A common question that comes up when we talk about what it means to believe and follow Jesus is, "Why did Jesus have to die?"
The short answer to this question is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3, where the Apostle Paul says, “Jesus died for our sins according to the Bible [emphasis added].” Jesus’ death is the climax of the Bible’s story. To understand why Jesus had to die, we have to understand the story of the Bible.
The Bible is a story in four parts: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. The Bible begins when God creates the world and says that it is “good” (Genesis 1). God created humanity to take care of God’s good creation and to live in a relationship with Him. This idea of care and relationship is called worship. However, humanity decided they didn’t want to worship God (Genesis 3).
God gave humanity instructions, and we decided we knew better than God. We knew what would satisfy us, what we needed, what was right and what was wrong, and God didn’t. We rebelled against God and His instructions, and the Bible calls this rebellion sin. Sin is the worship of anything other than God, and the penalty for that rebellion is death. When humanity sinned, we fell into death and separation from God.
God wasn’t willing to leave humanity in the mess we made for ourselves.
He loved us so much that He promised to rescue humanity from the consequences of our sin (Genesis 12, Genesis 15). He promised to use the nation of Israel to rescue all of His creation through a person He would send called the Messiah.
The Messiah would pay the penalty for sin and restore creation and humanity to God’s original design (Isaiah 9:1-7). To illustrate what the Messiah would do, God gave Israel the Law, which was a series of rules and animal sacrifices. The sacrifices showed Israel that the penalty for sin was death. To pay for sin, something had to die, but the problem was the animal wasn’t the person who had sinned. It was a temporary solution to the problem.
This is why the Bible says in Hebrews 10:1-5 that “The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. If they could have provided perfect cleansing, the sacrifices would have stopped, for the worshipers would have been purified once for all time, and their feelings of guilt would have disappeared. But instead, those sacrifices actually reminded them of their sins year after year. For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. That is why, when Jesus came into the world, He said to God, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings. But you have given me a body to offer.”
Jesus came to permanently solve the problem of sin. God sent Jesus, the Messiah, to be the perfect sacrifice, to pay the penalty that was required for humanity’s sin. Jesus came not just to die, but to die as a sacrifice for our sins and redeem us from the penalty of death. This is why Jesus couldn’t die a natural death or continue to teach. He didn’t come to teach. He came to die as a sacrifice. Jesus’ death is what makes Him different than any other prophet or teacher.
"Jesus came not just to die, but to die as a sacrifice for our sins and redeem us from the penalty of death."
It wasn’t enough for Jesus to die, though. The Romans executed Him because He said He was the Messiah, a king greater than Caesar. If Jesus had stayed dead, He would have been just like any other failed rebel, religious leader, or great teacher. When He came back to life, it proved not only that He was really king over all creation, but that the power of death which held humanity captive since the fall had been defeated.
It’s ok for this idea to make you uncomfortable. It feels wrong that Jesus had to die. Paul even admits this in 1 Corinthians 1:23, where he says that Jesus’ death is “a stumbling block to the Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles.” When we hear about what Jesus did on the cross, it makes us wonder if there was any other way God could have rescued us. When we decide to believe and follow Jesus, part of what we are saying is we trust that God knew what He was doing by sending Jesus to rescue us through the cross.
If you have more questions about Jesus and His mission, a great book that goes into more detail on who Jesus was and why He came to earth is Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright.