Do you think it is possible to over-celebrate the resurrection of Jesus? I do not mean to give it greater importance than it warrants. Jesus’ resurrection is of supreme importance, after all. But I wonder whether, in celebrating Jesus’ resurrection, we somehow disconnect what the resurrection means from what Jesus’ death means. Jesus was unjustly killed, after all, receiving neither fair trial nor accurate charges of wrongdoing. So he died on a Roman cross and on Sunday he was raised from death.
That is of course what the Scriptures say. But we must be careful not to see Jesus before Resurrection Sunday as someone who was simply railroaded and stood trial in a kangaroo court, for whom crucifixion was just a tragic end of an otherwise exemplary life, and which God corrected after three days.
For Jesus died on purpose, not by accident, by his own intention, not by circumstance. In Mark chapter 8, Jesus taught his disciples that he “must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.” Matthew records Jesus saying that he came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (20.28). All the Gospels recount similar expressions by Jesus.
Without Jesus’ death, of course, there could be no resurrection at all. But Jesus’ death on Friday was not an accident that was simply reversed on Sunday, nor was it merely a way station of desolation en route to a Sunday of glory. Jesus’ death was as central to salvation as the resurrection. Indeed, the meaning of Jesus’ resurrection is inextricably bound with the meaning of his death.
So when we celebrate Easter and what it means, we should think about why Jesus had to die to deliver us from our sins and reconcile us to God. Which is to say, why did God not choose a different, non-lethal manner of redeeming sinful humanity?
In the religious and world view of the ancient Jews, including the apostles, there was a reasonably straightforward answer: sins are remitted through sacrifice and the shedding of blood. The New Testament’s book of Hebrews goes directly to that point in verse 9.22: “… without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.”
The apostles believed this but went one step further. If remission of sins required the sacrifice of life, then no sacrifice could top that of the actual self-sacrifice of God in the flesh, a perfect sacrifice for which there could never be any improvement. This is developed in more detail in Hebrews 10, which can be summed up that the death of Jesus was eternally effective by itself and took place “once for all” and for all time. So Christians do not practice any kind of blood sacrifice for the remission of our sins. That was taken care of two thousand years ago and nothing we can do can improve it.
The Roman Catholic and Protestant churches don’t go much further than that since the Western church very early adopted a mostly-legal view of sin. That is, sin is a transgression of God’s law and God adjudges us not guilty because Jesus suffered the punishment that we deserve. This is the doctrine of atonement, which simply states that someone must bear the punishment for human ways of sin and death, someone has to clear the debt. Jesus’ death on the cross is what does it.
But this is an incomplete understanding of sin. In the Eastern Church, centered in Constantinople, salvation is developed more as healing of our sin-sick souls than pardon for wrongdoing, although there is still that, too. Speaking Greek, not Latin, the Eastern churches knew all along that the Greek word for Savior, soter, means "healing." And this insight forms their understanding of salvation significantly. Here is an example:
17 One day, while he was teaching … 18 … some men came, carrying a paralyzed man on a bed. They were trying to bring him in and lay him before Jesus; 19 but finding no way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus.
20 When he saw their faith, he said, “Friend, your sins are forgiven you.”
Jesus was well known as a healer by then, and presumably this man’s friends went to such great lengths to get this guy in front of Jesus, so Jesus would heal him in his body.
...Apparently, Jesus did not see it that way. Jesus didn’t see the friends' help as determination for the man but as faithfulness in himself. So instead of saying, “Stand up and walk,” he said, “Your sins are forgiven,” a declaration not apparently connected to why that man was there. In fact, he didn’t tell the man to stand up and walk until some others there challenged him right away that only God, not Jesus, could forgive sins. ‘Which is easier for me,’ Jesus answered, ‘forgiving sins or making this man walk? I’ll show you.’ So he told the man to stand up and walk, and he did.
We call Jesus the Great Physician, and so he is, but Jesus has a better understanding of what needs healing than we do. On our prayer lists are persons who are ill or injured, in therapy or full-time care, and we pray for them. We should pray for them. But which of us asks the congregation to pray for one’s sin-sick souls, stricken by habits of sin, addictions to ungodly pastimes, failing marriages, short tempers, over-crowded calendars or misuse of the time and resources God has given us?
The sickness of the human soul is deep and fatal. Sin is a terminal illness for which we have no cure. Only God does, and the cure was the death of Jesus Christ.
As an historical event, the death of Jesus was not unusual. In a long line of lethal violence stretching from Cain and Abel to Auschwitz, Hiroshima, New York and Syria, Jesus’s personal fate was simply one of untold millions for which evil triumphed and goodness was buried.
Jesus was not the first person to give his life on the behalf of others. In fact, no one of Good Friday thought Jesus died on anyone’s behalf. Since the apostles’ day, though, Christian people have held that Jesus lived and died to offer himself as a ransom for all, as atonement for our sins, as a blood offering and sacrifice by which we may be made right before God. How can this be?
The wages of sin is death, wrote Paul, and nothing but death, buddy, and if we think we can cure ourselves from this 100-percent fatal illness then there is no truth in us. But even if we accept the scriptural claim that there are none of us who do good, no not one, and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, then what made it necessary that God become man and die on a cross to redeem us from our state?
The Church has held for two thousand years that God could save by any means God chooses, for God is sovereign in power and decision. And this Christ on the cross is the way we know God did choose.
And yet the question, “Why?” is not easily dismissed. It has no answer, really, except love. For we know that God became human because of love, and that God’s ultimate self-sacrifice was the fulfillment of love. It was from love that the Son of God was born, so that through God’s grace through our faith in him, we shall enjoy eternal life with God. For God did not send his Son into the world to reject us but bring us to himself forever (John 3:16-17).
But why did this love require a death?
I knew a man at Vanderbilt who had lost his eight-year-old son to cancer. The father said that when his son was first diagnosed, he knelt by his son's bed and prayed to God to heal his son. The cancer worsened until it was clear the boy’s illness would not be reversed. The father said that when this fear gripped him, he started offering himself in prayer to God, kneeling by his sleeping boy and begging God with tears and anguish that if cancer there must be, to take the cancer from his child and put it inside himself.
But who can God pray to? When faced with the sickness unto death of humankind, we turn to God, but who does God turn to? For he is God, there is no other and there is no one whom God can turn to but himself. To me, that’s what God concluded: “No one can handle this but me. Human sin ends in death and only I can die for all humanity. I must be born of woman and take all the sin of the world to my death, even death on a cross. I, God, will take their illness into myself and bear it away. If death there must be – and there must be death because sin is fatal – then I will suffer the death so that they may be healed and may live.”
to think of sin judicially and see it dealt with in a kind of theological
court, where we are found not guilty based on the pleading of Christ. But I
think it is helpful also to see sin as a deep illness in the human being that
we cannot cure ourselves. In the mind of God, healing this illness must be of
ultimate value, the very perfection of creation. So out of love for his
children, God became born a man and took upon himself all the spiritual
deficiencies of humanity. Jesus, “in whom dwelt the Godhead bodily,” who was
without sin or spiritual sickness, took upon himself all the sin of humankind,
the deep illness of the human soul. And so we are made well. The prophet Isaiah
put it this way:
Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 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 (Isa 53:4-5).
The apostle Paul wrote in Second Corinthians,
... God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting human sins against them. ... God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:19, 21).
The book of Hebrews offers this insight:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death ... (Heb 2:14).
glory should make us confront ourselves, examine our souls and reconsider how
we live and why. For even though Jesus’s death was ordinary in nature, it was
extraordinary in character, for in his death we find our life. Old Testament
scholar Gene Tucker, pondering Isaiah’s prophecy, wrote,
There are times when we must simply surrender because we can find no way forward without God’s grace and truth. There are times when we must surrender because the ways we have chosen to go bear only God’s judgment, and we know that. But there are also times when we must surrender because God has laid hold of us so dramatically that we can scarcely do else. When this happens, the speech we get is directly from God. It comes upon us and shows us a truth we never before could have entertained. And then our tongue is free for confession and release; our sins do not overwhelm us because we can see them clearly and report them freely, because they have been clearly and freely taken away from us and laid upon another.
The tragedy of the human condition is that this salvation cost God the life of his Son, but the deep mystery of the divine nature is that in Christ's death, God sacrificed himself, for the Son and the Father are the one and the same. By the wounds that we inflicted upon him, we are made whole. By his stripes we are healed, thanks be to God!