Why do people today follow Jesus when he was a failed leader? For a time, he was a great leader and thousands flocked to see him and hear him. They were so excited about Jesus that they once tried to make him king. Then later, on his last visit to Jerusalem, enthusiastic crowds met him again with praises and began shouting “Blessed is the king of Israel!”
A few days later their great leader was dead. This was not an unusual occurrence. During that period a number of other such leaders collected followings among the Jews and subsequently failed.
Other Failed Leaders
Josephus tells us about Simon from about the same time Jesus was born. He had once been a slave of King Herod. Simon declared himself King, developed a following, and had considerable success. He even burned down the palace in Jericho before the Roman Gratus defeated him and cut off his head. Antiquities 17; War 2
Around the same period, Athronges the shepherd set himself up as king. He and his brothers raised an army that held sway for quite some time before they were finally defeated. Antiquities 17; War 2
Then about 10 years later, when Jesus would have been a young boy, there was Judas, son of Ezekias, who had royal ambitions. He recruited a multitude of men and breached the palace at Sepphoris in Galilee, which would have been within sight of Jesus’ village of Nazareth, and took its armaments and money. Antiquities 17; War 2
A few years after the time of Jesus, the magician Theudas claimed to be a prophet and persuaded a large number of people to follow him to the Jordan River, where he promised to divide the river for them to cross. However, the Roman Fadus sent a troop of horsemen and many of the followers were killed; Theudas was taken alive and they cut off his head. Antiquities 20
Simon, Athronges, Judas, and Theudas, among others, had several things in common: They were great leaders; they collected and inspired large followings; they were defeated; their followers were killed or scattered; and they became footnotes in history.
The career of Jesus fits this same pattern: He was a great leader; he collected and inspired a large following; he was killed; and his followers were scattered. The logical outcome was for him to be relegated a footnote, or less, in history. His impact should have been no more than that of any of a thousand other charismatic teachers.
People will fight and die for many things: money, power, freedom, an idea, a leader—but they will not follow a dead leader who failed in his mission. Jesus had provided his followers nothing but himself; he offered no prospect of money or power, and his ideas and promises of freedom were bound up in him personally—he specifically told them so. Without Jesus among them his followers had nothing.
Jesus and his movement had failed. His followers were disoriented and demoralized; they were but a scattered group of disappointed dupes with dashed hopes and vaporized dreams. No rousing purpose remained for the movement to coalesce around.
How is Jesus Different?
But something unexpected happened. Jesus came back to life! Who would expect that? His followers didn’t; they were taken completely by surprise. After a few visits by Jesus, his followers were energized and went on to change the world.
So Jesus became known around the globe, while powerful Roman leaders became the footnotes. Though Jesus had much in common with other failed leaders of his day, there was one big difference—the resurrection.
The resurrection changed everything, yet it does not seem to fit into the realities we observe. Did Jesus really come back to life? What else could explain his return from failure? We will discuss these questions next time.