Was Jesus from Nazareth
the victim of a conspiracy, or did he instigate his own arrest?
Almost from the beginning of his ministry,
Jesus drew the attention of the religious authorities. In his Sermon on the
Mount he openly challenged their authority. "Unless your righteousness
exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you shall not enter the kingdom
The religious community was quick to realize that if Jesus continued his ministry, almost everything they held sacred would be swept away. If the people accepted him as the Messiah and followed his teaching, the Jewish religion as they practiced it would be destroyed.
So a clash between them was inevitable. Everywhere Jesus went, they sent their spies. Listening to his every word, they waited for some opportunity to discredit him or his teachings. But the longer they used this methodology, the greater their frustration became. They could not destroy his popularity; they could not catch him in an anarchic statement to be used as legal evidence before the Roman government. Every form of entrapment their fertile minds could create ended in failure. So the religious leaders convened a council in an attempt to find a solution for this teacher.
"What are we accomplishing? The man is performing many miraculous signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away our authority and destroy our nation."
Caiaphas, who was the high priest that year, spoke up. "Don't you know anything? Don't you recognize it is better for us that one man die for the people than the whole nation perish? As high priest, I prophesy that Jesus will die for the nation." (John 11:47-50).
So they began to plan in detail how they might put Jesus to death.
"He is too popular to seize openly," one of them suggested. "The people might revolt against us."
"Do you think he will come up to the feast?"
"If he does, we'll arrest him!"
So from that day on, the leaders plotted to kill the prophet. They gave orders if anyone knew where Jesus was he should report it, so that they could seize him. (John 11:53-57; Matthew 26:3-5).
The scribes and Pharisees were anticipating the coming of the Messiah-King. But Jesus didn't measure up to their expectations. He was much too human to suit them. They questioned his parentage, his hometown, and those with whom he associated. All these things made him look like an impostor in their eyes. If Jesus had come as a king instead of as a lowly carpenter, they would have been more likely to believe in him. If he had come with a company of angels instead of with twelve peasant disciples, they might have responded.
Two days before the Passover feast, one of Jesus' own followers visited the chief priests. "What will you give me if I deliver him to you?"
So they counted out thirty pieces of silver for him. "But you must tell us when your teacher is not in front of the crowd. So Judas Iscariot returned to his master's side and began seeking an opportunity to betray him. (Luke 22:3-6).
Before the feast began, Jesus sent Peter and John to a room in Jerusalem where they were to prepare a meal. (Luke 22:8-13). When they had all reclined at the table and were eating, Jesus said to them, "Truly I say to you, one of you will betray me."
The disciples were shaken by this announcement and looked at each other, wondering who it was. One by one they said to Jesus, "Lord, is it I?"
"It is one of the twelve," he said. "One who is dipping with me in this dish."
Very quietly Judas asked, "Rabbi, is it I?"
"It is as you have said," replied Jesus, so low most of the other disciples couldn't hear.
Then John leaned up to Jesus and asked, "Lord, who is it?"
"He is the one to whom I shall give this morsel when I have dipped it." And after dipping it, he gave it to Judas Iscariot. Jesus turned to Judas and said, "What you are going to do, do quickly." And with that, Judas stood and left.
None of the other disciples realized why Jesus had said that to Judas. They thought only that Jesus was telling him to go buy the things they needed for the coming Passover feast. (Matthew 26:21-25; Mark 14:18-21; Luke 22:21-23; John 13:21-30).
"Little children," Jesus addressed the rest of the disciples, "I'm only going to be with you a little while longer. As I said before, where I'm going you cannot come." (John 13:33).
"Lord, where are you going?" Asked Simon Peter.
"Where I'm going, you can't follow me now, but you shall follow me later."
"Lord," Peter exclaimed, "I am ready to go with you, both to prison and to death!"
"Truly I say to you, Peter, the cock will not crow until you deny that you know me three times!" (Luke 22:31-34; John 13:36-38). When they had sung a hymn, Jesus and the disciples departed for a garden on the Mount of Olives to pray.
Judas had gone to the Temple to talk to the priests. "Jesus is talking of death. He is convinced he will die soon and is going to a lonely garden tonight to pray. Only his disciples will be there. I will lead you to him."
The priests realized the possibilities of this development, and they knew they needed to act quickly; they summoned the Temple guard, armed themselves, and then began the short trip towards the garden where they could capture their prey.
It was late, but Jesus was still in the garden called Gethsemane with his disciples. He had asked them to pray and had gone off a short distance to talk to the Father by himself. Suddenly the chief priests and the Temple guard marched up with burning torches, holding their swords and clubs in a display of force. Judas came up and kissed Jesus.
"Hail, Master," he said.
"Judas, are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?"
Jesus then turned to the crowd following the traitor and said, "For whom are you looking?"
"Jesus of Nazareth," they demanded.
"I am Jesus," he replied, and instantly that one statement caused him to step backwards and fall to the ground. Apparently expecting some sort of magical display against their forced arrest, they were surprised to find such a willing captive.
"For who are you looking?" he repeated.
Jesus of Nazareth," they repeated a little more meekly.
"I told you I'm he. Let my disciples go."
So they seized Jesus and arrested him.
"Lord, shall we use swords?" asked his disciples. Without waiting for an answer, Peter pulled out his sword and struck the high priest's servant with his sword, cutting off the man's ear.
"Stop! No more of this!" Jesus cried, and then he touched the man's ear and healed it. "Put your sword away Peter. All those who take up the sword will perish by the sword. Don't you know that I can appeal to my Father and he will put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But all of this is happening so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled."
Then all of his disciples fled from the garden out of fear. (Matthew 26:47-56; Mark 14:43-52; Luke 22:47-53; John 18:2-11).
From Gethsemane the captive was led to the houses occupied by the high priest. He was taken first to Annas, the former high priest and father-in-law of Caiaphas. Annas immediately began to question Jesus concerning his disciples and his teachings.
"I have spoken openly to the world," Jesus replied. "I taught in the synagogues and in the Temple. I have said nothing in secret. Why do you question me? Question those who heard me. They know what I said."
The officer standing near Jesus struck him with the palm of his hand. "You can't speak like that to the high priest!"
"If I said something I shouldn't have, accuse me before the court. If I didn't say anything wrong, why did you strike me?"
"Send him to Caiaphas!" Annas ordered." (John 18:12-14, 19-24).
So they brought their captive before a small court which was meeting in the middle of the night solely to try this prisoner. It was only a preliminary trial, for not all of the members of the Jewish high court were present. It was also an illegal assembly, for the law stated capital crimes which could produce the death penalty were not to be tried at night.
"Let us hear the witnesses," proclaimed Caiaphas as he presided over the council. But as the witnesses came forward, they continually contradicted each other.
Under the Jewish legal system, the testimony of at least two witnesses had to agree completely before any charge would stand against the defendant. If their testimony was found to be false, the witnesses would suffer the same penalty for any crimes that the witnesses lied about. This meant that false witnesses for a capital crime would be charged with a capital crime themselves. (Frank Morison, Who Moved the Stone? (Grand Rapids, Mich. Zondervan, 1977).
After several witnesses had come forward, not one charge stood. So the Gospel records tell us that the court then made a deliberate search for false witnesses. Finally, two men appeared charging that the defendant had blasphemed God's holy Temple.
One of the witnesses claimed Jesus had said, "'I will destroy this Temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands.'"
But the other witness claimed, "This man said, 'I am able to destroy the Temple of God, and build it in three days.' " (When Jesus had uttered that statement he had actually been talking about his own body and had been predicting the details of his death and resurrection. See John 2:19-21). So the testimony was inconsistent. The religious leaders did not have a legal case against the prophet. (Matthew 26:59-62: Mark 14:55-59).
Caiaphas, recognizing they were in danger of acquitting the defendant, violated another rule of Jewish law by personally addressing the accused.
"Why don't you answer these charges?" He demanded, standing up.
But Jesus did not speak.
Infuriated by his silence, Caiaphas used a sacred oath to demand a response from the captive. Not to answer was considered a crime in itself.
"I ask you, by the living God, are you or are you not the Messiah, the Son of God?"
"I am," he said. Then Jesus quoted a Messianic prophecy out of Isaiah. "From now on you shall see me sitting at the right hand of power and coming upon the clouds of heaven."
"He has spoken blasphemy!" cried Caiaphas, as he tore his outward robes. "What further need do we have of witnesses? What is your verdict?"
"He deserves to die!" they cried almost in one voice.
They had succeeded in obtaining an admission to a crime worthy of death—blasphemy. But of what had they actually convicted him? They condemned only his claim to be the Messiah. It was blasphemy only if he was lying. They had not actually proven that he was not, indeed, God's Son in the flesh.
In a rage, they struck him with their fists. One of them blindfolded him and slapped his face. "Prophesy to us, you 'Messiah' who is it that struck you?" (Matthew26:63-68; Mark 14:60-65; Luke 22:63-65).
When the sun had finally risen that morning, all seventy members of the Sanhedrin were present. (This combination of senate/supreme court had once possessed the power to put people to death and to declare war for the nation. But after the Romans had come and subjugated Israel, most of the Sanhedrin's power had been stripped away.)
"If you are the Messiah, tell us," they asked, almost politely.
"If I told you, you wouldn't believe me, and if I asked you a question, you wouldn't answer or let me go. Soon you will see me seated at the right hand of God!"
"So you are the Son of God?"
"It is as you are saying, for I am!" he replied.
"Why do we need any more testimony? We have all heard it from his own lips!" The entire council stood and took Jesus away to the Roman fortress, to the procurator Pontius Pilate. (Matthew 27:1-2; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66-23:1).
The conspiracy against Jesus had become successful at last. The religious leaders had overcome this man who had troubled them for so long. He was not so vocal now. They reasoned that their decisive action had stunned him and wiped away his self-confidence. But they were wrong.
A careful look at the course of events reveals Jesus was not demoralized at all. Although he did not resist their trap, we cannot assume, as they obviously did, that he had lost the power to resist.
No one who examines the narrative can ever say that the events of that night took Jesus by surprise. Although he was clearly the victim of a conspiracy, it did not catch him unaware. He was, in a sense, the active instigator of his own arrest and conviction. It was he who spurred his enemies to action. He vehemently challenged their system of religion, then suddenly became passive, giving them the opportunity which they believed would silence him forever.
Jesus not only predicted his arrest, but he quietly revealed the disciple who would become the informer. Never once did he try to stop what he saw coming.
And in the garden, he even controlled his own arrest. He encouraged the captors, twice revealing his identity to assist their fumbling attempts at an arrest, then quickly stopped his own followers from resisting on his behalf.
In front of the high priest and the Jewish supreme court, he calmly allowed them to accuse and convict him of exactly what he actually was—God in human flesh. He did not argue with his accusers, he did not stop their ridiculous trial with a miracle, nor did he call for 10,000 angels. But he could have.
During his ministry Jesus talked about "his hour" in a reference to when he would face the end. The Gospel of John states that he was not arrested on several occasions because "his hour had not yet come." (John 7:6, 8; 7:30; 8:20). Then toward the end of his life we are told, "Now it came to pass, when the time had come for him to be received up, that he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem." (Luke 9:51 NKJ). And after he was arrested, he would say to his accusers, "this is your moment, the time when the power of darkness reigns." (Luke 22:53).
So why was Jesus obsessed to go to Jerusalem and face what he knew would be certain death? He had focused his entire life on this one great event, because he knew there was no other way mankind could be saved from the impact of sin. While Jesus was the victim of a conspiracy, he was also fully committed to allowing his own betrayal, arrest and death to take place.
You see, on that night so long ago, the behavior of Jesus from Nazareth is the behavior of a man who knows more than his enemies. It is the behavior of a man who is relentlessly pursuing his own goal which had been hidden from almost everyone but himself.