By: A.D. Roberson
Jesus’s main opponents were the Jewish religious leaders, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, and chief priests. But recognizing who Jesus’s main opponents were does not explain why they were so opposed to Him. A closer look at the Jewish religious leaders reveals that although they did indeed oppose Jesus because their hearts were far from God, they were also motivated by their own self-serving interests of protecting their roles of power, authority, and influence in Judea.
Fully understanding the rationale of Jesus’s opponents requires one to recognize the politics in which they operated. By the time of Jesus’s life, Judea was a Roman province, and the Jewish leaders operated under Roman rule. One group of Jewish leaders was the Pharisees, a group that was zealously dedicated (at least by outward appearances) to observing the Jewish law and that viewed itself, and was viewed by the people, as the authoritative interpreters of that law. Given their dedication to the Jewish law, the Pharisees were admired by the Jewish people as pious protectors of Jewish religion, tradition, and way of life in the face of the continued encroachment on the Jewish culture by Roman political and social agendas. The Pharisees, therefore, were engaged politically in addressing Roman rule, and exerted some degree of political influence and power.
The Sadducees were another group of Jewish leaders. Although they were oftentimes opponents of the Pharisees on theological issues, the two groups were opponents in common to Jesus. Even more than the Pharisees, the Sadducees were strong political powerbrokers. And their significant political power and authority among the Jewish people was largely dependent on the Roman authorities.
The Sadducees, along with the Pharisees, made up much of the leadership of the Sanhedrin, Jerusalem’s supreme religious, political, and legal council. That body’s power and authority increased significantly under the Roman procurators during the first half of the first century A.D. The Sadducees, in particular, had a strong, self-serving interest in strengthening and maintaining the status quo of Jerusalem as a Roman province. This status quo saw the Jewish leaders with authority over the political, spiritual, and legal affairs of the Jewish people—an authority that was largely dependent on Judea’s foreign rulers, and an authority that the Jewish leaders did not want to give up.
This dynamic is on full display after the last of the seven signs performed by Jesus in the Gospel according to John—Jesus’s resurrection of Lazarus—which caused the Jewish leaders to convene the Sanhedrin. Interestingly, the Jewish leaders seemed less concerned with whether Jesus was in fact the Messiah than they did about losing their own authority at the hands of the Romans. And the high priest, Caiaphas, prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation and the gathering together of God’s scattered people. Therefore, the leaders conspired to kill Jesus. What is interesting is that the leaders were right that Jesus must die for the nation and God’s people, but they did not understand the full meaning of what they discussed. They believed that killing Jesus would protect their positions and perpetuate the Jewish nation (as a Roman province). Their sentiment is again expressed, this time in a staggering exchange, during John’s passion narrative, when, in response to Pilot’s question, “‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar.’”
Blinded by their self-serving interests and wicked hearts, the Jewish leaders did not believe in Jesus or recognize Him as their king. Their plot to kill Jesus would not only protect God’s people, it would save God’s people; but not from Rome. Rather, the death of Jesus would save God’s people from their sin and separation from God. By sinfully conspiring to kill Jesus (to protect their own power and to protect the nation of Israel from Rome), the Jewish leaders unwittingly contributed to the fulfillment of God’s ultimate redemptive plan to save His people from their sins.
Green, Joel B., Jeannine K. Brown, & Nicholas Perrin, eds. Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013.
The New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition
(NASB). La Habra, CA: Foundation Publications, 1995.
Joel B. Green, Jeannine K. Brown, and Nicholas Perrin, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 673.
Ibid., 675-76, 678.
Ibid., 836, 838.
Ibid., 824, 825.
Unless otherwise specified, all Bible references in this post are to the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition (NASB) (La Habra: Foundation Publications, 1995). See Jn 11:47-48 (“[T]his man [Jesus] is performing many signs. If we let Him go on like this, all men will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”).