And he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.—John 19:17–18
Jesus died. This short sentence shows Christianity as unique among other religions. In the introduction of her book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus, Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopal priest and lecturer, makes this powerful claim: “The world’s religions have certain traits in common, but until the gospel of Jesus Christ burst upon the Mediterranean world, no one in the history of human imagination had conceived of such a thing as the worship of a crucified man” (1).
Of course, without the resurrection Jesus’ death would have meant nothing more than that a charismatic Jewish leader died at the hands of Roman authorities—a tragedy for friends and family, but hardly enough to ignite a movement that would last for over two millennia to the present day. Still, as important as the resurrection of Jesus Christ is for Christianity, the resurrection must be understood through the death of Jesus. Again, Fleming Rutledge makes this point well:
The resurrection is not a set piece. It is not an isolated demonstration of divine dazzlement. It is not to be detached from its abhorrent first act. The resurrection is, precisely, the vindication of a man who was crucified. Without the cross at the center of the Christian proclamation, the Jesus story can be treated as just another story about a charismatic spiritual figure. It is the crucifixion that marks out Christianity as something definitively different in the history of religion. It is in the crucifixion that the nature of God is truly revealed. (p. 44)
Death and resurrection are two important events in the life of Jesus and the life of the church. Here, I want to show three ways Jesus’ death shapes Christianity.
1. Through death, Jesus defeated death, the devil, and the rebellious world.
Jesus, the Christ, the King of the Jews, God who became man in the womb of the virgin Mary, died one Friday afternoon between two criminals. He had lived obediently to God the Father; worked miracles to demonstrate the power of a coming kingdom; spoke of a day when God would judge the nations; painted word pictures of blessedness and abundance; suffered under the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate; was crucified, died, and was buried. Yet, the Sunday morning following the Friday of his death, Jesus rose, passing from death to life.
This was the beginning of God’s victory over rebellion, God’s victory over death, and God’s victory over the demonic powers that hold men and women captive to self-worship, cruelty, and hate. We need not feel sorry for him. He willingly gave himself up. He voluntarily died. Paul taught, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15).
2. Through death, Jesus won eternal life for sinners.
Paul taught, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13–14). Through trusting Jesus, you receive his life in exchange for yours. His death becomes your death. His suffering becomes your suffering. His condemnation under God’s law becomes your condemnation under God’s law.
If you trust in Jesus, God looks at you as one who has already died, as one whose sin has already been punished, as one whose life is seen as the perfection that Christ attained. God sees you this way because he sees Jesus in your place. Jesus lived as a substitute for sinners. He lived in your place. He died in your place. He rose from the dead as victor over death. And in the same way, you and I who trust in Jesus will rise from the dead as victors over death.
3. Through faith, Christians pass from death to life.
In the Old Testament God pictured Christ’s death through the ritual of circumcision. In circumcision, a part of human flesh was cut off, portraying what God must do to sinners. In the New Testament water baptism pictures sinners passing from death to life. The apostle Paul, making use of these two images, wrote,
In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. (Col. 2:11–12)
If you’re a Christian, your baptism pictures what God promises. It is a sign of what God guarantees. It is tangible evidence of what God will accomplish for those who trust in Jesus. Through faith in Christ, together with Christ, we become conquers waiting for the final victory of the resurrection.