Justice and Injustice at the Cross

The crucifixion of Jesus raises a multitude of questions, even for those who have been following the Savior for years. Why did Jesus die? What did he do to deserve death? How could God the Father allow his Son to be treated so terribly?

There was a lot happening on both the earthly and cosmic planes outside of Jerusalem centuries ago. But, as the Christian faith is a historic faith, it’s good for us to grapple with these historic events.

In this article we’ll consider one facet of the crucifixion that is profound and fundamental to our faith. The crucifixion of Jesus was one of the greatest simultaneous displays of justice and injustice in history.

Injustice at the Cross

To limit the length of this article, we’ll confine our observations to the Gospel of Luke. This one book provides plenty of evidence that Jesus’s crucifixion was a terrible injustice.

The plot to arrest Jesus was Satanic in its origins and depended on conspiracy and betrayal (Luke 22:3–6). Once Jesus was arrested, he was mocked and beaten (Luke 22:63).

When the council of elders met, they produced no credible evidence to convict Jesus (Luke 22:66–70). In his subsequent trials, it was more of the same—Pilate said, “I find no guilt in this man” (Luke 23:4). When Pilate sent Jesus to Herod, again there was no guilt to be seen (Luke 23:15). Pilate declared Jesus’s innocence three times (Luke 23:41422) and summed up his findings this way: “Look, nothing deserving death has been done by him” (Luke 23:15).

Jesus’s innocence was obvious to many involved in the crucifixion, even to those with no prior allegiance to him. One of the thieves who was crucified with him knew Jesus had “done nothing wrong” (Luke 23:41). And after Jesus died, the centurion said, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47) The brutal, public execution of an obviously innocent man is a grave injustice.

The corruption went still deeper. Since Pilate knew Jesus was innocent, he planned to release him (Luke 23:16). But the crowd’s cries for Pilate to release a criminal named Barabbas grew so insistent that Pilate relented (Luke 23:23). The result? Pilate abandoned his responsibility to a mob and released a murderer and insurrectionist instead of the innocent man Jesus.

We read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s execution with anger and tears. He was treated so unfairly and with such cruelty.

But there was much more happening at the cross.

Justice at the Cross

If the cross was the site of such gross injustice, why are Christians so focused on it? Why do so many wear the symbol as jewelry?

While the human actors in the crucifixion drama were guilty of injustice, God the Father was also at work. He was accomplishing a great work of pardon and forgiveness.

Because God is perfectly righteous and just, he must do what is good and just and right at all times. Obedience must be blessed and disobedience must be cursed. All debts must be paid. To use the legal metaphor, every transgression results in an enormous fine, and we all have empty bank accounts.

How will God curse our disobedience and still bring us to himself? God accomplished this through the work of Jesus as our substitute. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The sins of God’s people were put on Jesus at the cross, and, in the pattern of so many Old Testament sacrifices, Jesus offered himself. “And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

This exchange—this transfer of our sin to Jesus—is perhaps seen most clearly in the prophecy of Isaiah.

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4–6)

While the cross was a horrific example of human injustice, it was also a necessary work of God’s justice. He must not ignore sin, and he dealt with the sins of his people on the cross in his son. In this way, God was reconciling us to himself through Jesus Christ.

Even Better

We do not have time to fully explore the glory of the cross in this short article. We have touched on the deep mystery of how the crucifixion satisfied God’s justice and accomplished our forgiveness. The wonder of the gospel is that there’s even more!

When God credited our sin to Jesus, he also credited Jesus’s righteousness to us. Not only are our debts forgiven, but our bank accounts are overflowing. This topic is worthy of deep, sustained meditation (and certainly more explanation).

As a fitting way to close, let’s consider this beautiful summary from the Heidelberg Catechism (Q&A 56).

Q: What do you believe concerning the forgiveness of sins?
A: I believe that God,
because of Christ’s satisfaction,
will no more remember my sins,
nor my sinful nature,
against which I have to struggle all my life,
but will graciously grant me
the righteousness of Christ,
that I may never come into condemnation.

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The Transforming Power of the Crucifixion

Until this year, I didn’t dwell much on Jesus’s crucifixion. Who would hang out at the gloomy execution when the empty tomb is right around the corner?

My categories were far too simple. I thought of the resurrection as the event where all of the good stuff happened, where all of the change took place, where the gospel reached its climax and hope bloomed. But through a closer study of the crucifixion itself, I’ve seen just how transforming that grisly, dark event can be.

The Criminal

In Luke’s Gospel, we’re told that Jesus was crucified between two criminals (Luke 23:32–33). And while the salvation of the second criminal is a rather famous story, Matthew tells us that both men, along with many others, were hurling abuse at Jesus (Matthew 27:44).

So, what happened? What made the second man rebuke his partner in crime, confess his sin and Jesus’s innocence, and cry out for deliverance to Jesus as his king (Luke 23:40–42)? Certainly God changes hearts, but what means did he use for this dying man?

There was just a parenthesis of time. Yet Luke wrote the answer bold, with exclamation points. What changed this man was Jesus, dying on the cross.

The criminal watched Jesus submit to the humiliation of the cross. He saw the added disgrace of his near-nakedness (Luke 23:34). He heard the sneering of the rulers, the mockery of the soldiers, and the taunting of his fellow criminal (Luke 23:35–39). And he observed Jesus suffer all of this without defending himself or lashing out.

Above everything else, what likely captured this criminal’s heart was the love of Jesus. There is hardly another explanation for Jesus’s posture in his last hours. In love’s chief display, Jesus prayed one of the most shocking prayers in the Bible.

Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34)

Jesus had been betrayed by a close friend and denied by another. He had endured baseless accusations and a trial in which he was declared innocent. He had submitted when a cowardly ruler gave in to a mob, demanding Jesus be killed.

He felt nails driven through his flesh. He knew the excruciating pain that would last until the end. He heard all the scorn and the mockery and the insults.

And yet, as he hung dying, he asked his father to forgive them. They didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t grasp who he was. Please forgive them!

Jesus’s love broke through the second criminal’s hard heart. He knew it must all be true—all the teaching and rumors and questions about Jesus—because he saw Jesus extend love in the face of hate. And Jesus received that criminal with one of the world’s greatest promises: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

But the criminal wasn’t the only one changed by the crucifixion.

The Centurion

We don’t have much back story on the centurion. Did he join the soldiers in their mockery (Luke 23:36)? Was he a proud Roman who delighted in punishing this likely rebel? Or did he carry out his duties with indifference, just part of the job?

We may not know where he started, but we know where he ended up.

Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47)

The centurion witnessed three hours of darkness (Luke 23:44–45) and an earthquake (Matthew 27:51). He also saw Jesus take his last breath after crying out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).

How did this lead to the centurion knowing Jesus was innocent? How did this lead to praise for God?

No one but an innocent man would gladly, with a great cry of relief, entrust his soul to God. Anyone with even a hint of sin—and even a glimmer of an understanding of God’s justice—would tremble in their final moments. But Jesus was innocent, and he knew that God would soon vindicate his unjust death through resurrection.

Why did the centurion praise God? Again, we don’t have many details. But it’s possible the centurion was on day-long guard duty. He may have witnessed Jesus’s interaction with the criminal and all that came before it.

When the criminal proclaimed Jesus’s innocence and asked Jesus to remember him, perhaps the centurion wanted to believe. And then Jesus’s final cry and the signs of God’s judgment (darkness and earthquake) convinced him.

If Jesus was innocent, everything was upside down. The mob was wrong. Everything Jesus taught was true. So in that moment, the centurion didn’t weep in regret. He praised God, because God’s innocent son welcomed and died for sinners.

What About You?

We often want to read past Luke 23 (the trial and crucifixion) to Luke 24 (the resurrection). We want to get to the good stuff. And we should!

But there is earth-shaking, curtain-tearing power in the crucifixion—the son of God killed for sinners, an act of unthinkable, glorious love. We should all pause a little longer at the cross to consider the horrible scene.

Let’s not stay silent, though. Consider Jesus’s compassion and, like the criminal, run repentant to your Savior. Consider Jesus’s innocence and, with the centurion, cry out with praise to God.

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