On a day like today, I’m reminded of Chapter 2 of John R.W. Stott’s seminal The Cross of Christ, where he attempts to give an answer to why Christ died. I reread it today and below are some thoughts.
He begins by pointing out the three entities responsible not for Christ’s death, but for his murder. The Roman soldiers and Pontius Pilate were the ones who immediately ordered and executed the crucifixion. He notes that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent (Lk. 23:4; Jn. 18:38) and insisted on that innocence (Lk. 23:13-15; Jn. 19:4-5). Pilate also tried half-measures (Lk. 23:16, 22), tried to release him for the wrong reason (Mt. 27:15-23), and assert his own innocence (Mt. 27:24). Ultimately he caved in; “their voices prevailed,” he granted them “their demand,” and “delivered Jesus over to their will” (Lk. 23:23-25).
Secondly, the Jewish people and their priests were the ones who brought Jesus to Pilate and got their way. Jesus even acknowledged that the Sanhedrin was guilty of the greater sin for having handed him over(Jn 19:11). It’s no secret that Jesus was very “anti-establishment.” Not in the sense that he was jonesin’ for an anarchist state, getting pierced and listening to The Dead Kennedys. Rather, he had big problems with the rabbinic schools of the day that prioritized their traditions over Scripture. He didn’t become a rabbi by the normal route, either. He was an outsider. Stott says it best:
His doctrine was heretical. His behavior was an affront to the sacred law. He was leading the people astray. And there were rumors that he was encouraging disloyalty to Caesar. So his ministry must be stopped before he did any further damage. They had good political, theological and ethical reasons for demanding that he be arrested, put on trial and silenced” (57). But their charges against him weren’t driven from a pure heart. Even Pilate recognized that “it was out of envy that they had delivered him up” (Mt. 27:18).
Finally, following the chain of causality another step down the line, we find Judas Iscariot. “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil” (Jn. 6:70). We know all too well the story of Judas’ betrayal of his rabbi. The Israeli Mossad have a rule they adhere to strictly in the field when trying to acquire ‘agents’ (people who will betray their country, spy for them, become informants, etc.). The rule is fairly simple: anyone that cannot be bought over with power, sex, or money is to be avoided entirely. Why? They’re dangerous. The Mossad is on to something, although they may underestimate the wickedness of the human heart, they understand it well enough for their purposes. Judas would have been a prime target for a Mossad agent. John tips us off to this fact in chapter 12 of his gospel account, when Judas expresses disbelief in the fact that Mary used an expensive ointment worth about a year’s wages to anoint Jesus’ feet. John tells us it was not Judas’ altruism motivating his objection, but rather “he was a thief” (Jn. 12:6). “Incensed by the waste of a year’s wages, he went and sold Jesus for barely a third of that amount” (61).
But that’s not the end of the causal chain is it? I think this is obvious enough to us, but there’s something about the human heart that runs from this fact. In 2004, The Passion of the Christ stirred up a lot of controversy because there were certain complaints that it was anti-Semitic. It was all over the internet and papers that Gibson places all the blame on the Jews for killing Jesus. Regardless of Mel Gibson’s shortcomings, I think the charges of anti-Semitism from the film are misdirected because they miss the larger theological reason for the cross. To his credit, Gibson knows that it wasn’t the Jews who murdered Jesus; he did it too–the hand holding the first nail in the crucifixion scene is Mr. Gibson’s. Likewise, Stott shows us three individuals that the gospel writers locate most of the blame on: Pilate, Caiaphas, and Judas–but they were the ones who murdered Jesus. While Jesus was murdered, he also died. The distinction is that he willingly went to the cross. He wasn’t a martyr. He is the savior. He went to the cross because we needed him to and he loved us enough to redeem us.
We can point the finger at Pilate all we want, but it’s just hypocrisy.
“Anxious to avoid the pain of a whole-hearted commitment to Christ, we too search for convenient subterfuges. We either leave the decision to somebody else or opt for half-hearted compromise or seek to honor Jesus for the wrong reason (e.g., as teacher instead of Lord), or even make a public affirmation of loyalty while at the same time denying him in our hearts” (55).
Throughout history, idiots have used the occasion of the cross as a spring-board to anti-Semitism. But pointing the finger at the Jews is an act of dishonesty. Are we all that different from the envious Jewish leaders? Stott notes that we are guilty of seeing Jesus as, in the words of C.S. Lewis, “the transcendental interferer.”
“We resent his intrusions into our privacy, his demand for our homage, his expectation of our obedience. Why can’t he mind his own business, we ask petulantly, and leave us alone? So we too perceive him as a threatening rival who disturbs our peace, upsets our status quo, undermines our authority and diminishes our self-respect. We too want to get rid of him” (58).
Yet, will we even point the finger at Judas after all of this? Sure, because we’re hypocrites who don’t like to believe that it was our sin that necessitated the cross. Judas’ problem was money. Could you be bought out with power, sex, or money? Don’t think so? Consider this: How many times have you failed to tithe? Greed is greed my friends, and it’s older than Gen. 3. How many times have you done something you shouldn’t have just to climb the ladder or assert your prominence over another? Pride is pride. Brothers, how many times have you thought about a woman inappropriately? Sisters, how many times have you fished for such thoughts? Lust is lust.
If we’re owning up to the facts, then we confess that our hearts are deceitful. We are all sinners. It’s the universal truth that elicits a gag-reflex in all of us. No one wants to admit that they’re a sinner, but everyone has felt guilt. Everyone knows.Whether we will acknowledge it or not, Christ was brutalized, tortured, mocked, spit on, shamed, scourged, nailed to a tree, and hung up to die a criminal’s death because of our sin. Our sin sent him there, but his love took him there (64).On this day, but not on this day only, contemplate this reality and let it sink in. We often mythologize the cross. It’s easy to do when Paris Hilton wears a cross necklace on television. Or when people who claim to represent the cross just want your money or votes. It becomes this little myth that’s infiltrated culture, politics, and so many other ancillary concerns. C.S. Lewis said that in the incarnation of the Son of God, myth became reality. In our day, the reality of the cross has unfortunately become a myth. Make no mistake about it, Jesus Christ died on the cross.
Mt. 27, Mk. 15, Lk. 23, and Jn. 19 are history.
But so are Jn. 20, Lk. 24, Mk. 16, and Mt. 28 . . . .