The death of Jesus and His subsequent resurrection are at the heart of the Bible's message. The Bible describes these events as "of first importance" (1 Corinthians 15:3). Without the death of Christ, there is no gospel; His cross truly is the crux of our faith. Jesus' death atones for our sins and reconciles us with God (Romans 5:10). And the Bible's pretty clear why He had to die the way He did. He had to be whipped and remain silent and die on a cross (tree) in order to fulfill prophecy. He had to shed His blood because "it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life" (Leviticus 17:11 NIV). The cross fulfills the righteous requirement of the Law and establishes the New Covenant (Mark 14:24).
But why did He die? How did circumstances arise at that time to produce the conditions that led to His death?
God works in history. He works in the context of people and personalities and politics to teach us, correct us, and act on our behalf. In the time of Christ, the social milieu included super-legalistic Pharisees, power-hungry Sadducees, favor-seeking Herodians, Jewish priests, and Roman rulers maintaining a precarious order. In all of their history together, these groups may have agreed on only one thing: Jesus had to die.
The Pharisees valued religion. They studied, memorized, and debated the Law of Moses, and when that wasn't enough, they added more laws. Their middle-class position situated them close to the people, but their legalism put them in conflict with Jesus. They heard Jesus clearly saying (in a culturally understood way) that He was God and the Son of God. They might have dismissed Jesus as a madman except those who had been burdened by their teachings were now finding freedom in Jesus (Matthew 11:28). In addition, Jesus taught that the Pharisees were hypocrites and false teachers (Matthew 23:11). Jesus was a threat to the Pharisees' beliefs, social position, and power—but they were unable to kill Him outright. Although the Jews could execute someone for religious reasons (see Stephen's stoning in Acts 7), if the Pharisees had personally killed Jesus, they would have faced an angry populace and lost even more influence (Luke 20:19). Unable to get rid of Jesus themselves, the Pharisees had to find political justification for an execution. Then Rome could do the dirty work.
The middle men between the Jews and the Romans were the Sadducees. Sadducees were upper class. They held the majority of the positions in the Sanhedrin and the most political power. They were also Hellenists, which means they welcomed the influence of Greek culture and philosophy. But because the Pharisees were so influential among the people, the Sadducees often had to bow to the will of the Pharisees in the Sanhedrin. It was simple for the Pharisees to convince the Sadducees that, if Jesus were allowed to live, He would inspire a revolt and bring the wrath of Rome on all of Israel. As much as the Sadducees longed for the day when they could rule without foreign interference, they knew that any revolt had to be absolutely successful or Israel would be destroyed (as it was in AD 70).
Meanwhile, the Roman rulers in Palestine were charged with keeping the peace. If violence erupted (which it did occasionally), Caesar would come down hard on both the Jews and the appointed Roman leaders.
The Pharisees lit the fire. They pounced on the fact that the people of Jerusalem called Jesus a king during the triumphal entry (Luke 19:28). The Pharisees, with the Sadducees on their side, began to accuse Jesus of plotting to overthrow Rome, as if He were a rabble-rouser of the first degree. Ironically, this is probably the exact opposite reason that Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus (Mark 14:10). It's likely that Judas was hoping for the overthrow of Rome, and when he realized that Jesus was not interested in a political coup, he became treacherously disillusioned.
The Jewish leaders took their trumped-up charge against Jesus to the Roman ruler Pilate. Pilate knew the allegations were bogus, but he couldn't control the crowd—a crowd that was incited to clamor for Jesus' death (Mark 15:11). Fear became a strong motivation for Pilate. If the people rioted, Rome would declare him an ineffective leader and he'd be ruined politically.
So, the Pharisees wanted Jesus dead because He pointed out their sin and undermined their influence. Judas wanted Jesus dead because He was not the political champion Judas had hoped. The Sadducees wanted Jesus dead to ensure the stability of their political position. Pilate didn't want Jesus dead, but he feared a riot. God used all of this to get His Son to the cross to die for our sins. Ultimately, it wasn't Jews or Romans or Pilate or Judas who put Jesus on the cross; it was greed, fear, jealousy and selfishness. Jesus died because of sin and through His death justified us and saved us from God's wrath (Romans 5:9). "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'" (Galatians 3:13).
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