Many families will gather together on Sunday to celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is nothing short of miraculous that anything that happened 2000 years ago is even remembered, let alone celebrated. But what is often overlooked in this event—the most important one in world history—is the political nature of the death and resurrection of Christ. Jesus was a “political outcast” of the first degree. His execution was, of course, a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy, reaching all the way back to the Garden of Eden, but it was also a judgment of the entrenched political atmosphere that existed in first century Jerusalem.
Now before you accuse me of teaching a “social gospel,” please understand that the Gospel (the good news of Jesus’ kingship and kingdom) does have political consequences. Herod understood this, and so did Pontius Pilate. Herod, as the “king” of the Jews, knew that Jesus’ proclamation of the “kingdom of God” was a direct assault against his own imagined authority; likewise Pilate recognized that letting Jesus live, against the wishes of the chief priests and who were stirring up the people, could very well incite an insurrection. In Jesus, Herod saw a threat to his rule, while Pilate saw a liability; neither was able to give Jesus a truly fair trial.
In many Easter sermons, the impression is often given that the crowds were aligned against Jesus and crying for His death. While this is technically true, it doesn’t tell the full story. Matthew 27: 20 says that “the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death.” The political and religious leaders were stirring up the people against Jesus, so much so that they were willing to trade a real murder and insurrectionist for a perceived one (see Mark 15:7) and condemn themselves and their posterity: “And all the people said, ‘His blood shall be on us and on our children,’” a self-condemnation which God honored less than 40 years later in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The Gospel of John is crystal clear about what the Jewish leaders and priests thought of Jesus and His promised kingdom: “Pilate said to them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but Caesar’” (John 19:15, see also Acts 9:14 to see that this attitude persisted well after Jesus’ Resurrection). They rejected God’s own Messiah for a pretend political messiah in Rome.
Our own modern celebrations of Easter are a reinforcement of the fact that Jesus changed everything. It is a rather bold statement to have ham on the plate when celebrating the life, death, and resurrection of the Jewish Messiah. The pig was (and still is by modern Jews) considered to be an unclean animal because it does not chew its cud (Leviticus 11:7–8; Deuteronomy 14:8). Eating pork to celebrate the risen King of the Jews is a proclamation that God has made all things clean in the death and resurrection of His Son. As Peter finally came to understand, Jesus did indeed make all things new (Acts 10:9–16; see also Revelation 21:1–5).
Communion is another aspect of Jesus flaunting Jewish tradition and giving it an entirely new meaning. During the Last Supper in the upper room, Jesus and the disciples were settled in for the traditional Passover meal of lamb with unleavened bread and bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8). Sometime after they began eating, Jesus passed around bread and wine; He called the bread “His body” and the wine “His blood.” Prior to this Last Supper, at an earlier Passover—in what is known as the Bread of Life discourse—Jesus had told the Jewish leaders in the synagogue in Capernaum that if they didn’t eat His flesh or drink His blood they could have no part in Him.
Then the Jews began to argue with one another, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down out of heaven; not as the fathers ate and died; he who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:52–58)
This command by Jesus is in direct conflict with Leviticus 17, where eating or drinking blood is expressly forbidden. In other words, Old Testament law says, “Do not eat the blood,” and Jesus, in the New Covenant in His blood, says, “You must eat the blood.” As the atoning sacrifice Himself, Jesus is drawing a distinction between Himself as the Lamb of God and a regular Passover lamb. The lamb pointed to the Lamb, and now that the Lamb is here, not drinking his blood is a denial of His being the once-for-all Atonement (see Hebrews 9:28). It was a subversion of sorts, which is to say that the chief priests and Jewish leaders were correct to understand it as such, but they were wrong to think that this subversion was not of God. It was, in reality, the final divine statement regarding Israel’s rejection of God as their King for a human tyrant (see 1 Samuel 8:7).
So when you eat your ham and drink your wine, remember that Jesus did change everything: politically, socially, religiously, and culturally, and this change came about because of what He did covenantally; He obeyed God rather than men, and so did his first century disciples. And as a result, they were accused of “turning the world upside down” because they “acted contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:6–7). May we all be accused of being such political outcasts in the days, weeks, and years to come. Happy Easter to all! He is risen indeed!