Who Killed Jesus? (Jn 18:28-19:15)

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Who is responsible for Jesus’ death? John Stott asks a similar question in his book The Cross of Christ, the second chapter titled “Why Did Christ Die?”[1] In this message I follow Stott’s general outline.
Who is responsible for Jesus’ death? Well, the answer will likely depend on who answers. For instance, many people throughout the last 2,000 years quickly and comfortably blamed the Jews. Some may argue – Judas betrayed Jesus and the Jews had him killed. Pilate did not want anything to do with it. All blame lies with the Jews.
However, if you were to ask the Jews you would likely get a different answer. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin offers a counter to such blame in his book titled Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know About the Jewish Religion, Its People, and Its History.
Concerning Jesus‘ executioner, Pontius Pilate, we have a considerable body of data that contradicts the largely sympathetic portrayal of him in the New Testament. Even among the long line of cruel procurators who ruled Judea, Pilate stood out as a notoriously vicious man. He eventually was replaced after murdering a group of Samaritans: The Romans realized that keeping him in power would only provoke continual rebellions. The gentle, kind-hearted Pilate of the New Testament—who in his heart of hearts really did not want to harm Jesus—is fictional.… the New Testament depicts Pilate as wishing to spare Jesus from punishment, only to be stymied by a large Jewish mob yelling, ‘Crucify him’. The account ignores one simple fact. Pilate‘s power in Judea was absolute. Had he wanted to absolve Jesus, he would have done so: He certainly would not have allowed a mob of Jews, whom he detested, to force him into killing someone whom he admired.” (pg 127)
Plenty of participants in this narrative performed in such a way as to merit significant blame. Judas betrays Jesus as if he is the first domino in a long line of blame worthy participants. The Jewish leaders and their mob offer a host of worthy perpetrators. Just in case we fall short of perps, do not forget Pilate and the Roman soldiers. They most certainly possess some guilt.

Judas Betrayed Jesus

Some might conclude that Judas should not be culpable for His betrayal due to the following, (1) He was a tool of providence. Jesus had to be betrayed, and Judas is simply a foil in this story. (2) He was doomed before birth. The Apostle John writes, “While I was with them, I was keeping them in Your name which You have given Me; and I guarded them and not one of them perished but the son of perdition, so that the Scripture would be fulfilled” (Jn 17:12). (3) Satan entered Judas to facilitate this betrayal. John writes, “During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him” (Jn 13:2).
While agreeably Judas had external forces at work, he is still responsible for his wicked actions. Luke writes in Acts, “Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out” (Acts 1:18).
Judas’ Motivation. He was a Zealot. Some have concluded, or at least hypothesized, Judas was a Zealot and joined Jesus due to his belief that Jesus would be the one to conquer the Romans. If this is the case, Judas betrayed Jesus either because he was disillusioned by Jesus portrayal of the Messiah or as an impetous to force Jesus to fight.
He was greedy. While it may be true that Judas was a zealot, it is clearly true that Judas was motivated by greed. We know that Judas was the disciples’ treasurer (Jn 13:29). Also, Judas displayed annoyance at Mary’s dramatic display of gratitude to Jesus (Jn 12:3-6). It must have been shortly after this incident that Judas goes and deals with the religious leaders to betray Jesus.[2]

The Jews and Their Leaders Forced Jesus’ Death

Their motivation. Let’s set up this scenario a little bit. The religious leaders want to be part of the Passover activities, so they avoid going into Pilate’s residence so as not to defile themselves.
Their Stated Motivation. Blasphemy! A man from Nazareth – Galilee – who has no formal training or credentials claims to be God. Jesus had never been formally taught. He often was associated with sinners. He seemed to overlook their traditional manner of keeping the law (ie. The Sabbath day). He criticized the religious leaders for holding to tradition instead of scripture. He called them hypocrites, blind leaders, whitewashed tombs. He claimed to be God.
Blasphemy! That is their accusation. They were driven by righteous indignation for a man who belittled all that they held sacred. At least that is how they presented their argument. But what was really their motivation?
Their Actual Motivation (Matt 27:18). Pilate informs the gospel readers the Jews were motivated by envy. Matthew writes in his gospel, “For he [Pilate] knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up” (Matt 27:18). John Stott says, “Envy is the reverse side of a coin called vanity. Nobody is ever envious of others who is not first proud of himself.”
They were proud of their special divine relationship. They were proud to be the leaders of such a blessed nation. They were proud to consider themselves the bulwarks for the spiritual life of Israel. They were proud of their positions. And Jesus, threatened that position. He came, as one with authority, but Jesus authority did not derive from them. They failed to even get their own temple officers to arrest Him. Jesus humiliated them time and time again. The people, their people, had followed Jesus instead of them. Their authority was in question. Their position was in question. Their livelihood was in question. Their pride was being attacked and they would have no more.[3]

Pilate and the Romans Soldiers Performed the Crucifixion

Pilate’s motivation. Political preservation motivated Pilate. Pilate hated the Jews and they hated him. From the time the Romans entered Jerusalem with their highly offensive Roman flags, to his misappropriation of temple funds for his aqueduct project, the Jews hated Pilate.
But Pilate liked his political position. The Jews had already threatened his position when they had informed Caesar of his actions concerning the temple funds. Pilate knew he could not have another bad incident with the Jews. He needed to think through this potentially volatile moment. However, he thought Jesus was innocent. So, with some political savvy, Pilate attempts to rid himself of the problem.
Pilate Sends Jesus to Herod to be tried (Lk 23:6-12). Pilate comes to realize that Jesus is a Galilean which is good for Pilate. He can send Jesus to Herod because Herod has jurisdiction in Galilee. Pilate, however, had a problem. Herod only wanted to see Jesus for a display of His power. Jesus does not appease Herod in this request, so Herod sends Jesus back to Pilate.
Pilate hopes a scourging will satisfy the people (Lk 23:13-16). Pilate tells the people, “I have found no guilt in this man regarding the charges . . . nor has Herod . . . Therefore, I will punish Him and release Him.” Pilate has the soldiers scourge Jesus. The soldiers bring him back in front of the people, and Pilate probably assumes the Jews would be appeased with the extreme degree of beating that Jesus had received. They weren’t.
Pilate tries to release Him. After finding no guilt in Jesus, Pilate once again presents Jesus to the Jews. He offers them a compromise. The Jews could choose. Pilate would release one of the prisoners, either Jesus or Barabbas. Barabbas was a robber (Jn 18:38-40). The people cry for Barabbas to be released.
Pilate protests Jesus innocence (Matt 27:24-25). The Jews desire to have Barabbas released and then continue to cry for Jesus’ crucifixion. They desire Jesus’ crucifixion because Jesus “has made himself the Son of God” (Jn 19:7). In fear, Pilate confronts Jesus once again with no satisfaction and is convinced of Jesus’ innocence. However, the Jews refuse to surrender to his opinion. At this point, “he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.’ And all the people answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’” (Matt 27:24–25).
Pilate thought he would avoid responsibility for his actions by acknowledging his disagreement with their decision. Jesus refuses to allow this logic to go unchallenged. Jesus told Pilate that those “who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (Jn 19:11). The Jews had “the greater sin,” but Pilate was still culpable. Pilate was still from innocent in Jesus’ death.[4]
Soldiers’ motivation. The Roman soldiers performed the work of crucifixion, and yet they often go unnoticed in a discussion concerning blame in Jesus’ death. This oversight likely derives from most people knowing the soldiers were simply tools used by Pilate and the Jews in committing this horrible task.
None of the gospel authors offer evidence as to the Roman soldier’s motivation. While none of the gospel authors present these men as believers or moral examples, they also do not offer any insight into their motivation. The soldiers simply did what they were commanded to do. Are they culpable? Absolutely. But do we know what drove them? Not necessarily.

You killed Jesus.

Who killed Jesus? Is Judas, motivated by his greed and potential zeal, responsible for the death of Jesus? Are the Jews and the Jewish leaders, motivated by their anger, religious façade, and envy, responsible for the death of Jesus? Are Pilate and the Roman soldiers, motivated by their political expediency, self-preservation, and mindless obedience, responsible for the death of Jesus?
I suppose the simple answer is – yes. They are all culpable. They all manifest sinful motivation and performed sinful acts. Yet, all participants inevitably had many other motives and sinful behaviors never mentioned in the biblical narrative. Most certainly Judas or Pilate or Annas were motivated in ways we will never know.
Therefore, determining their exact motivation is somewhat irrelevant and may miss a larger point. The culpability for Jesus’ death lies more generally at the feet of people whose sinful and broken hearts led to sinful and egregious actions. Let us not leave it there though. Is Judas guilty? Yes! Are Pilate and the Roman soldiers guilty? Yes. Are the Jews and the Jewish leaders guilty? Yes.
And so are we! Our sin demanded the need for the cross. Judas betrayed Jesus. The Jewish leaders delivered him to Pilate. Pilate delivered him to the cross. But our sin made that all necessary. The author of Hebrews declares that those who reject Christ, still today, “crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame” (Heb 6:6). John Stott wrote, “Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us, we have to see it as something done by us.”
Horatius Bonar wrote the hymn “Of Whom I am Chief.”[5]
Twas I that shed the sacred blood; I nailed Him to the tree; I crucified the Christ of God; I joined the mockery.
Of all that shouting multitude I feel that I am one; And in that din of voices rude I recognize my own.
Around the cross the throng I see, Mocking the Sufferer’s groan; Yet still my voice it seems to be, As if I mocked alone.
Your sin needed the cross. I considered stating that sentence as “your sin demanded the cross.” That statement overlooks an important fact. God did not need to save us. He chose to save us. I have no grounds, in my brokenness and sinfulness, to demand anything. However, God in his grace, met our need; and according to plan, Christ came and accomplished his purposes of salvation through the cross.

The Father Ordained the Son’s Death.

Let me add one more dimension to this discussion of culpability. Truly, Judas, Pilate, the Roman soldiers, Annas, and the Jewish people all possess their own guilt in the death of Christ. As well, for redemption to be accomplished, our sin demanded Christ’s death. However, there is an additional responsible party. God the Father killed the Son.
That’s what the first half of Romans 8:32 says: God did not spare his own Son but handed him over — to death. “This Jesus [was] delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). Isaiah 53 puts it even more bluntly, “We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God....It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he (his Father!) has put him to grief” (Isaiah 53:4, 10). Or as Romans 3:25 says, “God put [him] forward as a propitiation by his blood.” Just as Abraham lifted the knife over the chest of his son Isaac, but then spared his son because there was a ram in the thicket, so God the Father lifted his knife over the chest of his own Son, Jesus — but did not spare him, because he was the ram; he was the substitute.[6]
Of all the people involved in His death, Christ is the only one who got his way. (1) We are told in Matthew 27:3-10 that Judas went out and hanged himself after throwing the money back at the feet of the Chief Priests. (2) The Jews wanted to take Jesus and deal with Him according to their law, which would mean stoning. I do not believe that the Jews were pleased with how Jesus’ death came about (cf. Lk 23:48; Jn 19:7). (3) Pilate did not want anything to do with this, and he thought Jesus was innocent.
But Christ, before time, purposed to save men through His death. He accomplished this in the exact way that it was prophesied. He was no victim. He was the Sovereign orchestrator of all these events. They unfolded just as He had planned.
Today, we have likely come to church with a great number of burdens on our shoulders. Many of us are overwhelmed by the effects of the coronavirus, divisive interactions about masks, discussions on lockdowns and protests. The political atmosphere seems to produce fear, anger, and hatred. Our hearts hurt. Our minds are frazzled.
[1] John R. W Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), 51–65.
[2] Point of application. In a parable about a rich young fool, Jesus cautions a young man, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Lk 12:15). As well, Paul encourages Timothy to remain content with what he has, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim 6:10).
Greed corrupts men’s morals. It brings injustice to the halls of justice. It pits friend against friend. Greed perverts politicians. It results in businesses cheating people. It is of such a serious nature that scripture requires pastors to not be lovers of money (Cf. Matt 6:24, “no one can serve two masters”). Judas made his choice. He chose money over God. You as well have a choice. Before you too quickly condemn Judas, assess whether you have as well made money an idol.
[3] Point of Application. Is it not true that Jesus interferes with our plans and goals? He asks that we give up all and follow Him. He wants us to worship only Him. He expects us to obey Him constantly and unquestioning. We are told that we are sinners that need Him and only Him. “Who does He think He is? I don’t need Him. I can accomplish a satisfied life without Him. I am self-sustaining?”
Reality. We regularly exhibit pride. We can make the same horrendous mistake that these religious leaders made and reject Jesus due to our pride. Or, we can embrace Him, set aside our pride, and find satisfaction, reconciliation, peace, joy.
[4] Point of Application. Pilate responded to Jesus statement concerning truth with a cynical response, “What is truth?” In Pilate’s mind, truth was irrelevant if not impossible to discern. This interaction had nothing to do with truth but instead Pilate’s preservation. He did not want to kill an innocent man, but he did not want this innocent man to result in his political death either. So, Pilate dismisses the truth for his own expediency.
How often do we do that? We can at times do everything in our power to avoid being wholly committed to Christ and the truth. We attempt to find ways to subtly maneuver around the truth. We may hope that someone else can deal with issues of truth. We do not want to wrestle with them. We may try to dismiss truth as irrelevant or insignificant. We do not want to come out as dogmatic or overbearing. We may try to compromise the truth for our own selfish advantage. We may simply give up on truth because we think there are no other options. There is no hope of truth prevailing, and no one wants to be on the losing side. The pressure of people drove Pilate to have Jesus, the truth, killed. Do you ever sacrifice truth for comfort?
[5] I’m uncertain the title of the hymn. The Baptist Hymn Book of 1903, song # 226, titles it “Of Whom I am Chief.” As well the liturgy book for the Moravian Church, 1908, titles it the same. However, hymnary.org titles it “I See the Crowd in Pilate’s Hall,” which is the first line of the song. (Found in hymnary.org).
[6] John Piper, “Who Killed Jesus?” blog (Desiring God, n.d.) devotional excerpt from Future Grace, 110-111. Accessed October 11, 2020. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/who-killed-jesus
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