Who killed Jesus?

The cross of Christ is repugnant to many.

Polly Toynbee, one of the most well-known opinion columnists in Great Britain and leader of the British Humanist Association, reviewed the 2005 movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In an article subtly entitled, “Narnia Represents Everything That Is Most Hateful about Religion,” she stated, “Of all the elements of Christianity, the most repugnant is the notion of the Christ who took our sins upon himself and sacrificed his body in agony to save our souls.” Then she adds the question: “Did we ask him to?” [Dever, It is Well, 131.]

No, we didn’t.  But someone did.  Someone was responsible for the death of Christ.  Someone planned, orchestrated, and carried out His death.  Who killed Jesus?  Who put Him on the cross?

Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2 answers the question.  On that day, the Holy Spirit had arrived in dramatic fashion so that the 120 who were in the upper room not only received the Holy Spirit, but His power was also manifested in them so that they were speaking the gospel to foreigners in literal languages which they otherwise would not have known.

In explaining the events of that day, Peter began his sermon by explaining that this work of the Spirit was part of what had been foretold by the prophet Joel at the inception of the New Covenant.  And then Peter reminds his hearers specifically how the Holy Spirit had come — it was the result of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection.  And just to make sure there was no ambiguity among the Jewish hearers, Peter reminded them of who Jesus Christ was.

“Men of Israel, listen to these words: Jesus the Nazarene, a man attested to you by God with miracles and wonders and signs which God performed through Him in your midst, just as you yourselves know — this Man, delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death.” (Acts 2:22–23)

 Jesus was a Nazarene — a man without respect in His own country and city — but also a man who was attested to by God through the prophets and through His baptism as the coming Messiah.  Jesus was a man who was attested to by the miracles He worked.  In other words, Jesus was well-credentialed.  He had authority and rights and privilege and position.

And He was killed.

Let no one mistake this reality.  Jesus really lived — He was born and he lived among real people who testified to His human existence and saw His remarkable deeds.  He really lived as Peter says, “in your midst.”  They knew Him and saw Him.  He really lived.  And He really died.  His death was no myth.  He had a real life and a real death.  And it was a horrid death.

We wear crosses around our necks and we put them on signs and greeting cards and bumper stickers and tattoos.  There are basic block-shaped crosses and there are ornate, artistic crosses.  And even people who don’t even really care about Christ might have a cross or wear a cross — “just in case,” as if it were nothing more beneficial than a rabbit’s foot in their pocket.

But that was not the way the ancients thought about the cross.  No one in that day would have worn a cross.  In that day it was the most shameful kind of death.  By Roman law, no Roman citizen could be crucified.  Crucifixion was reserved for slaves and rebels.  It was called by the historian Cicero the supreme capital penalty.  It was painful, shameful, dreadful, and ugly.

So why did He die such an ignominious death?  Who killed Him?

Peter says it was the Romans who killed Jesus — it was “the hands of godless men” that “put Him to death” (v. 23).  And certainly that was true.  The Jews wanted Jesus dead, but they did not have the right to put him to death so part of the conspiracy against Christ was to get him tried in the Roman civil court in addition to the Jewish religious court.  And other passages affirm the same truth — the Romans killed Jesus.  This same truth is acknowledged later in Acts:

‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
and the peoples devise futile things?
‘the kings of the earth took their stand,
and the rulers were gathered together
against the Lord and against his Christ.’ [Ps. 2:1-2]
For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel (Acts 4:25-27).

So the Roman government and the corrupt judicial system was responsible for Jesus’ death.

But there was something compelling the actions of the Romans.  They did not act on their own.  In fact there is some reluctance as Jesus is sent from Pilate to Herod and back to Pilate.  Pilate even vainly attempted to rid himself of the guilt of Jesus’ death by washing his hands of responsibility.  The Romans didn’t really want to kill Jesus.  But the Jewish leaders did.  So Peter says to the Jewish listeners, “you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men.”  No, the Jews did not swing the hammers, but they were the ones who wanted Jesus dead and were culpable for His death.

The Jewish leaders made no secret of their hatred of Christ and it was widely acknowledged that they were behind the death of Christ.

  • Acts 2:36 “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ — this Jesus whom you crucified.”
  • Acts 3:13 “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him.
  • Acts 4:10 let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead — by this name this man stands here before you in good health.
  • Acts 5:30 “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross.
  • Acts 7:52 “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become;

Yes, the Romans killed Christ, but they killed Him at the bidding of the Jewish leadership.

Yet the Jewish leaders were not ultimately responsible for the death of Christ.  Yes, they planned and schemed and manipulated.  Yes Judas became angry at Christ and came up with a scheme to betray Christ.  But there was something else happening as well.  This was all God’s plan.  So Peter says, “This man…the man who was attested to by God and your own eyes and experience as being human and Messiah…This man [was] delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God.”

The words Peter uses could not be more clear.  It was Jesus, whom God had affirmed through His testimony — and no one else — that God intended to die on the cross.  Jesus died because that was God’s predetermined plan…  It was through the ordaining purpose of God that this plan was devised.  In eternity, God put it together intentionally to accomplish His specific purposes.  With this plan, God acted; what happened to Christ was no reactive attempt to make the best of a situation that escaped the control of God.  God designed these events.

And Jesus died because that was part of God’s foreknowledge.  The word “foreknowledge” is an unfortunate translation; the word refers to a selective knowledge — it is a determinative choosing.  So God predetermined the plan and He determined it specifically for Christ.  He chose Christ and Christ alone to fulfill the plan.

This sounds scandalous to us.  Yet this is not merely an opinion by Peter that slipped accidentally into Scripture.  Many other places also affirm that God was the ultimate source of Christ’s death.  Jesus repeatedly affirmed to the disciples the necessity of His death — a death that was necessary because it was the only plan devised by God to accomplish redemption from sin:

  • Luke 9:22 The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day.”
  • Luke 9:44 “Let these words sink into your ears; for the Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.”
  • Luke 17:25 “But first He must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation.”
  • Luke 18:31-33 Then He took the twelve aside and said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and all things which are written through the prophets about the Son of Man will be accomplished.  For He will be handed over to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and mistreated and spit upon, and after they have scourged Him, they will kill Him; and the third day He will rise again.”
  • Luke 22:37 “For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘AND HE WAS NUMBERED WITH TRANSGRESSORS’; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.” (See also Lk. 13:33; Jn. 6:38-44.)

Other passages and other writers also affirm the plan of God in the death of Christ:

  • Acts 4:27-28 “For truly in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”
  • Acts 13:27-28 “For those who live in Jerusalem, and their rulers, recognizing neither Him nor the utterances of the prophets which are read every Sabbath, fulfilled these by condemning Him. And though they found no ground for putting Him to death, they asked Pilate that He be executed.”
  • 2 Tim. 1:9 who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity,
  • Titus 1:1-3 Paul, a bond-servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ, for the faith of those chosen of God and the knowledge of the truth which is according to godliness, in the hope of eternal life, which God, who cannot lie, promised long ages ago, but at the proper time manifested, even His word, in the proclamation with which I was entrusted according to the commandment of God our Savior…
  • Heb. 13:20 Now the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great Shepherd of the sheep through the blood of the eternal covenant, even Jesus our Lord…
  • Rev. 13:8 All who dwell on the earth will worship him, everyone whose name has not been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain.

We may not initially like this reality.  We agree with Katie Luther who said of Abraham offering his son Isaac on the altar in Genesis 22 — “I do not believe it.  God would not have treated his son like that!”  “But Katie,” Luther is said to have replied, “He did.”

And not only did God place Christ on the altar, it was always His plan and intention to do so.  The plans against Christ were not initiated by the Romans or the Jews.  They were initiated by God with the full compliance of Christ.  God planned it and Christ embraced the plan and fulfilled the plan.

When the plans against Christ were being formulated by the Jews and carried out by the Romans and while Christ was praying in the Garden, God was not in heaven wringing His hands, hoping that the inevitable death of Christ would not happen.  He was not anxious that this event not happen but unable to stop its advance.  No, as God looked down from Heaven, He looked with satisfaction at the unfolding of a plan that He had designed for Christ in eternity.  What had always been His intent was in the process of being fulfilled.

Jesus said it several times to the disciples — it was necessary for Him to die this way.  It was necessary because God decreed it and because God had to decree His death.  A writer by the name of George Smeaton says this:

“…if the ransom was to possess any value, it must be of God, and not against His will; for without divine appointment it could not have served the purpose. The judicial sentence by which He became the object of punishment, and was delivered into the hands of sinners, was carried into effect solely on the ground that He was already a sin-bearer in our stead by express covenant with the Father.…and He could be delivered over to penal visitation only with His own consent…” [The Apostles’ Doctrine of the Atonement, 86.]

So Christ could only be the sin-bearer if that was God’s intended plan and purpose.  And it was.

But even more, Jesus joyfully consented to and covenanted with God to accomplish the plan.  If Christ’s life was taken from Him rather than given by Him, then there could be no substitution and no redemption and no forgiveness and no hope.  Yet the perfectly sinless one took on the sins of those who would believe in Him and absorbed the wrath of God for those sinners, accomplishing their salvation.

The death of Christ could not have been only by the plans of godless men for then they would have been sovereign over Christ.  But they were not sovereign.  God the Father and Christ Jesus the Son were sovereign.

So, who killed Jesus?  Who asked Jesus to die?  Certainly the Romans did.  They took the hammers and forced the nails through the flesh of Jesus’ hands and feet.  They acted out the farcical trials.  They pronounced the sentence.  But the Jews were the motive behind it.  They hated Christ and they were driven to destroy Him and rid themselves of His judgmental teaching.  The Romans and Jews were both culpable for Christ’s death.  They are responsible and will one day be judged for their sins.

But the compelling force behind Christ’s death was God the Father.  It was His plan and purpose to atone for the sins of men so that they might be redeemed to enjoy His fellowship for all eternity.  J. C. Ryle captured the necessity of the cross well when he wrote,

“Two things there are which man has no arithmetic to reckon, and no lie to measure.  One of these things is the extent of that man’s loss who loses his own soul.  The other is the extent of God’s gift when he gave Christ to sinners…Sin must indeed be exceedingly sinful, when the Father must needs give his only Son to be the sinner’s Friend!”

What happened on Thursday night at the trials of Jesus and on Friday at His crucifixion were horrid miscarriages of justice, but do not fret over that injustice.  It was the intent of God that Christ would die that way and absorb the wrath of God in that way so that those of us who believe in Him would not have to die but that we might live.

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