Christmas is barely over and now it’s time to talk about Easter. No wonder little children get confused. Did you hear about the little boy who said to his mother, “Jesus has just been born and now you’re telling me He’s died!"
Over this Easter weekend, millions of Christians will reflect on what Jesus Christ accomplished through his death and resurrection over 2,000 years ago. These are believed to be 3 days that changed the world.
Good Friday – a day reflecting on the cruel death Jesus went through.
Resurrection Sunday – a day of joy and hope because Jesus is alive.
Saturday – a day between the suffering and the joy … waiting.
Different Christian traditions and individual Christians tend to lean towards one of these days. Yet, ALL three of these days are part of the Christian story … and of the journey that is our lives.
Today let’s reflect on the death of Jesus and look at the important question: “Why did Jesus die?” The death of Jesus Christ (“Christ crucified”) is part of the eternal purposes of God. It is central to our faith. No cross – no Christianity. We will never exhaust the many ways of articulating its meaning for our salvation.
The Power and Limits of a Metaphor
In answering a question or describing something or someone, we often use metaphors (or images or example). We say, “It’s like …” or “He is like …” I have been married to Nicole now for 29 years this coming June. What is she like? How would I describe her? I would say she is fun (never a dull moment in our family), an animal lover (any animal), and a very authentic person (she can be refreshingly or disarmingly honest!). Each of these illustrations is true, but none of them are adequate and even all of them together don’t tell the full story of who Nicole really is. There is so much more. Also, each of them can be pushed too far and become a distortion. She is fun but can also be serious. She is authentic, but more so when she is in an environment where she feels safe.
In a similar way, there are many models and metaphors for answering the important question, "Why did Jesus die?" Some scholars list as many as 10 different images and metaphors – all sharing a way in which humans beings can experience the saving power of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. No interpretation of the atonement is the only authentic one because no one metaphor can exhaust the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion. Even the New Testament presents multiple images to explain its meaning. As we are going to see, there was a lot going on the day Jesus died on that cross. It was much more than a physical death. Things of eternal consequence were taking place. There is a depth and richness to the meaning of Jesus’ death.
Let’s look at a number of ways Christians throughout the centuries answered this question.
1. Sacrifice. Jesus described his own pending death as a "sacrifice" (Mark 14:22-25). We have all sinned and disobeyed God's law. The penalty of sin is death and as a holy God, He must uphold justice. Yet God is also loving and so sends His Son to pay our debt. Jesus took our place as our substitute. His death was the final sacrifice for sin and now God offers us forgiveness, righteousness, and reconciliation as a free gift (see Rom.5:6-10; 8:32. Eph.5:2).
2. Ransom. Jesus also described the giving of his life as a "ransom" (Mark 10:45). Through sin, Adam and Eve turned the dominion of this world over to Satan and his forces of darkness. Jesus' death was the price paid to redeem the world from the enemy's power, from captivity to sin, and from the kingdom of darkness. Jesus is the victor over sin, death and the devil (see also Col.2:14-15. Heb.2:14-15. 1 John 3:8). His kingdom is now being established on earth. [C.S. Lewis built his Chronicles of Narnia story around this concept with Aslan's death being a ransom given in order to defeat the wicked witch and her spell over Narnia]
3. Example. Jesus' called his followers to "take up your cross and follow me" (Mark 8:34-35). His death was also an example of self-sacrificing love, showing us how to live. Jesus did not respond to violence with violence but chose not to retaliate. It was a non-violent protest against evil. His way of living is an inspiration to us and an example for us to follow (see Phil.2:3-11).
These are three of the many available "atonement theories" (atonement being a 12th century Middle English word meaning to bring at one that which was separated). Pushing the Example metaphor (sometimes called the Moral Influence theory) too far fails to deal seriously with sin and can lead to salvation through self-effort. Pushing the Ransom metaphor (sometimes called the Christus Victor theory) too far can result in glorifying Satan and giving him too much power, as one who God needs to appease. Pushing the Sacrifice metaphor (often called the Penal Substitution Theory) too far can result in a barbaric view of God as a cosmic child abuser – an angry Father being appeased by a loving Son. The truth is that God is both holy and loving, and the Son was God in human form willing offering his life for us.
An adjective or a metaphor is not the thing. It is just an image, a window or a lens to help us look at the thing. It takes us there but it is not there. No atonement theory can ever exhaust the depths and richness of what God was doing the day Jesus died.
Most importantly, how will we respond? Many people saw Jesus die that day – the disciples, the crowds, the religious leaders and the Roman officials. One unnamed man, a Roman centurion, was right there. Mark tells us this: "When the Roman officer who stood facing him saw how he had died, he exclaimed, This man truly was the Son of God!" (Mark 15:39)
As a centurion, he would have seen many people die, having possibly put to death dozens, maybe hundreds, of people himself. These officials were known to be hard and brutal. He had seen others die – maybe cursing or screaming, or pouring out venom. Then he saw Jesus die. Something was different here. This was no ordinary man. He became the first person after the death of Jesus to declare, "This man (not Caesar!) truly was the Son of God!" Remarkable!
How will you respond? As you see Jesus as a sacrifice for sin, may you respond by declaring Him your Saviour. As you see Jesus as a ransom and victor over all, may you respond by declaring Him as your Lord. As you see Jesus as our example, may He become the Teacher who you follow. Jesus' death is God reaching out to us. May you reach back to him in faith and trust today.
To read more about various atonement theories, check out:
* The Nature of Atonement: Four Views. Edited by James Beilby and Paul R. Eddy
* A Community Called Atonement by Scot McKnight
* Stricken by God? Non-Violent Identification and the Victory of Christ. Edited by Brad Jersak and Michael Hardin