Once again, we're approaching the days on church calendars in which Christians around the world will be recalling the death, burial, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. As we do, a certain memory from my childhood comes back to me.
One day, when I was in a religion class at the school I attended in second grade, I had a burning question in my mind: "Why did Jesus have to die on the cross?" So, I timidly raised my hand and asked it. I'm sure the teacher did not intend for her answer to make me feel dumb, but that's how I felt.
"He died to open the gates of heaven," she said. No doubt she did not mean to sound as though I should have already known that, but that's the way my young mind interpreted it.
"But wait," I thought to myself, "didn't He come down from heaven before He died on the cross? So, He was already up there, right? Couldn't He have just opened up the gates on His way down?"
I still didn't understand. I didn't get the connection between opening the gates and His death on the cross. But here I was in a room crammed full of maybe 30 to 40 or so of my fellow Baby Boomers, and I was too embarrassed to ask a follow-up question. It seemed to me that I was the only one who didn't understand.
From that point on, part of me began wondering if would ever grasp this "religion stuff."
But years later, when I was in high school, it finally made sense. I had spent much of the intervening time trying to push God out of my life, but now He was relentlessly pulling me back toward Himself.
Although I don't remember exactly which Bible version I was reading, I'll never forget the first time I read Isaiah 53. It was probably in The Living Bible, which my mom had bought for me.
"We despised him and rejected him—a man of sorrows, acquainted with bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we didn't care. Yet it was our grief he bore, our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, for his own sins! But he was wounded and bruised for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace; he was lashed—and we were healed! We—every one of us—have strayed away like sheep! We, who left God's paths to follow our own. Yet God laid on him the guilt and sins of every one of us!" (Isaiah 53:3-6, The Living Bible)
I instantly realized that I was reading and Old Testament prophecy about Jesus, and it vividly confirmed what I had just recently come to believe because of what some new Christian friends had told me: Jesus died as my substitute, paying the price for my sins, in my place, so that I could pass through those heavenly gates that my second-grade religion teacher told me about. One word made all the difference for me: "substitute." It explained everything!
It was so amazing to me at the time, and so thrilling, that I figured everyone would want to know about it. But I came to learn that not everyone was as thrilled about this idea as I was. In fact, some thought it was downright offensive.
Some non-Christians I met felt insulted by the idea that they were so bad that they needed someone else to die in their place. As one person, who was running away from the teachings of the church and school he'd attended in his youth, said, "The idea that I need to be redeemed offends me."
I heard others object to the idea of God placing on one man all the sins of the world. They said it was cruel and unjust, forgetting that we're not talking about someone who was just a man, but God Himself who came into this world as the man Christ Jesus. So, in Christ, God was voluntarily taking our sins upon Himself. How is that cruel or unjust? Rather, it is love and mercy and grace!
But to my surprise I also heard similar objections from some professing Christians. They, too, found the notion of God punishing Jesus for their sins distastefully unnecessary, to say the least. Even though the prophecy in Isaiah 53 is quoted in the New Testament as the explanation for why Jesus died on the cross, these people insisted that there must be some other explanation.
One common alternative explanation is that Jesus merely died simply to set us a good example. We should be willing to sacrifice ourselves for the benefit of others just as He was.
Now, no one denies that the Bible teaches that Christ's willingness to sacrifice His life is an example for us to follow, but to say that was its only point still begs the question: "Why did Jesus have to go to the extreme of sacrificing His life on a cross to set such an example?" Was not His life prior to the cross a perfect example? He surely did not expect all of us to consider dying on crosses, did He? What would that accomplish? The Bible teaches that sacrifice is for the purpose of obtaining something better, not as an end in itself. So, what was that "something better" that Christ's death obtained? Besides, the Old Testament animal sacrifices that symbolized Christ's sacrifice were always for the forgiveness of His people's sins. They were not "examples" to follow. The same is true in the New Testament: Jesus' crucifixion is all about the forgiveness of our sins.
Some go a step further to say that His death is solely intended to show us His love, and so when we see how much He loved us, we will be motivated to love Him back. But again, didn't His whole life, with all His teachings, and healings, and the way He granted forgiveness and mercy already show how much He loved us? Exactly how did dying on a cross show us His love if it was not necessary to pay for our sins? And again, no one denies that His death shows us His love, but to say that was all His death was meant to accomplish begs all the same questions that the "good example" explanation leaves unanswered.
Others say that the purpose of Jesus' death is completely summed up in the fact, not that He paid for our sins, but that He defeated the powers of Satan and His demons and thus triumphed victoriously over them, which, of course cannot be denied. But they say He did this by paying a "ransom" in the form of His own life to the Devil. Satan, they say, was holding the sinful world hostage, and Jesus gave His life to get him to release us. But nowhere does the Bible teach that Satan somehow "owned" sinners until Jesus paid him for them. Nor does it teach that sinners owe any debt to the Devil, but rather that the debt caused by our sinfulness is one that we owe to God alone. Yes, Satan has a kind of "power" over sinners, and in a sense holds them "captive," and Christ's death releases us from all that. But Satan does these things by getting us to believe his lies and deception, not by literally capturing us. Satan is completely subject to God's power, just as we are.
Still others realize that they must make some connection between Christ's death and our sins because the connection is so clear in the Bible, but they still don't want to say that He died specifically to pay for oursins. So, instead they say that the Lord died only to show us what God thinks of sin, to demonstrate how horrible it is to Him. Instead of emphasizing the cross as a good example to follow, they say God uses Christ's cross simply an example of God's displeasure over our sins to promote His "moral government." Of course, the cross certainly does demonstrate these things, but to say that's all it does contradicts the Bible's teaching that Christ bore the specific punishment that we owed by paying all the personal debts we owed to God because of our sins.
And still others, when they hear about all these competing explanations for why Jesus had to die on the cross, throw their hands up and say, "Well, I guess it doesn't matter which explanation we choose!"
But it does matter.
It matters, first of all, because the Bible is so clear on this subject. "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God..." (1 Peter 3:18, ESV). The Lord Jesus "was delivered up for our trespasses," (Romans 4:25 ESV) and "died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures," (1 Corinthians 15:3b, ESV). He "was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities...and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all," (Isaiah 53:5-6, ESV).
And secondly, it matters because only one explanation "covers all the bases." To say that Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins as our substitute is the only explanation that not only includes all the other explanations but shows why they are true.
It not only affirms that His death gives us the pattern of a perfect example for us to follow, but the incomprehensible sacrifice Jesus endured by paying for our sins motivates us to follow it as nothing else can.
It not only paints the clearest portrait of the love that should inspire us, but knowing that our own personal sins were all laid on Jesus is the only thing that can really melt our cold hearts so that we can love Him back.
It not only provides the ultimate demonstration of Christ's victory over Satan, but it takes away the biggest weapon Satan uses against us: our guilt. Jesus paid for it all!
And it not only provides a vivid glimpse into God's hatred of sin, but it contradicts Satan's lie that our sins are really not so bad because no one less than God's own Son had to pay for them, and so we can begin to hate our sins as much as God does.
As Good Friday approaches, remember all that Jesus did for you as He hung on that cross. Not only is it important because it is biblical, but it is important because it will set you free.
Yes, because of your sins you are much worse than you appear to be on the outside, just as I am. But remember: He paid your awful debt because He loved you from all eternity. And as you remember, say along with the Apostle Paul, "I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me," (Gal 2:20 ESV).