Most of this chapter is taken from my Alpha talk, session 3: “Why Did Jesus Die?”
One summer’s day a new father was walking through the park, pushing his infant son in a pram. The baby was crying but the new dad, with a determined look on his face, kept muttering in a reassuring voice, “Easy now, Donald. Everything is going to be all right, you’ll see. Just keep calm. It’s okay, were nearly home, Donald. Come on… that’s it, calm down, relax… that’s it, you’re doing fine.” Just then a woman passed by and smiling she said to the young father, “Well, you certainly know how to talk to an upset child – calmly and reassuringly.” The woman then poked her head into the pram and said, “There, there Donald, what’s the matter then?” – “Oh, no!” said the father: “His name is George. I’m Donald!”
What Jesus went through on the cross at Calvary, is no laughing matter of course… but what he achieved for us is most certainly a joy worth celebrating and shouting about. That’s one of the reasons why many people, Christians especially (but not exclusively), wear a cross on a necklace. It’s actually quite extraordinary when you think about it: the cross or crucifixion was one of the cruellest and most gruesome forms of capital punishment ever devised, and people wear an instrument of execution around their necks! What’s that all about? We are so used to seeing crosses that we are not even shocked in the least, but imagine going around with a miniature guillotine around your neck, or a noose, or an electric chair! The cross (an instrument of death) has become the symbol of the Christian church. Why? Because of what Jesus accomplished for us on the cross at Calvary. This evening we are looking at why Jesus died.
The cross is recognised as the central fact of Christianity. The Christian faith is based around and centred on the death of its founder. Most leaders are remembered by their life but Jesus is remembered mostly because of his death. In the Lord’s Supper or Holy Communion the bread and wine symbolise Jesus’ body and blood; his sacrificial death on our behalf, to pay for our sin, so that we can be forgiven and restored into a right relationship with God. No other religion celebrates the death of its founder! Biographies are mostly about the life and works of particular individuals. When I was preparing this talk I popped into my local library and glanced at a biography of Margaret Thatcher; a weighty book, with 764 pages but only 3 of those pages were devoted to the subject of her death. Similarly with the biography of Winston Churchill; 1002 pages but only a half-page at the close of the book was concerned with his death. In contrast the gospel writers devote a disproportionate amount of space to Jesus’ final week on earth. In Luke’s case about a quarter of his gospel, in the case of Matthew and Mark about a third, and in John’s gospel as much as a half. This shows how important the gospel writers regard the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection. We’ve seen how amazing his life was, so why spend so much time dwelling on his death?
Probably the most famous verse in the Bible is John 3:16 – which contains the whole of the Bible’s message in a sentence: ‘For God so loved the world [all of us] that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever [includes you and me] believes in him shall not perish [talking about spiritual death] but have eternal life.’ God loves us so much and He wants us to know that He loves us and cares for us. He desires for us to be in close relationship with Him… but there’s one big problem standing in the way. It’s the record of our wrongdoings, what the Bible calls sin.
The Bible tells us that God created man is his own image… male and female he created them. In all of creation we are unique and special because we are made in the image and likeness of God – who created mankind to have dominion and to take care of the earth – with God, but under God’s direction. And because we are made in God’s image we have been endowed with a personality and character and freewill, the ability to choose for ourselves. But we chose wrong; we chose to ignore God and to do things our own way, and we messed up. That’s the problem (the Bible calls it sin) that separates us from God!
Sin is contagious and it spreads. All of us have sinned. Romans 3v23 says: ‘For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.’ None of us are perfect. All of us have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Is anyone here perfect? Anyone who has never fallen short; who has never failed to keep God’s standards/commandments? (Didn’t think so!)
Imagine a scale against a wall that measured goodness, kindness and honesty. At the top are the best people who have ever lived and at the bottom the worst. Who would you put at the bottom? Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin or your boss, maybe! Who would you put at the top: Florence Nightingale, Nelson Mandela or possibly Mother Teresa? And where would you put yourself – somewhere in between? I’d put myself lower down (about here) but you’d be higher than that, wouldn’t you – for sure! The thing is no-one – no matter how good a life they live – can ever be good enough to live up to God’s standard, which is the ceiling; 100%. God’s standard is perfection and on that scale we all fall short of the glory of God. No one can ever be good enough; no-one can be perfect, not even Mother Teresa even though she lived an exceptional good life. Everyone has sinned and we all fall short of the glory of God. Sin is contagious and it spreads.
Hands up if you have children… keep your hands up if they have never misbehaved or done anything wrong! Children, even infants, don’t need to be taught how to sin: it just comes naturally to them… throwing temper tantrums because they can’t get their own way, hitting other toddlers in the playgroup, claiming something as ‘mine’ and not sharing! Mild stuff, granted, compared to what we might generally consider sin but nevertheless sin, all sin, is rebellion against God’s perfect standard. When God says, ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, and we don’t, we sin. And if we only ever sinned once in our entire life then, by default, we’re not innocent, not 100%, and God, who is absolutely pure, 100% holy, cannot be where sin is! It’s like trying to mix oil and water… impossible!
It’s a bit like when toxic waste is spilled into a river: Years ago people thought nothing of polluting streams and rivers with chemical waste and rubbish. It just seemed so unimportant; nothing really to worry about! But today we know that just two or three parts in a million of certain chemicals can seriously damage people’s health, even kill them! Sin is like the pollution in streams: even tiny amounts are deadly because it spreads like a virus. And sin also spreads and passes from one generation to the next. We are all sinful… we are born that way; we inherit it!
Do you know how a worm gets inside an apple? Maybe you think the worm burrows in from the outside. No! Scientists have discovered that the worm comes from the inside. But how does he get in there? Simple! An insect lays an egg in the apple blossom. Sometime later, the worm hatches right in the heart of the apple and then it eats his way out. Sin is a bit like that: it is already in our hearts before we are even born; sin is passed on in our genes, from mother to child right the way back to Adam and Eve.
Sin is when we do things our way instead of God’s way. SIN is like saying Shove off God. I’m in charge. No to your rules!
And this – our sin – is the barrier that separates us from God. But some people disagree with all of this: they think God will forgive them because of their good deeds or because they have always tried to live a good life.
I used to think like that: I used to think that to get in to heaven God will weigh up your good deeds and your bad deeds, like on a pair of scales, and if our good outweighs the bad, well then you’re in! I’ve heard people say things like, ‘I might not be perfect but I’ve never murdered anybody and I’m a law-abiding citizen – well, except for the speed limit… but that’s only occasionally! I’m a fairly nice person: try to do what’s right – might not always succeed, but on the whole I’m a pretty decent chap: I’m kind and generous… I give to charity, I recycle, and, Ian, I give blood, for heaven’s sake! Of course, God will accept me. I’ll be fine!’
Doing good and worthwhile things is right and proper, certainly… but there’s a major problem with that philosophy: It is self-reliant; it depends on us earning favour with God, or doing a deal and trying to work things out so the balance is in our favour. But the Bible nowhere teaches that God judges us like on a pair of scales. Quite the opposite in fact!
For God to be true to His character He has to be just, He has to punish sin: he can’t simply ignore it or pretend it doesn’t matter because then He wouldn’t be fair, he wouldn’t be just. You see, God’s standard is 100% perfection and so none of us can ever be good enough; none of us can be perfect or completely righteous, none of us can score 100, and yet that’s God’s requirement; that’s the qualification to get into heaven: Scoring 99 is not good enough. We have to be perfect, completely righteous, just like Jesus… OR – there’s a BUT, and we love a big BUT, don’t we? – OR we have to be made righteous.
How? By accepting through faith what Jesus has done for us: that’s how we get to score 100%; that’s how we get to be made right with God.
If someone commits a crime in society, they can’t say to the judge in a courtroom, “But Your Honour, just before I mugged that person I helped an old lady cross the road.” The judge may think to himself, “Yes, that’s nice”, but he wouldn’t let the crime go unpunished. To do that would betray his position as judge. Likewise, God sees our sin, our disobedience and He has to act accordingly. And so Jesus stands in our place and takes the punishment we deserve, so that we can be set free.
God is perfect and holy; He is righteous and just and so he has to hold people accountable for their actions. He can’t simply turn his back and say, ‘O well, I love you anyway so I’ll forgive you and let’s just forget about it.’ God can’t simply ignore sin or just wipe it out as if it didn’t matter, because if he did that he wouldn’t be fair; he wouldn’t be perfect or holy or righteous or just anymore. It’s not fair when criminals or wrong doers get away with things, is it? So God has to punish sin otherwise he wouldn’t be God.
On the other hand, it’s also true that God is love, and He does want to forgive us, but our sin has to be dealt with first in order that God can remain true to his character of being Holy and just. That’s why God sent Jesus. He is He is HThe Solution…
What happened at the cross is that a transfer took place; a substitute took our place; a perfect man stood in the place of sinful man; a ransom was paid to secure our forgiveness and save us.
Forgiveness for all that is past, new life in the here and now, and a wonderful eternal hope for the future. That’s the gospel, the good news! We can receive forgiveness for all that is past (a clean slate), new life here for today (a fresh start), and a wonderful hope for the future that’s going to be out of this world!
In the United States there’s a gravestone with a simple inscription on it that says: “I want to stand where you’re standing.” And under the inscription is an account of an incident that happened during the American Civil War.
A 19 year-old soldier was part of a firing squad assigned to execute a man found guilty of treason. As the soldier took aim he was horrified to see that he knew the man. He lowered his gun and went over to his captain and said: “I know that man: he has a wife and children at home. If I shoot him, I not only end his life but their lives too. I can’t do it.”
Everyone understood that the punishment for treason was death: the price had to be paid…but after a short discussion they came up with a plan. They agreed that the young soldier could take the condemned man’s place. So the 19 year-old marched up to the captive and said: “I want to stand where you’re standing.” The prisoner took off his blindfold and walked away free: back to his wife and family and the rest of his life. But his freedom came at a great cost to the young man who had chosen to die in his place.
Similarly, that story gives us a glimpse of what Jesus achieved on the cross. The price for our rebelling against God, our sin, is death. And as Jesus went willingly to his death for us, it’s as if he was saying to each one of us, “I want to stand where you’re standing.” Jesus’ death bought forgiveness and freedom for everyone who accepts what He has done for them. Jesus died – to use the very words he used himself – “as a ransom for many.”
Jesus came as our substitute. He endured crucifixion for us. Cicero (the Roman politician) described crucifixion as ‘the most cruel and hideous of tortures’. Jesus was stripped and tied to a whipping post. He was flogged with four or five thongs of leather interwoven with sharp jagged bone and lead. Eusebius, the third-century church historian, described Roman flogging in these terms: the sufferer’s ‘veins were laid bare, and… the very muscles, sinews and bowels of the victims were open to exposure’. He was then taken to the Praetorium where a crown of thorns was thrust onto his head. He was mocked by a battalion of about 600 men and hit about the face and head. He was then forced to carry a heavy cross bar on his bleeding shoulders until he collapsed, and Simon of Cyrene was press-ganged into carrying it for him. When they reached the site of crucifixion, he was again stripped naked. He was laid on the cross, and [crude nails were driven into his hands and feet]. He was lifted up on the cross which was then dropped into a socket in the ground. There he was left to hang in intense heat and unbearable thirst, exposed to the ridicule of the crowd. He hung there in unthinkable pain for six hours while his life slowly drained away. [It was the height of pain and the depth of shame.] – Yet, the worst part of his suffering was not the physical trauma of torture and crucifixion nor even the emotional pain of being rejected by the world and deserted by his friends, but the spiritual agony of being cut off from his Father for us – as he carried our sins.” Citation
Paul wrote: ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us’ (2 Corinthians 5:21). In other words, on the cross Jesus, in a sense, became the most sinful man the world has ever seen, as the sins of millions and millions of believers in every age, were poured into His body. That’s why, as He was dying, Jesus cried out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:26.) The only time in the whole of eternity when God the Father was separated from His Son! Because sin separates us from God. Let me use an illustration to make the point…
Supposing this book represents your life, and every wrong thing you have ever done or thought or said is recorded in it. – There are many dark pages in my own book that I don’t want you to know about. – Now supposing this (left palm) is you and the ceiling represents God. And between us and God is this book, this barrier; the record of our sin! – SIN SEPERATES US FROM GOD.
Because God is pure and holy and just, He has to punish sin, otherwise He wouldn’t be true to His nature: He wouldn’t be just. That’s what happened on the cross: Jesus took the punishment we deserve upon himself.
Now supposing this (right palm) is Jesus. Jesus is the only perfect man who ever lived. There was nothing separating Jesus from God. But on the cross a transfer took place. Jesus took our sin (our book) upon himself and God laid the punishment we deserve on his Son – That’s why, just before he died, Jesus cried out, It is finished (it is paid). What is? The price of our salvation: Jesus bearing the cost of our sin. It is finished: Paid in full, over ever sin you would ever commit from the womb to the tomb!
And for those who are trusting in Jesus; who accept the cross and what Jesus accomplished for us, well let me ask you, what now stands in the way of us and God? – Nothing. That’s right! Jesus has opened the way for us to receive forgiveness, for us to know God personally and to be in relationship with him.
Jesus didn’t go to the cross kicking and screaming, proclaiming his innocence and crying out at the injustice of the situation; he didn’t go to the cross reluctantly or angrily or with clenched fists. He went willingly, with open arms because He knew there was no other way of securing our salvation. That’s how much he loves us.
Someone asked God: “How much do you love me?” God stretched out his arms as wide as possible and said, “This much!” Then he bowed his head and died.
I want us to look at what happened during the six hours that Jesus was on the cross. In the gospels there are seven things recorded that Jesus spoke from the cross:
- “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
- “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).
- “Dear woman, here is your son” (John 19:26).
- “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani – My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
- “I am thirsty” (John 19:28)
- “Tetelestai” – it is finished! [It is done; it is paid!] (John 19:30)
- “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Then he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)
It was nine in the morning when they crucified Jesus (Mark 15:25). Let me read what happened from Mark 15v33-38 (this is the shortest gospel account):
33 ‘At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.’ – In the Bible light represents God’s favour, and darkness represents God’s wrath. This supernatural darkness, which lasted from noon until three in the afternoon indicated that a supernatural act was taking place. It couldn’t have been an eclipse because it was during the period of full moon at Passover. Besides an eclipse can only last for a maximum of seven minutes. This darkness lasted for three hours in the middle of the day!
34 ‘At three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ (‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’). – This is known as the cry of dereliction: The only time in the whole of eternity when God the Father was separated from His Son, as Jesus takes the sins of the whole world on His shoulders; as he took our book/our sins upon himself! Picking up at…
37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. 38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
We are told in the gospels that it was the ninth hour when Jesus breathed his last and died. (The Jewish clock started at 6:00am, which was the first hour. Jesus was crucified at the third hour, 9:00am, and six hours later when Jesus breathed his last, it was the ninth hour (what time was that, anybody?) – or 3 o’clock in the afternoon – which was the exact time the evening sacrifice was made each day in the Temple.) Friends, it is no coincidence that Jesus died at the exact same time as the Passover lamb was being sacrificed in the Temple and… 38 ‘The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.’
In the Temple in Jerusalem, God’s presence resided above the Ark of the Covenant in the inner-sanctuary, known as the Holy of Holies, and which was separated from the main body of the Temple by a thick curtain – 30 foot high and as thick as a man’s hand; it said, ‘NO ENTRY’, man cannot simply walk into God’s presence. Only the high priest was allowed into the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifice once a year on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement… When Jesus cried out and took his last breath an amazing thing happened: The curtain in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. It was torn from the top by God to make a very specific point: that because of Jesus’ death on the cross, man was no longer separated from God. The way for us to come back to God had been made open.
Earlier Jesus had said: “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). ‘A ransom is the payment of a valuable price to buy back something or someone who has been lost, captured or enslaved. We can think of examples of ransom payments in the release of captives, or slaves, or the redeeming of possessions in a pawn shop [like Cash Generators]. A person can redeem their pledge by paying the sum demanded by the pawnbroker.’ Citation Jesus redeemed us by paying the ransom to secure our forgiveness and salvation. Jesus paid the price so we wouldn’t have to.
I read an account some time ago about a little girl who was suffering from a rare and serious disease. Her only chance of recovery appeared to be a blood transfusion from her five-year old brother, who had thankfully survived the same disease and had developed the antibodies needed to combat the illness. The doctor explained the situation to her little brother and asked the boy if he would be willing to give his blood to save his sister. He hesitated for a moment then he took a deep breath and said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it if it will save her.’ As the transfusion progressed he lay in a bed next to his sister and smiled, seeing the colour returning to her cheeks. Then his face grew pale and his smile faded. He looked up at the doctor and asked with a trembling voice, ‘Will I start to die straight away?’ You see, being so young, the little boy had misunderstood the doctor: He thought he was going to have to give his sister all his blood!
In a sense that’s what Jesus did for us. Each one of us has a serious disease – it’s called sin! Each one of us needs to be saved and Jesus is the one who saves us, because He has paid the price with his own blood. This is the gospel, the good news of salvation: Jesus saves us when we accept that his blood pays for our sins. At the end of the day all sin has to be paid for but God in His wonderful grace and mercy has provided us a choice: We can accept Jesus and He pays for our sin, for free, or people can reject Jesus and they pay for their sin themselves, but then they’ll have hell to pay for it!
Jesus was born a man because he had to die as a man, on behalf of all mankind. Jesus acted as our substitute. He came to die in our place, to offer himself as a perfect sacrifice on our behalf, taking our sin upon himself at the cross. Why did Jesus die? To pay the price for our sin so that we wouldn’t have to.
There’s a story told about a pastor in America who introduced a visiting speaker to his church, and an elderly preacher walked up to the pulpit and told this story: ‘A father took his son and his son’s best friend on a sailing trip when a storm overturned the boat sweeping them all into the ocean. The father managed to scramble up onto the upturned hull and grabbing the life buoy and rope he had to make the most painful decision of his life – which boy to throw the lifeline to and which one to sacrifice. He knew that his son had accepted Christ but his best friend hadn’t. In anguish the father yelled, ‘I love you son,’ and threw the rope to his son’s friend. By the time he’d hauled the boy back to the capsized boat; his son had disappeared beneath the waves. His body was never recovered. The father knew that his son would step into eternity with Jesus but he couldn’t bear the thought of his friend facing eternity without Christ.’ At the end of the service a teenager approached the old man and said, ‘That’s a nice story, but what father in his right mind would sacrifice his son’s life in the hope that the other boy would become a Christian?’ – ‘You’ve got the point,’ the old preacher replied. ‘But I’m standing here today to tell you, that story gives me a glimpse into what it must have been like for God to sacrifice His only Son for us. And I also understand you see, because I was that father, and your pastor… he was my son’s best friend!’ Citation
Let me say it again: Jesus died to pay the price for our sin so that we wouldn’t have to.
But how do we know we can be really forgiven? Because the resurrection is God’s ‘YES’ to the sacrifice Jesus made being accepted. Remember, that’s why Jesus didn’t stay dead? His resurrection is the absolute proof that Jesus’ sacrifice is all-sufficient for the forgiveness of sins, and its proof too, that all believers will inherit eternal life, just as Jesus promised. ‘But God’s forgiveness is not automatically conferred on everyone. If a person does not accept what Jesus has done, he or she is virtually saying to God, ‘I don’t want anyone to pay for my sin – I’ll pay for it myself.’ Citation And so they will… on the last day they’ll have hell to pay!
Let me close with a final illustration. The story is told of a young woman was arrested for breaking the law. She knew she’d been caught red-handed and she couldn’t deny her guilt. Later stood in front of the judge’s bench she admitted what she had done. The man wearing the robe was a kind man, but he was also a just judge, and knew he couldn’t let her off the hook. She had broken the law. So he gave her the penalty prescribed by the law, which meant the girl was required to pay a steep fine – one that she couldn’t afford – or else end up in jail.
But then the man did an amazing thing. He stood up, took off his judge’s robe, walked around to the front of the bench where the girl was standing, pulled out his wallet, and lovingly looked in her eyes as he handed her all the money she needed to pay her fine.
Why did he do this? Because the woman was his own daughter! Being a good judge, he had to honour the law and impose the penalty. But being a loving father, he was willing to come to her side, to pay the price on her behalf.
But now the woman had a choice to make. Would she let go of her pride, and humbly reach out to receive her father’s generous offer? Or would she insist on trying to prove she didn’t need help from him or anyone else, and end up going to jail?
This story illustrates the situation between God and us. God is the holy and just judge who said, “You’ve broken my laws and sinned against me, and the penalty is death.” But he is also the loving father, who said, “I love you and will come down and pay the penalty myself,” and so He took off his heavenly robe, came to earth in the person of Christ, and paid for our sins by dying on the cross.
Now we, too, have a choice to make: to humbly receive his payment – forgiveness and restoration – or reject this sacrifice and spend the rest of our lives, and eternities, trying to pay a debt we can never fully repay. Citation
As the saying goes: Wise men still seek Jesus; wise women too… your call!