by Gordon Dalbey
YEARS AGO AS A PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER, I was accosted in a local marketplace by an angry villager. “We hate you Americans,” he snapped. “You killed Kennedy!”
I had enjoyed enough local hospitality to be more puzzled than indignant. President Kennedy himself was an American; without Americans, he would never have existed. Still, others around the world clearly felt that Kennedy had participated so essentially in their identity and aspirations that he belonged to them.
To condemn the Jewish people for the death of Jesus, as many Christians have done over the centuries, is just as baffling. Jesus himself was a Jew; without the Jews, the Messiah would never have existed. Still, non-Jews around the world clearly have felt that Jesus participates so essentially in their identity and aspirations that he belongs to them.
POLITICALLY CORRECT FABRICATIONS
Biblical history records that Jesus’ fellow Jews did in fact facilitate his death at Roman hands. Rather than sanitize that fact with politically-correct fabrications, Gentile Christians must dare to ask why that happened—not in order to blame others, but in fact to revitalize our faith at its roots.
If our faith is alive, that is, the Bible stories which include Jesus’ rejection and murder are not about some ancient, distant people, but about us. To point a self-righteous Gentile finger is to refuse to identify with the people of the Bible, and therefore, miss its essential message for us all today.
In Jesus’ time, Rome had conquered and brutalized Israel. Centurions (Roman police) menaced on every street corner, and even in the sacred temple. For those who protested, Roman law was swift and deadly; well-traveled roads were lined as telephone poles with crucified dissidents.
PASSOVER AND THE FOURTH OF JULY
As resentment simmered, Jesus and his fellow oppressed Jews were approaching the Passover—which recalled for them a similar historical ordeal, when their ancestors were slaves in ancient Egypt. Passover celebrates the God of the Exodus, who intervened miraculously against overwhelming military odds to destroy the Egyptian oppressor and deliver His Chosen People into freedom across the parted Red Sea.
When a hopelessly powerful and viciously ruthless enemy stands in your backyards and even in your sacred temple, all this remembering freedom and your God’s saving power stirs not only hostile resentment, but violent reprisal. Passover in Jesus’ time would be like celebrating Fourth of July with foreign armies occupying America. It was a virtual mandate for revolution, and the air in Jerusalem was electric with anticipation for yet another dramatic, saving act of God.
Into this hair-trigger atmosphere came a man who promised to set his people free from their fear of death—the very fear which oppressors bank on for their power (see Heb. 2:14,15). This man Jesus preached that death has no power if you trust in the God of the Exodus. If you’ve lived in the shadow of crosses hanging with your brothers in faith, you know that such radical talk can turn an angry people into a mob ready not to only to kill but to be killed.
“He stirs up the people!” as the chief priests agonized (Luke 23:4).
“So the Pharisees and the chief priests met with the Council,” John noted, “and said, ‘What shall we do? Look at all the miracles this man is performing! If we let him go on in this way, everyone will believe in him, and the Roman authorities will take action and destroy our temple and our nation!’” (John 11:47-48TEV).
FEAR OF A RIOT
Similarly, Mark records that two days before the Passover festival, the chief priests “were looking for a way to arrest Jesus secretly and put him to death. ‘We dare not do it during the festival,’ they said, ‘or the people might riot’” (Mk. 14:1,2).
Thus, the anguish of Jewish leaders under Roman rule. Yes, Jesus’ demonstrated power threatened their authority. But Rome demanded civil order and was prepared to crush the nation to enforce it.
Not only would outward rebellion against Caesar’s battalions be suicidal, but in fact, any disturbance or rioting at all among Jews could spark a holocaust. Such fear was no demented paranoia; this very cataclysm had befallen Israel centuries before, at the hands of the Babylonians.
The dilemma was as clear as it was agonizing. If Jesus refused to shut up or get out of town, people would gather, tempers would flare—and the people chosen to reveal God’s love and power to this broken world could get wiped out by Caesar’s jittery battalions.
If you want your people to survive, as a Jewish leader you must be prepared to compromise your anger, if not your faith itself. Thus the High Priest Caiaphas exclaimed to the other leaders, “What fools you are! Don’t you realize that it is better for you to have one man die for the people, instead of having the whole nation destroyed?” (John 11:49-50 TEV).
JESUS MUST GO
The common sense choice was clear: Jesus must go.
I wish I could say, “If I were a Jewish leader in Jesus’ time, I don’t know what I would’ve done.” But I do know what I most likely would have done—and it would not have been to risk the life of my entire nation for some carpenter from far-off Nazareth, no matter how impressive his miracles.
Today, some 2000 years later, in our comfortable democracy occupied only by stoplights and convenience stores, it’s easy for Gentiles to scoff, “Shame on those Jews! Of course, we would never have given Jesus over to be killed!”
Yet Jesus himself excoriated the Pharisees for that very same self-righteousness: “You hypocrites! …You claim that if you had lived during the time of your ancestors, you would not have done what they did and killed the prophets” (Matthew 23:29,30).
The Story says that the people of God chose apparent worldly security over Jesus. Do we? For all the leaders’ attempts to save their nation, not long after this in 66 AD, Israel rebelled openly; the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans, and the land was taken from the Jews until 1948, almost 2000 years thereafter.
Christian Gentiles would do well to heed the lessons of history: Insofar as we value our security over the call of Jesus to save a dying world, we will exclude His Holy Spirit from our churches and thereby leave them lifeless.
In fact, when the people of God chose life in this world rather than to risk their lives for Jesus, they abandoned themselves to the powers of death. This is the very real and very terrifying choice facing the followers of Jesus in every country, in every generation—even our own today.
If indeed, the God of the Bible is our God, then His story in the Bible is our story. As Gentiles, therefore, we can never celebrate ourselves as having the whole part in Christ’s life while scorning the Jews as having the whole part in his death. After all, the disciples themselves—not just the Pharisees—denied and disowned Jesus (see Mark 14:50, 68-72).
In fact, it was precisely these unfaithful disciples to whom the Risen Lord first returned, and empowered to bear God’s forgiveness to an unfaithful world: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22,23).
Only those who have abandoned Jesus to die can appreciate the awe-full grace in this act—and the responsibility it bears.
That is, only insofar as you have inflicted the pain of Good Friday and thereby know its shame, can you treasure the humbling grace of Easter and thereby know its power.
Whenever I fancy that I don’t feel any particular need for repentance, I remember this: when my pagan Gentile ancestors were worshiping blocks of stone, Jews were worshiping the God of Jesus—and likely being murdered for it by my ancestors. In fact, anyone who testifies that “Jesus died for my sin” is thereby an accomplice in his death.
The Good News is that God sent Jesus so we could all participate in His promises to Israel–and thereby, work together to bring His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus. therefore, did not come to make Gentiles out of Jews, but rather, to make Jews out of Gentiles–as He did first with Abraham. Through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, as Paul put it, “You Gentiles (Christians) are a wild olive tree,” grafted onto the original (ie, Jewish) tree–“and now you share the strong spiritual life of the Jews” (Rom. 11:17).
WERE YOU THERE?
“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” as the marvelous African-American spiritual agonizes. “Oh, sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble/Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
To be a Gentile Christian is to know that we, too, handed Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified. If you didn’t–if you weren’t there at His crucifixion—you can’t know the full blessing of His resurrection. That is, if you can’t confess times in your life when you’ve chosen your comfort over Jesus’ suffering, then you can’t fully appreciate His immeasurable love and wield the power of His victory.
Insofar as you were there, however, you’ll fall trembling on your face grateful for His grace—and rise determined to proclaim the life-renewing power of His Spirit among us even today.
That’s the blessing of Good Friday–and the promise of Easter.
“From Jackass to Warhorse” in Fight like a Man: A New Manhood for a New Warfare
“Who Is Holy Spirit? Meeting the Active Presence of God Today” in Broken by Religion, Healed by God
“How Demons Enter–and Leave” in No Small Snakes: A Journey into Spiritual Warfare
“Overcoming Spiritual Denial” in Religion vs Reality
“What God Has Joined Together: Spiritual Consequences of Sexual Union” in Pure Sex: The Spirituality of Desire