Scripture Reading: Matthew 26-27; Mark 14-15; Luke 22-23; John 13-14, 16-19
Significant Moments in The Story:
Jesus washes the disciples’ feet: John 13:1-20
The Last Supper: Matthew 26:20-30, Mark 14:17-27, Luke 22:14-38
Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane: Matthew 26:36-46, Mark 14:32-42, Luke 22:39-46
Jesus’ trial: Matthew 26:57-75, Mark 14:53-72, Luke 22:54-71, John 18:12-27
Jesus before Pilate: Matthew 27:1-31, Mark 15:1-20, Luke 23:1-25, John 18:28-19:16
The crucifixion of Jesus: Matthew 27:32-56, Mark 15:21-41, Luke 23:26-49, John 19:17-37
Christ died for us. Christ died for our sins. We have heard it, said it, and sung it so many times that the question that might be asked is: do we understand what we are saying? What does the crucifixion of Christ have to do with us?
Understanding the relationship of the crucifixion of Jesus to our understanding of atonement – the reconciliation of a sinful creation to God – has driven theology, worship, evangelism, and missions for centuries. Yet, 2000 years later, it must be said that, though most Christians have an understanding of the role of the cross in humanity’s atonement, there is still no clear definition of the understanding of why Christ’s death on the cross is effective for the atonement of mankind. I would like to summarize below a few popular understandings of the crucifixion and atonement, with helpful guidance from A New Handbook of Christian Theology and Past Event and Present Salvation.
1) Ransom – Humanity has been enslaved by evil. In our sin, humanity has given ourselves willingly over to Satan and the ultimate end of that choice is death. However, Christ paid the price of sin – death – even though he was without sin. Thus, any who would identify with Christ as his disciples claim the price he paid as the ransom that sets them free from sin’s power.
2) Satisfaction – Humanity’s sin has offended our just, holy, and righteous God. We have broken our covenant with God and disobeyed His law and word. The law called for curses upon those who broke the covenant with God. Christ’s death on the cross was intended to bear the curses of all of mankind’s sin to fulfill the covenant and allow humanity to be restored to a right relationship with God.
3) Substitution – Our sin has offended God, and in His wrath we are subject to His just punishment. However, Christ offers himself up on the cross to bear God’s wrath that we deserve but he does not because he was without sin.
4) Influence – The cross is the ultimate expression of the extent to which God is willing to go to forgive humanity. The cross is also an expression of the suffering our sin causes God. The cross exposes the ultimate hopelessness of sin and evil and the power of this world and invites mankind to turn toward a loving God who is ready to forgive and welcome His creation into His kingdom.
Certainly, these 4 are not inclusive of every explanation and perspective on atonement. However, my guess is that, as you read these, you probably recognize one (or more) that you claim as your understanding and that you have heard preached, taught, and sung in the church at one time or another. Which is the “correct” explanation? Who you ask will determine which choice is selected.
A personal observation: based on the gospel accounts, it is clear that any understanding of atonement and the crucifixion cannot be separated from the resurrection. To say it another way, we cannot seek to explain or understand the crucifixion of Christ from a perspective that does not incorporate the resurrection of Christ. None of the four gospels end at the cross; all end with the same announcement – the tomb is empty, the Lord is risen. The gospel writers do not seem concerned to try to explain the significance of the crucifixion alone. In all four, the culmination of the story of Jesus the Christ is his resurrection.
When they had sung the hymn
Psalms 115-118 are psalms that were traditionally sung during Passover
The Sanhedrin (the whole council) – Matthew 26:57-59
Such a trial would have been illegal because hearings were forbidden during festivals such as Passover.
Pilate was the Roman procurator, or governor, of Judea for 10 years. As procurator, he had unrestricted judicial authority, could collect taxes, and had command over anywhere from 500-3,000 soldiers. Philo described Pilate as an anti-Semite who “… was cruel and his hard heart knew no compassion. His day in Judea was a reign of bribery and violence, robbery, oppression, misery, executions without a fair trial and infinite cruelty.”
There are two episodes from history that are worth noting as we consider Pilate’s role in the crucifixion of Christ. At one point, Pilate had his troops carry standards bearing the image of the Roman emperor into Jerusalem. No other procurator had ever done this before, as these standards were a symbol of Rome’s emperor worship and they had not wanted to offend the beliefs of the Jews. As a result, many Jews traveled to Pilate’s home and for five days and nights lay prone and motionless around his house. On the sixth day, Pilate placed soldiers among the crowd that drew swords at a specific signal. All the Jewish people bared their necks as a sign that they would rather die than defy their laws. Realizing the possibility of national revolution and possible reprimand from the emperor, Pilate removed the standards.
On another occasion, Pilate embezzled money from the funds designated for the Jerusalem Temple in order to build an aquedeuct. When he next came to Jerusalem, an angry mob descended on him. Pilate, however, ordered some of his troops to dress as civilians and mingle in the crowd. At a specific signal, the disguised troops pulled clubs out from their garments and beat the protestors, killing many of them.
These two stories reveal some things about Pilate that we should consider as we read the gospel story. Pilate was cunning and ruthless. He had no respect for the Jewish people or their faith and laws. He was concerned with avoiding trouble that might diminish his authority or bring unwanted attention from the emperor. Interestingly enough, Pilate’s own methods – putting people among the crowds to incite trouble – is the very method the gospel writers describe as used by the priests and scribes to incite the crowd to call for Barabbas instead of Jesus.
Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?
This is the first verse of Psalm 22. It is interesting to read this Psalm in light of the events of Christ’s crucifixion. It was a typical practice to recite the first words or sentence of a book or psalm to refer to the entire passage.
The young man – Mark 14:51-52
The identity of the young man is unknown. Some wonder if it is the evangelist Mark himself. Others have noticed a correlation to the young man dressed in a white robe in Mark’s account of the resurrection in Mark 16, leading to some speculation that this young man was an angel attending to Christ (Luke 22:43).
Some Questions that Might Come Up
Why does Judas kill himself? Was what he did unforgivable?
Matthew is the only gospel that records Judas hanging himself. Mark and John never mentions Juda again after Jesus’ arrest. Luke, in the opening chapter of Acts (Acts 1:18-19), tells us that Judas used the money he was given for betraying Jesus to buy a field, in which he suffered a horrific accident.
A lot of questions arise around Judas’ role in the crucifixion of Christ. Did he have choice in betraying Jesus (Matthew 26:20-25)? Was he possessed by a demon (John 13:27)? Judas’ motivations are certainly muddy based on the gospel accounts. Perhaps that is because the gospel writers struggled to find explanation for such betrayal that made no sense, as we often do.
The question that many ask is whether Judas could have been forgiven for his betrayal. The short answer has to be yes, I believe. If Jesus could pronounce forgiveness for the thief hanging next him, if Jesus could pray, “Father, forgive them” for those who had nailed to him a cross and those who stood at the foot of the cross mocking him, if Jesus could welcome back Peter who had denied even knowing him after avidly swearing allegiance to Jesus, is there any reason why we would think Jesus could not have forgiven him? Perhaps Judas’ story is the story of what the gospel looks like with only a cross and without resurrection. There is no hope, there is no grace, there is no new life. Perhaps Judas hangs himself because he thinks he is unable to make it right with the one who he had betrayed. Judas saw only a cross with no hope of resurrection, even though Christ had said he would rise three days later.