So what happened? What turned the adoring crowd into a frenzied, blood-thirsty mob? Perhaps more to the point, why are the religious leaders, the entire Sanhedrin no longer paralyzed by fear? The Gospel writers shed no great light on this question. Our way is lit at best by the guttering flames of torches and campfires. These cast shadows that dance eerily and hint at more but shift or are extinguished as quickly as they arise. What we do know is that two days before the Passover “the chief priests and scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by some trick and have him put to death. For they said, ‘It must not be during the festivities, or there will be a disturbance among the people’” (Mk. 14:1-2 JB). Matthew tells us that a cabal was now in place and the resentment had swelled beyond black mutterings and had burst into an actual conspiracy, and what is intriguing, they now have the support of the “leading citizens” (Lk. 19:47). Their covert meeting place was in the home of Caiphas the high priest. It was there that specific plans were secretly formulated to have Jesus murdered (Mt. 26:3-4).
The conspiracy’s success depended upon avoiding the public eye, at the beginning. Jesus must be ambushed by subterfuge, but the trap must be sprung in total secrecy. The crowd must not, under any circumstances, be alerted to the capture of their hero. Upon this crucial element the entire plan depended. No one, except Jesus, understood the psychological make-up of the populace better than these leaders. They had risen to positions of prominence and remained there by knowing how to play the crowd like a 5-string harp. They had an expert’s insight into the fragile, volatility of Messianic Expectancy, and they would manipulate it with exquisite finesse. But, it must all begin in the darkness. At all costs Jesus must be taken quietly.
The opportunity to put their clandestine plot into motion came much quicker than they had expected. Both Matthew and Mark agree that Judas gave up on Jesus after being anointed by the woman at the home of Simon the Leper. Jesus had used her act as an occasion to declare His upcoming death: “She has anointed my body beforehand for its burial” (Mk. 14:9). Judas, at least, got the implication loud and clear: the next stage in this glorious revolution is not the expulsion of the Roman oppressors but the death of Jesus. That did it for him. Having lost all patience with this politically inept Messiah, this Fake who proved himself to be just another convincing but ultimately Impotent Raiser of Messianic Hope, he comes to the cabal and offers to betray Jesus into their hands. They are “delighted” (Lk. 22:4). What Judas offered them was the brass ring: seizing Jesus without stirring up the sympathy of the people. The conspirators now had the means to spring their trap and trip the mob’s explosive, fanatical hair trigger. The spark which would light the frenzy of homicidal zealotry must be, and now could be, struck quietly. Judas began looking “for an opportunity to betray Him to them without the crowd knowing” (Lk. 22:6).
At His final meal with the Twelve Jesus predicts His betrayal. Judas feigns innocence and, using the confusion created by these foreboding words, leaves the room to put the plot in motion. Overwhelmed by an awful dread, no one takes much notice. After he has gone Jesus refers four more times to His impending death: “I have longed to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”; “this is my body given for you: do this as a memorial of me”; “This cup is the new covenant in my blood which will be poured out for you”. In His final reference He reveals the divine strategy which has been at work from the beginning: “The Son of Man does indeed go to His fate even as it has been decreed. . . .” (Lk. 22:15-22) The Lamb is no passive victim He is consciously laying His life down as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of His people. Such was the Father’s foreordained plan and the Son’s obedient purpose. Before getting up from the table He makes a cryptic allusion to their need to be prepared for what is coming because “these words of scripture have to be fulfilled in me: He let Himself be taken for a criminal. Yes, what scripture says about me is even now reaching its fulfillment” (Lk. 22:36-38).
Jesus is referring to the classic Messianic passage in Isaiah which stands alone in the entire Old Testament for it is the only one describes the suffering of the Messiah. This Scripture states:
“Hence I will grant whole hordes for His tribute,
He shall divide the spoil with the mighty,
for surrendering Himself to death
and letting himself be taken for a sinner,
while He was bearing the faults of many
and praying all the time for sinners.” (Isaiah 53:12)
He is reinforcing for His tired and distraught friends that what is about to happen is no unforeseen, unexpected tragedy. It is a drama that has been preordained by His Father and it is one in which He is a willing and conscious participant. Using the rabbinic remez He is underscoring for them that the bloody, brutal ordeal that is just ahead is redemptive. The death toward which He has been steadily moving is not that of a martyr; it is not an exemplary but a forgiving, saving, atoning act. The blood He will spill is not meant to inspire but to save. What has compelled this death is man’s sin. Jesus is giving up His life in order that sinners may be forgiven. This they must be absolutely clear on. The fate of the world will depend on it.
The meal is over. It is late and quite dark. The population of Jerusalem has completed the festival and is preparing for bed. Jesus takes His disciples to a walled estate known as Gethsemane to pray. His last night on earth He will not sleep. He will remain awake outside under the stars He threw into space. He knows very well what is ahead and requires the comfort of His friends and the assurances of His Father. It is now so late that the disciples are incapable of remaining awake. Jesus prays alone and each time he returns to His best friends they are asleep. On the third occasion He tells them that “It is all over. The hour has come. Now the Son of Man is to be betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up! Let us go! My betrayer is close at hand already” (Mk. 14:41-42 JB). Torches aloft, “a large number of men armed with swords and clubs sent by the chief priests an elders of the people” (Mt. 26:47) burst in upon the weary band. Judas is in the lead. He has arranged a signal so that Jesus does not slip away in the darkness and in the commotion of a very possible altercation (after all Jesus does have eleven body guards, some of whom know how to use sword and knife). As it turns out, one does use a sword but to little effect.
To suppress any resistance the traitor comes with superior and overwhelming force. They need not have bothered, Jesus pointedly remarks, after allowing Judas to greet Him with a cold and cruel kiss. With a sad dignity, He tells them that He would have gone quietly regardless of the numbers arrayed against Him. Judas, having earned his fee, slinks into the dark. Jesus is trundled off, as quickly as possible, to the palace of the high priest where the patently illegal but demonically clever farce can commence.
The intention from the beginning is clear. There is to be no attempt to determine guilt or innocence, this is a kangaroo court; the fix is in. The only issue is how to obtain the conviction as quickly as possible while maintaining the merest shred of the appearance of legality: “the chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus, however false, on which they might pass the death sentence” (Mt. 26:60). Exasperated at the bumbling and inept testimony proffered by the paid witnesses, the high priest begins personally interrogating the accused. Jesus refuses to speak when given the opportunity to respond to the conflicting testimony. But, when asked, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” He responds without hesitation that He is. Then, very deliberately, He makes the damning declaration, that He is more than Messiah, He is also going to be seated at the right hand of the Power and will be coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:61-63). This is clearly blasphemy since Jesus is publicly arrogating to Himself language that is clearly reserved alone for God.
The high priest is electrified as well as elated by the ease with which Jesus has taken the bait. Acting out the part of the aggrieved defender of the conscience and virtue of the Nation, he tears his sacred vestments in a show of mortification. A quick poll is taken and the entire Sanhedrin casts its vote against Jesus. The verdict is unanimous: Jesus deserves to die. We are told that at this point Jesus is blindfolded, spat upon and that “the attendants rained blows on Him” (Mk. 14:65). Jesus is not receiving the stinging slaps of insult and humiliation, for according to Matthew they were hitting Him with their fists (Mt. 26:67). This is all calculation. The ringleaders know what keen marketers have known from the beginning: image is everything. It is crucial to the success of their plan that Jesus look the part of a beaten, defeated and failed huckster. A cunning brilliance is at work here. Each act of the play must be carried out with caution and care.
After the beating, it is still very early in the morning. The city of Jerusalem is slumbering from its late Passover festivities but the entire Sanhedrin “had their plan ready”. Before the populace can awaken and see Jesus being prematurely paraded through the streets, “they had Jesus bound and took him away and handed Him over to Pilate” (Mk. 15:1). The trap has now slammed shut. Pilate, the Roman governor of Israel, alone had the power to authorize executions. However, this is merely incidental to the plot. The crucial thing is to place Jesus in the control of the political oppressors, the Gentile dogs, The point is not only to obtain permission for execution, what is most important is that Jesus be publicly exposed, in the most dramatic way possible, as a complete fraud. He proclaimed Himself to be the Coming One, the long-awaited Messiah. He trumpeted His unique authority as the Promised Deliverer whom the nation had desperately prayed for and awaited for hundreds of years.
This is what the plan has been from its beginning: turn the tables on this upstart who’d taken such delight in humiliating them. He had exposed them they would return the favor. They maneuvered the legal and political system to orchestrate the scene where they could gleefully proclaim to the naïve and credulous crowd: Look at your Great Jewish Hope! Look at the Impotent, Beaten, Impostor! And you thought that after all the false Messiahs, after all the hopes raised and dashed that this time, this One was the Real Deal. He played with you, mocked you, used you. He manipulated you. He cruelly and maliciously encouraged you to begin to hope against hope one last time and look at him now! Look at this Fraud; this champion who promised to free you from oppression can’t even free himself. What do you think now of this pathetic, weak fraud who claimed to be on a mission to take back David’s throne. And to add insult to injury, not only is he a manipulative liar, he is a damnable blasphemer. This con artist has the temerity not only to defraud you but to mock our glorious Temple and to also blaspheme our Holy God!
Playing on the crushing heart-break of centuries of disillusionment the religious leaders with masterful ease turned the adoring masses into a frenzied lynch mob who would not be content until they saw blood, and lots of it. Their plan which had been crafted with such exquisite care had accomplished its desired end; the masses which had been delighted and amazed only 24-hours earlier had been turned into a raging monster clamoring for the blood of the Jesus they once adored. So it was that those who once shouted out, “Son of David, have mercy on me”, who cried out “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”, now screamed in unison: “crucify him, crucify him!” After ordering that Jesus be flogged, Pilate released Him to be taken to Golgotha to be crucified. The crowd’s hatred had been incited to such a murderous pitch that no shred of sympathy remained. As His bloody body hung naked and exposed, and as He writhed in the throes of a merciless and slow agony, the bystanders hurled their ridicule and contempt like venom from a spitting cobra.
The death of the Christus Victor does not end with a whimper but a loud cry. It is the victorious warrior’s shout. “Jesus gave out a loud cry, and breathed His last.” (Mk. 15:37) Faithful Son to the end, He commits Himself to His Father and with His last breath cries out: “It is finished!” (Lk. 23:46; Jn. 19:30). Justice has been satisfied, the Law has been fulfilled, the ransom price for redemption has been paid, Satan has been defeated, and salvation has been gained for His People.
Messiah’s mission accomplished–finished indeed!