Understanding Scripture

The Passion of Christ: Why Did Jesus Die?

This Passion Week, we look to the Scriptures to unpack the question behind Jesus' crucifixion.

This time in the season of the Church, we focus on the passion of Jesus Christ, that is His suffering, and what transpired those last few days and hours that He lived. The best way to do this is by reading the historical account in the Scriptures of the Last Supper Jesus had with His disciples, His betrayal, the trial and the crucifixion. 

When we read these biblical accounts of Jesus’ suffering and death, we enter as deeply as we can into the reality of this event. For many of us, we have heard it so many times that when we hear it again, it does not grip us as it should. For others of us, it may not be as familiar, and there is no respect for the reality of it. For these reasons, ask the Holy Spirit to enable you to grasp the depth of significance in the life and death of Jesus such that it will grip you in new and deeper ways.  

As you read this essay, please take time to read prayerfully the Scripture which grounds each act in this grand story of redemptive history.

As we enter into and engage this historical event through the Scriptures, observe Jesus’ actions and responses to what is happening to and around him. How does He conduct himself? What does He say to various people? And then in contrast, observe how others respond to Jesus. How do they act around Him? What do they say?  

While we read the biblical narrative, ask this question: who is at fault for Jesus’ death? Was it Judas? Was it the Jewish people and their high priests? Was it Pilate and the Roman soldiers? And then finally, and importantly, each must ask and seek an answer to this question: why did Jesus die? (cf. John Stott, “Why Did Christ Die,” in The Cross of Christ)  

Let’s consider several acts or events on the night Jesus was betrayed as we attempt to answer the question, “Why did Jesus die?” We look to God’s revealed account and His explanation of the account in the Scriptures for the answer (the Gospels record the historical event of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, while the rest of the New Testament explains the theological significance of those events). Our focus will mostly be on the Gospel of John. As you read this essay, please take time to read prayerfully the Scripture which grounds each act in this grand story of redemptive history. 

Act I: The Lord’s Supper—The Passover Meal 

Read John 13:1-17. 

The Lord’s Supper or Passover meal was that which began the evening. As we read this account, notice two things: the action of Jesus and the hymn they sang (see Mk. 14:12-26). 

Jesus knows “His hour had come to depart out of this work to the Father” (Jn. 13:1; cf. Jn. 7:30; 8:20; 18:1), meaning He would be betrayed and crucified. As Jesus celebrates this meal with His disciples, He is the one who serves the disciples by taking the basin and the towel and washing the disciples’ feet (Jn. 13:4-5). 

Jesus, the Savor, is also the Servant. He is also the Teacher. Jesus both performs this act of serving and then He explains the significance of what He did (redemptive acts are redemptively interpreted). Jesus modeled and taught them that the truly great one is the one who serves (Jn. 13:12-17). 

The disciples did not know what was happening. But Jesus knew precisely what was happening and why.

Keep in mind that Jesus knows there is a betrayer in His midst, Judas (Jn. 13:2, 18-19), and that He is on His way to death on a cross, yet He knew He had to celebrate this meal with His disciples. It had previously been said that the reason Jesus came was not to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45). Jesus is the model of servanthood. 

It is important to note that this is not the end of the story. This beautiful Passover meal was part of Jesus’ journey to the cross. He knew that what sinful humanity needed was not a good moral teacher, though He was, but ultimately a Savior. This is why Jesus is compelled to continue to the cross. 

As the evening progressed and the meal came to an end, they were all going to the Mount of Olives, to a place called Gethsemane. On their way, they sang a hymn. Mark records, “And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mk. 14:26). What was this hymn they sang? During the Passover celebration, they would sing from the Hallel (Hallelujah) Psalms (113-118). The first two Hallel Psalms would be sung at the beginning of the meal, while the rest of them would be sung after the meal.

As they walked to the Mount of Olives, they would have been singing from Psalm 118 with these words:

“This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we pray, O LORD! O LORD, we pray, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD. The LORD is God, and He has made His light to shine upon us. Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar! You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God; I will extol you. Oh give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His steadfast love endures forever!” (118:24-29). 

These truths permeated Jesus’ and the disciples’ minds. These words would have been resounding in their ears. But after they reached the Mount of Olives, and specifically the Garden of Gethsemane where they prayed (Mk. 14:32-42), things changed. The disciples were surprised and caught off guard. They did not know what was happening. But Jesus knew precisely what was happening and why, and his actions reveal it. 

Act II: The Arrest of Jesus  

Read John 18:1-11. 

Please observe three important actions. First is the authority and power of Jesus. When the people come looking for him, and after He identifies Himself, they “drew back and fell to the ground.” These Jewish soldiers and officials recognized an authority and power they had not before experienced.  

Jesus desires to be obedient to his Father, and His mission is the cross.

The second are the actions of Peter. Fear is often accompanied by a lack of knowledge or understanding of situation. Peter did not know what was happening, and he acted out of a fear for his life and the life of Jesus. Compare Peter’s response (18:10), who cut off Malchus’ right ear, and Jesus’ response (18:4), who asks the soldiers, the chief priests and the Pharisees who they sought. Peter still thought the kingdom Jesus was going to usher in was going to be by force, so he used the sword. Satan tempted Jesus earlier to be a king in this kind of a kingdom, and He refused (Matt. 4:1-11; Lk. 4:1-13). 

Why? The kingdom Jesus was ushering in was through the cross, not the sword (Jn. 18:36). His kingship was a suffering kingship so He could restore fallen, sinful, guilty humanity. This is why He told Peter to put away his sword (Jn. 18:11). (It is also why Jesus rebuked Peter earlier and told him to “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matt. 16:23; Mk. 8:33) when Peter thought there was a way other than the cross.) Jesus desires to be obedient to his Father, and His mission is the cross.

Lastly, observe what Judas did. He betrayed Jesus. Why did he do this? Humanly speaking, Judas was greedy (Jn. 12:3-6). He wanted money, and he was willing to betray Jesus with a kiss—a gesture reserved for friends—for money. He handed Jesus over for 30 silver coins (Matt. 26:14-16).  

Can we blame Judas for Jesus’ death? Yes, in certain respects we can. But not ultimately. 

Act III: The Jewish Trial 

Read John 18:12-27. 

There are many details in this text of Scripture, many we will overlook. But what is significant to notice is that the Jewish people and the priests committed Jesus to Pilate for trial. They accused Jesus of subversive claims and teachings, and they stirred up the crowd to demand Jesus’ crucifixion. 

The context was that of an authority struggle caused by envy (Matt. 27:18). The Jews were threatened by Jesus, so they wanted Him dead (cf. Matt. 27:25; Jn. 10:31-33; 11:45-53).  

Can we blame the Jews for Jesus’ death? Yes, in certain respects we can. But not ultimately. 

Act IV: Jesus Before Pilate and the Jews 

Read John 18:28-19:16. 

Pilate was the Roman governor of Judea. Due to Roman and Jewish law, the Jews insisted that the judicial system of the land be followed, so they brought Jesus to Annas (Jn. 18:12-14, 19-23), Caiaphas (Jn. 18:24)), the high priest, and the Sanhedrin (Mk. 15:1), the ruling body of the Jews. When they had exhausted the Jewish system, they pursued the Roman legal system, thus bringing Jesus to Pilate (Jn. 18:28-38) and Herod (Lk. 23:6-12). Additionally, the Jews could not execute Jesus (Jn. 18:31), which is what they desired.

So, what do we conclude? Why did Jesus die?

When we consider Pilate’s actions and how he responded to Jesus, we observe that he never found anything wrong with Jesus, nothing of which he could accuse Him. Jesus was not guilty. Consider these many statements made by Pilate: 

  • 18:38: “I find no basis for a charge against Him.” 
  • 19:4: “I find no basis for a charge against Him.” 
  • 19:6: “I find no basis for a charge against Him.” 
  • 19:12: “Pilate tried to set Jesus free.” 

When the Jews heard Pilate’s decision regarding Jesus, they were livid. Here are their responses: 

  • 18:40: “don’t release Jesus, give us Barabbas.” 
  • 19:3: “they mocked Him and beat Him.” 
  • 19:6: “crucify, crucify!” 
  • 19:7: “He must die.” 
  • 19:15: “Take Him away! Take Him away! Crucify Him!” 

The result? Pilate handed Jesus over to them to be crucified. Pilate faced a choice between honor and ambition, principle and expediency. He compromised because he was a coward. Their shouts. Their demands. Their will. It was to these Pilate weakly succumbed. 

Can we blame Pilate for Jesus’ death? Yes, in certain respects we can. But not ultimately. 

Act V: Jesus’ Crucifixion 

Read John 19:17-30. 

Imagine the feelings of despair and hopelessness Jesus’ followers felt. Was all this a result of chance? Not a chance! It was all part of God’s providentially purposeful plan. We observe numerous times that things happened, events occurred so that the Scriptures would be fulfilled. 

Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us, we must see the cross as something done by us.

  • 19:24: not to tear His robe (Ps. 22:18) 
  • 19:28: being thirsty (Ps. 22:15) 
  • 19:36: no broken bones (Ex. 12:46; Num. 9:12) 
  • 19:37: the one who is pierced (Zech. 12:10) 

So, what do we conclude? Why did Jesus die?  

Was it because of Judas for greed? The Jews for envy? Or Pilate for cowardice? All of these people play a part, and they are accountable, but they are not the ultimate cause (Acts 2:23-24). 

Act VI: Why Did Jesus Die? Because of My Sin 

Jesus says that no one takes His life from Him, but that He gives it up voluntarily (Jn. 10:18; 19:11). And this was done by men and also according to God’s “definite plan and foreknowledge” (Acts 2:23). The ultimate purpose Jesus came was to save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). He came to give His life as a ransom for many (Mk. 10:45). Christ died for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3), once for all, the just for the unjust, so that we could be brought to God the Father (1 Pet. 3:18). 

My sin ultimately was the reason Christ died on the cross (Isa. 59:2; Rom. 3:23; 6:23; Eph. 2:3), and Christ voluntarily, and for the joy set before Him (Heb. 12:2), paid the penalty for the sins of mankind. And some have claimed that even if Jesus had not been nailed to the cross, His love would have kept Him there, so that He would accomplish His mission. Love between Father and Son would have kept Him there.

Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us, leading to faith and worship, we must see the cross as something done by us, leading to repentance (cf. John Stott, The Cross of Christ [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986], 59-60). Octavius Winslow wrote (No Condemnation in Christ Jesus [London: John Farquhar Shaw, 1852], 367), “Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Judas, for money; not Pilate, for fear; not the Jews, for envy—but the Father for love.” 

Why did Jesus die? Because of my (our) sin. 

Act VII: Jesus’ Death Means Life 

Jesus did not come to make good people better. He came to save people from sin and to make dead people alive!

As we consider the passion week of Christ, culminating in his death, burial and resurrection, consider this truth in light of the plight and problem of humanity. What diagnosis do we give? Is our problem ignorance, so we need a teacher? Is it moral, so we need a model/example? Is it political, so we need an election? 

If we believe these things, we conclude Jesus did not have to die on the cross. Jesus did not come to make good people better. He came to save people from sin and to make dead people alive! As Stott reminds us, we were guilty, apathetic and in bondage. Jesus is the Savior, Teacher and Victor. 

In Response: Worship and Prayer 

As we ponder Jesus’ death, reflect on (or sing) this verse from “How Deep the Father’s Love”:  

Behold the man upon a cross, 

My sin upon His shoulders; 

Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice 

Call out among the scoffers. 

It was my sin that held Him there 

Until it was accomplished; 

His dying breath has brought me life – 

I know that it is finished. 

And then as we ponder the glorious resurrection, sing and mediate on the chorus from “Christ Arose”: 

Up from the grave He arose 

With a mighty triumph o'er His foes 

He arose a Victor from the dark domain 

And He lives forever with His saints to reign 

He arose! (He arose) 

He arose! (He arose) 

Hallelujah! Christ arose! 

With Thomas, we cry out in worship of Jesus, “my Lord and my God!” (Jn. 20:28). With the early Church, we pray, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).

Greg Strand

Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.

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