Why did Jesus die? To take the punishment for our sins, of course. But did you ever wonder: how did God plan to achieve this death? What strategy did he need in order to make it happen?
If it was God’s wrath that was poured out on Jesus on the cross, why were any humans involved in his execution at all? Could Jesus not have called all of Israel to gather atop a hill for God himself to reign down a purely divine, public execution?
God’s plan for the death of his Son was to have him killed by humans. How, then, was he to orchestrate such an event? How was humanity ever going to be motivated to kill this man Jesus? What scheme, what trick was Jesus going to devise to ensure that humanity would murder him, unwittingly inciting what was in reality a divine act of atonement?
It is no coincidence that Jesus was not executed as a murderer, a thief, an adulterer, or as the culprit of any other common crime. Jesus was executed as a blasphemer. Jesus – God in the flesh – was killed for nothing more than claiming to be God.
There was no need for God to orchestrate some freak historical accident where, by some mistrial, Jesus was erroneously found to be guilty of something as arbitrary and theologically irrelevant as, say, robbing a bank. There was no trickery, no divine coincidence in Jesus’ strategy to provoke his own execution: all he had to do was come to Earth, and reveal himself to us.
Our resentment toward God and our refusal to submit to him would do the rest.
God himself became flesh and dwelt among us. He said “Here I am! I am God!” And in utter outrage we responded… “No you’re not.”
History is not the story of Man pursuing God. History is the story of God pursuing Man. And Man rejecting his advances. For thousands of years he sent sign after sign and messenger after messenger, calling us to live with him. But the more we knew of him the more reason we found to turn away from him. Yet he pursued us still, until there was nothing left for him to do but come himself: to become flesh and bone, to share in our vulnerable humanity, to speak to us by his own human mouth. And he said as he had always said, “Come to me! I am what you need. In me you will find life. I am what you’ve been searching for. I am the God who made you!” And we said as we had always said, “No! You are not my god!” See, everything Jesus did and said was no more than a necessary expression of his own divine nature. It was in reaction to God’s very personality that we responded in violent protest and repudiation. Unable to bare the thought that he might be god over us, and backed into a corner by such an immediate and obtrusive revelation of our creator, we did the only thing we had left to do. We silenced him. We punished him. We tortured him. We killed God for claiming to be our God. On the surface he was crucified for blaspheming against Yahweh; but in our hearts we crucified him for blaspheming against us – for seeking to take us down from the throne we occupied as lord of our own life.
If Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, his death on the cross is the ultimate revelation of Man. Our identity is defined by our response to our creator, and this was one of hostility. Yet as we gaze upon the revealed, amazing sin of humanity, we then see the amazing love of the Father – as this humanity, who has so despised him, is the object of his unrelenting affection.
Now, there are many ways in which it can be truly said “he bore the penalty of our sin.” One of them is perhaps that, as Jesus hung on that cross, the Father for that moment surrendered to the will of humanity. God sanctioned and affirmed, as it were, humanity’s assessment of Jesus. We crucified him as a blasphemer, and God set his face towards him as a blasphemer. We called Jesus (who was God) a sinner. And God said to our verdict, “Amen,” as he placed upon Jesus all the sins of the whole world, counting him as worthy of punishment – worthy of the death we gave him. What took place within the relationship between the Father and the Son at the crucifixion is, I think, a mystery whose depths we may never fully understand. But another way in which Jesus “bore the penalty of our sin,” is that he did so literally: God let our sin, our hostility towards him, our rejection of him, take its full, complete effect. Becoming vulnerable in mortal flesh, he placed himself in our hands to do with him as we pleased; and it pleased us to kill him. And hence comes the amazing love of God. It was God himself who initiated this story of betrayal. Knowing the disposition of our heart, he pursued us. Knowing we would reject him and kill him for it, he came to us and showed us who he was. He pursued us, and we ran from him, and he pursued us more, and we kept running. And the closer he got to us the more vulnerable he had to make himself, until he stood before us face to face, naked and in chains. He knew that we would meet his vulnerability with abuse, that we would take advantage of it by murdering him. And yet he came. God pursued Man even to death.
Why did he do that?
He did it because he could. God let us kill him because he knew he could handle it. Death was a burden too great for us, but not for him. Death was the end for us but not for him. Death had power over us but never over him. We used it to knock him down, but he got back up. He got back up and he was still God, and he was still coming after us. Got let us go all the way in our rejection of him. He took from us all the punches we could possibly deliver. All the sin we could throw at him we threw it, his execution on a Roman cross being its final, ultimate expression – the fatal blow that we thought would put an end to him. But no, it wasn’t enough to stop him. And nothing will ever be enough to stop him from being God and nothing will ever be enough to stop him loving us, chasing us, crying out to us “Come.” God allowed us to unleash all of our anger upon him, and he supplied all the ammunition, so that he could show us just how much he wanted us, just what he was willing to go through just to get to us: that he would endure death itself only to come out the other end with the same open arms he had from the beginning.
God didn’t just pursue us unto death; he pursued us through it. And he is still now pursuing us.
We know, then, that God is big enough to handle all of our mistakes; he can withstand all our rejection because he withstood it in its ultimate form on the Cross. We can run away from him, we can forget him, we can wilfully ignore him, we can treat his laws with contempt, and we can even hate him – and every time we do, we partake in the very same sentiment that crucified Christ – but we cannot stop him pursuing us. Because nothing we can ever do to God will surpass what we have already done to him; we’ve already killed him, and he came back. The fight is over. What is left for us to do but surrender to his pursuit?
“Though he was in the form of God, did no count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8)
“For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:19-20)
“He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53:3)
“This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.” (John 5:18)
“The Jews answered Jesus, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you but for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself God.’” (John 10:33)
“Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him.” (John 8:58-59)
“And Pilate again said to them, ‘Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ And the crowd cried out again, ‘Crucify him.’ And Pilate said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him.’” (Mark 15:12-14)
“And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” (Mark 15:34)
“Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him” (Isaiah 53:10)
“For our sake, he made him who knew no sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
“But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:4-7)
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself with be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more.” (Revelation 21:3-4)
“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)