The Life of Jesus Christ: Jesus and Religious Politics

selections of Matthew 21-23

As we near the conclusion of our series, we are now in the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry before His crucifixion. The details of this week and exactly what Jesus does on what day are difficult to ascertain, especially how Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday actually play out. However, with careful study of all four gospel accounts, a workable timeline can be created.

A Timeline of Jesus’ Last Days:
  • Thursday or Friday - Jesus heals Bartimaeus as He leaves Jericho en route to Bethany
  • Saturday-Sabbath - Jesus is anointed by Mary at Bethany where He is lodging
  • Sunday - Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, cleansing of the Temple, healing of crowds
  • Monday - Jesus returns to Jerusalem, curses a fig tree, Jesus engages chief priests and elders
  • Tuesday - Jesus continues to engage Jewish leadership and teaches in the Temple
  • Wednesday - Jesus continues to engage Jewish leadership, they plot to kill Him, Jesus’ Olivet Discourse with the disciples
  • Thursday - The Last Supper/Passover is celebrated, Jesus’ Upper Room Discourse with the disciples, prayer in Gethsemane, arrest, trial before Caiaphas/Annas and Sanhedrin, Jesus spends the night in prison
  • Friday - Judas takes his own life, Jesus’ trials continue with Pilate and Herod, Jesus is scourged, Jesus is crucified and buried
  • Saturday - Sabbath - Jesus’ disciples hide in fear and struggle with many questions
  • Sunday - Jesus’ resurrection and appearance to most of the twelve disciples, as well as others
  • Monday… Jesus continues to appear to several of the twelve in Galilee and many others
  • 6 weeks later - Saturday-Sabbath - Jesus ascends to the Father

In the Sundays ahead, our plan, Lord willing, is to spend time on Jesus’ Olivet Discourse, the Last Supper, the Upper Room Discourse, His crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. But we can not do those stops justice without pausing for a moment and examining Jesus’ interaction with Jewish leadership. I alluded to this last week as I believe that Jesus’ healing of Bartimaeus is a literary foil to the deep and unnoticed blindness of the Jewish leadership that Jesus would soon interact with. In fact, in just a few days Jesus would say to the Pharisees and scribes, “Woe to you, blind guides…”

But let’s pause. This brings up a point of clarification. There are multiple groups that Jesus interacts with throughout his three or four year public ministry. It is important to understand the overlap of these groups and their differences. Here is a brief description of each of the main leadership groups to help you keep things in their proper place.

Groups involved in Jewish Leadership:
  • Priests or Priesthood - These men worked daily in the temple with sacrifices and other worship details. Originally announced by God in Exodus and Leviticus, the priesthood of Moses and Aaron’s time was eventually fractured into factions, and was at its worst during the Roman occupation of Israel in Jesus’ time. Then, the basis of priesthood continued to be genealogical, involving both Levites (a member of the tribe of Levi) and priests (a Levite descended from Aaron). Levites were treated differently than the rest of the tribes as their “inheritance” of land and “portion” was the LORD Himself.
  • The High Priest - In addition to his special ceremonial and worship duties, the single high priest had the power to collect taxes, supervise the temple, preside over the Sanhedrin and negotiate with Rome. Because of its political connections, power and prestige, the office was notorious for abuse of power and a lavish lifestyle.
  • Chief Priests - An established group within the priesthood with the oversight of worship, control of the temple, administration of the temple treasury and supervision of priestly discipline. Centered in Jerusalem, the chief priests were members of the Sanhedrin. With the high priest, chief priests wielded significant power and privilege.
  • Elders - In Jesus’ day, these men were the aristocratic leaders of the prominent Jewish families. The served in local village councils and in the Sanhedrin. Their primary function was in the community and in the synagogue, thus they had considerable power over the daily life of the Jewish people.
  • Scribes - A class of professional exponents and teachers of the Law, the Torah or Mosaic Law. Because of their literacy, intelligence and skill in writing, they became powerful powerful and revered in Jewish society. They focused on interpreting, preserving and teaching the Law. Their position overlapped with the roles of lawyer, theologian, guardians of the Scriptures and curators of the text of the Old Testament.
  • Pharisees - A diverse group of master orators and teachers that focused on religious purity, oral tradition, interpretation and application of the Scriptures. Not necessarily literate, they had a large capacity for memorization and exposition. Many had jobs but not all. They traveled often and were found in many villages and cities around Israel. They considered themselves the protectors and guardians of Israel by their focus on popular purity, worship and strict obedience to the Law and thus some have seen their function as that of a “political interest group.” They came into conflict with Jesus often throughout Israel.
  • Sadducees - A party or group that was related to the priesthood and in many ways opposed the Pharisaical priority of convictions and emphasis. They were also much more partial to the Romans. The Sadducees were most noted in the Gospels for denying the fact of the resurrection (at least in some significant way) and at times collaborating with the Pharisees and scribes against Jesus.
  • Essenes - A group of men who opposed much of the priestly rule and oversight of other leadership sects and eventually withdrew to their own cities and communities, such as Qumran. They focused on copying Old Testament Scripture, apocalyptic and end-times study, awaited two or three different Messiahs and practiced strict purity and separation. Some believe John the Baptist was involved with the Essenes.
  • The Sanhedrin - A Jewish ruling council developed over time between the exile and Jesus’ birth. It likely consisted of 71 members on the biblical basis of Moses and his 70 elders (there was also a “lesser” Sanhedrin of 23 members). The “greater” Sanhedrin was a governing and ruling body, with authority over spiritual, political and legal matters for all Jews. It was comprised of chief priests, scribes and elders (with both Pharisee and Sadducee perspective represented), always with the High Priest as the president. It was based in Jerusalem until the city’s destruction by the Romans in AD 70; then it was located in Jamnia.

Our text today will be selections of Matthew 21-23, where much of Jesus’ interaction with the Jewish leadership during the last days of His public ministry are preserved. I encourage you to find time this week, perhaps even today, to read these chapters in their entirety. It won’t take you very long.

Almost the entirety of these three chapters are dedicated to Jesus’ interaction with these leaders. As you read and study, you will notice the following progression:

  • Chief priests and scribes engage Jesus over healing of blind and lame - 21:14f
    (Could the cursed fig tree also be an illustration of an empty religious system?) - 21:18f
  • Chief priests and elders ask Jesus about authority - 21:23f
  • Jesus shares three parables aimed at Jewish leadership - 21:28-22:14
  • The Pharisees plot a trap for Jesus regarding Roman taxes - 22:15f
  • Sadducees plot a trap for Jesus regarding resurrection - 22:23f
  • Pharisees attempt another trap regarding the Law of Moses - 22:34f
  • Jesus asks the Pharisees a question about the Messiah - 22:41f
  • Jesus speaks to the crowds about the scribes and Pharisees - 23:1f
  • Jesus communicates eight “woes” to the scribes and Pharisees - 23:13-36
  • Jesus laments over Jerusalem for her unwillingness to accept Him - 23:37f

There are many things you could focus on in this section, many things to see and learn about Jesus, about the leaders and about yourself. But I’d like to direct your heart to consider four things that Jesus identifies about these leaders. Four things that can also be fuel for personal prayer and practical avoidance.

First, Jesus frequently used the word “hypocrite” in relation to the Jewish leaders. This is not accidental on their part but rather intentional pretending. On some level they knew that their actions and lifestyle did not match up to their legalistic system of values and beliefs. Second, Jesus accuses the leaders of neglecting their stewardship. This is most clear in the parable of the landowner and vinegrowers. Jewish leaders were given a managing and shepherding role from God, which they had transformed into an ownership. This is very dangerous.

Thirdly, the leaders had gone so far as to plot Jesus’ demise. They were willing to orchestrate Jesus’ death. They were plotters, thieves and murderers. Fourth, as seen in Jesus’ eight “woes,” these leaders had missed the real mission by majoring on the minors. They focused so much on the details that they lost the big picture of love for God, grace, community and mercy.

As leaders - moms, dads, home-school parents, soccer coaches, businesswomen, lay leaders in the church, small group shepherds or otherwise - we must constantly pursue the type of heart and character that God can work through. We do not want to be leaders that God must work around.

Family Discussion Questions:
1. Who is the best leader you know? Why? (Let everyone share
2. How was Jesus a good leader?
3. With whom did Jesus have the most conflict? Why? What did they fight over?
4. What do you think is the hardest part about being a spiritual leader? (Don’t just think pastor, think father, mother, ministry leader, etc.)
5. How were the religious leaders in Israel missing the target during Jesus’ day?
6. What are the principles that Jesus challenged in them? What did Jesus try to teach them?
7. Identify three ways that you can be a godly spiritual leader that allows God to work through you. Share with your family.

Small Group Discussion Questions:
1. Take some time to read through Matthew 21:1- 23:39. Discuss what stuck out to you in your group.
2. What is Jesus’ point in the parable of the two sons? Matthew 21:28-32
3. What is Jesus’ point in the parable of the landowner? Matthew 21:33-44
4. The parable of the wedding feast is critical but also quite layered and difficult in places. What is Jesus’ point in this parable as it relates to Jewish leaders? Matthew 22:1-14
5. Leadership tries to set three traps for Jesus (taxes, resurrection, the Law). What can you learn from how Jesus responds to each trap? Identify any leadership principles that appear.
6. How would you define hypocrisy? When have you been a hypocrite?
7. How does Jesus’ eight “woes” (23:13-33) contrast to what He said earlier about the hypocrite leaders in Matthew 6:1-24? Do you notice a difference in tone? Strength?
8. What are the top qualities/characteristics of a godly leader?
9. What are the top actions of a godly leader?
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