By Dr. Kenneth L. Gentry Jr
As John writes, Israel has been a part of the Roman regime for almost a century. As such she enjoyed special leagues of “friendship and mutual alliance” which began with Julius Caesar (Jos. Ant. 14:10:1 §185; cf. Leon 8-11). Her love for Caesar was so great that after he was murdered, Jews wept for many nights at the site of his cremation (Suetonius, Jul. 84:5). Josephus, a priestly member of the Jewish aristocracy, praises Julius and records many of the treaties with the Jews which were established by Caesar and later Roman authorities (Ant. 14:10:2-25 §190-267). He then declares: “there are many such decrees of the senate and imperators of the Romans and those different from these before us” (Ant. 14:10:26). Israel engages these alignments despite her OT prophets condemning unholy alliances as harlotry (e.g., Hos 7:11; cf. Rev 5 Excursus). As noted in Rev 13:11ff, the exercise of the Land beast’s authority is “in his [the Roman emperor's] presence” (13:11a). Later in Rev 17 we will see Israel’s alliance symbolized by a harlot engaged in a drunken sexual orgy with the sea beast.
The NT repeatedly charges the religious rulers of Israel with rejecting Jesus the Messiah (Mk 8:31; Lk 19:47; 22:52, 54, 66; 23:10; 24:20; Ac 4:8-11; 13:27). As he hangs in agony on the cross “even the rulers were sneering at Him” (Lk 23:35). They do this despite their own Scriptures pointing to him (Mt 13:15-17; Lk 24:25-27; Jn 5:39-40-47). Christ marvels that even the rulers of Israel cannot understand spiritual things (Jn 3:1, 10) and are blind (Jn 9:39-41). They even charge him before Roman authorities with forbidding paying taxes to Caesar (Lk 23:2), threatening mayhem against the temple (Mk 14:58), and promoting insurrection against Rome (Mk 15:2-4).
Christ often warns his disciples about the religious rulers’ nefarious designs against him. “From that time Jesus Christ began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Mt 16:21//). “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn Him to death” (Mt 20:18//). He forsees the Jerusalem leadership turning him over to the Roman authorities: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished. For He will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon” (Lk 18:31-32). Though these are actual prophetic statements which Christ utters during his ministry, they are recorded in each gospel at a later date as an apologetic for Jesus and Christianity over against the Jewish leadership. As such they would doubtlessly be preached and taught in the church as the struggle with Judaism came to a head. “Full weight must be given to the witness of Mark 6:34 (Matt. 9:36) that in the eyes of early Christians the Jewish people were sheep without a shepherd until Jesus appeared to provide genuine spiritual leadership” (Hare 14).
In John’s Gospel we discover the point in time at which Israel legally becomes apostate: when she chooses Caesar over Christ during his criminal trial. The Jewish religious authorities (“chief priests and the officers,” Jn 19:6; cp. 18:13, 19, 22, 24) go to great lengths to employ Rome’s authority so that they might kill him: they “kept trying to obtain false testimony against Jesus” even bringing “many false witnesses” (Mt 27:59-60). In fact, they were “accusing Him vehemently” (Lk 23:1-10, 13-20). The Roman procurator Pilate sees that he is clearly innocent so that he “made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out, saying, ‘If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar’” (Jn 19:12; cp. Ac 17:7). This “friend [philos] of Caesar” statement reminds us of the Jewish leagues of “friendship” (philian) with Caesar (Ant. 14:10:1 §185). Philo mentions that the Jews are “friends to Caesar” (Embassy 36 §280). So then, “the ‘city of the great King,’ had denounced her rightful King” (Walker 35). And that denunciation seals her doom (see Jesus’ warnings about his approaching betrayal and death, Mt 21:33-45; 22:2-14).
The chief priests vigorously denounce him before the Roman legal authority: “We have no king but Caesar” (Jn 19:15). F. F. Bruce observes: “No doubt they were honest in saying that Caesar was the only basileus they knew; their status and privileges depended on their collaboration with the imperial power.” They even complain to the procurator that Jesus was “misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar” (Lk 23:2). This was not the first time they had rejected God as their king (1Sa 8:5-8, 19-20; 12:12).
As Milligan (Revelation 1903, 231) elegantly explains the situation in Jn 19:12-15: “They Caesar’s friends! They attach value to honours bestowed by Caesar! O vile hypocrisy! O dark extremity of hate! Judaism at the feet of Caesar!” Edersheim states that “with this cry Judaism was, in the person of its representative, guilty of denial of God, of blasphemy, of apostasy. It committed suicide.” Another commentator cited by A. W. Pink ties this in with Rev 13: “They are entirely infidel, throwing off all allegiance to any but Caesar, and cry that they have no other king. It is purely of the Jews, the whole transaction . . . . This is man’s religion, and it will, in the end, enthrone ‘the Willful One’ and bow to his image (Rev. 13).”
In her assertion of Roman judicial authority Israel stumbles in her transgression (Ro 11:11-12) leading to her rejection (11:15). It is in the presence of Pilate that she cries out for her own judgment: “And all the people answered and said, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” (Mt 27:25; cp. Ac 5:28). Operatives of the first beast drove the nails in his hands at the second beast’s insistence (Ac 2:23; 3:13-14); and the dragon is behind it all (Jn 13:2, 27; cp. Col 2:15; Rev 12:4b). We should recall once again that Israel’s putting Christ to death is the central theme of John’s drama (1:7) so that the slaughtered Lamb becomes its leading figure (5:6-13; 13:8). With her glorious heritage and privileges (Ro 3:1-2; 9:1-5) she should have known better than the Gentiles (Lk 23:34; Ac 17:30; Ep 4:17-18).
Comment: I will be providing a brief series on the Jewish Temple as an idol in Revelation. Stay tuned.