(If you’re just joining us, you’ll need to start with Part One for the series to make sense.)
OK, we’re in the home stretch – just the rest of this week to go. So far, we’ve seen how Jesus sent the message (in words, in miracles, in parables) that God was about to enact the next chapter in Israel’s story: the return from exile and coming reign of God. And he’d do that through Jesus, his anointed one (Messiah) who was from the line of David (keeping good on that promise), and who would execute God’s judgement and authority over the nations (as the image-bearing Son of Man). Which should have been Good News to all those expectant Jews, waiting for the restoration of Israel.
But not everyone liked the message. Last week, we already saw Jesus subvert Israel’s story in his parables – making it clear that those who enter the kingdom won’t be the “obvious candidates” from the religious establishment, but repentant sinners who embrace the new thing God is doing. Today, we focus on what he said and did that ended up getting him killed.
If you want to sum up what turned people against Jesus, it’s this: they didn’t like where he said the story was heading. They rejected his draft of the next chapter, because it conflicted with their own plotlines. Let’s take a look at some of the key sources of conflict.
Let’s be clear: it wasn’t Rome’s idea to kill Jesus, even though it ended up being the executioner. But the reason it willingly played along is that there was a fundamental clash of stories – which Jesus’s Jewish opponents were only too happy to bring to Rome’s attention. In preaching the “return of the king” to Israel – the true return from exile and God’s coming reign – Jesus was proclaiming a different ruler and a higher allegiance. Which sounded treasonous enough. Although a wandering Galilean rabbi babbling on about the return of Israel’s God is hardly something that Rome would bother with – were it not for how the Jews understood it.
When they heard “return from exile” and “the kingdom of God” they assumed it meant: we’re getting rid of foreign rulers (just like the previous Messiah figures in their recent history). When Jesus was out in the countryside with thousands of people going out to see him, they assumed he was getting a peasant army together to fight the oppressors (like Judas Maccabeus had done a couple of centuries beforehand). When Jesus entered Jerusalem in a victory parade, they thought that he was about to act – they sung “Hosanna!” which means “deliver us!” And they weren’t thinking, deliver us from our sins; they meant, deliver us from the Romans!
That’s why the trial before Pilate focused on whether he claimed to be “king of the Jews.” (And that he opposed payment of taxes to Caesar, a misrepresentation of his answer in Luke 20:25.)Luke 23:1-2 Then the whole assembly rose and led him off to Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king.” So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
Meanwhile, the suck-up chief priests were telling Pilate, “We have no king but Caesar.” (John 19:15. But we’ll get back to their self-serving deal with Rome shortly.) And so Pilate – at the Jewish leaders’ persistent urging – has Jesus crucified, which was what Rome did to leaders of rebellions. (The horrific and public nature of it was done as a deterrent to other aspiring rebels.) Interestingly, the charge Pilate wrote was: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” We’ll come back to that tomorrow.
So Jesus’ story of the return of Israel’s king clashed with Rome’s story as the supreme power on earth – even though he wasn’t actually plotting a violent uprising at all! Talk about unfair – crucified by Rome for something of which he was innocent. (Remember that for tomorrow, too.)
But Jesus was also in trouble from another group for not starting a rebellion. These were people who were “zealous” for God’s kingdom, which was code for wanting to raise up an army and send Rome packing. (It worked, briefly, with the Greeks under Judas Maccabeus, and a few other times in recent history – maybe next time it will be more permanent!) They tend to be known as the Zealots, as there was a political grouping called that in the 60s AD; in Jesus’ time, the sentiment was there, if not the formal grouping. For these “zealous ones,” the next chapter of Israel’s story was where God’s kingdom comes – and the kingdom of Rome gets crushed like the legs of the statue in Daniel’s dream (Dan 2:40-45).
So when Jesus turns up and starts announcing the return from exile, talking about the coming reign of God, hanging out with large groups of people in the countryside, and then finally riding into Jerusalem with public acclamation (and on a donkey, deliberately evoking the victorious king imagery in Zech 9:9-13) – you can see how the zealots would have been a bit excited. Especially since this Messiah had been backing up his “revolutionary” words with some pretty impressive miracles. And giving it to the corrupt leadership who had sold out to the Romans, even challenging them on their home turf by cleansing the temple!
But by the end of the week, it had fizzled out to nothing. Jesus seems intent on a non-violent approach. To the point where even one of his own sells him out in disappointment – Judas (whose name “Iscariot” might give us a clue he’s one of these “zealot” types). Those waiting for rebellion were let down by Jesus, and ready to cheer instead for the release of Barabbas – he’d at least tried!
So Jesus’ story of how God would return to Israel (as God’s non-violent, suffering servant – more on that tomorrow) didn’t fit with the “zealous ones'” idea of what the next chapter should be. And they abandoned him to his fate at the hands of Rome and her Jewish collaborators.
Speaking of collaborators, the driving force behind Jesus’ death was the actions of the Jewish ruling council: the Sanhedrin. They were allowed to remain in power in return for co-operating with the Romans, assisting them in keeping rebellions under control and presenting a Jewish “face” to the people. Their authority over the Temple (the symbol of political and religious power) helped to keep the population in line. So the ruling elite had every reason to keep things the way they were to preserve their power: both as the Romans’ lap dogs and the ones who controlled the Temple (and therefore access to God.) They didn’t want the next chapter of Israel’s story, for fear it wouldn’t be as comfortable an arrangement as they already had.
So let’s quickly list the ways in which Jesus threatened their position:
- Teaching “as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law” (Mark 1:22), redefining the law (see the Sermon on the Mount), and challenging the establishment – see the various encounters with the Jewish leadership in which Jesus avoided their traps and put them to shame – with the result that “no one could say a word in reply, and from that day on no one dared to ask him any more questions”(Matt 22:46 ).
- Telling parables directly against them, accusing them of rejecting God’s messengers and warning them that they’d miss out when the kingdom arrived. Their response: “When the chief priests and the Pharisees heard Jesus’ parables, they knew he was talking about them. They looked for a way to arrest him, but they were afraid of the crowd because the people held that he was a prophet” (Matt 21:45-46).
- Cleansing the temple, symbolising the divine judgement that was coming on Israel’s leaders. They were to be judged for not being “good shepherds,” with God himself coming to be their shepherd (fulfilling the words of Ezekiel 34).
- Giving direct access to God, including forgiveness – he went around daring to forgive sins (only God can forgive sins! Blasphemy!), cutting out the Temple as the “middle man.” And he only made the charge of blasphemy worse when, at his trial, he claimed to be the divine “son of man” figure from Daniel (Matt 26:64-65).
- Stirring up thoughts among the people of rebellion against Rome; if the people responded, Rome would put down the rebellion using more force, and the leadership would lose their special relationship with Rome. “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation” (John 11:48).
So Jesus’ proclamation of the end of the exile and the coming reign of God threatened the cushy relationship with Rome that the Temple leadership had carved out for their own benefit. They thought it better that Jesus die rather than the whole nation face death: “Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish'” (John 11:49-50).
And let’s not forget about the Pharisees – a minority on the Sanhedrin, but very influential among ordinary Jews. They were the ones who committed themselves to the study of Scripture to discern the next chapter of the story, and to personal holiness so that they, as God’s people, would be ready when God acted. Of all people, they should have been on board with Jesus’ story.
But they couldn’t get over the fact that Jesus seemed to be hanging out with sinners rather than them. He was going around welcoming the worst of Israelites into the kingdom, but telling the Pharisees that they couldn’t enter if they persisted in wearing their observance of the law as a merit badge. Worse still: that as Israel’s teachers, their legalism was actively stopping others from entering the kingdom – “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matt 23:14). They were the old wineskins who couldn’t stretch to accommodate the new wine of the kingdom – they weren’t open to how God was going to continue Israel’s story by summoning sinners to repent and rejecting the self-righteous. They were the elder brother who couldn’t rejoice at the party God was throwing as rebellious Israel returned from her exile.
So Jesus’ welcoming of sinners and rejection of law-keeping as a merit badge stretched the Pharisees’ minds beyond breaking point; they didn’t where way Jesus’ story was headed, so they, too, conspired against him.
That, then, is a summary of why Jesus died – historically speaking. His telling of Israel’s story trod on everyone’s toes: ruling Romans, zealous rebels, self-serving Sanhedrin members, and pious Pharisees. He got killed because the story he was telling was seen as a threat.
But of course, there’s another angle to this question: in the plan of God, why did Jesus’ die? Tomorrow, we’ll see how that “theological” answer is far more related to today’s “historical” answer than you might have first thought.
To think about
Theologically speaking, why did Jesus die?