Why Jesus Had to Die

In the study of the gospel of John I’m doing via Google Hangouts on Air, last Thursday night’s session was titled “I Finished the Work.” This reflects Jesus confidence that he had completed his mission, even before he had died on the cross or risen from the dead.

For many Christians the reason Jesus had to die is quite simple. He had to die for our sins. More specifically, by his death, Jesus took the penalty for our sin(s) so that we would not have to. In theology this is referred to as penal substitutionary atonement, or sometimes just as forensic atonement, because it is set in a metaphor of the courtroom, and we avoid the just legal penalty of our actions because Jesus takes it instead. Thus if Jesus had not died, we would not be saved, and would be doomed to eternal death.

But the courtroom is a metaphor, and as such, it may not provide the complete or the only meaning of what it tries to describe. Another metaphor is built on the family, in which we are adopted into God’s family as God’s children and thus are saved. You can find a clear statement of this in 1 John 3:1, but this metaphor is in play frequently in the gospel of John as well.

Someone familiar with 1 John might point to 1 John 1:8, with the blood of Jesus cleansing us from sin. And indeed there are a number of points where the various metaphors touch. One thing we don’t always understand well in the west is the sense of community, of being collectively part of one nation, people, or family, so much so that we can be referenced as a unit, or spoken of by reference to a king or leader. In Genesis 14, there is a battle. We’re told in Genesis 14:9 that it was “four kings against five.” Surely it wasn’t just the kings! They must have had armies. Of course they did. But they were referenced by the titles of their kings.

So when these kings were defeated, the people were defeated. If they won, the people won. We have that sort of vocabulary left in terms of sporting events and even of war, but we use it with less meaning. Thus if we said that one person suffered or died for a nation, we would generally be saying that the one person suffered instead of others. But in the ancient near east, we might well be saying that the a whole family or a whole people group was included in the suffering of that one person. In this way we can say that in Christ we have all died, and in celebration of Easter, in Christ we have all been raised. It’s helpful to read the servant passages of 2nd Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55 is identified as 2nd Isaiah) with this in mind. Is the servant a single individual, a group, or the whole of Israel. I think the answer must be “yes,” if we incorporate all the references.

In 1 John 1:8, we also need to note that there is a different sacrifice in view than a sin offering. Here the issue is cleansing, and it would probably be much better to understand this as a purification offering than a sin offering. (I will try to blog more about these offerings soon!) Jesus dies for us, in this case, but it is not in a forensic sense, not taking a penalty, but rather is a cleansing ritual.

In the gospel of John another way of expressing atonement, bridging the gap between God and humanity, is the simple one of looking up. We always cite John 3:16, but we’d do well to start with John 3:14 and not stop before John 3:21. Here the metaphor is a simple one of looking up. Looking up at the One sent by the Father, looking to the one who is our pioneer and representative, who is the head of our family, who is showing us the Father (John 1:18). It’s a very simple but important metaphor.

And in this metaphor Jesus also dies for us, i.e. on our behalf. It is not here a sacrifice for sin, but rather it is the way that he is lifted up so we can see him. The son of man is lifted up on the cross, and in turn, lifted up right out of the world at the resurrection, and this finalizes the mission, the work, that he performed for us, and a great deal of that work was revelatory, showing us the father, curing our blindness so we could see, and getting us to look up so we would be looking at the right person.

And this leads me back to the question implied by my title. Why did Jesus have to die?

One reason is simple: To complete his mission. If Jesus was the one sent from the Father, here to show God to us, and thus bridge the gap between heaven and earth, infinite God and finite us, then he needed to do so completely. One cannot come and live as a human without facing and eventually experiencing death. Death is such an overwhelming fact of life. To skip it would make the rest of the story rather meaningless. “For God so loved the world that he looked in on us for a while” just doesn’t have the same ring as coming and going the whole distance as we have to.

But why did the death have to be so awful?

Because that is how someone who behaved as Jesus did would die in first century Palestine. That was how the ruling government, the Romans, behaved. If you or I had lived in that time and had possessed the courage and integrity that Jesus did, we would likely have ended up the same way. Certainly, divinity could have avoided the end, but by doing so would have separated itself from humanity. And Jesus was here to do just the opposite.

I don’t want to deny any metaphor for the atonement. I think it is rich enough of a reality to allow for many metaphors. But I also don’t want to find myself limited to one way of looking at it. It is too rich in meaning to allow for that.

Here’s the YouTube of “I Finished the Work.”

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