A Death in Jerusalem
On a spring day in Jerusalem, a man named Jesus was tortured and executed by the Roman government. But after he died God resurrected him, and the world was forever changed.
Jerusalem seemed to be gripped by a fanatical hysteria during that fateful day on which Jesus died. Some were shouting that he had blasphemed against God and should be condemned to death. Others accused him of treason against the state, and clamored for his execution.
Jesus’ closest disciples disowned him and fled. Many others followed Jesus to the cross, mourning and wailing for him. Some people hurled insults at him as he was dying. “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him,” they taunted (Matthew 27:42).
One of the criminals executed with Jesus was profoundly moved, perceiving something special about Jesus—something beyond his humanity. A centurion praised God and said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).
Strange things occurred that day in Jerusalem. The land was mired in a soupy darkness between noon and 3 in the afternoon. For no known reason, the curtain in front of the temple’s Most Holy Place ripped in two from top to bottom.
Earlier, the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, had agonized over what to do with Jesus. Pilate had been reluctant to sign the execution order because there was no legal reason for doing so. He knew Jesus wasn’t guilty of any crime. But Pilate didn’t have the political will to resist those who demanded that Jesus be crucified. Finally, to appease the mob, the governor simply signed away the carpenter’s life.
Letter from Pilate?
One wonders how Pilate might have explained his actions regarding Jesus to himself—or his superiors in Rome. Pilate was known for overstepping his authority and for being brutal to his subjects. (A few years after signing Jesus’ death warrant, Pilate was ordered to Rome to justify his slaughter of a Samaritan religious group that had gathered on Mt. Gerizim.)
Let us assume Pilate felt compelled to justify his execution of Jesus to the emperor. His letter might have looked something like this:
To Emperor Tiberius regarding the execution of an insurrectionist from Galilee.
Your Majesty, I’m writing this letter so you will be aware of an unusual situation in the province of Judea. On the day before the Jews’ Passover this year, I executed a man named Jesus, who was from the town of Nazareth.
I thought I would write a personal report to you about this as it is said by some that this man claimed to be a god. The Jewish leaders of Jerusalem told me he had taught everywhere that death would not hold him and that he would rise from the grave, to live again.
But that is not why I felt compelled to have the man executed. He was accused of insurrection and of being the ringleader of a rebel group prepared to overthrow Caesar’s government in Judea. He even claimed to be a king himself—a king of the Jews.
When I discovered these things, as a precautionary measure, I authorized a search for the man and had him quickly arrested. His followers scattered into the hills when my soldiers arrived.
I investigated the charges against this Jesus very thoroughly before proceeding against him, of course. Though I was unable personally to substantiate the accusations, the man did have a large following throughout the province. This seemed evidence enough that the indictment against him as a ringleader of sedition was true.
In fact, it was the leaders of our loyal Jewish subjects in Judea—including the high priest—who brought the charges to me. They insisted they had evidence of a plot. Their own ruling body, the Sanhedrin, concurred that this man was guilty of crimes against Caesar, and said he should be crucified.
The accused himself did not deny the charges. In fact, he made no reply to them whatsoever. In order to preserve Caesar’s enlightened rulership in Judea, I thought it prudent to deal decisively with the situation and proceed with the examination of the accused. At its completion, I ordered that he undergo the standard execution by crucifixion outside the city walls of Jerusalem.
After his death, I had the body placed in a tomb. I intended to secure the tomb with our own soldiers, but the Jewish religious leaders objected. They pleaded for their temple police to guard it. To show concern for our subjects and to keep the peace of Caesar intact, I allowed their police to be involved in the security measures. I also ordered a large stone to be rolled across the entrance of the tomb. Then, I placed a seal on it.
However, a report soon came to my ears that the tomb of this crucified insurrectionist was empty. The Jews said that in spite of their best efforts, the followers of this man somehow had been able to steal the body from the tomb.
I made diligent search but was unable to locate it. Whatever the fate of the body, this man’s followers now insist he is alive. They are making this claim publicly throughout Jerusalem, asserting that they speak “in Jesus’ name.” His followers say he is a god indeed. Because of this many are joining their cause.
That being so, I was uncertain what further course I ought to take regarding the followers of this man they say is still alive. The nature of the situation seemed to justify my writing and consulting you.
|After Jesus’ arrest and trial before the Sanhedrin, which condemned him to death, Jesus is bound and led through the city to appear before Pilate. Illustrations by Jody Eastman|
And so Jesus was crucified. The world took no notice of what happened that spring day in Jerusalem. Only a few discerned there was something different about this man, though they couldn’t quite put their finger on what it was.
Pilate himself only saw Jesus as a political problem to be dealt with. He certainly had no idea that he had become a player in a momentous historical drama.
The death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, we now know, was the pivotal event of human history. God had sent Jesus to rescue the world from sin by his death. And he was resurrected so we might have eternal life. Pilate had no awareness of this central truth of human history (John 18:33-38). He saw Jesus as just another human standing in his way, not God in the flesh.
Strangely, many in the Christian world are also not sure of Jesus Christ’s identity. Was he the wisest of wise teachers, but nothing more? If the answer is yes, Jesus’ death could have no special meaning and his claimed resurrection would be a pious fraud.
The central event of all history— Jesus’ death and resurrection—has meaning only when we understand his divine identity. Jesus was more than a good man, mystical teacher or the best of humans. To put it in a short sentence that describes a divine mystery: Jesus was God in the flesh.
We learn about Jesus’ true identity from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. He begins by describing “the Word” as the eternal life that existed from the beginning. This Word was both with God and was God. In some mysterious and miraculous way, the Word became flesh—became a human being—and lived with us as the man Jesus Christ.
In Jesus, God “came down” to reach out to humans—to help us to be reconciled to him—and to restore our relationship with the Creator. The apostle Paul spoke of Jesus’ work in these very terms.
Lacking the political will to resist those who demand Jesus be crucified, Pilate, to appease the mob, simply signs away the carpenter’s life by ordering his execution.
He said God “reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:18). In fact, said Paul, “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them” (verse 19). In Jesus, God demonstrated his loving plan, which was his purpose from the beginning. Paul told his co-worker Titus that the Christian’s future rests on the hope of eternal life that God “promised before the beginning of time” (Titus 1:2).
God takes every possible step to reconcile us to him. God is the quintessential pursuing lover. He yearns, as the apostle Peter said, for “everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
And God showed this love while human beings were yet sinners—still his enemies. This proved God was not about rules, or about anger, or about condemnation. He was about love—about bringing us home to himself.
In Jesus, God entered the world to live with a suffering humanity. Hebrews tells us Jesus as God incarnate shared in our humanity (Hebrews 2:14). That means God can sympathize with our weaknesses. He has “been here, done that.”
God knows what it’s like to experience hatred and injustice. In Jesus, he even endured the final torment: extreme torture and death by agonizing crucifixion. The fact that in Jesus God shared our suffering should help to reconcile us to him. Because God reached out to us through a suffering human life, we have no reason to question God’s motives, even though we may not fully understand the processes he uses.
God’s promise revealed in Jesus is that he will liberate us from the bondage and corruption we now suffer. And it will be a glorious and eternal freedom we shall have. That, as the saying goes, is something we can take to the bank. It is certain.
In Jesus, God entered our suffering world voluntarily to begin the process of transforming it. Jesus’ death closed the gap sin had caused between humanity and God.
His life also
Jesus’ death, however, is only half the story of salvation. The rest of the story is his resurrection. We need a living and a resurrected Savior. We need both the Cross and the Empty Tomb. We need both the death and the life of Christ. The apostle Paul showed how the two work together. He wrote, “For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!” (Romans 5:10).
Jesus Christ’s death is about our present. It makes peace between us and God. His resurrection and life is about our future. It is a living promise that there is much more to our lives than our temporary and physical here-and-now existence.
The book of Revelation gives us a beautiful picture of our eternal future, in which we are promised eternal life in peace with our Creator. John, the writer, explains this through the image of the new Jerusalem, which symbolizes the eternal kingdom of God. Speaking of that eternal rest, John quotes a loud voice from God’s throne saying:
“Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).
The resurrection—the way to this eternal kingdom—is the cornerstone of the Christian life. The resurrection of Jesus is the proof that we, too, shall be lifted up from death to immortal life.
No letter about Jesus from Pilate to Emperor Tiberius exists. However, several early church writers claimed that Pilate did, indeed, send a report of the trial and execution of Jesus to Tiberius. (See Tertullian, Apology 16; Justin, Apology 1.35; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.2.) Tertullian claimed that when Emperor Tiberius read the report about Jesus, he asked the Roman senate to declare him a god, but that the proposition was rejected (Apology 26).