Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday Meditation: Why Did Jesus Have to Die?

On Palm Sunday, people lined the road leading into Jerusalem, and they spread palm branches before him as a sign of respect. There were shouts of “Hosanna” meaning “Save us now”. A wave of expectation had swept the country. But the cheering did not last. The tide began to turn against him. Why did the crowd turn against him? And why so quickly? How did the shouts of Hosanna on Sunday become the shouts of “crucify him” just a few days later? Why did the cheering stop? Since today is Good Friday, let’s take a look at the death of Jesus and try to answer the question, “Why did Jesus have to die?”

The People’s Expectations

I think the significance of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is that it was all a misunderstanding about his life and mission. What turned the tide against him was that Jesus committed the unpardonable sin of not being the kind of Messiah everybody was expecting. This led, at least in part, to His death upon the cross. Let me explain.

The people knew Jesus had supernatural power – they knew of his many miracles, healings, raising the dead, and multiplication of food. He was popular because of these miracles, and he was a charismatic leader whose teachings were profound. Moreover, he wasn’t afraid of the establishment, and it appeared he could summon thousands to follow him if he wished. After he fed the multitudes, the Gospel says the people wanted to make him king (John 6:14-15):

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself. NRSV

On Palm Sunday the crowd shouted “Save us!”, because they were looking for a king to save them in an earthly sense. They wanted to be saved from the harsh Roman rule, from their own oppressive leaders, from crippling taxes, and most of all they wanted to have their land restored to them. You can’t blame them for wanting these things, because life was miserable, with no relief in sight.

Jesus’ name in Hebrew is Y’Shua, which means “Jehovah saves.” What could be better? God must have sent him to save his people. I’m sure the people were convinced that Jesus was a new Moses, who would deliver them out of bondage. He was a new Joshua, who would restore their land. He was a new King David, who would rule over a unified nation in glory.

When Jesus came into Jerusalem in what appeared to be a triumphal procession, the people got fired up. Freedom is at hand! Rome will soon be defeated! Our land will be restored! Jerusalem was filled with Jews from all over celebrating the Passover – what a perfect time to start a rebellion!

But nothing happens – a perfect opportunity is slipping away, and Jesus is doing nothing. What’s wrong with him? Is he a fraud like those false messiahs of the past? Finally, at the instigation of the religious leaders, the crowd turns against Jesus.

The Leaders’ Fears

The crowd rejected Jesus before Pilate, but it was the religious leaders who really wanted him out of the way. The people had little power, but Pilate was intimidated by the crowd’s actions. Fearing a riot, he relented and had Jesus executed – against his better judgment. He had his career to think about – he couldn’t afford to have reports of a riot reach Rome and put his position in jeopardy. So Pilate took the easy way – who cares about some guy whose own people have rejected him?

But why did these religious leaders want Jesus out of the way? It was because he posed a threat to the status quo. The religious leaders had power because the Romans allowed them to have it. They had a cozy arrangement with the occupying Romans, and they had a lucrative racket going in their sacrificial lamb and money changing operations. That’s why Jesus cleared the temple and drove out the money changers – they were ripping off the people. (Sadly, Christian religious leaders have a history of ripping off the people as well).

If Jesus started a rebellion, the leaders would lose their power (and probably their lives). Besides, there had been false messiahs before, and they all amounted to nothing. They became worried when this Galilean didn’t fade away like the others, but seemed to be gaining in popularity and influence. Jesus and his followers, while they didn’t appear to be taking up arms, also didn’t seem to have much respect for the religious authorities and their traditions. Jesus even traveled thru Samaria, went into Gentile territories, and he hung out with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other “lowlife” people. This was scandalous, but these are the kinds of people might just might be willing to start a revolt – they had nothing to lose.

So Jesus and his followers were perceived to be a threat – this movement had to be stopped. Kill the head, and the body dies too, they figured.

God’s Plan

What the leaders and the crowd didn’t realize was that Jesus was the Messiah, but just wasn’t the kind of Messiah they had expected. They hadn’t understood many of the prophecies about his suffering, especially those in Isaiah 53 and Psalm 22. Jesus’ purpose in coming to earth was to suffer and die. That may seem strange, because we all die, and many people suffer terribly.

So what does it mean that Jesus came to earth to suffer and die? He certainly could have come to earth fully-grown, done some teaching, performed a few miracles, and then ascended into heaven, leaving a legacy of wise teachings and a good example. After all, he is God – he didn’t have to endure what he did.

In his triumphal entry into Jerusalem we see that he clearly embraced his identity as the Messiah and as a king. He was cheered and welcomed, was hailed as a king and savior by the crowd. Those who lined the road were united in affirming his authority and power with shouts of “Save Us,” and Jesus accepted these accolades. As a matter of fact, we read in the Luke version of Palm Sunday that Jesus insisted on this praise (Luke 19:39-40):

Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” He answered, “I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.” NRSV

He accepted this praise because he is divine, he is God, and he is the Messiah. As such, he certainly could have skipped that nasty business with the Cross – but he didn’t. Why? He went to the cross voluntarily, because it was God’s plan for him to do so. Powerful as Jesus is, he could have easily resisted the puny efforts of even the mighty Roman Empire. But he didn’t, which was prophesied in Isaiah 53:7:

He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. NIV

Why, then, did this have to happen? Again, it is explained in Isaiah 53:4-6:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. NIV

By his wounds we are healed. Or as it says in the King James Version, which many of us learned (Isaiah 53:5b): By His stripes we are healed. (NKJV) This concept can be difficult, but we have to take on faith that what Jesus accomplished by his suffering and death was to free us from the penalty of our own transgressions (“was crushed for our iniquities), was to reconcile us to God (“the punishment that brought us peace”), and it was to give us victory over sin and death (“by his stripes we are healed”).

That is what those Isaiah passages are saying. Therefore, when we put our faith in Christ and what he did on the Cross, it brings us into a right relationship with God, transforms us into new creations in Christ, and guarantees us a place in heaven despite how rotten we’ve been. As we contemplate what occurred that following Friday, we Christians believe that it was all for the good, part of God’s plan (hence the name “Good” Friday).

Jesus wasn’t just the unfortunate victim of a terrible injustice. He wasn’t just an unwitting casualty caught up in a power struggle. He wasn’t just some misunderstood prophet from the sticks. He wasn’t a traitor, he wasn’t planning to overthrow the government, and he certainly wasn’t raising an army to stage a rebellion. He was, in fact, following God’s plan to save the world, as we learned when we discussed John chapter 3. Those famous lines in John 3:16-17 explain why all of this had to happen:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” NRSV

Christians believe that God affirmed what Jesus did on the Cross by raising him from the dead, so we can be sure that our faith in Jesus is not in vain. If we believe in Jesus we receive eternal life. That’s why Christians say that Jesus is their Lord and Savior. Faith in what he did on the Cross makes you right with God.

Faith in Jesus doesn’t just involve the afterlife, but he helps us in this life as well. Maybe your life isn’t what you would like it to be, but don’t lose faith. Maybe you didn’t get that job, or maybe your job is in jeopardy, but don’t lose faith. Maybe your marriage isn’t what you wanted it to be, or maybe you have health problems, but don’t lose faith. Whatever your challenges may be, turn to Jesus. He’s there for you and will help you through these problems.

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