As redemptive history unfolds in the Bible, the story of God’s saving purposes takes a number of surprising twists and turns. The New Testament opens with an angel announcing to a young virgin that God’s promised Savior was at long last coming to visit his people with salvation. Jesus was born of Mary, he grows to manhood, and begins his public ministry after his baptism by John (Matthew 3). As we read in Matthew’s gospel, “and [Jesus] went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people” (Matthew 4:23).
Eventually, Jesus’ public ministry took him to Jerusalem, because as Jesus informed his disciples, “The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death” (Matthew 20:18). As John the Baptist said of Jesus upon first encountering him, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). Since Jesus came as Israel’s Messiah, the mediator of the covenant, and fulfilled the anointed offices of prophet, priest, and king, the necessity of his death comes as somewhat of a surprise–although this death was remarkably foretold by the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 52:13-53:12) who predicted that God’s Messiah would also be a suffering servant. When Jesus entered Jerusalem in triumph on Palm Sunday, it appeared to all as though he would at long last take his place on Israel’s throne to restore the nation to its former greatness. But by Friday afternoon, Jesus was dead, hanging on a Roman cross, having died an agonizing death. Why did the story of our redemption take such a dark and foreboding turn? Why did Jesus need to die?
Throughout the New Testament, the biblical writers tell us why Jesus died and what his death means for us. First and foremost, Jesus’ death is said to be “for our sins,” (a “substitutionary atonement”) and his death effectually and actually turns God’s wrath away from his people, because Jesus takes God’s wrath upon himself (a “satisfaction”). In a fundamental sense then, Jesus’ death satisfies the holy justice of God by making a full and complete payment for the guilt of our sins.
When we look at the terms which the biblical writers use to explain the death of Jesus, the meaning and purpose of his death becomes clear. Jesus is said to die as a substitute for the sinner, in whose place, Jesus is said to die. In Mark 10:45, we read, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” In his Epistle to the Ephesians, Paul notes that “Jesus Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2). In John 10:14-18, Jesus speaks of his death in the following terms: “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep....the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” Jesus describes his own death as “for his sheep.”
Another term we find in the New Testament is that Jesus’ death is said to be a “propitiation” for our sins, that is, a sacrifice which effectually turns aside the wrath of God toward those for whom he is dying. Paul speaks of the death of Christ as “a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:25). John says of Jesus that his death is a propitiation, and that his death shows us the love of God toward sinners. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
In yet another set of verses, Jesus’ death is set forth as the means through which sinners are reconciled to a holy God from whom they are estranged. Paul tells the Christians in Rome, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life” (Romans 5:10). In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul adds, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
Elsewhere, Paul describes Christ’s death in terms of redemption–the price paid in the Roman world to purchase slaves, granting them their freedom: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13). Peter describes the death of Jesus in much the same way–“knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1Peter 1:18-19).
Although the death of Jesus comes as a bit of a surprise as we follow the curse of redemptive history, when we look carefully, we see that this death truly is the “scarlet thread” of redemption. Our Lord’s death for our sins was foretold throughout the Old Testament, and that death fully described and carefully explained in the New. The meaning of the cross is clear. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).