The Place in the Gospels. In the records of Jesus that the Gospels give us, it is clear that a place of supreme significance is given to the death and the resurrection of Christ. The story of the events of Jesus' last few days, culminating in the crucifixion, is given a considerable proportion of each Gospel (Matt. 21-27; Mark 11-15; Luke 19-23; John 12-19), and the record of the journey to Jerusalem and to the cross begins respectively in Matthew 20:17, Mark 10:32, Luke 9:51, and John 11:7.
In each of the Synoptic Gospels Jesus specifically predicts his suffering and death three times ( Matt 16:21 ; 17:22-23 ; 20:17-19 ; Mark 8:31 ; 9:31 ; 10:32-34 ; Luke 9:21-22 ; 9:44 ; 18:31-33 ). Intimations of his death are also given in his words about his anointing in Bethany being a preparation for his burial ( Matt 26:12 ; Mark 14:8 ; John 12:7 ), in the parable of the wicked tenants ( Matt 21:33-39 ; Mark 12:1-12 ; Luke 20:9-17 ), at the transfiguration when Moses and Elijah spoke with him "about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem" ( Luke 9:31 ), in the words about the bridegroom being taken away ( Matt 9:15 ; Mark 2:20 ; Luke 5:35 ), and right back in the words of Simeon to Mary about the anguish that would come to her ( Luke 2:35 ). In John there is reference to the destruction of the temple of Jesus' body ( 2:19-22 ), and frequent reference to the "hour" ( 8:20 ; John 12:23 John 12:27 ; 13:1 ; 16:32 ; 17:1 ) of his being "lifted up" ( 3:14 ; 8:28 ; John 12:32 John 12:34 ), the hour of his crucifixion to which the whole of Jesus' ministry inexorably moved.
The Reasons. When we consider the Gospels as written for the early church and related to its life and mission we can appreciate three supremely important reasons for this emphasis on the death of Christ:
- The centrality of the cross and resurrection in the preaching of the good news of Jesus.
- The centrality of the death and resurrection in the worship of the church, especially in relation to its ordinances of baptism and the Lord's Supper.
- The centrality of the suffering and death of Christ for the meaning of Christian discipleship.
The Preaching of the Early Church. The New Testament very clearly indicates that the death of Christ had central significance in Christian preaching. Paul could say to the Corinthian Christians, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" ( 1 Cor 2:2 ). The gospel for him was "the message of the cross, " even though a "stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles" ( 1 Corinthians 1:18 1 Corinthians 1:23 ). He sums up what he received and passed on to others "as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" ( 1 Cor 15:3-4 ). To the Galations he says, "before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified" ( Gal 3:1 ).
In the records that the Acts of the Apostles gives us of the preaching of apostles Peter and Paul, we find that the death of Christ always has a place of central importance ( 2:23 ; Acts 3:13-15 Acts 3:17-18 ; 4:10 ; 5:30 ; 7:52 ; 8:32-35 ; 10:39 ; 13:27-29 ; 17:2-3 ). In this preaching the human responsibility for the death of Christ is laid at the door of the Jews who handed him over to be crucified and of Pilate who condemned him to death, but it is also made clear that it was in fulfillment of the purpose of God expressed in the Scriptures ( 3:18 ). He was "handed over by God's set purpose and foreknowledge" ( 2:23 ). His enemies did only what God's own "power and will had decided beforehand should happen" ( 4:28 ).
Opposition Described in the Gospels. When we turn back to the Gospels we find it made abundantly clear that the death of Jesus was, from the human standpoint, the culmination of opposition to him. In Mark a major section early in the Gospel (2:1-3:6) shows some of the reasons for such opposition, and that section concludes by saying, "the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus." Luke ( 4:29 ) tells of an attempt on Jesus' life made in Nazareth in what appears to have been a very early stage in his ministry. Later Luke ( 13:31 ) tells how Herod wanted to kill him. In John's Gospel much is said about the constant opposition of "the Jews" to Jesus, because of his attitude to the Sabbath and because of the claims that he was making for himself ( John 5:16 John 5:18 ; 8:59 ; 10:31-32 ). John 7:1 speaks of his "purposely staying away from Judea because the Jews there were waiting to take his life." Then there was an occasion when "the chief priests and the Pharisees sent temple guards to arrest him" ( John 7:32 ), but were not able to do so. All four Gospels tell of the plans ultimately made by the Jewish leaders, the part played by Judas, the arrest and the trials.
The Purpose of God Fulfilled. As in the preaching in the Acts of the Apostles, so much more in the Gospels, it is made clear that the reason for the death of Jesus was not just the opposition of his enemies. It was the purpose of God. The words spoken to Jesus at his baptism ( Matt 3:17 ; Mark 1:11 ; Luke 3:22 ), and his attitude in his temptations and often subsequently in his ministry make clear that Jesus was conscious of his messianic vocation, but that that vocation was to be fulfilled by him as Suffering Servant. So it was that as soon as Peter, in the presence of the other disciples, had confessed him as the Christ, Jesus "began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed" ( Mark 8:31 ; cf. Matt 16:21 ; Luke 9:22 ).
There is a repeated emphasis also on the fulfillment of the Scriptures. This is especially the case in the passion narratives themselves. In Matthew ( 26:52-56 ) there is the possibility at Jesus' arrest of force being used by his followers to prevent his being taken. Moreover, it could be said that "twelve legions of angels" were at his disposal, but Jesus' response to the thought of either human or angelic opposition was, "how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?" In fact he could say, "this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled." In Luke ( Luke 24:26-27 Luke 24:44-47 ) the risen Christ said to the perplexed disciples, on the basis of the Scriptures, "Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?" "Then he opened their minds so that they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.'" In the case of John's Gospel there is a constant emphasis on the fulfillment of Scripture, and that God is "glorified" in the "lifting up" of Jesus to die on the cross ( John 12:23-24 John 12:32-33 ; 13:31-32 ; 17:1-4 ). The prophecy of Caiaphas, in a way that that high priest could not himself realize, indicated the purpose of God that was to be fulfilled, "to have one man die for the people" ( 11:50-52 ; 18:13 ). When, immediately prior to his being handed over by Pilate to be crucified ( 19:11 ), Jesus said that Pilate would have no power to crucify him "if it were not given from above, " he was not just speaking of political power being delegated by God (in the sense of Rom. 13), but rather that Pilate was just doing what was being brought about according to the will and authority of God. (For the emphasis in Acts of the death of Christ being the fulfillment of Scripture, see 3:18 ; 8:32-35 ; 13:27 ; 17:2-3 ; 26:22-23 ).
The Death of Christ and the Forgiveness of Sins. When we follow what is said in the New Testament about the meaning and purpose of the death of Christ we find, in a number of different ways, that it is specifically related to the forgiveness of sins.
Most simply, and without any further amplification, it is said often that he "died for us, " "for all, " or "for others." The death of Christ is the supreme expression of the love of God and the love of Jesus himself ( John 15:13 ; Rom 5:8 ; Ephesians 5:2 Ephesians 5:25 ; 1 John 3:16 ; 4:10 ). In the language of John 10 Jesus is the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep. He died in our place ( Matt 20:28 ; Mark 10:45 ), meaning that he died a sin-bearing death so that we might not have to. There are a number of places where it says simply that he "died for our sins" or for us as sinners ( Rom 4:25 ; 5:6-8 ; 1 Col 15:3 ; 2 Col 5:21 ; Gal 1:4 ; 1 Peter 3:17-18 ).
Jesus' death as sin-bearing is explicitly referred to in Hebrews 9:28: "Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people." First Peter 2:24 puts it, "He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree"; implicit in the reference to the cross as a "tree" (cf. Acts 5:30 ; 10:39 ; 13:29 ) is what is made explicit in Galatians 3:10-13. We all in failing to keep the law of God are under a "curse, " not in our own contemporary use of that term, but as stated in the Deuteronomic Law" Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do every thing written in the Book of the Law." But "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.'"
Thinking in these terms takes us back to the Gospels. In particular it is hard for us to begin to understand the agony of our Lord Jesus Christ in Gethsemane, and his words about the drinking of the "cup, " other than through his consciousness of approaching, not just the physical pain and the shame of crucifixion, but the reality of what it meant for him to be the Suffering Servant, "pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, " and "the iniquity of us all" "laid on him" ( Isa 53:5-6 ). The same must be said in relation to the cry from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" ( Matt 27:46 ; Mark 15:34 ).
The benefits of the death of Christ for those who believe are thus spoken of in a number of ways. They are the forgiveness of sins ( Acts 5:31 ; 13:38 ; 26:18 ; Rom 4:7 ; Eph 1:7 ; Col 1:14 ; Heb 9:22 ; 1 John 1:9 ; 2:12 ), our cleansing from sin ( Eph 5:26 ; Heb 9:14 ; 10:22 ; 1 John 1:7 1 John 1:9 ), our healing ( 1 Peter 2:24 ), our salvation ( 1 Cor 1:18 ), our life ( John 6:51-56 ; 12:24 ; 1 Thess 5:10 ), our justification ( Rom 5:9 ; 8:33 ) or being granted God's righteousness as a gift of grace ( 2 Cor 5:21 ), and our sanctification or being made holy ( Heb 13:12 ).
Reconciliation. The forgiveness of God means that rebel humanity is reconciled to God. Romans 5:1 puts it, "since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, " which means that through him "we have now received reconciliation" ( Rom 5:11 ). Paul expresses this most powerfully in 2 Corinthians 5:18-20. More briefly Colossians 1:22 puts it, "now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death." That reconciliation is a matter of his "making peace through his blood, shed on the cross" ( Col 1:20 ). This theme is developed in Ephesians 2:11-22, where it is made plain that peace with God and peace with one another through Christ belong together. "He himself is our peace, " breaking down "the dividing wall of hostility" between Jew and Gentile, "making peace, " and in one body reconciling both to God by the cross.
This in turn leads to the kindred thought that we "have access to the Father by one Spirit" ( Eph 2:18 ; cf. Rom 5:2 ), or in terms of 1 Timothy 2:5-6, "There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all." That openness of access to God is expressed symbolically in the tearing of the curtain in the temple at the very time Jesus died ( Matt 27:51 ; Mark 15:38 ). So 1pe 3:18 speaks of Christ dying for us "to bring [us] to God." In an essentially similar way the work of Christ's death is described in Hebrews 10:19-22: "we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us. "Since we have a great priest over the house of God, " the writer of that epistle continues, "let us draw near to God." This brings us to the language of priesthood, the dominant theme of Hebrews that is summed up in the words of 4:14-16: "Since we have a great high priest let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence."
Sacrifice. Inevitably the concept of priesthood links with that of sacrifice. Sacrifices were offered in Old Testament ritual as sin-offerings, in the making of a covenant, and in relation to the celebration of the Passover. All of these have a place in the New Testament in the explanation given of the meaning of the death of Christ.
The work for which Jesus came into our human life was to "make atonement for the sins of the people" ( Heb 2:17 ) and this he did when "he sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself" ( 7:27 ). Hebrews develops this theme in detail, showing the death of Christ to be the fulfillment and the replacement of the sacrifices of Old Testament times. When in the different strands of New Testament testimony we have reference to the "blood" of Christ, that word speaks of his sacrificial death (e.g., Rom 5:9 ; Eph 1:7 ; 2:13 ; Col 1:20 ; 1 Peter 1:2 ; 1 John 1:7 ; 5:6 ; Rev 1:5 ; 5:9 ). Paul penetrates more deeply into the meaning of that sacrificial death as he speaks of it "as a sacrifice of atonement" ("as a propitiation" KJV), since, because Christ bore our sins, there was no longer the "passing over of sins, " but in what Christ did on the cross, God is shown to be "just and the one who justifies" those who have faith in Jesus. Human sins are not just swept aside as inconsequential; God's justice is shown in that they are borne by the sinless Son of God, and because they are borne, those who have faith in him are justified ( Rom 3:24-26 ). The same language of "propitiation" is used in 1jo 2:2 and 4:10.
We have noticed the place that Hebrews gives to the understanding of the sacrifice of Christ as making possible the making of a new covenant, a personal relationship with God based on forgiveness. This is an understanding that goes back to Jesus himself, in particular, to the way that he spoke at his institution of the Lord's Supper: "This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" ( Matt 26:28 ; cf. Mark 14:24 ; Luke 22:20 ; 1 Col 11:25 ; Heb 13:20 ).
When Jesus is spoken of as "the Lamb of God" ( John 1:29 John 1:35 ), it is not clear whether we should think of the daily sacrifice of lambs offered in the temple or the Passover lamb as background. It is abundantly clear, however, that the fulfillment of the Passover was prominent in the thought of Jesus himself as he approached his death (in all the Gospel records of the crucifixion this is evident: see Matthew 26:1-2 Matthew 26:17-19 ; Mark 14:1-2 Mark 14:12-16 ; Luke 22:1-2 Luke 22:7-16 ; John 11:55 ; 12:1 ; 13:1 ; 19:14 ), and so the early Christian understanding was expressed in these terms: "Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed" ( 1 Cor 5:7 ).
This in turn links with the language of redemption, as the Passover stood for the redemption of the people from their slavery in Egypt and was celebrated with the hope of a new and greater redemption. "Redemption through his blood, " Ephesians 1:7 puts it, and that "redemption" ( Rom 3:24 ; Gal 3:14 ) means freedom from sin and evil and from the power of death ( Gal 1:4 ; Titus 2:14 ; Heb 2:14-15 ; Rev 1:5 ). For the death of Christ is a triumph over evil and over all the forces of evil ( Col 2:15 ). Alluding to his imminent death Jesus says in John 12:31, "Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out." Victory thus means redemption, but the New Testament also speaks of the costliness of our redemption ( 1 Peter 1:18-19 ). Jesus speaks of the Son of Man giving himself "as a ransom for many" ( Matt 20:28 ; Mark 10:45 ), and Paul can speak of our being "bought at a price" ( 1 Col 6:20 ; 7:23 ; cf. Acts 20:28 ; Rev 5:9 ; 14:4 ), although the metaphor is never pressed to the point of to whom the price was paid.
The Death of Christ and Discipleship. In all the many ways listed, and more, the death of Christ is spoken of as the way of salvation, of our acceptance with God, of pardon and peace. It is also the indication of the way of discipleship. Thus Jesus spoke repeatedly to his disciples about taking up the cross and following him ( Matt 10:38 ; 16:24-25 ; Mark 8:34-35 ; Luke 9:23 ; 14:27 ). Baptism expresses the commitment of the believer to die (with Christ) to the old sinful way of life ( Rom 6:2-7 ). "I have been crucified with Christ" says Paul ( Gal 2:20 ); the things of the old life are put to death ( Col 3:5-8 ; cf. Gal 5:24 ; 1 Peter 4:1 ). This also means a willingness to suffer as Christ suffered. The Acts of the Apostles indicates many parallels between the sufferings of the early Christians and the sufferings of Christ ( Acts 7:56-60 ; 9:5 ; 12:1-4 ; 21:13 ). "I die every day, " says Paul ( 1 Col 15:31 ; cf. 2 Col 1:5 ; 4:10-12 ). Paul can even speak of his sufferings as in some way filling up "what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church" ( Col 1:24 ). It is also a death to self: "he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again" ( 2 Cor 5:15 ); and it is a death to the world, as the apostle says, "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" ( Gal 6:14 ).
In these ways the death of Christ is an example for the Christian. Yet in no place in the New Testament is the example of Christ's suffering and death presented without the emphasis also being on what was done in his death "for us." Thus the sacraments of the gospel indicate the lifestyle to which Christians are called, but also indicate and recall (requiring the response of repentance and faith) what Jesus Christ did once and for all for us by his death and resurrection. The Lord's Supper is nothing less than the constant proclaiming of the Lord's death until he comes ( 1 Cor 11:26 ). Baptism is an identifying with Christ in his death and resurrection, speaking of the whole lifestyle of the Christian as (in Christ's name) a dying to self and living for him who has loved us and given himself for us ( Gal 2:20 ). Life, as long as it lasts on earth, is to be lived to the praise of the crucified and risen Lord, and the praise of heaven is of "the Lamb who was slain" as "worthy to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise" ( Rev 5:12 ).
Bibliography. E. Brandenburger, NIDNTT, 1:389-403; J. Denney, The Death of Christ; M. Hengel, The Cross of the Son of God; L. Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross; idem, The Cross in the New Testament; J. Schneider, TDNT, 7:572-84; J. Stott, The Cross of Christ; R. S. Wallace, The Atoning Death of Christ.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Death of Christ'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".