Why did Jesus die on the cross?
Many of my friends would say he needed to die for me, in my place, for my sins. That’s called substitutionary atonement, and it’s one of the explanations of the cross found in Scripture. But it’s not the primary way Jesus understood his crucifixion.
Here’s how Jesus described the cross:
Matthew 20:17-19 (my translation, compare NIV)
17 Going up to Jerusalem, Jesus took his twelve followers. On the way he told them privately, 18 “See, we’re going up to Jerusalem, and the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests and Bible scholars. They will condemn him to death 19 and hand him over to the nations to be mocked, flogged, and crucified. And on the third day, he will be raised up.”
When they realized he was God’s anointed leader (the Christ), Jesus began explaining his death to his followers (16:16-21). He repeated this explanation when the voice from the cloud declared him to be the beloved Son of the heavenly sovereign, the one we must heed (17:5, 22-23). Now he has given the same explanation again. This must be the crucial message — repeated three times.
Hear his explanation in the context of the Biblical message. God’s anointed leader, the Son who represents God’s reign on earth (as David and his descendants had done before him) was making his way to his capital city. His people need to recognize their God-appointed king, so God restores his kingship over them and ultimately the nations.
But the rulers in the capital — the chief priests and those who apply God’s Law for his nation — will not cede their authority. They will betray their leader, handing him over to the foreigners who ruled them (the Roman Empire). Caesar’s representatives will mock this “King of the Jews,” demonstrating their power over him by ordering him to be punished and publicly executed in the most humiliating way.
Crucifixion was not a Jewish practice. It was a savage invention of the Roman Empire, a public and intentionally excruciating statement that this is what happens to anyone who dares to oppose the power of Rome. Jesus had never opposed Rome. His crucifixion was the result of his rejection and betrayal by his own people, colluding with the nations who reject God’s authority (compare Acts 4:25-27).
That is the sin that crucified the Christ. The cross is the ultimate expression of human rebellion against God’s reign — the rebellion that began in Eden, persisted in the nations going their own way, and enslaved the nation God called to represent him.
To understand it as Jesus dying for me, in my place, for my sins — while true — is horrendously inadequate, incredibly egocentric. That’s about 1/100 billionth of the story, completely missing the scope of what God is doing in restoring his world through the authority of his Christ.
Jesus knew the cross was inevitable because sin and death were already reigning over the earth. It was inevitable because God’s people were colluding with the powers of sin and death that oppressed them, rejecting God’s anointed, betraying the Son whom God had sent to restore his kingship. Sin crucified Jesus. That’s the reason for the cross.
But sin did not defeat God. Without doing evil to defeat evil, God defeated sin on the third day when he raised his anointed ruler out of death, restoring him as king of all creation. With the resurrection, God overturned the powers of sin and death, installing his anointed as our Lord.
It’s time to recover Jesus’ gospel. Let’s stop acting as judges, proclaiming individual guilt in ways that Jesus did not. Let’s announce the good news: God is releasing his world from the tyranny of evil and the terror of death, restoring it to God’s reign through Christ our Lord.
God reversed everything — all the evil that came against him at the cross — when he raised Jesus from the dead.
What others are saying
I. Howard Marshall, Aspects of the Atonement: Cross and Resurrection in the Reconciling of God and Humanity (Colorado Springs, CO: Paternoster, 2008), 154
Reconciliation is a model that expresses clearly the basic pattern of human need, God’s action, and the resultant new situation that shapes all the biblical imagery of salvation … It does so in a way that is particularly comprehensive and is especially relevant in a world where the need for new relationships between human beings is so clamant.
N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013), 1068 (emphasis original):
The cross is the victory through which the powers of the old age are brought low, enabling the new age to be ushered in at last. Here, once again, we see what was foundational for Paul: that which Jewish eschatology looked for in the future, the overthrow of the enslaving evil powers and the establishment of yhwh’s reign instead, had truly been inaugurated in and through the messianic events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. As a result, the ‘rulers of the present age’ are now ‘being done away with’ [1 Cor. 2:6.]. Their power is at an end, and they unwittingly brought that result upon themselves by crucifying the one who always was ‘the lord of glory’ and who is now revealed as such through his resurrection.
- Jesus’ paradoxical path to power (Mt 16:27-28)
- Son of man: suffering king (Mt 16:21–17:23)
- The folly of the cross
- Why didn’t God kill the devil instead of his Son?
Update 2022-04-08: Original translation added (instead of NIV).