Why did Jesus die and what did his death accomplish? Though you may know that Jesus died on the cross, you may fail to understand the significance of what his death accomplished. On one hand, your misunderstanding of this crucial event may be due to a wrong perspective; but on the other hand, it may be due to an incomplete perspective.
Whatever the case, understanding the significance of the death of Jesus more accurately serves two important purposes. First, it guards you against doctrinal error. If you misunderstand the death of Christ, then you misunderstand the gospel. Second, it increases your appreciation for the work of Jesus Christ and your devotion to him.
Wrong Views of the Significance of the Death of Jesus
The Governmental View
This view suggests that Jesus died to show us the strong displeasure of God towards sin. While it is true that his death shows us the strong displeasure of God towards sin, this view fails by teaching that the death of Jesus served merely as an alternative to your punishment. By teaching that his death was similar or comparable to the death that you deserve, it fails to recognize that he died the exact and complete death that you deserve. As such, this view presents the death of Jesus as a technical necessity rather than an actual fulfillment of the punishment your sin deserves. Furthermore, it diminishes the significance of the death of Jesus.
The Moral Influence View
This view suggests that Jesus died to show his incomparable love for sinful people and to inspire you to turn from your sin to God. While it is true that his death reveals the magnificent love of God towards sinners, this view falls short by teaching that his death was nothing more than a demonstration of love, a most extravagant display of divine love (John 3:16; Rom 5:8). But Jesus did not die merely to demonstrate his love; he died to accomplish something more significant. Furthermore, he did not attempt merely to motivate you to turn from your sins. After all, nothing in the world – not even the most supreme act of love – is able to persuade you emotionally to turn from your sin (John 3:19). Jesus died to accomplish something more significant and certain.
The Example View
This view suggests that Jesus died to provide you with an example of true obedience and to inspire you to live in a similar way. While it is true that Jesus intends for anyone who believes on him for salvation to follow him through suffering, this view falls short by teaching that the death of Jesus was merely an example of obedience to follow (1 Pet 2:21). Jesus died to accomplish something more, something that not only inspires and instructs you to do good, but also enables you to do so for real. Furthermore, this view disregards the need for personal repentance and salvation by teaching that anyone may aspire to be like Jesus through noble effort and good deeds.
The Accident View
This view suggests that Jesus died as a result of overconfidence about his identity and mission. While the three views previously mentioned fail by providing an incomplete perspective, this view fails entirely. The death of Jesus was not an unfortunate event which he could have avoided. He did not die because his claims to be the Messiah somehow “got to his head” and caused him to “go too far” and to “take on more than he could handle.” Instead, Jesus taught beforehand that he would die (Matt 16:21; 17:22). His death was no surprise. He intended to die. In fact, his death was an eternal and intentional feature in the plan of God (Acts 2:23). Furthermore, by claiming to be God and Messiah, Jesus did not claim too much. He spoke the truth.
The Martyr View
This view suggests that Jesus died because he threatened the status quo with his radical ideas. Though Jesus did threaten the status quo, his primary antagonists merely lobbied for the Roman government to execute him on these grounds – that he was a political threat to Rome. However, they wanted him executed for a different and deeper reason, namely that he claimed to be the Son of God. Knowing this, the martyr view fails to recognize the underlying spiritual significance of the death of Jesus (John 10:33).
A Correct View of the Significance of the Death of Jesus
When Jesus died, he did something very significant. He died to take your place. He stood where you deserve to stand. He hung where you deserve to hang. He died the death that you deserve to die. He fully, personally, and directly received on himself the punishment that you rightly deserve to receive for your own sins. But instead of you receiving this punishment for yourself, Jesus became your substitute. He took your place. He received on him the punishment that you deserve.
Paul alludes to this when he wrote, “He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor 5:21).” The little English word for in the phrase “sin for us” is used for a Greek word which means “in the place of.” You could read this verse in this way, “He made him who knew no sin to be sin in our place.”
To understand what this means, you can read how people used this word in ordinary life in some ancient documents called the Oxyrhynchus Papyri. Papyri 1453 says, “Thonis Arpaesios I have written for him, being desired to because he does not know letters.” Papyri 373 says, “I have written for him who alleges not to know letters.” Papyri 380 says, “Lusas Didumou wrote for them because they do not know letters.” In these examples, you discover that there were people who needed to write a receipt, letter or other document, but they were uneducated and unable to write. To solve this problem, they delegated the writing task to someone else who could do it for them.
In another place, Paul uses this word when he says, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). The word for reflects the same Greek word meaning “in the place of.” The idea is this: Jesus died on the cross in the place of you, because you needed to die for your sins, but you were not able to do so in a satisfactory way. So, Jesus stepped in under the punishment that you deserve, and he let your punishment fall on him in your place.
When Paul described the death of Jesus in substitutionary terms, he also taught another aspect of the significance of the death of Jesus – redemption. He said, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). Redemption means “to release from slavery by the payment of a price.”
To what were you enslaved? You were enslaved by the curse of the law, an empty lifestyle, and all kinds of iniquity (Gal 3:13; 1 Pet 1:18; Tit 2:14; Heb 2:14-15). You were enslaved to sin. Sin was your master. You had to sin. You were unable to do otherwise. Jesus died to liberate you from this enslavement to sin.
What was the price for your freedom? Peter teaches, “You were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ” (Eph 1:7; 1 Pet 1:18-19). Jesus paid the most expensive price. Nothing is more precious or priceless than this.
For what were you redeemed? You were redeemed so that you would do good works, the kind which are genuinely good (Tit 2:14). Furthermore, you were redeemed so that you would someday be received into the family of God for eternity as a child of God. The Bible calls this “the adoption of sons” (Gal 4:5). Ultimately, you have been redeemed, liberated and purchased out from the slave market of sin so that you will glorify and serve the God who loves you (1 Cor 6:20; 7:23).
Jesus not only died to be your substitute and to redeem you from enslavement to sin (and the consequences of sin). He also died to appease God’s wrath towards sinners, including you. John tells us, “He himself is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:2). Propitiation is an important theological and doctrinal word. It means “to satisfy the wrath of another person by means of an offering or a gift.”
Some people claim that God cannot be angry because he is a loving God. However, anyone who loves deeply also knows what it means to be angry. Just as goodness elicits joy and true delight, that which is evil elicits deep displeasure and anger. Therefore, the God who loves perfectly also displays anger in its strongest form. Scripture teaches that our loving God is angry with sinners every day (Psa 7:11), though he certainly loves them at the same time (John 3:16).
Knowing this, it is most remarkable to understand that the death of Jesus reveals to us the incredible love of God, even with reference to his wrath towards sinners. True stories may be told of people inhabiting jungles and mountains who seek to appease the wrath of their false gods, demons and deceased ancestors. To appease this wrath, they do ridiculous things. They walk on hot coals and climb ladders made of knives. They destroy neighboring villages. They offer their children as human sacrifices. Yet by doing all these things and more, they can never satisfy the anger that they feel is upon them.
The death of Jesus shows that the one true God is different. Though he is deeply, genuinely and perfectly angry towards sinners, he does not expect you, nor I, nor anyone else to resolve his anger towards our sin. Knowing that we are unable to do so, he took upon himself the sin and punishment that we all deserve. Jesus, who is God, allowed the wrath of God for your sin and mine to fall upon himself instead.
In this way, he maintained the justice that is necessary while also being merciful. In this way also, as in so many others, God is unlike the false religions of the world. Of Jesus, Paul says this: “Whom God set forth as a propitiation by his blood, through faith, to demonstrate his righteousness … that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:25-26). He not only judges your sin, but he judges your sin by taking your place and pouring out his anger on himself, on Jesus Christ.
Jesus died to restore peace between God and sinners. Paul describes this concept in this way, “All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). Reconciliation means “to restore peace between two opposing, hostile parties.” By nature, every person is hostile towards God. But your hostility to God is unlike the kind that often exists between two people or two groups of people.
When two people or groups of people are at odds with one another, they both carry a percentage of blame. Both contribute their own sinfulness to the broken relationship, but in your relationship to God, you are the only party who contributes to the brokenness. Just like Adam and Eve in the beginning, you walked away from God. You resisted and rebelled against the good, loving and perfect will and design of God for your life.
Since this is the case, you would think that God expects you to make things right. You would think that God expects you to take steps to reverse your rebellion and correct your sin, but such is not the case. That’s why Paul says, “All things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18). All things are of God because through the death of Jesus, God does “all the things” that are necessary to restore your relationship to him, even though you are the one who walked away.
In a normal reconciliation, both sides must recognize where they have spoken or acted in a wrongful manner. They must say things, do things and offer things as a gift to remove the hostility and restore peace in the relationship. But through the death of Jesus, God has provided the necessary gift on your behalf to restore your relationship to him forever. In this way, the reconciliation of the cross is more remarkable indeed.
- You deserve to die, but Jesus died in your place.
- You were in bondage to sin, but Jesus made you free.
- You deserved God’s wrath, but Jesus appeased this wrath.
- You were separated from God, but Jesus restored this relationship.