Every so often, someone tries to figure out who’s to blame for nailing Jesus to the cross. Was it the Jews? Was it the Romans? Was it the combined sins of the world?
In a Jewish trial, there is no prosecution, just accusations from witnesses. The judges evaluate the accusations, and if they find that two or three agree, they announce that there is a conviction. In Jesus’ case, the Sanhedrin was even willing to convict Jesus on the basis of false testimony, but even that didn’t work. They couldn’t find Jesus guilty, because even the false witnesses didn’t agree.
Finally, in Matthew 26:61, two witnesses came forward with similar testimony, but Mark 14:55-59 explains that it didn’t meet the legal requirement for conviction. Finally, the Sanhedrin was forced by their own procedures to ask Jesus outright if He claimed to be the Son of God. Not a tactic they preferred, because who would testify against himself if no one else did? But Jesus confessed the crime (Matthew 26:63-66, Mark 14:61-65, Luke 22:70-71). By confessing, Jesus convicted Himself, and the trial was thrown into the penalty phase.
However, from the standpoint of the Sanhedrin, things didn’t go smoothly here either. The penalty for blasphemy was death, but since the Romans had taken away their authority to impose the death penalty, they had to refer Jesus to the Roman authorities. By policy, the Romans didn’t get involved in religious disputes, so the Sanhedrin had to emphasize the fact that the word ‘Messiah’ refers to a king, which could be construed as sedition against Rome. Pilate tried to get out of judging Jesus on the technicality that Jesus was from Galilee, so he sent Him to Herod the Tetrarch of Galilee, who was in Jerusalem at the time. Unfortunately for Pilate, Herod sent Jesus back. Finally, after Pilate examined Jesus and found that His kingship was no political threat to Rome, he declared Jesus innocent of any crime (Matthew 27:23, Mark 15:14, Luke 23:13-16, John 18:38). In the end, Pilate bowed to pressure and consented to the crucifixion under protest. But Pilate used the crucifixion to taunt the Sanhedrin. It was customary to place a plaque on the cross over the convict, stating the offense. Pilate did not write, “Claimed to be King of the Jews,” instead he wrote, “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” (John 19:19-22) In this way, Pilate showed his sympathies were with Jesus, not the Sanhedrin.
So the Sanhedrin wanted to convict Jesus, but they couldn’t do it without Jesus’ cooperation. Pilate exonerated Jesus, but consented to the crucifixion under protest. Roman soldiers flogged Jesus and carried out the crucifixion, but they were indifferent to Jesus’ guilt or innocence—until even they came to believe that Jesus was the Son of God (Matthew 27:54).
So who crucified Jesus? The answer is no one and everyone. No person or group of people is judicially guilty for nailing Jesus to the cross. Even though we needed Jesus to die on the cross to save us, Jesus didn’t need to save us. Jesus said:
“The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
—John 10:17-18, NIV
Jesus volunteered of His own free will. He volunteered to die on the cross to save us from sin, because of His great love for us while we were yet sinners. No one forced Him to go to Calvary against His will.