Satan had taken him to a mountaintop. Jesus’ little geo-political world in which he found himself—now dominated by the Romans—could be his. It really could. He knew it. And he wondered. In fact, he was sorely tempted; why else would he be sitting on a mountaintop wondering about it all.
After well over a month, he finally said no.
John the Baptist shot off his mouth about the Roman King. Seemingly, a stupid move. John now sat in prison sweating out his fate. With great angst, John sent messengers to Jesus asking if he was the One. Imagine: John is considered the greatest prophet because he knew Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah the Jews had been hoping for for centuries. Indeed, John had recently baptized Jesus, identifying him as the One. Yet John fearfully debated, “Was I wrong?” He sent messengers to ask Jesus just that question, “Are you the One… or should we wait for someone else?” (Mt. 11:3; NCV) He asked, even though he knew from reports what Jesus had already been doing.
What did John expect Jesus to do? Sure seems he expected Jesus to rescue him. But why? Because Jesus was to be the new King of the Jews. He was to usher in a new geo-political empire, overthrowing the Romans and setting up God’s Kingdom once and for all. Can’t blame John; Jesus himself wondered if that was His mission. Little doubt, given his expectations, John was shocked with Jesus’ answer: “Go tell John what you hear and see: The blind can see, the crippled can walk, and people with skin diseases are healed. The deaf can hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor. Those who do not stumble in their faith because of me are blessed.” (Mt. 11:4-6; NCV) That was it—and John was beheaded.
John, the greatest of them all, died by execution, baffled as to what Jesus was really all about.
Jesus invited a Zealot onto his ministry team. Zealots were one of four sects at that time: Pharisees who didn’t like either John the Baptist or Jesus (note that the apostle Paul was a Pharisee); the Sadducees who didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead; the Essenes who many consider non-political; and the Zealots. Zealots were organized revolutionaries. They wanted to overthrow the Romans by force. Inviting a revolutionary on board no doubt stirred expectations.
At a political level, Jesus was no innocent bystander. He deliberately provoked the Pharisees. In retaliation, they set out numerous times and ways to publicly trap Him in order to make Him look foolish, erode His following, or even get Him arrested by the Romans. One time they used the issue of taxation. Taxes were burdensome on the Jews; the amounts they demanded were large. And the Jews had to pay special subject taxes that Roman citizens didn’t have to pay. Such taxes felt enslaving—and were, in fact, taxes for economic and political subjugation. Some Jews may even have felt that paying taxes to Caesar was false worship. About two and a half decades earlier, there had been an uprising against Roman taxes—which had been brutally crushed by Rome. So the Romans would have been especially attuned to this issue, and the Jews would have continued to grind their jaws under the tax burden.
After trying to ingratiate themselves to Jesus—which Jesus saw through—the Pharisees asked Him, “Tell us then, what is Your opinion? Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” (The imperial tax was the added tax not imposed on Roman citizens.) Jesus responded by calling these Pharisees hypocrites, once again embarrassing them in front of others and provoking their rage. Then He said, “Whose image is this? And whose inscription?” “Caesar’s,” they replied. Then he said to them, “So give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.” (Mt. 22:15-12; NIV)
Some think the focus in this exchange is on how we should react to government as Christians. Perhaps, but if that’s the case, it sure seems to miss the real drama here. Jesus was being set up. If He said the tax was unfair, and/or that the Jews should not pay the tax, the Romans could arrest Him for trying to incite a riot or even, more broadly, an insurrection. If He said yes, it is a fair subjugating tax and all Jews should pay it, His intrigued audience would recoil in disgust and anger—likely destroying His public ministry. Instead, Jesus takes the coin, sets up His audience to note that the coin is made by Caesar, and then says, well, if it’s Caesar’s then give it back to Him. But whatever is God’s, give that to Him. Jesus dodges the trap. He avoids any possibility of Roman arrest. And yet He doesn’t say anything about it being a fair tax at all. Perhaps some Jews who were revolutionaries and wanted Jesus to use this as an occasion for a riot were disappointed, but His response didn’t destroy His ministry… not yet anyway.
Jesus’ propensity to avoid inciting violence against Rome would seem to have been sealed by other teachings. Besides turning the other cheek, Jesus said, “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.” Rome had made it a law that a soldier could require a Jew to carry his back pack for him for one mile. (A pack could weigh about a hundred pounds.) So Jesus was encouraging the subjugated Jew to stop becoming so bitter under the cruelty of Roman rule—and offer the soldier a second mile. Beyond that, he really wanted the Jew to stop hating the Roman enemy and reach out in love. (Mt. 5:38-48; NIV) That teaching went directly against the mission of the revolutionaries… and of His own disciple Simon. Jesus was making it clear He was no violent revolutionary—and had no plans of becoming so.
So who was He then?
The crowds brought Jesus a paralyzed man. Having compassion for him, Jesus told him his sins were forgiven. But, for Jews, only God could forgive sins. So some in His hearing thought He was blaspheming against God. Jesus confronted that directly, saying, which is easier? Is it easier to forgive his sins, or is it easier to tell him to get up and walk? Then Jesus boldly asserted, “I will prove to you that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” Jesus said to the paralyzed man, “Stand up, take your mat, and go home.” And the man stood up and went home. (Mt. 9:1-8; NCV) Jesus was branding Himself as having the full authority of God. For Him, sin and suffering were simply two sides of the same coin—a coin over which Jesus had ultimate control.
Still, everyone was yet confused. Even His dearest friends.
Jesus stood by and let His close friend Lazarus pass away without lifting a finger. Lazarus’ sisters, with whom Jesus was also close, were upset Jesus had not come to heal him. Jesus loved the three of them, but chose to wait after He got word Lazarus was ill before returning, knowing Lazarus would be dead by the time He returned. Jesus told His disciples why He waited: so that He may be glorified by His Father. They didn’t understand.
When He decided to head out to see Mary and Martha, Jesus told His disciples He was going to wake Lazarus up. Baffled, they said, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” So then He told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”
Lazarus had been dead for four days. When Martha heard that Jesus was finally coming, she ran out eagerly to greet Him. Nevertheless, upset with Him, she challenged Him. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Still not understanding, Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Martha told Mary Jesus was asking for her. So Mary ran to greet Jesus. But Mary too was understandably upset, asserting both her belief in Jesus and her frustration with him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” This time Jesus didn’t confront her as he had Martha. Instead, he got visibly upset, asking where they had laid Lazarus. When he got there, he actually wept. Many friends of the family were confused like everyone else was, saying, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
Jesus ordered the stone rolled back. Still baffled, even after affirming that Jesus was the Messiah, Martha again confronted Jesus: “But Lord, by this time, there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” For some reason, Jesus didn’t seem to understand or appreciate Martha’s confusion, for he retorted, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (Jn. 11:1-44; NIV)
Word spread like wildfire. The groundswell of community response was enormous. According to the apostle John, it was Lazarus’ coming back to life after having been dead for four days that excited the masses to spread their palm branches as Jesus entered Jerusalem on a colt for the Passover. The Pharisees were threatened now more than ever. In Jerusalem, just like John the Baptist, Jesus again shot off His mouth against the Pharisees and even overthrew trading tables in the Temple, pushing the religious leaders into a corner. They decided they had to take Him out, and quickly. Given His popularity, they didn’t dare do it in broad daylight during festival time. So they decided to get Him arrested during the cover of night. Judas helped. In the meantime, the revolutionaries, in spite of Jesus’ teaching of non-violence, got their hopes up one more time. Jerusalem was filled with people… and people abuzz with the news of this incredible, unparalleled miracle worker. If only Jesus would have mobilized the insurrection. Instead, Jesus foolishly wasted His time taking on the Pharisees—and said absolutely nothing about Roman oppression. Nothing.
After Jesus was arrested, everyone, including His disciples—and Peter—were baffled. Who is this man?