David writes in Psalm 25:19, “Consider my enemies, for they are many; and they hate me with cruel hatred.” This verse applies equally well to Jesus of Nazareth, a Man who, because of His goodness and truth, attracted enemies like ants to honey. From His birth to His death, he was surrounded by antagonists, many of them out to kill Him for who He was and what He taught.
Just a list of His enemies would be fairly long, but there are several major people or groups who require a few lines of explanation, as a few of them are frequently confused.
The chief and most dogged adversary of Jesus Christ is, of course, Satan the Devil. Knowing that God had sent His Son to replace him as ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), Satan pulled out all the stops to destroy Jesus physically or to tempt Him into sin, destroying Him spiritually. From the killing of the Bethlehem innocents (Matthew 2:16-18) to rousing the rabble to choose Barabbas and condemn Jesus to crucifixion (Matthew 27:20-23)—and beyond—Satan was intent on manipulating people to obstruct and derail God’s purpose. He even personally confronted Jesus in the wilderness just prior to the beginning of His ministry (Matthew 4; Luke 4), but that ended in utter failure to tempt the Son of God into sin. Insanely, he still thinks he can win, seeking to “devour” the elect (I Peter 5:8), and at the end of this age (Revelation 13) and at the end of the Millennium (Revelation 20:7-10), he will again attempt to incite humanity against Christ.
Jesus’ earliest human enemy was none other than Herod the Great, King of Judea at the time He was born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2). When the wise men from the East asked the whereabouts of the One born King of the Jews, Herod was troubled—a classic biblical understatement. Herod was paranoid about usurpers of his throne, having killed at least a half-dozen people—all of them relatives—whom he suspected of conspiring against him. A claim that a newborn was the real King of the Jews only fueled his paranoia, which was perhaps heightened by advancing years and failing health. He died soon after his attempt on Jesus’ life and his actual massacre of all boys two and under in Bethlehem and its environs.
Perhaps Jesus’ best-known adversaries were the Pharisees. These men belonged to a sect of Judaism that prided itself on its strict adherence to the traditions of the Jewish people. Their name, Pharisee, refers to being “separate” by means of their practice of religion—that they had separated themselves from all ritual impurity. They set themselves up as lay-interpreters of God’s law and vowed to follow the thousands of uninspired rules and regulations regarding proper conduct, particularly on the subjects of the Sabbath, tithing, purification, foods, and other various religious procedures, many of which Jesus criticizes in Matthew 23. They opposed Jesus so vehemently because He upset, not just their religious sensibilities, but also their popularity with and esteem of the people, as well as their political power under the Romans.
Closely linked to the Pharisees were the scribes or lawyers. Originally, they were simply writers or copyists of the law, but over time, due to the growing use of Aramaic rather than Hebrew among the people, their occupation had become a prominent, learned profession: They became doctors of the law whose job was to interpret biblical statements for the people. Thus, they became the jealous guardians of both the text and interpretation of Scripture. Jesus’ teachings frequently overthrew their rulings, and they did not take kindly to it.
Another sect of the Jews called themselves Sadducees. The name evidently derives from the Hebrew word tsadaq, which means “righteous.” As the party of the aristocracy and the priests, the Sadducees were the bitter rivals of the Pharisees, and other than at His trial, only once are they shown united with the Pharisees against Jesus (Matthew 16:1, 6). Jesus does not denounce them as vehemently as He does the Pharisees, yet He still warns His disciples against their doctrines (Matthew 16:12). They were the arch-conservatives of Judaism, clinging to their historical responsibilities and interpretations and rejecting the Oral Law touted by the Pharisees. The Sadducees were extensively involved in the politics of the time, and in fact, held many of the chief positions in Judea. The Herodians, also called Boethusians, were a sub-sect of the Sadducees and were political partisans of Herod. Their particular opposition to Jesus was almost entirely political. The chief priests were Sadducees of a handful of distinguished and wealthy families of the Levitical aristocracy.
Although the Zealots were not an organized political or religious party at the time, there were some zealous groups that were intent on overthrowing the Romans and installing a Jewish king on the throne of David. Early on, some of them probably had high hopes that Jesus, a Son of David, would fulfill the earthly Messianic role that they envisioned. However, He soon disappointed them by refusing to take the path of armed rebellion against the Romans. Some believe that Judas Iscariot, His betrayer, may have been the member of such a group, as his surname is thought to mean “dagger-man,” hinting at political skullduggery.
The Romans themselves in due course became His direct enemy through Pontius Pilate and his sentence of crucifixion. The Empire probably did not care what Jesus taught one way or another, but they were terribly concerned about two matters: treason and riot. The Jewish authorities tried to compel Pilate to convict Jesus on His assertion that He was a king, which Pilate found not to rise to treason (John 18:38). The Jews then switched the charge to “He made Himself the Son of God” (John 19:7). Pilate tried to release Him, but the Jewish leadership and the crowds forced his hand to crucify Jesus.
So Jew and Gentile, rulers and rabble, priestly and secular—all had a hand in opposing and ultimately killing our Savior Jesus Christ. This fact leads to the inescapable conclusion that they represented each one of us, for had we been in their shoes, we would have done the same. No matter how vociferously we deny that we also would have shouted with the crowd, “Crucify Him!” we cannot deny that we have sinned, making His atoning death necessary (see Isaiah 53:5-6, 10-12). Paul writes: “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. . . . For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” (Romans 5:8, 10; see Colossians 1:21-22).
So, though our names may appear on the list of His enemies, upon God’s calling and the acceptance of Christ’s blood in our behalf, they have been struck through, transferred to the list of God’s redeemed.