Why did Jesus have to die?
When God allowed His Son to take our place, something fatal happened. Someone died. Jesus died. Matthew 27:50 says, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.”
But what did Jesus cry out? Luke tells us that Jesus cried out, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46). John tells us that Jesus’ last words were “It is finished!” (John 19:30).[i]
But what did Jesus mean when He said, “It is finished”? That His earthly ministry was finished? That His mortal life was finished? That His suffering was finished? There was more to it than that. His mission was finished. He had completed everything His Father had asked Him to do. He had made a way for us to be reconnected with God.
But why something fatal? Why did Jesus have to die?
There are four words which explain what Christ’s death accomplished. It’s like spinning the cross around and looking at it from four different perspectives. These four words force us to see just how severe our situation was and help us see why it took something fatal to secure our salvation.
“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We were in critical condition and Jesus provides the solution. We are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood … When we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son” (Romans 3:24-25, 5:10, NIV).
The first word is JUSTIFICATION. It is a legal term. The context is a courtroom. Our situation was so severe that we were dragged into court and accused of the worst possible crime. We stood before God our Judge as violators of His law. As we awaited our deserved sentence, something incredible happened. Jesus stood as our advocate. With Jesus, the Scripture says, “We have one who speaks to the Father in our defense” (1 John 2:1, NIV). And because of His defense, we who were guilty were acquitted; declared “not guilty,” pardoned, and granted amnesty. To be justified before God is to be treated as if we had never done anything wrong.
A second word is REDEMPTION. It is a commercial term. The context is a marketplace for slaves. Our situation was so severe that it was compared to slavery. The Bible says we were “slaves to sin” (Romans 6:17). One picture of redemption is the payment to free a slave. Another picture is the payment of ransom to free one who has been kidnapped. God was willing to pay such a ransom and that ransom was Jesus. That’s why Jesus is called our Redeemer.[ii] We were freed from bondage because God was willing to give up one son for another son. Amazingly, God sacrificed the good son (Jesus) for the release of the bad son (us).
The third word is ATONEMENT. Atonement, and its rare synonym propitiation, refers to appeasement. Again, our situation was so severe that we were targets for God’s wrath. Without Christ, we were “children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3). In pagan cultures, people would offer extravagant sacrifices in hope of calming their ill-tempered gods. Our God is not ill-tempered, but He is holy. And because He is, the Bible insists, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). Yet instead of us paying with our own blood, it was paid “by (Jesus’) own blood” (Hebrews 9:12).[iii] Jesus became our sacrifice, satisfying God’s holiness and cooling God’s wrath.[iv]
A fourth word is RECONCILIATION. The context for this word is the battlefield. The Bible says we were “enemies of God” (Romans 5:10). Our situation was so severe it’s as if we were standing across the battlefield from God, poised as His enemies! Yet Jesus changes that. The Bible says, “For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). “While we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (Romans 5:10). The word “reconcile” means to exchange. Hostility, adversity, and enmity were all replaced with peace.[v] Through Jesus, God is willing to treat us as allies, as friends, and even as His own children.
Do you see it? Do you see how severe our condition? It took something fatal to accomplish our salvation. Someone had to die! And this is what Jesus’ death accomplished and this is what Jesus meant when He said, “It is finished.”
Luke adds an interesting detail in his description of the scene at the cross. “All His acquaintances … were standing at a distance, seeing these things” (Luke 23:49).
We’re standing at a distance too. There is the distance of 2,000 years between us and the cross. And too often, that distance numbs us to the reality of the cross. We forget that something radical happened, that something fatal took place, and it just doesn’t seem as phenomenal anymore. What can we do about that? We can go back to the cross.
In your imagination, walk toward the cross. Approach the cross, and imagine yourself kneeling before it. Feel the weight of God’s justice. Let it humble you. Agree with God that you were bad enough. Grieve there, weep there, mourn there. See Jesus absorb all your sin as He hangs there.
As you imagine yourself kneeling there, gaze at the cross. Feel the relief of God’s love, of God’s forgiveness. Let it cleanse you. Agree with God that while you were unworthy you were not worthless. Give thanks. Thank Jesus for making it possible.
Now imagine raising your hands to Christ on the cross. Feel the joy of God’s promise. Let it fill you, let it thrill you. Agree with God that right now you have access to the Father. Worship there. Show reverence.
[i]. The phrase itself was used in Greek language in reference to completing a race, to paying off a debt, and to giving birth.
[ii]. Jesus came to “give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, NIV). So, to whom did God pay this ransom? To Satan? Did God have to pay Satan to get us out of hoc? Is that the way it worked? No! Do you know who God paid this ransom? Himself! Who demanded the payment for sin? God did. And who paid for it? God did.
[iii]. Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 2:2, NIV).
[iv]. As Philip Yancey writes, “It took the most unfair act in history, the execution of Jesus the Christ, to satisfy divine justice.” [Philip Yancey, “God Isn’t Fair (and I’m Glad He Isn’t),” Christianity Today, November 20, 1987, page 72.]
[v]. W. E. Vine explains that to reconcile is to “to change from enmity to friendship.” [W. E. Vine, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words (Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1940, 1966), page 260.]