Below is chapter six of my book Jesus in 3D entitled “Why Did Jesus Die?”

Happy Good Friday everyone.

So far we’ve covered quite a bit of ground in a relatively short amount of pages. The first two chapters set the stage for a thoughtful exploration of Jesus. In chapter one, we learned the story Jesus came from—the narrative of God seeking a kingdom that would honor his name by mirroring his goodness and love. When human rebellion scorched his original plan for creation, God chose one nation to be his special people. Through them he would restore the world. The many twists and turns of their story took us through the rest of chapter one and into chapter two, where we dug into the times Jesus inhabited. We examined what God’s people in Jesus’ day hoped for and expected from God and, by extension, from any would-be Messiah: rescue, rebuild, re-gather, and resurrect. In chapters three through five, we unfolded the mission of Jesus. He came to announce and demonstrate the arrival God’s kingdom. God’s centuries-long plan had reached its climax when he established his reign on earth through Jesus. We catch glimpses of God’s perfect rule in Jesus’ miracles, meals, teachings, and other facets of his ministry.

What’s more, as indicated from the beginning, God’s kingdom would be rooted and fleshed out in a community who aligned with the peculiar rule of this king. So to establish God’s kingdom, Jesus sought the restoration of God’s chosen people as well as their reformation unto faithfulness. Both restoration and reformation centered in Jesus himself and fidelity to his agenda. His people are redefined as all who believe in him and follow his teachings. The dark edge of Jesus’ program consisted in warning those who continued to reject God’s ways as revealed in Jesus. They would be released to the consequences of their refusal. And so God’s wrath would fall upon Jesus’ immediate listeners in the form of Roman swords and crosses.

Speaking of crosses, the time has come to turn our final corner and discuss the two aspects of Jesus’ life without which we probably wouldn’t know his name—his death and resurrection. In this chapter we’ll examine why Jesus died, and in the next what difference his resurrection makes.

Tackling the question Why Did Jesus Die? is a daunting task, to say the least! So let me lay out our plan. First we’ll outline the actual events surrounding Jesus’ death. Then we’ll begin exploring what it all means by remembering two crucial contexts: Jesus’ ministry as a whole and the way Jesus himself explained his impending crucifixion. We’ll spend the remainder of the chapter laying out a three-dimensional answer to the question of why Jesus died.

Before we get going, let me say a few very important things about how we’ll accomplish the task of actually answering our question. Put simply, we’re going to investigate how to get from Matthew 1.21 to John 3.17.

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Here’s what I mean by this. Notice how Matthew 1.21, which was spoken in a dream to Joseph so he wouldn’t divorce the Virgin Mary, announces that Jesus will save his people from their sins. His people initially referred to the Jews (see Matthew 2.6)—the angel declares that Jesus will in some way save Israel from her sins.[1] When we come to John, however, we see that Jesus will save the world. In John “the world” basically means everyone.[2] We’re going to find out how each of these is true, as well as how to get from one to the other. Our goal is to comprehend the first so that we better understand the second. If we pay close attention to how Jesus’ death offered salvation to the specific people he ministered to, we’ll be in a much better position to see how Jesus’ death saves us as well.

JESUS’ FINAL WEEK

Before we get to all that, let’s plant our feet firmly on the ground of Jesus’ final week. For the sake of clarity, we’ll stick to Mark’s outline with a few details from the other Gospels sprinkled in.

The week begins with Jesus staging a well-planned royal entry into Jerusalem on the back a donkey (Mark 11.1-11; also Matthew 21.4-5). Here he is greeted with some pretty fancy praise: Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest heaven! He put the city into somewhat of a stir and then went home for the night.

The next day Jesus was hungry, so when he came upon a fig tree with no fruit, he cursed it. Then he staged his demonstration at the Temple, which we’ve talked about a few times—turning over tables, quoting prophecies about the Temple’s demise, and so on. This gesture didn’t win many friends, and some key priests and Bible teachers started looking for a reason to kill him. After this Jesus and his crew again passed the fig tree, which by this time had withered. Of course the disciples noticed, and of course Peter opened his mouth and pointed it out. Jesus responded by declaring that if you ask God anything in faith, God will answer. In typical cryptic form Jesus adds that if you were to say to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself in the sea,” God would grant even this request. This mountain probably refers to the Temple mount itself. At any rate, the point of the whole fig tree fiasco wasn’t just Jesus blowing a fuse. In one of his signature literary moves, Mark “sandwiches” the fig tree episode on either side of the Temple incident (Mark 11.12-22). The point is that God will fulfill Jesus’ words condemning the Temple just as he fulfilled Jesus’ words cursing the tree.

Then Jesus gets into verbal squabbles with Jewish leaders and some other folks (Mark 11.27-12.44). We’ve talked about several of these and the others you can examine for yourself, but the overall picture is that Jesus is brilliant and his opponents are afraid to mess with him (12.12, 17, 34). The only people who come out unscathed are the guy who rightly identified the greatest commandment and a poor widow whose tiny gift upstaged the bombastic rich folks (12.28-34, 41-44).

Jesus follows all this by castigating Jerusalem and specifically the Temple (13.1-37). In addition to predicting its downfall within a generation, he tells his followers what to do during those dark days: Maintain your witness, stand firm, and when the disaster begins, immediately flee to the mountains! (13.9-16). He warned that these events would happen suddenly, so they must keep watch (13.28-37).

The priests and Bible teachers continue to plot Jesus’ arrest and murder, though they know better than to mess with a prophet during Passover (14.1-2). If rioting broke out, their Roman benefactors would not be pleased! Meanwhile Jesus was reclining at the home of a leper named Simon, where a woman anointed Jesus’ feet with very expensive perfume. She probably thought she was anointing him for the kingship. He said she had anointed him for burial. Both turned out to be true, as we’ll see soon enough. At this point Judas had had enough, so he joined the religious leaders’ plot to kill Jesus.

In celebration of the Passover festival—when Jews commemorated the exodus—Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples in an upper room. During this “last supper,” Jesus explained his impending death, which no doubt puzzled the disciples greatly. He spoke of the meal’s bread and wine in terms of his own body and blood, which he said would be broken and shed. He hinted to his disciples that this Passover wasn’t like all the others, they sang a hymn, and then together they went to a place called the Mount of Olives (14.12-26).

On the way Jesus informed his disciples that they would all desert him, but he would meet them again on the other side of his death. Peter of course boldly proclaimed that even if everyone else fell away, he would remain strong. Jesus disagreed. Not wanting to be outdone, Jesus’ other followers also professed their devotion (14.27-31).

When they arrived at the Mount of Olives—specifically, at a place called Gethsemane—Jesus shared with his inner circle that his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Don’t miss the intense emotion in these words. Jesus went off to pray in solitude, so stressed that Luke tells us he actually sweat drops of blood. While alone he actually asked God to accomplish his will in a way that did not involve Jesus dying on a cross. Jesus wanted out. To massively understate the case, all this was very difficult for him. Three times Jesus asked for another way and three times God said no. Through the whole process Jesus’ will remained surrendered to God’s. Meanwhile, Jesus’ friends kept falling asleep (14.32-42).

But their rest was interrupted by their old comrade Judas, who showed up with a mob of angry folks armed with swords and clubs, led by our familiar priests and Bible teachers. Long story short, Judas betrays Jesus, Peter cuts off a guy’s ear, Jesus puts it back on, the mob arrests Jesus, and everyone deserts him (14.43-52; also Luke 22.49-51; John 18.10-11).

They take Jesus to their leaders, where he is (probably illegally) questioned before both Jewish and Roman authorities (14.53-15.15). In spite of themselves, these priests and politicians acknowledge in word (if not in spirit) that Jesus is both Messiah and King. In between these two “trials,” we find Peter denying Jesus three times just as Jesus predicted (the sandwich thing again). At the crowd’s demand—likely some of the same people who had heaped praise on Jesus a few days earlier—the Roman governor Pilate sentences Jesus to be crucified.

Thanks to movies like The Passion of the Christ, most of you know that they did much more than simply kill Jesus. First they flogged him, which involved lashing his back and shoulders with a whip filled with sharp objects like small bones, animal teeth, and metal. Next they mocked him with a purple robe placed on and then ripped off his lacerated skin, shoved a crown of thorns around his head, beat him on the head with a staff, and spit on him. Only after all this did they lead him out to be crucified. Normally the Romans would force criminals to carry their crosses to the place of execution, but Jesus was too weak. So a traveler named Simon carried it for him (15.15-23).

Then they crucified him.

The sign they placed over his head ironically proclaimed him “King of the Jews.” Jesus hung there between two failed revolutionaries, who heaped insults on him along with the chief priests, Bible teachers, and passersby (15.24-32). After a few hours he cried aloud the first words of Psalm 22.1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Soon thereafter, he declared “It is finished,” and with a loud cry Jesus breathed his last. At the same time the curtain sealing off the Most Holy Place in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the Roman soldier standing next to Jesus said this man must surely be the Son of God—which, for him, was a title reserved for Caesar (15.33-39).

Jesus was then buried in the tomb of a man said to be waiting for the kingdom of God. And as we’ll discuss in the next chapter, three days later God raised him from the dead (15.42-16.20).

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

Our initial response to such a story should no doubt be a sustained period of silence.

After some time, we then rightly ask what in the world it all means. Remembering two things will set us off in the right direction and guard against dozens of unhelpful detours. First, let’s remember that the Gospels present the death of Jesus not as a random add-on to the life he led, but rather as the fitting conclusion to his entire ministry. As such we do well to ask how his death relates to what we covered in the last three chapters: Jesus as initiator of God’s kingdom, prophet of God’s judgment on Israel’s sin, and revealer of God’s will.

Second, let’s remember how Jesus’ himself interpreted his upcoming death—that is, by celebrating a Passover meal. Take a look at the account from Mark 14.12, 22-24:

On the first day of the Festival of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “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,” he said to them.

This meal provides the cardinal clue to unlocking the meaning of Jesus’ death. Jesus himself interpreted his death in a way that recalled the most important event in Israel’s history: God liberating his people from slavery in Egypt. In addition to celebrating this past exodus event, the Passover celebration expressed deep (and sometimes dangerous) hopes for God to repeat the favor. Apparently, Jesus believed that in him God was doing just that.

What’s more, the primary elements of the exodus story correspond to what we’ve uncovered so far about the life of Jesus. Think about it. The exodus was chiefly about God manifesting his sovereignty over Pharaoh and the gods of Egypt, demonstrated in the events surrounding God’s victorious liberation of Israel from Pharaoh’s grasp. The second crucial aspect of Passover is the bit from which it gets the name “passover.” When God brought judgment upon the Egyptians and their gods by putting to death all the firstborn males, Israel was literally protected by lambs’ blood (Exodus 12.1-13). God’s judgment passed over—that is, spared—the homes whose doorframes were smeared with the blood of sacrificial lambs. And thirdly, God’s manner of redemption became the basis for Israel’s new way of life. The way in which he saved them defined their “ethic” of redemption and care for the vulnerable and oppressed (see Exodus 22.21-27; 23.12; Leviticus 19.34; Deuteronomy 15.1-15; 24.17-22; Jeremiah 22.3).

Laying the three primary meanings of Passover alongside the three fundamental aspects of Jesus’ mission provides us with an initial answer to our question of why Jesus died. He died (1) as a victorious king liberating his people from her enemies, (2) as a sacrificial lamb saving his people from their sins, and (3) as a trailblazer clearing the pathway of salvation.

Exodus / Passover

Jesus’ Mission

Jesus’ Death

God demonstrates his sovereignty by liberating his people from oppression.

Jesus establishes God’s kingdom by restoring God’s faithful community.

Jesus dies as a victorious king liberating his people from her enemies.

God judges Egypt’s idolatry & injustice but saves his people with lambs’ blood.

Jesus warns of judgment for hypocrisy, injustice, and self-idolatry.

Jesus dies as a sacrificial lamb saving his people from their sins.

God’s redemption provides the basis or model for Israel’s new way of life.

Jesus’ teachings and example fully and finally reveal God’s will for his people.

Jesus dies as a trailblazer clearing the pathway of salvation.

Our challenge is to make two moves: (1) going from the events surrounding Jesus’ death (recounted in the previous section) to the meanings listed in the third column above, and (2) making the transition from these events and meanings in the first century to their impact upon every century.

WHY DID JESUS DIE?

As a victorious king, Jesus died to liberate his people from her enemies. As a sacrificial lamb, Jesus died to save his people from their sins. As a trailblazer or pioneer, Jesus died to clear the pathway of salvation.

Let’s start with the second item since it’s the one most of us know best: Jesus died as a sacrifice for sins.

Sacrifice and Forgiveness

The logic here is fairly simple. Egypt thought of herself as supreme and in turn abused those around her. In the exodus story God brought judgment on Egypt for her idolatry and oppression. God saved Israel from this judgment through the blood of sacrificial lambs. To escape judgment they merely had to accept the protection of the lamb in the way prescribed by God: marking their doorframes with its blood.

We are used to jumping directly to how Jesus’ death saves us from eternal judgment, but our patience will be rewarded if we first ask how Jesus’ death saved people in his time from their sins. As we know, Jesus warned his generation of God’s coming judgment. Though called by God to be the world’s true light and given wonderful laws to this end, Israel had ignored some laws and manipulated others to support their own self-justifying ways. Moreover, Jesus was the fulfillment of their laws, so they could finally become the means for God’s blessing to reach the whole world. But like Egypt before her, Israel made an idol of herself, failing to shine God’s light outward, keeping it instead for herself. She considered others not as people to bless, but rather as objects of hatred awaiting destruction at God’s hand. In these ways and more, most of Jesus’ generation failed to respond positively to his attempt to reform and re-define God’s family. Therefore, God would once again accept their rejection and abandon them to the repercussions of their rebellion. In this case, the specific consequences of their delusional self-centered dreams involved Rome doing what Rome did best: stomping down rebels, at least in part by the cruel and shameful method of crucifixion.

Building on what we’ve learned, we can see how Jesus went before Israel and died the specific death she was heading toward—crucifixion by the Romans. According to Jesus, this particular manner of dying would itself be God’s just punishment upon Israel’s sins. But Jesus went ahead of Israel and took her punishment upon himself, so that those who placed their faith in him could be saved from a similar fate. He literally died in her place—as a sacrifice for her sins—in hope that she would repent, accept God’s offer of life and peace, and so be saved.

In this light, think back to some of the details surrounding Jesus’ death. When in Gethsemane Jesus asked God to find another way—he prayed that God would take this cup from him (Mark 14.36). Israel’s prophets often talked about the cup of God’s wrath, which always came in the earthly form of invading armies not unlike Rome (see Isaiah 51.17; Jeremiah 25.15-17; Lamentations 4.21-22; Ezekiel 23.28-34; Habakkuk 2.16-17). Jesus knew what was coming: He would draw upon himself the cup of God’s wrath so his people might go free.[3] He would be forsaken by God so they could be reconciled. He would become the mother hen who sacrifices her body to the scorching flames of a barnyard fire so her chicks will be saved (Matthew 23.37-38). Those who mocked Jesus with the words “He saved others but he can’t save himself” got it exactly backwards: only by refusing to save himself could he save us (Mark 15.31).

Speaking of us, the great news is that what happened so long ago can hardly be contained within one generation. Just as Jesus’ death offered salvation to his people, his death offers salvation to you and me. We desperately need such news, for just as Israel failed to be the light of the world, we have failed in our original vocation to reflect the image of God. We too have engaged in self-justifying hypocrisy. We too fall short of God’s concern for the least and lost. We too make idols of ourselves as if the universe spins on the axis of me and mine. We too have hidden God’s light under a bushel of our own selfishness, pride, greed, lust, anger, and the like.

Thus we too stand under God’s coming judgment. In wrath, God releases us to the fallout of our sin, and he will ultimately compensate us according to our deeds (Romans 1.18-32; 2.6). In his death, however, Jesus has already taken upon himself God’s judgment for sin. More accurately, God has taken his own judgment upon himself through Jesus. We in turn accept his sacrificial gift through faith and so are saved from judgment, forgiven our sins, and reconciled to the God who loves us. (See 2 Corinthians 5.18-21; Romans 8.1-4; 1 John 4.10; 1 Peter 3.18; Hebrews 10.1-18.)

Victorious Liberation

In order to understand Jesus’ victory, we need to back up and make note of a few things we haven’t much emphasized to this point. For starters, the kingdom of God came into a world that opposed it at many turns. For God to be king always meant that human rulers—whether Pharaoh, Saul, Nebuchadnezzar, Caesar, or whomever—were put on notice that their reigns were minor, subordinate, and temporary. They were at best parodies of God’s true kingship. At worst they were set on fire by evil itself.

Speaking of this latter point, have you ever noticed that during Jesus’ temptations, when Satan claimed he had authority over the kingdoms of the world, Jesus didn’t correct him? (Luke 4.5-8). Jesus never denied that Rome was one of God’s kingdom’s main opponents. Jesus simply knew that Rome was merely symptomatic of a deeper issue. That deeper problem was the devil, Satan, Evil itself.[4] Rome was a nagging cough or runny nose; Satan was the viral infection. Rome was stiffness and swelling; Satan was the broken bone. Rome was the loss of breathing and rigor mortis; Satan was death. In fact, precisely by failing to properly diagnose the true problem, Israel had become part of it (John 8.44). To their surprise, Israel too had been infected. Despite her unique calling in relation to God’s alternative kingdom, she had once again become yet another boring and hell-bent kingdom of the world.

As such, Jesus knew that focusing solely on Rome would hardly solve the problem. Symptoms must be treated, but you won’t get healthy until the underlying disease is overcome (which of course remedies the symptoms as well).

What, then, could Jesus do? What kind of strategy slices through such a gnarly mess? Generally speaking, Jesus’ strategy was to crowd out the kingdom of Satan by establishing God’s kingdom within its borders. If you plant a mustard seed in a garden, slowly but surely the mustard plant will grow and permeate the garden. If you add yeast to a batch of dough, eventually the dough will be thoroughly yeasted (see Matthew 13.31-33). Jesus’ healings and exorcisms certainly make sense in this regard. In them we see Jesus reclaiming for God’s kingdom territory that was wrongly usurped by the Evil One (Luke 11.14-22; Acts 10.36-38). What’s more, we mentioned in the last chapter how Jesus’ teachings create alternative communities under the Empire’s nose. This, too, is part of Jesus’ mustard seed revolution.

But the Bible consistently points to the death of Jesus as the moment when Jesus in principle defeated Satan (Colossians 2.15; Hebrews 2.14-15; Revelation 12.10-11):

Having disarmed the powers and principalities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

Since the children have flesh and blood, Jesus too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Messiah. For the accuser of our brothers and sisters, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.

Just after Jesus entered Jerusalem, he said of his impending death: “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out (John 12.31-33; 14.30-31; 16.11).

How does that work?

To begin with, Jesus’ sacrifice for sins shut Satan up because it removed the ground of his accusation against us (Colossians 2.14-15; Revelation 12.10-11). If our sins are taken up into Jesus and washed away, Satan has nothing left to say against us. We are free from condemnation. The Accuser—which is precisely what “satan” means—has no case. But that’s just the beginning.

In the events leading up to and including his death, Jesus proves to be without doubt the oddest king history has ever seen. He strolls into Jerusalem in kingly fashion, but on a donkey. He wears a crown, but of thorns. Like a king he is anointed, but for burial. He claims to possess power superior to the Roman Emperor’s, but moments later that very Emperor hands him over to be crucified. The whole story is a coronation, but the throne is a cross and the “King of the Jews” gets himself killed. How is this a victory? What kind of kingdom overcomes its rivals in such strange ways?

Consider two analogies from typical family life. The first one involves avoiding a trap. Imagine a husband and wife fighting. In this fight, the husband is in the wrong and he knows it. Not only is he in the wrong, he’s made matters worse by saying some very hurtful things to his bride.[5] At this point he could admit his fault, ask for forgiveness, and so forth. But he chooses a different route. Instead, this guy tries to bait his wife into saying equally hurtful things to him. His goal here, whether he realizes it or not, is to bring his wife down to his level. It’s a trap. Thankfully the wife is wise to his game, so she doesn’t fall for it. If she did, she’d lose the high ground and become, as we say, no better than him.

The second analogy involves a baby and the neutralization of a secret weapon. This one is autobiographical. As I write this, our daughter Claire is experiencing her first legitimate cold. Her nose is running fast and full. It really is gross. But more than gross, it’s sad for many reasons, one of which is that when Claire lays down to rest, she habitually inserts her thumb into her mouth and falls sound asleep. When she wakes up in the middle of the night, in goes the thumb and back she goes to sleep. This is her (or our) secret weapon against restless nights. When all else fails, the thumb always comes through. But the key to the thumb’s success is her ability to breathe through her nose. Now that her nasal passages are so full, she can’t suck on her thumb and breathe at the same time. So when she wakes up, the thumb goes in, the attempt to breathe proves frustrating, and she cries. Her secret weapon—sucking her thumb—is disarmed, immobilized, rendered impotent. (Pretty strange way to describe a baby sucking her thumb, I know, but hang with me.)

Let’s apply our analogies in order. First of all, Jesus avoided the trap set by Satan that so many of Jesus’ contemporaries played into: outright revolt against Rome. Even if he had successfully overthrown Rome, he would have failed to fulfill God’s greater calling of shining fresh light in the world’s dark places. Had Jesus fought outright, he would have played directly into Satan’s hands, just as Israel had previously time and again. Jesus’ kingdom would have become yet another kingdom of the world and Israel’s (and the world’s) bondage to Satan and sin would continue.

However, Jesus came to the cross as Israel’s King and overcame evil not by fighting but by suffering and dying. Jesus was victorious because the battle he fought and the victory he sought were not primarily over Rome, but rather the deceiving power of Satan himself. For centuries this power had kept Israel in a much deeper bondage than slavery to Egypt, Rome, or anyone else—what Jesus called slavery to sin (John 8.34). Jesus won the only game that mattered by refusing to play the game that didn’t. To overcome the kingdom of Satan and thus the kingdoms of the world, Jesus doesn’t defeat them; he resists falling into the trap of becoming just like them.

Second, Jesus defeated Satan—and by extension, Rome—by immobilizing Satan’s secret and greatest weapon: death. Death was their greatest weapon, their go-to move. But if your greatest weapon is fired and your opponent still isn’t defeated, the battle is over and you’ve lost.[6] Of course this is where we bleed into the resurrection, which makes sense since neither Jesus’ death nor his resurrection can properly be understood apart from the other. Jesus’ death is not the end of his story, but rather a prelude to the resurrection. By dying and coming out the other side, Jesus displays God’s supreme power over every rival—whether religious, political, or straight-up demonic. Neither Satan nor Rome nor anyone else can rival the power unleashed in Jesus’ death and resurrection. He publicly establishes God’s sovereignty or, in a word, kingship. God rules, and this is clear for anyone to see. And when God rules, by definition God’s kingdom has arrived. Going one step further, when God’s kingdom arrives, Satan’s kingdom falls (Luke 10.1-20).

For Jesus’ people, the upshot was no longer to view Rome as an enemy to be removed, but at worst a temptation to be resisted. Jesus did what his people hoped he would do—he overcame Rome, but he did it in a surprising way. He overcame Rome in part by revealing her true identity: not the enemy itself, but a pawn of the real enemy. He de-mystified her power claims and transformed her from an object of hatred to an object of pity, forgiveness, even love (see Luke 23.24; 6.26-36).

Rome itself is of course no longer an issue in our day, but certainly evil takes on new forms in every age and Satan continually beckons us into his games. Death and our fear of it remains Satan’s ultimate weapon, and he uses it to breed suspicion, defensiveness, and backbiting at every level of human interaction. We may not typically think in these terms, but this fear plays a role in how we treat spouses and children, siblings and neighbors, employers and coworkers, strangers and enemies and friends. We lash out to protect ourselves from losing or being taken advantage of or getting hurt. But we don’t need to fear these things any longer. What’s the worst thing that could happen to us? Death? As undesirable as death remains, we no longer need to ward it off at any cost (Hebrews 2.14-15; Revelation 12.10-11). We are free to risk obedience to the ways of God’s kingdom. Because we ultimately fear no evil, we are liberated to live and love without restraint. Love unreturned still hurts, but this pain no longer dominates us. It no longer causes us to stop loving. We are set free to love in all the difficult and potentially dangerous ways we mentioned in the last chapter, because in Christ our identity is ultimately and eternally secure. In our patient and faithful resistance to the fear-induced ways of the world’s kingdoms, we too become part of God’s victory over evil (Revelation 12.11; 13.10). We become walking witnesses to the victorious kingdom come.

The Way of Salvation

We’re already getting into our third answer to the question of why Jesus died: as a trailblazer clearing the pathway of salvation.

Certain presentations of the gospel message leave us wondering what to do next. It truly is wonderful news that God has forgiven us and plans to keep us alive to live with him forever, but what about in the mean time? It’s great to know that in theory we’ve been released from the grip of Satan and evil and sin, but, um, what do we do now? Building on what we just said about both forgiveness and victory, our third dimension answers these questions quite well.

Jesus reveals in his death the manner in which God overcomes evil, and in this manner he invites us to participate in his victory. To participate in this way of radical love rooted in reliance on God alone is to live liberated from the grip of sin. This is why we call it the way of salvation. To be saved means to be free from sin and its effects, which we can begin to experience even here and now.

Jesus called Israel to light up the world by relying completely on God and loving her enemies to the point of suffering at their hands. Jesus then walked this path himself, remaining obedient even unto death despite very real temptation to avoid this suffering. He modeled the vision of life in God’s kingdom he had called others to live. He took up his cross, laid down his life for his friends, humbled himself, served others sacrificially, loved and forgave his enemies, turned the other cheek, went the second mile, saved his life by losing it, and endured persecution for the sake of righteousness. Jesus thus offered his generation salvation by inviting her to walk in obedience to these same ways. His death served as a wake-up call to rescue Israel from marching along the road of rebellion. For the most part Israel rejected his offer, so they faced the consequences (Luke 19.41-42). To his own, Jesus offered a practical walkway out from under God’s wrath: when Jerusalem starts going down, head for the hills (Matthew 24.15-18). In fact, many Jesus-followers did just that around 66 AD when the war broke out, and they lived. He saved them in this small way, but of course this hardly tells the whole story.

In a larger sense, Jesus invited all people to become his people, and to walk this freshly-blazed trail of radical and sacrificial love. If faithfulness to God were a maze, Jesus walked it from start to finish and then invited us to follow in his steps. If it were a race, Jesus ran it before us and now stands at the finish line beckoning us onward (Hebrews 12.1-3). Jesus’ death saves us by showing us the way out of bondage to the deceitful and destructive patterns of this world—lies we too often believe and ways of life we choose that lead only to more heartache and despair. We are literally lost without Jesus, standing in the middle of a thick forest in need of someone to clear a course back to life and civilization. Jesus blazes this trail and his Spirit enables us to walk the path of liberation from sin—the way of salvation.[7]

JESUS SAVES

Sad as it is, many folks live their entire lives agreeing with the claim that Jesus saves but have no idea what it actually means. Many others can explain it fairly well, but they never see the fascinating connections between the actual events of Jesus’ death and our salvation. If you’ve ever read the Gospel stories of Jesus’ death and thought, “What could this possible have to do with me?” I hope that now you’re at least a little closer to answering this question. At the very least, when you peer into the passion of the Christ, whether by reading the Bible, gazing at a statue or painting, watching a movie, or singing a song, I pray that you’ll remember how Jesus’ death answers your deep cries for forgiveness from guilt and shame, victory over evil and empire, and guidance to lead a life of genuine liberation. In these ways and no doubt others as well, God demonstrated his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5.8).


[1] We know from the end of the story that “his people” ultimately gets redefined, but at this point it retained its more exclusive ethnic sense.

[2] Actually it means everyone in their individual and collective opposition to God, which means, well, everyone.

[3] Interestingly enough, Jesus wasn’t the only one to think about his death like this. For another example, check out 2 Maccabees 7.36-38: “For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

[4] John offers the same diagnosis throughout the book of Revelation. See especially chapters 13, 17-18.

[5] Don’t worry, I’m not speaking autobiographically right now!

[6] After writing this, I realized that my analogy compares my practically flawless daughter to Satan. Hopefully that doesn’t put her in counseling someday. By the time she reads this, maybe she’ll appreciate how helpful she was in explaining a rather difficult concept. One can hope. Not to mention the fact that I compared Jesus to a noseful of snot.

[7] See also 1 Peter 2.20-25; 1 John 3.16; 4.9-12. If there’s any confusion, let me clarify one thing. This is never simply a matter of trying really hard to be good, and it’s not about “saving ourselves,” as if that were possible. As I mentioned last chapter, Paul teaches that God actively reproduces the life of Jesus in us. For example, see Galatians 2.20 and Philippians 2.12-13.

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