Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

As we continue to ponder this Lenten season, the question arises, why was Jesus crucified (Mk 15:24)? Of course, historically (and politically), this has an easy answer: in a Roman province like Judea, the execution of a person by crucifixion could only be carried out by the Roman governor. As such, it was used as a deterrent against treason and rebellion. His Jewish opponents (the leaders) were very fearful of Jesus’ message and authority, and plotted to kill him (Jn 11:46-53). According to Jewish law, the Jews were unable to execute Jesus, so they had to convince their Roman governors to crucify him for insurrection. This is very clear in the Gospel of John, when Pilate (the Roman governor) found “no basis for a charge against him” (see Jn 19:1-16). In spite of the Jewish allegations, Jesus was not leading a political rebellion against Rome. His immediate followers were not rounded up and charged with the same crime, as one would expect if Jesus was a political instigator.

Over the centuries, the Christian church has tried to answer this question theologically. Of what importance is the death of Jesus to Christians today? The most familiar answer is atonement. That is, Jesus died to atone for the sins of the world. Atonement is based on the laws and commands of God in the Old Testament. There are too many OT passages about atonement to mention here. But, because the nation of Israel failed to keep their part of the covenant with God, sin and disobedience damaged their relationship with God. Thus, they were instructed to conduct a “Day of Atonement,” when the high priest would go into the Temple and seek forgiveness for the sins of the nation. In Hebrew, the word “atonement” is derived from the verb kaphar, which means “to cover.” Someone, or something, had to cover the sins of the people before a holy God. That “something” was blood: “Once a year Aaron shall make atonement on [the horns of the altar]. This annual atonement must be made with the blood of the atoning sin offering for the generations to come. It is most holy to the Lord” (Ex 3:10). Suffice it to say that Jesus did, indeed, shed his own blood to cover the sins of the people in accordance with the OT commands.

Furthermore, every Israelite was commanded to “pay the Lord a ransom for his life” at the time of a census (Ex 30:11-16). It was an offering to the Lord for his divine redemption, and a reminder of the divine release from slavery in Egypt. In the NT, Jesus said that he gave his life “as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:25-28). This is critical, because in his own words, Jesus defined how he understood his death. In Matthew and Mark, the Greek word for “ransom” is lytron which corresponds with the Hebrew word ’asam, or “guilt offering” (see Lev 5:15, 19). In the “Servant Song” of Isaiah 53, the Messiah is offered as a ’asam or “guilt offering,” which is a payment, or restitution, required by an offender (Isa 53:10). Jesus knew he was our “guilt offering.” The price of our sins has been paid in full by his death, so that there may be divine redemption and release from the slavery of sin for all who believe.

But that is not all. The Apostle Paul expanded the OT concepts of atonement and ransom and added “reconciliation and salvation.” In his commentary on Romans, Michael Bird explains Romans 5:9-11: “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him [Jesus]!” That is, in the past, it was Jesus’ death that “justified” human beings so that we can be “reconciled” to a holy God. In the future, believers will also be saved from God’s coming wrath because of what Jesus did on the cross for us.

Bird says, “The death of Jesus, the shedding of his blood, is definitive for justification and reconciliation (see Ro 3:25; 5:9-10; 8:3).” Paul is the first writer to talk about God being the one who initiates the reconciliation with his people. God is the offended one (we sin against him), yet he reached out to us through his Son because he loves us and wants to offer forgiveness and peace. Paul used the verb katalasso (“I reconcile”) in the active voice, because reconciliation begins with God and is an expression of his grace, and not anything humanity has done for itself.

Thus, with great humility and abounding gratitude, we realize that Jesus had to die in order for humanity to be redeemed, ransomed and reconciled to God. “Yet, that is not the end of the story.” Bird concludes, “Jesus did not stay dead. He was raised up for our justification (Ro 4:25), he was exalted to God’s right hand (Ro 8:34), and he makes continuing intercession for believers ([through the Holy Spirit] Ro 8:34). The death of Jesus marks the beginning of our salvation, but its consummation remains dependent on the continuing life of Christ as the one who ‘will save’ believers for a future day” (see Romans 8). Reconciliation and salvation is for eternity. Jesus died an agonizing death for us, because God loves the world so much that he provided a means by which we can be with him forever, and love him in return.

Author: Judy

Christian educator, writer, specializing in the New Testament

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