Monday 11 March 2024

Jesus must G O !

But.. h o w?

The hierarchy long knew they wanted Jesus gone. They also knew they did not want to be tainted by the killing. They could find another way... quite unknowing what it all meant....!

Early on the powerful religious in Jerusalem, and round about, knew that Jesus had to go. He was continuing his campaign, and not in any way that they could accept. Jesus had failed to respond to their probes, and resisted their intervention. Could they conspire to do away with him, safely?

There was a precedent for a final solution, if one was needed. Jesus' relative, John, had been beheaded by the ruling Herod (Antipas; local subordinate ruler). John had created offence by criticizing... (Consequently he was held in prison for a time - which was unusual; prisons were few, and small, not designed to hold prisoners for a term.) To read this pathetic story, see, for example, Mark chapter 6:14-29. The other synoptics report briefly; Herod's fear of John is brought out. People esteemed John. His execution risked unacceptable and dangerous loss of public order, but it happened anyway...

[Later, in Jerusalem, Herod declined to take over responsibility for Jesus from Pilate. I feel sure it was for the same reason, for many crowds, especially in Galilee, had gathered to hear that Man from Nazareth. Nazareth was Herod's area and no doubt he kept a close eye... We see a suggestion in Luke 13:32.] 

The first identified group to posit Jesus' removal were the Pharisees. Jesus was just too much!

Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus (Mark 3:1-6, NIV). How!! How indeed. Note it is "kill". (Here we see the political party of Herod Antipas also playing a part in the conspiracy. They would keep the ruler, Tetrach, informed.)

Later we learn that another group had also abandoned their mutual antagonism and jointly moved against Jesus, surely looking  for an "opening". The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tried to test him by asking for a sign from heaven. He told them: If the sky is red in the evening, you say the weather will be good. But if the sky is red and gloomy in the morning, you say it is going to rain. You can tell what the weather will be like by looking at the sky. But you don't understand what is happening now.[a] You want a sign because you are evil and won't believe! But the only sign you will be given is what happened to Jonah.[b] Then Jesus left. (Matthew 16:1-4, CEV). Mark tells us (8:11) that they had come to argue. Being labelled an evil and adulterous generation (so, ESV) would not please these powerful opponents.

Jesus had told his friends quite clearly what it would mean to go to Jerusalem. They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “Look, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the gentiles; they will mock him and spit upon him and flog him and kill him, and after three days he will rise again.” (Mark 10:32-34, NRSVUE). People felt afraid. All the Synoptics have this information; Luke has Jesus speaking along these lines three times, with increasing details. 

A final plot stage eventually was reached. It must have been behind closed doors... How do you think we know this stuff from Jerusalem?

When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. And they bound him and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate the governor (Matthew 27:1-2, ESV). Why to the Romans?

Let me step back to a little earlier: So the chief priests and the Pharisees convened the Sanhedrin and were saying, “What are we going to do since this man is doing many signs? If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” One of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You’re not considering that it is to your[d] advantage that one man should die for the people rather than the whole nation perish.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to unite the scattered children of God. So from that day on they plotted to kill him. Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews but departed from there to the countryside near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and he stayed there with the disciples (John 11:47-53, CSB). A line had been crossed - Jesus had to be gone. Plotted to kill. When? And, How?
"Therefore" Jesus changed his movements. A prudent response? Evidently he was well aware of the deadly developments against him.

Jesus said it first; he said he would give his life so that many could escape: even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, ESV). John echoed that, did he not, in "not for the nation only"?  In a very stark and challenging interaction we hear Jesus say: Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day (John 6:54, NRSVUE). Life from Jesus' death. Jesus also said: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd sacrifices his life for the sheep (John 10:11, NLT). On one hand, the wickedness of men; on the other, God's purposes for your salvation, and mine, being achieved. 

Taking Jesus to Pilate in Jerusalem was deliberate. It did mean they had to take care of themselves, but there was a lot to be gained. Then the Jewish leaders took Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness they did not enter the palace, because they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out to them and asked, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” “If he were not a criminal,” they replied, “we would not have handed him over to you.”Pilate said, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” “But we have no right to execute anyone,” they objected. This took place to fulfill what Jesus had said about the kind of death he was going to die. (John 18:28-32, NIV). Not legal for them? There were ways around that. They continued with their plan, which would serve their own interests.. The kind of death was to be a Roman crucifixion, not beheading, or stoning.

Pilate, however, seems to have tried to use mob sympathy in favour of Jesus' survival. He paraded the battered prisoner: When the chief priests and the temple police saw him, they yelled, “Nail him to a cross! Nail him to a cross!” Pilate told them, “You take him and nail him to a cross! I don't find him guilty of anything.” The crowd replied, “He claimed to be the Son of God! Our law says that he must be put to death.” When Pilate heard this, he was terrified (John 19:6-8, CEV). Evidently Pilate was cleverly outsmarted by those who wanted to exploit his power. How was Pilate going to achieve his KPIs if there was any kind of uprising, and any loss of legionaries, any need for reinforcements? I suppose Pilate would be privately troubled by the suggestion that Jesus could be "Son of God"! Dealing with would-be kings is one matter; involvement with the unknowable doings of the "gods" quite another.

A law had been broken they said? That would be "The Law", the mandated rules from God found in the "Books of Moses" and expanded by the rabbis. Their blasphemy Law required death? How was the death penalty carried out? The answer is, by stoning (see below), not by crucifixion. (However, in Jewish power circles, crucifixion had been used, for example by Alexander Jannaeus, King of Judea.)

Jesus had said he knew what lay ahead, not stoning: And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to Myself.” Now He was saying this to indicate what kind of death He was going to die (John 12:32-33, NASB20). So also we read: “Listen,” he said, “we’re going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man[fn] will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence him to die and hand him over to the Romans[fn] (Mark 10:33, NLT). He knew. He went willingly.

When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals—one on his right, the other on his left (Luke 23:33, NIV). So the event is recounted; just matter-of-factly, without embellishment. (Embellishment would come many years later.)

Tragically, we know today of so very much innocent suffering and death in so many, many, places. For life to be unjustly taken is ugly and repugnant. In the minutes before Jesus was arrested he prayed in a quiet place: And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba,[a] Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me, yet not what I want but what you want” (Mark 14:35-36, NRSVUE). It is understandable for a child to think the cross was easier for Jesus; after all, he was coming back to life! Of Jesus, I think of the amazing more ancient words:

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
    it was our sorrows[a] that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
    a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
    crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
    He was whipped so we could be healed.
All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
    We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
Yet the Lord laid on him
    the sins of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6, NLT).

Three died that day. Only one died for our sins; on account of our sins. I see what Paul wrote in another context: Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7b, CSB). That could elicit  thought about the first Passover, when the ancient Israel was spared destruction by the use of a sacrificial lamb. Curious for this to be said without explanation to folk of very cosmopolitan Corinth - I think that illustrates widespread interest in the ancient "Hebrew Bible" (actually the Greek Septuagint of it).

For Jesus as the Lamb of God, see earlier post:

Paul gave his summary of his essential message: For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3, NIV). Jesus said he would give his life so that many could escape: even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28, ESV). So Paul also puts it: Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live (Galatians 1:4, NLT). He went willingly so that all who receive him have the right to be children of God, and are rescued. Forgiveness; rescue; adoption.

There were earlier attempts or moves to kill Jesus by stoning him (and possibly by a fatal fall). So: When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue was enraged. They got up, drove him out of town, and brought him to the edge of the hill that their town was built on, intending to hurl him over the cliff. But he passed right through the crowd and went on his way (Luke 4:28-30, CSB). Perhaps their cliff was not that high? The intention might have been to stone Jesus down below them. The Nazareth congregation that day really, really, did not like what he said to them!

There are instances of local "rough justice" in the form of stoning. Even the hierarchy feared the populace getting that stirred up: They talked this over and said to each other, “We can't say God gave John this right. Jesus will ask us why we didn't believe John. And we can't say it was merely some human who gave John the right to baptize. The crowd will stone us to death, because they think John was a prophet” (Luke 20:5-6, CEV). This conversation came close to the time of Jesus' arrest and illustrates those times. 

Were the earlier attempts to eliminate Jesus (by stoning) actually orchestrated in the background? I wonder. We read instances of attempts being made to eliminate Jesus along those lines.. So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple (John 8:59, ESV). The subjects had been listening to Jesus - note it was in the temple in Jerusalem.

At least once more the threat was there. Jesus was back in the temple speaking to people: I and the Father are one.” Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus said to them, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these do you stone me?” “We are not stoning you for any good work,” they replied, “but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:30-33, NIV). Once again, I wonder, were there voices urging action? The pericope ends: Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands (John 10:39, NRSVUE). Arrest and stoning are not necessarily the same thing! This incidental mention suggests to me that "dark powers" were at work to incite deadly violence.

A conspiracy against Jesus? I know that conspiracy theories may be ill-founded and plain wrong. (I see that in this era.) What do you think? Our witnesses contain the reports I have assembled in this post. It is striking that all four allude to this planned and developed action to eliminate Jesus. Conspiracy is peripheral, but it is there... is it not? The evidence is what I am reporting. Remember also that the accounts are compressed and selective. It does not take long to read them, but there were months, years, involved in these events. (There were other "interrogations" and observations over the time but they do not end with such clear statements of deadly intent.) You may not agree with me? That is fine.

Stoning: I do not know how commonplace stoning people actually was at the time. Our Bible contains a difficult but informative pericope from the times, which is sometimes printed at the start of John chapter 8; sometimes it is in the margin: The Pharisees and the teachers of the Law of Moses brought in a woman who had been caught in bed with a man who wasn't her husband. They made her stand in the middle of the crowd (John 8:3, CEV). Were they saying due process had been followed and it was time for the stoning sentence to be carried out? If so, where, as per Leviticus 20, was the man, the male adulterer? Perhaps the fact that Jesus invited accusers, if they were innocent, to cast the first stone, as per the ancient Law, gives us a hint of what was going on. (I hope women were not executed this way and certainly never alone.) We, today, can not imagine adultery as a serious crime.

Another example re stoning from not long after Jesus' resurrection: At that, the captain went with his officers and brought the apostles. They did not use force, because they feared that the people would stone them (Acts 5:26, NIV). Even officers carrying out directions from their hierarchy thought stoning was a risk to them. A little later Luke recounted an actual fatal stoning (of Stephen; see Acts chapter 7).

An old song that tells the story of our sorrows removed:
This (1875) hymn comes in a considerable number of versions

Background on stoning

Our era is against capital punishment; capital crime sentences such as "life imprisonment" are favoured (which may mean quite some years). All of which presupposes a modern continuing system of incarceration. Such was not the case in the ancient world. 

Reading the Bible we first encounter death by judicial stoning in Leviticus. So: “Say to the Israelites: Any Israelite or alien residing in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech must be put to death; the people of the country are to stone him (Leviticus 20:2, CSB). "Gives" there would mean child sacrifice. 

In that same book it is illustrated again. Now an Israelite woman's son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman's son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, and the Israelite woman's son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother's name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be clear to them.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death (Leviticus 24:10-16, ESV). I can not imagine what Shelomith's son said during the fight to blaspheme and curse. Perhaps it connects to the following...
A bit further on we read: Someone else may say to you, “Let's worship other gods.” That person may be your best friend, your brother or sister, your son or daughter, or your own dear wife or husband. But you must not listen to people who say such things. Instead, you must stone them to death. You must be the first to throw the stones, then others from the community will finish the job. Don't show any pity.
The gods worshiped by other nations have never done anything for you or your ancestors. People who ask you to worship other gods are trying to get you to stop worshiping the Lord, who rescued you from slavery in Egypt. So put to death anyone who asks you to worship another god. And when the rest of Israel hears about it, they will be afraid, and no one else will ever do such an evil thing again (Deuteronomy 13:6-11, CEV). Very definite, and final, even if today the deterrent notion is discounted. 

But it is further spelled out: “If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the Lord your God, in transgressing his covenant, and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones. On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge[a] the evil[b] from your midst (Deuteronomy 17:2-7, ESV). In Joshua chapter 7 we see an example carried out.

To our sensitive eyes this is shocking stuff. Even after noting the demand for ample true and certain eyewitness evidence, and that the accusers must personally implement the stoning, it is still confronting. However, this understanding was part of the culture. We read that this fate was a live concern in Jesus' day: “Let me ask you a question first,” he (Jesus) replied. “Did John’s authority to baptize come from heaven, or was it merely human?” They talked it over among themselves. “If we say it was from heaven, he will ask why we didn’t believe John. But if we say it was merely human, the people will stone us because they are convinced John was a prophet.” So they finally replied that they didn’t know (Luke 20:3-7, NLT). No doubt avoiding stoning was attractive! Community anger could even then morph into spontaneous stoning, without a judicial process. We might call it "mob violence" perhaps; certainly it generates a picture like some I see today around protests and demonstrations.

The sentence of death connects directly to the prohibition of shedding blood.

I certainly will require [fn]your lifeblood; [fn] from every animal I will require it. And [fn] from every person, [fn] from every man as his brother I will require the life of a person.
 “Whoever sheds human blood,
By man his blood shall be shed,
For in the image of God
He made mankind
(Genesis 9:5-6, NASB20)

‘So you shall not defile the land in which you live; for blood defiles the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed on it, except by the blood of the one who shed it (Numbers 35:33, NASB20).

Death was demanded for murderers (and for rejecters of God). Stoning was the means of execution. Quite possibly the Romans would not allow the Jewish authorities to carry out a formal death sentence. Nevertheless, stoning was a possibility. There was a memorable time later when people in the Jerusalem Temple were inflamed against Paul: Then all the city was aroused, and the people rushed together. They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut. While they were trying to kill him, word came to the tribune of the cohort that all Jerusalem was in an uproar (Acts 20:30-31, NRSVUE). The whole episode is instructive in many ways, including the volatile behaviour of people who thought their religion had been denigrated. (That account continues into Acts chapter 21.) I suspect that the Romans that day had saved Paul from another stoning (see Acts 14:19; see also Acts 5:26, above, re avoiding stoning).

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