Lately I’ve been attending a Christian small group with a co-worker. They know I’m atheist, but have invited me along anyway. So far we’ve had some good discussions based on scripture. Below are the notes I prepared before our first meeting. Our prompt was to read the book of John, chapter 19. Read it yourself and see what your responses to the questions might be:
1. Have you ever been unjustly accused? How did you feel, and how did you go about trying to defend yourself?
Jesus, as a point of fact, was not unjustly accused. He was properly accused within the confines of the blasphemy law that was in place at the time. Even if he wasn’t, he needed to be accused in order to be sacrificed and thus save humanity—so it’s a moot point at best. One wonders just how much Jesus was manufacturing the situation so that he could be accused (i.e. allowing himself to be captured and remaining silent with Pilate). He certainly couldn’t have avoided this punishment otherwise all of Christianity is rendered useless.
As for personal examples, I know that this has happened to me though I can’t remember a specific example. Unjust accusations are not particularly bothersome if one has good reason to believe that something is true. Every situation is different, of course, and one should strive to communicate truth in the face of fallacious information, especially when the stakes are high.
Because Jesus had no choice but to accept his fate and his fate was not, technically speaking, unjust—the crucifixion story ultimately teaches us very little about how to deal with fallacious accusations. Using the story as an example one would conclude that we should accept categorically incorrect assessments about ourselves and those around us if we are to be Christ-like.
2. The trial which opens this passage can be viewed as four overlapping dramas, seen through the eyes of the different parties. Can you identify the four main groups/persons involved?
Pontius Pilate and his soldiers, Jesus, the Jewish Pharisees and the peasants/bystanders were the parties involved in the story.
3. What was the agenda of the Jewish chief priests and officials? What evidence do they bring against Jesus? What authority do they ultimately appeal to?
It’s unknown within the confines of the chapter what the Pharisee’s agenda is, and though it’s speculation of the highest order, we can assume based on other passages that they were afraid of losing political power with the commoners who were beginning to follow Jesus. However, this makes little sense in light of the fact that many of the Pharisees were firsthand witnesses to Jesus’ miracles according to scripture.
Their evidence against Jesus is hearsay, though their charge is accurate given the story. They eventually appeal to the Law god gave in Leviticus to justify executing Jesus.
4. What is Pilate’s agenda in this trial? How many times does he try to free Jesus? Why do you think Pilate eventually gives in to the Jewish demands?
Pilate’s agenda seems to be to avoid an uprising and maintain the status quo. He tries to free Jesus four times throughout the chapter. From the text we can assume that he gives in to the demands in order to maintain this status quo in the face of the Pharisees threatening to blackmail him with Caesar.
5. How do the soldiers treat Jesus throughout the trial and crucifixion? What prophecies do the soldiers inadvertently fulfill, thereby validating Jesus’ claims?
The soldiers treat Jesus very poorly, which is striking because calling him king of the Jews doesn’t seem to have meant anything to them. Nor does their excessive violence. Why would they enjoy beating him and mocking him so mercilessly, especially when it was very clear Pontius wasn’t ready to condemn him?
The prophecies “fulfilled” are non-specific and could be easily applied to virtually any living person whose clothes had been taken and divided (Psalms 22:18). Further, there’s no indication that Psalms must be referring to Jesus. If it is, why isn’t 22:12 (Many bulls surround me; strong bulls of Bashan encircle me) considered prophetic?
Most fulfilled prophecies regarding Jesus are hardly prophecies out of context. The aforementioned example from Psalms isn’t even written in the future tense — how is that a prophecy of things to come? Why is it that the prophecies are so vague that they could apply to anyone? If we are to believe that scriptures in the Bible are prophecies fulfilled by Jesus, then we must believe, on principle of similar evidence, that Nostradamus predicted JFK’s assassination and 9/11.
We also have to ask ourselves why Jesus did not fulfill things that do genuinely appear to be prophecy—for example that the messiah would be descended from King David or bring about world peace.
6. Finally, what is Jesus’ underlying agenda? Why does he choose not to answer Pilate’s questions? In his mind, who was truly in control of the situation?
Jesus’ agenda was to be put to death on the cross and it seems he didn’t answer Pilate’s questions for this reason. Simply admitting guilt and/or provoking Pilate would’ve served this purpose more readily so it’s difficult to say what motivation he had to choose this particular strategy. He must’ve believed that it was necessary for Pilate to struggle with whether or not to condemn him.
Jesus knew that he was fully in control of the situation as he continually recognized, according to the story, when he was fulfilling prophecy and even declared when his role had been completed with the words “It is finished.”
With the notion that Jesus was fully in control of the situation, we have to wonder what the point of his ministry was — the point of his miracles, so on and so forth.
7. In verses 25-27, we witness Jesus’ final earthly act of compassion toward his disciples. What does this reveal about Jesus’ heart and the goal of his mission here on earth?
Jesus indicates that his disciple John was to take care of his mother. However, there doesn’t appear to be anything overtly graceful or compassionate about his words and it speaks very little to what he may have been trying to accomplish here on Earth. In fact, within the confines of the story we have no reason to believe that Jesus’ death on the cross somehow equals our salvation.
8. Share about a current or recent situation you’ve been in where life seemed to be treating you unfairly. What was your response at the time? In light of this passage, how do you think God might have been at work in that circumstance to bring about His will?
I feel that I am being treated unfairly financially for choosing to pursue higher education. Because of my socioeconomic status the only way to do this was to take out private and federal loans to cover the costs of school and living. The large debt from my schooling makes me feel like I’m “trapped” in life and unable to do the things I’m meant to do.
As for how god might be at work in this situation, many Christians have told me that we in fact, cannot know the mind of god. So, I see no point in speculating about what was or is going through the mind of an utterly unknowable, incomprehensible god. I see no point in wild speculation as to what god’s almighty plan might consist of. All I can do is learn from my mistakes and move on in a, hopefully, smarter manner.
9. God promises not only blessing, but persecution, if we follow him. Have you experienced persecution or criticism as a result of obeying God? How does Jesus’ example give you confidence to not only endure, but experience joy and victory in staying faithful to His call upon you?
When I was a member of the church I was a victim of perceived persecution, but in hindsight I realize that my personhood was never actually being attacked or compromised. I was never insulted as a human being or physically abused. In fact, I’ve noticed that this type of persecution is more readily reserved for atheists. As a Christian I couldn’t ever have imagined legitimately hearing people threaten to kill me or telling me with all sincerity things like “go straight to hell where you belong” though unfortunately similar comments are all too often directed at atheists like myself in message boards and forums on many of the sites and blogs that I read. And many of the atheist writers and thinkers that I look up to regularly receive similar, if not much worse, backlash for their ideas.
As an atheist I would never persecute people for the beliefs they hold, but I quite willingly criticize the beliefs themselves. I fully expect that not everyone will hold the beliefs that I hold, and as a consequence I fully expect to be questioned on why specifically I believe what I believe. If I hold a belief, I should understand the ramifications of that particular belief because it will affect my behavior. Too often people attempt to place a partition between belief and behavior, but beliefs matter to our decisions more than most of us care to admit. In the same way that we care about whether someone is Democratic or Republican, in the same way we care about what a person believes about slavery, rape or nuclear warfare we should care about what a person believes about religion. Too often we see parents who fail to immunize their children or fail to treat preventable illnesses, too often we see acts of terror—from 9/11 to the Oklahoma City Bombing—carried out specifically for irrational beliefs held. No one would argue that beliefs that lead to these types of immoral outcomes are correct, so why should we behave as if those beliefs cannot or should not be challenged? The idea of “believing in the comfort of your own home” is — at best — an illusion, and for this reason belief should be held up to criticism.
As for what Jesus’ example can teach us: I’m really not sure. Jesus seemed to know what was going to happen to him and why that was ultimately important. Jesus never needed what people call “faith.” He only needed to obey instruction—if he wasn’t already consciously aware of what his plan was. If being Christian were that simple, I don’t think there would be so many different sects of Christianity, or so many doubts amongst believers about what god’s plan ultimately entails.
In knowing what would happen to him, Jesus had a remarkable leg up on any of the rest of us humans. We don’t know what god’s “calling” is for our lives and if we did, we’d be absolute fools not to follow it. It’d be like being an eye witness to Jesus walking on water and choosing not to believe or looking up during the rapture to see people ascending into heaven and chalking it up to silly superstition. No one is that thick. If we could reliably know what god’s plan was for our lives, we’d be moronic not to follow it, regardless of Jesus as an example.
So what I’m really curious about is how the Christian answers the question. If you think you can know god’s will—what kind of petty distractions could possibly get in the way of accomplishing it? And if god’s will is unknowable—what does Jesus’ example have to do with the way you live your life? Jesus was never meant to be a model for those of us who aren’t partly divine.