Who really killed Jesus? Secular scholars have been debating over this question for almost two millenia. The crucifixion of Jesus is considered by many, Christians and non-Christians alike, to be one of the most significant events in world history. For the believer it is the foundation of their faith and the hope of eternal life, the beginning of a new era. For the non-believer it is also a dawn of a new era marking a new philosophy and world view. The rise of a new religion for good or ill resulted in the death of Jesus. Countless wars have been fought in the name of Jesus and eternal strife between cultures has arisen since the crucifixion. We regard Jesus’ death as so important we even reckon time by it. The ancient years being BC or before Christ, and the modern years AD or “Ano Domini” or “the year of the Lord”. Of course now it is referred to as BCE, “before the common era” and CE, “common era” for those who don’t like to utter the word Christ. Archaeologists have searched for the tomb and body of Jesus, people have claimed to own or have discovered artifacts related to Jesus, people wear crosses as jewelry accessories. The point is that the death of Jesus is hugely important in our lives both as Christians and not. It has huge implications on our beliefs about life, death, and the afterlife, and is the turning point of modern human history.
For almost two thousand years people have been asking the question “who killed Jesus?” Some say it was the Romans, some say it was Pontius Pilate, some say the Jews. Everyone seems determined to place a level of culpability on someone or some people group to bring closure to the greatest misdeed in history. Most recognize Jesus as the meek and mild prophet and teacher who preached a message of forgiveness and love towards your neighbor. That’s stuff everyone can agree with but Jesus was arrested and tried as a criminal, as one who sought to lead a rebellion against Rome and throw off the Roman rule of Judea. Of this he was falsely accused. Some say it was the Jews who’s hand was most prominent in the death of the innocent man Jesus. The Jewish priests were the ones who brought the false charges against Jesus because he was telling people that he was the Son of God. Blasphemy was punishable by death according to Jewish law so they sought to put an end to this ridiculous blasphemy by leveling this charge against him. The claim to be the Son of God was made by Jesus on several occasions, but where the Jewish priests manipulated it was in the fact that the Son of God would be proclaimed as King of kings and Lord of lords and that title directly contradicted Roman rule, specifically Caesar himself. The Jews hated being under Roman rule but here they manipulated it to bring about their own ends in a disgustingly twisted and evil way. Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, had his hand forced by the Jewish crowd at Jesus’ trial because they were screaming “Crucify him!” and the Bible says that Pilate, fearing a riot pronounced the sentence of death upon Jesus although he found no guilt in him.
That brings us to the next group of people, or person specifically, who is said to have been responsible for Jesus’ death, Pontius Pilate. Pilate really is in a loose-loose situation during the trial of Jesus. The Jewish priests keep pressing him to condemn Jesus because he claims to be a king and hopes to lead a rebellion against Caesar. Allowing Jesus to go free would pronounce Pilate as “no friend of Caesar”, which is ironic coming from the Jews who vehemently hated the Romans. Pilate also does not want to condemn Jesus because from a legal standpoint he has done nothing to warrant death. Pilate’s own wife intercedes on Jesus’ behalf telling her husband “have nothing to do with that righteous man for I have suffered greatly because of him in a dream”. For fear that a riot will soon break out Pilate attempts to shift the burden from himself to the crowd by offering to release to them one criminal as is tradition during the Passover feast time, or kill Jesus. The angry mob screams “Give us Barabbas! Away with Jesus!” Seeing that there was nothing to be gained by bargaining with them, Pilate reluctantly sentences Jesus to death then famously washes his hands of guilt. The Jews cry out, “His blood be on us, and our children!” Had Pilate been a stronger, more courageous leader who was devoted to the law Jesus might not have been killed.
But let us consider now another perspective. The prophet Isaiah provides the most detailed and vivid description of the crucifixion of Jesus about 700 years beforehand. In chapter 53 of Isaiah, the prophet describes Jesus as a man acquainted with grief and sorrow, being despised and rejected by his own people. Isaiah outlines that Jesus would be poor, having no beauty that we should desire him, and that we would incorrectly judge him to be afflicted by God. All this is freakishly accurate when we examine Jesus’ life, but then Isaiah says something completely out of left field. In chapter 53 verses 5 and 6, Isaiah says the following:
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
The LORD has laid upon him the iniquity of us all? Really? God did that to Jesus? The answer is yes. Here is further evidence from Isaiah 53:10:
Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt
Clear as day right there. It was the will of the LORD to crush him. How can that be true? God is not a murderer, that goes against everything we know about God. Before you dismiss this evidence consider what the Jews were taught of old about the promised Messiah. They believed that the Messiah would appear at the end of the age when God would make the heavens and the earth new and God’s Chosen One, the Messiah would redeem Israel from her bondage to her captives, whether it is Babylon, Assyria, or Rome, and usher in the new reign of the kingdom of God where there will be no more sin and Israel will dwell forever with God in the New Jerusalem. At the time of Jesus the Jews were living under Roman authority. While not suppressing their religion, the Romans required that the Jews be subject to Roman laws and taxes. The Jews did not like this idea of paying tribute to a foreign pagan leader so they resented the Romans and hoped for their Messiah to appear and begin the revolution. This is a drastically different picture of the Messiah from the one that is painted for us in Isaiah 53. Isaiah paints the picture of the Messiah as a suffering servant who bears the sins of the wicked on their behalf. The Messiah would stricken and afflicted, murdered, and buried for sinners though he himself was sinless, and Isaiah says that this was God’s plan.
Sin is a big deal to God. Sin is the opposite of God’s holiness. God hates sin because at the heart level it is a rebellion against and rejection of God. Back in Genesis, God declared that the penalty for sin is death and that all those who sin shall die. After the story of the exodus from Egypt God instituted the sacrificial system in which animals would be killed to take the guilt away from people so that God’s wrath against sin would be averted. By sacrificing an animal and confessing your sins over it God would agree to forebear with the sinner and hold back his holy wrath from the actual sinner. But the death of an animal could never truly pay for the sins of a human so the sacrificial system was imperfect. It was designed to foreshadow the ultimate work of redemption that God promised way back in Genesis 3. The sacrificial system was given with a promise, a promise that compliance with the gory rituals in faith that there will one day be a perfect sacrifice that would truly and wholly deal with sin would be made, will make a man righteous in the sight of God. In Isaiah 53, Isaiah is describing that perfect and final sacrifice. The Man of Sorrows, the Son of God, Jesus is the Lamb of God. John the Baptizer proclaims in the gospels before the baptism of Jesus “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” John the Baptizer knew his Old Testament and recognized that Jesus would be the fulfillment of the sacrificial system.
When Jesus died on the cross He willingly took upon Himself the full burden of the sins of the world. Although He was entirely sinless in life, Jesus puts Himself in our place and invites upon His soul the full and terrible wrath of God for all of our sins past, present, and future. He becomes the sacrifice for our sins and obtains forgiveness from God on our behalf. Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s sacrificial system and it was the will of the LORD that He be so. God’s plan all along was for Jesus to accomplish this divine rescue mission to rescue us from slavery to sin and to redeem us, to literally buy us with his blood, to the kingdom of God.
So the answer to the question of who killed Jesus is not the Jews, or the Romans, or Pilate, but God. God the Father killed Jesus in order that by His death, many would be made alive. The death of Jesus is the greatest act of love the universe has ever seen. Jesus says in John 15:13, “Greater love no one has than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” That we would be called friends of God as sinners and then God sacrifice His life for us is astonishing! But that is not where the story ends. Easter is just a few days away and it is appropriate that we celebrate the fact that Jesus was raised from the dead. After three days in the grave Jesus rose again to life! This ensures for us that Jesus’ sacrifice for our sin was accepted by God and that we are guaranteed to be resurrected like Him if we believe in His death. Surely there is nothing in me that is worthy of such a deed by God so I am convinced that it is purely of grace that I have faith in this marvelous promise!
So this weekend remember that God sent Jesus on a rescue mission to pay your punishment for your sins so that you wouldn’t have to. Reflect on the truth of the gospel and marvel at the unfathomable love that Jesus would lay down His life to save yours!