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Why Did Jesus Die? (Good Friday)
Mark 15:21 - 15:32
April 15, 2022
Reverend Jason Harris
This Good Friday, we explore the heart of the gospel by taking a closer look at why Jesus died and what it means for us.
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Our Scripture reading is taken from Mark 15:21-32.
21And they compelled a passerby, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. 22And they brought him to the place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull). 23And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him and divided his garments among them, casting lots for them, to decide what each should take. 25And it was the third hour when they crucified him. 26And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. 29And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.
This is God's word. It's trustworthy, it's true, and it's given to us in love.
The four gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—devote a disproportionate amount of space to the final week of Jesus' life. Two-fifths of the Gospel of Matthew, three-fifths of the Gospel of Mark, one-third of the Gospel of Luke, and one-half of the Gospel of John, focus on Jesus' final days and eventual death. That has led one scholar, I. Howard Marshall, to say that the gospels are not really biographies. They're not biographies of Jesus, but rather we should think of them as "passion narratives with an extended introduction."
As it turns out, the four gospel accounts provide us with one of the very few narratives describing a crucifixion from the ancient world. Why is that? Why are there so few detailed accounts of crucifixion? It's not because crucifixions were rare. In fact, crucifixion was quite common. Thousands of people died by crucifixion. The Roman General Publius Varus crucified 2,000 people all together around the time that Jesus was born. The reason why there are so few detailed accounts of the crucifixion is not because they were rare, but rather because they were gruesome. The victim of a crucifixion was tied or nailed to the cross and then hung up for hours to die not only of their wounds, but also of exposure to the elements and then ultimately asphyxiation—the inability to breathe as one hung suspended by one's wrists. Crucifixion was so hideous that even the Romans outlawed it many years later. Crucifixion was designed not only to maximize pain, but to maximize shame. The onlookers were encouraged to mock and revile the victim who hung on that crossbeam. The crucifixion was a way of saying: This person is not fit to live. In fact, this one is not fit to even be called a human person at all. That's why a Roman citizen could never be crucified. Crucifixion was reserved for slaves, rebels, traders, and enemies of the state. The Roman historian Cicero once wrote, “The very word cross should be forbidden in the presence of a Roman citizen. Romans shouldn't have to think of a cross, see a cross, or even hear the miserable word.”
If that's true, then it's not hard to see why no one would bother writing an account of a crucifixion because if you were crucified, that meant you were a nobody. You were nothing. You didn't matter. So why would anyone ever write down your fate?
That's why it's so surprising that in the New Testament, we find not one, not two, but four separate accounts of Jesus' crucifixion. Clearly, Jesus' cross was different. And the question is why? On this Good Friday as we mark the day of Jesus' death, I'd like to take up one single but all important question, which is: Why did Jesus die?
There are a number of different ways in which you could answer that question. On the one hand, you could say that Jesus did not die, Jesus was killed. He was executed on the charge of blasphemy. He was allegedly guilty of blasphemy—defaming the name and therefore the person of God. What you need to understand is that Judea at the time, was ruled by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. But the Jewish people maintained at least a measure of self-rule. They were allowed to judge their own people according to their own laws. The power base in Jerusalem was centered around those religious leaders who controlled the temple. They were known as the Sanhedrin, a council of 70 people, many of whom were opportunists, who were willing to compromise their own integrity, and to collaborate with their Roman overlords in order to maintain their grip on power.
There is no question that the religious authorities viewed Jesus as a threat. Jesus hadn't come up through the right channels. He didn't have the proper connections, or credentials, or training. Jesus undermined their authority at every turn. He paid no respect to their traditions. He broke with their social conventions. Jesus accused them of being hypocrites. He said that they were blind guides—the blind leading the blind. But what made matters far worse, was the stunning claims that Jesus made about himself. He said that he was the Lord of the Sabbath. He claimed God's divine name “I AM” for himself. He said that he was the eternally existent I AM, and he even went so far as to say that he was one with God the Father, so that if you saw him, you saw God. If you heard him, you heard God. If you believed in him, you believed in God. That was a little bit more than they could bear.
When Jesus was betrayed with a kiss by Judas, arrested by the soldiers, and brought before this council for trial, they tried to find false witnesses in order to make an accusation against him. But their testimony didn't agree, so they couldn't make anything stick. Finally, in frustration, the high priest asked Jesus to give a straight answer. “Are you the Christ (meaning the Messiah)? Are You the Son of God?” Jesus responded by saying, “You have said so, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of power coming on the clouds of heaven.” At this the high priests tore his robes as a sign that blasphemy had now been spoken. He said, “We don't need to hear anything more,” so the charge was brought against Jesus. You could say that Jesus died because he claimed to be the Messiah. He was executed for blasphemy.
The only problem is that the Romans had taken away the right of the Jewish people to carry out the death penalty in 28 AD, so they handed him over to Pontius Pilate in the hope that the Roman governor would put Jesus to death. Pilate could quickly see that Jesus had not done anything deserving of death by crucifixion, so he attempted a number of evasions. First, he tried to transfer Jesus' case to Herod. Herod ruled over Galilee, where Jesus was from, so he figured he could transfer his case there because that was his jurisdiction. But Herod sends him back. Second, Pilate tried to appease the crowd by punishing Jesus by having him flogged, beaten within an inch of his life, but they demanded that he be crucified. Third, he tried to get the crowd to release Jesus by releasing a prisoner to mark the Passover celebration, but they demanded Barabbas rather than Jesus. Finally, Pilate tried to exonerate himself by claiming his innocence. He famously stood before the crowd and washed his hands saying that he was innocent of this man's blood. Yet he was not innocent because he capitulated to the demands of the crowd and handed Jesus over to death. Pilate wanted to release Jesus, but he also wanted to satisfy the crowd. The crowd won because they said, “If you let this man live, you are no friend of Caesar.” That's what clinched it.
Jesus claimed to be the king of the Jews, although he was a king unlike any the world had ever seen. They argued anyone who claims to be a king has made himself an enemy of Caesar. You could say that Jesus died because he claimed to be a king, and he was executed as an enemy of the state.
From a strictly historical point of view, Jesus was charged with a religious crime by the religious court. He was charged with blasphemy. He was charged with a political crime by the political court. He was charged with treason. Why did Jesus die? He died for blasphemy, and he died for treason. But that doesn't tell the whole story because we also know that Jesus repeatedly predicted his suffering and his death. He deliberately set out for Jerusalem knowing exactly what was going to befall him as soon as he got there. And he emphatically stated that no one was ever going to take his life from him, but rather, he was going to lay it down of his own accord. A moment ago, I said that Jesus didn't die, he was killed. But perhaps we need to turn it back around and say that at the end of the day, he wasn't killed, he died because he voluntarily gave up his life.
If you want to ask, why did Jesus die? A better answer than saying that he died for blasphemy or he died for treason, would be to say that Jesus died for sin. That is the consistent witness of the apostles of the New Testament. Listen to the words of Paul, of Peter, and of John. Paul says in Galatians 1:4, “The Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins.” Again, in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our sins.” Peter says in 1 Peter 3:18, “Christ also suffered once for sins.” 1 John 3:5 says, “he appeared in order to take away sins.” Jesus' death was God's way of dealing with sin.
But this is where the confusion comes in. A lot of people say, “I don't get it. I don't see the connection between Jesus' death and our sin.” In fact, some are very offended at the very idea. They might say, “I'm responsible for my own actions. I consider it to be morally reprehensible that someone could be executed for something that I have done. If God wants to forgive us, why doesn't he just do it? What's with all the blood and guts? Why does Jesus have to die on a cross in order for us to be forgiven?” Writing in the 11th century, the Archbishop Anselm said, “If you think that God can forgive sins with the mere wave of his hand, then you have not yet considered the seriousness of sin and the great weight that it is.”
The Apostle Paul draws out the relationship between sin and death in Romans 6:23 when he says, “For the wages of sin is death.” We can define sin simply as spiritual rebellion and failure. It involves not only crossing a line, but also failing to meet God's design for human life. We all know from science that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the Scriptures, the consequence of sin is death. That's the law that has been built into the universe. You reap what you sow. If you sow sin, you will reap death. That's just the way it works. Yet the wonder of the gospel is that Jesus voluntarily submits himself to death in order to interrupt the consequences of our actions. In other words, Jesus substituted himself for you. By dying for your sins, he died your death.
On July 31, 1941, sirens began to blare at the Auschwitz death camp, signaling that a prisoner had escaped, and as a reprisal, 10 prisoners from Auschwitz would be killed. They would die a long, slow death by starvation, buried alive in an underground concrete bunker. All day the prisoners stood as a German officer, along with an SS assistant, made his way through the ranks of men, arbitrarily choosing which 10 would be subjected to this death. He points to one relatively young man who then suddenly lets out a cry. He says, “My poor wife and children.” Upon hearing this, a balding man, with wire rimmed glasses, steps forward. He takes off his cap. The German officer asks him, “What does this Polish pig want?” He says, “I would like to die for that man. I'm old. He has a wife and children. I have no one.” The German officer said, “Accepted.” It turns out this man was a Catholic priest named Maximilian Kolbe. He, along with nine other prisoners, was placed in that concrete bunker for nearly two weeks. They did not tear into one another like cannibals, which might have been expected. But rather for the better part of those two weeks those 10 men sang songs and prayed together lying naked on the floor. After two weeks had passed, Maximilian Kolbe and three others were still alive until they were injected with carbolic acid and killed because the bunker was now needed for someone else.
You see what Kolbe said to that young father that day? He said, “My life for yours.” That is what Jesus says to you from the cross, “My life for yours.” On the cross, Jesus took your place. He bore your sins. He died your death as your substitute. On the cross God himself substitutes himself for you in order to interrupt the consequences of your actions. Paul explains this divine exchange in 2 Corinthians 5:17. In effect, Jesus became sin with your sin and died so that you might become righteous with his righteousness and live. This divine exchange is at the very heart of the gospel. Substitution lies at the heart of both sin and salvation.
The British Pastor John Stott once put it like this,
“The concept of substitution may be set them to lie at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the essence of sin, is man substituting himself for God, while the essence of salvation is God substituting himself for man. Man asserts himself against God and puts himself where only God deserves to be. God sacrifices himself for man, and puts himself where man deserves to be.”
A moment ago we sang, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” Though we may not have been there physically, we were there because we were responsible. Yes, the high priest and the members of that council were responsible for putting Jesus to death for blasphemy. Yes, Pontius Pilate was responsible together with his soldiers for putting Jesus to death for treason. But we were also responsible for putting him to death for our sin, which is why we also sing in another hymn, “It was my sin that held him there until it was accomplished.”
Perhaps the truest thing to say is he didn't die for blasphemy or for treason, but for sin, yet even that doesn't go quite far enough. There is a way of looking at the cross that might suggest that you could pit the Father and the Son against one another. Some might say, “It seems as if Jesus is nothing but an innocent victim of the Father's anger, in which case the cross is nothing but a case of what some have called divine child abuse.” Or there's others who might say “It seems as if Jesus is trying to bend the reluctant will of his Father in order to encourage him to show love and mercy when otherwise he would be opposed to doing so.” But no, we must not drive a wedge between the Father and the Son. We must not speak of the Father punishing the Son. For the Father is not punishing Jesus. He's condemning sin. We must not speak of Jesus trying to persuade the Father to get the Father to do something he doesn't want to do. No, the Father and the Son are united in their mission to save. Paul puts it like this in 2 Corinthians 5:19, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.” On the cross it is God—the Triune God—who substitutes himself for us. Jesus is the one who bears the suffering and the death in accordance with the Father's will, but they are united in their mission to save.
What is the heart of the gospel? The heart of the gospel message that we celebrate on this Good Friday is that God—the Triune God—is so holy and sin is so great, that Jesus had to die. He had to substitute himself on the cross for you because that was the only way to condemn sin without condemning you. It was the only way to love the sinner and yet hate the sin. At the very same time, God is so loving and you are so valuable in his eyes that Jesus was willing to die for you, willing to substitute himself for you on the cross. He would have done it even if you were the only one. Paul put it best in Galatians 2:20 when he said, “The life I now live…I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Yes, in a sense, Jesus died for blasphemy. Yes, Jesus died for treason. And yes, Jesus died for sin. But as the old Puritan author Thomas Watson once wrote, “If one were to ask of what did Jesus die? The answer is, he died of love.”
Let me pray for us.
Father God, we thank you for the wonder of the cross, that Jesus took our place for our sins, died our death, substituted himself for us, so that we might live. Help us now to live in response by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. Amen.