How could God himself show truth and love at the same time in a world like this? By dying…the shape of a cross etched on the history of the world.”
Corrie ten Boom1
Symbols are powerful communicators. Companies spend big bucks creating logos that convey their image to the public. For Nike, it’s the swoosh. McDonald’s has the golden arches. Even political parties use mascots. The point of the symbol is to tell people, “Look at this and think of us.”
If symbols are so important, why is it that followers of Yeshua (Jesus) have chosen a cross to represent them? Why select an emblem that, for many people, has become a sign equated with persecution? After all, racism, Inquisitions and pogroms have all been practiced in the shadow of the cross. Furthermore, why pick an image so closely linked with the bloody and barbaric death of their own leader?
Surely there’s a more consumer-friendly symbol out there, one that doesn’t have such a close association with death. Yet followers of Yeshua, rather than diverting attention away from Jesus’ dishonorable demise, call attention to it. Why? What’s so important about the death of Jesus anyway?
The four biographers of Yeshua (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) were Jewish people who believed that Jesus’ death was vitally important. In fact, they devoted a quarter of their pages to the final week of his life—his arrest, trial, condemnation and execution. It is in the pages of these Jewish accounts called the “gospels” that we get the clearest picture of why Yeshua died and what his death means for us.
What Was His Crime?
In his day, Jesus was quite popular. Large crowds flocked to see and hear him. But so far as the religious leaders were concerned, he posed a threat. In their eyes he undermined their authority by flouting the rules against such practices as working on the Sabbath. In one case, the religious leaders accused Yeshua of violating the Torah by healing people on the Sabbath. Jesus called them hypocrites. As you can imagine, this did not win him any friends in those circles.
Many of his ideas were seen as revolutionary. But ultimately, it was Yeshua declaring himself as God that caused the religious leaders to seek his death. From their point of view, he had committed the greatest crime in the book—blasphemy.
The Romans were in control of Israel at the time, which is why Jesus found himself tried for a Jewish crime by a Roman court. The governor, Pontius Pilate, sentenced him to death for the sake of peace and quiet, even though his own verdict was, “I find no basis for a charge against this man” (Luke 23:4).
What Jesus Said About His Death
The circumstances leading to Yeshua’s death might seem to indicate that he was just a man who broke a law and was made to face the consequences of his actions. But according to his biographers and to Jesus himself, his death was no chance occurrence. Yeshua’s death was unique in that he had a very clear understanding about what was going to happen to him.
It did not take him by surprise. Even before he was close to being arrested, Jesus knew his death was coming. He told his close friends and followers that the authorities would kill him (Mark 10:33-34). He even told them how he would die: “When I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all [people] to myself ” (John 12:32).
He said it was for a specific purpose. Not only did Jesus know how and when he would die, he knew why. He, in effect, told his followers, “The reason I came to earth is so I could give my life as a ransom for many people.”(Matthew 20:28). His death was not a random event caused by misfortune; it was something he specifically came to do.
What Jesus Did About His Death
If Jesus were a victim of circumstance, one would think he would do something, anything, to stay his execution. Yet Yeshua did nothing to stop the process. No top legal team was summoned to his defense. No plea bargain was struck so he could escape the charge of blasphemy. Instead:
- He told his followers, “No one takes my life from me. I give it up willingly”(John 10:18).
- He said that he could have called on angelic troops to rescue him, but he chose not to (Matthew 26:53).
- He silently took blows and abuse from people, priests and soldiers (Matthew 27:30).
- When asked by the Roman governor Pilate to defend himself, Yeshua remained silent—even though he knew that only Pilate could grant his freedom (Matthew 27:12-14).
The obvious question we must ask here is, why? Why would anyone die on purpose? Could Yeshua not have accomplished much more by staying alive? Could he not have taught more, healed more, or done more good for the world by living rather than dying? Why not cop a plea, admit that he had made a mistake and ask for mercy?
The Identity of Jesus Is the Key
The significance of Yeshua’s death is ultimately wrapped up in who he was and what he came to do.
Jesus didn’t stumble onto the stage of history—the script had already been written with him as the central character. Hundreds of years before Yeshua was born, a deliverer had been promised through the Hebrew Scriptures. These prophecies included specific details about the deliverer’s birth, life—and death. The prophets foretold that the Messiah would be betrayed by a friend, sold for 30 pieces of silver, that he would be struck and spit on and that his hands and feet would be pierced.2 Ultimately, as Isaiah tells us, the Messiah would be “cut off from the land of the living” (Isaiah 53:8).
A close examination of Scripture and of the life and death of Jesus reveals that he fulfilled all of the prophecies about the deliverer to come. In fact, if Yeshua hadn’t died the way he did, he would not have been the deliverer. But what exactly did he deliver us from?
So What Was the Point of Jesus’ Death?
Yeshua’s death was the whole reason he came. To comprehend what this means involves understanding the custom of sacrifice that was once so central for our Jewish people.
At the time when Jesus was first beginning to teach and heal, his cousin John pointed to him and said, “Look, here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
The Jewish people listening knew exactly what John was getting at. They sacrificed animals to show God their willingness to turn away from the wrongs they had done and make a fresh start with him. The person who needed forgiveness would bring an animal without any defects to the priest. This animal was to die as a substitute for the sinner. First their hands were placed on the animal’s head as an act of transfer. The blamelessness of the animal was then understood to have been exchanged for their guilt.
Since the penalty for sin is death, the animal’s death was required for justice to be satisfied. Here was a graphic picture of a life for a life. The innocent was slain so the guilty could go free, which was exactly what John said Jesus came to do. Jesus was to be the Lamb sacrificed for the sin of the whole world.
And that was what happened on the cross when Jesus died.
Jesus Was God’s Once-for-All-Time Sacrifice
Sacrifice—with an animal, a priest, a knife and a sinner—was needed regularly to keep paying sin’s price. But Jesus’ death was once and for always. When Yeshua cried from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), it was. God did what no animal sacrifice could ever do. He fully and finally paid the price for the sin of the whole world—there on the cross.
Picture the scene. You’re there on that momentous day looking up at the cross. It’s noon. Suddenly you can’t even see Jesus. In the middle of the day it’s gone as black as midnight.
More than 800 years before this incredible event a prophet named Amos predicted such a unique day in the future. He wrote, “‘In that day’, declares the Lord God, ‘I will make the sun go down at noon darken the earth in broad daylight'” (Amos 8:9). As you stand there the day foretold by Amos has finally come. What you are seeing will be written up by Luke: “It was now about the sixth hour (12 noon), and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour (3 P.M.), for the sun stopped shining” (Luke 23:44-45a).
That darkness points to the immensity of what is taking place. As you stand and watch, God’s judgment for sin—our sin—is being poured out on Yeshua. It’s just as the prophet Isaiah foretold when he wrote: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
Just like a sacrificial lamb, Yeshua becomes the curse of the world. He drowns in our sin on a midnight afternoon.
And he did it all for us, to make our forgiveness possible. Even more amazingly, the New Testament portion of Scripture and other sources from the time confirm that on the third day after he died, Yeshua supernaturally rose from the dead as a sign that the price for sin had been paid in full.
A Way to Understand It
What Jesus did for us reminds me of a story involving two brothers. The younger brother ran with a street gang. One night during a fight he killed one of his rivals. The young man ran home to exchange bloodstained clothes for clean ones and fled back into the night.
The older brother arrived home soon afterwards to discover the garments on the floor and police sirens wailing. By the time the police arrived he was wearing the discarded bloody apparel as though it were his own.
Eventually the older brother was charged, tried and executed for first-degree murder. During all this his younger brother silently witnessed the love of his older sibling who died in his place and paid his penalty.
Finally it became more than he could bear. Overcome with remorse, he turned himself in and confessed all. But the police sent him away. There could be no charges because his brother’s death had fully satisfied the demands of the law. Justice had been done.
And that, in essence, is exactly what God has done for us. To deal with our sin in a way that is both just and loving, he has taken our punishment onto himself. This is what Yeshua came to do, and it’s what makes his death so unique.
Three Ways to Respond
When animals were sacrificed there were three ways people responded. Likewise, we are presented with a choice as to how to respond to Jesus’ death.
There were those who took the sacrificial system seriously. Turning their backs on their wrongs, they looked forward to a fresh start with God. They genuinely trusted in God’s promise that the blame on their shoulders would be placed on the animal.
Others only brought sacrifices so they could keep on doing wrong. It was sin on easy payments—the more they sinned, the more they brought sacrifices.
Still others couldn’t hack the system at all; they just ignored it. They couldn’t be bothered about a relationship with God and figured they’d worry about their sin—if there was such a thing—when and if they saw him.
The same is true today. We all choose the way we respond to what Yeshua has done for us. We either believe that the price has been paid, and claim Yeshua’s sacrifice for ourselves, or we reject God’s offer to pay for our sin, and therefore opt to try to pay for it ourselves, through mitzvoth or other external efforts.
Unfortunately, God never changed the rules about what was required to eradicate sin. The only way to be clean in his presence is through sacrifice. If you accept the incredible sacrifice Jesus made as counting for yourself, you can have a restored relationship with God. If not, then the price for our wrongdoings goes unpaid…until we pay its terrible price—death and separation from God forever.
Which will you choose?
Adapted from the book Beyond Belief? by Peter Meadows and Joseph Steinberg, Great Britain, Word Publishing, 1999.
- Corrie Ten Boom, a “righteous Gentile,” who went to a concentration camp for hiding Jews, said in her book The Hiding Place, World Wide Publications, 1971, p. 106.
- The Tanakh foretold the following about the Messiah: He would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14), he would be betrayed by a friend (Psalm 41:9) and sold for 30 pieces of silver (Zechariah 11:12). He would be struck and spit on (Isaiah 50:6) while his hands and feet would be pierced (Psalm 22:16) as well as his side (Zechariah 12:10). The soldiers would throw dice for his clothes (Psalm 22:18) while never breaking a bone of his body (Psalm 34:20). He would be buried in a rich man’s grave (Isaiah 53:9) and would rise again from the dead (Psalm 16:10).