Why did Jesus Christ die?
In recent posts I have discussed John Stott’s positions on the responsibility of two individuals and one group for the death of Jesus*
As Stott finishes “Chapter 2” of The Cross of Christ , he returns to the question he posed at the beginning of the chapter: “Why did Jesus Christ die?” When one considers Pilate, the Jewish religious leaders and Judas, the answer to the question is a quick “Jesus did not die; He was killed.”
But we all know that the actions of the individuals already discussed do not tell the whole story. Jesus did not have to die at the hands of Pilate and others. He gave Himself up to those who sought to betray Him. He gave Himself up voluntarily in order to do the will of His Father.
Here is where so many Christians are quick to conclude “He did it for us!”
Here is where so many Christians are not willing to accept the idea that we should see Jesus going to the cross due to our sinning. Parish priest Peter Green puts it succinctly: “Only the man who is prepared to own his share in the guilt of the cross may share in its grace.”
But how can we be responsible for the death of Jesus?
Too often, Christians point to Scripture to declare their innocence. “Let His blood be on us and on our children!” Is that not evidence or guilt coming out of the mouths of the Jewish leaders of the day? When Peter declared on Pentecost “Let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” His hearers were “cut to the heart” and they asked what they could do to make amends [Acts 2:36-37]. Stephen directly attacked the Sanhedrin with the words “you stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears.” He said they resisted the Holy Spirit just like their ancestors did. This was a direct reference to their ancestors who persecuted the Prophets and killed those who predicted the coming of the Messiah. This scripture seems to place a lot of blame on the Jewish leaders and today to place ultimate blame on the Jews is to encourage slander of the Jewish people and promote persecution of the Jewish people [anti-Semitism].
Stott writes “The way to avoid anti-Semitic prejudice, however, is not to pretend that the Jews were innocent, but, having admitted their guilt, to add that others shared in it” [Stott, 62-63].
Here is the hard question that spreads responsibility to Christians. If we were in their place, would we have done what they did? Are the sins of Pilate, the Jewish leaders and Judas that unique?
Stott is not making friends among his fellow Christians with what he writes next: “We [Christians] have done it.”
Their sins were not unique. We commit them a lot.
Whenever we turn away from Jesus, we are crucifying the Son of God all over again and are subjecting Him to public disgrace. Turn to Hebrews 6:6 and after reading it see if you can honestly say, “I have never turned away from Jesus.” Whenever we get greedy, are we any better than Judas? In society today, there are many examples of individuals who love the Lord but they also have an abiding love of money. When we look at the fame that others have or the power they wield and we wish we had some of that, are we not experiencing some of the envy that the Jewish leaders experienced? When we get so wrapped up in our ambitions and make horrible mistakes, we are feeling some of those same feelings that guided Pilate when he sent Jesus to his soldiers. He wanted to look strong and in control. One more “episode” that made him look weak would call into question his future as an administrator in the minds of his Roman superiors. He certainly did not want that.
Stott refers to an old Negro spiritual that asks “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?”
Yes, we were there. All those base emotions that underlie the actions of the guilty parties are felt by all of us. In the minds of many, this makes us participants, not spectators.
Before we place total guilt on ourselves [which we may truly deserve], let’s also consider the power of Jesus Christ. Did He have to go to His death? The answer is no. Jesus did not die as a martyr. He went to the cross voluntarily. He knew He had to suffer death on the cross. Stott cites the Nineteenth Century evangelical pastor Octavius Winslow who wrote “Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Judas, for money; not Pilate, for fear; not the Jews for envy;–but the Father for love.”
It is important to think of responsibility for the death of Jesus on two levels: earthly and divine. On the earthy level, Judas gave Jesus to the Roman soldiers and the priests, the priests gave Jesus up to Pilate declaring He was a blasphemous “pretender” and that He should be punished and Pilate gave Jesus up to his soldiers who actually crucified Him. On the divine level, God gave up Jesus so Jesus could die for us. “As we face the cross, then, we can say to ourselves both, ‘I did it, my sins sent Him there,’ and ‘He did it, His love took Him there” [Stott, 64]. God had a plan, which was to prove “I [Jesus] am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” The Apostle Peter brought the earthly and divine together so well in Acts 2: 23 “This man was handed over to you by God’s purpose and foreknowledge and that you, with the help of wicked men, put Him to death by nailing Him to the cross.”
Truly the people of Jesus’ day bear great responsibility for His death. Obviously Jesus was surrounded by wicked men who were instrumental in His death. But also, one certainly can make the case that He would have never faced the cross if man had not sinned. Finally, God intended for Jesus to go to the cross as a way to communicate to man that sins can be forgiven and better life can be anticipated if you follow Him.
It is this last reason for Jesus’ death that is the most intriguing; the death of Jesus was the Father’s will.
In upcoming posts, I will discuss Stott’s ideas about the death of Jesus on a deeper level, “looking below the surface” to discern what the Father’s will was.
It is important for us to understand the reason for Jesus’ death, “He was not killed; He died, giving Himself up voluntarily to do His Father’s will.”
In Matthew 7:21 Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.”
Any insight we can have about the will of our Father is valuable…
For we all want to go to heaven…
*from St. John Studies…
“The Loud Voices of Rationalization” December 29, 2020 [Pilate], “The ‘Dark Passion’ of Envy” January 5, 2021 [the Jewish religious leaders], “He Kissed Him” January 13, 2021 [Judas Iscariot].