Why Was Jesus Arrested?

We just completed our celebration of Palm Sunday yesterday.  In our minds, this begins the countdown to Jesus’ crucifixion and eventual resurrection. It’s often overlooked that Jesus’ trouble with the Jewish authorities was already well established before entering Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey that first Palm Sunday.  So, what was the thing that pushed the authorities over the edge?  Why was Jesus arrested? 

The Early Plots

The Jewish leadership had been plotting to get rid of Jesus for years prior.  There are seven recorded plots against him in the New Testament.  Three recorded assassination attempts are listed as well, along with two efforts to arrest him.  So Holy week was not the first time that Jesus’ life was in danger. But Jesus had also been operating in the region for 3 years.  Why wasn’t he arrested earlier? 

Most of Jesus’ ministry was carried out in the areas of Nazareth and Galilee.  These two areas are greatly removed from the capital of Jerusalem (about 65-70 miles away).  As long as Jesus was performing miracles in little back water towns, people wouldn’t have taken much notice of him. He would have been less of a threat to the Jewish leadership.  They wanted him stopped to be sure, but the danger was not at their doorstep just yet.  And then, Jesus performed a miracle.  And this one miracle would be the event that invited the warrant for his arrest and execution. 

The Last Straw

So, what was the miracle that finally pushed the Sanhedrin over the edge?  It was the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  This miracle had occurred close to Jerusalem, in the town of Bethany. Bethany is roughly 1.5 miles away from the capital.  In other words, Jesus had just done a miracle right in the back yard of the Sanhedrin. 

This miracle caused quite a stir in Jerusalem.  The plot to kill Jesus was on.  All four Gospels relay the conversations that were had by the Sanhedrin (Mt 26:1–5; Mk 14:1–2; Lk 22:1–2, Jn 11:45).  Here is the conversation as recounted in the Gospel of John Chapter 11:45-57:

John Chapter 11:45-53

 45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. 46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done. 47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” 

Why Was Jesus Arrested?

49 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” 51 He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, 52 and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. 53 So from that day on they planned to put him to death. 

John Chapter 11:54-57

54 Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness; and he remained there with the disciples. 

55 Now the Passover of the Jews was near, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. 56 They were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?” 57 Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him. [1]

Does The Arrest Warrant For Jesus Exist?

Interestingly enough, there is a record in the Jewish Talmud that lists the wording of the arrest warrant.  It reads as follows:

Wanted: Yeshu Hannozri

(Hebrew for “Jesus of Nazareth)

He shall be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel into apostacy.  Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.[2]

Do you see why Jesus was wanted? “He has practiced sorcery”.  In this, we have a hostile source stating that Jesus is in fact performing miracles. But wait, why are they calling it “sorcery”?  Easy. As the historian Paul L. Maier points out, “By definition, sorcery is something extraordinary or supernatural accomplished with help “from below”.  A miracle is the same, though achieved with help “from above”.”

One quick note on the method of death mentioned in the above notice.  It reads “he shall be stoned” rather than crucified.  This actually makes a lot of sense.  Jesus hadn’t been arrested yet.  If he had, and the Roman authorities were not present, he surely would have been stoned just as Steven was in Acts 7:54-60. 

Palm Sunday Wasn’t The Beginning Of The End

So why was Jesus arrested?  It wasn’t due to anything that happened on Holy Week. While the cleansing of the temple recorded in Mt 21:12–17; Lk 19:45–48; Jn 2:13–22)[3]would surely have enraged the Sanhedrin, the plot was already in place prior to these events.  Jesus had set in motion the chain of events that would lead to his arrest and crucifixion well before he ever arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. 

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[1]The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 11:45–57). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[2]This translation is from the tradition on “Yeshu Hannozri” in Sanhedrin 43a of the Babylonian Talmud, Nezikin v, 281.  

[3]The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Mk 11:15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.