The Man Who Killed Jesus: “Suffered Under Pontius Pilate”
February 29, 2004
This has been a week unlike any other in my lifetime. Last Wednesday the new movie by Mel Gibson, “The Passion of the Christ,” premiered around the country. For various reasons the film has stirred up enormous controversy. That morning I turned on the news to see what was happening in the world. On CBS they were talking about Jesus. On NBC they were talking about Jesus. On ABC they were talking about Jesus. On Fox News Channel they were talking about Jesus. On CNN they were talking about Jesus. That afternoon I saw the film with a friend. When I got home, I turned on the TV and happened to watch CNBC, the cable channel that specializes in financial news. But they weren’t talking about stocks and bonds, and they weren’t talking about Martha Stewart. Last Wednesday afternoon on CNBC, they were talking about Jesus. In fact, they were talking about why Jesus died on the cross.
Last night 450 people from Calvary attended a showing of “The Passion of the Christ” at a local theater. Afterward we came back to the church for a meal and a time of discussion. Between the film and the meal, I went home for a few minutes. When I turned on the Fox News Channel, they were talking about Jesus. After I came home from the discussion time, I turned on the History Channel. Guess what they were talking about? Jesus! In my lifetime such a thing has not happened in America. Mel Gibson has done what Billy Graham could not do. He brought Jesus to the center of American public life, if only for a few fleeting days.
A Cultural Benchmark
I have seen “The Passion of the Christ” three times in the last five days. I found it powerful, overwhelming, disturbing in parts, emotionally draining, but riveting and impossible not to watch. I said to myself, “This is what it was like. If I had been there, this is what I would have seen.” The film is rightly R-rated because crucifixion was an R-rated event. Make no mistake. The movie is brutal and violent, and it assumes a basic knowledge of the life of Jesus. But it succeeds in showing the evil in the world that sent Christ to the cross, bearing the sins of humanity. And in the end, Jesus triumphs because it is not Pilate or the Jewish leaders who put him to death. No one took his life. He gave it up freely.
It occurred to me that this movie is a kind of cultural benchmark. Most movies, nearly all of them in fact, come and go without much notice. A movie appears at the local cinema, you read a review, you see an ad, and you decide to go see it. You either like the movie or you don’t. You recommend it or you don’t. Most movies don’t change us or force us to think deeply about anything. But now and then, maybe once a decade, a film comes along that forces us to deal with ultimate issues. “The Passion of the Christ” is such a film. What you get out of it depends on what you bring to it.
Some Jewish leaders have suggested the movie is anti-Semitic. Given that we are only 60 years past Auschwitz, I don’t think any of us should dismiss that judgment out of hand. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in many places, including England, France, and much of the Middle East. I have a book in my library called Christ-Killers Past and Present. It is autographed by the author—Jacob Gartenhaus, a Jewish believer in Jesus. He recounts the sordid history of Christians who shouted “Christ-killer” at every Jew they met. Dr. Gartenhaus shows persuasively that the Jews as a people were not guilty of crucifying Jesus. But if the Jews didn’t kill Jesus, who did? The Apostles’ Creed answers this question clearly:
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
Suffered under Pontius Pilate.
In light of the questions raised by “The Passion of the Christ,” I’d like to answer the question, Who killed Jesus? In this sermon we’ll look at this issue from three angles—historically, spiritually, and ultimately.
It is noteworthy that the Creed passes immediately from the Virgin Birth to the death of Jesus with no mention of anything in between. There is nothing about his sermons or his miracles. Not a word about Jesus walking on water or confronting the Pharisees or healing the sick. In so doing the Creed teaches us that Jesus was born to die. The word “suffered” sums up everything that happened between his birth and his death. It is noteworthy that the Bible never tells us that Jesus smiled or laughed. I’m sure that he did—but the gospels never mention it. Isaiah 53:3 calls him “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief.” When he was born, Herod tried to kill him. When he began his ministry, the people in his hometown took offense at him (Mark 6:3). In the closing hours of his life, he was betrayed by Judas and denied by Peter. His sufferings did not begin on the cross, but it was his suffering that led him to the cross.
Why single out Pontius Pilate? Why not Caiaphas or Herod or Judas or the Roman soldiers or the howling mob? The answer comes from a scene Mel Gibson captured with great power. Jesus has just been scourged. He stands before Pilate, covered with blood, his flesh in tatters, his eyes nearly swollen shut, his face so marred that he barely looks human. Pilate looks at him in shock and pity and in a near-whisper says, “Don’t you know I have the power to put to you to death or to free you?” That wasn’t a boast—it was a statement of sober fact. As the Roman governor of Judea, he alone could condemn a man to death. If it is true that many of the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead, it’s also true that they could do nothing without Pilate’s permission. In the end, he must be held accountable for the death of Jesus. If the Jewish leaders loaded the gun, it was Pilate who pulled the trigger. In the film, and in the gospels, Pilate comes across as a man who knows that Jesus is innocent yet lacks the courage to set him free. Three times he says, “I find no fault in him.” Pilate knew Jesus had committed no crime worthy of death. But like many a politician caught between a rock and a hard place, he caved in to pressure from his bosses in Rome and from the Jews who wanted Jesus dead. That’s why I was so taken by the depiction of Pilate and Jesus, and Pilate and his wife in the movie. You probably know that all the dialogue is spoken in either Aramaic or Latin. When Pilate asks his famous question, “What is truth?” you hear him say the Latin word for truth—veritas. Before his final decision, he confers privately with his wife Claudia. Although this scene is not biblical, it is entirely believable. What Jesus said about listening to the truth haunts him. “Do you recognize the truth when you hear it, Claudia?” he asks. Veritas, he says, do you recognize veritas when you hear it? Claudia says that she does. And with a look of love and sorrow, she tells Pilate that since he can’t hear it, he will never know veritas. Not even when the Truth stands in front of him.
His Guilt is Greater
That’s why the writers of the Creed mentioned Pontius Pilate. His guilt is greater because he condemned Jesus even though he knew he was innocent. This should forever end the debate over anti-Semitism and the death of Christ. Both the Bible and the movie make it clear that not all the Jews hated Jesus. At best it was only some of the Jewish leaders who hated the Lord. The Jews as a whole were divided over Jesus—some hated him, some followed him, many were undecided.
From a political point of view, Pontius Pilate was a minor figure in the Roman Empire. Being governor of Judea wasn’t like being governor of Texas. It was more like being governor of North Dakota. A Roman governor had only two jobs: collect taxes and keep the peace. Pilate had considerable trouble in that second category. But to the Emperor in Rome, neither Pilate nor the province of Judea mattered very much. It was one tiny spot in a vast empire that stretched across the Mediterranean world. Why mention him at all then? First, because he is the person who condemned Jesus to die. Second, to establish a point in space-time history for the death of Christ. It’s as if someone says, “I lived in Illinois when Rob Blagojevich was governor.” That drives a stake down at a particular moment in history. Pilate gets mentioned in the death of Christ because he was there. This means it really happened. That, by the way, is one reason “The Passion of the Christ” has stirred up so much controversy compared to the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Everyone knows that the “Lord of the Rings” is a legend, a fable, a tale well-told and wonderfully filmed. But it is not true and no one thinks that it is. By contrast, the story of the death of Christ is true. And that fact drives some people up the wall because they are happy with Jesus as a fairy tale—but as the literal Son of God and Savior of the world, forget it!
So the Creed tells us that Pontius Pilate signed the death warrant, so to speak, of Jesus Christ. And it tells us that these things are true. They really happened.
The fact that Pilate is the person most responsible for the death of Jesus does not end the discussion. As both the movie and the gospels make clear, there is plenty of guilt to go around. Here’s a fact most people don’t know. Although Mel Gibson financed, produced and directed the movie, he appears in only one scene. As Jesus is being nailed to the cross, a man’s hand appears, making a fist, holding the nail above Jesus’ outstretched palm, showing the soldiers how to do their grisly work. The hand holding the nail belongs to Mel Gibson. It’s the only place he appears, and his fist is all you see. He wanted it that way so the world would know that it was his sin that nailed Jesus to the cross. As he said when asked by Diane Sawyer who killed Jesus, “We all did.”
Ponder these ancient words from Isaiah 53:4-5.
Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
Four times the prophet uses the word “our.” Our infirmities. Our sorrows. Our transgressions. Our iniquities. In some profound way we were there that day; it was our sins that nailed Christ to the cross. “And the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).
It is said that Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century first penned the words to one of our favorite hymns, “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” The second verse speaks to the issue of our sin and the death of Christ:
What thou, my Lord, hast suffered was all for sinners’ gain;
mine, mine was the transgression, but thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve thy place;
look on me with thy favor, and grant to me thy grace.
That verse captures the whole problem of the human race—”mine, mine was the transgression.” We’ve done well in that department, haven’t we? Our sins have cut us off from God so we are left to our own feeble devices. Most of us think of ourselves as pretty good people, or at least we’re not as bad as the fellow next door. And it’s true—we haven’t done every terrible thing that others have done. But still our hands are not clean. We have cheated. We have lied. We have gossiped. We have falsely accused. We have made excuses. We have cut corners. We have lost our temper. We have mistreated others. When we finally get a glimpse of the cross of Christ, we see clearly how great our sin really is. In the light of Calvary, all our supposed goodness is nothing but filthy rags. That is why the greatest Christians have always had the most profound sensitivity to sin. The closer you come to Jesus, the more clearly you see your own sin. Isaiah 53 contains the good news we all need. He was bruised—for us. He was wounded—for us. He was beaten, betrayed, mocked, scourged, crowned with thorns, crucified—all for us. Our sins drove Jesus to the cross. But he did not go unwillingly. If our sins drove him there, it was his love for us that kept him there.
If you want to go to heaven, pay attention to Isaiah 53:6. In the King James Version, it reads this way: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” Notice that it begins and ends with the word “all.” One man gave his testimony this way: “I stooped down low and went in at the first ‘all.’ Then I stood up straight and walked out at the last ‘all.’” The first “all” tells us that we are sinners; the last “all” tells us that Christ has paid the price for our sins. Go in at the first “all” and come out at the last “all” and you will discover the way of salvation.
Who is ultimately responsible for the death of Jesus Christ? The answer may surprise you. According to the Bible, God takes responsibility for the death of his Son. This is the first part of Isaiah 53:10 in the New International Version: “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer.” The New King James gives that phrase a slightly different feel: “Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him; He has put Him to grief.” Both versions say the same thing, but the NKJV emphasizes that it pleased the Lord to “crush” his only Son. As a father of three sons, I cannot fathom that, have no category for it, cannot imagine willingly putting one of my sons to death, much less taking pleasure in it. But the truth stands and cannot be denied: Jesus died because his Father willed that he should die. The terrible suffering our Lord endured did not happen by chance nor did it happen solely because the Jewish leaders wanted it and Pilate cravenly caved in. Behind the evil deeds of evil men stands the Lord God Almighty. He and he alone sent Jesus to the cross. Until you understand that fact, the true meaning of the death of Christ will be lost to you.
Last night after the discussion time, a man came up and showed me a notebook with two words written on it: “Arminian” and “Calvinist.” He pointed to those two words and wanted to know what we believed about the death of Christ. Did God intend to send his Son to be our Savior but then the freewill of men took over so that Christ ended up on the cross? Or did God plan it all in advance, including the suffering, the rejection, the hatred, the brutality, and the bloody death of his Son on the cross? It’s not the first one, I said. We believe the second one—that what happened to our Lord happened by God’s design. No part of his suffering happened by accident. The death of Jesus was God’s idea.
“It Isn’t Right.”
Just before the discussion time a young man came up to talk to me. Roger is in the 7th grade at Oak Park Christian Academy. When I asked him what he thought about “The Passion of the Christ,” he gripped my hand, his eyes filled with tears, and his lips began to quiver. For a long time, he couldn’t say anything. Finally, with great emotion, he spoke three words, “It isn’t right.” The way the soldiers treated Jesus wasn’t right. How could such brutality ever be justified? Listen to the answer provided by John Piper in his brand-new book, The Passion of Jesus Christ:
The most important question of the 21st century is: Why did Jesus Christ suffer so much? But we will never see the importance if we fail to go beyond human cause. The ultimate answer to the question, Who crucified Jesus? Is: God did! It is a staggering thought. And the suffering was unsurpassed. But the whole message of the Bible leads to that conclusion.
Just ponder these words: “Who crucified Jesus? God did!” The exclamation point drives the point home. No one would have expected God to put his only Son on the cross. But that’s exactly what happened. The events of Good Friday will make no sense until you grasp that great truth. But what about Herod, and Judas, and Caiaphas, and Pontius Pilate? What about those who cheered and jeered? What about the incredibly brutal Roman soldiers who beat Christ so savagely that they nearly killed him? Does this mean they are not guilty? Does God’s involvement somehow get them off the hook? The answer comes to us in a prayer from the book of Acts. During a wave of persecution shortly after the church was born, the believers gathered to petition God for his help. As part of their prayer, they included this remarkable sentence: “Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done” (Acts 4:27-28, KJV). Note two facts: 1) They name names. They mention Herod and Pilate. The believers didn’t forget who crucified their Lord—and God doesn’t forget either. He knows who put his Son to death. 2) Their evil serves God’s greater purposes. That’s why the church affirms that what those evil men did—and did freely and with no sense of divine coercion—all of it was nothing more than what God determined (a very strong word) beforehand should be done. Herod and Pilate are truly guilty—but what they did was what God determined should be done. Is there a mystery here? Yes there is, but the mystery does not lessen the truth that Pilate and Herod and all the rest were truly guilty and through their sin, God’s will regarding Jesus was accomplished.
The Greatest Sin
That’s why Jesus could truthfully take responsibility for his own death: “I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). This serves as one of the main answers to the charge of anti-Semitism against “The Passion of the Christ.” Mel Gibson has Jesus utter these words on his way to the cross. No one “killed” Jesus against his will. If God had not willed for his Son to die, and if Jesus had not willingly laid down his life, all the armies of Rome could not have killed him. We can bring these truths together in three simple statements:
The Father planned it.
The Son embraced it.
Herod and Pilate (and everyone else involved) were unwitting actors in the great drama of redemption. They were truly guilty for their sins, but through their evil, salvation has come to the world.
What is the greatest sin in the world? Surely the answer must be: Crucifying the Son of God. Yet here is a mystery and a paradox that becomes a miracle: From the great sin has come the greatest blessing for the whole human race. The bloody death of Jesus opened the door of heaven for anyone who wishes to enter.
Let me then ask a more personal question. What is the greatest sin any of us can commit? None of us can literally crucify Jesus again. He died once and for all 2,000 years ago. We cannot literally repeat the sins of those who put him to death. For us the greatest sin must be this: Ignoring the Son of God. We do this when we say (by our life or by our lips): “Lord Jesus Christ, I know all that you did for me, and it doesn’t matter to me at all.” Indifference to Jesus means that we don’t care about his death for us. But to ignore what Jesus has purchased at so great a cost is to place ourselves in grave spiritual peril. The poet W. H. Auden once imagined what he would have done if he had been present on Good Friday. He says most of us wouldn’t see ourselves as disciples cowering in fear, or feel that we were important enough to play the role of Pontius Pilate or to be part of the Jewish Sanhedrin. This is how he sees himself:
In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight—three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, “It’s disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can’t the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?” Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. (Cited by Rod Dreher, National Review Online)
No, we’re not the sadistic Roman guards, and we’re not the frenzied mob. We’re not even party-boy Herod or pensive Pilate. Auden has us dead to rights. We’re like the educated elite who find the whole spectacle distasteful and unfit for public consumption. In a way, we’re worse than Pilate or Herod or Caiaphas. At least they cared enough to take a side. We don’t want to be involved at all.
I Crucified My Lord
And so I return again to the movie, thinking now about what it has meant to me. At the end of my ruminations three things remain: First, there are scenes of unspeakable horror. Perhaps that will be too much for some people. Clearly it is too much for many of the critics. Second, the feeling grows that it had to happen that way—the way the Bible describes. Jesus prays to his Father because he knows that these things have been appointed for him from the foundation of the universe. As a man, he struggles. As the Son of God, he accepts the Father’s will. Third, I see (perhaps for the first time in a long time) that I am guilty of crucifying my Lord. My sins nailed him to the cross. He is there because I put him there. My hands are not free of innocent blood. Like Pilate, I wash them but to no avail. The stain remains forever.
Last Monday night a man who saw the scourging scene said that he could barely watch it. The torture seemed to go on forever. He found that he could only endure it by saying to himself after each blow hit Jesus, “That one was for me.” He repeated it over and over again: “That one was for me.” “That one was for me.” I agree with what Roger said. What they did to Jesus wasn’t right. It was monstrous injustice. But before we condemn others, let’s ask one question: Who did this? Don’t blame the Jews. Don’t blame the Romans. If you want to blame anyone, look in the mirror. You did it. I did it. We did it. The old spiritual asks, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” The answer is always yes. We were there—and not just as casual bystanders. The lash, the beatings, the spittle, the crown of thorns, the bruises, the ridicule, the nails, the spear, the desertion, the betrayal. We were there for all of it. None of it happened by accident. God planned the whole thing. And Jesus did it all for you and for me.
At the beginning of the film these words from Isaiah 53:5 fill the screen: “He was wounded for our transgressions.” The end of that verse adds a wonderful truth, “And by His stripes we are healed.” After Calvary the message goes out to the world that there is no sin too great for God. There is no evil more powerful than Jesus’ blood.
I return to the discussion session last night one final time. Before we started, a woman tugged at my sleeve and said she wanted to tell me how the film made her feel. She summed it up in one word: “Unworthy.” That’s a good place for all of us to start our spiritual journey. If you feel unworthy of the blood Jesus shed, then the message has truly hit home.
What language shall I borrow
to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow,
thy pity without end?
O make me thine forever;
and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never
outlive my love for thee.
Because I am not a prophet, I cannot predict what the long-term impact of this film will be. But it cannot be a bad thing to contemplate the death of our Lord. Some people say that millions will be converted. Only God knows if that will happen. We pray that it might be so. And it will be a good thing if there is a deeper conversion of the already converted. Amen.