Did Jesus Have to Die on a Cross?

When we think of the cross, we are not immediately to think of a pretty symbol. I think that’s a great danger: to think of it as a glamorized or bejeweled symbol that might adorn a person’s neck or home. Rather, we are to associate it in our mind with torture, with unrelieved thirst, with ridicule and, of course, with blood—much blood. It was never a “pretty” thing. The very idea of a crucified god was a joke in the first century—and a sick and infantile joke at that. 

Has a more terrible way to die ever been devised by man’s cruel imagination? Yet the early Christians not only admitted that their founder Jesus had died in this contemptible manner; they also boasted about it. The apostle Paul says, “God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of Jesus Christ.” Indeed, this was the heart of what Paul saw as the Christian message.

So this universal symbol of loathing, this taboo, was somehow transformed into a badge of honor, which in time would shape Christian architecture, inspire Christian hymns, and most of all fire Christian preaching. How can that be? 

Why Jesus came. 

Jesus could have gone another way. He didn’t have to go up to Jerusalem. He didn’t have to tolerate Judas Iscariot in his inner circle of disciples; he knew from the earliest days that this man was a traitor, yet he deliberately kept Judas in his confidence. He knew his enemies would try to arrest him after dark in a secluded place, separated from the crowds who followed him. But he went to the Garden of Gethsemane, having already informed Judas where he was going, and he did all this when it was dark and there were no crowds around him. The Gospels make it clear that he could have spoken in his own defense and that Pilate would have been willing to hear him, for Pilate seemed to have real sympathy for him. But Jesus didn’t say a word. He who raised others from the dead surrendered himself to death and made no attempt to escape it.

Plainly, he planned it. In fact, Jesus says in John’s Gospel, “Nobody takes my life from me. I give it up of my own free will.” On a number of occasions, his disciples tried to dissuade him. They could see that he was set in some way upon dying, because he said to them, “I’m going to Jerusalem, and there I must suffer many things and the authorities will kill me.” He made that promise, and then he resolutely set out toward Jerusalem. When Peter, the most impetuous of the disciples, heard him, he insisted that it must not be so. Do you know what Jesus said to him? “Get behind me, Satan! You’re an obstacle in my way.” Jesus was clearly under some inner compulsion to die.

Jesus’ death was his triumph. 

To understand his death, I want to focus on three words here from John 19:30, “When he had received the drink, Jesus said, ‘It is finished.’ With that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” It is finished. Those are the three words, though in the Greek, it’s only one word: tetelestai.

But this is not a last desperate self-pitying cry of surrender. He doesn’t cry out, “I am finished!” No, he says, “It is finished!”

Here’s the key: This is not a cry of defeat; it is not a confession of failure; it is a statement of completion, of satisfaction; indeed, it’s a statement of triumph. By using this word, tetelestai, Jesus is saying, Yes, my life does have a plan. I came into the world with a mission to fulfill and it’s done. This death of mine, far from being the thwarting of that plan, is actually its climax. Jesus shows us time and again that the Scriptures have been fulfilled and that he is in absolute control.

In this passage, we see that everything happens to Jesus according to plan. Although people think they’re attacking him, he’s actually in control. But if he’s in control, what can he possibly achieve at the cross? We find our answer in John 19:31: “Now, it was the day of preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath.” This was Passover week in Jerusalem, a special Jewish holiday, and that night every Jewish family remembered the days of Moses when the people of God, along with the Egyptians among whom they lived, were going to be judged in the most terrifying way. The firstborn child in every family would die that night. God had said so.

There was, however, a way out. God made provision for the people of Israel so they could escape this terrible judgment. They were to take a lamb—a perfect, unblemished young lamb—and we’re told in the book of Exodus that they were to slaughter it without breaking a bone of its body. Then they were to pour out some of that young lamb’s blood and paint it on their doorposts. After that, as a family, they were to eat the lamb with, among other things, the herb hyssop. In this passage in Exodus, God says, “When I see the blood on the doorposts, when I see the blood, then I will pass over you, and no angel of judgment and death will visit you” (Exod. 12:13).

So what happened that next morning? In every Egyptian home, the firstborn son was dead. In every Israelite home, the firstborn son was alive. This Passover event was then pressed into each Jewish mind for years to come when a lamb had taken the place of a firstborn son. That lamb was slaughtered without a bone broken, had lost its blood as paint on the doorposts, and finally was cooked with hyssop—that lamb had replaced a son. I wonder if you can hear the resonance from Exodus now as I read from verses 28–34.

Later, knowing that all was now completed, and so that the Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I’m thirsty.” A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Now, it was the day of preparation and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jews did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water.

So when John sees the blood of the Lord Jesus running down the cross, what does he think of? He thinks of that doorpost on the night of the first Passover. He remembers this as he tells us that just as the lamb took the place of the Israelite firstborn, so on the cross Jesus—the Lamb of God—is punished in my place. He is slaughtered for me as my substitute.

Will Jesus forgive you? 

But why does he have to die like this on the cross? Because we owe a moral debt to God (which the Bible calls “sin”) that we could never pay off. We know it’s there, because our conscience senses that debt and makes us feel bad about it. 

But at the cross, Jesus, the Lamb of God, cried tetelestai, “It is finished!” His death has fully discharged our moral debt. We’ve been rescued. This is where Christians rest their souls. There is nothing to condemn us on that Day of Judgment if we trust in this cry. When God asks us, “Why should I let you into my heaven?,” the Christian simply replies, “Because your Son once cried out in agony on the cross, ‘It is finished’; and he, the sacrificial lamb, died in my place.” That’s what I want you to remember here: the relief and the joy of “It is finished.”

Be like the four women in verse 25, the brave women who stayed close to Jesus: “Near the cross of Jesus stood his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleopas, and Mary Magdalene.” And what did those women do? They had their eyes fixed on Jesus Christ. My great longing is that you would do that in the weeks and months ahead. Though he knows all our wrongdoing, yet he still loved us enough to die for us. In a world that is often confusing, we can bathe in the oasis of that love.


Adapted from Rico Tice,"Dead and Buried" Modern Reformation, Sep/Oct 2019. Used by permission. 

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Rico Tice

Rico Tice is senior minister of evangelism at All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, which he joined in 1994 during the later years of John Stott’s ministry. His main role is to help the hundreds of enquirers about the Christian faith who come through the doors of the church each year. He has also developed the Christianity Explored course, which introduces people to Jesus through studying the Gospel of Mark.

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