Why Did Jesus HAVE to die? — (Part 2)

If you’re just chiming in, I’m working on a little book that takes a look at who God is and what that means for our lives. There is a particular focus on Jesus’ death and what God is up to in that tragedy. Like many others, I’ve long been concerned that the traditional view of Jesus’ death has contributed to the creation and justification of controlling and cruel cultures. The hope for this book is to “restore God’s image” or suggest that “God is not the problem” (working titles). In the last couple of posts, I offered an answer to the question “why did Jesus die?” Below is the conclusion of an answer to the follow-up question, “why did Jesus HAVE to die?” Here we go!

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. — James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

Blood is (eternal) Life

In chapter 2 we looked at the role that blood plays in two major sacrifices. Blood was shed when a lamb was sacrificed for Passover as God’s people remembered how God freed them from slavery in Egypt. Blood was also shed on the Day of Atonement when a bull and a goat were sacrificed as a way to recommit to a faithful relationship with God. In each case, the point was made that the blood did not signify the gloom of death. Instead, the blood was a sign and seal of a very precious and fully devoted life. Blood is life.

This is important to remember because the Bible talks quite a bit about Jesus’ blood. Jesus tells his followers that they must drink his blood (Jn. 6). The Bible says that we have been brought near to God by the blood of Jesus (Eph. 2:13). We have been sprinkled with his blood (I Pet 1:2) and the blood of Jesus has cleansed us from our sin (I John 1:7). Clearly, the blood of Jesus plays an important role in what God is doing. You might expect all of this blood to refer to Jesus’ death, but that’s why it’s important to remember that blood is life. Just as the flow of blood through our bodies creates life, so the flow of Jesus’ blood creates eternal life.

In chapter 3 we listened to the call of the prophets. Prophet after prophet ridiculed the rotten rituals of God’s people. The prophets called the people away from empty sacrifices to a way of life rooted in justice, kindness, and humility. God challenged his people to live more faithfully. At the same time, there was the comfort of the “graceful continued offer of relationship which God extends to the world” through covenants. What’s more is that each failure on the part of God’s people seems to have been met with greater faithfulness on the part of God. Each time God’s people fell short God comforted his people with a better promise. We see the same thing happening through Jesus.

If God recognized our desperate attempts at control as a result of poor choices, then we would expect God to judge us. If God saw our cruelty as a result of bad character, then we could understand why God would condemn us. But that is not the merciful, gracious, patient, and lovingly loyal God we have come to know. Instead, God seems to recognize our weakness, our fear in the face of death, and our misguided attempts to save ourselves at the expense of others. God sees us as slaves, like the people in Egypt, unable to break free. So, God makes a better promise.

Much of this is captured in the book of the Bible called Hebrews. It’s a letter that compares the work that God is doing in Jesus with the work that God had done before. One word keeps coming up: better. On the one hand, there was the elimination of the old commandment because it was “weak and ineffectual.” On the other hand, there was the introduction of a better hope, through which we approach God. (Heb. 7:18–19).

The people who received this letter were showing compassion to those in prison and endured the theft of their possessions because they knew that they had something better in store (Heb. 10:34). They were responding to each other in new ways because they believed that Jesus offered something better. “Jesus has now obtained a more excellent ministry, and to that degree he is the mediator of a better covenant, which has been enacted through better promises.” (Heb. 8:6). We covered the change in covenant in chapter 5. In this chapter we are taking a closer look at the better promise contained in this new covenant. It can be described in two words: eternal life.

You don’t need to have been in the pew of a church to know “John 3:16.” You’ve likely seen it draped over the wall at a football game. It refers to a verse in the Bible that you’ve already encountered in this book: For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son so that whoever believes in him will not die but have eternal life. It is very well known and so misunderstood. If there is one thing that I hope you pick up it’s this:

Eternal life is as much about quality as it is about quantity.

When most Christians talk about eternal life they think only about the length of life. For them, eternal life is something that begins after they die and then goes on forever. This way of thinking is pretty closely tied to the way many people think about Jesus’s death. So, if you asked them to help you understand John 3:16 they might say, “Jesus died so that God could forgive my sins. If I believe that Jesus is God’s Son, then after I die I will go to heaven.” The problem with this understanding is that eternal life is not only about what happens after we die.

The clearest example of this is found in another passage from the gospel of John. As Jesus prays he says, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (17:3). Here Jesus describes eternal life as something we know. Eternal life is knowing God and Jesus. That’s obviously something that can happen before we die. These words from Jesus’ prayer are our first hint that “eternal life” refers to a certain way of life or a certain kind of life, and not just a span of life that begins after death.

At another point in John’s gospel, Jesus compares himself to a shepherd who tends to a flock of sheep. He contrasts himself with a “hireling” who is just doing a job (10:12). The hireling doesn’t really care about the sheep. At the first sign of trouble he abandons the sheep to their destruction. Jesus also contrasts himself with a thief who only comes in to “kill, steal, and destroy” the flock (10:10). The good shepherd, on the other hand, knows the sheep by name, cares for the sheep, and is willing to lay down his life for the sheep.

Of course, Jesus isn’t talking about sheep. He is talking about people. He is using the metaphor to help his listeners understand his purpose. He said, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (10:10). There is nothing spiritual or religious about the word. Jesus is talking about life, about eating and drinking and breathing and sleeping. It was not something heavenly or distant, but contained in flesh and blood. Quite simply, Jesus came to pass along life. But, it was a certain quality of life. It was an abundant life. It was a full and complete life.

We find something similar in another book of the Bible called I Timothy. Timothy was a young minister struggling to maintain leadership over his flock, his church. Toward the end of the letter comes the encouragement to “fight the good fight of faith” and “take hold of the eternal life.” (6:12) The point is that neither of these commands is meant to take place in the future. Timothy is being encouraged to keep it up and not let go. Eternal life is within his grasp right now.

He is commanded to shun evil, those “senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (6:9). He is charged to recognize how the love of money has led people away and caused them to pierce themselves with many pains (6:10). In contrast with this way of life, there is a life that keeps the commandment of Jesus (6:14) and is characterized by “righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness.” (6:11) Again, eternal life refers to a certain kind of life, a quality of life characterized by a certain set of virtues.

As the letter goes on, the author comes to the topic of rich members of the church. They are not to be proud or conceited because of their wealth. They should not be setting their hope on riches. While this is a way of life available to them, it is not the sort of life that they should live. They can cling to their wealth, but it will only lead to their ruin. Instead, “they are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.” (6:18).

There are many versions of life to choose from as we observe the world. There are versions of life that lead to pain and destruction. They are controlling and cruel ways of life and they lead to death. But there is another way of life that Jesus made known as well. It is a different version of life that human beings of flesh and blood can live. Those other versions of life turn out to be shadows of the real thing. The life of Jesus, however, is life that really is life. It is a true way of life. Baldwin might say it is a beautiful life.

To paraphrase him, perhaps the whole root of our trouble is the slavery we find ourselves in because of our fear of death. We will take hold of anything and everything in an attempt to get control and save ourselves, even at the expense of others. What we don’t realize is that this tight hold is really a panicked death grip. Death has gotten a hold on us and we are going down, taking innocents with us. Death rules. And, death would have won had it not been for Jesus, who died, who was raised, who defeated the one who holds the power of death by proving that death is nothing to fear.

A Matter of Life & Death

We have already briefly mentioned the words “sin” and “salvation” in chapter 4. The church has too often described sin as a list of bad behaviors to avoid. It’s a list that too often seems arbitrary. What’s worse is that too many descriptions of sin seem irrelevant to the real tragedies of the world. Salvation is a word that has been reduced to an invitation you can accept so that you go to heaven after you die. Again, in a world of horror and bloodshed it seems a rather shallow promise if it has no impact for life on earth.

In short, words like sin and salvation have been reduced to membership in a religious institution. Those who are outside the church are sinners. Those who are inside the church are saved. Throughout the book I’ve tried to give you reason to know that you can reject those ideas without rejecting God, that God is not a problem for you. Since chapter 4 I’ve tried to make clear that sin is a problem because it is deadly. I’ve wanted you to see how what God is doing through Jesus and his death (and resurrection) is saving us from the tragedy and horror of death. Sin and salvation really are matters of life and death.

The Bible says that “the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Sin is a word that captures all of those behaviors that dehumanize people, destroy life, and pierce with pain. Sin is evil. Even though God is terribly angry about humanity’s carelessness with and cruelty toward human life, God has given us a free gift in Jesus. That gift is eternal life. It is God’s better promise. And, it is within our grasp if we will only loosen our death grip, if only we will believe in Jesus.

I know that that’s a loaded phrase for many people. For many people to “believe in Jesus” means little more than a particular understanding about a man who is really God. Those who share that belief are Christian. They go to church on Sunday and they sing songs and pray and read the Bible. The rest of the week it’s hard to know who is Christian and who is not. I’m suggesting that believing in Jesus is meant to mean much more than that.

To believe in Jesus is not to choose a certain kind of religion. It is to choose a certain way of life. To believe in Jesus is to trust that “God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.” (I John 5:11). To believe in Jesus is to believe that the life in him is the sort of life that God intended for everyone. To believe in Jesus is to believe that Jesus’ way of life is the true way of life. Of all the versions of life that are on display before us in the world, to believe in Jesus is to choose his version of life.

God knew that at the root of our human trouble was not the denial of death, but our fear of death. If God was going to set us free to live a new way of life that was full and complete and beautiful, then something inside us needed to change. God needed to address this fear. This is what the better promise is all about. Jesus had to die so that we could know that death no longer ruled over us and that the devil had no power over us (and neither does anyone else who threatens us). Jesus had to die so that something inside of us could change. Jesus died so that our fear of death could be replaced by trust in God. Jesus had to die so that we could know what kind of life is an eternal life and rediscover the beauty of life.

“Where, O Death, is your victory?

Where, O Death, is your sting?

But thanks be to God

Who has given us the victory

Through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The question for the next two posts will be “what does new covenant living look like in real life?” If we’re living life and unafraid of death, how then shall we live?

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Peter TeWinkle

Partner, Parent, Pastor & potential Placemaker pursuing God's peace and stopping occasionally to play golf.