Under these circumstances it is not surprising that Jesus was arrested and executed. He himself had been expecting that outcome, for he was too clear-headed not to see that if carried through the course, which he was pursuing could have no other climax. Indeed, he had declared that it was of the very essence of his mission, that apart from it his unique relationship to God could not be understood.
What is difficult and perhaps impossible fully to ascertain is the course of thought by which Jesus came to the deep conviction that he must bring the issue between himself and the dominant elements in his people to so sharp a focus at this particular time and then allow himself to be seized. The reasons for his challenge are fairly clear. Being sure as he was of God's goal for men, of God's purpose in Jewish history, law, and prophecy, confronted by entrenched privilege which, while professedly standing as the guardian of the Jewish heritage, was both blind to the true content of that heritage and was utilizing its championship to obtain for itself prestige, power, and wealth, he could no other than protest.
But why did he permit himself to be killed so soon after his public career had begun? Why did he not withdraw east of the Jordan to pursue a mission among the Jews there, or, perhaps, to the other Jewish communities which were scattered so widely within and to the east of the Roman Empire? He clearly saw that his disciples would be dismayed by his arrest and trial and, unnerved and not really understanding him and his mis sion, were most unlikely to become the nucleus of a growing movement to perpetuate his teachings. Why did he not take a longer time to instruct them, organize them, and add to their numbers, so that when death, whether peaceful or violent, should remove him they could continue with what he had begun?
From the viewpoint of worldly prudence the course Jesus was following was sheer madness. Having antagonized the Pharisees, both in Galilee and in Judea, by his procedure in the temple he now goaded their traditional rivals, the Sadducees, to side with them and take the initiative in eliminating him. After making his vivid demonstration in the temple and arraying the chief priests and the Sadducean clique against him, he took no measures to organize his followers permanently to support his reforms. Did he expect God to intervene on his behalf and thus to force Him to inaugurate the next stage in the kingdom of heaven? That would have been akin to what had presented itself to him months before in the wilderness when the suggestion came that he cast himself from a pinnacle of the temple that God might deliver him and thus dramatically demonstrate His Son's authority. Jesus had then dismissed it as a temptation of, the evil one. It seems utterly unlikely that he would now have yielded to it.
Later, in looking back over their months with him, the disciples declared that they recalled that Jesus had foretold his death and resurrection and the proclamation of the Gospel throughout the entire world, but did they read back later events into dimly comprehended words? If their memories were correct, why the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and the repeated petition, seemingly denied, that the cup might pass from him? Obviously here was no cowardice or weakness, for Jesus made no attempt at flight and showed no fear as he faced death. The mystery lies much deeper.
However, from our records, fragmentary though they are, it seems clear that for many months and perhaps longer Jesus had known that his course must lead him to Jerusalem and to death, that he saw it as foretold in the sacred writings of his people, and that his crucifixion was in the divine plan.
Whatever the processes by which Jesus arrived at his decision, some of the main outlines of the events of the days which are so important in the story of his life and for the future of Christianity are clear. Because from the beginning they were central in the consciousness and the faith of Christians, the accounts of the last few hours before the crucifixion, of the crucifixion itself, of the burial, and of the resurrection are fairly detailed, occupy a large proportion of each of the Four Gospels, and again and again are referred to in the others of the earliest Christian documents.
The time was the high Jewish tease of the year, that of the Passover, with its memories of the deliverance of the remote ancestors of the Jews from bondage in Egypt. On his way to Jerusalem for the feast Jesus tried to make it clear to his disciples both by his words and his attitude that a crisis was at hand. Yet the disciples were so obsessed with preconceived ideas of what the course of events must be for the Messiah and the kingdom of God that they misinterpreted him and were entirely unprepared intellectually and emotionally for what transpired.
Stimulated by the miracles, which they had seen at his hands or by reports of them, an enthusiastic, spontaneous popular demonstration greeted Jesus as he rode into Jerusalem. His "cleansing of the temple" followed. Then came several days of teaching in the temple and of debates with those whom he had antagonized. The evening of his arrest
Jesus had the meal with his twelve disciples, which was to become famous in Christian history, arc, and worship as "the Last Supper." The method of arranging for it, which he took, may well have been devised as a precaution against interruption by his enemies. The evening was marred by contentions among the disciples as to who was to be greatest, but Jesus himself set the example as one among them who served and demonstrated his attitude by washing their feet. As the eleven who survived after the defection and death of Judas looked back on the evening, they were aware that in the mind of Jesus it had peculiar significance. It was then that he took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying that it was his body, and followed it with the cup, also giving thanks, having them drink from it, declaring that it was his blood of the new covenant. Something of fundamental importance was taking place. Around this was to develop the central rite of the Christian Church.
The group went from the supper room to Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, perhaps to a spot looking out across the city. It was a place to which Jesus had been accustomed to go. From time to time through the months of his public career he had sought solitude for meditation and prayer, a practice which may well have been established during the years of obscurity. This night there ensued a time of agony which left an indelible mark upon the memory of his intimates, even though at the moment, heavy-eyed with sleep, they were only partly aware of it.
Into all that went on in the soul of Jesus during that bitter hour we cannot presume fully to enter. We can only venture conjectures from the imperfect record. Was it the consciousness of the seeming failure of his mission, apparently so soon to be terminated in pitiful futility? Was it the burden of the world's sin, the awful weight of man's blindness and depravity? Was it the apparent hopelessness of trying to make men realize the radiant vision of the reign of God, which Jesus had endeavoured to share? Was it the seeming imminent triumph of evil, the victory within man himself of all that was ruining man, and the attendant defeat of God? Was it uncertainty, in the face of what looked like tragic frustration, of what God's will was?
Whatever the inward reason for that struggle, the hour was all the more dark because of the obtuseness of Jesus' most intimates friends. Those whom he had asked to share the watch with him were not so much indifferent as uncomprehending and slept except when, seeking fellowship, he roused them. His struggle had to be without the companionship of those upon whom, if it were to go on after his death, his mission would depend. Well-meaning enough though they were, they apparently completely failed to comprehend what he had been trying to do. His seeming failure must have been rendered all the more poignant by the realization that if the inner group with whom he had elected to share his vision were so far from comprehending it and only a few moments before had been disputing over who was to have priority in the kingdom which they were expecting, the great run of mankind would be even more blind. Yet, as he struggled alone with his burden, Jesus felt himself not alone, but in the presence of God, and like a refrain came the words, "Abba, Father, all things are possible unto Thee: take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will but what Thou wilt."
If there remained in the mind of Jesus any uncertainty as to what the will of God was, it was resolved by the appearance of the party who were seeking him for arrest. The cup from which only a few minutes ago he had prayed to be spared was being pressed to his lips and it was made the more bitter by the fact that the betrayer was one of the twelve intimates whom he had chosen. We shall never know why it was that Jesus picked Judas or the reason for Judas' treachery. Knowing his keen insight into character we can be sure that Jesus was never deceived in Judas. Moreover, Jesus would have been acting entirely out of character had he selected him with the deliberate purpose of having him become the betrayer and thus forever damning him. Jesus was always seeking to save men's lives and not to destroy them. It must have been that in Judas Jesus saw possibilities for great good as well as for sordid evil and had hoped by his love to evoke the one and discourage the other. If so, the outcome could only have added to the burden, which was already his in the obtuseness of the other, eleven and their failure to rise to the emergency. The eleven, dismayed by the unexpected turn of events, deserted Jesus. Poor, loyal Peter, in trying to keep within sight of his Master, stumbled into a triple denial.
There followed in quick and sickening succession the remaining scenes of the tragedy. Jesus was tried by the Jewish religious authorities and by the Roman Procurator, Pilate. To the informed and unprejudiced observer the charges were palpably false. They obviously seemed so to Pilate. Yet Pilate yielded to expediency and ordered that Jesus be crucified, with the inscription above him which showed his contempt for the accusers — "the King of the Jews." It is thought-provoking irony that, having deliberately refused to employ political methods and having rejected an interpretation of his mission which would make him a leader in the current unrest against Rome, Jesus should have been executed on the charge of planning revolt against Roman rule. It is in part a reflection of the complete failure of the leaders of his nation and of the representative of Rome to understand him. Their blindness made vivid the contrast to which Jesus had repeatedly called attention between their perspective and his, between them and the kingdom of God.
We read, almost as though we were seeing it ourselves, of scourging, of rough, derisive soldiers pressing a crown of thorns on his brow, of a purple robe, of mock homage, of blindfolding and smiting with the challenge to the erstwhile wonder-worker to indicate who struck him, of a blood-thirsty mob demanding crucifixion, of the procession to the place of crucifixion, of the nailing to the cross, and of the casting of lots by the executioners for his garments. Through all the excruciating hours Jesus bore himself with dignity and without wincing. He spoke a word of compassion for the women who bewailed him on his way to the cross. He prayed for those who crucified him, saying, what was undoubtedly true, that they did not know what they were doing. Therein was part of the tragedy. He gave a reassuring word to one of the two criminals who were crucified with him. He commended his mother to the care of one of his disciples. Once he gave evidence of the physical distress and spoke of his thirst. At what may have been an especially black moment he cried out: "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" But those are the opening words of a psalm which, while recounting intense suffering at the hands of others so like that of Jesus in some of its details that by many it is regarded as prophecy and by others as a model on which the narrators of the crucifixion shaped their story, ends in a note of consolation, triumph, and praise, and Jesus may have had in mind the entire psalm and found strength in it in the long hours of pain.
When at last death brought oblivion to the sufferer it seemed that the drama had not been so much his failure as the failure of man.
The crucifixion was put through by the spokesman and official representatives or as high a religion as the world had thus far seen and by a magistrate of a government which was as good as any which man had produced. Yet in blindness, selfish fear, and stupid anger they had done to death the rarest spirit ever born of woman, who in his teachings and example had shown the only way by which his own nation could avoid destruction and by which mankind could attain fullness of life. The cross stood in judgement on all the men who had anything to do with it — not only upon the Jewish leaders who had engineered it, upon the mob who demanded it, upon the Roman official who ordered it, and upon the soldiers who carried it out, but also upon those Jews such as the one who gave him burial who, lamenting the execution, did nothing to prevent it, upon the disciples who had failed to understand Jesus and who, bewildered, deserted him, upon the government which had not made impossible such a miscarriage of justice, and even upon the Jewish religion which, while it had nurtured Jesus, had not prevented its own prostitution by its professed guardians. Since those immediately responsible for the crucifixion were a cross section of mankind, both good and bad, the cross was a condemnation of the entire race," vivid evidence of its stupid perversity and its impotence to save its noblest representative from rejection and humiliating death at the hands of man.
But had not God, if God exists, also failed? Is there a God at all? Or is the universe, if it be a universe, and not unintelligent and unintelligible confusion, morally indifferent and blind to what the high-minded among the race hold to be man's finest hopes and noblest aspirations? Is the universe playing sport with beings, which it has produced or has it blindly, given birth to men who are more intelligent than what has produced them, orphaned victims of unknowing chance? Had the Jewish prophets been correct in declaring that God is righteous and in setting forth a description of what that righteousness is? If so, is God, as the prophets and the psalmists had also declared, sovereign? In these beliefs Jesus had shared. He had even called God Father. He had declared that in him God was in some fresh fashion inaugurating His kingdom, His reign, and that he, Jesus, was in a unique sense the Son of God. Had the prophets and Jesus been tragically mistaken? Had they cherished beliefs, which would not stand the test of fact? So the cross would have seemed to demonstrate.
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