Life Hope & Truth

From the March/April 2014 issue of Discern Magazine

Why Jesus Had to Die

Why did the only Being who has ever lived a perfect human life have to experience such a horrible death? An often-overlooked festival of God helps us understand the deep significance of Christ’s crucifixion for our lives.

[From the March/April 2014 issue of Discern.]

Thousands of Jesus Christ’s countrymen had crowded into Jerusalem for the Passover festival—one of the most important events of the year. Jesus had warned His disciples that He was going to Jerusalem to be killed; but not understanding or believing, they chided Him for saying something like that!

Yet it was all happening just as He—and the Old Testament prophets—had predicted. The only truly innocent Man in history, Jesus the Christ, was falsely arrested, unjustly tried and sentenced to a horrific scourging and death.

His blood, like that of the Passover lambs that symbolized His sacrifice, would be shed during this momentous festival.

A terrible death

The Roman soldier assigned to scourge Jesus before His crucifixion had to be extraordinarily callous. After all, viciously flogging someone with a leather whip entwined with chunks of metal and bone designed to rip open the victim’s flesh is simply heartless. His job wasn’t to actually kill the person. He was to torture, to inflict excruciating pain prior to the victim’s ultimate suffering—being nailed to a stake to die a slow death.

He knew the signs of a victim nearing death; so just short of killing Jesus, he stopped the scourging. Yet he had inflicted so much pain and trauma that Jesus was too weak to carry His wooden stake the entire way to “the Place of a Skull,” where He would spend His final agonizing hours nailed to the instrument of shame. So the soldiers compelled a surrogate—a Cyrenian named Simon—to carry the beam (compare John 19:16-17; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26).

Crucifixion was a most shameful, humiliating and painful way to die. Shameful because it was generally reserved for the basest of people—slaves, criminals and enemies of the state. Humiliating because the person was stripped of his clothes to be scourged and sometimes crucified while naked. In Jesus’ case, the soldiers cast lots for His garments after nailing Him up (John 19:23-24).

This method of execution was excruciatingly painful—and purposefully so. Carried out in public, such a horrible death served as a powerful warning to others not to do what the condemned person had done.

Plan of salvation

As we reflect on the pain and suffering Jesus experienced, we may wonder, Couldn’t God have offered us the opportunity for salvation some other way? Couldn’t God have accomplished His plan without Jesus having to die?

Of course, He could. He could have designed His plan however He wished. Yet Scripture tells us that God’s plan of salvation—which included the death of His Son—was established “before time began” (2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2). The Lamb of God was “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). God the Father and the One who came to earth as the Son of God designed Their plan of salvation from the very beginning. The death of Jesus Christ was not an afterthought.

So, instead of trying to figure out a hypothetical plan in which Jesus didn’t have to die, a better approach to the question “Why did Christ have to die?” is to consider what we are supposed to learn from this earthshaking event. After all, since God decided—and the One who became the Son of God agreed—that He would die through a horrendous execution, God must have vital truths in mind that should instruct and motivate us.

The consequence of sin

One truth we derive from Christ’s crucifixion is the enormous consequence of sin. Sin—breaking or disregarding God’s law (1 John 3:4)—exacts a terrible price. As Romans 6:23 succinctly notes, “The wages of sin is death.” And because every human sins (Romans 3:23), we all deserve death.

If we are serious about our relationship with God, we must develop a deeply held abhorrence of sin! As the proverb says, “The fear of the LORD is to hate evil” (Proverbs 8:13, emphasis added throughout). The psalmist worded it: “You who love the LORD, hate evil!” (Psalm 97:10).

Why such strong language?

We stand in awe of Christ’s love, that He would willingly sacrifice Himself for us, even while we are sinners.Contrary to popular ideas about the inherent goodness of humanity, we don’t naturally hate evil! God’s Word says that “the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be” (Romans 8:7).

The truth is, we naturally tend to like some forms of sin. Sin can be attractive, alluring and often easier to do than obeying God’s law. It offers “passing pleasures” (Hebrews 11:25). That’s why we have to learn to hate evil. In the end, if we don’t repent and turn from sin, it will bring eternal death.

So what does Christ’s crucifixion have to do with our proclivity to sin? His death upon the cross pays the death penalty for each of us if we repent of our sins and commit to faithfully living as God commands.

Under these circumstances, even though we deserve the death penalty, we are mercifully “redeemed” by “the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Peter 1:18-19). God the Father “made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

The crucifixion of the Son of God, with all its awfulness, helps us comprehend the horrible consequence of sin and appreciate the redemption we have “through His [Christ’s] blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace” (Ephesians 1:7).

We marvel at God’s love, that He would give “His only begotten Son,” to be crucified for us (John 3:16). We stand in awe of Christ’s love, that He would willingly sacrifice Himself for us, even while we are sinners (Romans 5:8).

Eternal life

The death of Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to be forgiven and have our death penalty removed, which opens the way for God to offer us the incredible gift of eternal life. While this is hard to grasp from a physical perspective, it is a sobering truth God wants us to learn and deeply appreciate.

As Jesus neared the end of His life here on earth, He began explaining this profound concept to His followers. In John 6 we read of an occasion near the Sea of Galilee when Jesus miraculously fed 5,000 men plus women and children with two small fish and five barley loaves, which, understandably, caused many people to believe on Him.

The next day, the crowds searched for Him until they found Him in Capernaum. Addressing them, Jesus said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him” (John 6:26-27).

Jesus then repeatedly referred to Himself as the “bread of life”—the One who would give His life so He could offer humanity eternal life. This teaching foreshadowed and helped explain the new symbols of bread and wine He would soon institute at the Passover service.

On another occasion not long before His crucifixion, Jesus resurrected His friend Lazarus from the grave. Just before performing this miracle He explained to Martha, the sister of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26).

Jesus’ resurrection of Lazarus back to physical life impressively confirmed God’s power over death. But it was only a small-scale demonstration of what Jesus offers us if we wholeheartedly respond to Him. Instead of temporary physical life, God offers us a resurrection to eternal life!

How Passover reminds us of these lessons

Jesus’ crucifixion was one of the most critical events in history! It made it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins and fulfill God’s purpose for creating us—to become eternal members of His family! It was so important that God commands us to commemorate it annually, and He gave explicit instructions on how to observe this memorial, called the Passover. It was the first festival God commanded Israel to keep, then Jesus observed it in a new way with His disciples (Leviticus 23:5; Mark 14:14).

In the Old Testament, God used this occasion—the 14th day of the first month on His calendar, the date of the Passover in the Old Testament and the day Jesus was crucified—to deliver the Israelites from bondage. God told the Israelites to mark their homes with the blood of a lamb, the sign that would protect them from the plague that killed the firstborn of Egypt.

The death of Jesus Christ was so important that God commands us to commemorate it annually, and He gave explicit instructions on how to observe this memorial, called the Passover.This theme of deliverance carried over into the New Testament with even greater meaning (1 Corinthians 5:7). The New Testament Passover represents Christ’s death, which delivers us from sin and opens up to us the opportunity to live forever.

In teaching His disciples how to observe this solemn occasion, Jesus began by washing His disciples’ feet (John 13:1-10). Through this menial task Jesus exemplified humility, and He commands us to do the same: “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (verse 15).

Jesus then gave them unleavened bread to eat as a symbol of His broken body and wine to drink as a symbol of His shed blood.

Explaining this teaching, Paul told the Corinthians: “For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.’ In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it [i.e., once a year], in remembrance of Me’” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).

Christians who continue to faithfully follow Jesus’ teaching and the example of the New Testament Church will observe the Passover each year. To learn more about the Passover and God’s other commanded assemblies, download our free booklet From Holidays to Holy Days: God’s Plan for You.

The Passover helps us reflect on these lessons we can learn from Christ’s crucifixion—the vital first step in God’s plan of salvation. Don’t neglect this often-overlooked Christian festival—or the awesome sacrifice it pictures for you, and all humanity!

For further study on the Passover, see the articles “Passover: What Did Jesus Do For You?” and “Passover Wine or Grape Juice?

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