The resurrection of Jesus is the central part of Christianity. If Jesus had not resurrected from the dead, then our faith is useless, and we are still dead in our sins. It would mean we should all find something better to do with our time and energy. This is why it is so important that we know with confidence that the resurrection truly took place. And we need to be able to share the evidence for the resurrection with others, whether it is unbelievers to whom we are witnessing or to our children whom we are raising in the faith.
There’s a beautiful hymn that says, “He lives! Christ Jesus lives today! You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart.” That is true, but in the wrong order. We know He lives because of the evidence, and because of the evidence we believe in Him, and because we believe in Him, He lives in our hearts. We believe in Jesus because He proved He was the Son of God, because He was crucified, and because the tomb was empty three days later. How can we have confidence that Jesus really resurrected from the dead?
Though it might seem obvious that Jesus died on the cross, there are many people out there that doubt this point. Granted, the reason why they want to question the death of Jesus is because you can’t have a resurrection without death. And the resurrection is everything to Christianity. If Jesus did not resurrect, as Paul states, our faith is useless (1 Corinthians 15:14). By questioning the death of Jesus, a person can unravel the resurrection and thus unravel all of Christianity. So let’s explore this idea. How can we know with confidence that Jesus really died on the cross?
1) First, the idea that Jesus didn’t die on the cross is really insulting to Romans. The Romans perfected the art of killing. They built their empire on it. They invented new and creative ways to kill people. They killed for entertainment and sport. Besides, Jesus and the two thieves were not the first people the Romans had crucified. In fact, in 71 BC Spartacus, a Roman slave, led a slave revolt in Italy. They were defeated and he and many of his fellow slaves were crucified, their crosses lined up along the roadside of the Appian Way. So the Romans have been crucifying people for decades at this point. Given all of this, it is quite unbelievable to imply the Romans would not have effectively killed Jesus or would not have known if Jesus were dead.
2) Second, we must consider the physical torture Jesus endured. By the time Jesus is sent before Pilate He has been awake for two days and has already been hit and beaten during the trial with the high priest. After the crowds chanted for Pilate to crucify Jesus and release Barabbas, there is one small verse that simply says, “So then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him.” (John 19:1) What a short verse to describe such a horrible, gruesome thing. It sometimes makes it tempting to read right passed it.
In our modern vernacular, we use “scourge” to mean something that just causes suffering and pain. But we must consider the historical context as it was written. In Roman times, a scourge was a whip usually made out of leather with multiple endings with stone, bits of rock, or shards of pottery tied to it, something like this picture. It was used to inflict severe punishment on a criminal. This was no switchin’ from your momma. The purpose of this device was torture, to rip the flesh off of the bone, to weaken a person so they would die faster.
Add to this the crown of thorns stuck in Jesus’ head and you can see what level of pain and torture Jesus went through before His execution. Was this effective at torturing and weakening Jesus? Absolutely. How do we know? Jesus was too weak to carry His cross up to the hill where He would be crucified (Luke 23:26). At Golgotha, He is then nailed to the cross and lifted up. Even though Jesus had endured such excruciating pain, this did not kill Him. And it didn’t alone kill the two thieves on the cross beside Jesus.
The Romans didn’t employ execution methods that were quick and painless for the prisoner. They wanted long drawn out, excruciating methods for killing the accused. When a person was crucified, they were able to live for some amount of time by pushing their body up so they could still breathe. They could do this until they were too weak to push themselves up, and then they would eventually suffocate. This is the significance of the soldiers breaking the legs of the thieves on the crosses beside Jesus. They needed to hurry up this process so the bodies weren’t hanging up there during the Passover Sabbath. Therefore, they would break their knees so they could no longer push themselves up, speeding up their death.
Keep in mind all that Jesus endured and what physical condition He was in when He was lifted up on the cross.
3) Third, now we can look at the evidence of Jesus’ death.
When we consider everything Jesus endured and the evidence of the people watching the crucifixion, it is clear Jesus died on the cross in accordance with God’s perfect timing, the Scriptures, and Jesus’ own prophecies. The religious leaders and Roman soldiers may have thought they were in control of this and were responsible for killing Jesus, but God was still in perfect control.
Jesus could have done the very thing the people were taunting Him to do – He could have come down off of that cross and turned the tables on the executioners. He could have called down legions of angels to rescue Him. He could have done any number of miraculous things in that moment. But the most miraculous thing is that He chose to die. That was the true miracle. His love for humanity and His obedience to God the Father conquered over His desire to avoid the cross. He chose the moment that He would allow them to take Him. And He chose the moment when He yielded up His spirit.
I pray that you take a moment to consider the price He paid to show His love for you.
The Halakha is the collective body of Jewish religious law, which includes the biblical, the Talmudic, and the Rabbinic law, as well as the Jewish customs and traditions. There is one law for religious, civil, and criminal law. Therefore, when a person committed blasphemy, a religious violation where a person claims to be equal with God, they would be tried through the same courts as if they had stolen or committed murder.
The Halakha provided strict rules for how trials were to proceed in order to maintain a fair system of legal justice and to administer the law honestly. However, this legal system, as all others, operated under the hands of sinful men and thus, failed to always operate in fairness and honesty. In first century Judea, the religious leaders stoned Stephen in the streets, several times they picked up rocks to stone Jesus, and they were going to stone the woman caught in adultery. These examples violated the Halakha to fairly seek justice.
When a person was properly charged with a crime and taken to trial, there were specific rules for how the trial was to proceed.
John 18:12 – [At night] Then the detachment of troops and the captain and the officers of the Jews arrested Jesus and bound Him. And they led Him away to Annas first, for he was the father-in-law of Caiaphas who was high priest that year. Now it was Caiaphas who advised the Jews that it was expedient that one man should die for the people.
John 18:19-23 – The high priest then asked Jesus about His disciples and His doctrine. Jesus answered him, “I spoke openly to the world. I always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where the Jews always meet, and in secret I have said nothing. Why do you ask Me? Ask those who have heard Me what I said to them. Indeed they know what I said.” And when He said these things one of the officers who stood by struck Jesus with the palm of his hand saying, Do you answer the high priest like that?” Jesus answered him, “If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil; but if well, why do you strike Me?”
John 18:24 - Then Annas sent Him bound to Caiaphas the high priest.
Matthew 26:57-60a – And those who had laid hold of Jesus led Him away to Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were assembled. But Peter followed Him at a distance to the high priest’s courtyard. And he went in and sat with the servants to see the end. Now the chief priests, the elders and all the council sought false testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. Even though many false witnesses came forward they found none.
Mark 14:55-56 – Now the chief priest and all the council sought testimony against Jesus to put Him to death, but found none. For many bore false witness against Him, but their testimonies did not agree.
Matthew 26:60b - But at least two false witnesses came forward and said, “This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and to build it in three days.’”
Mark 14:57-59 - Then some rose up and bore false witness against Him, saying, “We heard Him say, ‘I will destroy this temple made with hands and within three days I will build another made without hands.” But not even then did their testimony agree.
Matthew 26:62- 68 - And the high priest arose (Caiaphas) and said to Him, “Do you answer nothing? What is it these men testify against You?” But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest answered and said to Him, “I put you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God!” Jesus said to him, “It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, “He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?”
They answered and said, “He is deserving of death.” Then they spat in His face and beat Him; and others struck Him with the palm of their hands, saying, “Prophesy to us, Christ! Who is the one who struck You?”
Mark 14:65 – Then some began to spit on Him, and to blindfold Him, and to beat Him, and to say to Him, “Prophesy!” and the officers struck Him with the palms of their hands.
Luke 22:65 – And many other things they blasphemously spoke against Him.
After reading how trials were supposed to be conducted and reading how the trial of Jesus was conducted, we see the council violated their own laws in their rush to convict Jesus. Jesus was arrested and tried at night at the house of the high priest, not in the Temple during the daytime. The trial was not open to the public. The charges were brought forward by the council not by a third party. And the charges were never read aloud because they didn’t even know what to charge him with at first. Jesus was not granted any defense, on the contrary, was asked to incriminate himself. No credible witnesses were brought forward. The only evidence presented was hearsay from perjured testimony stirred up by the council itself. These witnesses should have been subject to the same punishment that awaited Jesus.
The vote for conviction was not taken individually from the youngest member to the oldest but was declared by the high priest. There was no two day waiting period until sentencing, nor a three day waiting period before execution. There was no fasting and praying by the council to consider the weight of the decision to execute someone. Mercy was not valued.
When Jesus was arrested there was never even a pretense of justice. The trial was a ruse for them to execute Jesus. The verdict and death sentence were not based on careful consideration of full impartial evidence and testimony. All legal decorum had been tossed aside as they spat on and slapped Jesus.
The charge they finally landed on for conviction was that of blasphemy. Jesus did indeed claim to be God, but this is only a blasphemous statement if you are not God. According to Leviticus 24:16, “Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him.” The punishment for blasphemy is stoning. Why was Jesus crucified then? Because in God’s Sovereignty, the Roman empire was ruling over Judea and the Jews were unable to carry out an execution. This was why the high priest needed Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, to agree to execute Jesus. The Roman form of execution for any non-Roman citizen was crucifixion, thus fulfilling the Scripture that his bones would not be broken (Psalm 34:20 and Numbers 9:12) and that He would be pierced for our transgressions (Zechariah 12:10 and Isaiah 53:5).
Of course the trial before Pilate was not a real trial either. There were no witnesses nor evidence provided, only the charges brought forward by the Sanhedrin. In even this though, Pilate seemed more concerned about mercy for a man who appeared innocent than any of the Sanhedrin did. Scripture even tells us that he sought a way to release Jesus. But alas, he feared men more than God. As the angry mob chanted, “Crucify Him!” Pilate released to them Barabbas and sent Jesus to be executed.
But we must remember, none of this happened without God allowing this as part of His divine plan. As Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above.” God was in complete control, and this was the appointed time He chose to redeem His creation by sacrificing Himself in their place.
Last night I did something I have never done before. I prepared a Passover Seder meal for our family. We started by reading the original institution of the Passover in Exodus 12. We stood there in our robes and sandals with sticks as our walking staffs. I had saved some blood from the lamb I roasted, and we painted that around the front door. Then we went upstairs (my son’s suggestion to be like eating in the upper room) to eat the Passover meal. We ate the bitter herbs to remind us of the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt. We dipped the bitter vegetables into the salty water to remind us of their tears while in bondage. We broke and passed the unleavened bread to remind us that the Israelites fled quickly. We ate of the lamb, the spotless lamb, chosen as the sacrifice, whose blood would cover over them as God’s judgment passed through the land.
It was a beautiful reminder of the reason why Jesus left Heaven to come down to earth. But the Passover instituted in Exodus and observed since then was just a picture. A symbol. The perfect had not yet come. The real Passover Lamb had not yet been sacrificed.
Jesus did not come to abolish the law or the Scriptures, but to fulfill it. Christianity is an extension of Judaism, the final conclusion to the cliff-hanger given in Malachi for the story God began in Genesis. God had promised out of His love for His creation to provide a remedy for the brokenness that sin had caused.
God said in the garden that one day a Savior would come to crush the head of the serpent forever. He promised Abraham that through him all nations would be blessed. He promised David that of His kingdom there would be no end. And when God rescued His people from slavery in Egypt it was a perfect picture of the rescue that would one day be for all people.
God instructed the Israelites to observe this Passover feast and told them that they should “keep it as a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations, as a statute forever, you shall keep it as a feast.” (Exodus 12: 14) This is the feast that Jesus was having with His disciples in the upper room.
Though they didn’t understand it at the time, Jesus was showing them how He was fulfilling the Passover by being the sacrificial Lamb. He said, “This is my body broken for you and this is my blood poured out for you,” yet they still did not understand.
After the resurrection Jesus interpreted to the disciples on the road to Emmaus “all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 23:27) And to the disciples in the upper room He said, “’These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’” (Luke 23:44-47).
It is from understanding the Old Testament – the Scriptures – that we can see what Jesus was doing. He was the perfect, spotless Lamb who went willingly and silently to the altar. It is His blood that covers over us and protects us from the wrath of God’s just judgment on our sin. It is by His sacrifice that God breaks the chains of our slavery to sin. It was His body broken and His blood poured out so that we could live.
But, just like the Egyptians, if you refuse the blood of the Lamb, if you refuse to acknowledge the one true God and trust in His promises, then you will face the just judgment of your sins.
The Egyptians didn’t listen to the warnings God gave them. They trusted in their own strength, in their false gods, and in their own wisdom. They did not trust in God’s mercy and did not fear God’s wrath. That is a terrible place to be in because both of those are very real things. Do not delay in turning your heart to God and trusting in the blood of Jesus to cover over your sins.
During this festival, the time of Jesus had finally come. The perfect, unblemished sacrifice would be made, only this time it would be once and for all. As John the Baptist proclaimed, "Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."
Over the next few days, as we remember the sacrifice Jesus made, I want to leave you with a few verses from the book of Hebrews that tie together the Old Testament Passover lamb to the New Testament Lamb of God.
But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
This Easter will be a little different than our typical Easter celebrations. With the social distancing and isolation in place, there won’t be the large church services with new spring dresses, the family gatherings for lunch, or the community egg hunts.
But instead of looking at what this Easter will be missing, choose this time to refocus Easter on what Easter is actually all about. We can celebrate this Easter more like the first Easter – in quiet awe of the miracle of the resurrection.
On that first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene went alone to the tomb when she saw the resurrected Jesus. She fell at His feet in worship then ran to the tell the others (Matthew 28:9-10). When John and Peter heard the news, they ran to investigate for themselves, then went home to tell their families (John 20:3-10). The disciples on the road to Emmaus were taught by the resurrected Jesus how the Old Testament scriptures had been fulfilled in Him (Luke 24:25-27). The disciples were together in the upper room when the resurrected Jesus appeared to them. Jesus showed them His hands and His feet, and Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:26-27). And Jesus taught them from the Law of Moses, and the Prophets, and the Psalms so they might comprehend the Scriptures (Luke 24:40-45).
This Easter, may we fall at the feet of Jesus and worship Him, and then run to tell others the good news. May we investigate the accounts of Jesus and the empty tomb to understand its truth, and then teach our families. May we consider His wounds and cry out to Him as our Lord and our God. May we study the Scriptures to comprehend what He has done for us.