WHY DID JESUS DIE?
Good Friday is the day Christians pause to give special attention to the cross.
Even in the church, this is an increasingly unusual thing to do. Even in the church there are those who would prefer that the cross were kept out of view. The cross is not an attractive thing in any way. It makes people uncomfortable. It confronts us with unpleasant and upsetting details. It pushes us to reflect on issues that we generally try not to think about.
Some churches try to avoid mentioning the cross at all. A guest preacher in one particular church was told by one of the members there, “Our pastor says preaching the cross is not a good tool for growing congregations”. That’s an odd thing to say, because the cross isn’t a tool for anything. The cross is what the Christian faith is all about. When the Apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he reminded them that while he was with them he had resolved to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. Without the cross, the gospel is emptied of all meaning.
Perhaps many are uncomfortable with sermons about the cross because a lot of those sermons tend to focus on the “how” of the cross. In other words, they focus on how Jesus died on the cross. And that is a very grim business indeed. The details of death by crucifixion are gruesome in the extreme. It’s not surprising that many people would prefer not to be reminded of them.
Interestingly, though, the gospels themselves don’t spend a lot of time talking about the “how” of the cross. The gospel of Luke is a good example of that. Luke describes Jesus being led out with two other men to be executed. But when it comes to the execution itself, Luke doesn’t linger over the gruesome details. Luke just says, “When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left.” It’s as if Luke is telling us that we shouldn’t be obsessed with how Jesus died. A much more important question is why Jesus died. Why did he go to the cross? Why was he crucified? It’s in the “why” of the cross that the core message of the gospel emerges.
Answering why Jesus died could easily lead us into a detailed examination of the events surrounding his death. We could fix our attention on the various characters in the story and consider the part they play in bringing about Jesus’ crucifixion. We could consider all the religious and political factors that were at work in causing Jesus’ death. In other words, we could give an historical explanation for why the cross happened.
But that wouldn’t really answer the deeper “why” question. It wouldn’t answer why this happened at all – why the Son of God came to earth to suffer a humiliating death. That is the hardest part of all to understand.
If asked, “Why did Jesus die?” most Sunday School graduates know enough to answer, “He died to save us.” But why did it take his death to save us? And why in particular did it take a death on a cross? Couldn’t God have saved us in some other way? Couldn’t God have saved us without the crucifixion?
When we imagine how God might have done it differently, we wonder whether God couldn’t have just issued a blanket amnesty for all those who needed to be saved. Perhaps he could have sent Jesus to make an announcement that all sins are now forgiven, and we are all accepted just as we are. That would have been very neat and simple. It would have made the cross unnecessary. It would have spared Jesus the agony of the crucifixion, and it would have spared us the need to think about it. Why couldn’t God have done something like that instead?
Immediately after his baptism, before he had started his public ministry, Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. And one of the temptations offered to Jesus was the avoidance of death. He didn’t have to die if he didn’t want to. He could take advantage of the fact that even if he threw himself off the temple, angels would come and keep him unharmed. But Jesus didn’t give in to this temptation. He knew that his whole life was tied up with God’s plan of salvation. And he knew that the cross was essential to that plan. For salvation to be achieved, there was no easy way to do it. Nothing short of the most extreme measures was required. Nothing short of the cross would be enough.
In a recent article, Methodist pastor Jason Micheli describes a stained glass window in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. This is the church that was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963, killing four young African-American girls. When an artist in Wales named John Petts heard about this atrocity, he felt the need to respond. He offered to craft a stained glass window for the church, and after a public appeal many people in Wales contributed to turning this idea into reality.
The resulting window, known as the Wales window, depicts the crucifixion. But it’s quite a remarkable version of this familiar scene. Jason Micheli says the window seems to lead the eye in two opposite directions. From one point of view, “Christ’s body appears almost in motion, as if he were not truly bound by his captors’ nails.” But at the same time his face is full of anguish as he endures the pain and utter humiliation of the cross. In other words, Christ is the victim, but he’s a victim who’s active and in control. John Petts said he wanted one arm of the crucified Christ to appear to be turned against the powers of the world, and the other arm he wanted extended out, ready to embrace all of creation. The message of the window is completed by an inscription taken from Matthew 25 that says, “Whenever you’ve done it to one of the least of these, You Did It to Me.”
The multiple meanings conveyed by this stained glass window match the multiple meanings of the cross. There isn’t just one explanation for why Jesus died. There are many layers of meaning, all working together in the single event of the crucifixion.
One layer of meaning has to do with the way the cross achieves for us forgiveness of sins. The Apostle Paul told the Corinthians that the message that had been given to him he had passed on to them as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures. This act of dying for our sins implies a sacrifice, just like the sacrifice the high priest would make in the temple. It’s through the sacrifice of Jesus, the innocent one, that we are set free from the consequences of our sin. Over the centuries, people have used different images for this. They’ve talked about Jesus paying the penalty. They’ve talked about Jesus paying the debt we owe. They’ve talked about the purifying effect of Jesus’ death. However we understand this, it all comes down to Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves, which is free us from our sin.
But why is such a drastic action necessary in order to bring this about? When we consider our own personal failings, they mostly seem rather ordinary, at least in our own eyes. Did the Son of God really need to be crucified because of sins like that? Keep in mind, however, that our individual sins, as petty and minor as we may believe them to be, are actually part of a much bigger problem. That much bigger problem is Sin with a capital “S”. Sin with a capital “S” represents everything that stands opposed to God – from the smallest little lie to the most horrific atrocity. When we look at it that way, we can’t deny that sin does require a drastic response. It’s not just something that can be excused in an off-handed way. It’s something so serious that it needs to have the full power of God brought against it.
That’s one of the things the Wales window depicts. Christ on the cross turns his arm against the powers of this world – powers known as sin, evil and death. In his death on the cross, Christ doesn’t just forgive sin, he breaks the power of sin. This is serious business indeed. It’s no small thing to take on the power of sin in the world. When bombs go off in Birmingham or Brussels, we cannot pretend that sin is just a minor matter that can be dealt with by a simple wave of the hand. Instead it requires the most drastic response of all. It requires the sacrifice of the cross.
Jesus didn’t die for us just because we’ve made the occasional mistake for which we need to be forgiven. He died for us because sin has us under its control. Our lives, and the entire world in which we live, are in the grip of sin’s power. The only thing greater than that power is God’s power. Only the power of God can overcome it.
The cross may seem like a strange way for God to display his power. In every respect, the cross looks like the very opposite of power as the world knows it. But that’s how the power of God works. It’s different from the world’s power. It doesn’t meet violence with violence. Instead it meets violence with love. And it’s that love that ultimately defeats the power of sin, evil and death. It’s that love that makes salvation possible.
In the ancient belief of the church, the devil saw Jesus on the cross and thought he had him just where he wanted him. The devil thought that Jesus had been cornered, and it was just a matter of finishing him off. As Jesus hung on the cross, the devil poured out every bit of his evil power against him. But there was nothing the devil could do to destroy Jesus’ love. That love prevailed against the devil’s most violent and evil attacks. And in the end, it was the devil’s power that was broken. It was broken by a love that was willing to give of itself without limit, for us.
The victorious love Jesus displayed in the cross is depicted in the Wales window, not just in the arm of Christ turned against the powers of this world, but also in the other arm extending out, ready to embrace the whole world. In the cross, Christ really does embrace all humankind in love. He shows the extent of his love for us by entering fully into human life. And he couldn’t be fully human without dying. He couldn’t embrace humankind without experiencing death. That’s one other reason why he had to die. It was his way of being God with us, right to the very end. The manner of his death is also important, because it shows us that there is nothing we have to go through in life – no pain, no humiliation, no abandonment – that Jesus himself hasn’t experienced.
The full of extent of this is visible in the words of anguish Jesus cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The words are from Psalm 22, a psalm that begins in anguish but ends in hope and praise. There’s no doubt, however, that it’s the anguish Jesus is expressing – the unbearable anguish of feeling abandoned by God.
This is a great mystery – how could God the Son be abandoned by God the Father? There’s no way to understand that. What we can understand, however, is that whenever we feel God has forsaken us – whenever we feel the gates of heaven are closed against us – whenever we feel completely cut off from the presence of God – Jesus has felt that too. He has passed through this darkest of all valleys, so that we can know that whatever darkness we may have to go through, he has already been there ahead of us. This is how much he loves us. He loves us so much that he will meet us wherever we are – even in the place of complete and absolute desolation.
Jesus died so that absolutely nothing can separate us from the love of God. In a word, he died for love – a love far beyond anything our human minds can conceive.
John Petts, who made the Wales stained glass window, was born just a few years after the great revival that swept across Wales, beginning in 1904. Lives were changed by the thousands in this revival. Churches that had been just half full began to burst at the seams as new believers poured in. These churches held meetings night after night, often lasting until midnight. And at a great number of these meetings, a particular hymn was sung – a hymn that summed up the saving message of the gospel. This hymn was entitled, “Here is love, vast as the ocean.” It is not in any hymnal I am aware of. Its tune is not familiar. But its words convey an eternal truth:
Here is love, vast as the ocean,