Almost 2,000 years ago, a Jewish carpenter was condemned as a dangerous religious and political rebel. He was executed in one of the most painful and shameful punishments then available: flogging and crucifixion. This form of death was a scandal to both Jews and gentiles. Nevertheless, Jesus' followers made a point of remembering his death—not just the fact that he died, but also that he died in such a shameful way. In their written stories about Jesus, they devoted lengthy sections to his horrible death. They set aside one day each year as the anniversary of his death.
Why is Jesus' death so important to Christians—and so central to the Christian faith?
1. Is Jesus' death listed as of "first importance" in Paul's summary of the gospel message? 1 Cor. 15:3. How did he characterize his own preaching? 1 Cor. 1:18, 23. Was Jesus' death predicted in Scripture, and therefore necessary? Luke 24:25-26; Acts 3:18; 17:3.
Comment: It was necessary not just for the Christ to die, perhaps in a painless way, but to suffer, and to be crucified for our salvation. It was an essential part of Jesus' ministry, and an essential part of the gospel.
2. Did Jesus predict that he would suffer and die? Mark 8:31-32; 9:31; 10:33-34. Did he predict the manner of his death? Matt. 20:19; 26:2; John 12:32-33. After his Gethsemane prayer, was he sure that he had to die in this way? Matt. 26:54. Was this his purpose, his mission? John 12:27.
3. What prophecy from Isaiah did Jesus say had to be fulfilled? Luke 22:37. What other verses in Isaiah 53 did Jesus fulfill? What significance did Jesus give to his own death? Mark 10:45. At his Last Supper, he said much more. Why did he give his body? Luke 22:19. Why did he give his blood? Verse 20; Matt. 26:28.
Comment: Several verses from Isaiah 53 are quoted in the New Testament. The apostles preached that Jesus was the suffering servant Isaiah had described, and it is likely that this came from the teaching of Jesus himself. Jesus saw himself as the innocent person who suffered and died to ransom the guilty. God laid our sins on Jesus, and he was killed for our transgressions to buy our freedom.
In the Last Supper, Jesus not only predicted his death, he also explained its theological significance. He gave his body for us—for our benefit. He allowed his blood to be shed so that we might be forgiven.
Jesus knew that he was the mediator between God and humans. His blood enables us to have a covenant with God—a relationship of promise and loyalty. Indeed, the death of Christ is the only way for our salvation. That is why Jesus, even though he knew what awaited him, "resolutely set out for Jerusalem" (Luke 9:51).
4. It would have been easy for the apostles to emphasize Jesus' resurrection and skip over his shameful death. How did they deal with this? Acts 2:22-24; 3:13-15; 4:10; 5:30-31; 7:51-53; 10:37-40; 13:27-30.
Comment: The apostles preached the resurrection, but they also boldly reminded people of the ignominious punishment Jesus had received. Not only did they admit the cross, they also called it a tree — a word that would remind Jews of Deuteronomy 21:22-23, which says that anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse.
By using the word tree, the apostles drew extra attention to the shameful way Jesus had died. Why emphasize the manner of death? Because it was important. The Scriptures had predicted it, Jesus had predicted it, and it was necessary for our salvation.
5. What significance did Paul see in the curse of crucifixion? Gal. 3:13-14. Paul did his best not to offend people. But did he emphasize the crucifixion even though he knew it was offensive? Gal. 5:11; 3:1; 6:14. Was the cross the center of his gospel? 1 Cor. 1:23; 2:2; Phil. 3:18.
Comment: Paul gives the theological significance of the cross: Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. He was made sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). He was a sacrifice so that we might be justified, declared right, so that we might not receive the punishment our sins deserve (Rom. 3:24-26). He carried our sins, and the penalty of our sins, on his cross.
It is through the cross that we can be given the blessing promised to Abraham (Gal. 3:14). It is through the cross that we are reconciled to God (Eph. 2:16). On the cross he forgave our sins, taking away the written note of debt that was against us (Col. 2:13-14). Paul makes it clear that our salvation depends on the cross of Christ.
Since we fail to keep the law perfectly, we fall under its curse (Gal. 2:10). We all deserve the death penalty (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). Jesus, being sinless, did not need to die, but he willingly died to pay the penalty of our sins for us. The righteous died for the unrighteous. He received punishment, which we deserve, so we could receive forgiveness, even though we do not deserve it. He received death so that we might receive life.
6. How was the significance of the cross explained to the Hebrews? Heb. 12:2. What terms are used to describe what Jesus did with sin through his self-sacrifice? Heb. 7:27; 9:26-28. How did Peter explain it? 1 Pet. 2:24; 3:18.
Comment: "The cross enforces three truths," John Stott writes in his book The Cross of Christ (page 83). First, our sin must be extremely horrible. Nothing reveals the gravity of sin like the cross.... If there was no way by which the righteous God could righteously forgive our unrighteousness, except that he should bear it himself in Christ, it must be serious indeed....
"Secondly, God's love must be wonderful beyond comprehension.... He pursued us even to the desolate anguish of the cross, where he bore our sin, guilt, judgment and death. It takes a hard and stony heart to remain unmoved by love like that.... Thirdly, Christ's salvation must be a free gift. He `purchased' it for us at the high price of his own life-blood. So what is there left for us to pay? Nothing!"
7. Jesus did not tell his disciples to remember the miracles of his ministry. Instead, he told them to remember his death. How were they to do it? Luke 22:19.
Comment: The cross was the focus of Jesus' mission as a human. His job was not done until he was crucified. Jesus eliminated a lot of rituals, but he commanded one: the bread and wine of communion. He told us to participate in these reminders of his death because his death, and our participation in his death, is the key to our salvation—and the key to our mission.
We remember Jesus' death not just as something that happened to Jesus—it has continuing relevance for us today. Let's explore some of that significance.
8. In the ritual of baptism, what do we picture in connection with Jesus' death? Rom. 6:3. Spiritually speaking, are we crucified with Jesus Christ? Gal. 2:20. What are we to crucify on a daily basis? Gal. 5:24; Rom. 8:13. What must we do if we are to follow Jesus? Luke 9:23.
9. What does the cross teach us about God's love for us? Rom. 5:8-10; Rom. 8:32. What does it teach us about Christian living? Rom. 6:6-12; 1 Pet. 2:24; Rev. 12:11. What ethical responsibility does it give us? Eph. 4:32-5:2; Rom. 12:9, 17, 21.
Comment: Through the cross, we are given freedom:
We are no longer prisoners of the law (Gal. 3:23; Rom. 7:6).
We are no longer slaves of sin and passions (John 8:34-36; Rom. 6:6-7, 16; Titus 3:3).
We are no longer enslaved by death (Rom. 8:2; Heb. 2:14-15).
We have overcome the world and the evil one (1 John 5:4-5; 1 John 2:13-14; Rev. 12:11).
With this freedom, we are to be slaves of righteousness, slaves of Jesus Christ. He died for us so we may live for him (2 Cor. 5:14-15). This is how we should respond to the love of God shown to us in the cross of Christ.
10. How is the cross an example for us when we suffer? 1 Pet. 2:19-23; Heb. 12:2-4.
Comment: Unjust suffering is part of the Christian calling, and part of the example Jesus set for us. "A servant is not greater than his master" (John 15:20). Trials help mature us, just as they helped Jesus Christ (Heb. 2:10; 5:8-9; Jas. 1:2-4). Love and service to others aren't always convenient, comfortable and safe. We may not understand our trials, but we are encouraged that God understands what suffering is. He has experienced it.
When we suffer, we are also encouraged by knowing that a crown of glory awaits us, just as it did for Jesus. When we identify with him in his cross (as we do in baptism, in the Lord's Supper, and in a life of service), we will also share in his glory (Rom. 8:17-18; 2 Cor. 4:17).
The cross may be foolishness to humans, but it shows us the wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:17-25). The cross was a stroke of genius, a brilliant maneuver. It simultaneously shows how ugly sin is, and how beautiful God's love is. It decisively punishes sin and offers forgiveness. It shows both justice and grace. It breaks the power of sin and death, and gives us power to overcome.
The cross gives us visible evidence that our sins have been dealt with once and for all, that our struggles are not in vain, and that a crown of glory awaits us through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
F.F. Bruce. Jesus: Past, Present and Future. InterVarsity, 1998.
Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus. InterVarsity, 1984.
Leon Morris, The Atonement. InterVarsity, 1983.
John Stott, The Cross of Christ. InterVarsity, 1986.