Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Robes of Caiaphas: Matthew 26:65

The Word of God is like a masterful painting where every brush stroke is intentional and perfectly placed. Nothing is misplaced or there by accident. By carefully reflecting upon details that seem a bit out of place, we can often gain a deeper understanding of the broader teaching of the passage or book. Often, these insights also point to even broader salvation history themes that run through the entire Bible. In many cases, these themes jump out of the text if we are paying attention. They may be obvious because they are difficult to understand, seem to not flow well from the argument or context, or are repetitions. Other times, however, they are more subtle. A good example of this is found in the record of the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas the high priest.

The council had finally found two witnesses who testified that Jesus had claimed to be able to destroy the temple and raise it up again in three days. Jesus then refused to answer and Matthew records the following:

“…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.” (Matthew 26:63-66 ESV)

Notice that in response to the claim of Jesus the high priest tore his robe. Mark’s gospel also records that the high priest tore his garments (Mark 14:63). Most teachers will point out that in the culture of the time to tear ones garments was an expression of severe distress. Usually, this was done at a time of mourning, sorrow, or offense. By tearing his robe, Caiaphas is expressing deep offense at the claim of Jesus. Certainly he was offended but there is something more significant involved than simply the reaction of a priest offended at what he perceives as blasphemy.

In fact, this action of the high priest tearing his clothes is a direct violation of one of the requirements of his office. The priests were to follow a particular holiness code that God had established through Moses in the Law. There were specific requirements for priests (and the high priest in particular) as representatives of God. One of those requirements was that,

“The priest who is chief among his brothers, on whose head the anointing oil is poured and who has been consecrated to wear the garments, shall not let the hair of his head hang loose nor tear his clothes.” (Leviticus 21:10 ESV)

The interesting thing about this requirement is that it had also been given earlier as part of the instructions to the priests after God had killed Nadab and Abihu while they offered strange fire on the altar. After God judges them, Moses reminds the others that God will be glorified and those near Him must be set apart. The idea is that God must be worshiped specifically as He prescribes. Moses then instructs Aaron and his sons with the following words:

“…Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not tear your clothes, lest you die, and wrath come upon all the congregation; …” (Leviticus 10:6 ESV)

Aaron and his other sons were not to engage in the customary acts of mourning for their brothers who had offended God or else the wrath of God might come upon them and the people. The priest was foremost a representative of God and set apart for His service. The robes, which were made according to the design directly given by God, have a symbolic function. They are not just personal garments. In fact, the very design of these garments takes into consideration a concern that they not tear. When God gives Moses the initial instruction about how the robes should be made He says the following:

“You shall make the robe of the ephod all of blue. It shall have an opening for the head in the middle of it, with a woven binding around the opening, like the opening in a garment, so that it may not tear. (Exodus 28:31-32 ESV)

This would appear to be a precaution against inadvertent tearing but clearly, God has a concern that this garment not be tattered or torn because the priest and his garments are a symbol of God’s holiness and glory.

What is the significance then of Matthew and Mark, recording that Caiaphas tore the robe in reaction to the claim of Jesus? There is no doubt that the high priest was offended but it also seems that this detail is included for another reason. Many have pointed out that the trial of Jesus was illegitimate and was itself a violation of the Jewish Law on a number of points. Jesus was tried at night and during Passover, which are both violations of the Law. The testimony of the witnesses does not meet the normal criteria and the sentence itself is not in accordance with the Law of Moses. Perhaps the detail about the tearing of the robe is another indication of the hypocrisy and illegitimacy of the whole event.

Or perhaps it is a subtle indication by Matthew and Mark that the priesthood itself was no longer legitimate because the perfect High Priest was now making the perfect sacrifice. The culmination of the temple cult and its priests in Christ is certainly a major theme of the author to the Hebrews and all of the synoptic writers record another similar symbol along these lines in the tearing of the temple curtain from top to bottom (Mt. 27:51, Mk. 15:38, Lk. 23:45)

In either case, it is interesting that the robe of Jesus, the true high priest, is not torn. As John records regarding the soldiers who crucified Jesus, “...they said to one another, “Let us not tear it, but cast lots for it to see whose it shall be.” This was to fulfill the Scripture which says, “They divided my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (John 19:24 ESV)

The allusions to the psalm here is certainly intended to indicate that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Davidic promise but interestingly, this detail also confirms Christ’s perfection with regard to this aspect of the priestly holiness code. In contrast, Caiaphas violates the requirements of his office by rejecting the revelation of God in His Law as well as in rejecting the claims of the Messiah Himself. We therefore see his arrogance as he presumes to be in a position to pass judgment on behalf of God and stand in evaluation over the very Messiah to which his office was to point.


  1. I am not sure I agree. Didn't Ezra also tear his robe?

    1. That is a very good observation but I think my point in the article is still correct. Here is why...

      Ezra did tear his robe (Ezra 9:3) but although he was in the high priestly family and was a prophet he was not serving as the high priest when this happens. There is only so much I can include in a short article but we also see that the robe of the prophet Samuel was torn. Samuel, though a prophet, was also not serving as the high priest (though raised in the Temple). It was Saul who tore Samuel's robe and this becomes a prophetic symbol that the kingdom will be torn from him (1 Sam. 15:27-28).

  2. Another great article. Thanks Pastor.

  3. Oh, Lord Jesus, the perfect High Priest! Glory be to Him forever!

    Dear KG,
    I think this verse (“...they said to one another, “Let us not tear it....), is in John: 19:24, Not 9:24. may be typing error.

    God bless you.

    1. Thank you Tamrat,

      Yes, that was a typo and is now fixed. God Bless you.

  4. In response to the other incidences of priestly robes being torn in the Old Testament, of which there are a number, I would like to note the context and meaning of the action vis a vis the confession that Jesus is the Messiah (Mark 14 vs. 60-65). There is no teaching in Mark about Jesus being a high priest, but the idea that this is an intentional signal concerning Jesus' life and person is interesting! That Mark records it indicates that he is more than an anthologist that records for the sake of the church, but is deeply aware of the signal inclusions in his narrative for Israel and the nations. There is a tendency to read back what the gospels say, rather than gather what they say for an ongoing vision. The most striking dimension of the Old testament is the framing of their content by the prophets. The prophets gathered the existing history of Israel and explained the meaning for their current situation and for their future. The gospel is inspired writing in this tradition, exclusively revealing Jesus the Messiah.

  5. I think you are dead on. When Caiaphas the current High Priest tore his robe it legally removed him from being the High Priest. Then Jesus became our perfect High Priest. That's also why Jesus lay His life down, no man took it. Read Hebrews. May the Lord Richly Bless You.

  6. There is no teaching in Mark about Christ being a priest but Paul most certainly writes about Christ being a better High Priest in the order of Melchizedek. Forget just reading Hebrews read it cover to cover, because it's all about Jesus! The imperfections of things we have been told versus what is literally written jumps out at me every time I open the Book.The best think I learned was to do a good exegesis. The upper room of the passover is the same word used as an inn at Christ's birth. All houses contained one large room for keeping guests. For decades I've been plastered with the idea Mary and Joseph came into Bethlehem all alone dripping in the throes of heavy labor to be rejected by all the Jews. Yet when Christ is 12 they traveled in a large group together???? Bethlehem had maybe 120-140 families, Mary and Jospeh are of royal lineage...they have family there. The guest room...was over crowded because it was the Feast of Tabernacles. Read the halel songs they were singing in the Temple ...birthday songs to our salvation of the baby whose name means salvation. You certainly don't want a young woman crying out in labor in your guestroom with a houseful of company. She was better off in the God mandated succah in the fields surrounding Bethlehem where the sheep being raised by the Levites for Temple sacrifice were pasturing and having babies of their own. The maji never came that night, Christ was a Pi Dee On...a walking toddler! and they were in a house of their own.... It never said they entered town with her bursting at the seams with baby either... it says while they were there... They chose to stay there because she was still a virgin but in a family way there is a psalm (69)which speaks of the insults hurled at Jesus by the town drunks and the city elders(those who sit at the gates) when they went back to Nazareth. Even as an adult they hurled insults at Christ from the circumstances of His birth. Always the Jewish way was to address the Son of the Father but there is one gospel (Mark 6.3)instance where He is referred to as the Son of Mary. They literally were calling him illegitimate in the same home town of Nazareth. There is a reason they stayed behind in Bethlehem after the rest of the family left to go back to Nazareth. Just to have some time between the birth and their introduction of their son with the questionable birth date as compared to marriage act to the small town with a bunch of cruel gossips. From Grandma Pastor (Hey if Moses started his ministry at age 80 I can in my old age too)

    1. Grandma... you have a lot here. Maybe enough to start a blog!