Even then, there was politics

It seems that more and more in America today, we see politicians acting as, well, politicians. They say one thing and do another. They make public statements about a particular matter, but privately (we occasionally find out) their words are opposite those public statements. Americans are rightly frustrated with this duplicitous behavior. But should we be surprised? Do we think things are worse than they were in the past? Has modern politics dissolved into constant double-dealing, deceitful conduct? Actually, things have always been this way, and we really shouldn’t be all that surprised.

Recently, I was in a discussion with someone via the comment section on the Stream.org website. The back-and-forth conversation shifted to Jesus’ claim of being divine. The other person asserted that Christ never actually claimed to be God. I responded by asking, “Then why did the Jews want him crucified?”

Recently, I was in a discussion with someone via the comment section on the Stream.org website. The back-and-forth conversation shifted to Jesus’ claim of being divine. The other person asserted that Christ never actually claimed to be God. I responded by asking, “Then why did the Jews want him crucified?”

The person responded that Jesus was “upsetting the status quo” therefore the Jews wanted him killed.

Taking aside the fact that this seems to be a pretty harsh punishment for “upsetting the status quo”, this comment actually forced me to go a re-read the accounts of Jesus’ found in the Synoptic Gospels and John. What I discovered was something very interesting that I had never noticed before.

The events that culminate in Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion by the Romans at the behest of the Jewish leaders had been building throughout his ministry. By the time we get to his “triumphal entry” back to Jerusalem, things are starting to boil over. In Matthew 21, we read about Jesus’ return to the city which is quickly followed by his cleansing of the temple—basically kicking out the money changers and others who were taking advantage of the people. Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 12 all give us parallel accounts regarding the triumphal entry, and Luke (19:45) and Mark (11:15) also include details about the cleansing of the temple.

What follows these are a series of teachings, parables, and public proclamations that lead to an increasing tension between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. For example, in Mark 11:15 we read, “But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David!’ they were indignant.” In Matthew 21 we see the chief priests and elders challenging Jesus’ authority, and later in chapter 22 Jesus outright tells the Sadducees “you are wrong because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God.” In Luke 20, Jesus publicly warns the people to “beware of the scribes” and in Matthew 23 he proclaims the “Seven Woes” to the scribes and Pharisees.

As the tension builds, we see the unfolding plot to kill Jesus. Matthew 26:3-5 tells us, “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. But they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people’.” Mark provides a similar description, “And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people’” (14:1-2). Luke simply tells us that the chief priest and the scribes were looking for a way to put him to death “for they feared the people.”

At this point, one may very well conclude that the Jewish religious leaders were quite upset with Jesus’ teachings and condemnation of them for their religious hypocrisy. He was “upsetting the status quo” in a sense, but to understand the real motivation of their desire to have him executed, we need to read on.

In Chapter 26, Mark provides an account of Jesus before Caiaphas, the high priest, after his arrest. Caiaphas asks him directly if he is “the Christ, the Son of God.” Mark’s wording is slightly different, with Caiaphas asking, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” (14:61). Luke has the whole of the council demanding, “If you are the Christ, tell us” (22:67).

Jesus’ answer and the High Council’s response leave us with no doubt: He is claiming to be 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 26:64-66

And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.

Mark 14:62-64

But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I ask you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” So they all said, “Are you the Son of God, then?” And he said to them, “You say that I am.” Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips.”

Luke 22:67–71

It is clear that the Jews wanted Jesus put to death for blasphemy—for claiming to be the Christ, the Son of God. But what is really interesting is what happens next.

Under Roman law, the Jews could not put anyone to death (John 18:31). In order to have Jesus executed, the High Priest had to convince Pilate, the Roman Governor, to carry out a death sentence. But would Pilate care about a charge of blasphemy? Likely not. The Romans cared not one whit about offending Jewish religious sensibilities. So what did the Jewish leaders do? They did a little political maneuvering!

When Jesus appears before Pilate (Mt 27, Mk 15, Lk 23, and Jn 18) the governor finds no reason to execute him. But instead of leveling their original charge of blasphemy, the Jewish leaders told Pilate, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king” (Lk 23:2). Notice they didn’t say, “The Messiah” or “the Son of God”, just “a king”, as if this “Christ” is a king like Caesar. Luke documents them telling Pilate, “He [Jesus] stirs up the people, teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee even to this place” (Lk 23:5). When Pilate tries one last time to convince the Jewish leaders to change their minds about having Jesus crucified, they tell him, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king opposes Caesar” (Jn 19:12).

By this point, Caiaphas and his ilk had proceeded to stir up the crowd, and Pilate fears he may have a riot on his hands (Mt 27:24). He consented to their demands, releases Barabbas, and has Jesus crucified.

But not once, as far as we can tell from the historic record, do the Jewish religious leaders tell pilot their real motivations for wanting Jesus executed. Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, the Son of God, and for that, they charged him with blasphemy, which under the Mosaic Law (Leviticus 24:16) was punishable by death.