By Shane Kastler
Easter is an annual time when Christians remember the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Bible teaches that the theological reason behind the crucifixion of Christ was that his death was an atoning sacrifice to pay the eternal price for those who trust in him. As such, his death was ordained by God the Father; and thus came as no surprise to Jesus the Son. He knew his mission was to die. But we should also take note of the fact that Jesus died as an enemy of the state. Jesus was executed by the governing authorities, both local (the Jewish Sanhedrin) and national (Rome) who conspired to end his life. And this they did after turning the once adoring crowds against him by way of a quick and successful campaign of propaganda. Here’s how it happened.
Jesus, who was himself a Jew, posed a massive threat to the Jewish authorities of his day. Rome was the supreme power, yet the Jews were allowed a certain measure of control over their own affairs. Rome granted this, as long as things remained peaceful. As long as the Jews would “go along and get along” then Rome allowed them to keep power over Jerusalem and the surrounding region. But the rising popularity of Jesus threatened this power. Not to mention Jesus’s frequent confrontations of the corrupt Jewish leaders. He openly maligned them for their greed and hypocrisy; and showed a frightening level of power and authority through his miracles. The crowds were amazed and the Jewish “governing authorities” were incensed. After Jesus rose Lazarus from the dead, the Jewish leaders were in full scale “destroy” mode as it pertained to Jesus and conspired to kill him. The Jews feared losing power and the Bible records what they said at the time: “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.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” (John 11:48-50) Rather than losing power, the Jews would simply find a way to do away with Jesus.
On the Sunday prior to his death, Jesus rode into Jerusalem amidst much fanfare. Palm Sunday, as it has come to be known, saw crowds of people praising him as a king. While all the excitement had the Jewish leaders angry, Rome seemed to be largely unconcerned. The Jews would have to convince Rome that Jesus was a threat to them and not just Jewish power. Ultimately Jesus was arrested, and tried by the Jewish court as a blasphemer who claimed to be divine. The Bible records that he was then sent to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who scoffed at the charges against him, knowing that the corrupt Jews were merely jealous. Pilate found no fault in him and refused to execute him initially. So the Jews upped the ante. They declared him to be a threat against Roman power and declared that unless Pilate executed him; they would let the emperor know that Pilate was “no friend of Caesar.” Once this threat was made, Pilate acquiesced and handed him over to be crucified. Regardless of whether or not he was guilty, Pilate was not about to risk any threat to his power. He would have to remain friendly with Caesar and if that meant the crucifixion of someone the Jewish leaders obviously feared, then so be it.
The crowds also turned on Jesus. Undoubtedly some of the very ones who shouted “Hosanna” on Palm Sunday, joined the chorus of “Crucify Him!” by Friday. Pilate, the ultimate politician, at one point offered to release either Jesus or Barabbas, a criminal being held for execution. Scripture records, “The chief priests stirred up the crowd to ask him to release Barabbas for them instead. Answering again, Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Him whom you call the King of the Jews?” They shouted back, “Crucify Him!” But Pilate said to them, “Why, what evil has He done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify Him!” Wishing to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas for them, and after having Jesus scourged, he handed Him over to be crucified.” (Mark 15:12-15)
There are numerous lessons to be learned from the entire account. First of all, Jesus was not near as chummy with the governing authorities as many of his followers are today. To speak out against the American government is tantamount to blasphemy in some religious circles, by those who have elevated nationalism to the level of a state religion. And any suggestion that a Christian’s allegiance should be to Christ is often met with derision by professing Christians. It seems they would be stunned to consider that Jesus was executed by various branches of government conspiring against him.
Secondly, in the death of Jesus, we see the power of propaganda and the frightening way in which crowds can be manipulated by the powers that be. If leaders can succeed in creating a mob, then just about anything can be accomplished. Even the execution of the Son of God. The truth is, people are easily swayed because most people, by nature, are conformers and followers rather than independent thinkers. Branching off away from the herd can get you killed. Many of Jesus’s early followers found this out the hard way, giving their life for their absolute devotion to their Lord Jesus.
A third lesson is that governing authorities will do absolutely anything to remain in power. No matter how benevolent they might seem, a threat to their authority will be swiftly dealt with. The Jews saw Jesus as a threat and insisted on his destruction. Pilate, at least initially, saw Jesus as no threat at all. But once blackmailed by the Jews with a threat to take the matter to Caesar, Pilate gave in. Jesus’s life wasn’t worth Pilate’s demotion. Or even worse, his execution after being declared an “enemy of Caesar.”
The final lesson, for Christians, should be this. Trust in God and not the government. The theological, spiritual, and eternal realities of what Jesus accomplished are infinitely more important than the fleeting power gained by temporal, earthly governments. Christians are not to live for this life and this world. Jesus told Pilate plainly, “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36) And as such, his followers should not seek a kingdom here either. Jesus died as an enemy of the state. And rose again as the Son of God. His followers should therefore place their faith in him, both now and forever. Governing authorities have never looked kindly on those who declare a power greater than them. It was true of the Jews in Jesus’s day. It was true of Rome. It was true of Britain. It’s been true of America. The Jews of Jesus’s day declared, “We have no king but Caesar!” The Christians of our day should declare, “We have no king but Jesus!” But sadly, many honor him with lip service, while bowing their knee to Washington.
Shane Kastler is Pastor at the Heritage Baptist Church, Lake Charles, LA and Co-Host; "Church & State" KELB Radio, 100.5 FM. He blogs at The Narrow Road.