The Lifting Up of the Lord Jesus Christ
(John 18:31) Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death:
(John 18:32) That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die.
According to John's gospel, there were at least three occasions in our Lord's ministry when He prophesied of the manner of his death as being “lifted up.” In JOH 3:14, He said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up.” In JOH 8:28, He said unto the Pharisees, “...When ye have lifted up the Son of man, then shall ye know that I am he...” In JOH 12:32-33, He said, “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. This he said, signifying what death he should die.” In other places He plainly stated that He must be crucified (MAT 20:19; MAT 26:2).
It was hardly the intent of Christ's persecutors to authenticate His prophetic claims or His Messianic office, yet by the manner in which they here sought to frame their mischief against Christ by a law (c/w PSA 94:20), they unwittingly were doing so. Like the wicked Assyrian king who hundreds of years earlier was a tool in God's hand to accomplish His purpose (ISA 10:5-7), they “...meaneth not so...” The Sovereign God Who does according to His own will in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth (DAN 4:35) is Him of Whom His Spirit said, “Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee: the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain” (PSA 76:10).
There were other times when the wicked had sought to kill Jesus of Nazareth by various means, starting with Herod's slaughter of infants (MAT 2:16), through Satan's invitation to suicide (MAT 4:6), through chafed church members trying to cast him down a hill headlong (LUK 4:28-29), and stoning (JOH 8:59; JOH 10:31). But all of these failed. God had foreordained a specific death for Messiah: that He should die at the hands of Gentiles (MAR 10:33-34), by hanging on a “tree” (GAL 3:13) with feet and hands pierced (ZEC 12:10; ZEC 13:6; PSA 22:16; JOH 19:37). Among the methods of capital punishment authorized by the law of Moses were stoning (LEV 20:2), burning (LEV 20:14) and being shot through (EXO 19:13). There was a “hanging on a tree” noted in DEUT 21:22-23 but the language there indicates that this was not a method of execution; rather it was a post-mortem exhibition (c/w JOS 10:26-27; 2SAM 4:12).
The Jews appeal to Pilate, “...It is not lawful for us to put any man to death” (JOH 18:31) may have had some truth to it while they were under Rome's power. Mind you, such a legality had not been an issue in previous attempts to kill Christ. But they had come to realize that there would be repercussions if they openly undertook to kill Him and so “they feared the people” (LUK 22:2). It would be better for them if a little legal legerdemain were used to make Rome bear the responsibility for Christ's death---a clever washing of the hands that preceded Pilate's (MAT 27:24). And all this happened to fulfill the sign of His death of which He spoke, “...lifted up from the earth...” (JOH 12:32-33), alluding to a Gentile crucifixion death that Rome would administer. This would not be a post-mortem exhibition; it would be an execution of the living by Rome at the instigation of the Jews and Herod, all blindly working together “For to do whatsoever thy hand and counsel determined before to be done” (ACT 4:28). All ultimately do God's will whether they intend to or not.
Now that the Jews might have thought they had some kind of a legal leg to stand on by delivering Jesus to the hands of Rome to suffer a Roman crucifixion may have seemed wise (for them) in theory. But theory fell short of reality for the Holy Spirit's testimony to that nation was, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, WHOM YE HAVE CRUCIFIED, both Lord and Christ” (ACT 2:36). Both camps of humanity (Jews and Gentiles) are culpable in the ignominious death of Christ upon the cross where He was suspended between earth and heaven and forsaken by both. But in suffering thus, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (GAL 3:13). Believers ought to be very thankful that, as God had done with Balaam years before, He “...turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the LORD thy God loved thee” (DEUT 23:5) and made the tree of death into a tree of life. “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (GAL 6:14).