Why Did Jesus Have to Die?
From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
This week and next week we are going to be spending some time looking at the two center points of Christian theology - the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. You may be asking why it is so important to know about these events. To be brief, too many Christians lack the understanding of the cross and the resurrection that we loose the ability to truly share the faith that has been entrusted to us for 2,000 years. Your next question may be why do laity need to be knowledgable of Christian theology. Isn't that why pastors go to seminary so that laity dont have to know these things? Unfortunately, this attitude by pastors and laity has caused a tremendous lack of understanding and therefore leads us to accept bad theology that can lead us away from God rather than toward him. But I think the final reason why it is so important for all of us to have a grasp of these topics is that every one us is an apologist for the faith. That doesn't mean we apologize for being Christians. An apologist is someone who can reasonably speak to and defend the major tenets of the Christian faith. All of us are in places at work or home where we need to be Christian apologists. We need to know theology so that we can help people to understand what it means to be an orthodox Christian believer.
Today, we begin with the crucifixion. One of the questions that theologians have talked about from the very beginning is trying to explain the reason why Jesus died on the cross. Pauls letters are the earliest Christian writings. He gives us in an early creed about the faith and the death of Jesus that was written probably within the first five years after Jesus crucifixion:
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.
“Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” There it is. The reason Jesus died was for our sins. But couldn't God just forgive us no matter what? He is God. God can do anything he wants. If wants to just forgive us he should just do that instead of Jesus dying. That seems cruel, mean, and evil. Some in progressive Christianity have even labeled this understanding as cosmic child abuse. That this understanding of Jesus death somehow is the same as an angry father who beats his child out of some sort of sadistic pleasure.
This is just bad theology creating straw men to knock down because they cannot get beyond what scripture says. Remember what Paul says, Christ died for our sins in accordance with scripture. Also, Paul says in
it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.
Why is this important? Because God wants to be in relationship with us. However, we cannot be fully in relationship to God because of our sinfulness. God is a holy God and requires holiness on our part in order for us to truly be in relationship with. That is why Matthews description of the crucifixion is so important. Notice what happens after Jesus dies, it says that the curtain between the Holy of Holies and the rest of the temple was torn in two. This is significant because the Holy of Holies was where the presence of God rested. When the temple curtain was torn that meant that all people now had access to God not just the high priest once a year. Jesus death allows us to be in the presence of a holy and righteous God. You and I have full access to the creator of all things through Jesus.
This seems cruel though to our modern sensibilities. Many have tried to soften the meaning of the crucifixion because it seems so harsh and abusive. But this is the very act of love that God has given to us. Scripture helps us to understand this more fully. Paul tells us in the following:
From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
The word that is used throughout the New Testament is “reconciliation.” In the Old Testament, we find the word “atonement,” which is an old English word that literally means, “at onement.” God is bringing us together through the death of Jesus on the cross. However, the only way that we can truly be with God is if our sin is fully pardoned and we are given mercy instead of wrath. Because God is holy and righteous, there has to be a punishment for sin. Reconciliation can only happen if the penalty for the sin has been paid. Jesus pays that price for us. We refer to this as penal substitutionary atonement. Jesus pays the penalty that should have been ours so that we can be in full relationship with God. Again, some would say this sounds like cosmic child abuse. But I want us to understand the totality of what I am speaking about here. So I want to give you three reasons why this is necessary according to scripture.
God takes sin seriously.
Sin has caused the broken relationship between us and God. Sin is not just mistakes that we make. Sin is the condition in which we live. There is none of us that are born good. We are born into this world with the disease of sin. The only cure for this disease is Jesus. Let's look a few scripture passages to help us understand this better.
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.
So sin entered into the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the garden. Because they wanted to be like God, they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. They replaced God being on the throne with selfishness. This is the heart of what sin is. When we are the center of the universe, when it is only about my needs and no one else, this is the heart of sin.
Paul explains the condition of humanity further in the first 2 chapters of his letter to the Romans.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles. Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the degrading of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.
Sin pushes us to worship that which is created rather than the Creator. Gods wrath is revealed agains sin.
Paul says further in Romans the following
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life. But more than that, we even boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through justification leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.
2. Because of the seriousness of sin, there has to be a way for us to come back to God.
Jesus says of his death
Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!
These scriptures point us to what is called penal substitution atonem
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
Jesus serves by giving his life as a ransom. In other words, through his death on the cross, Jesus has purchased our life with his. He substituted himself for us and took the punishment and death we deserve.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
But is Jesus really a sacrifice for sin?
For Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.
The book of Hebrews is a series of five sermons that outline who Jesus is. Part of that is understanding Jesus as our high priest and the sacrifice for the sin of humanity. The writer of Hebrews uses the image of the day of Atonement that is found in to help us understand. On the day of Atonement, the high priest would go into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle blood on the mercy seat, the lid to the ark of the Covenant, to atone for the sins of Israel over the last year. Before he entered he would have to offer sacrifices for himself so that he could be pure entering into the presence of God.