This weekend is a special time of remembrance for the Christian faith. It is the time where we reflect on the crucifixion and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In light of that it’s a good idea to remember what makes this particular trial and execution so significant – significant enough to alter the history of mankind. Although scoffers try to claim Jesus never existed and that this never happened, we know from other ancient documents outside of the Bible that Jesus did exist and was crucified. In the writings of Tacitus, a Roman historian writing from AD 56 to 117, he relates this about Jesus: “Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilate.” The historical accounts from Tacitus and other ancient texts confirm that this Jesus was a real person who was crucified by Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius.
But if this Jesus who is called the Christ were just a man, what significance would there be in his execution? Why would this be noteworthy to Tacitus, or to history in general? It wasn’t just because he was an innocent man. If Jesus were just an innocent man, convicted and executed for a crime he did not commit, then his execution would be shameful and sad. But that would not really matter to the rest of the world. So one may say it was significant because of the reason behind his execution. Jesus was not convicted for something He did but for who He claimed to be. He claimed to be God which the High-Priest determined to be blasphemy punishable by death. (Although under Jewish law it would have been death by stoning. But since the Jews were under Roman authority at the time, the punishment was crucifixion).
However, in studying Acts 5, we see that even that was nothing of importance. Gamaliel, the well-respected Pharisee, said that many had claimed to be the Messiah and thus sealed their fate to be executed as a blasphemer. A man named Theudas made that claim and even had 400 followers. When he was executed, his disciples scattered; and it came to nothing. Then Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census with many followers. When he was executed, his many followers dispersed; and it came to nothing.
So why is it that we remember the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth? Because of what happened after His execution. See, when Theudas and Judas of Galilee were executed for claiming to be the Messiah, their followers scattered. Why? Because their leader, a mere mortal man, was now dead. But when Jesus of Nazareth was crucified for claiming to be the Messiah, He died and was buried. But He did not stay that way. He resurrected. And his followers did not scatter and disperse; they became bolder. They traveled far and wide preaching in the name of this Jesus of Nazareth – and they did so in the face of intense persecution. As Gamaliel had predicted, this was the evidence that this incident with Jesus was not like the others. When the Jewish council was debating what to do with Peter and John who were still preaching the name of Jesus, Gamaliel advised, “So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone, for if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!”
For Gamaliel, it was the after effects of the crucifixion that would prove whether this thing was from God or man. So it is the response to this claim of the resurrection that gives us the evidence of its truth. Consider the responses of those who loved and followed Jesus. The disciples’ response to the news of the empty tomb at first was skepticism – until they saw it for themselves. They were in hiding, mourning the loss of their beloved Messiah and fearing their own fate at the hands of the Pharisees. But once they witnessed the resurrection, their focus changed from their own security to the urgency of sharing the Gospel of salvation. The truth of what they had seen with their own eyes and touched with their own hands made a drastic impact on their lives. And they devoted the remainder of their lives sharing that good news of the resurrection to others around the world.
But the news of the resurrection also impacted those who were not followers of Jesus. His ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection were all done publicly, out in the open for friend and foe to see. Peter reminds the Jewish people of that in his first sermon delivered at Pentecost. He said, ““Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” Peter spoke on these things again after healing the lame man on the temple steps: “whom you delivered over and denied in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses.” As Paul would say later, those things were “not done in a corner.” All of those people had seen the work Jesus had done, His miracles, His power over sickness, nature, and demons. They had all witnessed, no, not just witnessed, but participated in his crucifixion. They had all cried out, “Give us Barabbas!” They had jeered and mocked Him at His death. And they had witnessed His resurrection.
The response to note here though is that of the Pharisees to Peter’s statements. Did they say to the crowds that Peter and John were just as crazy as Jesus? Did they go to the tomb and produce the body of Jesus to shut them up? No. It says they were astonished at Peter and John’s boldness and wisdom – until they recognized they had been with Jesus. The Pharisees were unable to refute that the lame man had been healed in the name of Jesus. And they were afraid of the spread of Jesus’ name. The response of the Pharisees shows us the veracity of the claims made by Peter and John. They could not refute the power done in the name of Jesus. And they could not refute the claims of the resurrection. They could only make futile attempts to stop the spread of these things.
The reaction of Paul to the resurrection gives evidence of its occurrence as well. Paul’s encounter with the resurrected Jesus drastically changed his life. It changed him from persecuting those who claimed the name of Jesus to being persecuted for proclaiming the name of Jesus. He changed from speaking against Jesus to speaking for Jesus. He went from being feared by the other apostles to being accepted into their fellowship. He transformed from a Jewish Pharisee despising Gentiles to the apostle preaching salvation to the Gentiles. Paul himself credited such a complete transformation to the one event of meeting the resurrected Jesus. To change that much from one event tells us that event did occur.
There is also the reaction of James, the brother of Jesus, who was not a disciple or follower of Jesus. In fact, none of His brothers believed (John 7:5). They even tried to pull Jesus out of ministering to the crowds when the crowds became too great (Mark 3). Their unbelief is quite astonishing when you consider the testimony of their mother as to the conception of Jesus! Not much else is said about the family of Jesus throughout the Gospel accounts. However, the next time we see James he is presiding over the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. James led the other apostles in determining the guidelines for new believing Gentiles. He became the leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 21). Paul referred to James as an apostle in his letter to Galatia. And James was eventually martyred for his faith by the Jewish leaders there in Jerusalem.
What would have caused such a difference? How did James grow up in the same house as Jesus, witnessing His ministry from the very beginning, and not believe, yet after Jesus’ crucifixion he became the leader of the church in Jerusalem, even dying for his belief? For that answer we go to 1 Corinthians 15:7. Paul reminded the Corinthians of the core doctrinal truths of Christianity that he had already taught them: that Christ died for our sins; that he was buried and raised again; and that many witnessed His resurrection. But look at the list of names that Paul provided who saw the resurrection. Jesus appeared to Peter, the twelve disciples, more than 500 at once, James, the apostles, and Paul himself. Jesus specifically appeared to His unbelieving brother James. So the drastic change in the life of James is directly attributed to his witness of the resurrected Jesus.
The reactions of friend and foe is what gives us, far removed in time and place, the confidence that it did indeed occur. It is the reaction to any historical even that confirms its veracity. For example, even if we didn’t have a single document remaining from the Revolutionary War, we know what truly happened because we have evidence of the reaction to it – the United States is functioning as a separate nation from England. Likewise, the ongoing reactions of both friend and foe to the resurrection of Jesus give us the confirmation that it really occurred. And the importance of that fact cannot be stated enough. It is the resurrection of Jesus that affirms His deity. It is that resurrection that conquers sin and death for those who believe.
Without the resurrection, our faith is meaningless. But with the resurrection comes eternal hope and salvation for all mankind. This is how those living alongside Jesus reacted to the resurrection. What will your reaction be?
 Tacitus, Annals 15.44
All scripture quotes are from the English Standard Version (ESV)
With Easter coming this Sunday, I wanted to talk about the significance of the crucifixion. Crucifixion was the Roman method of executing criminals. They crucified people on a regular basis. So for this particular crucifixion to be significant, it depends on who was being crucified. If Jesus were just a man, then this crucifixion may have been a sad travesty that someone so kind and nice, who did nothing wrong, would meet such a tragic end. But then we must ask why he was crucified in the first place? If he were just a nice man that did nothing wrong, what could account for him being crucified like a common criminal?
That question ultimately leads us to who this man called Jesus really was. It was the most unusual trial and execution in all of history – because it wasn’t for what he did but who he claimed to be. He was executed for making the claim of being God. Now, this is oftentimes a point of contention with critics because many say that Jesus never claimed to be God. They think the claim of deity was something added generations later. However, the fact that the crucifixion happened at all flatly disproves this assertion, for it was his assertion of being God that led to his crucifixion. If Jesus didn’t claim to be God, then the crucifixion would not have taken place because that was the sole reason for it.
In case that argument isn’t sufficient for some, let’s look at how Jesus really did make the claim to be God. First, Jesus exhibited characteristics that only God could have. He was all-knowing about the past, present and future. When he met the woman at the well in John 4:16-20 Jesus told her everything about her life. And it was from his intimate knowledge about her life that she knew there was something different about Jesus, that he might be the Messiah. He predicted his own death. He told Peter to get a coin out of a fish’s mouth to use for taxes in Matthew 17. He was all-powerful. Throughout the New Testament, He healed the lepers, raised Lazarus from the dead, brought sight to the blind, cast out demons, and caused the lame to walk again. He had power over the sea and the storms in Matthew 8. And in Matthew 14 he walked on water.
Second, he receives praise from those around him as though he were God. If Jesus didn’t intend to be worshiped as God, then he certainly would have stopped the people from doing so. We know that was how Paul and Barnabas responded to being worshiped like gods at Lystra in Acts 14. The people saw what Paul and Barnabas could do through the power of the name of Jesus and fell down to worship them like gods. But Paul and Barnabas stopped that by insisting that they were just men. They rejected the idea of being worshiped like gods. Granted, having others worship you like a god does not in fact make you god. The Roman emperors and Egyptian pharaohs liked to be worshiped like gods but they certainly were not. But it tells us about what they intended. If the people wanted to worship Jesus as God and he did not stop them, then it tells us he intended for people to worship him like God. But we also must take into consideration what kind of people were doing the worshiping. When those at Lystra or Rome or Athens worshiped something as god, it was just adding one more name to a list of hundreds of gods they already worshiped. But when the Jewish people began to worship someone as God, a people who were unique in this time by having only One God, it meant what they were worshiping was part of that one true God. Jesus even says himself in Matthew 4:10 that we are to worship the Lord God only, yet Jesus openly and readily received worship as that God. His followers were devout Jews who believed in only one true God, yet they all confessed Jesus to be God.
Third, Jesus makes the confession himself about his deity, which is really the whole point here. In John 5:16–18, the Jewish leaders confronted Jesus for healing a man on the Sabbath because that violated the law of resting on the Sabbath. Jesus’ response was “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.” He referred to God as His own personal Father, not as “our” Father. He put His work on par with God’s work, making Him equal to God. The Jewish leaders clearly understood Jesus was claiming to be God. It says they “sought all the more to kill him because He not only broke the Sabbath, but also said that God was His Father, making Himself equal with God.”
In John 10, Jesus was approached by the Jewish leaders who questioned Him about being the Christ. His response was “I and My Father are one." At this, the Jews picked up stones to stone Jesus. Jesus asks them for which miracle, which deed, are they stoning him and they replied, “For a good work we do not stone You, but for blasphemy, and because You, being a Man, make Yourself God.” The Jewish leaders understood exactly what Jesus was claiming, and they were ready to execute Jesus on the spot for that claim.
In Mark 2, Jesus demonstrates his power and his deity by healing a paralytic but also by forgiving the paralytic’s sins. The scribes ask by what authority He is able to forgive sins. The scribes understood that only the one injured by someone’s sins can be the one to offer forgiveness. If you steal my money I can forgive you. But I can’t announce that I forgive you for stealing someone else’s money. This man’s sins were against God, so the only one who can forgive those sins is God Himself. Therefore when Jesus said that He could forgive sin, He was claiming to be God. He was forgiving sins as though He was the main person offended by those sins. He could only forgive those sins if He really was the God whose laws are broken and whose love is wounded in every sin.
But the most definitive evidence of Jesus’ claim as God is in His trial. In Mark 14:60–64, the high priest directly asks Jesus, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” And Jesus answered, “I am.” This is exactly the statement the Sanhedrin was waiting for. Jesus claimed to be God, the Christ, the Son of the Most High God. He was tried and convicted for this claim and this claim alone. So there is no mistaking that Jesus clearly claimed to be God and knew the full weight of that claim. It was the very claim that cost him his life.
But why does this matter? What if Jesus were not God? Then his death on the cross was insufficient to pay for our sins. If Jesus were just a nice, innocent man wrongfully convicted, then our sins are still upon us. It was only through the sacrifice offered by God Himself that we can have forgiveness. See, we all sin. And the punishment for those sins is death and separation from God. The only way to escape that punishment is by maintaining perfection and holiness – a standard that none of us can meet. Except God. Only God Himself can maintain that holiness and therefore provide the atonement for our sin-stained lives. If Jesus were not God, then our sins are left upon us. It is so critical to understand that Jesus was God. It is why He was crucified and it is how we have forgiveness. Otherwise, His death is insufficient and the wages of sin is still due us.