The Trial and Death of Jesus
The overriding theme of this section is that Jesus suffers innocently. His death is not just. Nonetheless, even as he hangs on the cross, Jesus ministers salvation to those who cry out to him, as he promises the thief on the cross a place in paradise. In fact, the section begins with Jesus agreeing to follow God's will unto death. He ministers to his enemies, as he heals the severed ear of one of those who come to arrest him (see 6:27-36). Though Jesus suffers unjustly, it is God's will that he continue to minister for the sake of those he came to save.
The world's view of Jesus does not change, as he is taken through a series of trials that lead to his death without a clear cause. Yet up to the end, Jesus looks for opportunities to reveal why he has come. He shows God's love by dying for the ungodly (Rom 5:1-11).
Like a terminally ill patient, Jesus knows that death is around the corner. God has mapped out a path and written a ticket reading "End of Earthly Life." Our mortality is a frightening thing. Jesus faces it by doing what he always did: he took his concerns to God in prayer. While warning the disciples throughout this scene of the danger of temptation, Jesus walks into his valley of the shadow of death through the heavenly courts of God's presence. Unlike some who face death, he is not angry; nor is he stoic. He is not withdrawn, he is not bereft of hope. He simply is honest with God: "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me." If there is any way I can avoid experiencing your cup of wrath for others, he prays, then remove it (on cup as wrath, Ps 11:6; 75:7-8; Is 51:17, 19, 22; Jer 25:15-16; 49:12; 51:57; Ezek 23:31-34). Like many who face death, Jesus would like to avoid dying now. If he were considering only his personal preference, he would rather not experience the pain of mortality and the horror of paying for sin.
But Jesus has a more fundamental concern: "Yet not my will, but yours be done." Here Jesus submits to God's plan and will. If it is time and this is the way to accomplish your desire, he says, then, Lord, take me. Jesus is committed to God's will, even above his own desires. If that means suffering, so be it. If that means death, so be it. By relying on prayer and communion with God, Jesus faces his dark hour as a shining light.
Almost as if in answer to the prayer, an angel ministers to Jesus. Its ministering presence strengthens him. Details about how this happens are not noted. What is clear is that Jesus does not face this moment alone.
Already committed to God's will, Jesus continues to pray with even more intense emotion. He prays more earnestly and is laboring so hard in his prayer that his sweat is like drops of blood falling to the ground. Such sweating indicates the intensity of Jesus' feelings and condition. In Notes: 22:39-46 The parallels are Mark 14:32-42 and Matthew 26:36-46, though Luke's version is the most concise. Luke lacks several of the details of the other versions (for a full list, Bock 1995: introduction to this passage). Another issue is whether verses 43-44 were originally a part of Luke. This textual problem is much discussed, and many omit the text. Fitzmyer (1985:1443-44) is but one outstanding example (also Stein [1992:559], who correctly explains in n. 55 why talking about such omissions is not heretical but is simply a discussion of the nature of the original text). External evidence does slightly favor omission, since p, p, corrected Aleph, B, A, T and W exclude the text, while original Aleph, D and the Byzantine tradition include it. Following the shorter reading rule would also suggest omission. But other internal features make inclusion more likely (Neyrey 1985:59-62). Does the "shorter reading" guideline apply when whole verses are being discussed? Justin Martyr a literary sense, the shedding of blood is already beginning. A deep dependence on the Father sometimes comes with great pain.
While Jesus is laboring hard in prayer, the disciples are asleep from sorrow. The rapidly spiraling succession of events has worn them down. Again, Jesus makes a spiritual picture of it all, asking them, "Why are you sleeping? . . . Get up and pray so that you will not fall into temptation." Surviving the pressure of suffering and rejection, overcoming the harrowing prospect of persecution and facing mortality require being on constant alert. Like the military guarding a country, disciples must maintain preparedness and communication with those in charge if they are to prevent defeat.
Jesus' arrest is full of pathos. The many persons involved reflect the full array of responses to Jesus. The event itself is told in three quick movements. First, the exchange with Judas provides its note of betrayal and hypocrisy. The arrest occurs as this "friend" draws near to give the teacher a customary kiss of greeting. Second comes the disciples' attempt to defend Jesus with the sword, an approach Jesus explicitly rejects. Third, Jesus rebukes his captors while he acts to heal the severed ear of one of his arresters. Jesus shows his love for his enemies to the end (see 6:27-35). Even at his arrest, he controls the flow of events. As the hour of the power of darkness comes (v. 53), Jesus faces it directly and in love.
Among the reactions to Jesus, Judas represents one in close proximity to Jesus who turns on him with vengeance. Jesus questions his attitude with a simple question, "Are you betraying the Son of Man with a kiss?" Judas's abandonment of God's servant has led to an ironic act of betrayal. Sometimes the strongest enemies of Jesus are those who grow up in his shadow. The irony is not only obvious but tragic.
The disciples represent those in panic who try to take matters into their own hands. They fight to avoid the path of suffering God has laid out for his messenger and those who follow him. While one asks, "Lord, should we strike with our swords?" another one answers on his own, wielding the sword and cutting off the right ear of the high priest's servant. Sometimes disciples believe they must take matters into their own hands to defend Jesus. But here Jesus stops the attempt to defend him with violence. His path takes a different direction.
The healed servant pictures the opportunity that exists to experience God's grace. Here is a man who rejects Jesus and participates in the arrest leading to Jesus' death. Yet the avowed enemy is not beyond Jesus' healing touch. A severed ear can always be restored, if one will listen to him.
Those who arrest Jesus represent those who remain defiant against him. Despite his grace and gentleness, they react with hostility to the one who came to give them life. The question Jesus poses to them is, "Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?" This rendering in the NIV, though possible, may be too specific. The term Jesus uses means "robber" (lestes) and is also used of the thieves in the parable of the good Samaritan. So we need not assume Jesus is contrasting himself with a revolutionary.
The arrest is marked not only by hostility but also by cowardice and hypocrisy. They could have arrested him in the temple but chose not to lay hands on him in public. What they would not do openly among the public, they gladly do in a more private setting. Luke has already told us why: they fear the people. So they have worked behind the scenes to oppose Jesus. It is their hour. Sin loves to work in secret.
But behind them stands a more desperate character. The drama is not merely a human one. The power of darkness lies behind this human activity. The battle is of cosmic proportions, with the people on stage mere players in a larger game. The domain of evil is present. Jesus fights this battle not with weapons of war but with armaments of character (4:1-13; Eph 6:12-18; Col 1:12-14). Darkness must fall before a new day can come. It is a time when darkness reigns.
After Jesus' arrest, Luke narrates three events that occur in quick succession: the denials by Peter (vv. 54-62), the mocking of Jesus (vv. 63-65) and the trial of Jesus (vv. 66-71). It seems likely that Jesus is examined at the high priest's home during the evening and then is reexamined by the Sanhedrin in the early morning (vv. 54, 66). When all the Gospel accounts are considered, it appears that there is one quick inquiry before Annas, at which nothing is decided (Jn 18:13), followed by two trials--one in the evening (Mt 26:57-68; Mk 14:53-65) and another, more official meeting in the morning (Lk 22:66-71). The evening and morning trials are very similar because the morning trial simply confirms what had taken place the previous evening. Three more examinations follow these first three meetings, since encounters with Pilate, Herod and then the entire pilgrim crowd follow in Luke 23:1-25.
As interesting as the historical sequence is, more significant is the way Luke narrates these events. The various responses to Jesus are highlighted. Events are swirling around Jesus rapidly, but he is still in control. He utters the words that send him to his death, leaving no need for outside witnesses. Though all his close disciples abandon him, including the formerly confident Peter, he stills walks the path of God's will. Though the soldiers insult and taunt him, he still goes to the cross for them. Jesus is mocked as a prophet who does not know what is happening, but he is quite aware of what he is doing and why. The scene drips with the tragic irony of humankind's hostility to God's plan and the tenacity of God's Son to rectify what is awry with us all.
Seized under official arrest, Jesus is led to the high priest's house. Syllambano in verse 54 is the Greek technical term for arrest (compare Jn 18:12; Acts 12:3; 23:27; 26:21). Since Matthew 26:57 names Caiaphas's house here and John 18:13 mentions Annas's residence, there is a question whether the same locale or a different locale is intended (see note on 22:54-71). If two locales are in view, then the first meeting leads very quickly into a second.
It is during this time that Peter has his public oral exam on his faithfulness and relationship to Jesus, just as Jesus had predicted (22:31-34). Having failed, Peter learns that resisting peer pressure can be tougher than he had imagined. It is easy to fall when one is surrounded by hostility and fails to look to the Lord for strength.
The test itself takes over an hour (v. 59). Peter has followed at a distance. John 18:15-16 mentions that "another disciple," probably John, is also present in the courtyard. In the chill of the late evening air, a fire is kindled to keep the gathering warm. The courtyard (aule) where the servants are gathered could be a yard or an area around an open hallway. When Peter's face becomes visible, a servant girl stares at him, recognizing him as one of the disciples. She announces the surprising guest to the crowd with the simple words "This man was with him."
Probably aware that Jesus' fate is in doubt and that guilt by association is a genuine risk, Peter denies any knowledge of Jesus. The astute observation has been made that Peter in this way does not deny Jesus as much as deny knowing him (Stanley 1980:195; Stein 1992:565). His lie is like the "end around" maneuver in American football; Peter takes an indirect route to avoid the question. He does not attack Jesus, but neither does he assert his association with him. In baseball terms, Peter has taken strike one.
Afterward another person takes up the accusation. Luke identifies the second challenger as a man, while Mark 14:69 and Matthew 26:71 mention a woman. It is likely that the woman's initial effort received wide attention. Emphatically comes the charge: "You also are one of them." The second-person pronoun you (su) is spoken with ex auton, "from among them," so Peter's association with Jesus is emphasized. The charge is "You are one of them!" Once again, Peter tries to parry the thrust: "Man, I am not!" Peter has taken strike two. Or as cricketers say, he is in danger of being run out.
A third person identifies Peter. Luke leaves him nameless, but John 18:26 says he is a relative of the priest's servant Malcus, who had his ear severed and healed earlier. John notes that this questioner is positive that Peter's face is familiar, since he saw him in the garden. Since he had been at the scene, his testimony is significant. Luke simply narrates his confidence: "Certainly this fellow was with him, for he is a Galilean." Like American Southerners or people from the north of Scotland, Galileans had a distinctive accent (Mt 26:73).
Peter again denies the connection: "Man, I don't know what you're talking about!" Luke is kind to Peter, for he does not refer to the cursing and swearing that accompany this denial. The mighty, confident Peter has struck out; he has given up his wicket.
But the rooster's crowing and Jesus' glance rock Peter's memory. Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him. Luke's wording reminds us of Jesus' prophetic awareness of what is taking place--that even his closest allies will leave him to face his death alone.
Peter's failure prompts his departure and painful tears. It is easy to claim Jesus in the solitude of one's living room among like-minded friends, but it can be hard to do so in public. Peter will learn the lesson and return to be a courageous voice for Jesus in Acts 2. But here he is a total disappointment. He has failed to pray and rest in the Lord's provision (Lk 12:11-12; 22:40, 46). His nerve has failed, and the failure has stabbed his heart. He knows he has let Jesus down.
But Jesus knows his heart and will soon restore him (Jn 21:1-14), a restoration he had prepared him for earlier (Lk 22:32). Failure, though painful, can be a means of growth; by God's grace we can learn from our mistakes.
After his friend's withdrawal, Jesus is mocked by enemies. Things are going from bad to worse. Luke strains to relate this account, calling the action of those who hold Jesus in custody blasphemous (v. 65). They mock him and beat him, as others had reviled a prophet earlier (1 Kings 22:24). Here the soldiers play an ancient version of blindman's buff (Stahlin 1972:264-65; Is 53:3-5). They think Jesus should name his tormenters. If he is the prophet the public claims, this should be an easy task (Lk 7:16; 9:7-9; 24:19). The opponents' reviling of Jesus is full of scorn and insult. When the world turns from indifference to hostility against Jesus, this is how their reaction to him looks. It is easy to mock what is not appreciated.
From injury and insult, Luke turns to inquiry. What will the officials of Judaism do with Jesus? Luke does not mention at all the effort to charge Jesus with claiming to destroy and raise up the temple. Luke's trial scene stays focused on one issue, Christology. Who is Jesus? That is the key question for this Gospel.
Much historical information is available on trials of the time, especially in the Mishnaic tractate Sanhedrin. Made up of seventy-one members, with the high priest serving as its leader, this council sat in a semicircle when investigating matters of importance (m. Sanhedrin 1:6; 4:3). It seems likely that such a procedure took place here. The council consisted of Sadducees, Pharisees and leading middle-class laymen, known as the elders (Josephus Antiquities 12.3.3 142). So priests, scribes and the wealthy dominated this ruling group, which had authority over internal Jewish matters except where the death penalty was involved (Josephus Antiquities 20.9.1 197-203 on the illegal slaying of James the brother of Jesus; t. Sabbat 15a).
Though Luke clearly makes the leadership responsible for Jesus' death both here and in Luke 23:13-25, there is no reason to call him anti-Semitic. His appeal is for Jews to complete their salvation by coming to their Messiah. Their refusal to do so is seen as blindness and ignorance (Acts 2:22-24; 3:17-26; 26:12-23). But he continually pleads for them to enter into God's promise and blessing.
Luke moves right into the questioning. The Sanhedrin requests, "If you are the Christ . . . tell us." In an echo of his earlier discussion with them about himself and John the Baptist (20:1-8), Jesus replies that if he answers positively they will not believe, and if he asks them they will not answer.
But Jesus does not stop there. What he says next is the key to his claims and his guilty verdict at this trial: "But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God." The Greek refers to the "right hand of the power of God." Both the translation and the Greek emphasize God's sovereign might. The claim here is extensive. It was not a crime in ancient Judaism to claim to be Messiah, as the Bar Kochba revolt in A.D. 132 showed. But Jesus is saying more than this. He is claiming to be able to go directly into God's presence and rule at the divinity's side from heaven. This is worse than claiming that he could march into the Holy of Holies in the temple and reside there (Bock 1994c:186-91). The Jews fought the Maccabean War over the holiness of the temple's inner sanctum; but they held the holiness of heaven itself in an even higher regard. Jesus' statement offends their sense of God's holiness.
In addition, it implies an even more significant claim. The Sanhedrin has Jesus on trial. Its members are his judges. His fate is in their hands. But if Jesus is to rule from God's side in heaven, then they cannot judge him, since he is their judge. The use of Son of Man recalls the picture of authority given from God to "one like a son of man" in Daniel 7. The implication does not slip by the theologians in the crowd. The scene's irony in terms of who holds God's power cannot be greater. Jesus argues that from now on whatever happens at the trial is irrelevant. His rule from God's side will follow. People may think they have the right to make a judgment about Jesus, but the judgment that counts is the one made by the resurrected Son of God.
In sum, Jesus makes himself and his authority the issue. The leaders are astute enough to see the claim. So they ask, "Are you then the Son of God?" They sense the depth of what Jesus is claiming--that Jesus uniquely shares God's rule and power.
Jesus' answer is both a positive reply and a type of circumlocution; in effect, he says, "I will not deny it, but I would mean it a little differently from the way you mean it." So Jesus says, "You say that I am" (Blass and Debrunner 1961:par. 441.3; Catchpole 1970:226; Stein 1992:571). The NIV gives the force of this indirect reply: "You are right in saying I am."
So the judgment is rendered against Jesus. "Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard it from his own lips." The judgment's irony is that Jesus will be crucified for being who he is. The trial pictures the world's rejection of him and his claims. His own have received him not. Sin's blindness leads to Jesus' dying for being who he is. Confirmation of this understanding of the trial as picturing humanity's rejection will come when the people add their voices to call for Jesus' death, opting to free a murderer in the place of this innocent one (23:13-25; Acts 4:24-31). Jesus utters his own death sentence by speaking what Luke would regard as the truth.
So this account is really the story of two courtrooms. One is run by the Sanhedrin, the other by Jesus at the Father's side. One utters blasphemy against the Son, because they have taken his words as blasphemous. The other will receive the Son as an equal. The division of opinion could not be greater. No relativism can bring the two views together. Either Jesus is right or the Jewish court is right. Jesus' claim is either blasphemy or deadly serious truth. For if he sits at God's side, then he does exercise divine authority. There is no appeal higher than the Supreme Court of heaven.
With Jesus in hand and a guilty verdict in place, there is only one more hurdle to Jesus' removal. The leadership needs the Roman government's support. A plan that has long been in the works now requires a deft political touch (6:11; 11:53-54). A death penalty could not be executed unless Rome issued it (Josephus Jewish Wars 2.8.1 117; Jn 18:31). So the leadership takes Jesus to Pilate. The charges must be formulated in a way that causes Pilate, as procurator and protector of Roman regional concerns, to be worried about his future as governor if he does not stop Jesus. Such capital crime rulings were often made when Pilate would make assize judgments as Roman governor (Kinman 1991).
The trial before Pilate was not unusual in its style. Luke's account reflects the threefold structure of Roman trial procedure: charges, cognito (examination) and verdict (Neyrey 1985:77). Intrigue surrounds the rejection of Jesus. The leaders' maneuvering reaches its high point here.
The three charges are stated in verse 2. Only one of them is even partially true: "We have found this man subverting our nation." The Greek speaks of "perverting our customs," a charge slightly broader than the political tone of the NIV. Issues of Jewish law and politics are in view. This charge reflects two realities. First, the leaders are uncomfortable with Jesus and regard him with contempt. That is why they do not name him but refer to him as "this one" instead (22:56, 59). These words are a far cry from their public affirmations of respect to Jesus in 20:21. Second, they regard him as a threat to their nation's tradition. He misleads the people. This statement reverses Jesus' charge in 9:41. Such unrest would be of concern to Pilate, because anyone who stirred up Jewish religious sensibilities could be a source of political upheaval.
"He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar." This charge concerning the poll tax is patently false, as 20:25 has already shown. But the charge is clever, because Pilate's major political responsibility is the collection of taxes for Rome. A second element in the charge is also a source of concern. The taxes go to Caesar, raising the issue of Pilate's personal loyalty or disloyalty. Failure to act against one who opposes Caesar would mean one is not a friend of Caesar either. Servants of Rome unfaithful to Caesar are not servants for long!
The third charge is that he "claims to be Christ, a king." Here the threat of an opposing ruler is made explicit. Is Pilate being careless on his watch, allowing revolution to foment under his very nose? Jesus is painted as a dangerous revolutionary. It is Pilate's obligation to Caesar to stop him.
Seen in light of Pilate's responsibilities, these charges are serious, especially since the Jewish leadership portrays itself as sensitive to Roman concerns here. Politically and personally, these charges push all the right buttons. So Pilate moves to examine Jesus.
Luke has a very abbreviated version of this encounter, in which Pilate focuses only on Jesus' claim to kingship. The first charge is not really central to Pilate, since he is not a Jew. The second can be handled by going directly to the third question about kingship. Does Caesar have a rival or not? John 18:33-38 shows a longer questioning in which Jesus responds to the kingship charge by stating that his kingdom is not of this world. Luke in contrast has Jesus answer Pilate's question whether he is king of the Jews with a qualified affirmation, "You have said so." As before, the NIV renders the force of the indirect reply, "Yes, it is as you say." Though there is truth in the charge, it is not the direct threat that the Jews imply.
Pilate seems not terribly concerned after his examination. His judgment is that he finds no basis for a charge against this man. Pilate will declare Jesus innocent several times in this chapter (vv. 14-15, 22). This should bring the trial's end and Jesus' release, but Luke is proving that Jesus was an innocent sacrifice. If justice had prevailed, the arrest would have ended here and Jesus' ministry would have resumed. But the Son of Man is not treated with justice. Sinful humanity rejects him and overrides any concern for justice. Though Rome is not without blame, the real responsibility lies with the Jewish leadership. Insistently they keep noting that he stirs up the people. Luke uses an imperfect tense here (epischyon) to show that they press their case with continual pleading. Pilate needs to understand that law and order, not to mention his own job, are at stake.
Under such pressure, Pilate does what many politicians do: he passes the buck and lets someone else make the tough call. When Pilate discovers that Jesus is Galilean, he sends Jesus over to Herod. Let the Jewish ruler decide the matter; let him take the heat. If any political mistakes are to be made, they will be made in consultation with the region's ethnic political leaders. If Pilate has problems later, he can always say, "Herod made me do it."
So political and social forces are swirling like a tornado around Jesus. Despite his innocence, the trial proceeds. Sin has a way of ignoring or deferring Jesus' claims. Political expediency will make Jesus a sacrificial lamb.
The sending of Jesus to Herod excuses Pilate from responsibility and shows political skill. No one can accuse Pilate of demagoguery on the touchy issue of Jesus.
Because of the holiday season, Herod himself is also in Jerusalem--a coincidence of divine proportions--staying at a beautiful palace west of the temple (Josephus Jewish Wars 2.16.3 344; 5.4.4 176-83; on debate over Herod's authority, see Antiquities 14.15.2 403). When Jesus is brought before him, Herod hopes for a show, for he has been longing to see Jesus work miracles. But Jesus is not an entertainer given to fulfilling curiosity.
With his innocence established in the previous examination, Jesus takes a new defense tactic. He remains silent. No longer will he answer any questions. Justice should have dictated his release. He has defended himself with brief statements of truth. Now that justice is silent, he responds with his own silence. The events recall Isaiah 53:7, which Luke cites in Acts 8:32.
The silence deeply disappoints Herod. In the face of Jesus' silence, the chief priests and scribes press their case, vehemently accusing him. Once they formed their opinion of Jesus, their accusations have never stopped (Lk 6:7; 23:2, 14). The leadership is turning up the pressure.
Herod takes advantage of the occasion to mock Jesus, arraying him in bright, regal apparel and sending him back to Pilate. The contempt that Herod shows to Jesus was predicted in Luke 18:32. Herod's verdict is not noted here but is mentioned in verse 15. Herod's comical antics show that he sees no threat in Jesus.
Pilate's move reaps the dividend of Herod's appreciation. Where there had been enmity, now there is friendship, for Pilate has shown respect for Herod's position.
Thus Jesus has become a political pawn. Since he has been declared innocent by two leaders, justice would say that Jesus should be released, but injustice and destiny are at work. Ironically, his presence has brought reconciliation between two old opponents. Their reconciliation is another step on the way to his unjust death.
In many ways the passion account's real turning point occurs here. Until this point, the common people have been strongly supportive of Jesus. On a few occasions the leadership had found it prudent not to carry out its threats against Jesus because of the people (20:19; 22:2). But now the people react against Jesus, stopping Pilate's attempt to release him.
Pilate regards Jesus as not worthy of death but still does not grant him freedom. Two leaders have acquitted Jesus, but that is not enough. The Jewish teacher has become a political football. In a crazy game, a murderer is released and a deliverer is slain.
The scene begins with Pilate's attempt to release Jesus. He addresses everyone--the chief priests, the rulers and the people. Pilate is clear that he regards the Jews as having "no basis for your charges against him." Herod has taken the same position: there is nothing deserving death in Jesus. Pilate proposes a compromise: he will beat Jesus and then release him. The beating would be either the less severe fustigata or the dreaded verberatio, which would leave one on the edge of death. In either case, the whip used possessed short teeth that would cut the skin and lead to bleeding. Pilate supposes that punishment would deter the teacher and calm the leadership.
But no compromise can be found. When the decision comes for Jesus to be crucified, he receives the heavier beating, the verberatio, since it prepares the victim for crucifixion and makes death come more quickly.
In an astounding act of popular judgment, all call out for Barabbas's release. They choose a violent insurrectionist and murderer over Jesus. A shocked Pilate tries to persuade them otherwise. Luke explicitly states that Pilate wants to release Jesus. But the crowd insists on Jesus' execution.
For a fourth time, and for the third time publicly, Pilate tries to halt the momentum (vv. 4, 14, 20, 22). Asking the crowd to name the evil Jesus has done, he repeats his verdict that Jesus has done nothing meriting a death sentence. Pilate still wishes only to "discipline" (paideuo) Jesus with the whip. But they kept shouting, and later they insistently demanded. Again the imperfect tenses stress the ongoing cry for Jesus' demise. They want him crucified.
In the face of such a public outcry, Pilate crumbles. Their shouts prevailed. Pilate grants their demand: Barabbas will go free, while Jesus is surrendered . . . to their will. Acts 3:13-14 will allude to this verdict, while Jesus' prediction recorded in Luke 22:37 comes to pass. Jesus is reckoned among the criminals, even though he is innocent. He is suffering as a servant. Though the suffering is unjust and intense, exaltation will follow (Is 52:13-15). He also has been "handed over" to the Gentiles (Luke 18:32), only to be handed back to the Jews.
There is both tragedy and a lesson in this event. The tragedy is that justice has not prevailed. Sin's blindness has caused the nation to reject its Savior. The decision to miss the opportunity for deliverance is a grave mistake. Luke tells the story of the turnaround in the people's attitude to show the fickleness with which Jesus is treated. In a way he was trivialized by the people. Such trivializing has often been Jesus' lot in history. For Luke, the loser is the one who reduces Jesus to a trivial pursuit.
The lesson has to do with why the trivializing is tragic. Jesus is the substitute for the sinner. Barabbas's release and Jesus' death make up a portrait of the exchange God engages in to save sinners from the penalty of their ways (Rom 5:5-9). This sacrifice at the altar of injustice is the ultimate expression of God's love. Amazingly, in the midst of a monstrous injustice God can design a means of victory. Jesus' death means the possibility of life for another. No matter how severe the sin, release is made possible through Jesus' death.
The people think they have stopped Jesus. But in fact their action both exposes sin and shows how God will deal with it. The offer of the Savior became the better sacrifice. Eternal life can now be offered to those who recognize who he is and who they are before him (Heb 8--10). Sinners need to see their sin as a blot before God, producing a chasm between him and them. Those who come to this realization can now experience forgiveness through the shed blood of Jesus, the One sacrificed on their behalf. In this way Jesus has "purchased" the church through his own blood (Acts 20:28). In death has come the opportunity for life. Just ask Barabbas.
Jesus will die as an innocent martyr, one of the many saints who have suffered unjust rejection. Numerous Old Testament quotes develop this Lukan theme of rejection. In the story of the crucifixion to follow, lament psalms are quoted that detail how saints of old suffered unjustly. The earlier use of Psalm 118 in Luke 13:34-35 and 19:38 has the same background. Psalm 2 is quoted in Acts 4:24-28 to make a similar point. Speeches in Acts 2 and 3 will say explicitly that Jesus died unjustly. The just one dies unjustly for the unjust to make them just! The ways and wisdom of God are beyond our figuring out; we cannot understand them until he gives us revelation.
The central issue of Jesus' crucifixion is his character and work. From the creation to watching bystanders, everything and everyone have opinions about the death of this king-prophet. This passage consists of many subunits: the journey (vv. 26-32), the crucifixion (vv. 33-38), the discussion with the two thieves (vv. 39-42) and the cosmic signs along with human reactions to Jesus' death (vv. 43-49).
Jesus dies as an innocent sufferer, yet even to the end he is saving those who look to him. In fact, he even continues requesting forgiveness for those who kill him. As the hymnwriter says, "Amazing love, how can it be?" Around him reactions run the entire spectrum, from cruel mocking to painful mourning. The division of opinion Jesus causes is evident in this key event. Neutrality is not really permitted by Jesus' life and claims, if one understands who Jesus saw himself to be. His death as described here is attested by several ancient historians, though often very briefly (Josephus Antiquities 18.3.3 63-64; Tacitus Annals 15.44; t. Sanhedrin 43a; see F. F. Bruce 1974). Each of us must face up to the claims of both his person and his death, deciding either for him or against him.
Jesus' journey to his death is halted temporarily when the cross becomes too heavy for him to bear. Such cross bearing was customary, but the day had been a long one. Romans did not bear the cross, which was considered a symbol of great shame. Someone was chosen from the crowd--Simon from Cyrene, a major North African center of Judaism, was conscripted to bear the cross (Mt 27:31-32; Mk 15:20-21; on Cyrene, Acts 6:9; 11:20; 13:1; 1 Maccabees 15:23; Josephus Antiquities 14.7.2 114; 16.1.5 169; 16.6.1 160; Jewish Wars 7.11.1-3 437-50). Cyrene is located near the modern area of Tripoli.
Many suggest that Simon pictures the disciple following in the way of Jesus, but this seems unlikely. The description of his following with the cross does not echo the wording of Luke 9:23 and 14:27, and Simon suffers nothing during the process. At best what is pictured involves Jesus' sharing the shame of his death march with another who accompanies him. But such shame is less than a picture of discipleship with its accompanying rejection by the world.
Though exhausted and needing aid, Jesus still interacts with the crowd, especially a group of women mourning over his coming demise. Luke singles them out from the large number of people. The great multitude appears to be caught up in the curiosity of the event, but the women who trail behind are not merely curious. They beat their breasts and wail for him (Mic 1:8; Zech 12:10-14). It is debated whether these mourning women are merely the standard Jewish mourners present at any death, those who gave the victims drugged drink to soothe their painful end (t. Sanhedrin 43a) or genuine in their grief. Whatever option is intended, the text appears to treat their lament as entirely sincere. Jesus explains to them that the real tragedy is not his but the nation's.
In prophetic-sounding words, Jesus addresses the women as representative of the nation: "daughters of Jerusalem" (Is 37:22; Mic 1:8; Zeph 3:14; Zech 9:9). Jesus notes that they weep for the wrong thing: "weep for yourselves and for your children." Jesus' rejection means judgment for the nation (Lk 13:34; 19:41-44; 21:20-21). In fact, that judgment represents the price for anyone who rejects Jesus. A key period of divine activity will come, as Jesus notes: "The time will come" (5:35; 17:22; 21:6, 23; Schneider 1964b:671). All blessings and curses will be reversed, for in those bitter days of judgment it will be better to be barren than to bear and nurture a child. As Jesus had told the Sanhedrin, he is the real judge, and to reject him is to come under God's judgment. So Jesus warns these women of the nation's coming pain for slaying its promised one. It will be better in those days to ask the creation, both mountains and hills, to collapse on top of one than to experience the misery of this judgment.
Jesus closes with a parabolic question: "If men do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?" The basic point is clear enough. The green wood is Jesus, while the dry wood is Jerusalem in judgment. If this situation is bad, it is nothing compared to what is to come. But there is debate as to who "they" are that treat the live (or green) wood this way: Rome, the Jews, humanity or God? One of two options is best. Most likely is that the word is a circumlocution for God. If God does this in judging his own Son for the sake of forgiveness, what will his judgment look like on those who reject his offer (Schneider 1967:38 n. 7; Stein 1992:586)? A similar indirect reference to God appears in 12:20. The point is that if it is possible to consume live wood, think how easy it will be to consume wood that is dry (Is 10:16-19; Ezek 20:47).
If this reading is not right, then "they" would be the nation itself, since that is the natural historical referent (L. T. Johnson 1991:373). The tragedy, Jesus says, is not his death but the nation's failure to choose deliverance, life and forgiveness. The failure to choose correctly about Jesus has grave consequences.
So on this note the journey to the cross continues. Jesus and two criminals head to their fate. The Greek term describing the other offenders, kakourgos, is a generic one for "lawbreaker" (Prov 21:15). Mark 15:27 and Matthew 27:38 describe the men with the term lestes, which can mean "bandit" or "revolutionary." This is the word Jesus used to question his arrest in Luke 22:52.
At "the place of the skull" (kranion), Jesus is crucified. The hill had this name because it protruded from the ground much as a head does from a body. Here Jesus is nailed to the cross beam (Jn 20:25; Col 2:14). The beam was placed on the upright piece of wood, and the whole structure was then lifted up and dropped into the ground. Jesus would hang there unable to get support to breathe.
Even in this desperate situation, Jesus prays for those who will kill him. He asks that his executors be forgiven, since they have acted in ignorance. Jesus' intercession lays the basis for God's offer of forgiveness. National consequences will follow from Jesus' rejection, but God's love expressed here shows that the rejection need not be permanent, neither for an individual nor for a nation.
Though Jesus pleads their ignorance, such ignorance does not remove culpability. They have chosen a course that reflects a lack of understanding, but they still need God's mercy. Jesus' lack of vindictiveness illustrates the very love he called for from his disciples (6:29, 35).
As the men hang, the soldiers cast lots for Jesus' clothes. This allusion to Psalm 22:18 portrays Jesus as a righteous sufferer (Mt 27:35; Mk 15:24; Jn 19:24). Unjustly afflicted, he dies with nothing on his back.
The scene produces various reactions. Some watch out of curiosity; others mourn. Still others treat the event with indifference, entertaining themselves on the leftovers of clothes. But the rulers sneer (Ps 22:7). They contest Jesus' ability to save, even as he prays to call for their forgiveness. The irony is amazing. Vindictiveness is face to face with compassion. Certain of their victory, they challenge Jesus to step down from the cross: "He saved others; let him save himself." This is the first of three taunts in the Lukan account (the others are in vv. 37, 39), all dealing with the issue of Jesus' saving activity. Ironically, by accepting the way of the cross, saving is exactly what Jesus is doing. But these rejecters never see it. The taunters make the issue Jesus' person: If he is the Christ of God, the Chosen One, then Jesus should be a deliverer (contrast 9:35). In their view a Messiah does not hang on a cross and suffer. What the taunters do not realize is that the servant of God does suffer for his own (Is 52:13--53:12). Suffering precedes exaltation.
Soldiers join the taunt: "If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself." These taunts are ironic, unconscious testimonies. Though intended to make fun of Jesus, they speak truth about which the utterers are unaware.
In fulfillment of Psalm 68:21, they offer him sour wine, what the text calls vinegar, to relieve his thirst. But the taunt and action together show that compassion is not the motive. The rapid repetition of the titles, a detail unique to Luke, keeps Jesus' person the issue. Is he who he claimed to be? That is the question Luke wishes his readers to ponder. Even the placard describing the charge says simply, "THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS." Such an inscription was common at a crucifixion (Suetonius Caligula 32; Domitian 10; Eusebius Ecclesiastical History 5.1.44). It was called the titulus. All the Gospels note that such an inscription hung over Jesus, but with some variation in the wording (Mt 27:37; Mk 15:26; Jn 19:19). The inscription itself is filled with ironic testimony. Even in hatred and rejection, there is testimony to Jesus.
The reactions to Jesus vary in intensity. Perhaps no incident sums up the range of responses more than the discussion among the thieves and Jesus. The other Synoptics mention these thieves, but they only note that they reviled Jesus (Mt 27:44; Mk 15:32). Apparently one of them has a change of heart, however, as he hears Jesus intercede for others and watches him tolerate the taunts. The final taunt comes from one of the thieves: "Aren't you the Christ? Save yourself and us." When the criminal chimes in against Jesus, it is too much for the other lawbreaker.
It is often said that the thief on the cross does not evidence his faith, for he has the equivalent of a deathbed conversion. But the testimony he gives for Jesus in his last moments is one of the most eloquent evidences of faith in the Bible. The faith in his heart is expressed by his lips. He addresses his colleague first and then Jesus. He expresses his rejection of the taunt by exclaiming, "Don't you fear God, . . . since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." It could be said that the injustice of the entire crucifixion is summed up in this short commentary. Other men die justly, but Jesus hangs on the cross as a matter of injustice. To mock Jesus is to support injustice at its worst. Those who fear God had better realize what it means to taunt him.
Then in words full of faith, the thief turns to Jesus: "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." The criminal anticipates the restoration and resurrection. He asks to be included. His depth of perception stands in contrast to the blindness of those who taunt. This man, despite a life full of sin, comes to Jesus and seeks forgiveness in his last mortal moments. He confesses his guilt and casts himself on Jesus' mercy and saving power. Luke could not have painted a clearer portrait of God's grace.
Jesus' reply gives the man more than he bargained for in terms of acceptance. The thief hopes that one day in the future he will share in Jesus' rule. Instead, Jesus promises him paradise from the moment of his death: "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise." The "truly I say to you" formula represents Jesus' most solemn way to reassure his neighbor. Faith's confession and request have been heard. From this day the man will be in the abode of the righteous--the Jews' longed-for paradise, the restored creation in which the righteous dwell (Is 51:3; Ezek 31:8-9, Assyria pictured like the garden of Eden; Testament of Levi 18:10-14; Psalms of Solomon 14:2-3; 1 Enoch 60:8; 61:12). Jesus does not explain how this will work, but the assurance he gives to the thief is clear. Ironically, though dying amidst mocking, Jesus has saved while on the cross. The request of the taunts has been granted to one who learned to believe.
Next the heavens join the discussion, issuing their own commentary on events. In Scripture, when God moves the creation to speak, events are marked as having a high significance. Creation speaks with darkness and through a sign in the temple. At the sixth hour (midday), darkness descends on the earth. This suggests the presence of judgment (Joel 2:10, 30-31; Amos 8:9). God is aware of what is taking place. The sign lasts for three hours. The sun's failure pictures creation awry.
Even at the place that signifies God's presence all is not right. The curtain of the temple was torn in two. Two questions arise for readers here: Which curtain is in view? What does its tearing signify?
Two curtains are possible. Is it the curtain at the entrance to the Holy of Holies or the curtain that separated the outer court from the temple proper? The Greek term used by Luke, katapetasma, is itself ambiguous. There is no way to decide for certain. Either way, the basic symbolism of a disruption at the nation's place of worship is clear.
What does it mean? Numerous suggestions exist (Green 1991:543-57; Sylva 1986:239-50): (1) It shows that a time of judgment on the nation has come, as the darkness also indicates. (2) It reflects judgment on the temple. (3) It shows Jesus opening the way to paradise (23:43). (4) It pictures the end of the old covenant (Heb 8--10). (5) It shows that all have equal access to God. The text does not tell us specifically which of these is meant, though all are good candidates. Contextually, the first three options all make good literary sense. Canonically, all the views could apply, since Hebrews is an exposition of the significance of Jesus' death and Acts makes it clear how the gospel can be sent to all in light of who Jesus is and what he has done. Judgment and grace often appear side by side in God's plan.
Jesus dies uttering words from a psalm of confidence, Psalm 31:5. This psalm was often used in Jewish evening prayer as one commended oneself into God's care during the night's sleep. As Jesus enters the sleep of death, he takes a similar step of faith. His last words are a commentary not only on his death but also on his life: "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit." From first to last, Jesus has lived to serve God. His life's creed on his lips, he dies. The psalm comments on the trust that Jesus places in God as he passes away. The other Synoptics quote Psalm 22:1 and its lament, while noting that Jesus dies uttering a loud cry. Luke supplies the detail of this final confident cry to God. Lament has gone to trust and victory. The righteous sufferer has suffered and won by trusting God every step of the way. Stephen will die a similar death years later (Acts 7:54-60).
One more witness, a soldier, observes what takes place and in one sentence echoes the sentiments of the saved thief on the cross: "Surely this was a righteous [innocent] man." The ambiguity of the rendering reflects the ambiguity of dikaios, which can bear either meaning. In the context, where Jesus' innocence has been stressed from start to finish, "innocent man" fits. But such a verdict implies Jesus' purity of character (Acts 3:14; 7:52; 22:14). Here is the final verbal testimony at the cross. A soldier witnessing the traumatic events of the day has come to his own conclusion: Jesus was who he claimed to be. The other Gospels make this same point though they summarize it differently: "Surely this man was the Son of God!" There is no contradiction here, since to call Jesus innocent is to accept the claim of who he is.
The event's mood emerges in the closing description. It was sad and wrong for Jesus to have died. The multitudes return home in mourning and beat their breasts. Some of them have been forced to pause and consider what has taken place. Maybe Jesus' condemnation was a serious mistake. Perhaps his death was a deep tragedy. Apparently events have helped some change their minds about Jesus. Sometimes a closer look at Jesus does change a person's mind.
The Galileans and women who had followed him from Galilee (see 8:1-3) stood at a distance. They have watched it all. They have seen the jeering and taunting. They have seen the casting of lots and the soldiers mocking. They have seen Jesus die between two very different thieves. They have seen the lights of the world's stage fall dim as the sleep of death came. They have seen it all. People do react to Jesus in a variety of ways. They assume that Jesus' story has ended here. But a few days hence they will be amazed to discover that it has all just begun. God's testimony to Jesus in exaltation still remains.
The One who came to seek and save the lost has saved by dying. To take the opportunity of gaining life, there remains only for each one to respond to him.
Though Jesus has been assaulted by rejection, a few have remained faithful. Jesus' burial reveals a few who stood beside him. Joseph of Arimathea is a Sanhedrin member who did not agree with Jesus' conviction by the official council. His presence is interesting because it reveals a small responding remnant within the Jewish leadership. The text describes him as a good and upright man, one who was waiting for the kingdom of God. His character description recalls the great saints whose stories Luke told to open his account (1:6-7; 2:25-27, 36-38). Devout figures surround Jesus at his birth and death. Those who are righteous and seek God respond to Jesus and look forward to what he will bring.
Joseph asks permission to give Jesus a decent burial. Burial will need to come quickly, since the sabbath is approaching, and Jews did not believe in letting a corpse linger (see discussion of 7:11-17). The detail here makes it clear that Jesus had died. Wrapping the body in fine linen (sindon), Joseph places it in a tomb cut in the rock, one in which no one had yet been laid. Joseph's kind act fulfills Deuteronomy 21:22-23: Jesus is not buried among thieves in dishonor.
The Day of Preparation is Friday, and that means the sabbath is drawing near. The women who had watched the scene at the crucifixion (v. 49) also watch as Jesus is buried. They see where he is laid to rest. But they resolve to return after the sabbath and anoint his body with spices to preserve it. Jews did not embalm corpses, so spices served to mitigate the stench. But these women are faithful Jews, so on the sabbath they rest according to the commandments.
Jesus has been laid to rest in honor. But things will not remain quiet for long.