QUESTION: “Who was responsible for the death of Jesus Christ?
“Some people say that the Jewish people killed Jesus, their Messiah. Others blame the Romans for the crucifixion. Still others blame Judas or Pilate. What does the Gospel record say about this question?”
Much in the news these days is Mel Gibson’s new movie, entitled, “The Passion of the Christ.” The movie, which focuses on the last twelve hours of Christ’s earthly life, was filmed in Italy and financed by Gibson himself. Interestingly, the characters speak Aramaic (the language of Judean Jews in the first century) and Latin (the language of the Roman occupation forces in Judea).
The film has raised the question again of who was actually responsible for the death of Jesus the Messiah. Many Jewish people and others fear that the movie will cause some viewers to blame the Jewish people for Christ’s death and thereby perhaps flame the fires of persecution against them once again, which has been shamefully perpetrated over the centuries. But the question that we raise in our title is basically an historical one. The question is: “Who really killed Jesus?” We will then discuss several penetrating facts that should touch each of our hearts!
The question can be honestly answered in various ways, and we must go to Scripture for these answers. Most of our knowledge of Christ’s death comes from the Gospels in the Bible—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The remainder of the Bible may supplement this Gospel information. Even nonbiblical writings, both religious and secular, may provide a small amount of evidence. Our main concern here is to go to God’s own Word, the Bible, for answers to the question, “Who killed Jesus?” No one answer may be given if we want to be truthful. Consider some answers that may be given. You may be surprised by some of the answers.
Judas Killed Jesus
Although Judas, one of Christ’s apostles, did not personally kill the Lord, we know that he was partly responsible for this death. Matthew writes, “One of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?’ And they weighed out thirty pieces of silver to him. From then on he began looking for a good opportunity to betray Jesus” (26:14-16). From the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus realized that Judas would betray Him and lead to His death (cf. John 6:70-71). This apostle deliberately plotted the death of his Lord (John 12:4) and he will suffer for this betrayal in eternity (John 17:12; Matt. 26:24). Judas instigated the death of Jesus, thus he was responsible for this monstrous act!
Satan Killed Jesus
Although Judas was the human agent in betraying Jesus to the Jewish authorities, we know that Satan was the underlying spirit in this dreadful act. Luke says that “Satan entered into Judas who was called Iscariot, belonging to the number of the twelve. And he went away and discussed with the chief priests and officers how he might betray Him to them” (22:3-4). John informs us that “the devil . . . put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him” (John 13:2). Later we read that “Satan then entered into him” and Judas left the upper room during the Passover meal with the intention of finalizing his wicked act. Satan, therefore, was responsible for Christ’s death!
The Jewish Leaders Killed Jesus
As we have seen above, the Jewish priests and leaders were also responsible for Jesus’ death. Not only were the high priests from the sect of the Sadducees guilty, but the Pharisees and scribes had long planned His death. After Mark records Jesus’ healing of a man in a synagogue on the Sabbath day, he informs us, “The Pharisees went out and immediately began conspiring with the Herodians against Him, as to how they might destroy Him” (3:6). As the final Passover drew near, “the chief priests and the Pharisees convened a counsel” and discussed how they would carry out the murder of our Lord (John 11:47ff). “So from that day on they planned together to kill Him” (v. 53). “They plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth and kill Him (Matt. 26:4; Mark 14:1; Luke 22:2). They had planned to destroy Jesus long before His crucifixion (cf. John 7:1; 8:37, 40, 59; 10:31-32, 39; Matt. 12:14). Jesus said to the Jews, “You are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth” (John 8:40).
On Passover night, Jesus went to the Garden of Gethsemane with His apostles to pray. While there, “the chief priests and the Pharisees” sent a host of soldiers to capture the Lord (John 18:3). During the night, Annas, Caiphas, and the Jewish council conducted an illegal trial that condemned Jesus to death (Matt. 26:65-66). As morning dawned, “all the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus to put Him to death” (Matt. 27:1). When they had passed the death sentence, this Jewish body delivered the Lord to Pilate the Roman governor who was in Jerusalem during the Passover feast. There they accused Him of insurrection and rebellion against Rome, seeking the governor’s sentence of death against Jesus (Luke 23:2, 5, 14). This is just what Jesus had earlier prophesied: “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn Him to death and will hand Him over to the Gentiles” (Mark 10:33). When they stood before Pilate, they pleaded for the Savior’s death (Matt. 27:20; John 18:31-32). Pilate, however, was aware that they had ulterior motives in wanting to get rid of Jesus. “He was aware that the chief priests had handed Him over because of envy” (Mark 15:10; cf. Matt. 27:18). Definitely, the Jewish leadership was guilty of the death of Jesus!
The Jewish People Killed Jesus
Through much of Jesus’ life, great crowds followed Him to be healed and to listen to His teachings (cf. Matt. 4:25; 5:1; 9:35-38; 14:14, 21; 15:30, 38; 21:8-11). However, a certain element of these crowds was merely interested in Jesus’ miraculous powers, but was not concerned about His stringent demands (cf. John 6:60-66). After the chief priests and other Jewish leaders condemned Jesus and led him to Pilate the governor, some Jewish people were present to observe the proceedings. Pilate attempted to release Jesus, but the Jewish leaders “persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to put Jesus to death” (Matt. 27:20). When the governor asked what he should do with Jesus, the great crowd of Jewish people cried out, “Crucify Him!” “They kept shouting all the more, saying, ‘Crucify Him!’” (vv. 22, 23). When Pilate said that he would be “innocent of this Man’s blood,” the Jewish people responded, “His blood shall be on us and on our children!” (vv. 24-25).
We may note here that while many Jews called for the Lord’s death, there were other Jews who remained true to Him and did not agree with His condemnation and crucifixion (cf. Luke 23:27, 48). Therefore, many of the common Jews who looked to Jesus as the Messiah or at least as a great Prophet, did not actually cry for Christ’s death. Yet there is a sense in which the Jewish nation did reject their Messiah. Peter charged the great crowd of Jews on Pentecost, “You nailed [Jesus] to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). A while later, the same apostle spoke to his Jewish audience, “The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His servant Jesus, the one whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him. But you disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and put to death the Prince of life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses” (3:13-15). Notice that even Jews who were not present when Jesus stood before Pilate were, in some sense, responsible for Christ’s rejection and crucifixion. Because of this, we can clearly see that the Jewish people were also guilty of killing Jesus!
Pilate the Governor Killed Jesus
Since Rome had placed Pilate over Judea at this time of history, this governor was responsible for maintaining justice in his realm. The sentence of death itself could come only if Rome approved it, though the Jews sometimes did take it upon themselves to stone those who had broken their law (cf. John 8:2-5; Acts 8:57-8:1; 22:4-5; 26:10). Pilate was a weak, cruel, and inept ruler, choosing to keep the peace even if justice would suffer and an innocent man would be put to death. Again and again, the governor stated that Jesus was an innocent man, not guilty of the Jew’s unfounded charges (cf. John 18:38; 19:4, 6; Luke 23:4). When he saw that the Jews were beginning to riot and might accuse him to Caesar of irresponsible behavior, Pilate sought to escape responsibility by symbolically washing his hands, saying, “I am innocent of this Man’s blood” (Matt. 27:24). Yet he could not escape blame. He handed the innocent Jesus over to his soldiers for crucifixion (v. 26; John 19:16). He “delivered Jesus to their will” (Luke 23:35). It is plain that the governor was also culpable in Christ’s death. In this sense, Pilate killed Jesus!
The Roman Soldiers Killed Jesus
When Pilate delivered Jesus to his soldiers to be crucified, they treated Him shamefully and cruelly (cf. Matt. 27:27-31; Mark 15:16-20). They then led Him to Golgotha where they nailed His hands and feet to the cross (Matt. 27:27-35; Mark 15:16-25). The Roman centurion and his soldiers carried out the actual crucifixion of our Lord (Matt. 27:27, 54). Physically, these men were guilty of killing Jesus!
God was Responsible for Jesus’ Death
This particular point is a delicate one. We must avoid blaming God for “killing” His own Son, which surely was the sin of all sins through all history! Yet there is a sense in which God and His righteous character was responsible for the redemptive event of the cross. On the day of Pentecost, Peter charged his Jewish audience: “This Man [Jesus], delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death” (Acts 2:23). This tells us several important truths. Notice that it was God Himself who delivered Jesus to death by crucifixion! It was by His own “predetermined plan and foreknowledge.”
Before the creation, God the Creator determined to bring salvation to a world that would fall into sin, and He knew that it would require the death of His dearly loved Son (cf. 1 Peter 1:20)! Later, we read that the various participants in Jerusalem (Pilate, Herod, the Gentiles, and the Jewish people) were carrying out God’s own purpose. In prayer, the followers of Jesus said that these people did “whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur” (Acts 4:28). But notice more from Acts 2:23. There we read that Peter’s own Jewish listeners (“you”) were the ones who “nailed” Jesus “to a cross” and “put Him to death” (v. 23). The Jewish people did this! But notice further: They crucified Jesus “by the hands of godless men.” Surely this is a reference to the “godless” Romans! In this one verse, we see that God was ultimately responsible for Christ’s death, but the Jewish people were humanly responsible for this murderous act, yet they carried it out through the Roman authorities!
Jesus was Responsible for His Own Death
Not only did God the Father “send” His own Son to the earth for the purpose of dying for our sins, but Jesus Christ Himself may be viewed as giving Himself for us and for those sins. He “gave Himself for us” (Titus 2:14; cf. Eph. 5:2) and “gave Himself as a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 2:6). We may even say, “[Christ] loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). It is true that our Lord cringed at the thought of death and bearing all of humanity’s sins; He wanted to avoid suffering on the cross. In the Garden, Jesus prayed to the Father, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as You will” (Matt. 26:39). But He later expressed absolute submission to the Father’s will in this great act of self-sacrifice: “My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Your will be done” (v. 42). The death of Christ was not an unexpected event—but He came for the express purpose of dying. He declared, “The Son of Man [Jesus] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). He came for the purpose of dying! Even when Judas came with the mob of soldiers, sent by the high priests, Jesus indicated that He could easily be rescued from capture. The Lord said for Peter to put his sword away and not defend Him, then He said, “Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions [about 72,000] of angels? How then will the Scriptures be fulfilled, which say that it must happen this way?” (Matt. 26:52-54).
One of the clearest passages is in the gospel of John. Jesus plainly asserts the voluntary and deliberate nature of His death: “For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father” (10:17-18). In this sense, Judas had no power over Jesus. The Jewish leaders didn’t either. Nor did Pilate, the governor. Christ told Pilate, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason, he who delivered Me to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11). It is true that Pilate sinned in passing the death sentence on Jesus. It is true that the Jewish leaders were guilty of a “greater sin” than Pilate. But the death itself, in its very essence, was a choice, a voluntary choice, of Christ Jesus Himself. He knew that the only way to forgive a fallen race of people was through His sacrificial, redemptive, reconciling death on the cross—and He deliberately chose to die for us. In this sense, Jesus Himself was responsible for His own death!
You and I Killed Jesus
Are you in any way surprised that we, ourselves, are responsible for the death of Christ? Yet this is absolutely true. We did not live two thousand years ago, thus we did not participate in the actual betrayal, rejection, or accusation of our Lord. We did not partake in the actual nailing of Jesus’ body to the Roman cross. We didn’t even stand before the cross to mock and hurl slanderous charges against our Savior. But there is a very real sense in which you and I—all of us—are responsible for Jesus’ death. It was our sins that Jesus died for! “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3). “He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross” (1 Peter 2:24). He died for people—you and me! “He laid down His life for us” (1 John 3:16). “Christ also died for sins once for all, the just for the unjust” (1 Peter 3:18). If you had been the only person on the earth, Christ would have needed to die for your sins if you would be saved from them!
We may rightfully blame Judas, the Jewish leaders, the Jewish people, or the Romans for Christ’s death, but we, ourselves, are the real reason why Jesus had to die and shed His life-giving blood in sacrifice for our sins. In this sense, we are responsible for the death of Christ!
A New Way of Looking at Christ’s Death
While the Jewish people and society around us are debating who was responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, let’s not become embroiled in meaningless controversy. No one today is guilty of Christ’s death in a physical way for no one was living two thousand years ago to participate in Christ’s rejection and crucifixion. It must be admitted that the Jews asked that Jesus “blood” or the guilt of His death be upon them and their descendants (Matt. 27:25), and there is a sense in which the Jewish leaders were particularly guilty of the Messiah’s blood (cf. Acts 5:28). The Jewish Paul said that the Judean “Jews . . . killed the Lord Jesus” (1 Thess. 2:14-15). However, we must go beyond these limited answers to view the entire panorama of God’s redemptive plans in Christ Jesus, His Son. Let us not become “anti-Semitic” in our view of history. Let us acknowledge the Jewish rejection of Jesus the Messiah, the Anointed One, but let us look at all the aspects of Jesus death and not accuse irrationally or hypocritically!
Are you willing to look at your own sins and see that Jesus died for you? Are you willing to acknowledge your own guilt for your sins that took Jesus to the cross? If you are, I encourage you to place your sincere faith in the crucified Savior, who was “lifted up” on the cross for you and was raised from death for your salvation and forgiveness (John 3:14-18; Rom. 5:6-11). Turn from your sins, the sins that crucified Jesus (Acts 3:19), and be baptized into Christ Jesus and into His saving death for you (Romans 6:3-11; Colossians 2:11-13). Begin to live a life of faithful devotion to the crucified and risen Lord of glory (2 Cor. 5:14-21), so that you will be able to say, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20).