Why was the religious establishment usually at odds with Jesus? (Part 4)


In the fourth part of this series, we will focus on “the Elders” and show their hostility toward Jesus Christ.

There are many references in the Bible to elders both in the Old Testament and the New Testament. In the Old Testament references, the word elder is translated as “old, aged, aged as to days, bearded and grey headed.” The inference seems to be that with age and maturity there is wisdom to be had.

We read in Genesis 50:7: “So Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his house, and all the elders (old, aged, bearded) of the land of Egypt.”

We read in Numbers 11:16-17: “So the Lord said to Moses: ‘Gather to Me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them; bring them to the tabernacle of meeting, that they may stand there with you.  Then I will come down and talk with you there. I will take of the Spirit that is upon you and will put the same upon them; and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you may not bear it yourself alone.’”

Here we read that the elders would receive from God some of the same Spirit that was given to Moses in order to help them in the duties that they were chosen to perform. (The word “elder” is again translated as “old, aged and bearded.”)

desiringgod.org points out:

“In general, then, we can say that, while through the long history of Israel the role of the elder no doubt changed, they were the older men of the community who, because of their wisdom in counsel and the natural honor due to them (Leviticus 19:32), became the official administrators or leaders of the community.

“In the Judaism of Jesus’ day the elders of Israel were still dominant. The most frequent use of the word ‘elder’ in the New Testament refers to the Jewish elders who opposed Jesus during his lifetime. Within the gospels and Acts ‘elders’ are most often viewed as forming a closely knit group with the ‘chief priests.’ Again and again we read of ‘the chief priests and elders of the people’ (Matthew 21:23; 26:3,47; 27:1 etc.). The term elder was probably very broad and would include members of the scribes as well as the Pharisees and Sadducees (cf. ‘traditions of the elders’ (Matthew 15:2; Acts 22:6)).”

biblestudy.org writes the following:

“In the New Testament, elders (of the people, of Israel, etc.) were older men who represented the people and who exercised a certain amount of authority over them. Existing at least as far back as the time of Moses, they were the governing foundation of different groups in the Bible. Elders were the first ones told, by Moses, about God’s plan to free the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage (Exodus 3:16). The Old Testament elders asked the prophet Samuel to place a human king (instead of God) over all the people (1 Samuel 8:5).

“Old Testament elders could represent a city or town (Deuteronomy 19:12, 1 Samuel 16:4), the people of a particular tribe (Numbers 22:7, Deuteronomy 31:28, 2 Samuel 19:11), a family (2 Samuel 12:17) or a country (Joshua 9:11). They were eligible to sit on the Sanhedrin, or properly the Great Sanhedrin, which met in Jerusalem and was the supreme council of the Jews.”

“The word translated as elder in the New Testament is the Greek word presbuteros (Strong’s Concordance #G4245), which generally is used to refer to older men respected by others as leaders and role models. The elders of the people were some of the most vehement adversaries against Jesus and his teachings. It was known, in advance, that the elders would play a big part in causing the suffering and death of Jesus (Matthew 16:21, Mark 8:31, Luke 9:22). They, along with the chief priests and scribes, challenged Jesus’ authority just days before the crucifixion (Matthew 21:23, Luke 20:1-2).”

In Matthew 15:1-11 and Mark 7:1-13, Christ is challenged with the question as to why His disciples were “transgressing” the “tradition of the elders,” referring to eating clean meat with ritually “unwashed” hands. Christ responded by asking them why they were transgressing God’s commandment and making it “of no effect,” so that they could uphold their own traditions. He specifically referred to the tradition of “Korban” which allowed them to dishonour their parents.

Bible.org states the following:

“Jesus and his disciples had violated the ‘traditions of the elders’…  as if those traditions were now authoritative and could be sinned against… the traditions of men had been elevated to the status of Scripture, so that one could be guilty of violating them…

“They could pronounce a vow on their things with the word, ‘Korban,’ meaning it is a gift… If because of greed, for example, a man did not want to help support his aging parents, he would announce ‘Korban.’ That would mean the money was frozen, and could not be used for taking care of the parents. Thus, they could use their traditions to get out of taking care of their father and mother (which the Law required). Then, they might find a way of nullifying the vow so they ended up keeping the money…”

Let us review additional Scriptures that clearly show that the involvement of the elders (and others) was complicit in accusations of and evil intentions towards Jesus, leading to His torture and murder.

Matthew 26:3-4 reads: “Then the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the people assembled at the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and plotted to take Jesus by trickery and kill Him.”

This was just before the Passover where they were assembled together at the High Priest’s palace and where they tried to devise ways in order to kill Jesus. You do have to wonder what their “religion” really meant to them when they proposed to trick Jesus Christ and looked to having Him killed. This is even more remarkable as they would be keeping the Passover which should have reminded them as to how God saved the Israelites from death in Egypt. Those were hardly the actions of good and righteous men, even if they did disagree with His teaching. Rather, it showed their incredible hypocrisy and their spirit of murder.

Judas Iscariot “with a great multitude with swords and clubs, came from the chief priests and the elders of the people” (Matthew 26:47). However, it went even further than that as we read in Matthew 27:3-4: “Then Judas, His betrayer, seeing that He had been condemned, was remorseful and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ And they said, ‘What is that to us? You see to it!’”

After they had agreed with Judas to betray Jesus, they tried to deny any responsibility.

In Matthew 27, we read about the release of Barabbas when Pilate offered to free a prisoner. “But the chief priests and elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus” (Matthew 27:20).

In addition, we read in Matthew 27:41: “Likewise the chief priests also, mocking with the scribes and elders, said, ‘He saved others; Himself He cannot save.  If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him.’”

Here we have the scenario of someone dying in agony on the cross, and they, having been part of the conspiracy to murder Him, mock, incite and ridicule Him. Their religious approach was so open to ridicule by those who would expect better from their religious leaders!

Within a short space of time, they were further compounding their previous errors with bribery. Matthew 28:11-15 states: “Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, ‘Tell them, “His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.”  And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.’ So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.”

In a very short space of time, the elders, along with the scribes and Pharisees were involved in trickery, releasing a criminal, paying 30 pieces of silver for information, mocked a dying man who was in agony on the cross and then paid money to bribe soldiers to lie about Christ’s disciples and to deny Christ’s resurrection. That is a shocking list of actions from supposedly “religious” men.

Their opposition to early Christianity didn’t stop there, and they continued their opposition by taking every opportunity that they could to destroy the early Christian movement. In Acts 4:5-7, we read: “And it came to pass, on the next day, that their rulers, elders, and scribes,  as well as Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the family of the high priest, were gathered together at Jerusalem.  And when they had set them [the early apostles] in the midst, they asked, ‘By what power or by what name have you done this [that is, healing a sick man]?’”

The apostle Peter then addressed the “Rulers of the people and elders of Israel” (verses 8-12). Subsequently, the apostles were forbidden to speak in the name of Jesus (v 18.) “But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard’” (verses 19-20).

We read in Acts 6 that Stephen was accused of blasphemy, and we see the religious hierarchy, including the elders, inciting those prepared to lie and accuse: Then they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council.  They also set up false witnesses who said, ‘This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law’” (Acts 6:11-13).

In the following chapter, after his address, we see that Stephen was stoned to death.  The religious leaders may have felt vindicated with the result, even though they clearly understood that even by human standards, they committed murder, but it is something that they will have to answer for in the judgment.

Perhaps just one more example will again show how much the elders were involved in the persecution of the early Christians. In Acts 23, we read of a plot against the apostle Paul, who himself had persecuted the early church but had repented of that course of action after his conversion on the road to Damascus.

Some Jews “banded together and bound themselves under an oath, saying that they would neither eat nor drink till they had killed Paul” (verse 12). In verse 14, “They came to the chief priests and elders, and said, ‘We have bound ourselves under a great oath that we will eat nothing until we have killed Paul.’” The elders and the chief priests were the ones they approached. The elders continued to be among those who persecuted the people of God after the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The discussion of the hypocritical “religious elders” at the time of Jesus must not be confused with the office of an ordained elder in the Church of God.

We state the following in our Q&A, “What is the meaning of the Biblical term, ‘elder’?”:

“Addressing now the word ‘elder’ within the confines of the Church of God, Peter called himself a ‘fellow elder.’ But he was also an apostle. In addition, John, who was also one of the original apostles, called himself ‘the elder’ (2 John 1; 3 John 1). However, we also read about a clear distinction, at times, between apostles and elders (Acts 15:4, 6, 22, 23; 16:4)…

“On the other hand, the word ‘bishop’ simply means ‘overseer.’ The Greek word is ‘episkopos’ and is applied to ‘elders’… (compare again Acts 20:17 with Acts 20:28, and Titus 1:5 with Titus 1:7, describing ‘elders’ as ‘bishops’ or ‘overseers’–in Greek, ‘episkopos.’). 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7 describe the qualification of a ‘bishop’ or an ‘overseer’–that is, an elder. In its ultimate sense, the word ‘bishop’ is also applied to Jesus Christ (as is the word ‘Apostle’; compare Hebrews 3:1), as we read about Christ’s FUNCTION as a ‘Bishop’ in 1 Peter 2:25: ‘For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and OVERSEER [Greek, ‘episkopos,’ i.e. Bishop] of your souls.’…

“Paul and Peter… fulfilled several functions, roles and responsibilities, including the function of ‘prophet,’ ‘preacher,’ ‘teacher’ and ‘elder’…”

In our Q&A on Ephesians 4:11-12, we state:

“… the Bible speaks of the rank and office of Elder in numerous places.

“James 5:14 states: ‘Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.’

“Acts 14:23 writes: ‘So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.’

“Compare also 1 Timothy 5:17 and 1 Peter 5:5; and note 1 Timothy 4:14, referring to ‘the laying on of hands of the eldership.’”

Regarding the office and function of an elder in the church, we need to explain that the original definition of being “old, aged, aged as to days, bearded and grey headed” does not necessarily apply. Rather, the emphasis is on spiritual maturity, not being a novice in the faith (1 Timothy 3:6). For instance, Christ who was called an elder, was only 30 years old when He began to preach publicly. Paul warns that members should not despise the evangelist Timothy because of his youth (1 Timothy 4:12). It does not appear that any of the early apostles were “grey headed or aged.”  When He was dying, Christ asked that His mother Mary would be treated by John as his mother.

Returning to the religious “elders” at the time of Christ who opposed Christ so that they could uphold their own traditions, this should be a warning to all of us in God’s true Church today, and especially elders in the ministry, not to replace God’s Law with our own concepts and ideas which are based on man’s philosophies and customs. One area where this could happen might be the commandment of God to keep the Sabbath. Our free booklets, “God’s Commanded Holy Days,” and “How to Keep the Sabbath,” explain in detail how to observe God’s weekly and annual Sabbath Days, while avoiding falling into the trap of human traditions and ideas.

Lead Writers: Brian Gale (United Kingdom) and Norbert Link

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