I stood in awe at the foot of that tree –
Looking down He whispered softly to me.
All is not lost my child; I have set you free –
For the ransom is paid, loves power you see.
Anthony Sturges (2013)
Consummatum Est – It is completed[i]
The theme for the third session of Alpha was ‘Why did Jesus die?’ In the discussion forums following the presentation, the questions flowed thick and fast: Why? Why did He have to die? Surely there must have been another way? An all-powerful God would not let this happen.
Indeed, why did He have to die? After all He is the Word Incarnate.
As the instrument of salvation, the cross is not only the most significant object within the Christian faith but it is also a contradiction, the cause of so many questions! From a moral standpoint, it is repugnant and a total paradox particularly when viewed in terms of human dignity – but then that’s its common purpose; it is meant to degrade the victim and to provide a hideous example to others. However, through Christianity this horrific instrument of torture becomes instead, the gateway to freedom of life, the path to truth.
Crucifixion is a particularly barbaric form of capital punishment[i]; in fact it was regarded as so barbaric that Emperor Constantine eventually banned its use within the Roman Empire. Crucifixion left the condemned person to hang from a wooden cross until dead; death was caused by a combination of factors but most notably, asphyxia. The length of time taken to die could be a few hours to a few days, dependent on the circumstance and the health of the condemned person. It was also commonplace to break the victim’s legs to hasten death – this was actually a mercy because a crucifixions’ barbarity left very few people unmoved.
In many instances, crucifixion was preceded by scourging[ii], a hideous form of corporal punishment using a scourge or many tailed whip; the Roman version, the flagrum was tipped with barbs and was so brutal that it often led to the excoriation of the condemned. Mercifully, perhaps, this just served to hasten death in crucifixion.
The main question we need to deal with is ‘Why did Jesus have to die’? To answer this we need to understand how sin was dealt with in the Old Covenant because I think that this will contextualise God’s solution to the dilemma of sin and Jesus’ relationship to this covenant.
Most Christians are familiar with repentance under the New Testament covenant – Jesus died for our sins. However it is important to understand how atonement for sin was achieved in the second temple period – during the time of Jesus.
The sacrificial system of Leviticus[i] required the spilling of blood. It was known that the sentence for sin was death; but in accordance with the provisions of Leviticus the spilling of animal blood in substitution for man’s offences provided atonement for those sins. This was the substitutionary nature of the Old Law.[ii] The important aspect I want you to remember here is the assumed nature of this action.
Now let’s look at the holiness of God[iii] – His utter and absolute perfection, for holiness refers to the greatness, to the purity of God. By holiness God is set infinitely apart from all else.
In chapter 6, after seeing the vision of God, Isaiah says:
5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”[iv]
God is infinitely pure, without stain in any way and consequently our iniquity distances us from Him as infinitely as he is perfect. Again Isaiah 59:2 says:[v]
2 but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God…
The wages of sin are death, which our Lord cannot just waive aside, for He is also perfectly just. The death spoken of here is not physical death but something infinitely worse – spiritual death, the eternal separation from God. In fact this was probably the worst torture of all for our Lord on the cross – “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” This occurs as He bears the sin of all mankind; remember, God is holy and totally without sin thus when Jesus bears our sins as the incarnate Son of Man, he is separating Himself entirely from the Father.
No matter how upright we think we are, we’re not! John says everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.[vi] The Confiteor says it all: ‘…I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do…’ we are impure by the very thoughts that we think, by the deeds not done.
There is no such thing as partial sin – sin is sin. God is absolutely without sin, without blemish of any sort, He is infinitely pure. In His infinite purity He cannot abide any sin and in His infinite integrity, all sin requires infinite justice.
As any parent would step in harms way for their children, so God our father, whose love is immeasurable, wants likewise. Earlier in this essay I mentioned the word substitutionary, well this is it, this is the perfect sacrifice – God taking on our sins, taking the punishment which justifiably belongs to each and every one of us, accepting the punishment on our behalf – paying the ransom.
A question asked was “Surely in His omnipotence God could have found a better way?” Well logically he couldn’t because in His perfection, were there a better way and He did not make it, then He wouldn’t be perfect, He wouldn’t be God!
No, the choice was the right one, for the infinite nature of God demands an equally infinite sacrifice to make amends. This is a ransom beyond man’s means; it is ‘grace’ and is offered free without bond.
Having said that, there is one overriding caveat, you must accept or reject life, His offer.
Paul said in Ephesians 2:
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.[vii]
1. Alexander, C. F. (Composer). There was a Green Hill Far Away.
2. Atonement on the Old Testament Law. (2009, Sep 11). Retrieved Aug 10, 2013, from Returning King.com: http://returningking.com/new/?p=667
3. Book of Leviticus. (2013, June 20). Retrieved August 12, 2013, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Book_of_Leviticus&oldid=560718276
4. Crucifixion. (2013, July 29). Retrieved August 10, 2013, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Crucifixion&oldid=566323821
5. Goettsche, R. (2000, June 25). The Holiness of God. Retrieved August 10, 2013, from Union Curch of La Harpe, USA: http://www.unionchurch.com/archive/062500.html
6. New International Version®. (2011). Holy Bible in Ephesians 2:1-10. Retrieved August 14, 2013, from BibleGateway.com: http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ephesians+2%3A1-10&version=NIV
7. Scourging. (2010, May 04). Retrieved August 10, 2013, from Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Scourging&oldid=360123877
8. Sturges, A. J. (2013, August 09). ‘At the Foot of the Tree’. Johannesburg, Guateng, South Africa: -.
[i] (Book of Leviticus, 2013)
[ii] (Atonement on the Old Testament Law, 2009)
[iii] Bear in mind that God is ineffable in human terms!
The Revised Standard Version of the Bible: Catholic Edition, copyright © 1965, 1966 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[vii] (New International Version®, 2011)
[i] (Crucifixion, 2013)
[ii] (Scourging, 2010)
[i] John 19:30