Why Did Religious Leaders Want to Kill Jesus?
Good morning, everybody. It’s great to see you all on this cold and rainy day. I want to say another good morning to everybody who’s watching online, both here in the Greenville area and around the world. And I also wanted to say, if you are our missionary partners, and you’re watching this either livestream or you catch up at some point, I just want you to know that you guys are loved, that we remember you where you are, and we pray for you.
This morning I have an envelope, and in here I have written down a secret about Jesus. It’s not new information or new revelation about Jesus (don’t worry), but it is a secret about Jesus that I think we find in our passage today in Mark. So, as we work our way through, see if you can catch a couple clues about this secret about Jesus.
I think Mark anticipates us asking him a question about Jesus when he wrote these chapters today. He anticipates us asking, why did religious leaders want to kill Jesus? Mark moves really quickly in his book. We’re introduced to Jesus in chapter 1. We’re only going to make it to the beginning of chapter 3 today. But already by chapter 3 the leaders, as Steve read to us, want to destroy Jesus. Why? Why do people like the Pharisees, these religious leaders, want to kill Jesus?
Well, we need to know a little bit about the Pharisees so we can understand why they want to kill Jesus. A portrait of a Pharisee would look something like this. This is a group of devoted and learned Jewish scholars with utter commitment to God’s Word and an unwavering desire for people to obey God’s Word. The Pharisees would know the Old Testament better than anybody in this room, in this church, and maybe even in Greenville — amazing scholars, loved God’s Word. In this sense, we should all want to be a Pharisee.
But where the Pharisees’ passion may have outgrown their wisdom is when they decided to safeguard obeying God’s Word by writing some more books, describing how everybody was supposed to obey God’s Word. They added their own words to explain how to obey God’s words. Good intentions, terrible execution. Because over time, obeying God’s Word and obeying their words became the same thing. And that’s where the Pharisees, the religious leaders, went off the rails.
So, Mark tells us 5 stories about Jesus that go along with the Pharisees (they’re in each story) that describe why religious leaders would want to kill him. Let me give you those three reasons, and then we’ll work through them. They want to kill, because Jesus declares blasphemous theology, Jesus parties in questionable company, and Jesus endorses lawless activity. This is why religious leaders want to kill him.
He declares blasphemous theology, story #1. Word gets out that Jesus has come back to a home in Capernaum. Crowds show up, and they are so large that the entire house is packed all the way to the door. Mark then introduces us to this man who is paralyzed and his four friends. The four friends have a mission, and that is getting their paralyzed friend in front of Jesus. They are so committed to that, that they actually vandalize a house in order to do so. The house was packed all the way to the door. They couldn’t get in, so they went up on the roof. Now, the houses of that day had flat roofs, and they were probably made out of crisscross timbers packed with mud that then baked hard. So, they went up on top and started digging through that roof. Now, picture yourself in the gathering in the house as they’re digging through the roof, and all of a sudden debris starts to fall down on people’s heads as a little hole is opened up, which then is enlarged to about the size of a coffin. You hear somebody up on the roof yell, “heads up,” and then all of a sudden, this paralyzed man is lowered down right in front of Jesus.
Now, Mark doesn’t say this, but certainly there had to be conversations going on while the work was going on up above them, right? I’m sitting there as the homeowner; I want to know what he was thinking. I bet he had a few choice words for the guys who just dug through his roof. We don’t have that. I just found that interesting. So, the paralyzed man is right in front of Jesus, and Jesus says this right away, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” In Greek, the first word out of his mouth is “forgiven.” He forgave before anything was requested. Now, at that point, the Pharisees have an internal, judgmental conversation about what Jesus just said. And it went something like this, “Who does this guy think he is? Who is he to forgive sins? Only God can forgive sins.”
Now, let’s be charitable to the Pharisees. That belief is true. Only God can forgive sins, but what we realize with the Pharisees is even with Jesus’ shocking teaching, unparalleled authority, even with all of their knowledge of the Old Testament, the law and the prophecy, they were blind to the clues of who Jesus was. They didn’t think Jesus was God. Armed in their ignorance of who he really was, they held trial in their heads, declared Jesus guilty of blasphemy, which is punishable by death according to the law.
Now, at this point, Mark lets us know that Jesus knows what they’re thinking. We kind of have inside info about what’s going on. And Jesus looks at the Pharisees, the religious leaders, and says to them, “Why do you question this in your hearts?” Why do you question me forgiving sin? The scribes at this point (I think it’s weird), they actually miss another display of Jesus’ power. I mean, after all, he just read their minds. That would wig me out a little bit. If I’m in the middle of judging somebody in my heart, and I’m thinking things, and then somebody looks at me and goes, “Hey, why are you judging me in your heart?” and I actually am, that would be a little freaky. They don’t respond to it at all.
Jesus asks them this question: “Guys, which is easier? Is it easier to forgive sin, or is it easier to heal a paralyzed man?” From the Pharisees’ perspective, that’s kind of easy. Only God can forgive sin. You can’t really verify if you forgave sin, so healing, this is easier. It’s easier to heal a paralyzed man than to do this. So, Jesus looks at these leaders and says to them, “So that you know I can forgive sin,” he then looks at the paralyzed man and says, “Get up and walk.” Jesus proved his authority to forgive sin by healing the paralyzed man. Jesus in essence proved his divinity by healing the paralyzed man. He did the “easier” task. The paralytic walks out, and Mark tells us that the entire crowd is just shocked and in awe of what just happened. And even with the miracle, the religious leaders wanted to kill him, because they believed he taught blasphemous theology.
They also wanted to kill Jesus because Jesus parties in questionable company. This is story #2. Mark whisks us away to Jesus walking beside the ocean. Jesus passes by a tax collection booth and notices a guy named Levi who is a tax collector. And Jesus looks at this tax collector and says, “Follow me.” Now, when we hear “tax collector,” especially at this time of year as we’re all preparing taxes, we probably think of an IRS agent in a suit who takes money from us. Which we don’t really like, but we do like roads and the occasional ambulance when needed. So, we give our taxes. That’s how we think of it. A tax collector in this context is way more complex.
Let me see if I can paint a good picture of a tax collector here. Four parts: one part crooked IRS agent. They work for a crooked government. One part, national traitor. Levi, who is a Jew, is working for Rome, the occupying government of Israel, and he’s a traitor. He’s working for the occupying force. One part, extreme extortioner. His job was to collect taxes for Rome. The way he got paid was adding his own tax on top of it, and he could make that whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. Part four is religious heretic. Because he was working with Gentiles (Rome), he was stealing, he’s breaking the law, this guy is nowhere near following God’s Law. And to show you how extremely people would have viewed, especially from a Jewish context, a tax collector, imagine that four-part person completely wrapped in bacon, touching a dead body at the same time. That’s a tax collector here.
Now, picture this. Jesus, the new rabbi in town, looks at that person and says, “Come with me.” The text is clear. Jesus sees him. “Hey, you, come with me.” The scene swiftly moves from that moment to Levi’s dining room. Jesus apparently accepted an invitation to dinner with Levi’s tax collector friends. The scribes of the Pharisees at this point are appalled, because not only are their tax collectors at this party, but there are also, in their estimation, sinners, which basically means people who don’t follow God’s Law. And maybe specifically means people who don’t follow God’s Law the way the Pharisees say they should follow God’s Law. The Pharisees would not be caught dead inside that house.
Jesus is reclining, eating, drinking, telling stories, laughing, talking with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus is now ritually unclean. He can’t go into the synagogue without specific rituals. He can’t touch anyone else or the uncleanness spreads. For the Pharisees, this is a living nightmare. So, they approach his disciples and ask the question, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” We could ask the question this way, “Why is he with those kind of people?” Jesus answers the question. He overhears, so he gives his own answer, even though they were trying to get around him. He says this, “Those who are well have no need of physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
Great answer. These people need me. They’re not well. I came to call people like that. I see people like that. I see tax collectors. I see sinners. That’s why I’m here. I didn’t come for the righteous. If you’re righteous, and you don’t need me, I didn’t come for you. Jesus creates two camps — the religious leaders and the party-goers — and looks at them and says, “I came for this group.” And Jesus is insinuating, not for you. If you’re so religious that you have no need, then my sacrifice for you doesn’t do anything. Jesus came for needy people, not needless people. And in our religious culture in the south, I just want to pause here and say, we religious people need to be warned. You can’t work through this and see Jesus deal with religious people and not put yourself in the place of a Pharisee. If you don’t put yourself in the story as the Pharisee, then you’re probably a Pharisee. The religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus because he partied in questionable company.
Finally, the religious leaders wanted to kill Jesus because Jesus endorses lawless activity. And by lawless, I mean lawless from the perspective of the Pharisees. And this is kind of three stories — one about fasting and two about Sabbath. Jesus and his disciples ignored fasting. They were eating when they were supposed to be fasting. Now, the Old Testament requires one day of fasting, and that’s on the day of atonement. But at this point, the Pharisees had established many days that everybody was supposed to fast, maybe even up to two days a week. The Pharisees were fasting, the disciples of John the Baptist were fasting, but Jesus and his disciples? Well, they weren’t. They were eating. So, the people ask, “Why? Why aren’t you guys fasting?” And Jesus borrows from the culture of the day to answer that question. They’re eating instead of fasting. Why are you doing that?
Jesus talks about being at a wedding. Now, in this culture, a wedding could last up to seven days. It wasn’t over after the reception. Everyone in the town was expected to have a good time, even the rabbis. That’s the feeling of a wedding. When the bridegroom and the bride were together, it’s time for a great party for everybody. And Jesus says, “They’re not [fasting] because they’re with the bridegroom.” We’re at a wedding. They’re with me. We don’t fast at weddings. Fasting at a wedding in this culture is like us trying to count carbs at Christmas, like trying to keep your diet on Thanksgiving Day. It’s ridiculous. Why do that? The disciples can’t fast because they’re actually with Jesus. Fasting when you’re with Jesus is like fasting during a week-long feast. And I think this gives us insight into what it’s going to be like to be in the presence of Jesus forever. It’s a non-fasting zone. God is with man in this story. Jesus, the servant-rescuer, Emanuel, God in the flesh, is with the disciples, and a natural right outflow of that is we’re not going to deny ourselves and fast today. Why? Because he’s right here! And that’s going to be us forever.
But right in the middle of that story about the wedding, Jesus messes with the wedding metaphor a little bit because he inserts an Easter egg. He inserts a little bit of a foreshadow and he says this, “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them [from the disciples], and then they will fast in that day.” The seven day wedding celebration is going to come to an end. The bridegroom is going to be taken away. Now, that would be a very odd thing to say in the culture. It would be weird. Why all of a sudden is the bridegroom taken away out of this moment of celebration? And Jesus in this moment in Mark is giving the first foreshadowing of his death. I’m not always going to be here. They are going to fast again. My disciples will fast again. In Jesus’ absence, even today, we may choose to fast from food or other things to highlight our need of his presence. But when Jesus is near, fasting freezes.
The Pharisees didn’t like his view of fasting. They also judge him for breaking Sabbath. Fasting is really important. Sabbath is a life and death situation. Sabbath defined the Jew as a follower of God. If you followed God, you kept the Sabbath. For those of you who were here with us last fall, we went through Nehemiah. There’s a moment in Nehemiah where Nehemiah, the governor of Israel, in order to make sure Sabbath happens, actually calls in forces and guards, locks up the city so that Sabbath happens. That’s how they viewed Sabbath. It’s life or death. And on Sabbath, you didn’t work. But not working was somewhat general in the Old Testament, so the Pharisees, in order to help everybody, make sure that they obeyed Sabbath and didn’t work, created scenario after scenario after scenario of what was work and what wasn’t work. Let me just give you one example. If you were a physician during this time, and you were a Jew, and you followed God, and you were on Sabbath, if it was a life-or-death situation, you could help. If it was a broken bone, that needed to wait until after Sabbath. That’s the minutia of how they got down to what was obeying and what wasn’t.
So, in this moment, we find Jesus and his followers walking in a field, a grain field. They’re grabbing heads of grain, crushing them in their hands, and kind of throwing them in their mouth like sunflower seeds. They’re eating and working on the Sabbath. And the Pharisees, they’re just so annoyed and angry. And they come and say, and they challenge Jesus, “Why are your disciples doing that? That is unlawful. Why are they eating, working on the Sabbath?” Jesus answers this moment in another roundabout way with a story from the Old Testament. He brings up David, the great shepherd-king in the Old Testament, who the Pharisees would have revered, and he tells them this story. He’s like, “Do you guys remember when David was running for his life with his friends, and he was starving, and they were all starving. And they came to a priest and said, ‘Do you have any food?’ And the priest says, ‘No, I don’t have any food, but the bread that was in the temple.’” Now, the bread in the temple had really strict rules about who could eat it. It was only for the priests. Rules. This is only for the priest. It’s changed every seven days, and then you can eat it. Well, in the face of starving people, the priest took the bread from the temple (the only bread he had) and gave it to them. David and his men ate it, and all was well. So, in that moment, the laws, the rules about the bread were important. They showed a picture of a greater reality to come, that Jesus is going to be the Bread. But faced with starving people, the application of those rules changed for the priest, and he gave the bread.
Jesus uses that story, that situation, to hold a mirror up to the Pharisees to show them what Sabbath was supposed to be like. Yes, there are laws and rules about Sabbath, but Sabbath is not meant to be a law for man. It’s a gift that points to a greater reality. The laws around Sabbath, the rules around Sabbath, they’re meant to guide people to understand and recognize who God is — this God who actually took rest on the seventh day when he created the world, a God who takes time to rest and thrive and gives that gift to us in order to rest and thrive and worship in life. Jesus looks at these guys and says, “You’re missing it.” Sabbath was created for us. We weren’t created for Sabbath. God did not make people Sabbath slaves.
So in that moment, is that offensive to the Pharisees? Oh, yes. Is it revolutionary? Again, a great big yes. But Jesus, he doesn’t even stop there. He keeps going. He then gives himself a nickname. He says, “The Son of Man.” He calls himself that a couple of times in the book of Mark. “The Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Why are your disciples working? Because Sabbath is a gift to them, and because I’m Lord of the Sabbath. Here we go again down the road of blasphemy. Jesus is being very clear to these guys. I’m God, and I rule what God created. That’s why we’re working.
Now, the second Sabbath story moves from a field right into the temple, and here we find Jesus probably teaching. That was his habit whenever he went to a synagogue. And Mark tells us about two other attendees. This is a public service. And specifically, there’s a guy with a withered or disfigured hand in the gathering, and the Pharisees are watching. Mark says this.
The Pharisees “watched Jesus to see whether he would heal [the man with the disfigured hand] on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse him.”
So, throughout the length of our stories here this morning, they’ve gone from critique, talking to other people, talking directly to Jesus, and now they’re doing a whole setup so that they can accuse him. What I think is hilarious is that for this whole thing to work, they are counting on Jesus having compassion on somebody with a disability. That’s their win. I could just see these guys, these religious leaders in their own self-righteousness going, “You know what’s going to happen? I bet he’s going to walk in there, and he’s going to have compassion on that person and he’s going to heal him, and it’s the Sabbath, and then we’ve got him! Now we can accuse him. Look at what he did!” They’re missing it. We see in that, in the Pharisees’ view of Jesus, the actual beauty of Jesus. And we see the ugliness of misguided religion. While attempting to do what the Pharisees think is right, they’re overlooking the plight of the man and planning evil against Jesus at the same time.
So, here’s what Jesus does. Jesus makes this moment public. He does so by saying to the man with the withered hand, “Come here.” Now, this is so important, I think. In this culture, the guy with the withered hand would have been allowed in the synagogue, but more than likely, most people there would have thought he had a problem with his hand because either he sinned, his family sinned, or someone around him sinned. It’s his fault. That would be the mindset they have with this person. So, put yourself in his place or her place. The guy with a disfigured hand is sitting in his service. He knows how people think about him, but he is there to worship and follow the Law. And now this new rabbi is up there teaching and says, “Hey, come here. Come here.” It would have been so awkward for him in that moment, and the crowd, too. And then Jesus amps it up once more, he goes more public. Because after he talks to that guy, he then looks at the Pharisees in front of everybody and asks this question: Guys, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do [evil]?” Should we save life or kill it? Oh, no, he didn’t. Can you imagine what that place would feel like at that point? Jesus raised the stakes. He goes well beyond the minutia of what is and isn’t work and goes to the very heart and character of God. Is it lawful to kill or heal? What flows from our understanding of God and the Law about this moment? That’s what he’s asking them to do. Yes, the law is real, but look at it in light of the character of God. What would he want us to do?
The response of the Pharisees at this moment to this challenge? Silence. Nothing. Awkward lull in a public gathering. Jesus got them. They knew it probably, and they said nothing. And then Mark gives us one of the most amazing and human views of Jesus. Jesus, in response, “looked around at them.” Have you ever seen somebody have that kind of quizzical look on their face in a conversation with you, and they do that … where their head moves, and they’re …. Do you see the Savior of the world looking at these guys after he gave them this opportunity to see something, to understand what the Law is really about, and Jesus is looking at them going, “What?!” He “looked around at them in anger.” Jesus was angry and grieved.
Boy, there’s an interesting thing. To know if you have righteous anger, anger and grief should be together. If you only have the first one, be careful. He was “grieved at their hardness of heart.” You guys don’t get it. You’re blind. Your religion is so important, you missed the point of it. You know everything about the Law, and you’ve missed the Messiah. Jesus is angry because compassion and care for the guy in the synagogue was the most right and righteous thing to do on the Sabbath. He was grieved because Jesus loved these guys. Jesus wanted the Pharisees to believe in him. He interacts with them over and over and over in all of the gospels. They’re the ones who are fasting at the wedding feast. They’re right there with him. They could be celebrating.
So, once more, Jesus speaks to the guy with the withered hand and says, “Hold out your hand.” And the guy did, and it was healed. As soon as the Pharisees saw him do what they thought he was going to do, they walked out. They went out to convene a kill council. “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” What a brutal word. They wanted to kill him. They wanted to kill him so bad they would partner with the Herodians, who were kind of a political party that was pro Herod’s rule. The Pharisees would partner with Gentiles that they thought were beneath them and outside of God’s law in order to kill Jesus of Nazareth. At that point, they could compromise their beliefs. That’s okay. What we’re doing in this moment, that’s okay to partner with them because he’s so bad. Does that reasoning sound familiar to anybody? They wanted to kill him because they thought he was blasphemous, he partied with the wrong people, and he endorsed lawless activity. Simply put, Jesus was a threat.
Now, back to that secret. I wrote it in here. What did you hear about Jesus in this passage? What were clues about Jesus that might be something that we’ve kept secret? Not on purpose. Here’s what I think it is. I think Mark leads us to this secret about Jesus. Jesus is purposefully courageous. He is purposefully courageous. Look at what he does in all the stories. “Son, your sins are forgiven.” He does it before anything is asked. He does something only God can do. “So that you know I can forgive sins” … I’m going to heal this man. I’m going to declare myself God. Levi, tax collector, I know people like you aren’t supposed to be with religious leaders like me, but I want you to follow me. And of course, I’m going to go to your house and go to a party with your friends. “My disciples can’t fast in my presence. Sabbath isn’t meant to be a law for man. It’s a gift to man. And you guys need to know, I am actually Lord of the Sabbath.” And my favorite display of his courage are those two words he says to the guy with the withered hand, “Come here.”
When Jesus goes public, he knows what the Pharisees are thinking. He knows what they’re planning. He knows where it’s all going to end up. He knows where it’s going to end up in Jerusalem. And yet in all of these stories, Jesus keeps making these choices over and over and over that put himself in harm’s way for me, for you, for the man with the disfigured hand, for Levi, the messed up tax collector, for all his tax collector buddies in that house, all the sinners. And who knows what kind of people they were. They could have been really rough.
Jesus makes a choice after choice, after choice, after real choice in life to move forward. I wonder, with good intentions, we talk much about the love of Jesus and the humility of Jesus. And that is so true. But in one way, has that minimized the unbelievable courage and bravery of this person that we follow named Jesus? Jesus, with unwavering courage and perfect love, confronted and confounded these religious leaders to the point that they wanted to kill him, and they would go to any means necessary to make it happen.
Brothers and sisters, when was the last time you thought about Jesus as an unbelievably courageous man to follow? A guy who lives like that? Oh, man, I’d love to follow him! I’d love to be in his company. Jesus is without a doubt the Lamb. We see that all through Scripture. But he’s also the Lion of Judah. He is this courageous servant who stood for a right view of the Law, a compassionate view of sinners, and an accurate view of living a holy life.
So, I just want to end with three questions for you. And I’d love for you to choose to wrestle with them this week in your life group, in your family, on your own, with friends. How does considering Jesus as courageous make you feel about him? Now, I don’t know if anybody has noticed this. One of the things I’ve been working on in trying to serve you with God’s Word is to feel, think, and do in response to God’s Word. An accurate response to this is not to just say, “Oh, I learned something about Jesus. I know something.” No, how does that make you feel about him? Because all over our response to God is about love. How do you feel knowing Jesus is this courageous, brave man who lived a great life?
Second question, how does considering Jesus as courageous correct your present view of him? Jesus was not wimpy in the sense that we think of it. Jesus was not lame. Jesus’ courage under fire, Jesus’ submission of himself, his courage is demonstrated in his servanthood, not in being a jerk. How does that correct our view of him, and how does it complement our view? When you consider Jesus as you live your life this week, and if Jesus is a part of your life, you’re following this guy. How does adding a dose of, “Man, he was unbelievable when he lived,” how does that complement the way you think of him now? Do you have the power to face your own death the way Jesus did? He knew the day and time for 33 years.
Final one, like Jesus in these stories, when it is time to do the right thing in the culturally wrong moment, what are you going to do? The right thing for Jesus to do was to heal a man on the Sabbath. Right thing, wrong cultural moment. I’ve just been trying to think of North Hills. Start at home. It’s always easier to point. It’s always harder to go, what about me? What about us? What right action as a people do we need to be doing in our culture that we’re doing at the culturally wrong moment? And brothers and sisters, there are many answers to that question right now.
How about this, when you need to declare Jesus is the only way. In the culturally wrong moment, that is not the culturally right answer right now at all. What are you going to do? When God calls us, and we experience an influx of “those people.” We’re not above thinking that way, “those people.” What are you going to do? When your life with Jesus goes against the grain of culture in your school, in college, at work, what are you going to do? I’m hoping I’ll act with the courage of Jesus. I’m hoping you’ll act with the courage of Jesus, because Jesus said to us, “Take up your cross and follow me.” And I’m certain in that invitation is the moment to borrow from his courage.
Let’s pray. Spirit, I pray that you would take your powerful Word through your powerful person and place it in the hearts and minds of these people the way you want right now. Spirit, would you remove anything I said that was unhelpful or inaccurate and highlight what is true about Jesus. That is one of your roles, is to highlight who Jesus is. And in 2021, as a people, we are pursuing Jesus with all we have. Let us see him clearly. Let his courage affect us in our lives for your glory. Give us wisdom and discretion and humility like Jesus, to know when and how to act. God, I pray, begging you to not let us become the religious. Let us see our need. What a fearful thing to be so caught up in our religion that we forget our need for you. And that, quite frankly, is happening at North Hills, and can happen here. We beg you to prevent it. Fill our minds with who you are. Father, I pray that in this time of worship, we would be able to see your beloved Son in whom you are well pleased. In your name, amen.