The Death of Jesus

Jesus Series - 7

The Death of Jesus

(Isaiah 53)

Thousands of criminals and slaves were executed by crucifixion in the ancient world. Why, of all these hapless victims of injustice, is only one still remembered? Rob Yule, minister of St Albans Presbyterian Church, gave this message at a combined Good Friday service in Palmerston North, New Zealand, on 14 April 1995. Sixth in a series on ‘The Challenge of Jesus’, it looks at the significance of Jesus’ death.

‘Why is the symbol of Christianity a cross, not a bag of stones?’ This question was put to me by a storeman at Crown Lynn Potteries, Auckland, where I worked for eight months in 1969, saving to travel overseas to do postgraduate study. Why was Jesus crucified, not stoned to death? At the time I thought this was a tiresome and irrelevant question. ‘He simply was, mate,’ was my reply. ‘That’s how it happened.’

Since then, though, I have pondered that conversation. I have realized that this uneducated man had posed an important historical and theological question. Stoning, after all, was the normal Jewish method of execution. Shortly after Jesus’ crucifixion a lynch mob stoned Stephen to death - the first of Jesus’ followers to be martyred (Acts 7:58-60). But in the case of Jesus’ death stoning was not used - even though two earlier attempts had been made to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31-33). Why did it happen this way? Why a cross, not a bag of stones?

The Scandal of the Cross

There were probably two reasons why the Jewish authorities were concerned to have Jesus crucified by the Romans, and why they stirred up the crowd to demand Pilate to ‘Crucify him! Crucify him!’ (Mark 15:11-15):

1. To absolve themselves of responsibility for his death, by involving the Romans in the actual performance of the execution. ‘We have no right to execute anyone,’ was the Jewish leaders’ response to Pilate (John 18:31), when he attempted to get them to try Jesus according to their own law. Even though Jewish law did permit the death penalty for blasphemy and religious apostasy, the Roman imperial power reserved to itself the right to inflict it, so as not to undermine its own authority by sanctioning legal executions of its supporters.

2. To make him unworthy of a following. A normal execution would have turned Jesus into a hero, whereas the Jewish leaders of his day wanted to put an end to his cause. They wanted Jesus discredited, as well dead; his legacy stopped, as well as his life. The Mosaic law decreed that ‘Anyone hung on a tree is under God’s curse’ (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). We know that the Jewish leaders were familiar with this passage, because they observed another of its requirements by desiring the removal of Jesus’ body from the cross before nightfall (John 19:31). Far from having Jesus accepted as Messiah (as God’s ‘anointed one’), they wanted Jesus rejected as a Messianic pretender (God’s ‘accursed one’); a view that has remained the received Orthodox Jewish opinion of Jesus to this day.

Isaiah 53 does not mention the Messiah, and 1st century Judaism accordingly had not linked the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 with the Messiah. The Jews of Jesus’ day were looking for a national deliverer to free them from Roman oppression (cf. Luke 24:21). They were not looking for a suffering Messiah, still less a crucified one. In order to understand the crucifixion of Jesus as the execution of their Messiah, Jewish Christians would have had to recognise Jesus’ death as having overwhelming positive significance. So what was it that caused this repugnant event to be seen in such a positive light by the early Jewish Christians?

The same problem exists with the ancient Greek and Roman evaluation of crucifixion. Crucifixion was widely used by the Romans as a fearsome instrument of political repression - particularly to put down slave revolts. In the famous revolt of Spartacus in 73-71 BC, the Romans crucified 6,000 slaves; so many that they ran out of wood for crosses. Yet, though its use was so widespread, it was such a sadistic and unspeakable a form of execution that it was almost never referred to in respectable Greek and Roman circles. Consequently, few actual descriptions of crucifixion have come down to us from the ancient world.

The exceptions are the Christian Gospels, about one third of whose contents deal with the events surrounding Jesus’ death. What was scandalous to their contemporaries, the early Christians gloried in. ‘The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.’ (1 Corinthians 1:18). Why this Christian concentration on the cross, when respectable ancient society avoided it?

The answer to these questions is threefold:

1. Jesus’ Resurrection

Jesus’ resurrection, three days after his ignominious death, was God’s vindication or rubber stamp of approval on his life and death. ‘This man . . . you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death’ (Acts 2:23-24). Far from being ‘accursed of God’, the resurrection showed that Jesus was ‘approved of God’.

2. Jesus’ Divine Sonship

The hardened Roman centurion supervising the crucifixion, when he saw how Jesus’ died, exclaimed ‘Surely this man was the Son of God’ (Mark 15:39). Paul voices the faith of the early church when he says that Jesus ‘was declared to be the Son of God with power . . . by his resurrection from the dead’ (Romans 1:4).

3. Jesus’ Death for Sins

Not as a late development, but from the outset of the Christian movement, Jesus’ death was also seen as an atoning sacrifice, God’s means of removing our sins. This is implied in the earliest apostolic preaching (Acts 2:38, 3:19,26); it was specifically affirmed in the earliest Pauline epistles (Romans 4:25, 5:6,8, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5, Galatians 2:19-20); and it is later reiterated by the apostle Peter, who specifically quotes Isaiah 53 (1 Peter 2:24). (See Appendix 1).

Martin Hengel believes this interpretation of the death of Jesus goes back to the very words of Jesus himself, who on numerous occasions predicted his own death (see Appendix 2) and understood the manner of his death to be fulfilling the role of the Suffering Servant of the Lord (Isaiah 52:13-53:12). Correcting his disciples’ misunderstanding of leadership, Jesus said, ‘the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45). At the Last Supper, Jesus took one of the Passover cups and said to his disciples, ‘This is my blood of the [new] covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins’ (Matthew 26:28).

The prophecy of Isaiah 53 actually contains seven separate statements predicting that a coming Suffering Servant of the Lord would vicariously suffer for the sins of others (see Appendix 3). The application of this prophecy to Jesus clearly had a marked influence on how early Christians understood the significance of Jesus’ death.

Later writings in the New Testament, particularly the letter to the Hebrews, develop the theme of Christ’s death being a sacrifice for our sins. ‘Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins,’ says the writer to the Hebrews (9:22). Unlike the daily repeated animal sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple, Jesus has offered himself for sins ‘once for all’ by his death on the cross (Hebrews 7:27, 9:26-28, 10:10).

A Death for Sins and Sinners

The death of Jesus was therefore much more than a subjective demonstration of God’s love for sinners (as the Moral Influence Theory of the Atonement, so favoured by liberal theologians, maintains). Jesus’ death was also an objective satisfaction of God’s holiness for sins (the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement). It was a supreme sacrifice of love perfectly adapted to our greatest need, the removal of the sins that otherwise constitute a barrier between ourselves and God. ‘God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

The Scottish theologian James Denney gives a simple illustration of this point. ‘If I were sitting on the end of the pier, on a summer day, enjoying the sunshine and the air,’ he writes, ‘and someone came along and jumped into the water and got drowned "to prove his love for me", I should find it quite unintelligible. I might be much in need of love, but an act in no rational relation to any of my necessities could not prove it. But if I had fallen over the pier and were drowning, and someone sprang into the water, and . . . saved me from death, then I should say, "Greater love hath no man than this." I should say it intelligibly, because there would be an intelligible relation between the sacrifice which love made and the necessity from which it redeemed.’

Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates God’s love for us sinners, because it is the solution to our need for the atonement of our sins. The ignominy of Jesus’ death shows us the enormity of God’s love.

Rob Yule
14 April 1995

Article and Appendices © 1995, St Albans Presbyterian Church


Appendix 1
Early Christian References
to the Death of Jesus as a Sacrifice for Sins

‘"Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven".’ (Acts 2:38)

‘"Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out. . . . When God raised up his servant [ie. Jesus], he sent him first to you [the Jews], to bless you by turning each of you from your wicked ways".’ (Acts 3:19,26)

‘[Jesus] was handed over to death for our trespasses, and was raised for our justification.’ (Romans 4:25)

‘While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.’ (Romans 5:6)

‘God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8)

‘I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures . . . ’ (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)

‘I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ (Galatians 2:19-20)

‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.’ (1 Peter 2:24, quoting Isaiah 53:5).

Appendix 2
Jesus’ Predictions of his Death

On at least 20 occasions prior to his arrest Jesus spoke of his suffering and death. This table is based on the list in Robert E. Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism, 2nd. ed. (Old Tappan, Revell, 1964), pp. 53-54, to which I have added items 10, 15 and 20. The earliest references are allusive and metaphorical. Following Peter’s affirmation of faith in him as Messiah at Caesarea Philippi Jesus deliberately spoke to his disciples about his coming suffering and death. Finally in his last week Jesus spoke several times of his impending death and instituted the memorial of his death.

Early predictions, veiled and metaphorical

1. Comparison of his body to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple (John 2:19).

2. Reference to the Son of Man being lifted up like the bronze snake in desert (John 3:14, cf. Numbers 21:8-9).

3. Remark concerning the time when he as bridegroom would be taken away (Mark 2:20 & parallels).

4. Analogy of himself as the bread of life to be broken and eaten (John 5:51-58).

5. Reference to the prophet Jonah as a sign (Matthew 16:4)

Clear predictions to his disciples, after Peter’s acknowledgment of him as Messiah

6. Prediction at Caesarea Philippi of his rejection by the Jewish leaders, death and resurrection (Mark 8:31 & parallels).

7. Reference to rising from the dead (Mark 9:9), following Moses and Elijah’s conversation at his Transfiguration about his impending ‘departure’ (Luke 9:31).

8. Prediction in Galilee of his betrayal, death and resurrection (Mark 9:30-32 & parallels).

9. Prediction, on the last journey to Jerusalem, of his death at the hands of Gentiles, his sufferings, and his resurrection (Mark 10:33-34 & parallels).

10. Statement that the Son of Man came ‘to give his life a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:45).

11. Reference to the impossibility of a prophet being killed out of Jerusalem (Luke 13:33).

12. Statement about the Son of Man being rejected by ‘this generation’ (Luke 17:25).

13. Comparison of himself to a good shepherd who ‘lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10:11,18).

Final predictions, during his last week in Jerusalem

14. Comparison of himself to a grain of wheat which must fall into ground and die (John 12:24).

15. Parable of a vineyard and tenants, with the killing of the owner’s son (Mark 12:6-8).

16. Prediction that the Son of Man will be ‘handed over to be crucified’ (Matthew 26:2).

17. Statement that the ointment poured on Jesus was an anointing beforehand for burial (Mark 14:8 & parallels).

18. Statement at the last Passover of impending suffering (Luke 22:15).

19. Breaking of bread and drinking wine initiated as a memorial of his death (Mark 14:22-25 & parallels).

20. Statement in Garden of Gethsemane that his soul was overwhelmed with sorrow ‘to the point of death’ (Mark 14:34).

Appendix 3
The Sufferings of the Servant of the Lord
as a Sacrifice for Sins
(Isaiah 53)

1. Verse 4 ‘Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.’

2. Verse 5 ‘But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed

3. Verse 6 ‘All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all

4. Verse 8 ‘For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.’

5. Verse 10 ‘When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days.’

6. Verse 11 ‘The righteous one, my servant,
shall make many righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.’

7. Verse 12 ‘He poured out himself to death
and was numbered with the transgressors,
yet he bore the sin of many . . .’