wise as serpents
- MATTHEW 10:16 Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
Many of us have thought it odd that our Lord would send out His disciples with the admonition to be wise as serpents. Either Biblically or naturally, serpents are not what one normally aspires to be like. There is a certain stigma that surrounds them which we tend to avoid rather then emulate. Nevertheless, that was His command to the disciples. Let us then look and see what more we can learn and understand from this most unusual passage.
Let's first consider what it is about a serpent that might be thought of as wise. What exactly does wise mean here. The word wise is translated from the Greek word phronimos, and is defined in Thayer's Greek English Lexicon as "a. intelligent or b. prudent; i.e. mindful of one's interest". We don't think of this reptile as being very intelligent, but its easy to think of it as being mindful of its own interest. The snake crawls along silently hoping not to be detected, for if a prey or an enemy senses its presence, it goes hungry or may even loose its head. James Morison has an interesting comment concerning this verse in MATTHEW.
- The word translated wise is inadequately so rendered especially in its present application. It rather denotes prudence in regard to one's own safety than intellectual or ethical wisdom. It refers to the serpent's real or reputed wariness or sagacity in relation to danger. The injunction might be rendered thus, Become ye wary as serpents. It is Wycliffe's rendering Be ye war as serpentis, a rendering far superior to Purvey's revision, as given in Bagster's Hexapla, Be ye sly as serpents; for, as Matthew Henry observes, "they were to be not as foxes, whose cunning is to deceive others; but as serpents, whose policy is only to defend themselves, and to shift for their own safety." "In the cause of Christ," he adds, "we must be wise not to pull trouble upon our own heads." "Therefore," says Richard Baxter, "be wise to carry yourselves inoffensively and cautiously, preserving yourselves by lawful means." It is a precious injunction for a time of persecution; and for all times. Good men must not recklessly throw themselves away.
- A Practical Commentary on the Gospel According to Matthew, page 161.
We must search and see then, how did our Lord conduct His own life? Did He rush into danger or did He look for ways to avoid it? Did He throw caution to the wind, or did He watch His step, so to speak? We shall also want to study and see just what the Jewish leadership was able to do to Yeshua. Were they able legally to put Him to death if they wished, or as many think, did they require the Roman authorities to do their dirty work.
Our first reference to Yeshua being noticed by the Jewish authorities is early on in the fourth gospel.
- JOHN 4:1-4 When therefore the Lord knew how the Pharisees had heard that Jesus made and baptized more disciples than John, (though Jesus himself baptized not, but his disciples,) he left Judaea, and departed again into Galilee. And he must needs go through Samaria.
They first took note of Him because it was reported to them that He was accumulating more followers than John. Up till now, their attention had been focused primarily on John the Baptist, but now they realized that there was a new kid in town, a new possible threat to their authority. When Yeshua however had heard that He was now on their radar, He split. He left Judea, their sphere of influence and headed north to Galilee.
But why does the fourth Evangelist add And he must needs go through Samaria? Why was it needful to go through the unsavory land of Samaria rather then the more common route around Samaria? Were His escape routes being watched? Were spies and enemies waiting to "deliver Him up"? We are not told so we can only take note. But we can read that when they arrived in Samaria, Yeshua was "wearied with His journey" and sat on the well while His disciples went into town to fetch some vittles. Sounds like maybe they left Judea in a hurry, not taking time to gather provisions for the journey and then kept a hurried pace till they got across the border into Samaria.
While still in Samaria, He got the further news that John had just been cast into prison.
- MATTHEW 4:12 Now when Jesus had heard that John was cast into prison, he departed into Galilee.
Yeshua was usually careful to put as many steps between Himself and trouble as He could. Let us try to imagine what it was like in Palestine at this time. John the Baptist was considered by the general populace a hero. More than that, a prophet, some thought Elijah, others thought that he might possibly even have been the Messiah. He had attracted an enormous following. According to the Historian Josephus, this was one of the reasons he was arrested and eventually killed by Herod.
- Now, when many others came to crowd around him, for they were greatly moved by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best by putting him to death to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late.- Antiquities. xviii. 5. 2
With John's fiery speeches, Herod no doubt feared that the Baptist might inspire a national uprising. Besides all this, the religious leaders also wanted John done away with for he threatened the status-quo. Of course his arrest might incite demonstrations, even riots, but the authorities had little choice, they had to silence him. This emotional, political and religious storm is what Yeshua found Himself in the midst of. As far as He knew, it was entirely possible that He Himself was on their hit list as well, especially now that they knew that His following might even have been greater than John's. It was prudent for Him to split for home territory so He went into Galilee.
- JOHN 4:43 Now after two days [in Samaria] he departed thence, and went into Galilee.
As we piece together the records of the four Gospel accounts, (see Chronology of the Four Gospels) what it looks like happened was that after Yeshua heard how the Pharisees had noticed that He had a greater following than John, He immediately split for Galilee where He would at least be somewhat out of the jurisdiction of the Jewish Senate (see A History of the Jewish People, page 185, by Emil Schurer). The shortest route was straight through Samaria so that is how they went, stopping to rest at Sychar, where He met and witnessed to the woman at Jacob's well. Knowing He was relatively safe in Samaria, He remained two more days. Having then heard of John's arrest by Herod, He continued on to Galilee, going home to Nazareth. There He preached in the Synagogue His first recorded sermon. Here we pick up the record in LUKE.
- LUKE 4:28-31 And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him unto the brow of the hill whereon their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. But he passing through the midst of them went his way, and came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and taught them on the sabbath days.
Luke writes that they "thrust him out of the city" which depicts quite a violent scene. The word thrust is translated from the Greek word ekballo and usually denotes a violent action, but can also mean "to draw out or extract without violence". I think that because the parishioners were "filled with wrath", we picture them violently seizing Yeshua and casting Him out of their city, which they probably did.
But after that it says that they led Him to a cliff to throw Him off. The word led is from the Greek word ago which incidentally is used three other times in this same chapter of LUKE (vss. 1, 9, 40). It has a much milder action attached to it, especially when we consider Luke's other uses in this chapter. It almost seems like these two actions by the congregation must have been separated by a short period of time. We can perceive that they originally became frantic, driven almost out of their minds after Yeshua's sermon, and violently grabbed Him and cast Him out of the city. Then, having cooled down a bit, but still intolerably angry, some of them decided to throw Him off the cliff if they could somehow coax Him up there. Knowing their intentions, He refused to go with them and instead went His way with His disciples to Capernaum.
Either the mob cooled down and somewhat dispersed or else GOD froze them all motionless so Yeshua could somehow magically walk through the midst of them. That picture however does not jive with the other occasions where Yeshua needed to avoid danger, as we shall soon discover. Never does GOD transport Him, or make Him invisible, or freeze the mob to save His skin. Yeshua avoided danger only by being prudent, being wise as a serpent (consider AMOS 5:12-13).
So leaving the violent scene at Nazareth He came down to Capernaum where on the Sabbath He healed the man with the withered hand, which in these religious leader's eyes was about the worse thing you could do, because it was the Sabbath.
- MARK 3:1 And he entered again into the synagogue... 6-7 And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him. But Jesus withdrew himself with his disciples to the sea....
The Pharisees and the Herodians were not normally friendly with one another, so if they were brought together to destroy Yeshua, they must have been desperate. I suppose that they figured that because they had been successful in disposing of John the Baptist, if they worked together they could get rid of this rabble rouser also. But they had to be crafty in their plans. They couldn't just go up and stick a knife in Him. They would be more successful if they could get Him to put His own head in the noose, so to speak. If they could get Him to say something against Herod or the Romans which would warrant His being arrested, that would be the best scenario they could hope for. "But Jesus withdrew himself with his disciples to the sea", thus they would have to wait for another day.
Some time later, Yeshua went into a mountain to pray and after naming His twelve apostles He healed and taught the multitudes (LUKE 6:12- 49). Then He returned to Capernaum where the elders besought Him to heal the Centurion's servant, which He did. Then He went to Nain where He raised the widow's son from the dead (LUKE 7:1-18). Then we come to the interesting, yet somewhat troubling visit to Yeshua from two of John the Baptist disciples.
- LUKE 7:19 And John calling unto him two of his disciples sent them to Jesus, saying, Art thou he that should come? or look we for another?
We should pause here and consider what scripture has to tell us. Let's think a moment about John the Baptist, his own movements in accordance with his calling. John's mission was plainly to be "the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord" (JOHN 1:23). That was his primary, that was his sole mission, that was his calling.
So why do we find him getting sidetracked and picking a fight with Herod by accusing him of breaking the law by marrying his brothers wife? Sure Herod was wrong, even evil in many ways. But of what profit was it for John to bring down upon his own head Herod's wrath? Did it further his cause? No, it cost him his freedom and eventually his life. What good was he to GOD then? None. And all that time John spent sitting in that dungeon, what was he thinking? He no doubt wondered, at least on occasion, why his cousin, whom he had believed was the promised Messiah, why wasn't Yeshua miraculously getting him set free or somehow manufacturing his escape?
There are many emotions one can feel when reading about John wondering whether or not Yeshua was the Messiah. How can such a man as John come to question whether or not Yeshua was indeed the One? Everyone's respect for John runs so high that it is difficult to understand where he was coming from with this question asked of Yeshua by his two disciples. I suppose only by walking in his shoes can we even begin to empathize with his situation. The best we can do is to peek through the cracks in the door, if you will, to try to understand. John was more sure of his calling than we can know, and he was more sure of his Lord than probably any man that had ever lived. John saw the spirit descend upon Yeshua in the form of a dove. He heard the Voice declare, "This is MY beloved Son". And yet, he questioned.
Like many, even today, John must have thought that he understood what his Lord was all about. Along with the whole nation he fully expected the Messiah to assume control of Israel's destiny like King David did ten centuries before (LUKE 1:71-74). But as he sat alone in that dreary, cold, dark dungeon, was he seeing his expectation spiral downward into a faint hope, and hope to doubt, and doubt turning to confusion? Did he miss-figure it all somehow? Was he somehow wrong about Yeshua? Was there still another Messiah after Yeshua that would win Israel's freedom? His own freedom? We would not be surprised if all of these emotions crowded his mind. He knew of Yeshua's active ministry. But that being the case, he must have wondered why was he still rotting away in this dungeon? None of us can really know what it must have been like for him. We only know that Yeshua did not get His cousin out of that prison, and Herod did have him killed.
A short time later we learn of some of Yeshua's other kinsmen coming to try to "lay hold on Him", thinking that He had lost His mind (MARK 3:21). That failing, ten verses later His own mother and brethren try to get at Him (MARK 3:31). The fine line Yeshua had to walk is not often appreciated. He refused to be dissuaded from the course GOD had chosen for Him. Not by His cousin John, not by His other kinsmen, not by His brothers or even by His own mother. Not even by the adoring crowds (MATTHEW 8:18).
The next incident to consider concerning Yeshua sidestepping dangerous situations, happens just after He had cast the legion of daimon out of the man at the tombs.
- MATTHEW 8:34 And, behold, the whole city came out to meet Jesus: and when they saw him, they besought him that he would depart out of their coasts. 9:1 And he entered into a ship, and passed over, and came into his own city.
Yeshua didn't argue with them or resist them when they beseeched Him to leave them be, He simply left. This was exactly the instruction He gave His disciples a short time later.
- MATTHEW 10:17-23 But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.
- But when they deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak: for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.
- And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name's sake: but he that endureth to the end shall be saved. But when they persecute you in this city, flee ye into another: for verily I say unto you, Ye shall not have gone over the cities of Israel, till the Son of man be come.
Clearly His desire for His disciples was that they were not to be bull headed or hot tempered. If they indeed were to beware of men, then they were supposed to be doing something, or not doing something whereby they might avoid the threat of being delivered up. To beware of men, means that they were to walk softly, not be offensive, nor loud and boisterous. They were to be gentile, peaceable, quiet. They were to let other people's unbelief just roll off them like water off a duck's back, as the saying goes. If someone didn't want what they were offering, they were to simply move on.
Too many times Christians think that they have to "stand their ground" or "make a stand". "Stand on the word!" we are often told by our Church leaders, as if we are suppose to try to cram truth down somebody else's throat even if they don't want to hear it. We already have the truth. We are already delivered. It is them, those out there with whom we rub shoulders with every day that need what we have. We don't need what they have. We can afford to stand aloof, they can't.
Next we see Yeshua back in Jerusalem again curing a man on the Sabbath.
- JOHN 5:10-11 The Jews therefore said unto him that was cured, It is the sabbath day: it is not lawful for thee to carry thy bed. He answered them, He that made me whole, the same said unto me, Take up thy bed, and walk....
- 15-18 The man departed, and told the Jews that it was Jesus, which had made him whole. And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day. But Jesus answered them, My Father worketh hitherto, and I work. Therefore the Jews sought the more to kill him, because he not only had broken the sabbath, but said also that God was his Father, making himself equal with God. 6:1 After these things Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias.
Palestine was under the authority of different rulers. Judea, Samaria and Idumea were ruled by Pilate. Galilee and Perea were ruled by Herod Antipas. Syria was under Vitellius. Trachonitis and Iturea were ruled by Philip while Decopolis was for the most part under self-rule. This is often the reason and explanation why scripture tells us that Yeshua left one area and entered another. He was crossing the border into the domain of another ruler where there His enemy couldn't so easily get their hands on Him.
Yeshua's standard operating procedure was that when He might be within reach of these evil men's desires, He simply left. Out the back door He went. Not until the incident in the Garden of Gethsemane did He ever stand His ground and allow Himself to be captured. Until then He always did His best to avoid dangerous situations.
Yeshua was again teaching in one of the Galilean synagogues.
- MATTHEW 12:13-16 Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other. Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him. But when Jesus knew it, he withdrew himself from thence: and great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all; and charged them that they should not make him known.
Again, he withdrew Himself. Outside of His capture in the Garden of Gethsemane, I can not find a single incident where Yeshua didn't follow this plan. Cut and run might have been His motto. Not because He was afraid of them. Not in the least. He always withdrew because He refused to be lured into a fight of their making. That is what I believe happened to John the Baptist. They got him to make a stand against Herod, which was not necessary. Nor was it profitable. Nor was it prudent. Instead, it was a clever trap and John fell into it. Not our Lord though. If He was to stand and fight it would be on his terms, not theirs.
- MATTHEW 14:1-2 At that time Herod the tetrarch heard of the fame of Jesus, and said unto his servants, This is John the Baptist; he is risen from the dead; and therefore mighty works do shew forth themselves in him.....13 When Jesus heard of it, he departed thence by ship into a desert place apart:
Yeshua had now come to the attention of the political power of the land, which was exactly where the religious leaders wanted Him to be. No doubt it was from them or their allies that Herod had heard what he had heard. This was extremely dangerous for Yeshua, because Herod had more than once demonstrated his ruthlessness in exterminating any challenge to his throne. Besides, it was his own father that had murdered all the infants in Bethlehem in a previous attempt to eliminate this so called King (MATTHEW 2:16). And so, our lord "departed thence by ship into a desert place", which would probably put Him out of Herod's reach.
I had previously thought that Yeshua had departed here solely because of His need to be alone with His disciples after hearing of John's execution, but I no longer see this to be the case. The first two verses of MATTHEW 14 set the stage for the chapter, with verses 3-12 being only a parenthetical explanation as to where Herod's head was. Verse 13 then picks up the story from verse 2, as we have set it forth above. Yeshua's reason for leaving was mostly influenced by His hearing of Herod's interest in Him. Otherwise, there seems no point for Matthew to insert the record of Herod's imprisonment and murder of John here, when it actually happened at an earlier time.
After this Yeshua fed the five thousand in the desert place, crossed back across the lake to Gennesaret where He healed all that were diseased and then returned to Capernaum where He taught some "hard sayings" (JOHN 6:59). Here we read the troubling verse, "From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him" (JOHN 6:66). Thus it was again time for Him to depart. Enough had been said and He knew it prudent to put some space between Him and His enemy, so He and His disciples quit the country altogether.
- MARK 7:24 And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid.
This time the threat had become so great, the danger so immense that Yeshua deemed it prudent to completely vacate Palestine. He went far north into Phoenicia in Syria quietly settling around the communities of Tyre and Sidon. "But He could not be hid." At least here though, in this Gentile land, He was in little danger from Herod or the Jews and finally might find some needed rest. After some time there He and His disciples returned to Galilee, being careful of their route.
- MARK 7:31 And again, departing from the coasts of Tyre and Sidon, he came unto the sea of Galilee, through the midst of the coasts [boundaries] of Decapolis.
They evidently took the long way around, for any route from Tyre to the sea of Galilee that goes through the borders of Decopolis is like going from New York to Philadelphia through Washington D.C. He was obviously avoiding something by taking the long route. The Jewish leaders are getting more desperate and open about their hatred for Him. One wrong move, one mistake could deliver Him into their hands. As such, for the time, He avoided Judea altogether.
- JOHN 7:1-2 After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him. Now the Jews' feast of tabernacles was at hand....9-11 When he had said these words unto them [His brethren], he abode still in Galilee. But when his brethren were gone up, then went he also up unto the feast, not openly, but as it were in secret. Then the Jews sought him at the feast, and said, Where is he?....
- 13 Howbeit no man spake openly of him for fear of the Jews.....30 Then they sought to take him: but no man laid hands on him, because his hour was not yet come....32 The Pharisees heard that the people murmured such things concerning him; and the Pharisees and the chief priests sent officers to take him....45-46 Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, Why have ye not brought him? The officers answered, Never man spake like this man....
- 50-51 Nicodemus saith unto them, (he that came to Jesus by night, being one of them,) Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?...53 And every man went unto his own house....8:1 Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.
Yeshua needed to go up to the feast, but He had to be extremely careful. His brethren urged Him to throw caution to the wind and make His stand. In response He encouraged them to go on up to the feast themselves but He would remain behind. Then after they departed He went ahead and left, only secretly. He knew the religious leaders would be watching for Him so He had to do His best to go undetected. That the people were afraid to speak openly of Him tells us that the Sanhedrin had already put the word out that He was a marked man, branded so to speak, and any who did not betray His whereabouts would themselves suffer the consequences. This was a hazardous trip, fraught with danger at every step. He could trust no one.
But when He finally arrived in Jerusalem and made Himself known, His teaching in the Temple so moved the people that even the officers sent to apprehend Him were smitten with admiration. Of course the Pharisees were furious and were ready to take more aggressive action when Nicodemus put out their fire after he brought the more moderate members of the council back to civility when he reminded them that their law did not judge a man before he had a chance to defend himself. Thus, the more radical sect of the Jewish leaders would now have to wait till those like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathaea were not present. Perhaps night-time would offer a better opportunity.
Early the next morning Yeshua was back in the Temple teaching the people. He was after the heart and soul of the people but the religious leaders kept trying to throw Him off balance with a wide variety of schemes. They cast before Him the woman taken in adultery and when that failed they questioned His authority. JOHN 8 is an amazing record of how steeled His mind was. The brightest of the enemy could not shake Him in the least. He spiritually backed them into a corner and their only way out was to resort to violence.
- JOHN 8:59 Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple [the remainder of the verse is most likely not in the text].
And so they missed another opportunity. But their chance would come again because as His time approached, everything seemed to be coming to a head. The picture we are beginning to see develop is one of Yeshua always being a step ahead of His adversaries, but sometimes just a step ahead. It seemed like only a matter of time before His luck would run out, so they must have thought.
Next he healed the man that was born blind, which should have been by itself conclusive proof that Yeshua was the Messiah, but these religious leaders were themselves blinded by the god of this world and had little inclination to believe. Once again, their only alternative seemed to be His destruction.
- JOHN 10:31 Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him....39 Therefore they sought again to take him: but he escaped out of their hand....40 And [He] went away again beyond Jordan into the place where John at first baptized; and there he abode.
After this December Feast of Dedication He escaped out of their domain across the Jordan River, "where John at first baptized". This is an important phrase tacked on by the Evangelist. Obviously it would be a place for all to be renewed, disciples and Master together. Each would be reminded of John's testimony of Yeshua, and perhaps some would even remember John's words, "behold the Lamb of God". That Lamb was soon to be slain, just a few months from now. But first He must accomplish the greatest of all His works, the raising from among the dead of His beloved friend Lazarus.
- JOHN 11:3 Therefore his [Lazarus'] sisters sent unto him, saying, Lord, behold, he whom thou lovest is sick....7-8 Then after that saith he to his disciples, Let us go into Judaea again. His disciples say unto him, Master, the Jews of late sought to stone thee; and goest thou thither again?....11 he saith unto them, Our friend Lazarus sleepeth; but I go, that I may awake him out of sleep....16 Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellowdisciples, Let us also go, that we may die with him....
- 40 Jesus saith unto her [Martha], Said I not unto thee, that, if thou wouldest believe, thou shouldest see the glory of God?....43-51 And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth. And he that was dead came forth, bound hand and foot with graveclothes: and his face was bound about with a napkin. Jesus saith unto them, Loose him, and let him go. Then many of the Jews which came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed on him. But some of them went their ways to the Pharisees, and told them what things Jesus had done.
- Then gathered the chief priests and the Pharisees a council, and said, What do we? for this man doeth many miracles. If we let him thus alone, all men will believe on him: and the Romans shall come and take away both our place and nation. And one of them, named Caiaphas, being the high priest that same year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, Nor consider that it is expedient for us, that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not. And this spake he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied that Jesus should die for that nation....
- 53-54 Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death. Jesus therefore walked no more openly among the Jews; but went thence unto a country near to the wilderness, into a city called Ephraim, and there continued with his disciples.
Here we learn something of the inner workings of the Jewish leadership. They were at a loss about what to do with this troublemaker. At first they tried to turn the people against Him by saying His miracles were the works of Black Magic. That having failed they then tried to nail Him on not observing the Law and of consorting with low-lifes like publicans and sinners. That also failed. Now they were at a crisis point knowing that if they didn't stop Him soon "all men would believe on Him". Here the High Priest solidified support for his murderous scheme by warning them that if they failed to act, the Romans would come and take away "both their place and nation". If they united together, then disposing of a single false prophet shouldn't be all that difficult.
- LUKE 11:53-54 And as he [Yeshua] said these things unto them, the scribes and the Pharisees began to urge him vehemently, and to provoke him to speak of many things: laying wait for him, and seeking to catch something out of his mouth, that they might accuse him.
Scripture gives us a valuable insight into the methods of the Jewish leaders in working to dispose of Yeshua. Sure, they wanted to kill Him, but if they could kill Him and not be blamed for it, that would be the perfect scenario. Once we realize that, much of what happened in the final days of Yeshua's life explains itself. This is the reason for all of their scheming behind closed doors.
They had hoped He would say something that would rouse Herod to imprison Him like what happened to John the Baptist. That never worked. Then they tried to get Him to say something against the Roman tax which would justify Pilate to dispose of Him, like what happened to "Judas of Galilee" (ACTS 5:37). That also failed. What was most imperative to them was that they didn't get mud on their own face, so to speak. They wanted Him got rid of but they didn't want the people to blame them. Neither did they want Him to become a martyr. There had to be a way to accomplish their evil desires if they could only find it.
- LUKE 20:19-20 And the chief priests and the scribes the same hour sought to lay hands on him; and they feared the people: for they perceived that he had spoken this parable against them. And they watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words, that so they might deliver him unto the power and authority of the governor.
But all their efforts seemed to fail. Out of exasperation, they had resigned themselves to wait till after the feast and then find some way to accomplish their evil deed.
- MATTHEW 26:3-5 Then assembled together the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, And consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty, and kill him. But they said, Not on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people.
But everything turned about when Judas offered to betray Him into their hands. They agreed and arranged for His capture in the Garden of Gethsemane. Now they had Him. Now what to do with Him? If they killed Him themselves they might become the object of the people's fury. They had to find a way to get Pilate to do their dirty work. And this is when they realized the genius of it all. If they could somehow get Pilate to crucify Him rather then themselves stoning Him, that would according to the Jewish law make it appear that Yeshua was accursed by GOD (DEUTERONOMY 21:23). That by itself would make Yeshua not only odious to the people, but downright despised. Why hadn't they thought of it before. It was brilliant. Oh the genius of it all, so they thought.
- JOHN 18:29-32 Pilate then went out unto them, and said, What accusation bring ye against this man? They answered and said unto him, If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee. Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death: that the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die.
This passage, written as it is, doesn't seem to flow together very well. First, Pilate asked them what Yeshua is charged with. As written, their answer is awkward, "If he were not a malefactor, we would not have delivered him up unto thee". That says nothing at all. That doesn't answer Pilate's question and doesn't seem to even have a place in this discourse. Evidently, some of the conversation between them has been left out of the record.
Then Pilate tells them to go and judge Yeshua themselves, and they answer that it is not lawful for them to put any man to death. This really is a confusing answer unless we recognize that much dialogue between them has gone missing. The two phrases just don't fit together. For one thing, they had previously judged Him and found Him guilty. To answer Pilate that it was not lawful for them to put Him to death, assumes that they had already told Pilate the results of their trial, which the verse says nothing about.
And then the clincher is what the Evangelist tacks on to the end of the passage, "That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die". You really have to be imaginative to make this conversation between Pilate and these Jewish leaders coherent, as it is rendered here. How does the "saying of Jesus" fit with what we have before us? How does what kind of death Yeshua said He would die have anything to do with whether or not the Jews could put anyone to death?
An interesting comment on these passages is given below by Sir Edwyn Hoskyns.
- The Jews conduct the prisoner to Pilate that he may pronounce and carry out the sentence of death by crucifixion, this being the normal Roman capital punishment for sedition. Pilate demands to know the nature of the accusation brought against the prisoner. On being told He is an evil-doer, Pilate authorizes the Jews to proceed according to their Law. This may mean merely that he supposes that the case does not involve capital punishment, and therefore lies within the competence of the Jews. But more probably according to your law is meant to imply that Pilate definitely authorizes the Jews to sentence the prisoner and inflict punishment by stoning, this being the legal penalty for blasphemy, breaking the Sabbath, and other offences against the Jewish Law (Exod. xxxi. 14, xxv. 2; Lev. xxiv. 10-23; Deut. xiii. 5-10; John viii. 5-7, x. 31; Luke xx. 6; Acts vii. 58, xiv. 5). This is, however, not at all what the Jews intend. The prisoner must be crucified, not stoned (xix. 6). That is, He must die in public as guilty of sedition, not of blasphemy; and Pilate alone can effect this. They therefore reply It is not lawful for us to put any man to death. The interpretation of these words is exceedingly difficult. Origin connects the saying with xi. 55. The Jews have come to Jerusalem in order to purify themselves before the Passover. They cannot therefore put any man to death. But v. 32 shows that the issue is not the power of capital punishment, but the nature of the punishment- stoning or crucifixion. This distinction is of vital importance for the author of the gospel (Chrysostom). In the synoptic gospels the phrase it is not lawful refers to what is illegal according to the Law of God revealed in the Old Testament, and never has any other reference. In the only other passage where it occurs in the Fourth Gospel it has the same reference (v. 10).
- If it be legitimate to find in the phrase put to death a subtle reference to shedding blood as distinct from stoning, the latter being to the Jews as far removed from killing as burning a heretic was for the officers of the Inquisition, then the meaning of the passage is simple and straightforward. In answer to Pilate the Jews state that their Law does not permit them to shed blood, and therefore they cannot crucify the prisoner (cf. xix. 6,7). To the author of the gospel the discussion between Pilate and the Jews has a far deeper significance. It is of little importance to him whether the formal accusation be blasphemy or sedition; both are equally false. It is, however, vital to him that the blood of Jesus should be poured out for the salvation of the world (xix. 34, cf. vi. 53-6; I John i. 7, v. 6-8), and that He shall be lifted up that He may draw all men unto Him (iii. 14, 15, xii. 32, 33). Crucifixion, therefore, not stoning, fulfills the divine plan of salvation and the prophecies of the Lord (Mark x. 34; Matt. xx. 19; Luke xviii. 33). In an earlier passage (x. 31-9, cf. xi. 8) he had carefully recorded how Jesus escaped from stoning by the Jews. Pilate must therefore execute the sentence, since to him had been entrusted the power of crucifixion, and the Jews, in insisting upon the crucifixion, are moved by a divine necessity of which they are totally unconscious. The whole narrative leads up to the pregnant conclusion of the trial before Pilate: Then therefore he delivered him unto them- to be crucified (xix. 16).
- The Fourth Gospel, pages 518-519.
We must not be too hasty to conclude that we fully understand this passage, especially after reading Hoskyn's comment that "The interpretation of these words is exceedingly difficult". We must instead ask ourselves, Did or did not the Jews have the legal right to put Yeshua to death? Or, did they require Pilate's approval so as to be able to have Yeshua killed? Or, were they rather trying to strong-arm Pilate so as to have Yeshua crucified?
The "saying of Jesus" that the Evangelist inserted onto the end of the passage seems to indicate that they needed Him crucified, which fits with the other references where we are told that they did not want to be held accountable for His death (LUKE 20:20 ACTS 5:28). If He was crucified, they could easily point their finger at the evil Romans and shift the blame away from themselves. As far as killing an opponent themselves, there are ample examples where they freely availed themselves to do just that. We read of many times when these same Jewish authorities planned and conspired and sought to kill others.
When discussing what exactly is meant from this passage, most Commentators mention that it was not lawful for the Jews to "put any man to death", but then they give only this verse as their source. I don't see that to be very honest. If you are going to search out what a difficult phrase of a verse means, you will be more successful if you can find other verses or other sources to help you understand the difficulty in that verse. Unfortunately, there is very little written by ancient writers concerning whether or not the Jews still obtained the right to execute someone. The only other relevant reference to our verse that I have found in support of the Jews not being able to legally kill someone, is from an ancient record related by Emil Schurer in his History of the Jewish People, Second Division, Volume 1, page 188.
- Besides a reminiscence of this fact has survived in Jewish traditions. "The right of pronouncing sentences of life and death was taken from Israel forty years before the destruction of the temple".
Obviously this reminiscence was originally written well after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in A.D. 70, otherwise how could the unknown writer say it was forty years before, that their right was revoked? Interestingly, there is no other real corroboration of this right being taken away, so the claim must be held suspect.
It is also curious that the forty years before the destruction of the Temple which the author refers to, puts the supposed removal of this right exactly at the time of our Lord's crucifixion. A motive for writing that this right was taken from them forty years previous, might have been simply that the Jews did not want to be held accountable for His crucifixion, so they simply said that the right to execute a criminal had long ago been taken away from them. Who knew any better?
Luke preserves early evidence intimating that they indeed did not want to be connected with Yeshua's murder.
- ACTS 5:28 Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man's blood upon us.
They desperately wanted to avoid being held responsible for His death. Even more so was this the case in the second and third Centuries when the Gentile Christians began to multiply, and their own power began to wane. So I think we would be reasonable to set aside this so-called "fact" given by Emil Schurer, that the Jews could not legally kill someone, and then see what else secular history as well as Biblical history has to say.
Not a few times are we told that the Jews in fact could and did kill certain individuals. First there is the mention of when the Romans originally gave the Jews the right to exercise for themselves the enforcement of their laws.
In the times of Julius Caesar the Roman Senate had passed decrees expressly reserving to the Jews the exercise of their own laws. Josephus, who wrote decades after the time in question treats them as being in full force. Justin Martyr expressly states that the Jews persecuted the Christians to death as long as they could (see Homersham Cox, The First Century of Christianity, pg 48).
Then this next quote is from an early Jewish Commentary on DEUTERONOMY, specifically calling for the death of a teacher with all the traits of one like Yeshua.
- A 'rebellious teacher of the Law' who insists upon holding to his own opinion, contrary to the decision of the majority of the teachers, should (according to the Rabbinic interpretation of Deut. xvii. 12) be brought before the highest tribunal in the Temple, and when he himself acts according to his teaching, or instructs others to act thus, he should be strangled. -Gustaf Dalman, Jesus-Jeshua, page 60.
It should be noted that it was indeed against the Mosaic Law for the Jews to shed blood, and for this reason they had always been limited to stoning or strangling or the like.
Lastly we give the record of the Roman General Titus reminding the defenders of Jerusalem, just before he destroyed it in A.D. 70, of the following.
- Did we not grant you permission to put to death anyone who went beyond the barrier, even though he were a Roman? - Emil Schurer, History of the Jewish People, Second Division, Volume 1, page 188.
I think that it is a pretty safe bet to presume that the Jews did indeed still have the right to execute one of their own; especially if Rome had granted them permission to execute even a Roman. Considering this, I think we would do well to re-evaluate what exactly the Jews meant in JOHN 18:31. Hypothesizing that it was indeed legal for the Jews to kill someone, I see only two reasonable possibilities. First, the Jews might have been saying that it was not lawful for them to crucify the prisoner, because that would entail the shedding of blood. When Pilate told them to take Him and judge Him according to their own law, he may not have realized that they indeed sought to have Him crucified. Thus they replied, 'But it is not lawful for us to crucify Him'. Then the next phrase would fit more appropriately, "That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die". The death He was to die was crucifixion and this at least makes a little more sense for why the Evangelist brings up the point then about Yeshua's prophecy of being crucified.
The second possibility is that they may have only been saying that it was not legal for them to kill someone during the feast, (NUMBERS 9:5-13; 19:11, 16; 31:17-20). Killing Yeshua themselves would make the Jews ceremonially unclean for the important Passover Feast just beginning. This Jewish law Pilate may not have known. In this case, when Pilate told them to go and judge the prisoner according to their own law, they may have merely meant to reply, 'But we cannot kill someone at this time, during the feast'. But rather than them go through all these shenanigans to have Pilate kill Him, just because they would have to otherwise wait till after the feast, also seems remote.
Neither solution answers all of the difficulties. Either way though, we obviously lack sufficient proof that it was indeed illegal for them to kill someone. With so much being said in scripture about the Jews trying to kill certain individuals, and even killing some, we must take note that never does any Biblical writer add something like, 'by the way, it was not legal for them to do such a thing'. As often as we are reminded of their desire to have someone killed, it must not have been all that unnatural for them to thus act in this way. Below is a brief list of some of the scriptures from the Gospels where the religious leaders did indeed seek to put Yeshua and others to death.
- MARK 3:6 And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.
- JOHN 7:1 After these things Jesus walked in Galilee: for he would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him.
- JOHN 8:5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?...59 Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by.
- JOHN 10:31 Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him.
- JOHN 11:53 Then from that day forth they took counsel together for to put him to death.
- MATTHEW 26:3-4 Then assembled together the chief priests, and the scribes, and the elders of the people, unto the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and consulted that they might take Jesus by subtilty, and kill him.
- JOHN 12:10 But the chief priests consulted that they might put Lazarus also to death.
It is worthy of note that only the fourth Gospel preserves the incident of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. This may be due to the fact that the fourth Gospel was probably written later than the other three. To help protect Lazarus' life from the same hands that had Yeshua murdered, the earlier Gospels probably omitted this important miracle. By the time the fourth Gospel was written, Lazarus may already have died. This is also who Peter referred to when he asked "Lord, what about this man?" (JOHN 21:20-23). He wasn't asking about John as is often surmised, but he was wondering whether or not Lazarus, who had been raised from the dead, would die again. The Lord's answer is pointed, "If I will that he tarry till I come, what is that to thee?"
And of course Yeshua had warned His disciples that they themselves would become the next targets of these Jewish leaders.
- JOHN 16:2 They shall put you out of the synagogues: yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service.
This is precisely what we see happening in ACTS.
- ACTS 5:33 When they heard that, they were cut to the heart, and took counsel to slay them.
- ACTS 9:29 And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians: but they went about to slay him.
Luke writes that the Sanhedrin itself was directly involved in Stephen's death.
- ACTS 7:57-58 Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul.
Some suggest that Stephen's death here as an act of mob violence, and don't think it tells us anything about the rule of Jewish law in the first Century. But there are too many details given us in Luke's record which assure us that his was definitely a legal murder.
First thing they did was to assemble witnesses, which they incidentally had bribed. If they were not wanting to make the proceeding look legal, there would have been no need for witnesses, nor for bribes. Then the high priest questioned the prisoner of the charges and allowed him to respond. Stephen's response so infuriated them that they took upon themselves to immediately "cast him out of the city" and stoned him. All of these acts, questioning the prisoner, removing him from the city and stoning him, were all according to the Mosaic Law. The final detail given us, is that the witnesses, who were the only ones who could legally initiate the stoning, laid their clothes at Paul's feet, again all according to the Law.
What is also most interesting, is that Paul declares years later that he had early on obtained authority from the chief priests to in fact imprison and even kill "many of the saints".
- ACTS 22:4 And I persecuted this way unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons both men and women.
- ACTS 26:10 Which thing I also did in Jerusalem: and many of the saints did I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them.
The following passage tells us I think all that needs to be added to give us confidence that yes, the Jews legally could have someone murdered.
- ACTS 24:5-7 For we [the religious leaders] have found this man [Paul] a pestilent fellow, and a mover of sedition among all the Jews throughout the world, and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes: who also hath gone about to profane the temple: whom we took, and would have judged according to our law. But the chief captain Lysias came upon us, and with great violence took him away out of our hands.
This incident occurred only a dozen years before the destruction of the Temple, yet there is no indication here that the Jews were forbidden the right to kill someone, or further that they even needed the Roman blessing to do so. Instead, they intimate just the opposite, that the chief captain was standing in the way of their rightful act. By their own word before the governor himself, these Jews declared that they were acting within their legal rights in disposing of Paul, but that Lysias swooped in among them and denied them this right.
Luke tells us that the reason the captain rescued Paul was not because he feared for Paul's life or that the Jews didn't have the right to kill him, but rather because word came to him that "all Jerusalem was in an uproar" (ACTS 21:31). If indeed the Jews did not have the right of execution, surely somewhere in all this record, which covers almost six full chapters in the book of ACTS, something would have been said concerning it in Paul's defense.
This all gives us a much better idea of what Yeshua meant when He instructed His disciple to be wise as serpents. It is most unfortunate that many of His later servants didn't get this message. We think of all of the needless bloodshed that might have been avoided, if the saints of old would have realized that it is not their duty to put themselves at needless risk. Many of them seemed to think that it was their obligation to be martyrs. Yet, Yeshua gave Himself that we might live, not die. He was crucified so we wouldn't have to be. Too often it is more our ego rather than the spirit of GOD that motivates us to stand in the way of danger. We would do well to take heed, to be still, and to be wise as serpents.
- ESV ISAIAH 52:13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted.