Jesus was a unifier – of his opponents as much as of his followers. As Raymund Schwager says, Jesus turned “all sections of the Jewish leadership against him,” and this was “a decisive factor in their cooperation” (Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, 89, quoting R. Pesch). He got the Romans and Jews together too: “The Messiah question . . . brought together Jewish and Roman fears or interests against Jesus” and this enabled His accusers to shift the accusations back and forth between religious and political rationales (89).
Even His disciples turned against Him. And this is as crucial to the story of atonement as the union of Jew and Gentile: “In the disciples we not only have before us examples of human weakness. More important than the moral question is the theological one, and in particular the question of the destiny of the kingdom of God. As this had its actual beginning among the disciples, it was again radically put into question by their failure. It was consequently shown that the message about the goodness of the heavenly Father, even for those who were at first won over, was not able to transform their deep anxieties and their instinctive will toward recognition and self-assurance into trust and hope” (90-91). Since the kingdom involved a new gathering of Israel, the kingdom’s very existence was at stake when Jesus’ disciples scattered.
Peter and Judas did worse. They “cooperated with Jesus’ opponents, and the others were drawn along in their wake. From the perspective of the proclaimed kingdom of God it is consequently shown that the intended gathering of the proclaimed kingdom completely changed into its opposite.” If this was allowed to stand, the very existence of the kingdom in this world was questionable (91).
Jesus’ confrontation with Jews, Romans, and even His disciples exposed the evil forces arrayed against Him, the force that Schwager summarizes as “lies and violence.” Lies are “that great coalition of habit and lethargy, of human fear and opportunism, and finally of the hardened heart and arrogant condemnation of others, which has the effect that individuals act within a web of deceptive representations which become so familiar that they are for the most part unable any longer to see the lies that they contain.” The very evils He exposed were the evils committed against Him: “He was found guilty of blasphemy, condemned by lies, and brought violently to his death” (91).
The weakness of the disciples is part of what Schwager calls the “definitive rejection,” which means “it has been definitively shown that the forces and powers by which human history is ruled stand in fundamental opposition to that message and that life brought by Jesus.” Together with the Jews and Romans who put Jesus on trial, the disciples’ actions showed “what opposition existed in the forces of this world and how far people were subject to them” (111).
Again, the dramatic question is: How will God react to this rejection? How will Jesus react to their treachery? Schwager says, Jesus responds by “allowing himself to be handed over to the dark powers (lies, violence, diabolical self-certainty) and to be struck by them” (111).
Jesus says it more simply: “I lay down My life for My friends” – even when those friends have turned enemies.