THE PASSION OF CHRIST #3
The film currently playing in theatres The Passion of the Christ is becoming one of the most watched films in the history of Hollywood. This is true in spite of the fact and perhaps in part because the film has been viciously assailed by a myriad of opposing forces. Although there have been many complaints leveled against the film, by far the most explosive charge is that the film is anti-Semitic. Or, more precisely that it portrays the Jews in such a bad light that the film might incite those who have anti-Semitic tendencies to lash against the Jews. We’re not going to join that argument this morning but we do want to address the question that lies behind much of that discussion and that is WHO PUT JESUS ON THE CROSS? This morning, I want us to hold in suspension our current opinions on that question in the hope we can make a more objective survey of the evidence. I would like us to assume the role of a detective this morning and approach this task as if we were investigating evidence surrounding a crime.
The person or persons who put Jesus of Nazareth on the cross perpetrated the most infamous crime of all time. We know it was a criminal act because the evidence clearly shows Christ was put to death unlawfully. The cross of Christ is in fact the most vile, hideous, loathsome criminal act of all time because this is the only assault in history that was committed against an innocent man. Every other wrongly executed person in recorded history was, at the time of their death already guilty in God’s court of justice and therefore was deserving of death in His eyes…but not this man. Jesus of Nazareth lived without sin and was therefore uniquely NOT subject to death. Let’s re-open the evidence and do some digging in an attempt to unearth the clues that will lead us to the perpetrator(s) of this unprecedented crime.
Multiple witnesses place several Roman soldiers at the scene of the crime. Their names aren’t recorded for us. We know several of them were required to work on the Roman crucifixion squad headquartered in Jerusalem on the day of the crime. It’s equally clear however that though these men performed the actual crucifixion, they were simply carrying out orders from higher authorities and Jesus himself did not hold them ultimately responsible. The one who ordered the execution of Christ is however certainly culpable for this crime. The record in John’s gospel chapter 19, verse 16 says of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Procurator for Palestine at that time, “So he delivered him [Jesus] over to them to be crucified.” The early extra biblical account confirms this—one of the early Christian creeds reads that Christ was “crucified under Pontius Pilate.”
The question that remains about this man as it relates to the execution of Christ is one of motive. WHY would a pagan Roman official want to kill an itinerate Jewish teacher—especially one like Jesus of Nazareth who the record indicates had carefully avoided any appearance of disrupting Roman rule or undermining Roman authority? A further issue surrounding this suspect is the record clearly shows Pilate was convinced of the innocence of Christ of the crimes of which he was accused. The record shows that on at least three occasions Pilate publicly declared that he could find no ground for charging him with any crime. Why would he order a man he knew to be innocent put to death? Chapter 19, verse 12 of John’s gospel provides us with insight into Pilate’s motive. It records, “From then on Pilate sought to release him, but the Jews cried out, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king [as they had alleged Jesus to have done] opposes Caesar.” The record indicates that this one exchange between Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders was what caused Pilate to make a decisive and irreversible change of course. From that pivotal moment, Pilate ceased his opposition to the murder and soon fully acquiesced to their demands for Jesus’ wrongful execution.
Roman historians provide us with clues as to what it was about this exchange that changed Pilate’s mind and also provides us with a clear picture of Pilate’s motive for this intentional and gross miscarriage of justice. The key phrase in this dialogue is the phrase, “Caesar’s friend.” This was not simply a description of a social relationship to the Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar. To be a “friend of Caesar” was to be part of an esteemed and formal group of Caesar’s closest patrons. Pilate, like the rest of “Caesar’s friends” might very well have worn a ring with the inscription in Latin “amicus Caesaris,” “Caesar’s friend” inscribed on it. Officials like Pilate generally worked very hard to get that ring and the political power and favor it represented. When the Jewish leaders declared that if Pilate were to release Jesus he was “no friend of Caesar” they were questioning his loyalty to the emperor.
If reports, even false reports of him failing to defend Caesar’s sole right to rule in Palestine were to reach the emperor (and Pilate saw very clearly the Jewish leaders thinly veiled threat to do just that) he could lose everything he had worked so hard to achieve. Pilate was not about to allow a provincial dispute over an independent, fundamentalist Jewish itinerate teacher to threaten the political favor for which he had so labored. When his scruples as a Roman judge collided with his political ambition, it was no contest. His political ambition won out and he quickly dispensed with the matter, handing over this Galilean--this potential threat to his political status to be crucified, innocent or not. Like many politicians before and since Pilate sacrificed principle on the altar of his own political ambition.
So we know that Pilate had Jesus executed and we even know why, but the record indicates that Jesus himself held someone other than Pilate primarily responsible for his unjust treatment. Jesus told Pilate, “…He who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.” [John 19:11] The person who handed Jesus over to Pilate was a man named Caiaphas, a Sadducee, a member of the Jewish ruling counsel and the Jewish High Priest. In those days the Romans selected the Jewish High Priests and they had installed Caiaphas in AD 18. He was the son in law of the previous High Priest, Annas whom the historical records show the Romans deposed in favor of Caiaphas. It was Caiaphas who conducted the late night Kangaroo court where spurious charges were brought against Jesus and it was Caiaphas who subsequently called for his execution before Pilate. Involving the Roman authorities became necessary because Rome reserved the right to hand out capital punishment solely for itself. That Caiaphas as the high priest who, along with the rest of the Jewish ruling counsel handed Jesus over to Pilate is common knowledge. The question is--what was their motive for doing so? The Jewish religious leaders had opposed Jesus for much of his ministry but what was it that drove them to the extreme length of framing Jesus and passionately arguing for his execution? What would inspire such bitter hatred for Jesus within this group led by Caiaphas?
The record is clear at this point. Matthew’s gospel, chapter 27, verse 18 tells us that Pilate knew precisely what their motivation was. It says of Pilate, “…he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up.” The motive was envy but envy over what? The record shows Jesus had just earlier made quite a scene as he cleansed the temple, which was in their eyes of the religious leaders their sphere of authority. When Jesus subsequently visited Jerusalem, while walking in the temple the chief priests, the scribes and the elders approached him, “And they said to him, “By what authority are you doing these things, or who gave you this authority to do them?”[Mark 11:28] That question tells us Caiaphas and the Jewish leaders were concerned about the threat to their authority Jesus posed. They believed Jesus undermined their authority. The record states that Jesus, in stark contrast with the Jewish religious leaders of his day, taught as one who had authority. But Jesus of Nazareth had not been through their schools—did not have a degree from one of their accredited institutions or teachers. He hadn’t joined their religious group; he traveled in radically different social circles and in fact, stood in opposition to nearly all of their dearly held special interests. AND he was gaining a tremendous following. It was clear to them that if Jesus were to become (as he was rapidly becoming) THE most influential Jew in Palestine; they would soon be irrelevant.
These men were obsessed with their need for power and authority and even though they had all the formal Jewish legal authority, Jesus had it where it really mattered, in the hearts of the people...and they were envious. He had what they wanted but couldn’t get—the respect, admiration and yes, even the worship of the people. So they used the formal authority they DID possess to bring Jesus to the Romans in the hopes of using the Roman authority to execute him and so have this threat to their authority eliminated. And the record shows they were successful…for about three days. So up to this point we have seen that Pilate put Jesus to death because he didn’t want his political ambitions threatened and the Jews brought Jesus to Pilate because he posed a very real threat to their religious authority. They believed Jesus threatened to take away what they most treasured, power and so they in turn threatened Pilate to relieve him of his greatest treasure, his political standing.
A nagging question remains at this point in the case. That is--how were these formal religious authorities able to penetrate Jesus’ seemingly impenetrable security network? During the day, Jesus taught openly in the temple while in Jerusalem and was protected by throngs of his devoted followers who would never have stood for his arrest by their religious leaders. At night, the record shows Jesus kept mostly to his closest friends in remote areas and in the homes of some of his followers. How were the Jewish leaders able to gather the intelligence necessary to know where to arrest Jesus at night so they could to hold their ridiculous excuse for a trial out of the public spotlight? The record states unmistakably there was a mole within Jesus’ inner circle of disciples, one Judas Iscariot. Further, we know Judas had been the treasurer for Jesus’ non-profit organization.
Again, the question of motive is central here. Why would a member of Jesus’ inner circle betray him? A closer look at the evidence reveals that Judas was, unbeknownst to most of the disciples, an extortionist--regularly helping himself to the contents of the group’s treasury. As it turns out, it was Judas’ greed that ultimately served to motivate him to betray Jesus. The record shows that shortly before the crime Judas went before the Jewish counsel and said “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you? And they paid him 30 pieces of silver.” [Matt. 26:15] The money-hungry Judas quickly snatched up the blood money. Judas’ lack of regard for Jesus is seen in the amount of money he settled for. Given what he knew of the Jewish leaders’ extreme hatred for Jesus coupled with their great wealth, assumedly Judas could have asked for an impressive amount of money. What he quickly agreed to was ironically the paltry sum typically paid as the ransom payment for a common slave.
Up to this point, we have seen that Pilate handed an innocent man over to be executed because he loved his political position more than he loved justice. We have seen Caiaphas and the Jewish religious leaders delivered Christ over to Pilate because they envied his authority. And finally, the evidence clearly points to Judas as the money-hungry mole who furnished the Jews with the crucial intelligent necessary for them to arrest Jesus in such a time and place that allowed them to handle this odious matter in secret. But still a closer inspection of the evidence shows that in spite of the seemingly significant role all these suspects played, they were in the end only two-bit players—merely pawns, lackeys in the hand of the One who truly masterminded the death of Jesus of Nazareth.
An expert in Jewish law named Saul (later Paul) of Tarsus and a subsequent follower of Jesus records the execution of Jesus of Nazareth was birthed not in the politically ambitious soul of a Roman procurator, not in the envious and power-hungry heart of Caiaphas or the greed-soaked mind of Judas. If it was ultimately not Pilate who gave Jesus up or Caiaphas who gave him up or Judas who gave him up then who did give Jesus up to his tortuous death on a Roman cross? The record from Paul shows it was, “He [God the Father] who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all,…” [Rom 8:32] Jesus was ultimately not placed on the cross by men—the decree for this execution originated in eternity past from an infinitely higher authority than any man. The prophet Isaiah records, “Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief…” [Isa 53:10].
It was God the Father who ultimately was behind the execution of his own Son. This raises the most mind numbing question we have asked up to this point and again it involves the question of motive. What was God’s motive in this? Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas—they all had glaring, sinful weaknesses—ambition, envy, greed that were easily used to motivate them to participate in this gruesome miscarriage of justice. But God the Father? He has no weaknesses to play on and even more remarkably, unlike the three previous suspects, he loved Jesus with a perfect and eternal love. This is vexing! What could account for HIM sending his beloved Son into this vile torment of scourging and crucifixion?
The record shows the answer to that question must be divided into at least two other questions. The first is—what was the immediate cause that occasioned God’s action in crushing his Son and the second is what were God’s ultimate purposes for doing this—what were his ultimate goals? The cause we have already seen in the lives of Pilate, Caiaphas and Judas. The cause is a human race so perverted by sin that when God sent to earth the only innocent man to walk the earth after the fall, we tortured and killed him and I did say WE. We dare not in our self righteousness separate ourselves from the three villains in this case. Pilate sacrificed principle on the altar of personal ambition. He chose the expedient thing over the right thing. He chose to please man over God. Is there anyone here who has never done that? Is there anyone here who hasn’t sacrificed principle--who hasn’t compromised in order to get or keep what they wanted? That’s what Pilate did. Is there anyone here who at some time when forced to make a costly ethical decision hasn’t made the choice based on what was easiest at the time? That’s what Pilate did. Is there anyone here who hasn’t chosen to please man over God?
And let’s not look too far down our noses at Caiaphas. Is there anyone here who hasn’t trampled on principle in order to keep something they treasure in life? That’s what Caiaphas did. We have probably never framed a man and had him sent to an unjust execution but then again we’ve never had that opportunity. Speaking for myself, I know my heart well enough to confess that the level of my wickedness has been limited not by any virtue in my heart but only by the lack of opportunity. And then there’s Judas—greed was his downfall and Colossians 3:5 says “greed is idolatry.” Judas’ idol—what he valued more than Jesus was money. Is there anyone here who does not now or has not at some time in the past had something in their life that mattered more to them than Jesus? If your response is, “no” please be advised that one day all your check stubs and calendars will be revealed for all to see. Judas betrayed Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. I’ve sold him out for much less than that many times. Is there anyone here who can give a different report?
The chief causes that occasioned God the Father to crush his Son was our sin and his love for sinners and from that love springs his desire to rescue sinners from the pain and penalty of their sin. After Paul explains our miserable, sinful condition he says in Ephesians 2:4, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” It doesn’t matter whether your name is Pilate, Caiaphas, Judas of whatever your name is—sin is sin and God cannot coexist with even one sin—its all equally condemning in his sight. His requirement is perfection and we are all dismal failures on that count. In that sense we ALL caused Jesus’ death on the cross. “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” [Rom3:23] We all share the same sin problem—no one is exempt and the penalty for sin is eternal death in hell. “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” [Rom 6:23]
God saw us in our miserable condition and was not content to allow us all to endlessly incinerate in the fires of hell. So he sent his Son and crushed him in violent judgment on the cross because when Jesus chose to bear as my substitute my sin on the cross he made himself fully deserving of the wrath of his holy Father. The causal element of God’s motivation was the sin of sinners whom God loved and whom he chose to crush his Son to rescue. And if you are here today and you have not accepted Christ as your Savior—if you have not accepted Christ’s death on the cross as the payment for your sin—then you are still subject to God’s eternal judgment for your sin. Come to Christ today and cry out to Christ to forgive your sin—repent of your sin and turn to Christ. By God’s grace respond to God’s great mercy and love by returning his love as a forgiven sinner, no longer trusting in your own sinful performance to please God but instead trusting in Christ alone and his death on the cross. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.”
There is a second element to the Father’s motivation and this element is manifold. This element of God’s motivation speaks not to the immediate cause but to the ultimate purposes for God crushing his Son on Calvary. In that text in Ephesians chapter two we have seen the cause of the Father’s crushing of Jesus was the fact that we were dead in sin and needed to be made alive in Christ through his death and resurrection. But in Ephesians 2:7 he gives us one of the many purposes that ultimately motivated God to send Jesus to the cross. In this instance Paul says he did it “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Ultimately, God’s purposes for the cross are all rooted in his own zeal to be glorified among his creatures.
This purpose for the cross that motivated God to crush his Son will be realized when our salvation is completed in heaven and we enjoy the heavenly reward he has purchased for us through the immeasurable riches of his grace in Christ. In heaven as we see more fully the utter wretchedness of our earthly sinful rebellion against God—as we more deeply plumb the unfathomable depths of the black hole of sin and death from which God had to extract us—as we through fully redeemed eyes see more and more of what he has done in saving us and bringing us to himself, seating us in the heavenlies in Christ above every power—as we grow in our understanding of the immeasurable riches that came to us by way of the Father crushing his sinless Son—we will in heaven eternally cry out, “Glory, glory to the Father and to the Lamb that was slain—for the riches of his grace seen in Christ Jesus are immeasurable!” That’s just one of God’s purposes for crushing his Son. There are dozens more.
If you haven’t trusted in Christ for your salvation do that today. If you are trusting in Christ cry out to God to show you more of who you are and more of what he has done for you for His glory. May God give us the grace to do that.
Page last modified on 3/14/2004
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