 7:13-14, in which the Son of Man was given authority over every people and nation—and further: “His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.” Shots fired! What is most important to say to your class is that Jesus was the one in control of the situation, not His opponents. Nothing happened that He did not allow to happen.

If you have time to camp out here (after you have explained the context), you could help your class realize (1) the importance of staying calm in bad circumstances, and (2) the importance of knowing the Bible. Jesus is quoting Scripture all throughout His trials. Why do you think that is? (There’s no way His opponents could miss or deny it, and I truly think that Jesus enjoyed reading and memorizing Scripture. Just because He helped write it doesn’t mean He didn’t take comfort from it!) What do you think we can learn from Jesus’ example?


Aside: The Sanhedrin’s Power

When the Romans conquered a people, they usually left day-to-day governance in the power of the people. That made Roman presence a little more tolerable, and it also kept the Romans out of quirky social matters that, if handled poorly, could create a lot of unrest. And the Romans didn’t have time for any of that. (Frankly, it’s a wise policy.)

But the Romans were also very cautious about the power they gave to local courts. For example, some courts might try to remove Roman sympathizers from positions of power. They also might try to make life very difficult for commoners who supported Rome. As a result, Rome never gave local courts the power of appointment, the power of capital punishment, and they retained the right to intervene in any trial whenever they felt like it. One way they kept this power was by “storing” the high priest’s garments in a garrison, to “loan” to the Jews when they needed it. This was a remarkably effective way to keep the Sanhedrin under control.

The Sanhedrin, Israel’s highest court, was painfully aware of this. They existed to settle religious disputes, interpretations of the law, and to be fuddy-duddies. They were accusing Jesus of blasphemy—a crime that demanded death by stoning, but also a crime that Rome couldn’t care less about. The only way they could convince Rome it was a capital offense was to make Jesus a threat to Caesar (treason). Had they been content with keeping Jesus in prison, they would not have had to involve the Romans at all.


Part 2: Denied by His Opponents (Matthew 26:65-68)

Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! Why do we still need witnesses? Look, now you’ve heard the blasphemy! What is your decision?” They answered, “He deserves death!” Then they spit in His face and beat Him; others slapped Him and said, “Prophesy to us, Messiah! Who hit You?”

This one is bizarre. How could grown religious leaders justify their actions here? You can probably think of other times in which you’ve observed adults acting like spoiled children. If you have time, ask your class—”What are the circumstances that make people behave extra badly, and what do we need to do to keep ourselves out of those circumstances?” Tearing one’s clothes was a symbol of outrage. (Of course, the great irony is that Jesus was telling the truth.)

The insults they made to Jesus still seem applicable today. What do people get wrong about Jesus today? And how do they take that out on Him? It seems to me that most of the “complaints” are with respect to people who expect Jesus to do something or be something that He never claimed. But I would move through this quickly so as to get to the next section.

Aside: All of the Broken Laws in This Trial

The Jews broke so many of their own laws in the way that they “tried” Jesus that it is difficult to understand how they could still consider themselves good Jews. One of my favorite authors, Leon Morris, explains it like this.

  1. In capital cases, while an acquittal can be handed down the same day as the trial, a conviction must be postponed until the following day.

  2. Consequently, trials may not be held the day before the Sabbath or a festival day.

  3. Multiple witnesses must be in complete agreement of their testimony, and those witnesses must be examined carefully.

  4. In a conviction of blasphemy, there must be witness to the person actually pronouncing the sacred name of God (Yahweh).

There are a few ways to explain this. Perhaps there was a “except under extreme circumstances” clause somewhere in their code of law. Or perhaps the law had changed and we just didn’t know it. Or more likely, the Jews would say that what they were doing wasn’t really a true trial. They were just having “informal discussions” about the charges they wanted to take to the Romans about Jesus. The problem with that is the High Priest certainly seemed to treat it like a trial—once he got the evidence he wanted, he cut it off and called for a “vote” and sent Jesus to Pilate.

The Sanhedrin consisted of 70/71 members; at least 23 had to be present for a quorum. I’m sure you have no problem realizing how easily the high priest could manipulate the invitations to make sure only his supporters (and not men like Joseph of Arimathea) would be present.


Part 3: Abandoned by His Friends (Matthew 26:69-75)

Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A servant approached him and she said, “You were with Jesus the Galilean too.” But he denied it in front of everyone: “I don’t know what you’re talking about!” When he had gone out to the gateway, another woman saw him and told those who were there, “This man was with Jesus the Nazarene!” And again he denied it with an oath, “I don’t know the man!” After a little while those standing there approached and said to Peter, “You certainly are one of them, since even your accent gives you away.” Then he started to curse and to swear with an oath, “I do not know the man!” Immediately a rooster crowed, and Peter remembered the words Jesus had spoken, “Before the rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

So—right after the Jews mock Jesus about prophecy, Matthew reports a fulfilled prophecy. Let’s camp out here for a while. The Sanhedrin normally met in the Temple complex, so that backs up the notion that this was intended to be informal. The high priest obviously had a very large home; homes in Jerusalem had a courtyard (kind of like a “front yard”) where servants could linger while meals and meetings went on. No solid windows, so anyone in the courtyard could easily hear what went on inside. Because so many people were coming and going, the doors must have been open, so Peter just went right on in. He probably wanted to know why Jesus was arrested and what would be the outcome.

All of the Gospels mention Peter’s denials, but the details are quite different. The best way to reconcile them is to realize that there was a longer interval of time in between the denials than we think Matthew implies. The slave girl was the first to confront Peter while he was near a fire. And don’t miss the importance: this is as gentle a confrontation as could possibly happen—the lowest person on the totem pole confronted Peter. And she didn’t say anything other than that Peter was with Jesus! No accusation, no nothing. And he was terrified! Then, there were two different groups of people that Peter tried to hide among (the first near the gateway where it would have been much darker, and the second wherever Peter had tried to slink away from the group at the gate), and one or more of them spoke out against him. The final accusation is just goofy, for what does having a Galilean accent have to do with following Jesus? And yet Peter was terrified by it! Why did Peter deny Jesus? The disciples were in no present danger—that night was all about Jesus. Peter was overly scared. It is remarkable that when the Gospels were written, Peter was considered a pillar of the church; most early Christians would not have known about this sizable wart were it not for the Gospels. All the more reason to acknowledge them as true.

Note the progression in Peter’s denials. The first is a simple evasion (and a lie). The second is full-on perjury with a repudiation of Jesus. The third is a double-down with multiple oaths. (Feel free to mention to your class the way people today try to back up their lies—by speaking louder and harsher. Think Lance Armstrong.) Jesus is at that moment being mocked, beaten, and condemned to death, and Peter is denying any relationship. Now get this: if Peter can hear what’s going on inside the house, Jesus can hear what’s going on outside the house. And Peter, with his apparently distinct voice, has gotten quite loud and demonstrative in his denials of Jesus. Peter fell asleep on Jesus when Jesus needed him most, and now he has rejected Jesus in every possible way at His worst moment. And worse, Peter had specifically swore that he would never do that. So Peter wept bitterly. But those were tears of grief and repentance. Do make sure to take your class to the end of John 21 in which Jesus reinstates Peter by asking him three times if he loved Jesus. Peter would not have to be defined by his lowest moment; rather his loyalty and lifelong service would show the real Peter.

I think there are two great applications for this passage. (1) Even committed followers of Jesus can inexplicable mistakes. That keeps me humble. When I see other Christians doing things that they should know better, rather than rail against them, I need to ask if anyone has pointed it out to them. It took the rooster crowing for Peter to realize what he had done. His brain and spirit just stopped working. Have you ever needed someone/thing to shake you out of a bad place? Be ready to help your Christian friends if they ever go there. (2) Even the person who has made the worst possible mistake can be forgiven and made into a great leader of Christians. Apart from Judas, I don’t know of anyone who did a worse thing than Peter. (Maybe Paul? But he wasn’t a follower of Jesus at the time.) And yet Jesus Himself made Peter the courageous pillar of the early church, even miraculously rescuing Peter from prison! This also keeps me humble. Jesus can see more and better in someone than I can, and that’s why I try to err on the side of giving people another chance.

End with these kinds of questions: What are the costs/dangers of following Jesus today? Are you prepared to face them? If you have already tried and failed, have you gone to Jesus in repentance? Have you written other Christians off for their failures? Will you “give them another chance” in your heart while also being willing to help them succeed? -or– Have you ever really disappointed yourself? Have you ever felt like you really disappointed God? In your own heart, how did you “make a comeback”? How long did it take or you to understand and accept God’s forgiveness?

And if you really don’t like those ideas, just talk about Jesus’ kingdom. Talk about what people get wrong about that kingdom, and then talk about how great it will be to be a part of it! This lesson is about forgiveness and hope!


Aside: The High Priest

This position evolved over the centuries. His primary duty was entering the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement. He also presided over Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles in Jerusalem. Those duties required absolute ritual purity (do you think Annas and Caiaphas were appropriately concerned about that?). Over time, the high priest also assumed a number of administrative duties. He was the president of the Sanhedrin (the highest court in the land), and as such a key representative for Israel to Roman authorities.


Closing Thoughts: Whose Loyalty Is Strongest?

I’m telling you, this topic has really taken my attention! So, I compared some anecdotal information about loyalty to a college vs. loyalty to a church. Scientists believe that people are exceptionally loyal to a college because (1) it was probably a first major decision (and we like to defend our decisions), (2) it was probably a first major investment, (3) it was a crucial growing/learning phase of life, (4) many relationships were built during it, and (5) if you graduated, it was a first major accomplishment. All of those things, combined with other factors such as family influence, cement a college brand loyalty deep. Even after major academic scandals, sexual abuse scandals, and other major problems at a college, those people “hold their nose” and maintain loyalty.

Similar things might be said about a church. People who have very strong ties to a church can stick with that church through scandal, controversy, or basic disagreement. People today, however, are less likely to have those kinds of ties. Why? Because families tend to move more, there are more churches to choose from, and there are fewer Christians in a family to influence such a tie. There is no way to prove this, but I wonder if people today are far more loyal to a college than to a church. What do we do about that?

Most importantly, we must not conflate church membership with Christianity. We should be much more worried about someone’s relationship with Jesus than where they are a church member! But secondarily, I think this is where we have failed to teach our kids about the principles of churches. I am a Baptist by choice, and while I can understand moving to a different Baptist church, there are some switches that are unfathomable to me. And finally, I consider it an opportunity to look inward. If someone leaves our church for a different one, can we find out why? Can we fix something? (If someone left because he/she was not a Christian in the first place, that’s a very different situation. Pray for that person.)


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