Did Christ Have to Die?

 
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About 2014 years ago, a baby was born at the confluence of the then-known world- Asia, Europe and Africa-one who would change it forever. After a brief flight to Egypt, the family of three moved back to their homeland, where young Joshua grew up in the home of a small-town carpenter, working with wood before spending several years as an itinerant teacher. We know He was able to write-once He rescued a woman from a lynch-mob by writing in the sand-but Joshua’s message was oral, reinforced by how He lived. At first, even His closest followers seriously misunderstood His core teachings; then, because contemporary religious and secular authorities were so threatened by them, they executed Him.

Joshua Josephson was named after an earlier “saviour” of the Hebrews-from the time they escaped the Nile Valley and settled in Palestine, between Egypt and Syria. Usually we use the Greek form of His name-Jesus, adding a descriptive word, Christ-implying that God had marked Him out or “anointed” Him for a special purpose (see Matthew 1:21 and John 1:41).

And just as Jesus Christ was executed in the First Century, crucifi ed on a Roman cross, if He were to be reincarnated in the 21st Century, mightn’t we also crucify Him, albeit in a metaphorical sense?

a threatening figure

Even before Jesus grew to manhood, King Herod of Israel already saw Him as a potential threat, when wise visitors to Jerusalem began asking, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?” (see Matthew 2:1-12). Herod was so fearful for his dynasty that “he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (Matthew 2:16). Herod was absolutely ruthless with all perceived contenders for his shaky throne!

The Gospel of Mark shows the disciples (the word literally means “learners,” with Jesus as rabbi or teacher) failed to understand Jesus’ message and mission. “Do you still not see or understand?” He asks them in Mark 8:17. “But they did not understand what he meant,” Mark tells us. They were “amazed” and became “even more amazed” (Mark 9:32; 10:24, 26).

Whole books have been written about the “blindness” of the disciples until after the Resurrection and ascension of Jesus. James and John even asked for positions of power in His coming kingdom, oblivious of its actual nature. Even as late as Acts 1, following the Resurrection, the disciples were asking, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (verse 6).

At this distance, the words of Jesus now seem very clear. Under interrogation by Pilate, He declared: “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fi ght to prevent my arrest by the Jews” (John 18:36). Eric J Sharpe, while a noted professor at the University of Sydney, stated, “The centrality of the idea of the kingdom of God in the teaching of Jesus is beyond all question,” and he cites six books that support his point. Confl ict about this teaching, above all else, caused Jesus’ death in the First Century of the Christian era.

the problem “kingdom” and the promised “kingdom”

The famous Pax Romana of the time of Jesus was a peace won through military action and sustained by force. John Dominic Crossan, a controversial scholar who has spent decades “pondering the texts and wandering the ruins of the Roman Empire,” in his book God and Empire, says, “I look at the Roman Empire neither to praise it nor to bury it, but to understand it as fairly and accurately as I can. Otherwise, I will not be able to understand where the Christian biblical tradition stands on Rome or any other empire.”

Crossan is determined to know why Rome crucifi ed Jesus, executed Paul and exiled the disciple John on Patmos. He concludes, “The normalcy of even the cutting edge of human civilisation in all its imperial inevitability has as its chant ‘First victory, then peace,’ or ‘Peace by victory.’ ” Crossan fi nds this bad news “as deep as human civilisation itself.” It contrasts with the good news of Jesus and Paul “that the violent normalcy of human civilisation is not the inevitable destiny of human nature.”

The kingdom Jesus set up was, first of all, the kingdom of grace. That kingdom of grace will finally merge into His kingdom of glory, when “the kingdom of the world” becomes “the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.” The poetry of Revelation gives a vivid picture of the redeemed “before the throne of God”: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Revelation 7:15-17).

why?

In his book Jesus and the Victory of God, Anglican author N T Wright explored the reasons for Jesus’ crucifi xion. He proposes that the question “why,” in such a case, involves us inescapably in the study of human intentionality. Why did the Roman authorities consider it appropriate or desirable to execute Jesus? Why did the Jewish authorities consider it right to hand Him over to the Romans as deserving of death? And, in the middle of it all, what was Jesus’ own intention in the matter?

Wright also moves beyond such questions to ask even more important ones, like, “Why did certain fi rst-century Jews, within an exceedingly short time, refer to the death of a messianic pretender- not in itself an uncommon or remarkable event in that time and place-in terms such as ‘he loved me and gave himself for me’?”

would we do it again?

The historical evidence about Jesus and His untimely death is more engrossing than a modern crime thriller. We have countless clues and a vast array of jigsaw pieces ample for us to construct a coherent picture. Guiding us in the task is the clear evidence of God’s unfolding promise in the Old Testament and its startling fulfi lment in the New. The crucifixion and death of Jesus was not a legend, it actually occurred.

However, the Bible also tells us why it happened. It reveals that the Person slain by human power-handed over by God to “men of Israel” and “wicked men” (see Acts 2:14-24) was also “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). Scripture is explicit: Christ was far more than a victim of violent political machinations in fi rst-century Palestine; He was “pierced for our transgressions,” “sacrifi ced once to take away the sins of many people,” “delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justifi cation” (Isaiah 53:4-11; Hebrews 9:28; Romans 4:25).

Were we living in Jesus’ time and place, might also our prejudices and antipathies have caused us to join self-serving Jews and power-hungry Romans to crucify Him? His countercultural message raises intense hostility; many countries are still martyring His followers. Those of us who live in less violent cultures need to question how we would relate to the Galilean if He was, right now, tramping our roads, teaching in our universities, presenting on our television screens, writing newspaper columns and blogs. Even Christians are warned against the peril of “crucifying the Son of God all over again” (Hebrews 6:6). The disturbing reference is to a crucifi xion without a wooden cross and iron nails.

The biblical data about Jesus, and what some refer to as His “upside down” kingdom, present values that contrast with the greed and injustice of our world. Opposing responses challenge us. There is constant pressure to join those who in the First Century- and even now-cry out, “Crucify him!” (John 19:12-16). A better option is that modelled by the once-doubting Thomas; the evidence led him to exclaim of Jesus, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:24-31).