Does it ever trouble you that Jesus was crucified? I mean, why did they kill him? If he was such a great moral teacher who preached love, why did the church and government execute him? It doesn’t make sense. Nobody kills Mr. Rogers. Nobody executes a nice guy. It’s one of the most troubling parts of Jesus’ story. And it’s what we’re going to look at today—Jesus’ suffering, death, and burial.
But first, as we do each week, let’s read the whole Apostle’s Creed. It’s one of the earliest formal statements of belief of the Christian Church, and it’s the focus of our current series. If you’d like to recite it along with me, go for it.
I believe in God,
the Father Almighty
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ,
God's only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate
was crucified, died, and was buried;
On the third day, he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of Father
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy universal Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.
Each week, we look at just one section of the Apostle’s Creed. This week, it’s this:
(Jesus) suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried;
(BTW, Pontius Pilot was the governor of the region at the time.)
Now, there’s something interesting about this section. There’s no direct theology in it. Did you notice that? It’s just plain, boring facts. Jesus suffered, there was a guy, he was crucified, died, buried. That’s nothing like the past two sections that talk about God as Almighty Creator and loving Father. Or Jesus as the perfect God-Man, fully God and fully man. Now that’s some deep theology! But this week? It sounds more like a history book than a theology book.
So, why is this section even in the Creed? Here’s today’s premise. The Church included it to directly refute some of the common, heretical views of Jesus’ death that were circulating at the time.
Think of these views as the viral hoaxes of their time. You know, like…
- Nigerian prince who wants to give you millions of dollars.
- Nike will give you free shoes if you share their Facebook post
- The Emoji Movie was a good film. (Okay, nobody actually believes that.)
If these wrong views of Jesus’ death were like viral hoaxes, then the Apostle’s Creed was the Snopes of its day.
Today, we’re gonna look at 4 different explanations people had to refute Jesus’ death. Think of them as “alternative facts”.
#1 – The earliest “alternative fact” to creep into the Church is that Jesus was never buried but instead his disciples stole his body to make it look like he resurrected. This one we actually see right there in the Bible. The book of Matthew describes both Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor of the region) and the chief priests (the Jewish religious leaders of Jerusalem) talking about this idea. Check out this passage from Matthew 28:11-15:
While the women were on their way (to the tomb), some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.
It’s this last sentence that’s most interesting. Jesus was crucified around 30-33 AD. Matthew was written sometime between 50-60 AD. That means that for at least 20-30 years, some people, particularly Jews, were arguing that Jesus was not buried; instead, his body was stolen.
To this, the Apostles Creed says NO; he was actually buried in a tomb.
#2 – The next “alternative fact” the Church faced was that Jesus didn’t really die because he wasn’t really human. This was advocated by a group called the Gnostics. This was a sect, popular for the first 200 years of the Church. They believed they alone possessed secret, mystical knowledge about Jesus. They also believed that all mater & flesh were evil and the spirit was good. As a result of this, they didn’t believe Jesus was human with a fleshly body. They believed he only appeared to have a human body. And because he didn’t have a human body, he couldn’t die. Instead, he just returned to heaven.
Gnosticism isn’t mentioned in Scripture by name, but it’s there. Listen to 1 Timothy 6:20-21
Turn away from godless chatter and the opposing ideas of what is falsely called knowledge, which some have professed and in so doing have departed from the faith.
Do you see that word “knowledge”? Paul’s making a direct reference to Gnosticism because the name comes from the Greek word gnosis, translated as “knowledge”. So, he’s saying in no uncertain terms that their beliefs are wrong and they are not true believers.
If that’s not enough, check out 2 John 7:
I say this because many deceivers, who do not acknowledge Jesus Christ as coming in the flesh, have gone out into the world. Any such person is the deceiver and the antichrist.
John’s calling out the Gnostics who say Jesus wasn’t really flesh and he didn’t really die.
To this heresy, the Apostles Creed says NO; he physically suffered and he physically died.
#3 – Another “alternative fact” the Creed refutes is the view that Jesus didn’t die from crucifixion. He passed out and later regained consciousness. This is a view that never really gained traction, even in 2,000 years. That’s because there’s one major problem with this explanation. Roman soldiers were experts at executing people. They are the Lebron James of executing people. (And crucifixion was their chase block.)There is no way that Jesus could have survived what they put him through. Without going through all the verses, here’s a summary:
- He was whipped within an inch of his life
- He was punched, beaten, struck with staffs, beard ripped out
- His hands & feet were nailed to a cross
- He hung there for 3 hours, barely able to even breath
- And he was stabbed in the side with a spear, likely puncturing his heart & lungs
The Roman soldiers were very careful that people actually died because if they didn’t, the soldiers themselves would be executed for failure to do their job. Bungling a crucifixion was never done. Further, in Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances, he was very much gloriously alive. He simply could not have recovered from all of those injuries within a matter of a few days or even weeks.
This is clearly the weakest argument, but still, some argued that Jesus didn’t actually die. To this, the Apostle’s Creed says NO; he was crucified and he did die.
#4 – That leaves one phrase that we haven’t talked about: “he suffered under Pontius Pilate”. Why include Pilate, the Roman governor who signed the order of execution? There were plenty of other people that contributed to Jesus suffering and death:
- Judas, the disciple who turned him in
- Herod, the king of Judea
- Caiaphas, the high priest who turned him over to the Romans
- The Pharisees, the Jewish leaders who masterminded the whole thing
- The Soldiers, who actually executed him
Why Pilate? Well, it seems like the Creed is blaming Pilate for the suffering and death of Jesus. But that’s not really it. Instead, the phrase actually serving as a time marker. It’s to insist that Jesus’ death was a historical, datable event.
Pilate governed the region of Judea, where Jerusalem was located, from 26–36 AD. Now, fast forward to 150 AD, and the writers of the Creed wanted an easy way to say that Jesus actually existed and he wasn’t made up. So, you anchor him in the history books: under the office of Pontius Pilate.
That’s really why they didn’t use Judas or the Pharisees. Nobody would remember when they were born or died. But the historical records clearly documented Pontius Pilate. Back then, it was commonplace to anchor events in the reign of kings, emperors, or in this case governors.
It would be like me saying I was born during the Nixon’s presidency. That means we would all know I was born around… Oh, who am I kidding. We have no idea when Nixon was president. I had to look it up. It was 1969-74. But you get the idea.
This phrase addresses one last “alternative fact” about Jesus’ death: He didn’t really exist. He’s made up by the Church. Yes, some people, for the first few hundred years of the church, argued that Jesus never really exists and that his followers made up a lot of the stuff.
To this, the Apostle’s Creed says NO; he actually existed and he died in the time of an actual governor.
We’ve talked about four “alternative facts” that the early Church faced that people used to explain away Jesus’ death:
- Jesus wasn’t buried; his disciples stole his body.
- Jesus didn’t die because he wasn’t really human.
- Jesus didn’t die; he passed out and regained consciousness.
- Jesus didn’t really exist. He was made up by the Church.
Looking at this list, it makes you wonder. Why would people go through so much trouble and come up with some pretty outlandish explanations just to say that Jesus didn’t die and wasn’t buried? Why would they do that? Because they didn’t want to believe it.
- The Jews, who opposed the Christians, didn’t want to believe that Jesus was anything more than just a man
- The Gnostics refused to believe it because it didn’t fit their worldview.
- Others wanted to discredit the Church by discrediting Jesus
All of those come down to the same principle – they didn’t want to believe it. And, you and I, we’re no different. We don’t want to believe it either. We want to minimize Jesus’ death and burial. Why? Because it’s horrible to think about.
- We want to make it less painful
- We want to strip out the horrific violence.
- We want to sanitize it, clean it up.
- We even put a little gold cross around our neck, like it’s a happy symbol.
- We want to make it, somehow, palatable.
We want to minimize it.
We do this all the time in our own lives. We lie to ourselves all the time when we don’t want to believe the hard truth of something.
- I don’t have a problem with my drinking.
- But he loves me. He’s just really stressed and he gets angry sometimes.
- College just wasn’t for me. I’d rather be working anyway.
We do this because there is a hard truth we don’t want to face.
- I’m an alcoholic
- He’s a violent abuser
- I flunked out of college
So, what’s the hard truth of Jesus’ death and burial? He died for you. He died for me. He went through inconceivable pain because of your sin. He suffered for hours because of my sin. He died for you and me. The Bible is pretty clear about why Jesus died. He was the sacrifice for our sins.
We don’t want to believe that it’s our fault. We don’t want to be indebted to someone like that. We don’t want to feel the weight and guilt of sin and the cost of forgiving us.
But, when we say this one line of the Apostle’s Creed—he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried—we
- Acknowledge the gravity of our sin and the sacrifice Jesus made to give us a relationship with God.
- Speak against all the “alternative facts” we use to minimize the terrible nature of our sin.
- Admit that Jesus died in our place. It should have been us.