All in all, the religious authorities are a rather nasty bunch. They hear everything Jesus has to say about God, watch him perform miracles, and then… have him arrested and executed.
Their annoyance with Jesus starts out slow:
It looks like their issues stem from two sources: (1) Jesus is violating Jewish laws and ideas, and (2) he is openly insulting God by claiming to be equal with God. This flies in the face of everything they know and hold dear about God, so, clearly, Jesus has to die. That's just how things roll in Rome.
These guys clearly view Jesus and his ministry as a threat to their authority in the community. They're worried that, if Jesus is allowed to keep preaching and performing miracles, everyone's going to be jumping on the Jesus bandwagon. Where will that leave them? What about the laws God has handed down through Moses? Jesus has pretty much undone everything they've achieved for themselves.
All those fancy diplomas for nothing.
Are the religious authorities being paranoid? Are they judging too quickly? Or are they witnessing a guy claiming to be the son of God and reasonably thinking he's a total crazy pants?
Think about it: one day, a guy strolls into the temple. He's from nowhere important and has no formal education, but he claims to know things that only God knows. Hmmm. Wouldn't you laugh someone like that out of the building? Not to mention, the religious authorities have worked their whole lives studying to gain knowledge of God and the law. How dare some nobody off the street claim to know more than them?
There's also some fear for the greater good. The authorities are worried that if everyone becomes a Jesus groupie, the Romans will come into Judea and destroy the people and their holy places in order to squash any hint of disorder (11:48). They feel like they have a duty to protect the people and the temple from a disaster like this. What do you think—is that a reasonable concern?
As understandable as their skepticism towards Jesus is, in this story, they are completely and utterly in the wrong. And all we can do is stand by and watch them dig their own graves. During Jesus's trial before Pilate, the religious authorities are practically foaming at the mouth to see Jesus nailed to a cross. In their zeal, they end up professing their loyalty to the Roman Emperor (19:15) rather than God, and—bam—they condemn themselves right in front of God's face. That's going to be hard to make up for.
The Gospel of John has lots of different names for this group of naysayers. Sometimes they're referred to as "the Pharisees" or "the chief priests," and sometimes they're simply "the Jews."
The point of these characters is to show that many of the people opposing Jesus held official religious positions in the Jewish community. So for the sake of clarity, we decided to just call these guys what they are: the religious authorities. (For more on this, check out our discussion in "Perspectives from Faith Communities.")