The Five Often Unexamined Characters of the Crucifixion We Have a Lot to Learn From

When you look at the story of the crucifixion, you see Jesus. And you should. He’s the center of the story.

But as the creative type that I am, I love seeing characters within stories and interactions they have with the central flow of action. There are characters other than Jesus who play an important role and from whom we have a lot to learn. Believers and non-believers, some government officials, a couple criminals.

This post is about those characters. My hope is that, the next time you read the crucifixion account, you think about these things and get a bigger grasp on the story of Jesus’ death and what lessons we can take from it and apply to our own lives.

I’ll be using the account in Luke 22:66-23:56. The link goes to the ESV version of the story. If you want, I encourage you to follow along. I’ll cite the Scripture in here if you can’t or don’t want to.

CHARACTER(s) NO. 1: CHIEF PRIESTS AND COUNCIL (22:66-23:2)

These are the villains of the story, and while there’s no sympathy for them to be given here in this tale, we can get a couple insights into their motivations and their mindset.

The first is in verses 67-68:

(They said” “If you are the Christ, tell us.” But he said to them, “If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I ask you, you will not answer.”

The CPCs (chief priest and council people) were wanting proof that Jesus was who He said He was. And He was straight up with them and said, “Look, even if I tell you that I am, you won’t believe me. So why even ask?” In today’s culture, we see many people like this who are looking for proof of God and say that they’ll believe in Him when they see proof. But even when proof is given to them, they don’t believe.

This is evidence to me of one thing: real salvation and real life-change can only be brought about in the heart by the work of the Holy Spirit. God can use our evangelistic and even apologetics-based efforts in that process, but the real work is done by the Holy Spirit.

The second is in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 23:

Then the whole company of them [CPCs] arose and brought him before Pilate. And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding us to give tribute to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a king.”

Except for the last charge, everything else the CPCs accused Jesus of were false accusations. In fact, Jesus was leading people in the right direction, towards God. He also was not forbidding them to give tribute to Caesar, but instead said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (20:25).

Critics of Jesus bring false accusations to the table that have no real foundation. We Christians often do the same thing when we get angry at God. We say He is things that He is not and He is not things that He is. We say He doesn’t have our best interests in mind. We say He is a liar.

CHARACTER NO. 2: PONTIUS PILATE (23:3-16)

This has always been the most interesting character to me in this story. Let’s see his first contribution, in 23:3-4 —

And Pilate asked him [Jesus], “Are you the King of the Jews?” And he answered him, “You have said so.” Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, “I find no guilt in this man.”

Pilate has the right view of Jesus, at the start and to a point. Pilate is the guy who looks at Jesus and sees nothing wrong with Him. This is half of the Gospel, that Jesus was sinless and did no wrong. However, Pilate’s view is only in the legal sense. But he carries this view throughout the whole of the story. Heading down to verse 14, after sending Jesus to be judged by Herod:

…and (Pilate) said to them [CPCs], “You brought me this man as one who was misleading the people. And after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty of any of your charges against him.”

Pilate saw right through the CPCs’ false accusations and saw Jesus as He truly was. That is a praiseworthy thing in itself. So while he often gets a bad rap, let’s give him some credit. But here’s where he falls short: he gives into the demands of the crowd. The image in Matthew 27 of Pilate washing his hands of Jesus’ blood stands out.

We can be people who see Jesus as He actually is but do nothing about it, not let it have any effect on our lives, our choices, our character, anything. Pilate is a great example of that. He had the right mindset, but He missed what that mindset was supposed to do to his life.

CHARACTER NO. 3: BARABBAS (23:18-25)

Barabbas is one of two silent characters in this group, and the only one who does not play an active role in Jesus’ death story. He is passive, and its his passivity that’s most important to us. He’s also incredibly symbolic. This is where the characters begin to look a little better.

He’s only mentioned once in the Luke account, in 23:18-19 —

But they [CPCs] all cried out together, “Away with this man, and release to us Barabbas” – a man who had been thrown into prison for an insurrection started in the city and for murder.

We don’t know much more about Barabbas other than that he was pardoned and Jesus literally died in his place. Barabbas was set for execution, but thanks to a Passover tradition, he got to go free. We see the contrast and the ludicrousness of it in verses 24-25:

So Pilate decided that their demand should be granted. He released the man who had been thrown into prison for insurrection and murder, for whom they asked, but he delivered Jesus over to their will.

Let’s do a little character replacement here. Replace the CPCs with God and Barabbas with you, Christian. God demands you. Justice says that you are the one who needs to die for your sin, the one who must pay the price for what you’ve done against Him. But God demands, insists, that He must have you free. Who will replace you on the execution block? Why, it’s Jesus.

That’s the Gospel. Barabbas is the literal Gospel come to life. He deserved to die for his sin, but Jesus literally died in his place. He is the first recipient, in a way, of the grace of Jesus. So next time you read, put yourself in the shoes of Barabbas and consider how that might have felt, what that must have meant, in a way.

CHARACTER NO. 4: REPENTANT CRIMINAL (23:39-43)

Skipping over a chunk of the story, we fast-forward to Jesus hanging on the cross, planted between two criminals hanging on crosses on the hill of Golgotha. Let’s get to it:

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

I love this because this is the Christian. The Christian is someone who realizes that he deserves punishment for his sin and Jesus is perfect. Realizing this, he seeks Jesus for entry into eternal life.

This is who we should desire to be in this story. This is the only time we meet him, the only chance we get to interact with him, but he is the one person who goes through any part of this process and his life is changed by it, the one that we know of at least. He saw Jesus as He was and, unlike Pilate, his life was changed by it.

This is the appropriate response to meeting Jesus, seeing your sinfulness and realizing there’s no other way to find eternal life but through Him. I am the repentant criminal. By God’s grace, I’m not the unrepentant criminal but the one who repented.

CHARACTER NO. 5: JOSEPH OF ARIMATHEA (23:50-53)

I noticed something about my boy Joey here this most recent time I read this story. Let’s see here in verses 50-51:

Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God.

I had not noticed before that he was part of the CPCs. Joey was against the actions of the council and was seeking after God and saw that Jesus was the way to the kingdom of God.

It’s possible to be a Pharisee and love Jesus, apparently. It reminds me of growing up in the church and being around a lot of law-insisting and righteousness-seeking. Then, you meet Jesus and you’re seeking after the kingdom of God in the right way. I would love to talk to Joey to see what it was like to be in this situation as this character.

Were there any rarely- or under-discussed characters that I missed? Any thoughts on the characters I mentioned? Comment below!

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Am I Obsessed with Jesus or Am I Obsessed with Being a Christian?

Confession time: I used to be obsessed with being a Christian.

And I didn’t think much about it at the time. Maybe I didn’t know. But my goal in life was to make sure that people knew I was a Christian. I wanted to do everything possible. A list of some ways:

  • I would post super deep Facebook statuses and check back often to see how many likes I got.
  • My Instagram photos of the sky would include some caption with some spiritually Christian jargon, and then I’d get mad when I only got one like.
  • IMG_1963Before prayer meetings, I would plan what words and phrases I was going to use in prayers so people would think I was awesome.
  • I would drop random biblical phrases into conversation to try to sound spiritual.
  • I would get super psyched whenever someone would reference my biblical knowledge that was “way more” than they knew.

A further example. In the summer of 2012, I started writing a book that basically broke down 1 Peter 5:6-7. Here’s how chapter 1 started:

2011 was my only summer working on staff at a camp called Snowbird Wilderness Outfitters (or SWO for short). SWO is a Christian youth outdoors recreation camp. For more information (shameless plug), check out swoutfitters.com. I highly recommend it.

May 19. I went up to my friend Matt after the night session of a day of Staff Training. Seeing as how it was my first summer on staff and I really wanted to impress people, I asked him what was getting out of his quiet time. The rest of my journal entry records it perfectly:

“He was telling me about what he was getting from his personal quiet time, and it was great stuff. I began to talk and instantly realized I was putting on a persona, acting like I had it all together. I just stopped and said something to the effect of, ‘I’m trying to do what you’re doing.’ He said he was going to bed, got up and left. I talked to him this morning (the 20th) for a little bit before I realized exactly what was going on but getting hints from God…I was studying Acts 1 and wanted to talk about how Jesus said, ‘It is not for you to know the times or the seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.’ I wanted to talk about it but I had nothing. I realized that my acting charade was beginning to wear off and that’s what the Lord was convicting me of. So, story told. God’s broken me down and now I’m trying to get back to where God can use me to minister properly this summer…I realized I had a big pride issue. I wanted to give off an appearance that I was a solid Christian, while inside I was doubting, struggling.”

Pride continues to be an issue in my life. So when I write this chapter about humility, I speak to myself more than I speak to anyone else. I’m slowly realizing in my life that I have nothing to bring before the throne of the almighty God who rules the universe.

I didn’t finish the book, but this moment has stood out to me when it comes to thinking about spiritual pride in my life.

In the opening to this post, I said “used to.” I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate. I think there’s definitely part of my heart that still gets excited and prideful whenever anybody compliments any knowledge of anything biblical I have. God is working on my heart to grow me in this area, to humble me.

I posed the question that is the title of this post on Facebook yesterday and I got one response: those who are obsessed with being Christians are Pharisees. And that’s exactly what I was and to this day still have remnants of in my heart. What were the Pharisees known for? Showing their righteousness before others (Matthew 6:1). They were obsessed with being religious instead of the God who was the basis/center/crux of everything they supposedly believed.

How do you know if you’re obsessed with being a Christian instead of Jesus? I wanted to put together some kind of test, but I couldn’t figure it out.

See, the things you do when you’re obsessed with being a Christian are often the things you do when you’re obsessed with Jesus. You want people to think you’re obsessed with Jesus, so you do all the “right things.” We forget that being a Christian is more about Jesus and less about us showing that we’re Christians. We’re not a Christian because of what we do, we’re a Christian because of what Jesus did.

Can I be honest with you? Sometimes, as I scroll through my Facebook page, I see people post highly-spiritual statuses and photos of their quiet times and everything that they’re doing that’s “holier” than what I’m doing, and I feel two things. First, I feel discouraged that I’m not as “holy” as they are. Second, I wonder if they’re more obsessed with being a Christian than loving Jesus. To that second point, I honest can’t make a judgement on that. I could make guesses.

But to be honest with you, I get mad. I get upset. I get judgmental. I despise those people for what I perceive to be Pharisaical actions on social media. And that reaction is never right. It’s very self-righteous of me.

Social media is perhaps, in my opinion, the newest place for self-righteousness to flourish. In Bible times, Pharisees could walk around the synagogue area, where a lot was going on, and flaunt their righteousness before others. It was the social and religious center of the cities in Israel. Facebook and Twitter are the social centers of today, and they are growing to become, more and more, the religious centers as well. Social media gives us many opportunities to be self-righteous before others, and I’ve taken advantage of it many, many times.

So to answer the question, I don’t know. I can’t look at you and say, “You’re more obsessed with being a Christian instead of obsessed with Jesus.” You have to examine your own heart. We’re not called to be obsessed with being a Christian. The point of being a Christian is to be obsessed with Jesus. And you can pick at that word “obsessed” and go all semantics, but the point is this: our goal is to glorify God. Our goal is to make much of Jesus. Not of ourselves or our personal faith.

Following Jesus For Other People to See vs. Having a Good Witness

As I’ve been reading through the Gospels, I’ve seen some pretty awesome things I never really spotted before. I’ve written about a few of these on this blog in the last couple weeks. There’s also been some things I’ve seen that have convicted me, that have shown me just how much I fall short of being obedient.

See, I’m a Pharisee at heart. I think it’s one of the possible curses you get from growing up in a church context your whole life. Most of the time you go one of two ways: you get super self-righteous or you ditch the whole thing.  I took that first path. My religion became man-centered. Not around me, but around others.

I’ve mentioned in blogs before how I’ve struggled with a Pharisaical attitude most of my life. I’ve even seen it in my heart in the last few days. I do my Christianity so other people can see. I say things that people want to hear. I do things that people want to see. There’s a fine line between “having a good witness” and “following Jesus for other people to see.”

“Having a good witness” is something my old youth pastor taught me and has been very influential in my life. Do you show yourself as a Christian when you’re around others? How do you speak/act around others? Is it honoring to Jesus? “Following Jesus for other people to see” is the same basic idea, but it’s not honoring to Jesus. That’s the key difference: for whom you’re doing it. “Having a good witness” is living a life that shows others that you value Jesus most. “Following Jesus for other people to see” is living a life that shows others that you value their opinion of them most.

Look at the Pharisees. Several times in the Gospels we see that they have desires to do something, but it would make the people mad if they did, so they withhold.

  • Mark 14:2 – Chief priests want to arrest and kill Jesus, but they avoid it during Passover “lest there be an uproar from the people.”
  • Mark 12:12 – They wanted to arrest Jesus “but feared the people.”
  • Matthew 21:26 – Jesus asked them a question about authority, and they didn’t answer a certain way because they were “afraid of the crowd.”

Fear of man drives a lot of our actions, whether it’s an active decision like the Pharisees or something subconscious we just go to. And there’s sometimes fear is justified. If someone comes at me with fists ready to fly, and I have no business fighting him and I’m freaked out, I’m running. No question there, I will submit to my fear of that man.

But if my Christianity is dictated by wanting to please other people, I am sorely misguided. I am often this way. I say things for the approval of others, or I don’t say certain things in fear of what Christians might think. Honesty here: there have been things I’ve wanted to write about on this blog that I have withheld from writing because I don’t know how certain people will respond. That spits right in the face of the transparency and vulnerability I preach.

Soon I will write about those things.

However, the Pharisees did get something right. They read Jesus like a book. Mark 12:14 – “Teacher, we know that you are true and do not care about anyone’s opinion. For you are not swayed by appearances, but truly teach the way of God.”

May that be said of me!

It’s a common thing to worry about what people think of us, I’m finding. Particularly in the Christian culture. I, as a “religious person,” feel like I need to be constantly aware of everything I’m saying and doing. Not a terrible thing, necessarily, but if it becomes a fear of upsetting people, which I’m afraid it has, that doesn’t help anyone. All it does is lead me to living a life of fear and concern that is not healthy.

Then that Pharisee comes out. It’s a self-justified fear where I give myself license to not be myself for the sake of not rocking the Christian boat too much. It seems to me like we in the church fear any rocking of that boat, like just one little shake will sink the whole ship. Didn’t Jesus say in Matthew 16:18 that the “gates of hell shall not prevail” against the church? The church isn’t that fragile. Man may be that fragile, but I don’t think the church is.

Sorry, I got a little side-tracked.

I must grow to obey Jesus for Jesus’ sake, not for others. In that, God gets glory. Plus, it’s more joyful that way.

P.S. I think “Pharisaical” is one of my favorite words in the English language.