Thursday, January 18, 2007

Did Jesus NEED to die on the cross?

There is a tacit assumption made by many Christians that Jesus had to die on the cross. This kind of death was needed - no one even questions the idea even though the gospels never say that.

The need for Christ's death on the cross is not questioned because it is indeed necessary if penal substitution and the surrounding doctrines are true. I do not believe this theory is taught by the New Testament. Once we look beyond this theory, though, we can notice the obvious - Jesus died as a martyr. He was put to death by authorities who did not like his teachings and actions. Jesus taught a message of social and cultural revolution. He gathered a following to further this revolution so that people could enjoy the benefits of experiencing this new kind of life that he called being in the "Kingdom of Heaven". Jesus brought people into the Kingdom of Heaven, and that is why he was killed.

The cross, then, is naturally a symbol of Jesus' life and message. A powerful symbol, but a symbol nonetheless. The apostle Paul referred to the cross in this way to encapsulate Jesus and his message. For early followers of Jesus it would have been obvious to Christians that his death was not significant because of some atonement theory only voiced centuries after Jesus. Rather, the cross is significant because of his life and teachings. Likewise, his resurrection is important because of both his life and his crucification.

Christians don't like this idea because it means that the cross was not needed to fulfill the Great Spiritual act of Atonement through penal substitution. They might think that this makes the cross meaningless. But they would be missing the message encapsulated and symbolized by the cross.

Jesus used the cross as a symbol of what it meant to follow him:
If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and let him bear his cross, and let him follow Me. (Mat 16:24)

Go, sell what things you have, and give to the poor. And you will have treasure in Heaven. And come, follow Me, taking up the cross. (Mar 10:21b)

Whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me, he cannot be My disciple. (Luk 14:27)

St. Paul used a mixture of analogies and symbolism to discuss Jesus and his message. He too used the cross to symbolise the Way of life Jesus lived and encouraged:
Be fellow-imitators of me, brothers, and consider those walking this way, even as you have us for a pattern. For many walk as hostile to the cross of Christ... (Php 3:17-18a)

Jesus often opposed the Torah as it was being practiced, and Paul appears to have followed Jesus' teachings. Those faithful to Jesus' teachings were thus often persecuted by Jews who wanted to enforce Torah (such as the Pharisees) because they saw the "offense of the Cross" (Gal 5:11). Paul refers to their persecution by saying they are "persecuted for the cross of Christ" (Gal 6:12). Then he says that he does not boast in the Torah, but in the "cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal 6:14) in which circumcision makes no difference (verse 15).

In Ephesians he describes how the message of Jesus overcomes cultural and social barriers, thus uniting people in a new way within the culture of the "Kingdom of God". Specifically he refers to it breaking down the division between Jews and Gentiles that comes from the radical new values Jesus taught. Paul uses powerful, emotive symbols of both the cross and Jesus' blood (which also carries connotations of kinship) to encapsulate the message of Jesus. Perhaps he is referring also or instead to the fact that without Christ's martyrdom and subsequent resurrection Christianity probably wouldn't have got started. Listen to what (I think) Paul writes:
But now, in Christ Jesus you [Gentiles] who then were afar off, came to be near [to us Jews] by the blood of Christ. For He is our peace, He making us both one, and breaking down the middle wall of partition, in His flesh causing to cease the enmity [created by the commandments of the Torah], that He might make these two groups united into one new man - his "body", making peace, and that He might reconcile both in one body to God through the cross, slaying the enmity [within His body]. (Eph 2:13-16*, see also Col 1:20)

But Paul doesn't refer to the cross in only this way. He uses it's significance in many ways to make many different points. For example, like the Gospel and other New Testament writers, notes the shame of his death on a cross (Php 2:8). In another passage, Paul uses the imagery of a list of things against us being nailed to the cross (Col 2:14). Paul's point when referring to the cross is not always the same. Combined with penal substitution, Paul's use of many different images and metaphors can make it hard to recognize that the cross found its significance because of Jesus' life and teachings.

In summary, the question "Why did Jesus need to die on the cross?" is based in a number of presupposed theological ideas that don't help us understand why he did die on the cross, and what his death came to symbolize for his followers. His death is significant because of his life. And while there was no "need" for him to die on the cross, without his crucifixion and resurrection, his following would have probably died instead. Without the cross, we might not even know who Jesus was. But that doesn't mean the cross was needed for some Great Spiritual Act of Atonement, nor is it what the cross means. The cross represents what Jesus lived, taught, and was ultimately killed for.


* In quoting Eph 2:13-16 I have intentionally changed the phrases "in Himself" to reflect that I think this phrase refers to people who are "in Christ" - and thereby in his group, his disciples, his "body".


Kerry said...

Did Jesus NEED to die on the cross?

An excellent question, one that well deserves a careful consideration. I applaud your testimony to the veracity of the Bible, to your implicit approval of it as our source of authority on these questions.
1. Where does one begin?
2. In what sense do we mean, “need” to die?
3. Did Jesus need to die? And if he did…
4. Did he need to die on the cross?
5. Is there more than one reason why he should die?

1. Where does one begin?

If we believe the scriptures speak authoritively, (and we trust this interpretation) we could put forward a case like this: According to our understanding of the nature of God we accept there are certain characteristics that are intrinsic to Him. We trust the
Bible because we believe God can speak, and has spoken to us, and we trust his ability to make known to us what he pleases. So we trust and affirm the certainty of knowing even while we admit that we may or may not know certainly but by degree. We trust his word because we believe of all natures He cannot be deceived, thus ensuring its trustworthiness in as far as we are confident it is His word, trustworthiness in as far as we trust his benevolence toward us and thus does not wish to deceive us. We speak thus of his omniscience. All knowing.
Fundamental to his nature also is the omnipotence of God. From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia- Omnipotence (literally, "all power") is power with no limits i.e. unlimited power. Monotheistic religions generally attribute omnipotence only to God. One aspect of his omnipotence is to be comprehended in his ability (power) to make himself known, heard and understood.
Given these assumptions are true (omnipotence and omniscience) based on correctly interpreting his word and assuming he has made known to us to a degree of certainty that we may live by- it may be well to pause here and anticipate an objection. “Surely this is going round in circles? We trust him because he is all-knowing, all-powerful and benevolent. How do we know these things? Because he has told us so. How do we know he has told us so? Because his word tells us these things! Why should we trust in his benevolence, all knowing all power? etc, etc.
The point being that circular reasoning doesn’t necessarily lead us to a false conclusion. It may in fact introduce us into truths, which we would otherwise dismiss. The one who says, “Trust me” and when asked, “Why should I?” replies “ Because I am trustworthy” is indeed invoking circular reasoning- but is not necessarily telling an untruth. In fact the answer given may underlie the importance and value he is placing on trust and risk, as opposed to the need for certainty. Anyway I digress!
Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure: Calling a ravenous bird from the east, the man that executeth my counsel from a far country: yea, I have spoken I will also bring it to pass; I have purposed it, I will also do it. (Isaiah 46:10,11)

These verses (if you will trust them and the interpretation that Isaiah is speaking on behalf of God) testify to the all knowing and all powerful nature of God. But they do more also. They also reveal a necessary corollary of “knowing” and “potency” in the aformentioned senses, and that is of “will”. What would be the virtue of an all knowing, all powerful benevolent God that did not have a “will” to be the executor of these powers? And so we comprehend the personhood of God and more. He not only knows all, and has the potential to do all, he has a plan and it shall happen as he planned it, and neither the will of nature exemplified in the ravenous bird from the east nor the will of the man from a far country will nullify his plan but do, by their contingent wills, accomplish the council of God. This statement is so emphatic that it is repeated no less than three times in different forms:
· My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure
· yea, I have spoken I will also bring it to pass;
· I have purposed it, I will also do it

Neither is there a valid distinction made between the ability of God to order the universe how he has planned in general and how he ordains the universe as it exists in relation to salvation; as this scripture would have us know- (Isaiah 59:1) Behold, the LORD'S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: (There is no warrant for believing that the omnipotent God has limited himself in any general sense with regard to salvation.)

2. In what sense do we mean, “need” to die?

Sometimes the quickest way home is the long way round! Given all the above, when it is written “…the scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35) We have Jesus’s own validation that not only is it the inspired word of God but as such according to God’s own nature the scriptures are irrefutably true and it follows that the prophetic utterences therein must come to pass. This is the basis on which these things also are written: (Matthew 26:54) But how then shall the scriptures be fulfilled, that thus it must be? Here Christ rebukes the disciple who drew his sword trying to prevent his arrest and subsequent crucifixion. He was rebuked on the basis that it was wrong to contradict the purpose and plan of God and that as such it had to happen, this and other scriptures establish the necessity for Christ to die from the perspective of God’s omnipotence, and faithfulness to fulful his word. Similarly Peter was rebuked for his remarks contradictiong Jesus when he fortold the manner of his future death :Mth 16:16-23.
(Mark 14:21) The Son of man indeed goeth, as it is written of him:..
(Matthew 26:56) But all this was done, that the scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled. Then all the disciples forsook him, and fled.
(Mark 15:28)And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors. His infamous association with the convicts crucified with him.
(Luke 18:31) Then he took unto him the twelve, and said unto them, Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of man shall be accomplished. (Luke 18:32) For he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: (Luke 18:33) And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again.
(Luke 24:46) And said unto them, Thus it is written, and thus it behoved (was necessary for) Christ to suffer, and to rise from the dead the third day: Christ explaining the necessity of his death from the perspective of prophecy coming to pass.

3. Did Jesus Need to Die?

So in order for God to be true, and true to his word, and also that Christ be verified as the living incarnate Word of God (and thereby fulfilling the criteria common to the divine nature) his own spoken references to his death needed to be fulfilled as he uttered it. Christ needed to die and die in the manner he himself foretold.
(John 18:31) Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death: (John 18:32) That the saying of Jesus might be fulfilled, which he spake, signifying what death he should die.

Again in John 3:14 where Jesus spoke these words: And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: With these words Christ anticipated his imminent and foreordained death by crucifixion. As the brazen serpent fixed upon the wooden stake or staff represented the curse of sin so Christ who hung on the crucifying tree became the curse on our behalf-"He hath made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin: that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” (2Cor5: 21) and "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, ‘cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree:’” Galatians 3:13.
Of interest here is to note who was responsible for lifting up the serpent on the tree; Moses of course, and who, or rather what is his office? Moses is most notably the lawgiver, and Christ, made of a woman under the law was condemned by the law, and the law exacted a full price even to the uttermost for the sin that He carried there. It is fitting therefore that the law of God is the reason Christ is lifted up on the cross, and Moses the lawgiver lifts Christ, represented by the serpent, up. So it is entirely in keeping with the idea of redemption and substitution that Christ should be represented albeit in primitive form, by the serpent hanging on a “tree” depicted in this passage. (See also for fuller account)
Jesus is also represented as the sacrificial lamb prefigured in the Passover Lamb. (Revelation 13:8) And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.
(See also Acts 2:22,23 Ye men of Israel, hear these words; Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God among you by miracles and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you, as ye yourselves also know: Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:)

(Matthew 20:28) Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.

4. Did Jesus need to die on the Cross?

From the point of prophecy fulfilment alone it is clear that Christ was destined for the cross- It must needs be…This saying of Jesus is observed in Matthew 20:17- And Jesus going up to Jerusalem took the twelve disciples apart in the way, and said unto them, (Matthew 20:18) Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and the Son of man shall be betrayed unto the chief priests and unto the scribes, and they shall condemn him to death, (Matthew 20:19) And shall deliver him to the Gentiles to mock, and to scourge, and to crucify him: and the third day he shall rise again.
And it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said unto his disciples, (Matthew 26:2) Ye know that after two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified.

5. Is there more than one reason why he should die?

In summary then Jesus needed to die:
· In order that God is seen to tell the truth that Christ would appear in History and die an ignominious death.

· In order that God is seen to tell the truth with regard to his omniscience- the lamb slain from the foundation of the world was “seen” by God from all eternity.
· In order that God is seen to tell the truth with regard to his omnipotence- not only did God see Christ from all eternity but God also determined his future. God determines history. Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.
· In order that the prophets who testified of the coming and suffering and resurrection of Christ were God inspired and therefore spoke the truth.
· In order that Christ could demonstrate the truth of his unity with the father “I and my father are one” (John 10:30) there was a unity of purpose, (John 8:28,29)… I do nothing of myself; … for I do always those things that please him.
· To reveal his divine nature. Not only was there a unity of purpose in Christ with the father, but unity of nature, demonstrated when Christ predicted with amazing accuracy the nature and circumstances of his own death and subsequent resurrection and it came to pass as he had said. (John 10:18) No man taketh it (his life) from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.
· In order to show his true humanity. The truth that Christ was indeed a man and suffered death like any other person.

So far we have looked at the necessity of the crucifixion of Christ from the perspective of prophecy, and the character of God and Christ but we have said very little as regards to the overarching purpose of it all. In point of fact it could well be said that prophecy fulfilment and its subsequent reflection on the character of God is secondary to the purpose for which Christ came. Matthew 20:28 Gives us an insight as to why Christ came into the world- Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many. The word minister has been so jargonised today but the original common usage meant to wait upon (as a servant). The word ransom is the Greek lutron {loo'-tron} Definitions: something to loosen with, i.e. a redemption price (figurative atonement): - ransom.
One of the most powerful statements signifying the reason for his earthly appearance is found in the foretelling of the suffering Christ written approximately eight centuries before in Isaiah 53. …the LORD hath laidc on him the iniquity of us all he…(Christ) hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many
Both Mathew and Peter refer to the above passage in Isaiah. Peter is particularly cogent with regard to the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross (tree) 1 Peter 2:24 Who his own self bare our sins in his own body oni the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live unto righteousness: by whose stripes ye were healed. 25 For ye were as sheep going astray; but are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.
While the word atonement (reconciliation) occurs only a few times in the New Testament the idea is expressed in many ways and by many of the N.T. writers. The system of atonement was well established in the Hebrew Bible and was almost invariably connected with the shedding of blood. The Old Testament concept of redemption is based on the person of the redeemer (go˒el) who had to be a free man himself, who was related by the flesh (a kinsman), and who was willing to pay the price of redemption in order to redeem one from slavery, orphanhood, or widowhood. In the book of Ruth we find this concept as it was practiced in the ancient agrarian culture of Israel illustrated. In the New Testament we see it fulfilled in the redemption which shall be accomplished by Jesus Christ who has become our Kinsman-Redeemer by means of His incarnation and His atonement

(Romans 3:25,26) Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.
The main points of these two verses are: (1) God presented Jesus Christ as an atoning sacrifice, a propitiation. (2) This sacrifice was one of Christ’s blood. (3) It is appropriated to the sinner by faith. (4) The sacrifice was necessary because in the past God had not fully punished sin. (5) It was also necessary to validate the justice of God. (6) This sacrifice demonstrated that it is God who justifies those who have faith in Jesus Christ.
God hath set forth to be a propitiation. The Bible is filled with types, which foreshadow future persons or events, and antitypes, which are the real person or events foreshadowed. The type is the arrow; the antitype is the target.
One of the most unique types in the Old Testament is the mercy seat. This was the lid on the ark of the covenant and was covered with gold. At each end was a golden cherub, whose wings stretched toward the center of the lid. The ark was the meeting place between God and man. It contained the tablets of the Mosaic law (Ex 25:16–22). Therefore, the mercy seat was that which covered the law of God.
When the translation of the Hebrew Old Testament was made into Greek, which is called the Septuagint, the Greek word chosen to translate “mercy seat” (Heb kaphorah) was hilastērion which means “the place of propitiation.” To propitiate means to appease an offended party and the hilastērion (mercy seat) was the place where, by blood, the sins of Israel were atoned, the penalty paid, and wrath of God (the offended party) was appeased. It is certainly no coincidence that the word Paul uses here to describe Jesus Christ is the same word used for “mercy seat,” the hilastērion. Jesus Christ is our mercy seat. He is the person by whom our sins were atoned, our penalty paid, and the offended party appeased. Jesus Christ is where God meets man.

Kerry said...

Hi Rueben,
Thanks for posting my other comments. I am more than happy if you do not wish to publish my previous comment on this post as it is rather long, and I guess I would rather win you over than see my rants up there!If you do publish it however please feel free to remove a hyperlink to my blog which is in there if you do not wish it to be there.

With regard to your understanding of Eph 2:13-16, I feel you have explained well Paul's efforts to reconcile the Gentile believers with Jewish believers. However I think the enmity between God and man which Paul also refers to in this passage has been somewhat neglected. The questions need to be asked: What caused the need for God to reconcile both unto God? Does this entail an element of enmity common to both Jew and Gentile? What does it mean "by the cross"?