Many liberal intellectuals believe that people sin out of ignorance. With enough instruction and correction (though without using any forms of discipline that might hurt any feelings), humans can be perfected and the golden age ushered in. Well, that is not how the Bible portrays it. Jesus’s opponents in the Gospels have a very clear understanding of what Jesus is saying and oppose Him anyway.
In fact, often the unbelievers in the story have a better grasp on what Jesus said than His own disciples. After the crucifixion, the disciples have lost all hope. They assume Jesus is gone forever, completely forgetting the fact that He told them three times He would rise from the dead. The chief priests, however, are well aware of this prediction. Even if they don’t believe Jesus will rise again, they fear the disciples making it look like He has (which the disciples are far too demoralized to do) because they know that if Christianity can preach the resurrection, it will be unstoppable. Or, as they put it, “The last error shall be worse than the first” (Matthew 27:64, KJV).
Jesus’s opponents realized what so many people today deny- that Jesus claimed to be divine. They just didn’t believe Him. At the beginning of His ministry, when He announces forgiveness of sins to the paralytic, they assume He’s blaspheming because they know only God can forgive sins. Several times in John’s Gospel, Jesus’s claims of His unique relationship with the Father drive the Jews to try to stone Him for making Himself equal with God. Finally, they get the chance they’ve been waiting for when Jesus affirms He is the Son of God in front of all of them at His trial when they ask Him. Critics of the Bible today try to weasel out of Jesus’s statement by missing the contextual forest for the semantic trees. Because He literally says in Matthew and Luke, “You say that I am,” they claim He was denying divinity, but the chief priest’s reaction shows that he took it as an affirmation, especially considering Jesus’s going on to affirm that they will see Him coming in the clouds with power. The critics should also note how Mark reports Jesus simply affirming that He is the Son of God, reporting the plain gist of Jesus’s words rather than His exact statement. They should also note how in Matthew a few verses before Jesus answers the high priests, “You say that I am,” He uses the same answer to unquestionably affirm that Judas is the traitor. What He means is not, “You say that I am, but I say I’m not,” but rather, “You already know the answer to what you’re asking me.” Earlier they had asked, “Are we blind also?” To which Jesus had replied, “If ye were blind, ye should have no sin. But now ye say, ‘We see,’ therefore your sin remaineth” (John 9:40-41, KJV).
They also knew what He required of them. That’s largely why they hated Him. He rejected their external traditions and demanded the much more rigorous life of self-sacrifice. They knew that if they followed him, they would have to stop doing the things that got them glory from man and do some real soul-searching and living for others. One of them, the Apostle Paul, realized when he met Christ that whatever he had thought he was gaining from being a Pharisee he would have to count as loss relative to what Jesus called him to.
All of the Gospels report rich ironies in their Passion narratives. Despite Jesus’s opponents doing all they can to obstruct Him, they wind up unwittingly affirming His truth or furthering His Kingdom by fulfilling Scripture. At Palm Sunday, the Pharisees cried out, “Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? Behold, the world is gone after Him” (John 12:19, KJV). Though they were utterly frustrated, they knew where He was going. Ironically, the chief priests make a big deal about mocking Jesus’s being the King of the Jews and the Son of God at His crucifixion when Jesus didn’t make a big deal of those titles during His ministry. Yes, He knew He was God’s Son and the Davidic King of Israel, but He preferred to call Himself the Son of Man.
Jesus’s opponents wanted Him crucified because hanging on a tree represented God’s curse in the Old Testament Law. They felt a cursed death was fitting for one who claimed to be the Son of God, not realizing that Jesus was dying a cursed death because He was the obedient Son of God. Similarly, they scoff that, “He saved others; Himself He cannot save” (Matthew 27:42, KJV), when the reason He can’t save Himself is precisely because He’s saving others. They go on to taunt Him that God can save Him if He really wants Him, which is precisely what David predicted Jesus’s enemies would say in Psalm 22.
So, apparently, ignorance wasn’t really Jesus’s opponents’ problem. Their problem was suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. They understood what He was saying and knew that He was accomplishing signs to verify it, and they went ahead and opposed Him anyway. So much for enlightening humanity into perfection. If people understood Jesus’s teaching and it didn’t perfect them, I don’t think there’s much hope of liberal education perfecting them. Knowing what’s right is not nearly the same as doing what’s right.