1. Our Enemies
Who here has enemies? Who here has ever had enemies?
You know it seems in life, that at some time or another we have all had enemies. We may have had enemies at school, at work, in our families, or at any number of other situations. It may have been someone who didn’t like something we had said or done. Or it could have been someone who just didn’t like us or what we stood for.
Nevertheless the reality is that at some time we probably have all had enemies. But have we always known what they look like? And have we always come face-to-face with them?
2. Jesus’s Enemies
Now someone who had plenty of enemies was Jesus. And if we follow his story, some of them are very obvious. But the one thing he doesn’t do is hide away from them. On the contrary, he faced up to them on a number of occasions. And no more so than in his last few days of his life on earth.
Because as we approach this week before Easter, and as we recall Jesus’s return to the city of Jerusalem, one last time, we are faced with the part of the story of Jesus, as he faces up to his enemies in a very intense way.
3. Holy Week
Let’s review the week at hand . . . And to do so we need to merge the four Gospels together, to get a complete list of the events in Jesus’s last days of life. And this is what we find . . .
B. THE EVENTS OF HOLY WEEK
1. Friday or Saturday
Starting on the Friday or Saturday, six days before the Passover, we find Jesus and his disciples arriving at Bethany—at the house of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Now Jesus had been on the road for a while, headed to Jerusalem, knowing full well what was ahead. But here they are, Jesus and the disciples, only 3 kilometres from the city, setting up a home base—so they could go into Jerusalem during the day, and return to Bethany at night.
All innocent enough, except we’re told that the chief priest and Pharisees were expecting Jesus, and even then were looking for an opportunity to arrest him.
Come Sunday, then, we see Jesus at Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, on his way to Jerusalem, preparing a grand entrance into the city. A huge crowd turns up and cheers Jesus on—which is good. But we’re told the Pharisees are there too—but just a little too afraid of the crowd to arrest him. We then see Jesus riding into the city on a donkey.
The next day, Monday, Jesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem, and on the way Jesus inexplicably curses a fig tree. He then goes into the Temple, where for a second time Jesus challenges those profiteering from people wanting to make sacrifices to God. So he overturns the tables—further exasperating the chief priests and the teachers of the law, let alone the owners of the tables.
Some Greeks come to Philip requesting to see Jesus. Then Jesus talks to the crowd about what it means to be the Messiah. He gets a mixed response, even from those who had witnessed his past miracles—suggesting that some of the crowd were already beginning to move away. And some of the leaders believe, but are too frightened of the Pharisees to express their faith.
Come Tuesday, and Jesus and his disciples return to Jerusalem. On the way they see the fig tree—now withered from the roots. And it is now that the disciples find out why Jesus cursed it. It is a teaching tool—to teach his disciples about the need to remain fruitful, to be constantly active in the faith. A commentary, if you like, against the religious leaders. They then continue on to the Temple.
But this time the chief priests and the teachers of the law challenge Jesus face-to-face. They try to trick him, so that he would lose popular support. In response Jesus challenges them about their own beliefs and behaviour. And he prophesies that their authority will be taken from them. Which, of course, then leads to more challenges and trick questions from the Pharisees, the Herodian’s and the Sadducees—each trying to undermine Jesus’s authority in the eyes of the crowd.
And this intensity of attack and response probably then continues in and around the Temple on the Wednesday too. But whether it does or not, each time the authorities ask him questions, Jesus comes up with some challenges of his own—mostly about their authority which Jesus claims is self-imposed. And he challenges them about how they have become stumbling blocks to normal everyday people, having a relationship with God.
Later we find Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. Then in a rare moment of quiet he watches as a poor widow puts two small copper coins into the Temple treasury.
Then on the way back to Bethany, they stop at the Mount of Olives. And there at the Mount Jesus has some time alone with his disciples. He talks about his death, his second coming, and the destruction of Jerusalem.
Whilst they are there, we learn that the chief priests and elders are now in earnest to get rid of Jesus. But they have to get their timing right. They need to totally discredit Jesus in the eyes of the people, and they have to avoid his arrest and death clashing with the celebration of Passover.
Jesus and the disciples, then move off back to Bethany, where Mary anoints Jesus’s body for burial. And in apparent disgust at the waste of money, Judas Iscariot goes off to the chief priests to help them in their plot.
Thursday arrives, and Jesus gives instructions on where he wants to eat the Passover —at a certain man’s house in Jerusalem. Now there are no indications that on Thursday he went to Temple at all, and it is likely that Jesus may have remained in Bethany, using the time preparing for what lay ahead.
However come the evening Jesus and the disciples recline around the table; he washes the disciples’ feet: they start the meal; Judas leaves the room to prepare for his part of the betrayal; Jesus predicts Peter’s denial; and they conclude the meal—which includes the institution of the Last Supper. Jesus then spends a long time teaching the disciples, and praying, before going to the garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives.
There Jesus prays some more, the disciples go to asleep, and Judas returns with a crowd—which includes people armed with swords and clubs, a detachment of soldiers, and officials from the chief priests and Pharisees.
C. THE ENEMIES OF JESUS
Now the rest of the story I hope is familiar to you all. I certainly don’t intend to talk about it today. Because we all should know that Jesus returned to Jerusalem so that he could be arrested and crucified, so that he could save the world of their sins.
But what we can so easily gloss over, in his final days on earth, was his need to come face-to-face with his enemies—and his need to confront the enemies of God. And in such an intense way too.
So who were Jesus’s enemies, and why did they show such an intense hatred of him?
Well firstly there were the chief priests, the teachers of the law—the Pharisees, and the Sadducees. And their claim to fame was that they were supposed to be steeped in the teaching of the Old Testament, and could be trusted to portray God’s word. Unfortunately they were far more interested in the positions they held in society, and they enjoyed all the extra bits and man-made traditions they had added to God’s word. As a consequence they were advocates of the status quo. And they didn’t care that they were stumbling blocks to others having faith in God.
Jesus’s lifestyle and teaching challenged their position. Jesus showed them up to be the phoneys that they were. He threatened their position in society—and so he had to go.
Secondly, there were the Herodians—a Jewish party who favoured the Herodian dynasty to the Roman occupation. They were probably very disappointed in a Messiah that had not come to dispose of the Roman invaders. And at the time they sided with the Pharisees.
Thirdly, there’s Judas Iscariot, one of the 12 disciples, who for some reason decided either that Jesus was not the kind of Messiah that he wanted him to be, or that Jesus needed to be forced to act in a different way.
Fourthly, there was the crowd, some of whom who had been very vocal in supporting Jesus on the Sunday, as he rode into the city on a donkey. But who even on the Tuesday at the Temple, had started to melt away.
And if we were to include the events on the Thursday night, when Jesus was arrested, we would probably include the rest of the disciples as well, who by that stage had abandoned Jesus too. Indeed the words of Jesus “Whoever is not with me, is against me” (Matthew 12:30) may well have come back to haunt them.
Now there’s a common theme amongst Jesus’ enemies: The religious leaders were part of the religious establishment. And Judas Iscariot, the rest of the disciples, the crowd, and even the Herodians would have been looking for the Messiah, and been steeped in the knowledge of Jewish faith.
Jesus’s enemies were not people outside of the Jewish faith, but people who claimed to be within. The faces of Jesus’s enemy were not complete strangers to the beliefs of the Jewish people, but rather were people who more naturally attended the Temple and the synagogues, or at least had a nodding acquaintance with the faith.
His enemies were people who should have given him support; they should have been able to be relied upon. But in the end they didn’t. The religious leaders saw him as a threat to the things that they loved. And so he had to go.
Enemies! We all have them. But I’m not sure that any of us would want to face the number or intensity of the enemies that Jesus faced in his last week on earth.
But what does all this mean for us? Well it seems to me that there are two distinct lessons we can learn from Jesus’s story.
1. Identifying our Enemies
And the first is the need to identify who our real enemies are. Now in saying that, I think we need to take who our enemies really are seriously. Jesus’s enemies were not people he had made a table for, which had wobbly legs. No they were people who claimed to be on God’s side; they were people within the faith, but whose hearts were elsewhere. They were people who liked to be leaders, who behaved in such ways that they were stumbling blocks to others. And they were people who claimed to uphold God’s laws, but who were in love with the man-made rules with which they had replaced them.
And don’t we get in a tangle these days between faith, and the add-on’s that people love?
After all, does it really matter which candle is lit first? Does it matter if we have candles at all? Does it matter if the pews face a particular way, or even the style of the building in which we worship? Does it matter if the leaders wear robes? Does it even matter if we use a book for worship at all?
Now finding something that is helpful is fine, but when that “helpful” becomes a “must do”—that is when the gospel is changed, That is when we’ve lost the plot, and that is when we’ve become no different to the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’s time.
Jesus’s enemies today remain those who begin with the gospel and add to it. Now what is added may seem quite innocuous—at least at first. But there is a tendency for these little things to be added to, and added to, until you get to the point where the gospel is unrecognisable. The moment something changes from something that is “helpful” to something that is a “must do” the gospel has been changed. And those who insist that the new tradition be upheld—the new Pharisees—effectively become the face of the enemy.
So who are our enemies? They are the same enemies that Jesus faced in his final week on earth. They are people who claim to be believers, but have added to the faith. They are the leaders, who by their behaviour place obstacles in the way of others. And they are people who claim to have faith, but then wander away.
2. Equipping ourselves to Face the Enemy
The second thing we can learn from the story, then, is the need to equip ourselves for a time when we may need to face or confront our enemies too. And how we can do this, is to look at the example of Jesus.
Because throughout Jesus’s life he did many things. He prayed; he participated in the life of the Temple and the various synagogues he visited on his journeys; he familiarised himself with the bible; he surrounded himself with supporters; and he practiced sharing his faith with those he met on his journeys.
Prayer, teaching, mixing with others, supporting and getting support from one another. Does that sound familiar? Well it should do, because that’s the whole point of God’s church.
And the trap is, if we fail to do those things, if we fail to prepare ourselves against our enemies, then we will be the ones responsible for letting God’s enemies in, because we won’t really know who they are. And we will be the ones standing idly by—letting things drift—when we should be standing up and being counted.
So do you have enemies? Have you ever had enemies? Well my hope is that if you said no to those questions at the start, that maybe by now you will have changed your mind. Because if Jesus had enemies, and had to face his enemies in his last week of life, then if we are followers of Jesus, then we will have enemies too. Indeed the same kind of enemies.
So, two questions:
Question one—do we know who our enemies really are? Do we recognise the same problems in the church today, as what Jesus faced in his last week on earth?
And question two—are we preparing ourselves for a confrontation? Because, like Jesus, one of the things we need to do is to be prepared to fight and confront our enemies too.
Posted: 19h March 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis