Who killed Jesus?
The Romans did it. That much is clear. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment reserved for those who were not citizens of the empire. It was intended to terrorize the local population into quiet subservience.
Curiously, few of the New Testament authors seem very much interested in Rome or its imperial power when it comes to Jesus’ crucifixion. You would think that they would eagerly point their fingers at the idolatrous and often cruel empire that dominated Judea and the Mediterranean world. Instead, they portray Rome as the somewhat hesitant tool of Jesus’ enemies and the unwitting instrument of God’s salvation.
The apostles and their chroniclers saw Jesus’ crucifixion as the culmination of a story much older than Rome. Rome became involved in Judean affairs around 63 BCE. The story of Jesus goes back through the age of exile to the age of kings, and on to the age of the judges, to Moses and to the patriarchs. God delivered the Hebrews from Egypt, but they rebelled against him in the wilderness. God led the people into the land of promise, but they turned against him time and again. The “judges cycle” is the story of repeated salvation and apostasy. He made Israel a kingdom under David, but the people and their leaders continued to sin. Opposition to God’s word turned deadly and the true prophets often suffered for their message. The history of Israel is littered with unfaithful prophets, priests and kings. It is within the context of God’s “stiff necked people” that most of the New Testament’s authors portray Jesus’ death.
O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)
Once again, God’s people have rejected his salvation and rebelled against his authority.
Herod, the illegitimate and un-Jewish king of the Jews sought to kill him at birth. The equally illegitimate high priests sought to kill him in adulthood. Among Jesus’ enemies were leaders in the temple and the synagogue. Some teachers of the Torah and advisers on keeping the law also opposed him. These are the very institutions that should have welcomed him as their true head: kingdom, priesthood, temple, synagogue, school, daily living within the light of the Torah. These are the institutions that grew out of Israel’s covenantal history and which represented God’s dealings with his people. Yet these are the institutions which the New Testament authors repeatedly blame for Jesus’ death.
Over time, this perspective became “the Jews did it.” The Jews – those hated other people in our midst, those scapegoats for society’s ills – are the ones responsible, not us. This attitude led to the horrendous and inexcusable mistreatment of Jewish people throughout much of Christian history. Such misuse of the scriptures totally misses the New Testament’s point.
When Peter stood up on the day of Pentecost and said,
Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know–this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. (Acts 2:22-23)
he was speaking as a Jew to other Jews. More specifically, he was speaking as member of the covenant people to other members of the covenant people. Peter’s audience shared more than his ethnic identity; it shared his identity as participants in the great story of God’s salvation.
The New Testament church contained both Jews and Gentiles. The Gentiles who were grafted into Israel through faith in Christ were not required to receive circumcision or practice the law as it had been given through Moses, but they still saw themselves as a part of Israel’s story. Israel’s story was now their story. The New Testament only comes alive as one becomes familiar with the Torah and the prophets and psalms and the writings of the sages. The early Christians – both Jews and Gentiles – saw themselves in the pages of the Holy Scriptures.
Christians steeped in Biblical history should see themselves as members of an institution with a tendency to hard hearts and rebellion against God. It’s possible even for those who “have been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age” to crucify the Son of God all over again” (Hebrews 6:4-6).
In the end, it’s not the Romans who matter most to the Church in this story. Pagans will be pagans, and their deeds are often evil. God’s holy city will be “trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.” (Luke 21:24) And it’s not the Jewish people scattered throughout Rome’s empire that matter most. All of humanity falls under God’s righteous judgment. It’s amazing that he saves anyone.
Rather, it’s the whole people of God who should look at this story in absolute wonder. What have we done? Time after time, God’s people have treated him horribly, but he just kept on saving them. A mass migration here. A military victory there. Sometimes a multitude. Sometimes a remnant. But he saved them. And in the fullness of time, God sent his faithful son – the true prophet and priest and king of Israel – and we treated him worst of all. Yet God did not abandon him to the grave, or us to our sins.
When the people of Jerusalem heard Peter accuse them of murdering Jesus,
they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off–for all whom the Lord our God will call.” With many other words he testified and exhorted them saying, “Save yourselves from this perverse generation!” (Acts 2:37-40)
What wondrous love is this, that God would continue to offer forgiveness and full salvation to those who crucified the Lord! And Peter knew about forgiveness. At the hour of Jesus’ trial, Peter denied even knowing him. Peter, too, was a member of the broken people of God.
The people of God crucified Jesus, and that’s the group to which I belong. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” (John 1:11).
They we tried nailing him to a tree, but God didn’t let their our evil deeds thwart his plan for our salvation. That fact serves as both a warning and a word of hope to the people of God in every age.