Jesus vs. the Opposition
Readings: 1 Kings 8:22-30
In our Gospel reading, Jesus was talking to his followers. Reading a Bible, we might sometimes get the impression that He used to wander about from place to place with just His twelve disciples but wherever He went, He drew huge crowds. There would be the usual cross-section of any crowd. Some would be there just to be seen or tell people they’d been there. Some would be hoping for a miracle. There hadn’t been many of those of late for the Jews. In fact the ordinary people weren’t having a great time at all under the heel of the Romans. A distraction like this would be just the job for taking their minds off the miserable lives they were leading.
Of course there were people who weren’t suffering at all, who were doing quite well having the Romans in charge “thank you very much”. All around the Temple for instance, there would be money changers and people selling creatures to be used in sacrificial ceremonies etc. All making money out of those who’d had to travel to Jerusalem without their goods and pay for them, at inflated prices, at the door as it were. And there would be spies. All of the hierarchy had them. Certainly those of the Sadducees and Pharisees would be kept very busy reporting back everything Jesus did and every word He uttered, so their masters might arrest Him under some pretext.
They were also used to put catch questions to Jesus in order to entrap Him in some way. The best remembered one of those is of course when they asked Him to whom should the Jews pay their taxes to the Romans, or to God. If Jesus had said, “to God”, then they could tell the Romans He was encouraging people not to pay their taxes. If He’d said, “to the Romans”, then that would have stirred the crowd against Him. A “Catch 22” position for most people but not for Jesus. He simply asked whose head was depicted on the Roman coin. When the answer was “Caesar’s”, He said to pay to Caesar what was Caesar’s and to God what was His (Matthew 22:21). The crowds loved it, when He turned the tables like that. Although they hated the Romans, they didn’t have much love for the priests, who lorded it over them, either. So, who were these people we read so much about in our New Testament, the Sadducees 6 times, and the Pharisees 77 times?
Well, these holy men were of course very powerful. The priests at the temple in Jerusalem not only officiated over the religious life of the Jews, they were also rulers and judges, always naturally under the auspices of the Romans. Up until the time they had demanded a king, like the nations around them, Israel was a Theocracy having God as their King. Their demand for a king displeased God and His relationship with Israel began to change (1 Samuel 8:7). The Romans wanted the priesthood to support their occupation, and the Herods made sure they did.
Flavius Josephus (Joseph Ben Matthias) was a well-respected, first-century Jewish historian, whose writings included Antiquities of the Jews, which has references to a man named Jesus. He recorded that the priesthood went so far as to authorise a daily sacrifice for Caesar in the temple. This was a source of continual distress for the Jews. In the final Jewish– Roman conflict, the cessation of the daily sacrifice for Caesar was considered an act of war, that helped lead to the destruction of Jerusalem, as predicted by Jesus (Matthew 24:2).
The priesthood lived in luxury well beyond that of the average man. They supported their lavish lifestyles with a temple tax, which every Jew was required to pay. Those taxes, combined with taxes imposed by Herod and by Rome, were literally threatening the very existence of the Jewish people.
The priesthood was undoubtedly jealous of Jesus’ popularity, but their main motivation for seeking to kill Jesus was fear. When a new king came to power, he could set his own version of the priesthood in place. All this talk of Jesus becoming the new king undoubtedly alarmed the priests in Jerusalem. If Jesus came to power, they thought all their wealth and authority might disappear.
So who were these people wielding so much power? First, we have the Pharisees. God himself had said that His people should be separate from the other nations (Deuteronomy 7:3). The very name “Pharisee” is derived from the Hebrew word that means “to separate”. They were very zealous for the Law of Moses, but they also considered themselves the guardians of the oral traditions that scholars developed over generations. The Pharisees were far more fixated with enforcing their own legal code than they were with administering God’s law.
They did this by adding mountains of unscriptural fine print to scriptural commands as well as inventing their own doctrines apart from Scripture. To The Ten Commandments were added 613 others, comprised of 248 positive ones, which people had to do and 365 negative ones, which they must not do.
Jesus called them hypocrites – 12 times in Matthew’s Gospel alone (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16, : 15:7, 22:18, 23:15, 23, 25, 27, 29: 24:51) . He deliberately broke the Pharisees’ oral traditions every chance He got. He did this mainly by healing people on the Sabbath. The man blind from birth (John 9); the man with the shrivelled hand (Matthew 12:10); the crippled woman (Luke 13:5, 6); The invalid at the pool of Bethesda (John 5:8-10).
Jesus went through the grain fields with his disciples, some of whom were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. Now the Pharisees were not complaining about them stealing, for what they’d done was perfectly legal – but NOT on the Sabbath. (Matthew 12:1). The relationship between the Pharisees and Jesus should be a lesson to us all. In this we see one of the great ironies of the scriptures. The Pharisees had great zeal for God. The average Pharisee fasted two days a week and paid his tithes to the penny. Yet, their zeal for God did not lead them to God but away from Him. If our zeal for God has led us to look down on our brother or sister, because of their lowly attempts to understand or to abide by God’s word to us, then we’re not following God’s will at all.
Then we have the Sadducees. They were of the wealthy, ruling class in Jesus’ day. Many of them comprised the priesthood that controlled the temple in Jerusalem and the Jewish legal council called the Sanhedrin. This Jewish upper class, supported stable conditions and the prevailing social order. Their religion was reasonable and worldly. The Sadducees did not, for example, believe in life after death. They only recognized the Torah as the inspired word of God. They acknowledged neither the prophets nor the oral traditions that came after the first five books of the Bible. Consequently, they did not believe in the resurrection or any life after death. They were often at odds with the Pharisees over this matter. When Paul was brought before the Roman Commander, with the Pharisees and the Sadducees calling for his death, Paul craftily set one side against the other by talking about resurrection (Acts 23:1-10).
People had different ways of reacting to Roman occupation. The Sadducees thought it was best to try to get along with Rome - and why not? They were well off, and as long as they kept on Rome’s good side, they could live comfortable lives. The Sadducees opposed Jesus because they feared the people, and they feared Rome. The vast majority of the Jews did not share the Sadducees acceptance of Roman rule. They believed the Messiah would come, sword in hand, and drive the gentiles out of the Promised Land. Even though Jesus never spoke against Rome or advocated rebellion, the Sadducees shared the popular view of what the Messiah would be. Thus, in their minds, any messianic figure was a threat to their power.
They would have been pleased to learn what was read in our Gospel reading that, “many of Jesus' followers turned back and would not go with him anymore” (v.66). But less pleased with what followed. “So he asked the twelve disciples, ‘And you—would you also like to leave?’ ‘You have the words that give eternal life.’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom would we go?’”(v. 67). So, to whom would they go? If they no longer had Jesus, there would be a hole where He’d been, which just had to be filled.
And that hole is there today for all who don’t have Jesus in their hearts. It’s more than they can bear when it’s empty and it aches, so they try to fill that hole with various things they need to worship: a football player or his team. (I couldn’t believe my eyes when on TV I saw the crowd bowing down in homage to someone who had just scored a goal); Or it might be a singer; a film/stage star; or a show on TV. Voted the best loved comedy show on TV is “Mother Brown’s Boys”, which is full of foul language from beginning to end. I think it shows more where the people of this country’s relationship to God is, than their lack of taste. Of course these days, what all of these people are doing can be followed on Facebook or Twitter and some people spend hours doing just that. Oh that they would spend even a fraction of that time with the Bible, or in prayer.
So, when the crunch came with the followers of Jesus, what was the difference between the ones who went and the ones who stayed. Don’t forget, none of them had yet been filled with the Holy Spirit. They had faith in Jesus and when they met Him after His resurrection, “they worshiped him; but some doubted” (Matthew 28:16 NIV). Those doubters, in common with those who’d left Jesus before, had faith but little commitment. These two should go hand in hand but they often don’t.
For about ten years I ran a part time business selling Metal Detectors. I obviously had to learn about them before setting that up. I read the books and found that a good place to search was under a pier, with coins from slot machines falling through the gaps between floorboards. Next seaside holiday I couldn’t wait to try this out. I had purchased a Sand Scoop, which is like a dredger. There are different kinds of these but the idea is that a scoop goes in (usually in water) scoops along the bottom and then, as it is lifted above water level, all the water pours out leaving solid material. This was the same except that it was dragged through the fine sand. It had lots of holes a fraction smaller than a 5p piece in its underside and sides. The idea was that, when you got a beep on your detector, you dragged the scoop through the sand. As you lifted it, all the sand came out of the holes, leaving your find for you to pick out. I covered quite a bit of ground under the pier, with the detector remaining completely silent. Then I hit the jackpot. Everywhere I went, the detector was going beep-beep-beep like a mad thing. Out came my scoop and I ran it through the area. Lifted it up to look in the now sand-free scoop – empty! I did this over and over again. Frustration was hardly the word for it. Finally, by chance, I saw something gleaming fall out of the scoop. I ran my hand through the area and came up with a handful of empty .22 cartridge cases. I wasn’t under the slot machines, I was under the .22 rifle range. I did eventually get a nice solid sound and was rewarded with a 5p coin.
Is there a message in this tale? Well, although I didn’t know it at the time, I had one of those Jesus-shaped holes in me – a great big one. I don’t remember bowing down to any footballers but I did try to fill my life with other things that seemed to be crying out for my attention. “This is what you need beep-beep-beep” they’d say and I’d dive in to try it but always came up with empty promises, just like those hollow cartridge cases. I was looking in the wrong place. All those beep-beep-beeps were just confusing me.
Instead of that, I needed to be where there is just one, single strong message. Of course for my commitment and perseverance, the shiny 5p coin represented my reward — Salvation through the Word of God and the willing sacrifice of Jesus Christ. And that reward is there all the time for anyone to find. All they have to do is to shut off the beep-beep-beeping of those siren voices of the world’s pleasures, operated of course by Satan and his minions.
When we think back to our reading, when there were individuals among those following Jesus who turned away, because they thought He was asking too much of them. To have missed the chance of finding Jesus is very sad. But to find Him and then reject him is a tragedy.
Just two things from this; 1. As far as our human brains can do so, we have to try and understand just what an amazing thing happened to us when we accepted Jesus as our Saviour; 2. We can’t be selfish. The lifeboat of Jesus Christ is never full, there’s always room for more and we should be doing our best to get people in there.
We know that in this country it has become more difficult and even threatening to share our faith with others. But that’s how the Christian faith started to spread. The people proclaiming the word then had far higher penalties to pay for it than we do now. Many of them gave their lives so that the word of life could come down to us through the ages. We may not know many by name but we do know of the apostles. As they were so revered by the believers, you’d think they might have eventually had a nice life just preaching to them. Not so! Some of you may know this list but I’m going to go through it in any case. All of these of course followed the first martyr - Jesus.
James the Greater – King Herod ordered he be thrust through with a sword. The first Apostle to be martyred.
Luke (really a disciple of Paul) was hanged from an olive tree in Greece.
Doubting Thomas was burned alive in India
Philip was crucified and preached from the cross with his dying breaths.
Matthew was stabbed in the back in Ethiopia.
Bartholomew was flogged to death in Armenia.
James the Just was thrown off the south-east pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, then clubbed to death by the mob.
Simon the Zealot was crucified by the governor of Syria in AD 74.
Judas Thaddaeus was beaten to death with sticks in Mesopotamia.
Matthias, who replaced Judas Iscariot, was stoned to death and beheaded.
Peter was crucified upside down at his own request.
When John the Beloved survived being put in a cauldron of boiling water, the Emperor Diocletian exiled him to the island of Patmos.
Note how far afield they were, spreading the Good News of the Gospel. You can hardly get your breath thinking of the bravery of these men, followed by many, many more men, women and children, who’ve made it possible for us to be here this morning.
We of course might have the humiliation of being stopped in some way from telling someone about Jesus and giving them the hope of eternal life. We might sometimes receive verbal or even physical abuse. Weigh that against facing hungry lions as many early Christians did. No contest really, is there? How will future generations judge us on how well we did in keeping Christianity alive and kicking?
1. What examples have you observed/heard about that amount to worship of something other than God?
2. Why do you think the Israelites demanded a king instead of their God who’d kept them safe and successful? Any modern day parallels?
3. Would you like our society to become a Theocracy under our Almighty God? What problems might there be arising from that?
4. Have you ever found people to become apprehensive if you begin to speak about Jesus?
5. Has your faith ever been tested? If so, how?