In this pre-Easter period we are dipping into Matthew's gospel and seeing what it teaches about the last period of Jesus' life leading up to, and including, his Crucifixion and glorious Resurrection. Appropriately, as today in the church's year is the beginning of Passiontide, I've been asked to speak on the very last hours of our Lord's life before the actual crucifying, and Matthew 27. And we are going to be looking, this evening, at the first half of this chapter and be asking three questions in relation to The Cross. And the three questions are: first, who was responsible for Jesus' crucifixion? Secondly, who else was responsible, apart from the obvious people? Thirdly, who benefitted? So, first:
1. Who Was Responsible?
To answer questions about responsibility, you have to be careful. For when someone wickedly drives a car over Westminster Bridge on a pavement killing four innocent people, killing a policeman and injuring many others, the law rightly, and we thank God that it does, seeks to punish and restrain those intentionally responsible, either directly or indirectly, for carrying out such atrocities. But many other factors and people can be seen as playing a part in the shaping of that violent car driver and so that event. There was his unstable childhood and his subsequent unstable background, with the influences in and from prison. And prisons can be very bad because of too few staff to keep order (as witnessed locally in Northumberland Prison in Morpeth and as seen grimly on the recent BBC Panorama programme). Attributing responsibility is a complex issue.
So when considering who was responsible for the Crucifixion of Jesus, we should expect the answer to be a number of people. And that is what we find – certainly in our passage for tonight. For there are five people, or groups of people, here in Matthew 27 contributing to, or being responsible for, the Crucifixion of Jesus. First, there is the Jewish establishment - the leaders of the people making up the Sanhedrin, the equivalent of the Jewish Supreme Court and Parliament. Look at verses 1-2:
"When morning came, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death. And they bound him and led him away and delivered him over to Pilate the governor."
Notice it was all the chief priests and the city fathers (the elders of the people) who were involved. It was a full turnout; such was the hostility towards Jesus. They had been meeting during the night and in the early hours of the morning - like, I suspect, a lot of the Brexit negotiators will be meeting in the months that lie ahead! But this was different. These chief priests and city fathers weren't interested in two genuine sides of an argument. They were wanting to find reasons that they could bring to Pilate, the Roman Governor, to get a death sentence, come what may, and then a crucifixion. You see, the Sanhedrin, under the Roman occupation, couldn't sentence people to death. Only the Roman authorities could pass such a sentence and then execute someone.
It may have been that throughout the hours of darkness this kangaroo court – the Sanhedrin of Chief Priests and Elders of the People - got as far as thinking they could charge Christ with blasphemy. But when dawn came, verse 1, they "took counsel against Jesus to put him to death". They now wanted a fail-safe charge on which Pilate would have to act; and they found one as we shall see. It seems they phrased it in terms of "kingship" and so sedition. And having decided, they tied Jesus up, with the rope they were using and, verse 2, they "delivered him over to Pilate the governor."
But then Matthew changes the scene and, secondly, you learn about the person as responsible as anyone for Jesus crucifixion – namely, Judas. He had already been paid by the chief priests to betray Jesus. But now look at verses 3-10:
"Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, saying, "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood." They said, "What is that to us? See to it yourself." And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, "It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money." So they took counsel and bought with them the potter's field as a burial place for strangers. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, "And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord directed me."
Judas had betrayed Jesus for "thirty pieces of silver". And that was not a huge sum. He now is admitting his wrong doing: "I have sinned by betraying innocent blood". But he is confessing to the wrong people who, instead of helping him, couldn't care less. So Judas proves there was no real charge that you could lay against Jesus. He also proves that there is a repentance that is too late. 2 Corinthians 7.10 says…
"godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death."
Poor Judas did not have a repentance that led to salvation, for verse 5:
"throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself."
Judas, tragically, went to the wrong place for help with repentance. Be warned – religious leaders today can be unhelpful and totally hypocritical as these were. For these Jewish clergy happily spent money for the betrayal of Jesus, but knowing its criminal intent refused its reimbursement following that betrayal.
That brings us thirdly to the one most famous for his responsibility for Jesus' crucifixion, Pilate, the Roman Governor. So look at verses 11-14:
"Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You have said so." But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?" But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed."
Pilate was in office ten years – from AD 26-36. Therefore, Tiberius, the Emperor, must have thought well of him. He was technically a "Prefect", that was an army officer put in charge of difficult areas, like the Roman province of Judaea. And such governors had a fairly free hand. But the Emperor wanted them neither to allow rebellion nor be too harsh with subject peoples. So what Pilate would have been worried about during the Passover, that first Easter, was a rebellion. And probably that was why the chief priests and the elders of the people had framed the charge against Jesus in terms of his claiming to be the Messiah, which meant to the Jews some form of earthly King.
So when Jesus is before the governor, Pilate asks him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" But Jesus replies by neither affirming it or denying it; he simply says, verse 11: "You have said so." For in one supernatural and transcendental sense he is King of the Jews and of everyone everywhere. But in the way Pilate would have understood "kingship", namely as competition for Tiberius, he certainly was not – he was not that sort of king. And as we read on, we see Pilate being so weak. For, knowing Jesus to be innocent, he was frightened of the Jerusalem crowd and what they might do.
So that Jerusalem crowd is the fourth group responsible for Jesus death. Look now at verses 15 to 26:
"Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" For he knew that it was out of envy [notice that] that they had delivered him up. Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much because of him today in a dream." Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas." Pilate said to them, "Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" They all said, "Let him be crucified!" And he said, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified!" So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." And all the people answered, "His blood be on us and on our children!" Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified."
The crowd had been worked on by the chief priests and elders to ensure that Jesus would be, as Matthew put it, "destroyed". Tragically the majority of people will always follow the majority of people. And we are now told quite clearly that Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent and, verse 18, "it was out of envy that they [the chief priests and the elders] had delivered him up." Add to that verse 19 about Pilate's wife getting a message through to him about a dream she had. The dream also persuaded her that Jesus was innocent and so Pilate should "have nothing to do with that righteous man." As Professor Bruce in his little commentary on Matthew reminds us:
"Such a message would be taken seriously; every knowledgeable Roman was aware that Julius Caesar would not have been assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BC, if he had paid heed to his wife's dreams and stayed at home instead of going to the senate."
Pilate, then, wanting to pacify the crowd, tried to direct the crowd's fury away from Jesus and on to Barabbas, a terrorist, but without success. So finally and symbolically Pilate washes his hands thinking this would wash away his guilt. It didn't, of course. Sadly, Pilate is typical of many politicians and others in public life and leaders in the church, who know what they are doing is wrong, but have not the courage to say so, or take action accordingly.
So that brings us to the fifth group of people responsible for Christ's crucifixion, the brutally cruel Roman soldiers of the governor. Look at verses 27-31:
"Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him… and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him."
Jesus, remember, had passed a night without sleep. He'd been taken from Gethsemane to the Jewish council, and from the council to Pilate's judgment hall. So he had twice been on trial and twice unjustly condemned. And verse 26 says Pilate then has Jesus scourged. That was a shocking beating – with a whip with several thongs tied into which were bits of bone and metal. Many prisoners died from such scourging. So Jesus, having suffered that dreadful treatment, is now taken to the governor's headquarters – wherever they were. And the whole Roman battalion is there to mock him and, verse 29, to hit him, not on his back as with the scourging, but this time to hit "him on the head". Then having humiliated Jesus and brutalized him and so now he must be half dead, and needing someone to carry his cross, they, verse 31, "led him away to crucify him" which is one of the most terrible forms of execution imaginable.
So… who was responsible for all of that – our original question? Well, at least the Jerusalem establishment, Judas, Pilate, the Roman governor, the Jerusalem crowd, and the Roman Soldiers. But our second question and with a shorter answer, is…
2. Who Else is Responsible?
The first answer is, of course, all of us. For what the Cross of Christ does, before revealing the love of God, reveals the sin of every man. The sin of the world also sent Christ to the Cross. This event reveals those religious leaders preferring a murdering terrorist to Jesus. But what was their root problem? Envy.
And there will be some here tonight for whom envy is a real problem – envy of an aspect of someone else's life or their good fortune that makes you envy and do, or go, wrong. Then there will be some here like Judas for whom simple greed is a problem – the desire for more money that makes you reject or betray Christ. And Pilate's fear and moral weakness is bound to be a problem for some here tonight, and you know it. Then just going with the flow and everybody else, like the Jerusalem crowd, and following the sinful decadence of the modern West, will be the problem for others. That can happen in your firm, or clinic, or school, or college, or among your friends, when they are immoral or plainly wrong. And finally, for some, violence can be a problem, like it was for those Roman soldiers. And there are a host of other sins, and omissions, for which repentance is needed. So we also are responsible for the death of Christ; and "if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves," as 1 John 1.8 says; and as 1 John 2.2 says, "he [Jesus] is he propitiation for our sins, and not ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world."
That leads to the second and most important answer to our question, namely that God the Father was also responsible for the death of Christ the divine Son. Listen to Peter on the Day of Pentecost, and part of the Church's first ever sermon. Acts 2.23-24:
"This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it."
And that's why Matthew quotes Old Testament Scripture being fulfilled by the Chief Priests and Judas, as we heard earlier. It was all part of God's plan for our good and our salvation and evidence of his great love. Mysteriously God was in total control of all that happened. So, Peter in that Pentecost sermon is joining the human with the divine. Peter is saying the death of Jesus is because of the gracious plan of God and equally because of the lawlessness of men. "No attempt is made to resolve the paradox. Both statements are true"; that is a quote from John Stott. And that brings us to our third and final question:
3. Who Benefitted from the Cross?
The answers I trust can be short, because obvious. And the first answer is given in Peter's second ever sermon and reported in Acts 3.14-15 when speaking to the Jerusalem crowds that had gathered following the healing of a lame man. Peter said:
"But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses."
That "murderer" was Barabbas. So he certainly benefitted. Barabbas went scot-free. For Christ was dying in his place. And the second answer is that others benefit, who, like Barabbas, see Christ dying in their place for their sins. For the good news of the Cross and the Resurrection and reign now of Christ is as Peter wrote in 1 Peter 2.24 that …
"… he [Jesus] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree [the Cross], that we might die to sin and live to righteousness."
So to conclude, two quick questions.
One, who needs to turn to Christ tonight, for forgiveness and new life, for the first time? Why not do it now and simply pray for Christ to forgive you and give you new life?
And, two, who is trusting Christ but forgotten his love for you and what it cost him to secure your salvation? Did you mean it when earlier you sang, "I'm lost in wonder, I'm lost in love, I'm lost in praise for evermore"? Why not thank him, renew your trust in him and then obey whatever he is commanding you to avoid - the envy of the priests, the greed of Judas, the cowardice of Pilate, the conformity of the crowds and the violence of the soldiers.