From the series, Ten Turning Points That Make All the Difference
Why did Jesus die on the cross?
Last time in this series I explored Bruce L. Shelley’s observation, “Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central event the humiliation of its God.” Why would God—why would any God—endure such a thing? Let’s see what the Bible has to say about it. Hebrews 12:1,2 is a good place to start:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
For joy… despising the shame. Pause a moment to ponder the strange juxtaposition of those three feeling words. The Hebrews who read this first-century letter would have needed no help recalling what a shameful thing crucifixion was. Besides being a torturous way to die, it was slow, it was helpless, it was very public, it was typically accompanied by mocking, and it was reserved for the lowest of the low. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the Old Testament pronounced a specific curse (Deut. 21:23) on anyone who hangs on a tree. Crucifixion was close enough to qualify (Gal 3:12-14).
There was more than enough shame in being crucified. Still it’s interesting that the author of Hebrews spoke here of that shame, rather than physical pain, which on the surface ought to have seemed more significant to the sufferer. There is a hint here of where I will be heading in my next post on this topic, for many Bible scholars and students, myself included, believe that Jesus carried pain there that was far greater than the torture of hanging nailed to a pair of poles, and that this pain was directly connected to yet another kind of shame. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Jesus “despised” that shame. The original Greek word used there has a range of meaning including “to condemn, despise, disdain, think little or nothing of” (Thayer, via Accordance for Mac). Now we know that the crucifixion was not no small thing in Jesus’ eyes (Luke 22:39-46); and yet he “despised the shame.” He thought “little or nothing” of the mocking, the curse, the pain he bore there.
He did it, says the writer in Hebrews, for joy. He experienced mountains of shame. There must have been a whole world full of joy in it.
For Jesus Christ, according to the record we have in the Bible, that joy was the fruit of what his death accomplished in:
- Saving us from death and reconciling us to God, as an expression of his great love (Romans 5:6-11)
- Reconciling hostile groups to one another and to God (Eph. 2:11-21)
- Reconciling us to God, making peace, overcoming hostility and alienation (Col. 1:15-22)
- Bringing us to God (1 Peter 3:18)
- Canceling our debt owed to God (Col. 2:13-14)
- Redeeming us from our sin: our failures in act and thought, our not living up to God’s great standard, our attitude of independence from God (Hebrews 10; in context of the OT sacrificial system)
- Meeting death on its own terms, as it were, to destroy it (1 Cor. 15:25-26, 53-57)
And in an extended passage that I do not have space to exegete today (Romans 6 through 8; also Gal. 2:20 and surrounding), by the cross he brought us into a unique unity with himself, whereby we are freed from the power of sin and enabled to live by his resurrection power (next week’s topic).
He did it for worlds full of joy: the joy of giving himself to rescue us from our alienation, hostility, debts, weakness, and death; the joy of bringing us into relationship with him.
This leaves an important question hanging: why did all this require his death? What was it about his dying that made all this possible? I’ll answer that, to the best of my ability at least, in the next post in this series. For now I urge you to think deeply about what kind of love it would take to consider mountains of shame as nothing, compared to the joy Christ experiences in having given himself so freely for you and for me.