Last Spring, Fr. (then Deacon) Brian and I teamed up to offer The Alpha Course for Catholics. The following video, roughly 20 minutes long, is of “Why Did Jesus Die?” the second in a series of presentations covering the basics of Christianity in a Catholic context. To view the notes to his talk, just scroll down.
Why did Jesus die?
This question is at the heart of our Christian faith.
If we look at all of the symbols of Christianity, the cross has become the central one for most people. We wear it around our necks, we tattoo it on our shoulders, and we place it on top of our churches.
For some reason, we have declared the cross to be a central part of the mystery of this man Jesus.
Why is this so?
This evening, we are going to look at this question on two different levels:
- On the one hand, we are going to briefly look at the historical circumstances that led to Jesus’ death. What exactly did he do to deserve the cross?
- Then we will look at the broader question. Why should we care? What is the point of Jesus’ death for us today?
Part 1: The Historical Circumstances that Led to Jesus’ Death
Let us begin with the conditions that set the stage for Jesus’ execution.
Not Your Typical Wandering Preacher
From historical research and the witness of Scripture, we know that Jesus emerged on the scene sometime in his early 30s. He began travelling from village to village, preaching and performing signs and wonders.
This was not completely unusual at the time.
There were numerous wandering preachers and even an occasional wonderworker who would capture the attention of the people. They were generally harmless to the established leaders of both the Jewish and Roman societies, although some did incur the wrath of the authorities as we saw with John the Baptist.
A Radical Message: The Kingdom of God is at Hand
So what made Jesus different?
For starters, his preaching was radically different from his contemporaries.
At the core of Jesus’ preaching, as captured throughout the Gospels, is this concept of the kingdom of God, the reign of God. This image was a traditional image used in Judaism to describe God’s activity as ruling over all of creation, intervening on behalf of the Chosen People to grant them salvation.
This was always a future expectation. A final definitive act of God.
That is why it was so shocking when Jesus began to claim that the reign of God was breaking in through him! (See NAB note for Mt 4:17) He was claiming to be a unique manifestation of God’s saving power in the world. Through his words, his deeds, his very life, he was making present this future reality of joy and peace.
This was at the heart of the passage in Luke when Jesus reads from the scroll of the book of the Prophet Isaiah:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.
He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
A Threat the to Existing Power Structure
Needless to say, this would be a tad unnerving for the established leaders of his day.
What Jesus was claiming put him beyond Moses, beyond the prophets, beyond the religious figures of his day.
But what was even more troubling was that he was basing his authority on a unique, personal and ongoing encounter with God. God was present to Jesus in a way that was deeply threatening to the Jewish authorities of his time.
For the Jews, God had spoken in the past through the Law and the prophets. By upholding the past, the Jewish people were assured of remaining faithful to their God, to the covenant.
Yet here was this young Jew claiming that God was doing something new. He was claiming that the key to understanding God was love, not law. That God’s love was unconditional, transcending boundaries of ritual observance, religion, gender, or personal morality. That God’s forgiveness was unconditional.
That God was speaking through him in a way that had never been done before.
What would that mean to all of their traditions, to the Law, to their own standing as mediators of God’s law and traditions? If God loved all people, then what was the point of being Jewish, of being a member of God’s chosen people?
Maybe if Jesus contented himself with merely saying these words, the leaders could have effectively neutralized his message as the deranged words of an insignificant Jewish peasant.
Preaching Through Words and Deeds
But Jesus began to back up his words with actions.
Through his healing miracles and his exorcisms, Jesus was bringing the reign of God into being. He was restoring all of creation to its intended state. He was extending love and forgiveness to the corners of the Jewish world that had long been excluded from God’s presence . . .To shepherds and prostitutes, tax collectors and Samaritans.
This was too much.
The Jewish authorities could not abide someone like Jesus. He was proclaiming a blasphemous message. He was blatantly violating sacred tenets of the Law and traditions. And he was doing so on his own authority.
He threatened their power. He threated their position. And he threatened their religion
This is what got Jesus killed. He didn’t die because he was a nice guy. He didn’t die because he told people to love one another.
He died because he claimed a unique relationship to God that turned everything on its head.
For the Jewish authorities realized a truth that has remained true for over two thousand years. If Jesus was who he said he was, then everything changes. One could either accept those changes or eliminate the messenger, assuming the message would die with him.
This seems like a logical solution. Typically, when someone dies they stay dead. So, naturally, the Jews assumed the cross was the solution to their problems.
This is why they turned to the Roman authorities. Execution was the only way out of this quandary. And they played on the fears of the Romans to make it happen. If the kingdom of God was breaking in through Jesus, then he was a king. And the Romans feared anyone who threatened their own temporal grasp on power. By projecting onto Jesus the legitimate hopes of many Jews that he would be the Messiah, the leader who would liberate them from the Romans, the Jewish authorities ensured that the Romans would gladly comply in eliminating this delusional preacher and potentially dangerous rebel.
This is why Jesus died on that road in Calvary.
Why did Jesus need to die?
If he was the Son of God, why did he not save himself? These are legitimate questions that were asked by people at the very foot of the cross. What was the point of Jesus’ death?
Part 2: The Relevance of Jesus’ Death for Us Today
In order to understand his death, one must begin by understanding Jesus’ life.
God’s Plan From the Beginning
If Jesus was the in-breaking of God’s reign, then Jesus came to save, to be a savior, to extend God’s salvation to all people and ultimately to all of creation.
This was the plan of God before the dawn of creation. Jesus was the word, the plan written into the stars, the image imprinted on each human heart. From the beginning, God’s love was destined to become incarnate. From the beginning, God intended to pour Himself out for the sake of the world.
As we read in the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.
But why was this plan necessary?
Why do we need to be saved?
I think if we are honest with ourselves, the idea of all people being in need of salvation is one of the easiest concepts in Christianity to agree with.
If I may, I would like to read some of the recent headlines taken from the Washington Post:
“The North Korean Threat: Analysts see leader’s aggression as a bid for legitimacy, but does he have an exit strategy”
“In the NFL, pain and drugs are the norm”
“Prosecutor’s killing leads to charge against Texan”
“Police seek motive after man is set afire”
“3 children among 20 killed by Syrian government airstrike”
“12 army officers to be charged with rape in the Congo”
I could go on, but I think we get the point. Human cruelty, malice, deceit, and violence are all too present in our world.
But our need for salvation goes even deeper. Beyond our sinfulness, we are also aware of our utter brokenness. We live in a world in which we are frequently alienated from ourselves, from each other and from our God.
We live in a world in which suffering and death are part of our daily existence.
And yet, Jesus offers us salvation. He offers us reconciliation with ourselves, with one another and with all of creation. As we find in the Letter to the Colossians:
For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross.
But how does the cross get us there? Many men and women have died horrific deaths for the sake of God and religion. Why was Jesus’ death something special?
Because Jesus is someone special. He is where humanity and divinity meet. Therefore, God’s unconditional forgiveness meets a broken humanity and makes it whole, makes it holy. Jesus is both God’s communication to the world and the world’s response to God.
Jesus’ Sacrifice/Self-Offering: The Free and Total Gift of Who He Was, From the Beginning of His Life Unto Death
From his birth throughout his life, Jesus freely offered his life in obedience to the Father’s will:
As a human, he offered it freely. He chose to follow God and to follow God perfectly.
But it was only in his death that Christ was able to offer up the complete gift of who he was to his Father. See, it was not about the cross per se, but the choice of Jesus to face the cross. If Jesus had run from the cross, then we would not have been saved.
Too often, we can get caught up in the horror of the crucifixion as if we were saved because of the gruesomeness of the crucifixion. As if the cruelty somehow wiped away all of the cruelty of our sins. Not only does this miss the point, but it projects an image of a cruel and vindictive God who needs Jesus to suffer in order to be appeased.
We already heard why Jesus died. He died because of our fear, our cruelty, our thirst for power.
But none of this deterred Jesus from staying true to who he was. None of this deterred him from following the will of God, even as he struggled with his own fears and doubts that assailed him in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross itself. His obedience was the best of what humanity can be.
We were saved because Christ returned to God a perfect offering of humanity, a human life perfectly lived. And in so doing, his life perfectly revealed the Will of the Father. The plan of the Father. The Word of the Father.
This was the sacrifice that Christ offered: the free and total gift of who he was.
And it was this sacrifice that was accepted by God. This is what we call the Resurrection. God accepting the gift of Jesus and exalting that gift by raising Christ from the dead.
In the letter to the Philippians we hear this entire process laid out for us.
Christ Jesus who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found in human appearance, he humbled himself becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This sacrifice meshed beautifully with a Jewish worldview that viewed blood sacrifices as an essential part of reconciling a sinner with God. In Jesus, the earliest Christians saw the ideal sacrifice of which their slaughtered lambs and bulls had only been imperfect replicas.
Although the early Christian communities debated many precepts of Judaism, there was no debate over the need for additional offerings of animals at the Temple. There was only one true sacrifice, one true offering. And that was made in Christ.
It is this offering that Christians are baptized into. Through the mystery of the sacrament, individuals are plunged into this mystery of Christ’s dying and rising. Our life becomes a part of Christ’s continual gift of himself to the Father. It is this one sacrifice that Catholics participate in every time we gather to celebrate the Eucharist. We unite ourselves with Christ in his continual gift of Himself.
It all comes down to the cross.
Without the cross, without Jesus freely accepting his own death, there is no resurrection.
Without the cross, there are no Christians.
It all comes down to the cross.
Image courtesy of http://www.cruzblanca.org/hermanoleon/