Ask why Jesus died on the cross, and people usually tell me he died in my place, to forgive me for my sins. Shortly we’ll be looking at the explanation Jesus gave at his last supper, but listen to how Matthew introduces the passion narrative, Jesus’ looming death:
Matthew 26:1-5 (my translation, compare NIV)
1 When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, 2 “You realize that in two days’ time it’s Passover, and the son of man is handed over to be crucified.” 3 Then the high priests and the elders of the people were gathered at the residence of the high priest (the one called Caiaphas) 4 and they conspired on how they could surreptitiously arrest Jesus and kill him, 5 but they were saying, “Not during the Feast, so as not to cause an uproar among the people.”
Jesus’ death was premeditated murder, murder planned at the highest level.
High priest was the highest-ranking position in Israel, the person ultimately responsible for maintaining the relationship between God and the people. The high priest was the interface between God and his nation, between the sovereign who gave Israel her Law and the people who lived within that covenant. He was the only servant permitted in the inner chamber of God’s house, to stand before his throne and preserve the unity of the sovereign and people (making at-one-ment).
How appalling for this trusted servant of the Most High to plot a murder! And if the one they plan to murder is the son of man — the human descendant to whom the Ancient of Days gives all authority — then this meeting at the high priest’s home is treason of the highest order, like the plot against David in Psalm 31:13.
Of course, that’s not how the high priest viewed it. There was a precedent for taking life in drastic circumstances. When some of the Israelites joined themselves to a Moabite god, a plague broke out among the people and Moses called for the death of the offenders. Phinehas (Aaron’s grandson) performed the deed (Numbers 25:5-9), and he was judged to have done right (Psalm 106:28-31). In Jewish thinking, Phinehas established a precedent for killing when necessary (Sirach 45:23; 1 Maccabees 2:26, 54; Jubilees 14:6; 31:23). John’s Gospel makes it clear that this was (ironically) how Caiaphas was thinking: “It is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish” (John 11:50).
So who’s right? Was Caiaphas saving the people from a false prophet who would lead the whole nation to perish? Or was Jesus genuinely God’s anointed, saving his people from their captivity, releasing them from their rebellion against the heavenly sovereign (Matthew 1:21-23)?
Looking back, the answer is obvious to us. Why wasn’t it obvious to Caiaphas? In a word: power. Caiaphas viewed Jesus as a threat to his leadership. Jesus called them bandits in God’s house (21:13). They questioned his authority (21:23). Jesus called them mere actors (23:13-32), planning to kill him for the sake of their power (23:27-39), declaring that they would lead the city into deep anguish and destruction (24:15-28). The conflict was over who was the leader appointed by God. It was obvious to Jesus that those in charge would kill him (26:2; 16:21; 17:22; 20:18).
Remember this next time you’re on a committee that’s divided over how to treat someone. Whether the context is business, politics, or church, ask yourself, “Who will this decision benefit?” Does it benefit those in power? Does it help disenfranchised people? What’s motivating this conflict? Whose agenda does it serve?
Do you think any of Caiaphas’ council had reservations about killing Jesus? Maybe Joseph of Arimathea? He thought Jesus was someone worth remembering (Mark 15:43). Maybe Nicodemus? He knew Jesus was a God-sent teacher (John 3:1-2). But under pressure from the council, they yielded to Caiaphas. That’s how power works.
There are hints that, deep down, they know they’re motivated by power. They must act by stealth, and they must keep their deed from the scrutiny of the crowds assembled for Passover. The high priest’s house, like the temple, is a place where the bandits gather to hatch their plots.
We’re looking at the essence of sin here: people grasping power for themselves, power that should be in God’s hands.
The world has been held in the grip of sin since the disaster in God’s garden when people took the fruit reserved for the sovereign, grasping the power to decide good and evil on the basis of what suits us. Losing his power wasn’t good for Caiaphas, so in his mind it justified doing evil to Jesus.
So why did Jesus die? Sin, in all of its brutality. That’s what Jesus had to confront to restore the earth as a kingdom of God.
But, confronting the evil among us by dying at our hands? Who could ever have imagined that this is how the all-powerful one would use his power? This is divine wisdom overturning evil with good. This is divine devotion to his people, carrying evil from us in his own body.
This is the revelation of the character of our eternal sovereign: compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin (Exodus 34:6-7).
None of the rulers of this age understood it, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8).
Open Matthew 26:1-5.
What others are saying
John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 1048:
The Jewish leadership may have believed sincerely enough that Jesus was bad news for the Jewish people, but our text insists that only by acting with subterfuge were they going to be able to ‘eliminate’ their problem.
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, (London: SPCK, 2004), 2:148:
Here are the chief priests and elders. For them, the death of Jesus is a political necessity. He has challenged their power, he’s captured the crowds’ imagination, and he can’t be allowed to get away with it. They don’t suppose for a minute he might be a true prophet, let alone Israel’s Messiah. Their naked political goals, unadorned with any desire for true justice, are a constant feature of the story. Do you know anybody like that? Have you ever seen them in the mirror?