Toward what was to be the end of his campaign, he focused on Jerusalem. It was the political and spiritual center of the Jewish nation, and boasted a large Jewish population that swelled exponentially around Passover. If he was going to begin an insurrection, it had to start here.
According to the Gospel of John, he preached by day at the temple and retreated to a safe house at nearby Bethany before nightfall.
He was anointed with oil in the weeks before his death. The word “messiah” means an anointed one, as does the name “Christ.” So the name Jesus Christ is referring to Jesus, the anointed one. In the Old Testament, to anoint someone was a one-time event that specifically selected the person as a king or a high priest (or maybe a prophet.) I think he wanted to be a king. By being anointed, he was publically accepting his post as the messiah, the king of the Jews.
Roman authorities in Jerusalem were on their guard against civil disobedience at the annual Passover celebrations. Passover was a commemoration of Jewish freedom at which the city accommodated 300-400,000 pilgrims. The Roman governor, Pilate, always attended to keep an eye on things. Roman soldiers were outnumbered by something like one hundred to one. The event was a tinderbox that could catch alight given the right spark.
As throngs of jubilant Jews greeted Yeshua, the Romans knew he was coming.
When he rode on a donkey into the excited atmosphere in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he effectively broadcasted his intentions to the crowd. Pious pilgrims were expected to walk into the Holy City, so he was deliberately doing his best to stand out from the rabble by riding. The son of David had surfaced and was staking his claim! He may have been trying to fulfill a prophesy from Zechariah, who wrote, “Rejoice heart and soul, daughter of Zion! Shout with gladness daughter of Jerusalem! See now, your king comes to you; he is victorious, he is triumphant, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Zech. 9:9, NJB), assuming, of course, a gospel author didn’t retrofit the donkey part of the plot.
Yeshua knew that to play the part of a king was an act of treason against Caesar, and punishable by death, yet he did it right under the noses of the Sadducees and the Romans. It was a move made by a very brave man. It could have been a calculated lampoon of the entrance one would expect from a Roman emperor. He was taking a gamble, guessing he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, be arrested because he was so popular with the people.
I think he was hoping to enlist the support of the Jewish revellers, and with their help overpower the Roman garrison and thereby launch a full-scale rebellion against Rome. This was quite an ambitious agenda, and he would have been well aware of the risks, yet encouraged by the hope that his God was going to help him.
Matthew claimed the crowds in Jerusalem hailed him as a hero:
“Great crowds of people spread their cloaks on the road, while others were cutting branches from trees spreading them in his path. The crowds who went in front of him and who followed were all shouting: Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessings on him who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heavens! And when he entered Jerusalem the whole city was in turmoil. Who is this people asked, and the crowds answered, this is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee” (Matt. 21:8–12, NJB).
“Hosanna” was the ancient cry of Jewish independence. The spectators were saluting the son of David, a legitimate Jewish king. Luke wrote,
“Some Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Master, check your disciples,’ but he answered, ‘I tell you, if these keep silence the stones will cry out’” (Luke 19:39–40 JB). It sounds like Yeshua put on a persuasive performance. He proved himself plucky and purposeful, just like a real ruler. The crowds bought it, and were excited. The whole city was in turmoil. This was a high point in his career and he would have been flushed with excitement. Everything was going to plan.
The next day he went to the temple. Angry that the Sadducees were using God’s holy house to make money, he turned over the tables. He must have had a large crowd of Jewish supporters to cheer him on and protect him. To start a scene in the temple and test the authority of the Sadducees was making another affirmation that he had arrived. It proved he was willing to use violence to achieve his aims. That night he returned to a safe house at Bethany, yet Luke’s account makes it clear that Jewish authorities had him under surveillance.
The next day he provoked the Temple hierarchy by debating them in public. The atmosphere was getting tense. Something definitive had to happen soon; one of the sides was sure to pick up their weapons. Let’s consider the principal players in the evolving events.
On one side was Yeshua, who was convinced he was a king and the messiah of Israel. He had been emboldened and protected by a show of support from a pepped up Jewish populace. He was now under pressure to play his hand. He knew there had to be a fight, but how and when to start it? He may have been waiting for divine help from Yahweh, whom he knew had helped many previous prophets win wars, because that was what was written in scripture.
On the other side were the Roman army and their Jewish allies, the chief priest, the Sanhedrin and their associates. Pontius Pilate, who contemporary historians described as dictatorial and violent, supervised the soldiers who were organized, trained, and in fine fettle. Jewish leaders knew Yeshua was hoping to start a revolt. They were powerful men supported by Rome and the last thing they wanted was a zealot stirring up the people. An insurrection would threaten their positions and even their lives, because the Roman garrison could not protect them from thousands of hotheaded Jews. They had to act quickly and decisively to prevent Yeshua gaining the upper hand. A conflict was inevitable. The stage was set for a showdown between Rome and the true Israel.
“Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and made plans to arrest Jesus by some trick and have him put to death. They said ‘however it must not be during the festivities, there must be no disturbance among the people” (Matt. 26:3–6, NJB).
Luke wrote something similar:
“And from early morning the people would gather round him in the temple and listen to him. The feast of the unleavened bread, called the Passover, was now drawing near, and the chief priests and scribes were looking for some way of doing away with him, because they mistrusted the people” (Luke 21:38, 22:1, NJB), followed by “And when the chief priests and Pharisees had heard his parables, they perceived that he spake of them. But when they sought to lay hands on him, they feared the multitude, because they took him for a prophet” (Luke 21:45–46, NJB). The chief priests knew Yeshua was plotting against them and that the crowds could side with him and things turn ugly.
Yeshua knew he inspired the rank and file, but could he count on them to confront the soldiers in combat? He was hoping for a large-scale battle, as his immediate entourage of admirers would have been easily outnumbered by Roman troops. To engage a few thousand professional Roman infantry in hand to hand hostility was an ominous prospect. The people were not soldiers. Many of them had families, a fact that didn’t deter his drive, as he pressured people to abandon their families and follow him. The people were not well armed. Luke had Yeshua say to his disciples,
“If you have no sword, sell your cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36, NJB). He was getting his fellow Jews geared up for the great fight. He was playing the part of the messiah, and knew nothing about “blessed are the peacemakers” and “turn the other cheek.” When push came to shove, the galant young man from Galilee was getting ready to fight for God and his own glory!
Matthew rather feebly suggested Jesus was ambivalent about his role as the Jewish messiah. He had Jesus state that what belonged to Caesar should be returned to Caesar (Matt. 22:21); that Jews should pay taxes to Rome. I think this was written into the Gospel to derail readers from reaching the conspicuous conclusion that he was a zealot. It makes no sense to imagine that a man who turned over tables in the temple would pay tax to Caesar.