While Israel was in exile between the Old and New Testament, they became overly zealous about living by the laws God had set in place through Moses. They hadn’t always been good at this in the past. In fact, when King Josiah was reigning, Israel didn’t even know there was a law. The high priest was just sorting through some stuff one day when he stumbled across the Book of the Law. It was then given to the king to read who tore his clothes in agony when he saw all the standards they hadn’t been living up to (2 Ch 34:14-21). In our context, this would be similar to a pastor cleaning out a church and accidentally stumbling across a Bible and having no idea what it was.
But though Israel had ignored their Scriptures in the past, all of their focus was on the Scriptures while in exile. Since they had been exiled for their sin, they hoped to earn their restoration through their righteousness. They studied this book like crazy and debated over how to best practice it. They searched their Scriptures for deeper meanings and created different doctrines out of what it had to say. They became intent on earning their salvation, hoping to usher in God’s Kingdom through their actions.
The Pharisees were one such group working on trying to create and maintain this righteous community, holding people up to the laws in unrealistic ways as though the perfect performance of the law could act as a magical incantation for their rescue from exile. But rather than fix their situation, this only broke Israel more. They had ripped the heart of God out of the Scriptures and were left preaching God’s word without God’s character and love. They themselves achieved the standards of the law but not the heart of it. And even when they upheld the law, they did so only for applause. And on top of all this, these religious officials had also made a rather lucrative business off of their work and gained power through it, which, as usual, corrupted the heart behind everything they were doing. And Jesus called them out harshly for it when He entered the scene.
And that’s easily part of the reason they killed Jesus. Who was this outside Israelite that made these bold statements that they, the righteous leaders of Israel, didn’t agree with? Where did He get His miraculous powers from? Who was He to accuse them of being a bunch of phonies? Jesus was not only a threat to their security, but to their collective community efforts to usher in the Kingdom of God; for Jesus was leading people away from following them. In their minds, He was a threat to be dealt with for the good of all of Israel.
God showed up and they killed Him. They may have found the Book of the Law, but they did not know the God who gave it to them. And they were blinded by their anger so much that they didn’t even notice that they had hung Him on a cross.
But even those who did follow Jesus had a hard time understanding what He did next. For as it ends up, He wasn’t only interested in saving God’s select nation, Israel. Rather, after saving Israel, He then instructed them to lie down their racism, boundaries and dividing lines and go into the rest of the world to invite people of every nation to join Israel.