Responsibility for the Death of Jesus

Who was responsible for the death of Jesus Christ?

Some believers don’t seem to be that concerned about this at all; their focus is mostly on the resurrection.  Their thought is that Jesus did not really die.  He was raised from the dead, so the responsibility for the death of Jesus does not matter that much.  But with theologian John Stott, he is not willing to gloss over the death of Jesus; his book is entitled The Cross of Christ.  Jesus’ death is front and center.

Stott’s view is that someone was responsible for killing Jesus; someone charged Him with being a felon.  Maybe we should stop and just say that Jesus’ behavior brought about His death.  Certainly Jesus appeared to be a revolutionary to both of the ruling parties in His culture.  The Jewish leadership was not happy with Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God.  They labeled that behavior as blasphemous and worked to find a way to eliminate Him.  The ruling invaders, the Romans, felt that Jesus’ claim to be the King of the Jews upset their balance of power.  Their concern was that Jesus was politically dangerous and if He declared Himself a king, He claimed power that was not rightfully His.  The power to rule belonged only to Caesar.

So John Stott states that the Jewish leaders and the Roman rulers entered into an “unholy alliance” in order to eliminate Jesus.  He was just too much of a threat to the status quo.  He was a law-breaker and his death was justified.

But was it?

The Gospel writers present a different story.  They present the idea that Jesus was not a law-breaker.  He was a martyr and was brought before the ruling bodies because they misunderstood His message. 

Why is all of this important?

People who are less focused on the divinity of Jesus and the fact that He was going to be resurrected all along are more focused on the assessment of guilt for this miscarriage of justice.  In short, they are obsessed with blaming someone for His death.

What is the significance of this?  Over the years, the Jews have born a lot of the blame for killing Jesus.  This of course has caused serious anti-Semitic feelings and has been one basis for persecution and violence of the Jews over the centuries. The idea is that Jesus was too much of a threat to the Pharisees; they wanted absolute spiritual authority over their people and Jesus broke their rules too often, doing what was needed rather than what was called for in the Jewish law.

Certainly there is evidence that Jewish leadership was unhappy with Jesus.  The Gospel writers write that Jesus claimed authority over the laws of Moses.  He often responded to obvious human needs with little regard to what day of the week it was, performing miraculous acts on the Sabbath.  Furthermore He declared that the Pharisees were hypocrites, an attitude that did little to endear Him to the Jews.  When He came to the Temple on His last visit to Jerusalem, the first thing He did was destroy the moneychangers’ tables in that Holy Place, very upsetting to the status quo.

In short, there were reasons that the Jewish leadership wanted Jesus eliminated.

With the Romans, the evidence is far less compelling.  Jesus was crucified and that was a Roman method of execution, not a Jewish method. This is evidence that there had to be some Roman influence on His death.  The Jews preferred to  stone people to death.  Also the Jewish authorities were not capable of bringing a capital punishment case forward in the courts; that was something that the Romans could do and only the Romans. 

Was Jesus a serious threat to the Romans?  Maybe not.  His words were probably not that revolutionary from a Roman point of view.  He did not come to preach violence; He came to preach love.  Many in Jewish society longed for a Messiah, but their concept was a Messiah who would lead the Jewish people into battle, a leader who was capable of overthrowing Roman rule.  Jesus was not that type of Messiah.  When asked about paying tax to Rome [a ploy to trap Jesus into uttering some seditious comment] He said “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”  That type of language is hardly enough to seriously worry Roman authorities.

In upcoming posts, I will comment on Stott examining this issue from four different perspectives: the Roman view, the Jewish view, Judas Iscariot’s view and what he calls “their sins and ours.”

He does this because at the heart of what happened to Jesus is more than a “gross miscarriage of justice.”  Stott feels that the whole episode of Christ’s death on the cross came about because of “personal moral factors” which influence the course of law.  Caiaphas the Jewish high priest suffered a moral collapse.  He was influenced by dark passions which led him to lose his sense of morality.  Pilate was supposed to uphold Roman rule, not allow himself to be manipulated into exacting justice on a man who did not deserve a death sentence.  Stott describes these representative men as “fallen and fallible human beings, swayed by the dark passions which rule us all….behind their façade of rectitude of performing their public duty were violent and sinful emotions” [Stott, 52].

In everyday life I have known men to be concerned about two kinds of law: civil/criminal law and spiritual law.  One refers to behavior that is offensive to society or to a private party and the other refers to living and non-living ideas regarding emotions, thoughts and feelings [supernatural?].  Depending on the believer’s point of view, spiritual law can be seen as the higher power and personal moral behavior can alter the ruling of civil/criminal law.

Is this what happened to Jesus?

Did moral decay bring about His death on the cross?

Certainly the Gospel writers feel that the death of Jesus was brought about by a miscarriage of justice but rather than looking at civil/criminal law as the main reason Jesus was punished, the point to spiritual forces at play, spiritual forces working inside some important men of the day.

Stott writes that what leads to the death of Jesus is not so much a blame game for people who are trying to assess guilt.  The purpose of the narrative is more for “the moral instruction of converts” [Stott, 52].

Maybe Stott is right; it is not good to emphasize the resurrection completely, ignoring what brought about Jesus’ death on the cross.  Violent and sinful emotions really do exist and when they happen in the hearts of public officials,  great harm can occur.

Maybe they are the reason great harm came to Jesus.

We will see…

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