Christianity Explored: The Cross – Why did Jesus die?

Bertram Russell the philosopher and cynic once said, “most people would rather die than think… and most people do.” He went on to say, “When I die I rot”, which may have been true in his case, but not the whole truth. The reality is most people would rather not think about the one certainty in life. Yesterday I went to see the World Press Photo exhibition at the Royal Festival Hall. The annual competition takes entries from photojournalists, picture agencies, newspapers and magazines across the world. The winners whose photos are on display were selected from more than 100,000 entries. I was struck by two things as I walked round: How many of them portrayed people about to die, in the act of dying or afterwards. Second, by how those visiting the exhibition stood in silence, mesmerised by the photographs.  Too much reality is hard to cope with, even in black and white. It’s the same with the biographies of famous people isn’t it? Biographies always dwell on their life achievements but invariably give little or no space to their deaths. That is why it is so striking to discover that in the biographies of Jesus dedicate about one third of their space to the last seven days in the life of Jesus and specifically to the subject of Jesus’ death. Clearly, Jesus was an amazing individual. But why spend so much time dwelling on his death? And further, why is it that the mode of his death—the cross—has become the universally-recognized symbol of Christianity?

The first Christians might have chosen something different to symbolize our faith. For example, they could have chosen:

A manger—to symbolize his birth, or
A scroll—to symbolize his teaching, or
A lamp—to symbolize the light of the world, or
An empty tomb—to symbolize his resurrection.

But, instead, early Christians chose a cross, which symbolizes his death. Why?  Why a cross? No other religion celebrates the death of its founder. Even more striking, the cross was a particularly horrendous form of execution the Romans reserved only for criminals. Imagine if H. Samuel or Earnest Jones or Swarovski started selling necklaces with a pendant that was shaped as a little electric chair. We would think that it was incredibly distasteful.  Why would anyone want to wear a symbol of death that is reserved for the worst in our society? Well, it was just like that in Jesus’ day. The cross was the way in which the worst in society were put to death. But right after Jesus died Christians were not ashamed of the cross. In fact, they seemed proud of it. The Apostle Paul, another writer in the Bible, said this,

“But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14a).

Why boast in the cross of Christianity? Look at Mark 8:31,

“And he [Jesus] began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31)

Notice the word “must.” Jesus is saying not only that he will die, but that his death is necessary in some way.  Similarly, notice Jesus’ words in Mark 10:45,

“For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

Jesus died to rescue us by paying the price to set us free. Free from sin, judgement and death. Suddenly, the thought of the cross as the symbol of Christianity is good news, because  the cross reveals our way of escape. Three things we can say about the cross, about meeting God on the darkest day in history:

1. God Was Angry

The first thing we learn about the significance of the cross is that God was angry. Mark 15:33 says,

“And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour.”  (Mark 15:33)

Mark is counting hours according to the Jewish system, so the sixth hour would have been noon. At the moment when the midday sun should have been at its brightest in the sky, a darkness fell over the whole land and remained until three in the afternoon.

That is very unusual. What happened? Some people say that it was an eclipse. But it could not have been an eclipse, for two reasons. First, Jesus was crucified at Passover. Passover always falls on a full moon, so a solar eclipse is out of the question because solar eclipses do not take place during full moons. And second, solar eclipses never last more than 6 minutes, and the darkness that fell when Jesus was crucified lasted 180 minutes. So, something else was taking place. Something unusual, even supernatural, was taking place when Jesus was crucified.

In the Bible, light sometimes symbolizes God’s presence and blessing, while darkness is a sign of God’s anger and judgement. For example, for three days the Egyptians experienced a “plague” of darkness for not letting the Israelites leave Egypt (Exodus 10:21-22). When Israel did escape, darkness foiled Pharaoh’s host in their pursuit (Exodus 14:20). So when Jesus dies and darkness comes over the land, we know that God was angry.

Now, we won’t understand this if we see anger as something that is unpredictable, wild, and irrational, the product of a quick temper. God’s anger is not like that. It is his settled, controlled, personal hostility to all that is wrong. And a God who cares about injustice is right to be angry about sin, and right to punish it.  God is a God of holiness, of blazing purity, and he hates what is evil. When it comes to evil he doesn’t lean back in a rocking chair and pretend nothing has happened. No, evil matters to God. So, lying matters to God, as does selfishness. Likewise, adultery matters to him. Greed matters to him. Stealing matters. Bitterness matters. Murder matters. He will not simply overlook them. Surely if we care about the injustices we see in the world, we cannot expect our loving Creator to care any less.  So, as Jesus was dying on the cross, darkness came over the whole land.

God was acting in anger to punish sin.  But that leaves us with a question: Whose sin was God angry at? The staggering answer is that God seems to be angry at Jesus.  God was angry.

2. Jesus Was Abandoned

The second thing we learn about the significance of the cross is that Jesus was abandoned. Mark 15:34 says,

“And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34)

Now there is no doubt that Jesus suffered physical agony on the cross. But what is being spoken of here is spiritual agony—being forsaken by God. And the word Jesus uses for “God” here is “Eloi.” Normally Jesus uses the word “Abba,” which is close to our word “Daddy.” But “Eloi” has none of that warmth or intimacy.  On the cross, Jesus was abandoned by God. It was Jesus that God was punishing. But Jesus had led a sinless life. Not even his fiercest enemies could find any fault with him. So why should God be punishing him? Answer: So that we can be rescued.  How can this be?  Suppose I have a DVD in my left hand. And it is a complete record of my entire life. The Bible says

“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)

So everything that I have ever done, said and thought is on this DVD. Now there is stuff on here that is good and wholesome. There is a loving home, a great wife, wonderful children, acts of compassion, academic achievements, fruitful ministry.  But there is also a lot on this DVD that I am ashamed of.  There are things that I would rather people did not see. There are things that I have done of which I am ashamed. And there are also thoughts that are unedifying: bad attitudes, jealousy, bitterness, lust, hatred, and so on. Frankly, I would be terribly ashamed if you knew what was on this DVD. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes once sent a telegram to the twelve most respectable people in London as a joke one night. The telegram read: “Flee—all is revealed.” Within 24 hours, six of the twelve had left the country! Like them, we all have secrets that we would hate to have exposed. But the Bible tells us that it’s all recorded. And not just the way we’ve treated others, but the way we’ve treated God is al-so recorded. The Bible’s way of describing what’s on the DVD is “the unfavourable record of our debts” (Colossians 2:14).

Now let’s suppose that my left hand represents me, and the ceiling represents God. The Bible says that between God and me is this “record of our debts,” and it separates me from God.

Now, the Bible says that God is so pure, that even if only one second of my life were recorded on this DVD, it would be enough to separate me from God. My sin cuts me off from God; I am utterly forsaken. But let me illustrate what happens at the cross. Suppose that my right hand represents Jesus, and remember that the ceiling represents God.

As Jesus hung on the cross there was no barrier between him and God. He always perfectly obeyed the will of God. But, while Jesus was on the cross, he took my sin upon himself. [Transfer the DVD from my left hand to my right, upturned hand.] That’s why Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27) as he hung on the cross. It couldn’t have been his sin that made him feel separated from God, because the Bible tells us that Jesus had no sin. No, it was my sin that separated him from God. In those agonizing moments, Jesus was taking upon himself all the punishment that my sin, everything on this DVD, deserves. The Bible says,

“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:6).

Jesus died in my place, taking the punishment I deserve.  As I now look at my life (represented by my empty left hand), I understand that the result of Jesus’ extraordinary self-sacrifice is simply this: I can be accepted by God, forgiven, justified – just as if I had never sinned. Jesus paid the price for sin so that I never have to. The amazing truth is that Jesus loved me enough to die for my sin. He died for my sin, and for the sin of each person who their trust in him.  God was angry. Jesus was abandoned.

3. We Can Be Accepted

The third thing we learn about the significance of the cross is that we can be accepted. Mark 15:37-38 says,

“And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” (Mark 15:37-38)

Now, here Mark records the exact moment of Jesus’ death, but then he turns our attention to something that happened simultaneously in the temple. When Jesus died, the thirty-foot high 3 inch thick curtain in the temple, was torn from top to bottom.  God wants us to understand that the two events are connected in some way. Why is that significant? This massive curtain hanging in the temple, separated people from the place where God was said to live. The curtain was like a big “Do not enter” sign. It said loudly and clearly that it was impossible for sinful people like you and me to walk in-to God’s presence. But, suddenly, as Jesus died on the cross, God ripped this curtain in two, from top to bottom. It’s as if God was saying: “The way is now open for people to approach me.” And that’s only possible because Jesus has paid the price for our sin.  And it’s not as if Jesus was some innocent third party, being picked on by God. As Paul said in Colossians 1:19,

“For in him [i.e., Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:19)

The remarkable truth is that God himself was making peace with us by willingly sacrificing himself so that we can be accepted by God.

Conclusion

If you look across the skyline in London you can see the Old Bailey, the home of British justice. On top of it is Pomeroy’s magnificent golden statue of the goddess Justicia holding the scales of justice in one hand and the sword of wrath in the other. She is blindfolded, unable to show partiality, and the message is clear: If we are found to be guilty, then the sword of judgment must fall.  But just across the London skyline, on top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, is another golden symbol. It is a cross—a powerful re-minder that the sword of God’s judgment did fall. But it fell on Jesus Christ.  So what will you do with your sin? Will you, like Bertram Russell, take it with you to the grave and to the judgment that must then fall on you? Or will you take it to the cross to be forgiven? Let’s pray.

O God, Mark said that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that he is God in human form. And the reason he came was to rescue rebels. We learn in your Word that we are all rebels, and we are all in great danger of going to hell. However, Jesus died on the cross to rescue us from the judgment of God. Help us to react to the death of Jesus on the cross like the Roman Centurion—with belief that Jesus is in-deed the Son of God, and Saviour of sinners such as ourselves. And all of this I pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Drawn from the Christianity Explored Week 4 talk, with thanks

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