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Perspectives of the Cross: Behind the Cross

April 2, 2006

Luke 22:66-23:25

Arguments about the death penalty are nothing new. For a long, long time, even during the first century, people have disagreed about capital punishment. The Jews at that time tended to be more cautious, more reserved, about exacting the death penalty; but the Romans seemed to have no qualms about sentencing a person to death. If the purpose of capital punishment includes extracting as much pain as possible before the person dies, the Romans devised perhaps the most ingenious of all methods, crucifixion. They crucified as many as 180,000 Jews in the first century, many before Jesus and many after Jesus.

We have all heard about the theory of plate tectonics. The earth’s crust is composed of plates that move or shift. Those plates sliding across each other cause friction and create an upheaval, such as an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, or a tsunami. Sometimes those plates pull apart, creating a great fault, a fracture, in the crust of the earth.

The political circumstances of the first century represent a kind of shifting of power, a great upheaval in the political landscape between the empire and the temple. The events that occurred during the final weeks of Jesus’ life are set against this turbulent backdrop. Our scripture passage for today describes some of this political maneuvering and gives us a perspective for today: “Behind the Cross.”

What is behind the cross? These political forces are certainly part of the story. Early in Luke 22, we see that immediately following the arrest of Jesus, guards escorted him to the home of Caiaphas, the high priest. Taking a prisoner in shackles to the home of the high priest in the middle of the night was quite unusual. There was nothing official about this trip, but it was the beginning of a very long experience of torment and suffering. It is important to note that Caiaphas was different from most of the high priests serving during the first century. During this time of Roman occupation, historical records indicate that a high priest usually served for only one or two years. Such conflict existed between the Jewish temple and the Roman Empire that high priests were more often than not banished after a few years of service. The Romans executed many high priests who refused to acquiesce to Roman authority. Caiaphas, however, actually served as high priest perhaps as many as ten or twelve years because he curried the favor of the Romans. His motto was, “You scratch my back, and I will scratch yours.” The temple and the empire had unspoken agreements between them at the time of Jesus’ death.

Early in the morning, at dawn, Caiaphas called the Sanhedrin, the great supreme court of Judaism, into session. The Sanhedrin consisted of seventy distinguished men: Pharisees, Sadducees, elders, rabbis, and priests. We learn how the Sanhedrin operated through the writings of Josephus and more recently William Barkley. These seventy men sat in a semi-circle so that they could establish eye contact with each other when the prisoner came before them. Encircling the prisoner at the back were the disciples of those who served on the Sanhedrin. Those who sat behind the prisoner could only provide comments in favor of the accused. They could not offer criticism. Members of the Sanhedrin primarily listened, though they did have permission to speak. If they chose to speak against the accused but later in the proceedings changed their mind, they could make a favorable comment about the accused. Afterwards, they could make no additional negative statements. Once they spoke in the affirmative, they could make no statement of condemnation. The younger members of the Sanhedrin always spoke first once they each made a decision so that the opinions of older members would not overly influence them. Built into the rules of the Sanhedrin was a waiting period if the group sentenced the prisoner to death. They had to wait at least a day before continuing with the litigation process in order to give the members a chance to sleep on their decision and make sure they had made the right judgment. A simple majority could acquit a prisoner, but it took the majority of two in order to condemn a prisoner. In theory, everything about the Sanhedrin was bent toward mercy.

When Jesus came before the Sanhedrin, however, this august body violated their own policies. We see that one person, the high priest, controlled the members. He was really the only one who spoke during the procedure. He did not allow one witness to speak for Jesus, much less allow the two witnesses required for any kind of accusation to stand firm. Jesus was condemned to death based on his own testimony, another violation of the Sanhedrin rules.

In those days, the Sanhedrin could carry out neither the death sentence nor the crucifixion, so they took Jesus to Pilate. They did not mention that they had charged him with blasphemy because Pilate could not care less about who claimed to be the Son of God. Instead, they brought Jesus before Pilate and charged him with sedition, stirring up trouble. They also claimed that Jesus had encouraged people not to pay taxes to Caesar based upon his teaching, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:17). The third charge the Sanhedrin brought against Jesus was that he claimed to be a king. Everyone in the empire knew that the true king was Caesar.

Pilate certainly had no qualms about sending a Jew to the cross. He had previously sentenced plenty of them to die by crucifixion, but Pilate told the Sanhedrin, “I find nothing of substance in your charges. The prisoner needs to be released.” When Pilate heard that Jesus was from that small section of Judea known as Galilee, he was anxious to turn the matter over to Herod. Galilee was under the jurisdiction of Herod. These two kings initially hated each other, but we learn that Herod and Pilate later became friends. Political collusion certainly makes strange bedfellows. In an attempt to release Jesus, or at least to shift the responsibility to someone else, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod. Herod was thrilled that Pilate referred this case to him. He questioned Jesus and made fun of him, encouraging Jesus to perform some miracles. Then Herod’s entourage mocked Jesus’ claim of kingship him by putting a royal robe around his shoulders. Jesus said not one word in his own defense. Having no basis for condemnation, Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate. You get the picture. Jesus stood accused before Caiaphas, then the Sanhedrin, then Pilate, then Herod, and now back to Pilate a second time. Twice more, Pilate tried to release Jesus, but the Jewish leaders insisted. Finally, when Pilate declared that he would just have Jesus scourged and released, they protested, requesting the release of Barabbas, already adjudicated guilty of insurrection and murder. They demanded the crucifixion of Jesus. Pilate removed himself from being a part of the whole matter and turned Jesus of Nazareth over to the Romans who would kill him, crucify him.

How did the Jewish leaders exercise such advantage over Pilate? William Barkley says it was a matter of blackmail. The Sanhedrin knew facts about Pilate that would put him in disfavor with Caesar. In one of the gospels, they even said to Pilate, “The man who releases Jesus is no friend of Caesar.” It was as if to say, “You release him, and we are going to tell on you.”

Danger exists when we look only at this political conniving and maneuvering occurring behind the cross. The danger is that we will say that the Jews killed Jesus. Let me caution you not to do that. Remember that Caiaphas, the high priest, was corrupt. Remember that the Sanhedrin, primarily a body bent on mercy, violated its own rules. Collusion existed between Pilate and Herod. Blackmail leverage against Pilate is a factor behind the cross. At this particular time in history – with this group of unscrupulous people both in the empire and in the temple – there was collusion. Other factors are at work, too. Judas betrayed Jesus, and Simon Peter denied Jesus.

When we consider the theological dynamics of the crucifixion, we enter a confusing mystery about who required this death. We might ask, “How are we to understand the events behind this cross, behind the crucifixion of Jesus? Who required the crucifixion? How do we re-establish a right relationship with God?” Through the years, Christian theology has not done a very good job sorting out the answers. A summary of the principle doctrines may help.

Atonement is a theological term that comes from an Old English word that means being at one with God. You can divide atonement into its component parts: at one ment. Atonement is the doctrine of reconciliation. One answer to the question, “Who demanded the crucifixion?” is that God, the great Judge of the universe, God, who is just, demanded this death. You can accept this notion and be very accurate up to a point. Redemption of sin among the Jews required sacrifice, the shedding of blood. God forgave with an animal sacrifice. Jesus becomes a sort of combination of the lamb with no spot or blemish sacrificed on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and the Passover lamb slaughtered so that the angel of death would pass over the homes of the Israelites when they were in bondage in Egypt. When we follow this line of thinking, we speak often about the blood of Jesus. Christian theology has talked about Jesus’ blood as if he had more than the twelve to sixteen pints that most of us have. We have talked about “a fountain filled with blood Drawn from Immanuel’s veins.”

Another concept that has crept into Christian theology is the practice of pouring blood over sinners, a rite that comes from ancient Rome. The pagans participated in what is known as the Roman Taurobolium, a word that means “the blood of the bull.” They lowered an accused person into the bottom of a pit and covered it with a grate. Then they slaughtered a bull on top of the grate, allowing its blood to drip down on the sinner. The idea that Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world is quite valid, but again we have to be cautious. Otherwise, we are guilty of believing in propitiation, whereby God appears to be bloodthirsty, His wrath and vengeance appeased only through bloodletting. The problem with that interpretation is that even in the books of prophecy and the Psalms of the Old Testament, we find examples that clearly say that God does not want burnt offerings. God wants a broken and contrite heart.

Who demands this sacrifice? Some would say the forces of evil demand this sacrifice. It is as if Satan has gotten the upper hand and is holding the whole world hostage. He strikes a bargain, saying, “You give me one Jesus, and I will set the world free.” We sang about the ransom in one hymn today, “When with the ransom and glory…” We will sing about our “ransomed soul” in our invitation hymn later in the service. A good way of understanding atonement is through the idea of a ransom, the idea that our redemption is bought with a price. That price is the life of Jesus. Again, we must be cautious. If we assume that God is paying a ransom, do we also assume that God has suddenly become weak, that He has to strike a bargain with evil and give up His only begotten Son that all of us might be free?

You cannot look only at the factors behind the cross: the political landscape, the failings of Peter, the denial of the other disciples who all ran away, the betrayal of Judas, and these theological doctrines. You cannot see only these forces at work and try to understand how the crucifixion of Jesus could have possibly happened without considering the one missing element. The cross is an emblem of suffering and shame, to be sure. When we look at the cross, we can see meanness, hatred, collusion, denial, and betrayal. We must also see love in the cross to understand how the crucifixion of Jesus happened. Love is the primary motive behind the cross and crucifixion. We must realize that God is love. We must see atonement and sacrifice, ransom and redemption. When you look at the cross, look at love.
Between Tryon and Saluda on the old Saluda Grade, Highway 176, someone has painted signs that read, “Jesus Saves.” You can see these words painted on the side of someone’s barn. You can also see these words painted on the sides of rocks that jut out over the highway. The painter must have hung from rocks and trees to paint those crudely made signs. The signs appear on many perilous curves and switchbacks. Seeing those words is fine, except the sentence is incomplete. Let me complete it for you. Jesus Saves Kirk. Jesus saves… Place your name in the blank. This issue of salvation is very personal because it is motivated by love.

Who required the crucifixion of Jesus? When we read the story, we do not find ourselves in the place of Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, or Pilate. We might find ourselves in the place of Judas and Peter, but we are far more likely to find ourselves in the crowd that shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him!” The truth is that when we ask the question, “Who required the crucifixion of Jesus?” the answer is, “We did. We required it.” We would never have believed how much Jesus loved us if he had not loved us all the way to death. Isaac Watts words it this way: “Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all.” If you look at the cross and do not see that Jesus loves you, you have missed it. Jesus saves you because he loves you.

If you have never accepted that, we invite you to do so today. Make a decision to acknowledge Jesus as the Lord and Savior of your life. I invite you to make a recommitment of that very decision. You do not have to walk down the aisle to do that. Just stand where you are. Bow your head and say, “Thank you, Lord. Thank you for loving me all the way to death.” Maybe God has laid another decision on your heart, a decision about church membership. If that is the case, we invite your response as we stand together and sing a beautiful hymn, “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross.”

© 2006 Kirk H. Neely

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