Chapter 4

The Antagonist

JOHN 11:45–53; MARK 14:53–65

The whole thing was obviously a set-up. That was clear even to those who weren’t in on it. The band of men had entered the hall with a distinct purpose. Those in front purposefully led the way, those in the rear whispered excitedly about what was to come. The man in the middle was the cause and solution to all of it.

Head bowed, hands clasped in front of him, at the most aggressive evaluation, he was unassuming. What did they want with him? Bluntly, they wanted him dead. Why? He was, at least by appearance, anything other than threatening.

But appearances can be deceiving. Jesus was a threat, especially in the eyes of this group. This was the Sanhedrin, the ruling group of the Jewish people, a group comprised mostly of religious leaders—Pharisees and Sadducees. To these men, Jesus was more than a nuisance; he was putting the existence of the Jewish people in peril.

Let’s turn back the calendar to see why. Eavesdropping on a private conversation, we can hear the rumored danger: “Here is this man performing many signs. 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.”

The fear was that Jesus, because of his miracles, would gather such a following that Rome would see him and Israel as threatening to revolt against their control of Judea and the surrounding territory. A threat like this would result in not just military occupation but active domination, destruction, and perhaps extermination. Like the White House or Statue of Liberty to the U.S., the Eiffel Tower to France, the pyramids to Egypt, or the Great Wall to China, the temple was a national symbol to Israel. The idea of losing it was losing something fundamental to Israelite identity. If the temple was taken, their religion was gone, the defining characteristic of Israelite culture smashed to rubble.

The thought of losing the temple—their identity, their connection to God—pushed this group to the point of panic. It’s understandable. When catastrophic change looms, it pushes us to the edge, and decisions about how to confront those changes reveal a great deal about who we are and what we hold most dear.

With your identity threatened, and your way of life hanging in the balance, how would you respond? How did this group respond? “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,” said Caiaphas, high priest and leader of the Sanhedrin. Self-protection—sacrifice one for the sake of the many. It was a difficult decision and one with significant ramifications.

Now, inside the palace of the high priest, this threat stands. His activity, and in their minds his very life, poses a risk to their existence as a nation and a people. As the governing body of the Jewish people, it was their responsibility to look out for and protect the best interests of Israel. Now was their chance to address this threat. The course of action had already been decided. It was time to find the way to enact it . . . better one dies than the whole nation. But murder was out of the question. This was a religious group after all, and their adherence to their adopted moral code was strict and primary. So how to get rid of this man?

Capital punishment was applicable to a variety of crimes (sins) in Israelite law. All they needed to do was to convict him of one of these crimes. But which one? The trial proved difficult as Jesus’s whole life was basically lived in the open. Everyone knew what he had said and what he had done. These very things were ironically the cause of fear for the Sanhedrin, yet they were nothing that would condemn him by their laws.

In the end it was one of the more serious crimes that they laid at his feet: blasphemy. Religiously speaking—and religion was paramount to the Jewish people—blasphemy was as heinous and abhorrent as a crime could be. So appalling was blasphemy, that immediate vigilante justice was usually attempted when it was identified.

Their question exposes their agenda, and there is little doubt of their desired outcome.

“Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed one?”

“I am.”

Gavel bang. Guilty. Sentenced to death. Second-fastest court case in history. “Why do we need any more witnesses? . . . You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” The agreement was unanimous. He was worthy of death. For the Sanhedrin, stage one of the mission was accomplished. We’ll look at stage two later, but for now, let’s boil this down and see what’s left.

Jesus’s miracles and his following pushed the Jewish leaders into a place of critical decision. They saw his activities as a risk to the people of Israel. If Jesus continued to do miracles, especially like raising people from the dead, “everyone” would believe in him. Belief in Jesus was the risk, not to their personal power, position, or control; the risk was that Rome would see Jesus and his followers as a threat to its control. That was a threat that would lead to the destruction of the Jewish people. It would lead to a loss of life, practice, and identity.

The Jewish council faced a choice of significant magnitude. The choice boiled down to two options: side with Jesus or stop him; with Jesus or against him. Each side had its ramifications. They chose what they thought was best for the Jewish people. To choose against Jesus kept the temple. It kept the people. It kept their identity, security, and way of life.

Jesus had done enough to convince many that he was someone to follow. He was indeed the Messiah. The Sanhedrin, like those who believed, could have followed Jesus, in fact some of them secretly did. But following Jesus wholesale, acknowledging him as the Messiah, risked giving up the very things they were trying to protect, the things most important to them as the Jewish people.

That is what Jesus does. He presents us with—very nearly forces us into—a choice. Will we follow him, giving up our own ideas of identity and security? Or will we choose our own ideas of identity and security? This is both a one-time choice and one we are faced with every day.

The Sadducees and Pharisees made their choice. They chose to stop him because of—and in a strange sense despite—the things he was doing. They chose to act in what they thought was the best interest of the Jewish people. But it was a choice against Jesus, a choice that led to his death.

We must choose as well. Will we choose to side with the man who performs miracles and raises people from the dead? Or will the threat he poses to our meaning, identity, and security lead us to find a way to get rid of him to protect those things that we think are most important?

 

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