Easter's Gospel: Why Did Jesus Die?

Series: Easter's Gospel

by Will Spokes March 12, 2014

During the weeks leading up to Easter our pastoral staff will tackle theological topics related to the resurrection in a series we're calling "Easter's Gospel."


In addition to asking, "Why did Jesus die?" we need to answer a similar but different question: “Why was Jesus killed?” In fact to answer the latter is essential for answering the former.

Why Was Jesus Killed?

So, why was Jesus killed? On a human level the gospels recount for us the reactions of two main groups: the Romans and the Jews. These two groups were not friends. However, when faced with a common enemy, those who would otherwise have nothing to do with one another suddenly became partners. How could this happen?

"The Jewish leaders were incensed by [Jesus'] disrespectful attitude to the law and his provocative claims, while the Romans heard that he was proclaiming himself King of the Jews and so challenging the authority of Caesar. To both groups Jesus appeared to be a revolutionary thinker and preacher, and some considered him a revolutionary activist as well. So profoundly did he disturb the status quo that they determined to do away with him" (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 51).

The political powers and the religious elites of the day were outraged at Jesus. The sentiments and actions of the Romans and Jews are, according to the New Testament, representative of all people everywhere who refuse to accept Jesus on his own terms (re: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Jesus' life and ministry challenges every facet of life as we know it. "How?" you might ask. "[T]he evangelists fasten the major blame for the crucifixion of Jesus [on Pilate, Caiaphas, and Judas together with] those associated with them, whether priests or people or soldiers" (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 61). Each group "handed Jesus over" or "betrayed" him. Judas did so out of greed. The priests did so out of envy. Pilate did so out of cowardice.

Pilate, Caiaphas, & Judas

Despite the fact that Pilate believed Jesus to be innocent (Luke 23:4), he was afraid to stand his ground against the Jewish leaders or the inquiries of Caeser. He caved to peer pressure and the fear of what others would think, do, or say to or about him if he didn’t convict Jesus to death. It’s easy to look back at Pilate 2000 years later and call him a coward. But what about us? Do you find it hard to profess and hold fast to what you believe about Jesus in the face of opposition or disagreement? Do you find Jesus compelling—almost too good to be true—yet the opportunities, status, and opinions of this life lead you to conclude something else, not because it's true, but because it's personally convenient?

Or take Caiaphas and the religious leaders who, from very early on in Jesus’ ministry, were plotting and scheming his demise (Luke 6:11). Why would they be envious of Jesus? Jesus had authority and power to do only what God could do (Mark 1:21-28; 2:1-12), which challenged everything they knew about God and his ways in the world. "So they felt threatened by Jesus. He undermined their prestige, their hold over the people, their own self-confidence and self-respect…" (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 58). Jesus does the same to us today. Jesus challenges everything in your life upon which you build your identity, your self-confidence, or your standing with God. The sobering reality of the gospel story is religious people were as zealous to reject Jesus as the irreligious people, and arguably even more so. The death of Jesus challenges those who obey God for their own ends every bit as much as those who reject God for their own ends.

Lastly, consider Judas, one of the twelve disciples, who betrayed Jesus. While Pilate was a coward and the religious leaders were envious, Judas was greedy. After Mary anoints Jesus with expensive perfume, John records Judas as saying, "'Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?' He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it" (John 12:5-6). "Indeed having witnessed and denounced what he saw as Mary's irresponsible wastefulness, he seems to have gone straight to the priests to recoup some of the loss. 'What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?' he asked them. No doubt they began to bargain, and in the end agreed on thirty silver coins, the ransom price of a common slave" (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 60; M atthew 26:6-16). Judas illustrates for us what Jesus teaches us elsewhere. "No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24). Money was Judas' undoing. What in your life is competing for your love and affection?

What do these three characters and their supporters have to do with us? "Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us…, we have to see it as something done by us. Indeed, 'only the man who is prepared to own his share in the guilt of the cross,' wrote Canon Peter Green, 'may claim his share in its grace'" (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 63).

The "Divine Must"—Why Did Jesus Die?

"[A]lthough Jesus was brought to his death by human sins, he did not die as a martyr. On the contrary, he went to the cross voluntarily, even deliberately. From the beginning of his public ministry he consecrated himself to this destiny" (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 64). How do we know this? The answer is found in the "divine must" (Matthew16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22, 17:25, 22:37, 24:7; John 3:14, 20:9). Throughout all four gospels we discover that God the Father is at work bringing to pass through human agency his purpose to save sinners. As Peter preached on the day of Pentecost, "this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men" (Acts 2:23). Therefore, we can say with Paul, not only was Jesus killed because of our rebellion, but "the Son of God…loved me and gave himself for me" (Galatians 2:20). "Octavius Winslow summed it up in a neat statement: 'Who delivered up Jesus to die? Not Judas, for money; not Pilate, for fear; not the Jews, for envy;—but the Father, for love!'" (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 64).

"It is essential to keep together two complementary ways of looking at the cross. On the human level, Judas gave him up to the priests, who gave him up to Pilate, who gave him up to the soldiers, who crucified him. But on the divine level, the Father gave him up, and he gave himself up, to die for us. As we face the cross, then, we can say to ourselves both, 'I did it, my sins sent him there,' and 'He did it, his love took him there.'" (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 64).

So why was Jesus killed? Because of our sin! Why did Jesus die? Because he loves sinners!