Dear friend, the world can seem scary and crazy. We’re on lockdown, loved ones are sick, and some are dying. But Good Friday is almost upon us, and then Resurrection Day. There is still reason to rejoice. Jesus is risen and has broken the power of sin and death in the hearts and lives of all who call upon Him in faith.
In each gospel this week, I’ve been reading the account of the betrayal leading up to the crucifixion.
My focus was Jesus. But I couldn’t help but continue to see the Pharisees and other religious leaders, standing out in bold opposition to Him.
They’ve been misrepresented, you know, those Pharisees. Almost every time they’re portrayed or described, we think about them as obviously pompous, obviously arrogant, obviously hypocritical. But their hypocrisy wasn’t obvious to the Jewish people at all.
You think, perhaps, that this is because they were naïve, and you wouldn’t have been so naïve? Well, maybe not. But perhaps there are some among us today who have been deceived by church leaders today who to our shock we have found to be hypocrites, leaders who claimed to be building a kingdom for the Savior, and we find out that all along they were building a kingdom for themselves.
Yes, I raise my hand. Over and over. I’ve been deceived again and again by many leaders that I thought truly followed Jesus Christ, who turned out to be breathtaking hypocrites. (I won’t name any here, but my head is swimming with the names.)
That’s how good they are at the games they play.
And the religious leaders in Jesus’ world were just that good.
This is why the crowds were shocked—shocked—when during His 3.5 years of public ministry, Jesus called out the religious leaders as vipers, whited sepulchers, and more.
In those days, the Jews had two sets of “governments.” The Roman overlords were the hated foreigners (picture Nazi Germany having conquered us, and our street corners swarming with German soldiers).
But as much as the Jews hated the Romans, the Roman government stayed out of Jewish religious affairs. If the Jews had wanted to hold a lynching because someone claimed to be a messiah figure, the Romans would have turned the other way, as long as the mob didn’t get too unruly.
Basically, as long as the Jews obeyed Roman law, the Romans just didn’t care what they believed or practiced.
And that leads us to that other government. The religious leaders.
When Jesus was arrested and brought to the Roman governor Pilate, the Roman soldiers did indeed take advantage of the opportunity to mock and torture a man who couldn’t defend himself: they were the ones who applied the crown of thorns and the purple robe, spitting in His face and slapping and beating Him.
But those bullies had no idea who He was. They weren’t even there when He was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane (in spite of confusing illustrations like this one).
After all, they didn’t care one way or another about a solitary man who wasn’t stirring up any trouble.
The crowd who arrested Jesus in the middle of the night were the lackeys of the religious leaders, and perhaps even some of the religious leaders themselves. The ones who knew who He was.
And the first physical persecution of Jesus? At that secret trial in the middle of the night, that wasn’t Roman soldiers. No, Mark 14:65 and Luke 22:63-65 tell us that it was the “godly” religious leaders who spat on Him and struck Him and mocked Him.
That is the depths to which they sank.
And my guess is, they would go out the next day and gently instruct their disciples in the finer points of what it means to honor God with their lives.
Because the best hypocrites are amazing like that.
And oh, did I say secret trial? When I was reading about it, my mind flashed to a secret trial held over a friend of mine, a group of men against her, proclaiming her judgment, because she had reported her abusive husband. But they are highly respected religious leaders, with many truly adoring followers. (Maybe you are one of them.)
You may know of other secret meetings at which those who are highly respected have done terrible things to the innocent ones. These are those who have shared in the sufferings of Jesus.
These truly highly respected leaders (respected by followers who were no more naïve than many of us have been) are the ones who decided that Jesus should die because He was usurping their place, attracting their followers to Himself. And they decided that they wanted Him to die in the most excruciating and ignominious way possible, simply because they hated Him that much.
That’s why they didn’t arrange for thugs to kill Him in the night. That’s why they aroused the crowd so that Pilate would hang a man that he knew was innocent on a Roman cross.
This is the depths of darkness they were in, they were already in: when Judas came back to tell them Jesus was innocent (Matthew 27), their reply, basically, was, “Why are you talking about that? That’s not our problem. That’s your problem.”
You think we care about guilt and innocence? Oh hahaha.
You’ve suddenly developed a conscience? That just gets in the way around here.
Oh, he’s returning the money we gave him to betray his friend to death? Well, it’s kind of “blood money,” you know, so we probably shouldn’t put that in the temple fund, but we can use it to buy that sweet piece of property over there.
We will “keep the law” (mint, rue, anise, micro-doctrine that we elevate to the level of salvation), but we will proudly (behind the scenes, of course, in secret and in the cover of darkness) thumb our noses at justice, mercy, truth.
Truly this is why Jesus said during the arrest (in Luke 22:53), “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.”
It was the power of darkness—devilish, satanic power—fueling these men, for all their humble looks and earnest sermons and gentle admonitions and quiet prayers in the streets.
Jesus knew, all along. He knew exactly how it was all going to shake out. He knew that the visceral, demonic hatred of the godly religious leaders would lead to His death.
He knew that, even when He called them out, publicly, in the streets of Jerusalem.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!”
And He moved forward anyway, doing what His Father had called Him to do, facing the horror and staring it down.
He is our wonderful, beautiful, strong, and loving Example and Savior. In spite of the religious leaders who try to block the way, we will run to Him. He wins in the end.