There is not one, simple answer to the question of why Jesus had to die but, because His death stands at the very center of history, knowing why Jesus had to die is just about the most important piece of information you can have.
There is no doubt that Jesus knew he would die – and how – and that He actually expected and chose death by crucifixion by His own will and the will of God (Mark 8:31; John 10:17-18). He did nothing to prevent it; in fact by cleansing the temple and then not fleeing from those who wanted to arrest Him, He actually allowed the authorities to kill him. Jesus spoke of his death as necessary and inevitable so, why did Jesus have to die? Let me offer five reasons …
Extravagant Gracious Love
Firstly, Jesus’ death on the cross was an undisputed act of extravagant, gracious love. Today we have lost much of the horror of first century crucifixion. People wear crosses around their necks and display pictures of the cross on walls in their homes. But in Jesus’ time it was an awful symbol of Roman tyranny and cruelty. In the light of this the first century church transformed the meaning of this symbol by speaking of the cross as proof of God’s love, “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In Greek Mythology, Cupid, the god of desire and love is seen as shooting an arrow to pierce a human heart. We still use this symbol today to denote when a person falls in love. Jesus was pierced not with arrows but with nails to show how much God has fallen in love with you!
The second reason Jesus had to die has to do with empathy. Jesus, as God in human form, experienced human suffering at its most extreme. In crucifixion the victim felt some of the most intense pain that a person can feel, the duration of which could last for some days. He also experienced intense shame. The world of Jesus’ Day valued personal honour. Men were crucified naked (women weren’t crucified) and the most public places were chosen so the victim was subjected to as much shame as possible. Rome reserved crucifixion for the worst criminals, especially for those who stirred up rebellion against the state. The sign Pilate placed above Jesus on the cross – “The King of the Jews” – revealed that he was considered a rebel and a threat to Rome. There was to be no king but Caesar. In experiencing suffering and shame Jesus empathised with the entire human race. It would be easy for God to remain in the safety and comfort of heaven, but because of His great love for us He was born into the human family to experience life as we know it.
The third reason Jesus had to die was substitution (John 11:50). In Mark’s gospel Jesus asks God to, “Take this cup from me.” The “cup” is a symbol used in the Bible to represent either blessing and salvation or wrath and judgment. Jesus refers to it in the latter sense. On the cross He would drink the cup of God’s wrath. He would accept the divine judgment that rightly belongs to all humanity for breaking God’s laws. Thus Jesus died in our place so that blessing and salvation would be poured out upon us instead of judgment – He bore our sins, he paid the ransom, he suffered for the sake of others (Mark 10:45; Isaiah 52:14-53:5, 12; 1 Corinthians 15:3-5; Luke 24:26-27).
Leading on from this is the fourth reason Jesus had to die – reconciliation! Having dealt with the problem of human sin that acted as a barrier between God and us, Jesus’ death reunites us into relationship with God. In fact we now have the same relationship with the Father that Jesus has (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Finally, Jesus had to die for our freedom. Jesus’ final meal with his disciples before the crucifixion was celebrated at The Passover – the Jewish feast during which they thanked God for His deliverance from slavery in Egypt in the past, and also prayed for him liberate them again – this time from Roman oppression. It was at this meal that Jesus said, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, and they all drank from it. “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many …” (Mark 14:22-24). These statements would have appeared quite shocking to Jesus’ hearers. The Passover was always about God and what He had done, but here Jesus makes it all about himself – “My body, My Blood.” In this statement Jesus declared himself to be God in human form making a New Covenant with people. And just like the Old Covenant between God and Israel had been ratified with blood (Exodus 24:7-8) so would the New Covenant between God and ALL people be confirmed with blood, the blood of a sinless man and not an animal, in order to set them free.
As we approach Good Friday and Easter, I encourage you to think about these life-changing truths. In Jesus’ death (and subsequent resurrection) we see demonstrated the amazing love of God for us all. My prayer is that you will open yourself up to this love and receive all that Jesus has done for you.