To say that no one understood Jesus because no one understood God's plan for the salvation of the world is not to say that Jesus kept either God's plan to ransom the world from the bondage of sin by the sacrifice of his Son or His role in the divine redemption a secret. He made both His divine nature and His role as sacrificial victim known. No sooner had Peter confessed Jesus to be the Christ than Jesus began to teach his disciples—all faithful Jews—that their expectations of the Christ were erroneous; Christ would not be a great warrior king like David. Far from it. He would be a victim. "From that time Jesus 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 on the third day be raised." (Mt.16.21). He emphasized to them, even as He revealed His divinity to them on the Mount of Transfiguration, that He was going to die. And coming down from the mountain Jesus commanded them, 'Tell no one the vision until the Son of man is raised from the dead" (Mt.17.9). But that did not mean His disciples understood what He meant. Events would reveal that Jesus's disciples did not fully comprehend His words; indeed, they would not understand them until after His Resurrection, when His message and the meaning of the Holy Week events were revealed to them in His glory (Jn.20.9).
Anyone who has ever been a teacher knows that just because the teacher says something in class once, twice, or a dozen times doesn't mean even one student is going to get it. Students don't get much of anything unless they listen. But it takes more than a pair of healthy ears to hear what someone is saying to you. Listening is a skill. The art of listening requires the listener actively to engage another in conversation. Neither Jesus's disciples nor His opponents grasped what He was saying about the ultimate goal and purpose of His divine commission because, although they heard His words, they weren't really receptive to His meaning ( John 12.37–43). They were proving the point that often in life people only hear what they want to hear. They did not want to hear it said of them that they could not recognize the Messiah. And yet, a few days before his death, Jesus confronted a group of Pharisees with an accusation: they did not see Him for who He was. He made this point by asking them a question about Psalm 110.1: "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." He continued, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet"? If David calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" (Mt.22.41-45) The answer, of course, is one the opponents of Jesus did not wish to acknowledge: that the Messiah would be both a man—the son of David—and the Son of God: fully man and fully God. David foresaw this, but the Jewish exegetes did not. They thought that they knew the scriptures well and took pride in their "wisdom," but Jesus exposed their ignorance (Jn.5.39–40). He even called them "blind guides" (Mt.15.14).
There is a danger in calling people "blind guides," especially if the metaphor is on point. On the one hand, human beings seek the truth to embrace. But on the other hand, the cold hard truth often hurts. It can hurt so much that in some situations, as every whistleblower knows, it can be very dangerous thing to make public. And after weighing the costs, some decide it would be better to keep the truth to oneself. It's ironic to think that Jesus was killed for telling the truth. But that is essentially what happened to Him. He was a whistleblower, revealing the "dark secret that could not be uttered": that the rabbis of Israel wouldn't recognize the messiah, even if he stood in their midst. Nor did they understand God's plan for salvation. They were "experts" whom Jesus revealed to be frauds. People, especially intellectual elites, bristle when that sort of allegation is leveled at them, and angry men can be powerful enemies bent on revenge (Jn.8.54-59).
Among the most outraged rabbis was the high priest Caiaphas. He was perhaps the angriest of all because he had the most to lose. In a hierarchical society like ancient Israel, the High Priest was the top dog. He enjoyed the most privileges and the most prestige. He was, therefore, the one whose position in society was most threatened by the man from Nazareth. For if Jesus proved to be the true King of Israel, and if Israel welcomed him to the throne, Caiaphas would have to step aside. The fear of lost privileges has a tendency to stir up the sins of pride and of jealousy. And when that happens, truth can get swept aside just as easily as a tornado can rip open the most well-built home with a direct hit. And in that context, Caiaphas's outrage is understandable if damnable. He rationalized his hatred of Jesus by saying that this one man's death would serve the good of the nation (Jn.11.50). But rationalizing also is another common human failing, a way that we unconsciously avoid confronting the truth.
The story of Jesus during what Christians now call Holy Week is the story of people going to great lengths to suppress and even bury the truth—in this case, Truth incarnate in a man. Jesus and the Truth were one (Jn.14.6). The chief priests' rejection of Him made the tragedy more than just another crime, like David's murder of Bathsheba's husband, Uriah. In this case, it ironically made tragedy part of God's plan. God allowed the teachers of Israel to reject the Truth in order to show history the deadly power of sin, a power the blinds our minds to truth and twists our hearts to hate (Jn.18.37-38).
He confronted those whom he knew were conspiring to kill Him by pointing them to the very scriptures that spoke of their rejection of Him." Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the scriptures: 'The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing and it is amazing in our eyes?'" (Mt.21.42) He was quoting to them from Psalm 118.22–23 and telling them that although they would reject Him, God would use Him to serve as the cornerstone of a new Temple, the Church, a new universal community comprised largely of Gentiles, which would replace the nation of Israel as the bearer of God's word to the world. He furthermore warned them that as punishment for rejecting Him, God would allow the temple to be destroyed. And so it was in A.D. 70, by the Romans, and it has remained a monument of rubble to Israel's rejection of Christ to this day (Mt.24.2).
As if this would not have angered them enough, He went on to add this admonition:
"Therefore, I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom. The one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone on whom it falls." This refers to Is.8.14–15 in which the Savior is compared to a stone that proves to be a rock for some but a stumbling block to others. Jesus was telling these proud teachers of the Law that for all their purported knowledge of the Law and the Prophets, they were stumbling over "the rock" that was speaking to them. But again, well-educated people, like the Jewish priests and scribes whom Jesus was dressing down, do not like to be rebuked publicly by lesser-educated men like a pretentious (in their view) upstart from Nazareth whom they knew had none of their credentials. They were asking themselves, " Who is he to address us like this, like we don't know what we're talking about?" That is the question that, within a week, Christ's resurrection would definitively answer.
What Jesus said to the Pharisees who rejected him applied to his disciples as well:
"You search the scriptures, because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness to me, and yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life" (John 5.39–40). They, the Jews of that time, were all looking for a political/economic Messiah, a new Moses (Dt.18.15), a greater David (2Sam.7.12–17), a liberator who would deliver them from Roman rule and establish Israel as the world's superpower. That is why Jesus's message about a suffering messiah confused them. "We have heard from the law that the messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of man?" (John 12.34). They were not looking for a Spirit-kingdom founded by a Messiah who would passively say," My kingship is not of this world," (John 18.35), as the Roman governor pronounced a sentence of execution upon him. It is hard, if not impossible, to hear what another person is saying to you when your expectations of what he will say are so different from what he actually means.
In Jerusalem, the last week of his life, Jesus preached to the crowds, saying to them boldly, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12.33). But no one hearing Him at the time connected His words to the prophetic words of Isaiah, "See my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up and shall be very high" (Is.52.13). Jesus on a previous occasion told the Pharisee Nicodemus, "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes him may have eternal life" ( Jn.3.14-15). Christ identified himself with the serpent of bronze that God told Moses to lift up in the wilderness. Many of the Israelites in the wilderness were getting bitten by poisonous snakes and were dying (Num.21.6). And they knew why this was happening to them. They were dying because "We have sinned by speaking against the Lord" (Num.21.7). So they asked Moses to "Pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us." The response was a good example of how God answers prayer. He doesn't always give us what we want; but He gives us what we need. In this case he did not take away the serpents, but he gave the Israelites an antidote. "Set it on a pole," God said, "and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live" ( Num.21.8). Christ made the point to Nicodemus that the bronze serpent prefigured him. Christ lifted high on the cross is the antidote to the world's sin. Relatively few of us will ever be bitten by a venomous snake. But ever since Satan seduced Eve disguised as a serpent and poisoned her relationship with God, all of us—her children—have that same poison of original sin pulsing in our veins. The poison of that original snakebite, inherited from Eve, infects our souls, and we desperately need an antidote to that deadly toxin. Christ "lifted up" on the cross for all the world to see is that divinely instituted antidote. And all who look upon Him and believe in Him will live.