Which Role Is Yours?
Dr. Jim Denison
A woman tells you that she is 20 years old today and has great-grandchildren. She looks fantastic for her age. Of course, she was born on February 29, 1924.
A leap year occurs in every year which can be evenly divided by four; thus we’re meeting for worship on leap year day today. However, the years 1600 and 2000 had a February 29 but 1500 did not, because the only century years that are leap years are the ones which can be divided evenly by 400. Is that clear?
It is somehow appropriate that we are confused today as we begin a sermon series on questions. Difficult, perplexing, common questions. More specifically, questions on the cross. As you know, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released this week. Many of you have already seen it. You know that is not a movie one “sees” but a movie one experiences. It is the most realistic portrayal of the crucifixion ever filmed. For the first time, we can see what actually happened. And ask the most profound questions as a result.
Today we begin with the most foundational question of all: who killed Jesus? Who was really responsible for his death—the Romans? The Jews? You may be surprised at the answer you hear this morning.
Who arrested Jesus?
The setting of the text is familiar to most of us.
The Garden of Gethsemane was a private olive grove on the western slope of the Mount of Olives. Jesus and his followers often went to this secluded garden for prayer. I’ve been to the area twice, and found it as quiet and peaceful as it must have been for our Lord.
On this occasion, however, Jesus went there not to find peace but a sword. He went there so Judas would know where to find him. He could have fled into the Galilean hills and evaded arrest forever. Instead, he went to the one place where his arrest was assured.
He could have hidden in the Garden, and escaped from the soldiers marching through its trees, but he waited for the soldiers to come.
He could have used his disciples to prevent Judas from identifying him. Instead he said, “Friend, do what you came for.”
John gives us more of the story:
“Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, ‘Who is it you want?’ ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ they replied” (John 18:4-5a). Note the irony of this situation. They are looking for him, but don’t know that this is the one they seek. Clearly he could direct them elsewhere, or flee under the cover of anonymity.
Instead, the narrative continues, “‘I am he,’ Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.)” (vs. 5b). His Greek words were actually, “I am,” echoing the solemn and holy name of Yahweh himself. Note what comes next: “When Jesus said, ‘I am he,’ they drew back and fell to the ground'” (v. 6). Here is a second chance to flee.
Instead we find this response: “Again he asked them, ‘Who is it you want?’ And they said, ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ ‘I told you that I am he,’ Jesus answered” (vs. 7-8). And finally they seized him. Have you ever heard of a person who worked so hard to be arrested?
But the story isn’t done. Peter then drew his sword and attacked Malchus, the servant of the high priest (John. 18:10). Such an armed resistance could well have been successful, but Jesus stopped it immediately. He could have called “twelve legions of angels” (a legion was 6,000 soldiers; this would be 72,000 angels, sufficient for the task at hand, one would think). But he did not.
Who was actually responsible for Jesus’ arrest? These incompetent soldiers, men who didn’t even know their subject? The disciples? Judas? Or our Lord?
Why was he arrested?
Here’s a second question: why did they arrest him? He asked them: “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me?” (v. 55). Why did they seize him? Who did they think he was?
The religious authorities arrested him as a blasphemer, a heretic, one who claimed that he was God. He would soon confirm their charges: “The high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ ‘Yes, it is as you say,’ Jesus replied” (Matthew 26:63-64).
The civil authorities executed him as a rebel, a traitor to Rome. Pilate made his crime clear: “Above his head they placed the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the king of the Jews” (Matthew 27:37). And there could be no king but Caesar.
Note what didn’t happen.
No one thought to claim that he didn’t exist. It is instructive that even his strongest enemies never considered such an attack. No one in all the literature of the period suggested that Jesus never lived. Not the Jewish responses, nor the Roman. Not the most hateful critic and opponent. We know too much from Tacitus, Suetonius, Mara bar Serapion, Josephus, and Pliny the Younger to dismiss his existence.
No one thought to claim that he was simply a religious teacher or leader, as The DaVinci Code and other modern critics claim. The Romans didn’t crucify Sunday school teachers or denominational officials. The authorities executed him because they understood who he claimed to be: the Son of God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. Nothing else. Nothing less.
Why did he die?
Now, if he was the Son of God, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, able to call twelve legions of angels to his side, why did he die? Why did he allow them to crucify him? Who was really responsible for his death?
Note his own answer to the question: “How then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?” (Matthew 26:54). He repeated himself: “All this has taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled” (v. 56). “Scriptures,” plural; “writings,” plural.