April 16, 2014

Why Do We Have Easter – or Did Jesus Really Have to Die?

By Donald G. Mashburn

Why do we have Easter? If Easter’s reason for being is purely commercial, as much of the world sees it, we could do without it. Easter Sunday, to Christians, however, is Resurrection Day, the day Jesus Christ arose from the grave, and that can lead to questions about Jesus’ death. Was He guilty? Did He really have to die?

The questions multiply when we begin to explore the claims Jesus made for Himself, His relationship with God, and what He came to do. Two questions that pop up are: 1. Is Easter really necessary? 2. Did Jesus really have to die?

After last Sunday’s service, I asked my pastor, “Did Jesus really have to die?” After a moment, he said, “I think it was inevitable.” It was not a good time for a quick question, but it was a good answer.

As to the need for Easter, we should consider what Easter is all about, or is not about. A San Francisco writer, Barbara Koh, once not so famously wrote, “Easter is all about Easter egg hunts, egg decorating, the Easter Bunny, parades and dressing up.” Her remarks, sadly, sum up the meaning of Easter for many in a jaded world. Similar viewpoints are heard from commentators who don’t seem to understand who Jesus was, what He was “all about,” or why He died.

The superficial perception of Easter prevents many from making a connection between Resurrection Day and the Son of God, whose death on the Cross that first Easter changed the world for all time, and changed the eternal destiny and destination of all those who accept Him as Savior and Lord.

Strangely enough, however, even among Believers there is no consensus as to the “why” of Jesus’ death. There are those who believe that since Jesus “came to save that which was lost,” everyone who believes He came from God will be saved. Some have even written that “every person” will be saved, because God is too merciful to punish even those who reject Him.

Conjecture and speculation don’t produce satisfying answers. The word of God is our best source in our search for an answer to the question: Did Jesus really have to die?

We can start with the sacrifices of the Old Testament that were offered to pay the penalties for sin. The sacrifices offered, such as for the Passover, were to be perfect, without blemish. From these, we can get the pictures of sacrifice and atonement, and from there move to the coming of the Son of God.

In the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we learn of Jesus’ birth, glimpse His childhood, learn of His baptism and ministry. But it’s fairly late in His ministry that we find Him discussing His way to Calvary, as in His words to Nicodemus, when Jesus said, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up” (John 3:14 NKJV).

Just two verses later, Jesus uttered the gloriously good news of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (NKJV).

Those words of divine grace and love do not disclose what was involved as God “gave His only begotten Son.” But the light begins to come on when He tells His disciples that He must be crucified, and will rise again. And we should note that Jesus knew of the suffering He would endure on the cross; and knowing, He still set His face toward Calvary and the terrible agony that awaited Him there.

He knew both His mission and His Father’s will. In His obedience to His Father’s will and His willingness to give Himself for our salvation, we realize that His life was not taken from Him. Jesus gave His life because He chose to!

His words tell us this, for in John 10:17, Jesus said, “Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I received from My Father” (NKJV).

Jesus says He’ll lay down His life, voluntarily, and take it again. Nowhere in God’s word is there any hint that Jesus was on a suicide or martyr’s mission. A much deeper, divine, purpose was at work here, driven by a love of God for our souls, a loving God who is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9 NKJV).

So, did Jesus have to die? The answer is, “Yes, if God is not willing that any should perish.” There must be a balancing of the sinner’s “ledger” so that his sin debt could be paid in in a “currency” acceptable to a righteous God.

Sinners must somehow become righteous in God’s sight. The only way that could happen was for God to provide His own righteousness in place of our unrighteousness. God accomplished that through the gift of His Son Jesus, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21, NKJV).

In becoming sin for us, Jesus became our substitute and our Redeemer. The central meaning of redemption is “to buy back.” And Jesus said He was not sent to “condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” As the Apostle Peter wrote in I Peter 1:18-19 (NKJV), “You were not redeemed with corruptible things … but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.”

The redemptive work of Jesus was ordained by the Father long before Calvary, as we see in I Peter 1:20-21, “He indeed was foreordained before the foundation of the world, but was manifest in these last times for you who through Him believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory ….”

So the death of Jesus was not the result of a conspiracy between the Romans and the Jews. It was inevitable, as my pastor said. When God “gave” (John 3:16), or “sent” (John 5:24) His Son, Jesus’ mission was “not to condemn the world but that the world through Him might be saved” John 3:17).

In Gethsemane, Jesus prayed. “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). But Christ endured both the “cup” and the cross at Calvary, and purchased our salvation.

In reflecting on the question, “Did Jesus Really Have to Die,” we many truths come to us from Jesus’ words, prayers, and in particular, His journey to the cross at Calvary.

Apart from the shedding of the blood there is no forgiveness of sin.

The Son of God was the perfect sacrifice, sinless, without blemish.

No one took the life of Jesus, for He said, “I lay it down of Myself.”

He chose to die at the cross, where all our sins were placed on Him.

It was something Jesus, in His humanity, didn’t want. That is, Jesus the Man dreaded the “cup” – perhaps the way to the cross, or the “cup” and its distilled sins and wrongs of mankind, and the awful and painful separation from the Father.

But the awesome power of that sacrifice transformed a rough fisherman into Peter the Apostle, martyr, church leader.

And led the Apostles to the upper room, and filled them with the Holy Spirit and used them to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

That on the road to Damascus, transformed Saul, the harsh persecutor of Christians, into the Apostle Saul, later to be called Paul.

That empowered John, the beloved Disciple, the last surviving Apostle, to write through the Holy Spirit one more gospel – because so much still needed to be said – and add to that three more epistles and an apocalypse.

That inspired martyrs of all ages to give themselves to the service of Jesus Christ.

That inspired missionaries, evangelists, pastors and witnesses all over the world.

Did Jesus really have to die? Answers are found in the love of God for His children, His boundless grace, His desire for us to love Him above all, to serve Him all our lives, and to worship Him for eternity.

No other sacrifice could pay the awful debt we owe to a holy, righteous God into whose presence nothing unclean or unrighteous can enter.

Our sin debt deserves the wrath of God, but “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” to save us from that wrath.

So there on the cross, the perfect, sinless, and unblemished Son of God took the “cup,” the cup that in His humanity, he prayed, “Let this cup pass from me.” But He also prayed to God, “Not my will but thy will be done.”

There at Calvary, He received the cup, in which were distilled the sins of us all, the blasphemy, perversion, and the punishment of sin.

At Calvary, the wrath of a holy God was spent on the unblemished, sinless Son of God, “that we might become the righteousness of God in Him”

So, yes, because of our unrighteousness, Jesus really did have to die. It was the Father’s will, and it was the Father’s love for us that sent His Son to the cross – to be a propitiation for our sins.

Apart from the cross, we could not have salvation.

Apart from the person of Jesus Christ, we could not be redeemed and be seen as righteous in the eyes of a righteous God.

Apart from Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection we could not have the most important messages of Easter: Jesus’ agonizing cry of victory, “It is finished!” And the Angel’s proclamation on that first Easter morning, “He is risen!”