Luke 23: The Death of Jesus
I’m going to be drawing from Luke 23 and, among other works I’ve read, a chapter titled “The Shout of Death” by Craig Evans from a book co-authored by Evans and N.T. Wright.
The death of Jesus is important in the gospels, for each of the four gospels lead up to and feature the death of the Lord. The death of Jesus is important to Paul. In fact, the most biblical creed, meaning “what is true” or “belief,” about the death, burial, and resurrection is 1 Corinthians 15:3-5.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
Also, the death of the Lord is the center of the Apostle’s Creed: “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried. He descended into Hades; the third day he rose from the dead.”
No serious historian doubts Jesus lived. No serious historian doubts Jesus died. No serious historian doubts Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate. Early historians Josephus and Tacitus both mention the crucifixion of Jesus, as do each of the four gospel writers.
No one wants their messiah to die. Jewish messiahs were to put a dagger in the heart of the caesar. Even today, we don’t want those we think will save us politically or with justice to die. No one except assassins and a few others wanted Kennedy to die. No one but assassins and racists would have wanted MLK to die. No one wants or expect their messiah to die. Jewish disciples of Jesus would not have believed, expected, or wanted the death of Jesus. So, the fact of these Jewish writers making the death of Jesus a central figure in their “good news” stories, these embarrassing details about a “failed” messiah who dies, gives credibility to the death of Jesus. Why would they make up the death of their messiah? Yes, a death is necessary for a resurrection, but even then, it just wasn’t common to think of messiahs as dying. And when Jesus died, they had no expectation that he would rise from the dead.
Luke, knowing the death of a messiah is difficult for people to swallow, starts showing Jesus speaking about his death to the disciples early on in the gospel (9:21-22).
Why did Jesus die? From perspective of the humans who put him on the cross, what were the reasons for his death? Was it because he was good? Was it because they feared Jesus?
The most clear reason for the death of Jesus according to the gospel stories is that Jesus was a religious and political threat. His actions and words in the temple (19:45-48) incited rage in the leaders as much as when Jeremiah spoke critical words in the temple (Jeremiah 7). Jesus, in the spirit of Jeremiah, threatened the status quo.
The implied kingship of Jesus was also a political threat. He rode into the city in the method of Solomon (1 Kings 1:33), people shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38). Jesus allowed himself anointed by a “sinful woman.” He rode in as a king, children announced him king, and he was anointed.
Jesus also used metaphors about his own death compared to the temple. “Tear down this temple! And I will rebuild it in three days.”
Jesus’s blasphemous messianic assumptions and his threats to the temple would lead an angry priest to ask Jesus, “Are you the son of God?” Jesus of course did not deny this, but he also didn’t play their games or try to prove this before the religious elites.
Jesus simply said, “You say that I am.”
Then they said, “What further testimony do we need? We have heard it ourselves from his own lips!”
The Jewish assembly in the strongest sense now colludes with the Romans. “Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. They began to accuse him saying, “We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.” The big concerns of the Jewish ruling council continue to be the temple and blasphemy. Pilate asked him the same thing the council did. “Are you the king?” Jesus responds the same way he did to the council priest who asked if he is the son of God: “You say so.”
Pilate didn’t find any reason to sentence him, but when he found out Jesus was from Galilee, he was glad because he sent him to Herod, who was in Jerusalem at the time.
Herod seemed to think of Jesus somewhere between a circus act and a political threat. Hoping Jesus like a circus huckster would do a miracle, Herod was likely disappointed with the silence of Jesus. Luke emphasizes over and over the innocence of Jesus. Though the mob wanted Jesus dead, nothing could be found by Pilate, the council, or Herod that showed Jesus was guilty of anything deserving death. Herod, his soldiers, and the mob that followed all treated Jesus with contempt, putting a royal robe on him and sending him back to Pilate. Herod and Pilate had long been enemies, but this mutual disgust of what they thought of as a failed messiah brought them together. Pilate and Herod became friends that day. N.T. Wright points out that even the presence of Jesus can for Herod and Pilate, unwittingly make Jews and Gentiles become friends!
There was really no guilt that led to the sentence of death for Jesus. But Wright says not only does the sin of the world lead Jesus to the cross, but the petty aspirations of the people also conspired to put him on the cross. The sentence of death may have been given by Pilate, the shouts of the crowd, whether Jew or Gentile, the scourging of the Roman whips, the nails were a human collusion. This was not only a Roman affair. This was not only a Jewish affair. Both Jews and Romans put Jesus on the cross. But that is not a satisfactory answer to who really sentenced Jesus to death.
It may have been a small group of Jews and Romans who did the shouting, accusing, and sentencing of Jesus. No single human or group, however, should be blamed for the death of Jesus.
Jesus died for all, so all humans put Jesus on the cross. You put Jesus on the cross. I put Jesus on the cross. My sin put Jesus on the cross. Your sin put Jesus on the cross. The sin of the world, not the sin of the Jews or Romans only put Jesus on the cross, but the sins of all the world, every nation, every person.
Pilate tried to employ a “Passover pardon,” a chance for a political leader to gain favor with the Jews during the religious celebration in Jerusalem. He put forward Jesus and Barabbas (a man who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder) and gave the mob a choice. Which of these should get a pardon. The crowd wanted the murderer and insurrectionist freed and Jesus the innocent crucified like a murderer and insurrectionist. God turns even this toward a redeeming purpose, but how?
Jesus was handed over to be crucified. No disciple expects or wants her messiah to be killed. Though Jesus had predicted his death, the disciples did not expect or imagine it was going to end this way. They didn’t know what the death would mean. Nothing like a theology of Jesus’s death existed in their minds, and they would be lost when the crucifixion happened.
Crucifixion had been done before Rome, by Alexander the Great, and it was a common way to execute seditious, rebellious slaves. Romans put people on crosses in full view of people walking along the roads, to make them an example of what happens when you rebel. “Cruciare” is Latin, meaning torture, and it was the worst form of punishment and death in the world Jesus inhabited. He was beaten, scourged (Mark 15:15) before going to the cross, and because of the terrible pain and suffering of this scourging, Jesus fell under the weight of the cross. Jesus was not able to bear the cross he taught his disciples they were to bear. A man named Simon was called to pick up the cross and carry it for him, harkening back to the words of Jesus in Luke 14:27, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple."
A sign was placed above the head of Jesus on the cross, “King of the Jews” (Luke 23:38). His clothes were divided among the soldiers who stood watch at the cross (Luke 23:34).
Jesus said seven things on the cross and three of these are recorded in Luke.
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.
When one of the thieves on a cross next to him said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
From noon till 3 in the afternoon, darkness came over the whole land, and the curtain of the temple (separating the holy of holies) was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying in a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
The Shout of Death
This loud shout is what Craig Evans calls the “shout of death.” Evans says the shout is death itself and the release of the spirit (as implied by the verb exepneusen) is an awesome final image of Jesus on the cross. The curse of death that has been on humanity since the story of Adam and Eve is being reversed.
The stunned Roman centurion soldier is watching, as are each of the “bit players,” as N.T. Wright calls them. Luke doesn’t make a lot of the big wig rulers and their stories. In fact when Jesus is in front of the council, Pilate, and Herod, he mostly just says, “As you say” to all their questions such as, “Are you the son of God?” No, Luke has these bit players in mind, because we’re all bit players watching, witnessing as second hand like Luke who put together all these eye witnesses. Dr. Luke puts forward witness after witness and they are spoken of as “watching,” and “looking on.” The centurion says, amazingly, “Certainly, this man was innocent.” Mark’s gospel has the centurion saying, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
In saying this, the centurion is a witness that Jesus truly is the Messiah, not a failed messiah as some would think of him. He is Lord, not caesar. Since the caesar would call himself “son of God,” it’s a stark difference this quote makes here. It’s not simply an example of a Roman coming to Jesus but a declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and the caesar of Rome is not Lord, not the Son of God, not the savior. Jesus is.
It’s important to Luke to show Jesus as innocent, as taking on the curse, the punishment of the rebel, as taking up the cross he has called his disciples to take up, even though he was innocent. He died the death of a seditious rebel, though the rebel Barabbas goes free. We with the ones crying, “Crucify him!” have put him on the cross.
This is not a Roman affair, not a Jewish affair. This is a human affair. No specific group or individual put Jesus on the cross. Since Jesus dies for all humanity, each one of us put Jesus on the cross. The death of Jesus on the cross is scandalous to Jews. Messiahs don’t get crucified but put a dagger in the heart of caesar. Jesus saves not by sword but by death on the cross. What kind of messiah is this?
The New Way
But Jesus has now opened up a new way of viewing the atonement that goes back to Leviticus and the tabernacle practices. Jesus has taken our place. The blood of lambs is replaced by the blood of Jesus. Instead of only atoning for the sins of a priest and the tribes of Israel, the blood of Jesus atones, makes one all the peoples of the earth.
Only a few disciples, mostly women, have the courage to stick around after the death of Jesus to see what happens next. Will you join the journey with a messiah who is crucified? Will you stick around to watch and see what happens next? Imagine the faith of the disciples who were flattened by the death of Jesus. The next blog on Luke will focus on the events and witnesses to the amazing resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Greg Taylor, M.Div.
Greg Taylor is the preacher for The Journey. He holds degrees in Print Journalism from Harding University and a Master of Divinity from Harding School of Theology. Greg is working on his Doctor of Ministry at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where The Journey is located. Greg is married to Jill, who is a math teacher at Broken Arrow High School. They have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob, and of course they are very proud of each of what God has done in each one of their lives. Greg is author of several books you can order from your favorite bookseller.