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Why Did Jesus Have to Die? A Pastoral Approach

Christian martyrs faced death in such a different way than Jesus did, and I wonder why.  I am not thinking of the means by which they died, i.e. burning at the stake, crucifixion, etc.  No, I am reflecting on the major contrast in spirit and attitude. 

The martyrs died with unbelievable inner peace and strength, with hearts and lips praising God.  On the other hand, Jesus died begging God to let him off the hook, and in his last moments crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.”  At the risk of sounding sacrilegious it seems that the martyrs died much more nobly than Jesus.  Why the difference?  I believe that the observation of two factors helps us answer this question.

First, Jesus and the martyrs experienced oneness with God in very different ways. The martyrs obviously had unity, intimacy, oneness, etc., with God in ways beyond words.  They were filled and enveloped by divine Holy Spirit presence and power.  They could not have faced death the way they did without that experience.

But Jesus died with a cry of desperation over the fact that his Father had forsaken him. Jesus had never known anything but oneness with God.  In his gospel John makes this one of his primary themes.  John 14:9-10 says that when Phillip asked Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus made it very clear that he was in the Father and the Father in him.  He also indicated that his life was simply a complete outpouring of God’s direction in and through him for others.  So why the total separation from God at his death?  This question leads us to observe a second contrast between Jesus and the martyrs. 

The testimony of the martyrs at their death reveals that they had experienced remarkable levels of inner healing and forgiveness for their sins. It seems that they experienced no sense of guilt and shame, only gratitude and praise to God for his redeeming love.

But it was exactly the opposite for Jesus when he died.  Jesus was experiencing himself as a sinner full of guilt and shame. He was not just satisfying some legal/forensic requirement of the law, “paying the penalty” for our sins. The Christian church has focused so much on this meaning of the death of Jesus that too often we have missed the heart of Jesus’ suffering.  He was not simply paying a penalty for sin; he was actually experiencing sin as if he was a sinner himself.  And he was living this experience not simply as one sinner.  No, he was taking on the guilt and shame of all sin throughout the ages, feeling the guilt and shame of every sinful human being throughout all time. It is no wonder he had a completely different attitude and spirit than the martyrs who knew none of this when they died. 

We learn in II Corinthians 5:21 that, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Notice the text says that Jesus actually became sin for us, which goes much deeper than only paying a penalty for sin.  It is one thing for someone to pay a penalty for another’s sin, knowing he did not commit the sin.  It is something altogether different to pay the penalty for one’s own sin.  Jesus died experiencing all sin as if he himself was responsible and guilty for the sin.  He truly became sin – both in degree and kind like has never been experienced before or since. We need to further explore this.

Bob had an affair while married to Sally, an event over which they eventually divorced.  But years later Sally is still carrying the pain of being betrayed.  Every day she rehearses to herself the hurt and unfairness of the whole experience.  She is so obsessed with it that it even controls her countenance and body language. Her body is bent over as if carrying a huge weight (and she is). Even her health is affected by the burden. 

Sally has three choices.  She can continue to carry the pain as she has been doing for so many years. The inclination to do this is very strong. After all she is right, and when one is right it feels so good to nurture hurt, hatred, desire for revenge, etc.  In a kind of distorted way there is a lot of satisfaction in holding onto unjust treatment. It feels good to be right and to wish the worst on the other person. It has been said that of the seven deadly sins anger is the most fun! The problem with carrying the pain, no matter how self-righteously, is that it is fundamentally self destructive—both emotionally and spiritually.

Second, Sally can choose to absorb the pain herself, forgive and go on with her life. The problem is that she cannot truly let go of the pain by trying to absorb it.  And subsequently she will not be able to truly and completely forgive the other person.  Sally will end up stuffing, and hence, she will continue to hurt herself emotionally and spiritually. This second choice is simply a self-deceptive way of rationalizing her way into believing she is past the pain while in fact she is still carrying it. 

Sally has a third choice, which is the only one that truly heals. She can go to the cross and turn the emotional debt of pain over to Christ. Then as she surrenders the pain to him, Christ can fill her with his forgiving love, which she can then extend to her former husband. 

This is central way of understanding the cross. Jesus was not simply paying a legal penalty for sin. He was experiencing the emotional debt of pain all sin causes. Since He carried this for us on the cross, why should Sally, or any of us, keep holding on to the emotional pain sin brings us? Whenever there is sin, the result is emotional pain. What will be done with this pain? We have already noted that it does not work to wish it back on the one who hurt us. Nor does it work to try to absorb it ourselves. The pain needs to be released and surrendered to Jesus. This brings us to one of the most puzzling and challenging instructions in the Bible.

In James 1:2-4 and Romans 5:2-5 we are told to rejoice in trials and suffering. What a strange instruction! Certainly trials and sufferings can be seen as helpful laboratories within which God matures our characters, but the idea that we should rejoice and experience our sufferings as pure joy seems totally unreasonable. How can we possibly rejoice when we are hurting?

I would suggest that what brings us to this radical place is the experience of surrendering the emotional pain caused by trials.  When we surrender the pain to Jesus, then we are able to actually thank him for the work of maturing he will do in us. Having given the pain over to him we can focus on humbly, gratefully, and joyfully accepting trials and suffering because we long for our characters to be molded more and more like Christ. 

Without Jesus’ death on the cross, we humans would be powerless against the emotional debt of pain sin brings us. Sin breaks us so that no matter how hard we may try, we cannot rid ourselves of pain, and we cannot forgive others (see Romans 8:7,8).  Understanding this is crucial to realizing why Jesus had to die— both to save us and to heal us. And that is why Jesus died so differently than the martyrs. He died carrying all the pain that sin has caused through all of time. But the martyrs carried no pain, not even their own.

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