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Why did Jesus die on the cross?

One of the most startling things about the Gospels is that they focus most, not on what Jesus taught, but rather on the last week of his life and specifically upon his death. Two-fifths of Matthew’s Gospel focuses on this. Three-fifths of Mark does the same. One-third of Luke is devoted to the last week of Jesus’ life. And most startling of all, one half of John is devoted to the end of Jesus’ life.

Thus, the Gospels beg the question: why did Jesus die on the cross?

The fact that he did die on a cross is a matter of history. Tacitus, a Roman historian writing in AD 112 refers to the death of Jesus under Pontius Pilate. Lucian, a satirist of the second century, who spoke scornfully of Christ and the Christians, refers to Jesus’ crucifixion in Palestine as a historical event. As F. F. Bruce has summarized, “Some writers may toy with the fancy of a ‘Christ-myth,’ but they do not do so on the ground of historical evidence. The historicity of Christ is as axiomatic for an unbiased historian as the historicity of Julius Caesar. It is not historians who propagate the ‘Christ-myth’ theories.”

Thus, Jesus’ death on a cross is a matter of history. But why did he die? Certainly, there were very human, political reasons why Jesus died on a cross. The Jewish leaders were afraid of the possibility of Jesus leading a revolt, the Romans coming in to crush that revolt and then having their own limited amount of political power taken away from them. We read in John 11:48 where the Jewish leaders said of Jesus, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” That is at least one major reason why the Jewish leaders asked for Pontius Pilate to crucify Jesus. And certainly, Pilate had his own political reasons for granting their request.

Another reason why the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus killed was because they thought Jesus was committing blasphemy by doing and saying things that only Yahweh got to do and say in the Hebrew Scriptures. Two weeks ago, we read in Mark 14:63-64, “The high priest tore his clothes. ‘Why do we need any more witnesses?’ he asked. ‘You have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?’ They all condemned him as worthy of death.”

However, the whole of the New Testament asserts that Jesus died on a cross for more than human and political reasons. Thus, for the rest of the message I would like to focus on the main reason that the New Testament suggests Jesus died.

But before we look into that, let me also state that I think the purpose of Christ’s death is rather a complex matter. Let me illustrate it this way…

In London, there are at least three different kinds of maps of the city. There is the street map, the map depicting throughways, and the underground map of the subway or Tube. Each map is accurate and correct, but each map does not give the complete picture. To see the whole, the three maps must be printed one on top of each other. However, that is confusing, so people usually only use one “layer” at a time.

The same is true of the words used to describe the death of Christ. Each word contains some facet of spiritual truth, but each word does not give the complete picture. To see the whole, we need to place one “layer” on top of the other, but that is sometimes confusing; we cannot see the wood for the trees. Thus, we separate out each rich concept and discover that the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

That is what we are going to do today. We are going to look at just one layer—in fact, one particular statement of the reason for Jesus’ death. This one statement doesn’t give us all the reasons for Jesus’ death on the cross, but it gets at one major reason, and that is all we will have time for today.

The statement we are going to look at comes to us from the pen of the Apostle Peter. There are at least three good reasons for looking at what Peter has to say about the purpose of Jesus’ death. First, Peter was one of the inner, intimate group of three apostles. Peter, James, and John were three of Jesus’ closest friends during the last three years of his life. If anyone knew what Jesus thought about the reason for his death on the cross, it would be Peter.

A second reason for looking at what Peter has to say is because at the beginning Peter was very reluctant to accept the necessity of Jesus’ sufferings. Peter was the first to confess that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. But immediately after that confession, when Jesus began talking about his pending death, Peter rebuked Jesus and said, “This shall never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22) Peter, like the rest of his fellow Jews at that time, was expecting the Messiah to be a conquering king, not a suffering servant. Thus, it required a paradigm shift in Peter’s life and thinking before he could write the statement we are about to read. We too may be reluctant to accept the necessity of the cross. If anyone can convince us of the necessity of Jesus’ crucifixion it will be Peter.

Third, the references to the cross in Peter’s first letter, that we are about to read, are all “asides”. Most of Peter’s letter is consumed with very practical encouragement to the early Christians to live the way God wanted them to live. Peter presents Jesus and his death as examples for the early Christians. Peter has no axe to grind. He is not trying to prove the necessity of Jesus’ death. He takes it as a matter of course. Thus, I find Peter easy to listen to, because he has no axe to grind. He is not trying to prove anything.

And that brings up a very important point. I cannot prove to you that what I am about to read from Peter is correct. The reason that Peter presents for Jesus’ death is not a matter of history. It is a matter of faith. But, I believe, it is a matter of faith that all the early Christians were agreed about.

With all this in mind, let’s look at what Peter has to say in 1 Peter 3:18,
For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit…

The first thing I want you to notice here that Peter says is that Christ’s death, his suffering, was for sins.

This is one of those statements in the New Testament that Christians are overly familiar with. We have heard statements like this for so long that we are liable to forget what it means. We also forget that the meaning of a statement like this is not so clear to those who haven’t spent much time in church. What does it mean that Christ died for sins?

The Greek text literally says that Christ, the Messiah, that is Jesus, died concerningsins. The same phrase that is used here is also used in the Greek version of Leviticus 5:6 and means “a sin offering”. Thus, in order to understand Peter’s statement, we have to understand something of the ancient Jewish sacrificial system.

The religion of the Israelites was sacrificial from the beginning. Altars were built, animals were killed, blood was shed. No Israelite, no Jew, could have failed to learn the fundamental lesson that “the life of the flesh is in the blood” (Leviticus 17:11) and “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Hebrews 9:22) Christians believe that these ancient sacrifices pointed forward symbolically to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

Now, the word for sinin 1 Peter 3:18 means to fall short of the mark. God created us to live in a perfect relationship with him, but we have all fallen short of that mark. We have all, in one way or another, tried to set up on our own and be our own gods, in control of our own destinies. Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

For most of us, none of these truths are new. But the question is: have we personalized it?

In the famous painting of the crucifixion by Rembrandt, the viewer’s attention is drawn first to the dying Savior. Then, as the viewer notices the crowd gathered around the scene at the cross, the viewer is impressed by the various attitudes and actions of the people involved in putting the Son of God to death. Finally, the viewer’s eyes drift to the edge of the painting and catch sight of a long figure almost hidden in the shadows. That figure represents the artist himself; Rembrandt realized that his own sin had helped to nail Jesus to the cross, so Rembrandt put himself in the scene.

I wonder: have each of us realized that? And have we accepted the gift of eternal life that Jesus wants to give us in exchange for our sins?

The next thing Peter tells us is that Christ’s death was once for all. In the Greek text it doesn’t have the words for all, it simply says once. This truth is emphasized throughout the New Testament. Jesus’ one sacrifice was sufficient to cover the sins of the world because he was the perfect human being and also fully divine. That is why Jesus did not have to offer himself as a sacrifice over and over again. Hebrews 10:12 says, “But when this priest [Christ] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.”

In A Book of Saints,Anne Gordon tells the story of Father Maximilian Kolbe, who was a prisoner at Auschwitz in August 1941. A prisoner escaped from the camp, and in reprisal, the Nazis ordered that ten prisoners had to die by starvation. Father Kolbe offered to take the place of one of the condemned men. The Nazis kept Kolbe in the starvation bunker for two weeks and then put him to death by lethal injection on August 14, 1941.

Thirty years later, a survivor of Auschwitz described the effect of Kolbe’s action:
It was an enormous shock to the whole camp. We became aware that someone among us in this spiritual dark night of the soul was raising the standard of love on high. Someone unknown, like everyone else, tortured and bereft of name and social standing, went to a horrible death for the sake of someone not even related to him. 

Therefore it is not true, we cried, that humanity is cast down and trampled in the mud, overcome by oppressors, and overwhelmed by hopelessness. Thousands of prisoners were convinced the true world continued to exist and that our torturers would not be able to destroy it. 

To say that Father Kolbe died for us or for that person’s family is too great a simplification. His death was the salvation of thousands…. We were stunned by his act, which became for us a might explosion of light in the dark camp. (Leadership, Vol. 16, no. 2)

If Father Kolbe’s one sacrifice could mean that much to those prisoners at Auschwitz, imagine how much more the one sacrifice of the God-Man Jesus could mean to everyone.

This leads to a third thing Peter tells us about Jesus’ death. Christ’s death was for the unrighteous.Peter says, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous.

I like the way Paul puts this in Romans 5:6-8. Here it is from The Living Bible:
When we were utterly helpless, with no way of escape, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners who had no use for him. Even if we were good, we really wouldn’t expect anyone to die for us, though, of course, that might be barely possible. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.
What an amazing thing! We can imagine one good person giving their life for another good person. But Jesus, the perfect human being, gave his life for me, for me! In all of my weakness and sin, he gave his life for me.

I first understood that Jesus died for me when I was 12 years old. No one had to tell me I was a sinner. I knew I was a sinner. I felt separated from God. But Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, bridged that gap. When I was 12 I understood that in Jesus, a holy God came after me to bring me home. Years later, when I heard the words of the hymn, those words perfectly expressed what I felt at age 12: “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, and wonder how he could love me, a sinner, condemned, unclean. How marvelous, how wonderful, and my song shall ever be. How marvelous, how wonderful, is my Savior’s love for me.”

This leads to a fourth point that Peter makes. That is that the purpose of Christ’s death was to bring you to God.

The Greek word for bring is prosageinand it is used in the Hebrew Scriptures of brining priests to God (Exodus 29:4). In the Old Testament only the priests had the right of close access to God in the Temple. A Jewish layman could pass through the Court of the Gentiles, through the Court of the Women, and through the Court of the Israelites, but he could not enter the Court of the Priests. And though the priests could enter that court they could not enter the Holy of Holies at the very center of the Temple. Only the high priest could enter there, and he could do that on only one day a year—the day of Atonement—when he would sprinkle the blood of the lamb on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant.

When Jesus died the Gospel tells us that the veil separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place was torn in two. Jesus opened up our access to God the Father in the holiest place by his death on the cross.

The Greek word for bring was also used in a different way in Greek culture. In Greek courts of kings there was a prosagogeus, the introducer, the giver of access to the king. To get into see the king you had to be given entrance through the prosagogeus.

Jesus is our prosagogeus, our introducer. By his death he gave us access to God the Father. Romans 5:1-2 says, “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.

Many years ago, the Prince of Wales visited the capital city of India. A formidable barrier had been set up to keep back the masses of people who wanted to catch a glimpse of royalty. When the prince arrived, he shook hands with some of the political dignitaries who were presented to him. Then, looking over their heads to the crows beyond, he said, “Take down those barriers!” They were quickly removed, and all the people, regardless of social rank, had free access to the heir to the throne of the British Empire. Sometime later when the prince came to that district again, 10,000 outcasts waited under a banner inscribed with the words: “The Prince of the Outcasts”. What a great description that is of Jesus—the one who by his death has broken down every barrier and given us access to God the Father! Jesus is the true Prince of the Outcasts.

The final thing that Peter tells us about Jesus’ death is that Christ’s death was not the end.Peter tells us that Jesus was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit. Next Sunday, we will look more at the resurrection of Jesus and attempt to answer the question: Is the resurrection just a nice story?

For now, let me close with this story…
Two portraits by the German artist Sternberg—his “Dancing Gypsy Girls” and the “Crucifixion”—are linked to one another by an unusual set of circumstances. The pretty young girl who served as the model for the first portrait took an unusual interst in the unfinished painting of Jesus’ final suffering. One day she commented, “He must have been a very bad man to have died for all men. Did he die for you?” This question made a profound impact on the artist. He was not a believer at that time, but some time later he was led to faith by a group of Christians. 
Sternberg, his technical skill now coupled with a heart full of love and gratitude, completed his painting of the crucifixion and under it wrote these words: “THIS I DID FOR YOU; WHAT HAVE YOU DONE FOR ME?” It was placed in a famous gallery where a young aristocratic count named Zinzendorf saw it and was moved by the words written under it. He was a Christian but was convicted of his failure to serve Christ. He later became the organizer of a missionary brotherhood known as the Moravians.

As you consider the death of Jesus, do you know that he died for you? And if so, what are you doing for him?


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