This blog post is a second half of a collection of seven “episodes” I wrote for Holy Week. (You can read Part 1 here). In reconstructing the final days of Jesus, I wanted to show how Jesus’s revolutionary message and life challenged the political, economic, and religious structures of his day – just like they still do today.
For those who don’t subscribe to the divinity of Jesus, I hope these readings manage to paint Jesus as a compelling figure worthy of admiration and further study. And to those who have grown up with these stories, I hope I can challenge you with some of the more dangerous aspects of Jesus’s message that are too often glossed over or ignored within the American church.
Clash of the Kingdoms
The trial of Jesus is a mockery of justice.
In the eyes of the Jewish high priests, Jesus is a heretic and – perhaps worse for them – he is extremely popular among the lower class.
But Jesus’s greatest slander is his claims that the temple would be destroyed and he could “raise it up in three days.” To the Jewish religious authority, a threat against the temple was a threat against God.
(And this ironic because about 40 years later the temple was destroyed – by Roman Emperor Nero.)
So they go for the kill – literally – and ask Jesus if he is the “Messiah, the son of God.”
And Jesus replies, “I am.”
With this confession, a new plan develops – they won’t have to kill Jesus, the Roman government will take care of it for them. And so they drag Jesus to Pilate, the Roman governor of Jerusalem.
Pilate – not an expert in Hebrew theology – doesn’t understand why they want Jesus killed and he suspects it’s out of jealousy. It isn’t until it is brought to his attention that Jesus has been calling himself the “son of God” that Pilate takes a sudden interest in new prisoner.
The title “Son of God” meant something very different to Pilate’s Roman ears.
It was a title given to the current Caesar, who were worshipped as gods. Roman coins were printed with the name of the Caesar and the words “theos huios,” or “son of god.”
From Pilate’s perspective, for Jesus to claim that he was the “Son of God” was to proclaim that he was the new Caesar. He was a threat to the political stability of the region. If this “son of God” instigated a Jewish uprising, it would be Pilate who would be held accountable by the Roman government.
But he can’t get much out of Jesus and doesn’t him see as much of a threat. But he has to respond, so he has Jesus whipped and beaten.
In accordance with a Roman inauguration ceremony, Jesus is given a crown, a scepter, and a robe. And then to complete the ceremony, the ranking government official loudly proclaims his kingship over the crowd.
“Here is your king!” shouts Pilate.
“We have no king but Caesar!” reply the high priests, an act of blasphemy so shocking it would be hilarious if it wasn’t so relevant to the current state of modern evangelicalism.
Pilate gives them a choice – he can release Jesus, or he can release Barabbas – a violent war criminal convicted of insurrection and murder.
Pilate is sure they’ll release Jesus, but he doesn’t understand the worldview of his audience.
They choose to release Barabbas (Lk. 23:23-25), the violent revolutionary,
because he looks more like the awaited Messiah than the beaten and bloodied man before them.
They choose the power of empire over the love of Jesus.
This particular episode of Jesus’s life has been used to justify violence and hatred against the Jewish people for centuries. But if your conclusion from this text is “The Jews killed Jesus,” then you’re reading the text wrong.
You need to understand that we are given the choice of Barabas or Jesus every single day.
We choose Barabbas when we endorse politicians who brag about “bombing the shit out of our enemies.” We choose Barabbas when we support legislation that targets and further marginalizes the vulnerable in our society – like immigrants, refugees, minority groups, the LGBTQ+ community, the poor and the unborn.
Pilate sentences Jesus to death by crucifixion and hands him over to the Roman soldiers. They mount a crossbeam over his shoulders and lead him out of the city.
Finally, the King is ready for his ascension to the throne.
The Murder of God
Jesus was executed as an enemy of the state.
Crucifixion was a method of punishment reserved for those accused of sedition against the Roman Empire. A horrific method of public execution, it was meant to strike fear into the hearts of the Zealots, a violent Jewish sect hellbent on ending the Roman occupation of Judea.
Religiously imagery depicting the crucifixion is nonsensically romanticized. The picture painted by history is far grimmer. The site of the execution is Golgotha, or “Skull Hill.” The hillside would’ve been dotted not with three, but dozens of crosses.
Bodies were often left dangling from crosses for days. Crows and vultures circle above, awaiting the opportunity to feast on the dead and not-yet-dead. The incessant buzzing of flies from a nearby mass grave provides a macabre soundtrack to the killing. The surrounding area reeked of shit, piss, and decaying flesh.
Roman soldiers strip Jesus naked, impale him on the cross beams and dangle him above a crowd of morbid onlookers and distraught family members.
Death would not come easy.
Crucifixion, after all, is where we get our word “excruciating.”
A few days earlier, Jesus told his disciples, “If you want to follow me, you’ll need to take up your own cross.” They probably thought he was speaking metaphorically.
Jesus was trying to warn his disciples that following his teachings would probably get them killed.
Living in the Kingdom of Heaven is going to put you at odds with other kingdoms operating in the world.
It puts you in conflict with the military-industrial complex,
and economic systems that make the rich richer and the poor poorer,
and a consumerist culture that preys on our insecurities and vanity to rack up sales,
and religious institutions that use shame and dogma to oppress and motivate their congregations,
and political ideologies that fuel Us vs. Them worldviews.
At the cross, we see a God willing to be scorned, mocked, beaten, tortured, and murdered by followers of his own religion and citizens of his own country.
At the cross, we see a God more willing die for his enemies than to kill them.
At the cross, we see a God stepping into the muck, grime, and bitterness of the human experience.
At the cross, we see a God exposing the injustice of empire, the hypocrisy of religion and bloodlust of humanity.
The cross is not another product to improve your life or a doctrine to occupy your headspace. The cross is an entirely new way to view the world that irrevocably changes the way you interact with the world.
The cross is the Lover and Creator of humanity staring into the eyes of his own torturers and forgiving them.
Weak from blood loss, with the sun beating down upon him and lungs filling with fluid, his heart begins its final erratic rhythms.
And with the taste of blood and forgiveness on his lips, Jesus dies.
Interlude: The Day After
And on Saturday, there is only defeaning silence.
The Renewal of All Things
The cycle of death and rebirth is woven into the fabric of the cosmos. We see this in our gardens and in the cataclysmic supernovas of dying stars.
For there to be new life, there must be death.
Jesus was far from the first to claim he was the Jewish Messiah, and he wouldn’t be last. Roman history notes dozens of failed insurrections and revolutions led by self-proclaimed Messiahs that ended in bloodshed and failure.
And this is why the resurrection matters . Because if there is no resurrection, all we are left with is another sad story of a poor man crushed underneath the heel of an oppressive government.
But the resurrection isn’t a tacked-on fairy tale ending to an otherwise grim story. The resurrection is The Story.
Through the resurrection, we are given of picture of God’s plan for world. In a letter to a first-century church, an early Jesus follower writes that through the blood of the cross, God is “reconciling all things in heaven and earth to himself.”
The word “reconciliation” means a “restoration of what was once lost.”
The beautiful truth of the Gospel is that it is not just a story of our future, but instead the reality that the Kingdom of Heaven is flooding through our world at this very moment, and it was launched through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
One of the worst things to happen to Christianity is the belief that it’s all about going somewhere else after you die. The Biblical narrative climaxes, not with God destroying the world, but with God making all things new.
We get our word gospel by shortening the Old English word Godspell, which means “good story.” That’s the phrase the first English translators chose to replace the Greek word evangelion.
The word “evangelical” has become increasingly toxic in today’s world, and most of it is our own doing. Some Christian colleges are even stripping it from their name. I don’t hold tightly to the word, but I still consider myself an evangelical because I believe the story of Jesus is a good story worth telling.
And I believe the more people who are made aware of the Kingdom of Heaven the better we can all be.
The King has ascended his throne. But he is a different sort of King. He is a King for the oppressed, abused, poor, forgotten, sick, weak, lonely, brokenhearted, marginalized and lost.
The Bible calls Christians “ambassadors of Christ.” As ambassador of this King, we are spokespeople for his vision for humanity.
And as ambassadors to this world, we bring gifts of peace, kindness, gentleness, and joy.
And we bring a message of hope and love – not of judgement, shame, and fear.
The story of Jesus doesn’t end with the Resurrection. It continues in us and through us every single day.
Being a Christian should be good news to everyone around you,
especially to people who don’t share your beliefs.
Now more than ever, the world needs Christians to be more like Christ-like.
Now more than ever, we need the courage to die to our own divisive identity politics, tribalistic thinking, and heretical nationalism.
Because without a death, there can be no resurrection.