They stoned Stephen. They twice tried to stone Jesus. They laid the charge of blasphemy repeatedly – and stoning was the prescribed punishment.
They also had opportunity. Why would Jesus’ enemies seek crucifixion?
The attempted stonings were not premeditated but the demand to have Christ crucified was a careful decision by the leadership. They were quite specific. It was ‘Crucify him, crucify him’.
The Sanhedrin said to Pilate, ‘We have a law and by that law he ought to die!’ If Jesus were guilty of blasphemy for calling himself the Son of God, then he should have been stoned. Why a crucifixion, when God’s law specified a different kind of execution?
The decision not to stone
Deuteronomy 13 commands the stoning of deceivers who lead people astray from the Lord. Rebellious sons must also be stoned, leaving the corpse under a pile of rocks. Yet the law of God anticipated that an offender might sometimes be hanged from a tree for all to gawk at.
In such a case, God reminded them that the executed criminal was under his curse, and for that reason the body must not be left hanging overnight. The body must come down, signifying that evil had been purged from the land – ‘Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse’ (Deuteronomy 21:22-23).
Someone came up with the idea that if Jesus could be hung on a Roman cross, they would have the ultimate argument to repudiate Jesus. How could anyone believe in a Messiah who had been cursed by God? What a delicious proof that he was an imposter who performed miracles by the power of the devil!
There was one problem – Jews were not allowed to execute their criminals, even if their law called for it. Execution was Rome’s sole prerogative. Furthermore, crucifixion was a patented Roman mode of execution. They had better get the Romans to do the job for them.
It took some doing. The witnesses against Jesus were not convincing. Pilate saw through their intrigue as they sought to manipulate the authority of Rome for their own ends. But they applied pressure and he gave in. Jesus was crucified, not stoned.
The gospel in the curse
For the apostate leadership of Israel the crucifixion was a theological coup. Jesus would be marked out as one cursed by God.
They evidently forgot that Isaiah 53 had said, ‘we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted’. So while they pursued their own agenda they were unwittingly serving God’s.
God had theological reasons, too. Paul puts it thus: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree”. He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit’ (Galatians 3:13-14).
When Adam sinned he came under God’s curse. But God so loved the world that he sent a ‘second Adam’ – Jesus Christ, the new head of a new human family. He would come under that curse and die as a substitute. And if one kind of death reveals the curse of God more than another, then that would be the one most fitting.
That Jesus died as a substitute was taught and illustrated by millions of animal sacrifices, which anticipated the innocent dying for the guilty.
The ritual that God instituted cannot be fulfilled by every kind of death. The law required blood to be shed. Stoning may or may not cause blood to be shed. Israel’s priests did not beat the animals to death – they bled them to death. On the other hand, Christ’s crucifixion, and the spear-thrust that followed, had no lack of bloodshed – a clear link to the blood sacrifices of the Old Testament.
And to the ceremonial law one must add the prediction in Psalm 22:16 of pierced hands and feet. Stoning would not fulfill such a specific prophecy.
Sin brings humiliation. Jesus bore the full measure of what our sin deserved. He suffered sin’s indignity as well as its penalty. He did not die from a painless lethal injection – he was humiliated by a shameful death.
The Father was pleased to crush the Son for our salvation (Isaiah 53:10). The cross was a dramatic demonstration of sin’s awfulness and degradation. His offering for sin was not a death of half measures. There was no holding back, no pretending. Jesus drank the entire cup. The shame of his nakedness was part of his suffering for our sin.
The crucifixion of our Lord had another aspect. If he had been stoned it would have been an entirely Jewish event. Crucifixion was a message on a Roman letterhead.
Jesus was tried in a Roman court and crucified by Roman soldiers. ‘Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus’ (Acts 4:27).
Crucifixion gave Jesus’ death a Gentile dimension. By killing the innocent Man, Rome demonstrated that contempt for the Messiah was a rejection by the world. It was not just ‘the Jews’ but all ‘the rulers of this age … [who] did not understand, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory’ (1 Corinthians 2:8). Scripture teaches a universal rejection of Christ and a universal ignorance of him – except in those who are born of the Spirit.
A Roman death instigated by Jews united the world against Christ, as Psalm 2 shows. Could any other mode of murder have done it so well?
Enhancing the gospel
Bloodshed declared substitution, and crucifixion the divine curse. From the Sanhedrin’s perspective the crucifixion was meant to ensure that all would reject Jesus as the promised One to come.
Their efforts fulfilled the plan of God perfectly. They enhanced the gospel by the mode of death they chose. A cursed death fits the truth that our sins were imputed to Christ. Man’s wickedness was subsumed into God’s sovereign plan.
Later they had the tomb guarded and sealed, thinking this would stop his body being stolen. What it actually did was destroy the credibility of their later argument that it had been stolen! Briefly, it appeared that all was going their way – actually, it was going God’s way.
According to God’s eternal purpose, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – so that we might receive by faith the promise of the Spirit, the blessing promised to Abraham two millennia earlier (Galatians 3:13-14).
After the resurrection, the apostles went on to proclaim Jesus’ death and resurrection. They contrasted the wickedness of men with the overruling purpose of God (Acts 2:23).
Rather than suppress the word ‘crucified’ it was central to their preaching. For Paul, the gospel was not just that Jesus died; it was ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’ (1 Corinthians 2:2). Paul gloried in the cross (Galatians 6:14).
The meaning of Christ’s death
Paul quotes the very part of Deuteronomy 21 that was in the minds of the Sanhedrin, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’. Paul reasons thus: Everyone who does not obey the law is cursed. No one has obeyed the law, so all are cursed (see Romans 3). Christ redeemed us from that curse. He did it by being cursed for us. This curse is evident in the mode of Jesus’ death.
The death of Jesus was a unique sacrifice that cannot be repeated. It accomplished everything God intended and happened just the way God chose – death by crucifixion.
By his sacrifice, Christ satisfied God and removed the curse from us, replacing it with the blessing promised to the covenant people – the gift of the eternal Spirit. He defeated the devil and set his people free. He brought us forgiveness and reconciled God to us.
Bearing the cross
We are called to take up our cross and follow him. Such cross-carrying is not penance and never atones. It is, rather, a way to side with Christ in a world that opposes him.
Serving Christ will always entail suffering; it is a privilege we ought never to avoid. We cannot be friends with the world. It crucified Christ, and it will reject us too as we are loyal to him. Because Christ was cursed for us we cannot be cursed by God – but we will be cursed by the world.
The world united against Christ, yet all nations are promised to Christ. Their redemption can only come through the crucifixion the world imposed upon him. God has turned human treachery to our salvation. Jesus said of the cross, ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself’. He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die’ (John 12:32,33).