Who were the “chief priests?”

WHO WERE THE “CHIEF PRIESTS?”

by Shawn Brasseaux

The “chief priests” are important characters in Matthew through John, as well as Acts, since they were among Christ’s enemies. (We will get to those verses later.) For now, let us provide some Old Testament background to identify their origin.

In chapter 24 of 1 Chronicles, King David organized Israel’s Levitical priesthood (which had begun with Moses and his brother Aaron, Israel’s first high priest, some 500 years earlier). Levitical priests were classified according to their forefathers, arranged by “courses” (ranks, orders, positions). They served the LORD God by following an annual schedule as touching ministration in the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple.

“[1] Now these are the divisions of the sons of Aaron. The sons of Aaron; Nadab, and Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. [2] But Nadab and Abihu died before their father, and had no children: therefore Eleazar and Ithamar executed the priest’s office. [3] And David distributed them, both Zadok of the sons of Eleazar, and Ahimelech of the sons of Ithamar, according to their offices in their service. [4] And there were more chief men found of the sons of Eleazar than of the sons of Ithamar, and thus were they divided. Among the sons of Eleazar there were sixteen chief men of the house of their fathers, and eight among the sons of Ithamar according to the house of their fathers. [5] Thus were they divided by lot, one sort with another; for the governors of the sanctuary, and governors of the house of God, were of the sons of Eleazar, and of the sons of Ithamar. [6] And Shemaiah the son of Nethaneel the scribe, one of the Levites, wrote them before the king, and the princes, and Zadok the priest, and Ahimelech the son of Abiathar, and before the chief of the fathers of the priests and Levites: one principal household being taken for Eleazar, and one taken for Ithamar.”

In all, there were 24 courses, lots, or ranks of priests. You can read these names in verses 7-18. Verse 19 summarizes: “These were the orderings of them in their service to come into the house of the LORD, according to their manner, under Aaron their father, as the LORD God of Israel had commanded him.” Other sons of Levi (men of the tribe of Levi) served in non-priestly roles, and they are listed in verses 20-30. Verse 31 recaps: “These likewise cast lots over against their brethren the sons of Aaron in the presence of David the king, and Zadok, and Ahimelech, and the chief of the fathers of the priests and Levites, even the principal fathers over against their younger brethren.”

Following the Jews’ Babylonian Captivity, Ezra, some 500 years after David, conducted his ministry as a priest-scribe. “Then arose Ezra, and made the chief priests, the Levites, and all Israel, to swear that they should do according to this word. And they sware” (Ezra 10:5). Israel and her religious leaders agreed to turn from their idols and worship the LORD God alone. However, their descendants were not believing. Let us skip over to Christ’s earthly ministry now, five centuries after Ezra. The “chief priests” are aware that their Hebrew Bible pinpoints Bethlehem of Judaea as Jesus’ birthplace, but they do not accompany the Gentile wise men to worship Him (Matthew 2:1-11; cf. verse 4). This is just the first of many sins the chief priests commit against the Son of God and His servants.

THE CHIEF PRIESTS MISTREATED CHRIST (QUICK SUMMARY)

Such men show us how possessing a Bible and being religious leaders are really not honorable at all unless we believe God’s Word in the heart. Despite their outward appearance, they are not people of faith. Hence, they will be instrumental in arrogantly challenging, surreptitiously betraying, fraudulently trying, incorrectly accusing, wrongly convicting, mercilessly torturing, irreverently mocking, and brutally executing the Son of God!

  • Matthew 16:21: “From that time forth began Jesus to shew unto his disciples, how that he must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day.”
  • Matthew 20:18-19: “[18] Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, [19] And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again.”
  • Mark 8:31: “And he began to teach them, that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders, and of the chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
  • Mark 10:33: “Saying, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be delivered unto the chief priests, and unto the scribes; and they shall condemn him to death, and shall deliver him to the Gentiles:….”
  • Luke 9:22: “Saying, The Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day.”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS PLOTTED TO KILL CHRIST

  • Matthew 26:3-5: “[3] Then assembled together the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, [4] And consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty, and kill him. [5] But they said, Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people.”
  • Mark 11:18: “And the scribes and chief priests heard it, and sought how they might destroy him: for they feared him, because all the people was astonished at his doctrine.”
  • Mark 14:1-2: “[1] After two days was the feast of the passover, and of unleavened bread: and the chief priests and the scribes sought how they might take him by craft, and put him to death. [2] But they said, Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar of the people.”
  • Luke 19:47: “And he taught daily in the temple. But the chief priests and the scribes and the chief of the people sought to destroy him,….”
  • Luke 22:2: “And the chief priests and scribes sought how they might kill him; for they feared the people.”
  • John 11:47,53: “[47] Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles…. [53] Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death.”
  • Matthew 27:1-2: “[1] When the morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: [2] And when they had bound him, they led him away, and delivered him to Pontius Pilate the governor.”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS CHALLENGED CHRIST’S AUTHORITY

  • Matthew 21:15: “And when the chief priests and scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying in the temple, and saying, Hosanna to the son of David; they were sore displeased,….”
  • Matthew 21:23: “And when he was come into the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came unto him as he was teaching, and said, By what authority doest thou these things? and who gave thee this authority?”
  • Matthew 21:45: “And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them.”
  • Mark 11:27: “And they come again to Jerusalem: and as he was walking in the temple, there come to him the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders,….”
  • Luke 20:1: “And it came to pass, that on one of those days, as he taught the people in the temple, and preached the gospel, the chief priests and the scribes came upon him with the elders,….”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS ARRANGED AND PARTICIPATED IN CHRIST’S BETRAYAL AND ARREST

  • Luke 20:19: “And the chief priests and the scribes the same hour sought to lay hands on him; and they feared the people: for they perceived that he had spoken this parable against them.”
  • John 7:32: “The Pharisees heard that the people murmured such things concerning him; and the Pharisees and the chief priests sent officers to take him.”
  • John 7:45: “Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, Why have ye not brought him?”
  • John 11:57: “Now both the chief priests and the Pharisees had given a commandment, that, if any man knew where he were, he should shew it, that they might take him.”
  • Matthew 26:14-16: “[14] Then one of the twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went unto the chief priests, [15] And said unto them, What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you? And they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver. [16] And from that time he sought opportunity to betray him.”
  • Mark 14:10: “And Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve, went unto the chief priests, to betray him unto them.”
  • Luke 22:4: “And he went his way, and communed with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray him unto them.”
  • Matthew 26:47: “And while he yet spake, lo, one of the twelve, came, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and elders of the people.”
  • Mark 14:43: “And immediately, while he yet spake, cometh Judas, one of the twelve, and with him a great multitude with swords and staves, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.”
  • Luke 22:52: “Then Jesus said unto the chief priests, and captains of the temple, and the elders, which were come to him, Be ye come out, as against a thief, with swords and staves?”
  • John 18:3: “Judas then, having received a band of men and officers from the chief priests and Pharisees, cometh thither with lanterns and torches and weapons.”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS PRESIDED OVER CHRIST’S “TRIAL” (A SHAM, TO SAY THE LEAST!)

  • Matthew 26:59-62: “[59] Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put him to death; [60] But found none: yea, though many false witnesses came, yet found they none. At the last came two false witnesses, [61] And said, This fellow said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days. [62] And the high priest arose, and said unto him, Answerest thou nothing? what is it which these witness against thee?”
  • Matthew 27:12: “And when he was accused of the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing.”
  • Mark 14:53,55-59: “[53] And they led Jesus away to the high priest: and with him were assembled all the chief priests and the elders and the scribes…. [55] And the chief priests and all the council sought for witness against Jesus to put him to death; and found none. [56] For many bare false witness against him, but their witness agreed not together. [57] And there arose certain, and bare false witness against him, saying, [58] We heard him say, I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and within three days I will build another made without hands. [59] But neither so did their witness agree together.”
  • Mark 15:1-3: “[1] And straightway in the morning the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council, and bound Jesus, and carried him away, and delivered him to Pilate. [2] And Pilate asked him, Art thou the King of the Jews? And he answering said unto him, Thou sayest it. [3] And the chief priests accused him of many things: but he answered nothing.”
  • Luke 22:66: “And as soon as it was day, the elders of the people and the chief priests and the scribes came together, and led him into their council, saying,….”
  • Luke 23:4-5: “[4] Then said Pilate to the chief priests and to the people, I find no fault in this man. [5] And they were the more fierce, saying, He stirreth up the people, teaching throughout all Jewry, beginning from Galilee to this place.”
  • Luke 23:10: “And the chief priests and scribes stood and vehemently accused him.”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS SOUGHT TO TAKE LAZARUS’ LIFE

  • John 12:10-11: “[10] But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death; [11] Because that by reason of him many of the Jews went away, and believed on Jesus.” (Sadducees, who denied resurrection [Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8], were influential in the Sanhedrin, especially since the high priest was both a Sadducee and the leader of the Sanhedrin [cf. Acts 5:17]. To be sure, Christ and His Apostles performing miracles of raising the dead made them most unpopular with the chief priests, Sadducees forming some 90% of the Sanhedrin!)

THE CHIEF PRIESTS WERE NOT BOTHERED WHEN JUDAS ISCARIOT CONFESSED HE BETRAYED “THE INNOCENT BLOOD”

  • Matthew 27:3-8: “[3] Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, [4] Saying, I have sinned in that I have betrayed the innocent blood. And they said, What is that to us? see thou to that. [5] And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself. [6] And the chief priests took the silver pieces, and said, It is not lawful for to put them into the treasury, because it is the price of blood. [7] And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in. [8] Wherefore that field was called, The field of blood, unto this day.”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS BETRAYED CHRIST TO THE ROMAN GOVERNMENT

  • Luke 24:20: “And how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him.”
  • John 18:35: “Pilate answered, Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done?”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS PERSUADED MULTITUDE TO DEMAND CHRIST’S CRUCIFIXION

  • Matthew 27:20: “But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus.”
  • Luke 23:23: “And they were instant with loud voices, requiring that he might be crucified. And the voices of them and of the chief priests prevailed.
  • John 19:6: “When the chief priests therefore and officers saw him, they cried out, saying, Crucify him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Take ye him, and crucify him: for I find no fault in him.

THE CHIEF PRIESTS REFUSED CHRIST AS THEIR KING

  • John 19:15: “But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him. Pilate saith unto them, Shall I crucify your King? The chief priests answered, We have no king but Caesar.”
  • John 19:21: “Then said the chief priests of the Jews to Pilate, Write not, The King of the Jews; but that he said, I am King of the Jews.”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS ENVIED CHRIST (IT WAS THEIR MOTIVATION TO MURDER HIM)

  • Mark 15:10-11: “[10] For he knew that the chief priests had delivered him for envy. [11] But the chief priests moved the people, that he should rather release Barabbas unto them.”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS MOCKED CHRIST AS HE HUNG ON CALVARY’S CROSS

  • Matthew 27:41-43: “[41] Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, [42] He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. [43] He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God.”
  • Mark 15:31: “Likewise also the chief priests mocking said among themselves with the scribes, He saved others; himself he cannot save.”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS OPPOSED CHRIST EVEN AFTER HIS DEATH, CALLED HIM A “DECEIVER”

  • Matthew 27:62-66: “[62] Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate, [63] Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again. [64] Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first. [65] Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can. [66] So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS BRIBED THE ROMAN SOLDIERS TO COVER UP CHRIST’S RESURRECTION

  • Matthew 28:11-15: “[11] Now when they were going, behold, some of the watch came into the city, and shewed unto the chief priests all the things that were done. [12] And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave large money unto the soldiers, [13] Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept. [14] And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you. [15] So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.” (Sadducees, who denied resurrection [Matthew 22:23; Mark 12:18; Acts 23:8], were influential in the Sanhedrin, especially since the high priest was both a Sadducee and the leader of the Sanhedrin [cf. Acts 5:17]. To be sure, Christ resurrecting made Him most unpopular with the chief priests!)

THE CHIEF PRIESTS PERSECUTED THE 12 APOSTLES IN EARLY ACTS

  • Acts 5:24: “Now when the high priest and the captain of the temple and the chief priests heard these things, they doubted of them whereunto this would grow.”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS GAVE SAUL OF TARSUS PERMISSION TO PERSECUTE AND ARREST MESSIANIC JEWS IN EARLY ACTS

  • Acts 9:14: “And here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name.”
  • Acts 9:21: “But all that heard him were amazed, and said; Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?”
  • Acts 26:10: “Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them.”
  • Acts 26:12: “Whereupon as I went to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests,….”

THE CHIEF PRIESTS OPPOSED THE APOSTLE PAUL

  • Acts 22:30: “On the morrow, because he would have known the certainty wherefore he was accused of the Jews, he loosed him from his bands, and commanded the chief priests and all their council to appear, and brought Paul down, and set him before them.”
  • Acts 23:14: “And they came to the chief priests and elders, and said, We have bound ourselves under a great curse, that we will eat nothing until we have slain Paul.”
  • Acts 25:15: “About whom, when I was at Jerusalem, the chief priests and the elders of the Jews informed me, desiring to have judgment against him.”

Also see:
» What was the Sanhedrin?
» Who were the “elders?”
» Who were the Pharisees?
» Who were the Sadducees?
» Who were the Herodians?”

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