Why did Jesus have to die? It’s an easy question on the one hand; you can’t have resurrection unless you die. It’s a much more difficult question, though, when you posit, “Did Jesus have to die?” or “Why couldn’t or wouldn’t Jesus call on the legion of angels he commanded?”
From the historical point of view, Jesus died because he threatened the power structures. The religious leaders felt he was a threat to the traditional talmudic heritage. The Jewish political leaders saw him as a threat to their symbiosis with Rome. The Romans wanted to nip any possible revolution in the bud … no self-proclaimed Jewish kings allowed.
From the teachings, though, it appears Jesus wasn’t interested in ruling the Jewish people. He was interested in something much more transcendent — announcing the presence of the kingdom of God here and now. So, why, then, did Jesus have to die? It’s one of the discussion questions in the back pages of “The Story.” And it’s the one question Dwayne asked me as we were discussing this week’s chapter on our Good Friday road trip to western Pennsylvania.
In contemplating this question, I kept returning to Jesus’ response to Pilate’s accusation, “You ARE a king, then!”
You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me. John 18:37 [NIV]
Jesus’s mission in life and death is to testify to the Truth which is even larger than himself. For Jesus, this last week is about giving up himself to the Truth which is greater than himself. After the washing of the feet, Jesus clearly states, “Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” The Truth, the Word, God, Salvation, Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Life … all of this is witnessed … that is, visible, known, experienced, and (at least somewhat) comprehendible … through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this Truth is known in humility, in surrender, in giving up the prideful self and taking on the spirit of Christ.
My favorite scene from the holy week story is Jesus praying in Gethsemane. It didn’t make the cut in this chapter of “The Story,”since this narration was at that point following the Gospel of John. The story of Jesus in the Garden is found in the three synoptic Gospels, and I find it one of the most honest depictions of the humanness of Jesus as he relates to Truth.
[Jesus] said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” Mark 14:36 [NRSV]
We see the movement here of Jesus’ reliance on God. From the honest, “C’mon Dad, I know you can make this easier for me.” to the “ok, it’s not about me.” In the Luke account it says that angels surrounded him in his prayer to give him strength, and then, “In his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.” Luke 22:44 [NRSV] This is was the beginning of the surrender. It ends with “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Luke 23:46 [NRSV]
I’m reminded of the greatest commandment: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength. Loving means, giving up for. If we love God, if we have faith in God, then we give up our own pride, our own need for control, our own wants, our own comfort … for the work of the Kingdom. And when we do, we truly know the Grace, Peace and Love of Christ. And, so, Yes, Jesus had to totally give up his heart, soul, mind, and strength in order to give witness to the Truth and fullness of God’s transforming and creative power.
How do you answer the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?”