Why did Jesus die? It's a pretty old question. It's been threshed out no end of times. Yet every time one thinks of the gospel, or opens the Book, it looks out earnestly into his face. And nothing is better worth while than to have another serious prayerful go at it. The whole nub of the gospel is here. It clears the ground greatly not to have any theory about Jesus' death, but simply to try thoughtfully to gather up all the statements and group them, regardless of where it may lead, or how it may knock out previous ideas.
It can be said at once that His dying was not God's own plan. It was a plan conceived somewhere else, and yielded to by God. God had a plan of atonement by which men who were willing could be saved from sin and its effects. That plan is given in the old Hebrew code. To the tabernacle, or temple, under prescribed regulations, a man could bring some live animal which he owned. The man brought that which was his own. It represented him. Through his labor the beast or bird was his. He had transferred some of his life and strength into it. He identified himself with it further by close touch at the time of its being offered. He offered up its life. In his act he acknowledged that his own life was forfeited. In continuing to live he acknowledged the continued life as belonging to God. He was to live as belonging to another. He made, in effect, the statement made long after by Paul: |I am offering up my life on this altar for my sin; nevertheless I am living: yet the life I live is no longer mine, but another's. Mine has been taken away by sin.| There was no malice or evil feeling in the man's act, but only penitence, and an earnest, noble purpose.
The act revealed the man's inner spirit. It acknowledged his sin, that life is forfeited by sin, his desire to have the sin difficulty straightened out, and to be at one again with God. He expressed his hatred of sin and his earnest desire to be free of it. I am not saying at all that this was true of every Hebrew coming with his sacrifice. I may not say it of all who approach God to day through Jesus. But clearly enough, all of this is in the old Hebrew plan devised by God. It was the new choice that brought the man back to God, even as the first choice had separated him from God. And the explicit statement made over and over is this, |and it shall make atonement.|
Clearly Jesus' dying does not in any way fit into the old Hebrew form of sacrifice, nor into the spirit of the man who caused the death of the sacrifice, though in spirit, in requirement it far more than fills it out. The Old Testament scheme is Jewish. The manner of Jesus' death is not Jewish, but Roman. As a priest He was not of the Jewish order, but of an order non-Jewish and antedating the other by hundreds of years. In no feature does He fit into the old custom. But every truth taught by the old is brilliantly exemplified and embodied in Him.
The epistle to the Hebrews was written to Jews who had become Christians, but through persecution and great suffering were sorely tempted to go back to the old Jewish faith. They seemed to be saying that Jesus filled out neither the kingdom plan, nor the Mosaic scheme of sacrifice. The writer of the epistle is showing with a masterly sweep and detail the immense superiority of what Jesus did over the old Mosaic plan. Read backward, these provisions are seen to be vivid illustrations of what Jesus did do, not in form, not actually, but in fact, in spirit, in a way vastly ahead of the Hebrew ritual. The truth underneath the old was fully fulfilled in Jesus, though the form was not.
One needs always to keep sharply in mind the difference between God's plan and that which He clearly saw ahead, and into which He determined to fit in carrying out His purpose. There is no clearer, stronger statement of this than that found in Peter's Pentecost sermon: |Him being delivered up by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye by the hands of men without law did crucify and slay.| God knew ahead what would come. There was a conference held. The whole matter talked over. With full knowledge of the situation, the obstinate hatred of men, the terrific suffering involved, it was calmly, resolutely advised and decided upon that when the time came Jesus should yield Himself up pliantly into their hands. That is Peter's statement.
This in no way affects the fact that Jesus dying as He did is the one means of salvation. It does not at all disturb any of Paul's statements, in their plainest, first-flush meaning. It does explain the kingdom plan, and the necessity for Jesus finishing up the kingdom plan some day. For though God's plan may be broken, and retarded, it always is carried through in the end. It explains too that evil is never necessary to good. Hatred, evil never helps God's plans. The good that God brought out of the cross is not through the bad, but in spite of the bad.
The preaching of the Acts is absorbed with the astounding, overshadowing, appalling fact of the killing of the nation's King. But through it all runs this strain of reasoning: the kingdom plan has been broken by the murder of the King. He has been raised from the dead in vindication of His claim. This marvellous power that is so evident to all eyes and ears is the Holy Spirit whom the killed King has sent down. It proves that He is now enthroned in glory at God's right hand. He is coming back to carry out the kingdom plan. Now the thing to do is to repent, and so there will come blessing now, and by and by the King again.
When the first church council is held to discuss the matter of letting non-Jewish outsiders into their circle, the clear-headed, judicial-tempered James, in the presiding chair, puts the thing straight. He says: |Peter has fully told us how God first visited the outside nations to take out of them a people for Himself. And this fits into the prophetic plan as outlined by Amos, that after that the kingdom will be set up and then all men will come.|
This brings out in bold relief the fact that the horrible features of Jesus' dying, the hatred and cruelty, were no part of the plan of salvation, and not necessary to the plan. The cross was the invention of hate. There is no cross in God's plan of atonement. It is the superlative degree of hate, brooded and born, and grown lusty in hell. It was God's master touch that, through yielding, it becomes to all men for all time the superlative degree of love. The ages have softened all its sharp jagged edges with a halo of glory.
It is perfectly clear, too, that Jesus died of His own accord. He chose the time of His death and the manner of it. He had said it was purely voluntary on His part, and the record plainly shows that it was. All attempts to kill Him failed until He chose to yield. There are ten separate mentions of their effort, either to get hold of His person or to kill Him at once before they finally succeeded. He was killed in intent at least three times, once by being dashed over a precipice, and twice by stoning, before He was actually killed by crucifixion. Each time surrounded by a hostile crowd, apparently quite capable of doing as they pleased, yet each time He passes through their midst, and their hooked fingers are restrained against their will, and their gnashing teeth bite only upon the spittle of their hate.
This makes Jesus' motive in yielding explain His death. The cross means just what His purpose in dying puts into it. If we read the facts of the gospel stories apart from Jesus' words, the cross spells out just one word -- in large, pot-black capitals -- HATE.
What was Jesus' motive or purpose in dying? His own words give the best answer. The earlier remarks are obscure to those who heard, not understood. And we can understand that they could not. At the first Passover He speaks of their destroying |this temple,| and His raising it in three days. Naturally they think of the building of stone, but He is thinking of His body. To Nicodemus He says that the Son of Man must |be lifted up|: and to some critics that when the |bridegroom| is |taken away| there will be fasting among His followers.
Later, He speaks much more plainly. After John has gone home by way of Herod's red road, at the time of the feeding of the 5,000 there is the discussion about bread, and the true bread. Jesus speaks a word that perplexes the crowd much, and yet He goes on to explain just what He means. It is in John, sixth chapter, verses fifty-three to fifty-seven inclusive, He says that if a man eat His flesh and drink His blood he shall have eternal life. The listening crowd takes the words literally and of course is perplexed. Clearly enough it is not meant to be taken literally. Read in the light of the after events it is seen to be an allusion to His coming death. Such a thing as actually eating His flesh and drinking His blood would necessitate His death.
We men are under doom of death written in our very bodies, assured to us by the unchangeable fact of bodily death. Now if a man take Jesus into his very being so that they become one in effect, then clearly if Jesus die the man is freed from the necessity of dying. Through Jesus dying there is for such a man life. That is the statement Jesus makes.
In five distinct sentences He attempts to make His meaning simple and clear. The first sentence puts the negative side: there is no life without Jesus being taken into one's being. Then the positive side: through this sort of eating there is life. And with this is coupled the inferential statement that they are not to be spared bodily death, because they are to be raised up. The third sentence, that Jesus is the one true food of real life. The fourth sentence gives a parallel or interchangeable phrase for eating and drinking, i.e., |abideth in me and I in Him.| A mutual abiding in each other. The food abides in the man eating it. The man abides in the strength of the food He has taken in. Eating My flesh means abiding in Me. The last sentence gives an illustration. This living in Jesus, having Him live in us as closely as though actually eaten, is the same as Jesus' own life on earth being lived in His Father, dependent upon the Father. And when the crowds take His words literally and complain that none can understand such statements, He at once explains that, of course, He does not mean literal eating -- |The flesh profiteth nothing| (even if you did eat it): |it is the Spirit that gives life:| |the words ... are Spirit and life.| The taking of Jesus through His words into one's life to dominate -- that is the meaning.
A few months later, in Jerusalem, He speaks again of His purpose, in John's tenth chapter, |The good shepherd layeth down His life for the sheep.| |I lay down my life for the sheep.| The death was for others because of threatening danger. |Other sheep I have which are not of this fold: them also I must lead.| Here is clear foresight of the wide sweep of influence through His death. |I lay down my life that I may take it again.| The death was one step in a plan. There is something beyond. |I lay it down of myself. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it again. This commandment I received from my Father.| The dying was voluntary and was agreed to between the Father and Himself. To the disciples He speaks of the need of taking up a |cross| in order to be followers, and to the critical Pharisee asking a sign, He alludes to Jonah's three days and nights in the belly of the sea monster. Neither of these allusions conveyed any definite idea to those listening.
Then the last week when the Greeks came; |Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit.| The dying was to have great influence upon others. |And I if I be lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto myself.| The dying was to be for others, and to exert tremendous influence upon the whole race.
In that last long talk with the eleven, |that the world may know that I love the Father and as the Father gave me commandment even so I do.| The dying was in obedience to His Father's wish, and was to let men know of the great love between Father and Son. |Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.| This dying was for these friends. And in that great prayer that lays His heart bare, |for their sakes I sanctify myself that they also may be sanctified in truth.| The dying is for others, and is for the securing in these others of a certain spirit or character. The reference to the dying being in accord with the Father's wish comes out again at the arrest, |The cup that the Father hath given me, shall I not drink it?|
To these quotations from Jesus' lips may be added a significant one from the man who stood closest to Jesus. Referring to a statement about Jesus made by Caiaphas, John adds: |being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus should die for the nation; and not for the nation only, but that He might gather together into one the children of God that are scattered abroad.| As John understood the matter, the death was not simply for others, but for the Jewish nation as a nation, and beyond that for a gathering into one of all of God's children. Jesus was to be God's magnet for attracting together all that belong to Him. The death was to be a roadway through to something beyond.
From His own words, then, Jesus saw a necessity for His dying. He |must| be lifted up. That |must| spells out the desperateness of the need and the strength of His love. Sin contains in itself death for man as a logical result. And by death is not meant the passing of life out of the body. That is a mere incident of death. Death is separation from God. It is gradual until finally complete. Love would plan nothing less radical than a death that would be for man the death of death. His death was to be for others, it was purely voluntary, it was by agreement with His Father, in obedience to His wishes, and an evidence of His filial love. The death is a step in a plan. There is something beyond, growing out of the death.
Jesus plans not merely a transfer of the death item, but a new life, a new sort of life, in its place. The dying is but a step. It is a great step, tremendously great, indispensable, the step that sets the pace. Yet but one step of a number. Beyond the dying is the living, living a new life. He works out in Himself the plan for them -- a dying, and after that a new life, and a new sort of life. Then according to His other teaching there is the sending of some One else to men to work out in His name in each of them this plan. That plan is to be worked out in each man choosing to receive Him into his life. He will send down His other self, the Holy Spirit, to work this out in each one. Jesus' death released His life to be re-lived in us. Jesus plans to get rid of the sin in a man, and put in something else in its place. The sin must be gotten out, first washed out, then burned out. Then a new seed put in that will bear life. What a chemist and artist in one is this Jesus! He uses bright red, to get a pure white out of a dead black.
In addition to the plan for man individually, the dying is to produce the same result in the Jewish nation. There is to be a national new-birth. A new Jewish people. And then the dying is to have a tremendous influence upon all men. On the cross Jesus would suffer the birth-pains of a new life for man and for the world. Such, in brief, seems to be the grouping of Jesus' own thought about His dying. Its whole influence is manward.
The value of Jesus' dying lies wholly in its being voluntary. Of deliberate purpose He allowed them to put Him to death. Otherwise they could not, as is fully proven by their repeated failures. And the purpose as well as the value of the death lies entirely in His motive in yielding. If they could have taken His life without His consent, then that death would have been an expression of their hate, and only that. But as it is, it forever stands an expression of two things. On their part of the intensest, hottest hate; on His part of the finest, strongest love. It makes new records for both hate and love. Sin put Jesus to death. In yielding to these men Jesus was yielding to sin, for they personified sin. And sin yielded to quickly brought death, its logical outcome.
Jesus' dying being His own act, controlled entirely by His own intention, makes it sacrificial. There are certain necessary elements in such a sacrifice. It must be voluntary. It must involve pain or suffering of some sort. The suffering must be undeserved, that is, in no way or degree a result of one's own act, else it is not sacrifice, but logical result. It must be for others. And the suffering must be of a sort that would not come save for this voluntary act. It must be supposed to bring benefit to the others. Each of these elements must be in to make up fully a sacrifice. There are elements of sacrifice in much noble suffering by man. But in no one do all of these elements perfectly combine and blend, save in Jesus.
To this agree the words of the philosopher of the New Testament writers. It would be so, of course, for the Spirit of Jesus swayed Paul. The epistle to the Romans contains a brief packed summary of his understanding of the gospel plan. There is in it one remarkable statement of the Father's, purpose in Jesus' death. In the third chapter, verse twenty-six, freely translated, |that He might be reckoned righteous in reckoning righteous the man who has faith.| |That He might be reckoned righteous| -- that is, in His attitude toward sin. That in allowing things to go on as they were, in holding back sin's logical judgment, He was not careless or indifferent about sin or making light of it. He was controlled by a great purpose.
God's great difficulty was to make clear at once both His love and His hate: His love for man: His hate for the sin that man had grained in so deep that they were as one. For the man's sake He must show His love to win and change him. For man's sake He must show His hate of sin that man, too, might know its hatefulness and learn to hate it with intensest hate. His love for man is to be the measure of man's hate for sin. The death of Jesus was God's master-stroke. At one stroke He told man His estimate of man and His estimate of man's sin; His love and His hate. It was the measureless measure of His hate for sin, and His love for man. It was a master-stroke too, in that He took sin's worst -- the cross -- and in it revealed His own best. Out of what was meant for God's defeat, came sin's defeat, and God's greatest victory.
And the one simple thing that transfers to a man all that Jesus has worked out for him is what is commonly called |faith.| That is, trusting God, turning the heart Godward, yielding to the inward upward tug, letting the pleasing of God dominate the life. This, be it keenly marked, has ever been the one simple condition in every age and in every part of the earth.
Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness. The devout Hebrew, reverently, penitently standing with his hand on the head of his sacrifice, at the tabernacle door, believed God and it was reckoned to him for righteousness. The devout heathen with face turned up to the hill top, and feet persistently toiling up, patiently seeking glory and honor and incorruption believes God, though he may not know His name, and it is reckoned to him for righteousness. The devout Christian, with his hand in Christ's, believes God, and it is counted to him for righteousness.
The devout Hebrew, the earnest heathen, and the more enlightened believer in Jesus group themselves here by the common purpose that grips them alike. The Hebrew with his sacrifice, the heathen with his patient continuance, and the Christian who knows more in knowing Jesus, stand together under the mother wing of God.