Why Did Jesus Die?

Kevin Gasser

Staunton Mennonite Church

3/16/08

 

Matthew 27:11-14; 24-26

11Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 12But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he did not answer. 13Then Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear how many accusations they make against you?” 14But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

24So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” 25Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

26So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.

 

During the cold winter days and nights, sometimes there is nothing better than to sit down with a good book and a cup of hot chocolate.  Now it has been a while since I have read a fiction book, but I know that they can be almost addictive.  It can be hard to put down a good book because you are always wondering what is going to happen next.  I know people that stay inside all day long, or stay up all night long because when they get into a book they just can’t stop reading it.  They can’t wait to find out how it ends.

 

I asked one of my obviously tired and sleep deprived friends one day why she didn’t just turn to the back of the book and read the ending so that she could go to bed.  And she said to me, “Kevin, there is a lot of important stuff between one cover of the book and the other.  And if I jump ahead and miss out on the stuff in between the beginning and the end, I do myself a disservice, I do the author a disservice, and I even do the characters in the book a disservice.”  The same can be said about another book that I feel strongly about. 

 

Today is Palm Sunday, the day of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he was essentially being inaugurated as king of the Jews.  Next Sunday is Easter, the day we celebrate Jesus’ resurrection.  But we do a huge disservice if we jump from one Sunday to the next and simply skip over the stuff in between.  We do a disservice to ourselves, we do a disservice to the author, and we do a disservice to the characters in this book. 

           

Today I want to look at one specific day that falls between Palm Sunday and Easter, and I want to ask the question, “Why did Jesus die?”  And we do a huge disservice to Jesus when we skip past this question.  So today I want to look at three reasons why Jesus died.  1. The spiritual reason, 2. The political reason, and 3. The social reason.

 The Spiritual Reason 

The traditional answer for why Jesus had to die can be found in Romans 5:6-8 which reads, “6For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. 8But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”  Paul goes on to say that this death reconciled sinful humanity with God.  Jesus appears to be the suffering servant that Isaiah talks about, bearing the sins of the people.

           

I hope that none of us denies the need of a savior in this sense.  We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.  A few minutes ago I invited the people here to nail their sins to this cross.  And now look at it.  It is covered with our sins.  We as individuals have sinned through our disobedience to God.  But sin is a lot larger than just the relationship between me and God.  Absolutely, things like gossip, sexual immorality, murder, and hatred are sins.  They do come between us and our Lord.  But there are also sins between us and our fellow human beings that separate us from God.  The sins of war, the sins of genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, the sins of allowing our neighbors go hungry, homeless, and dying in the street while I sit at home in my three bedroom, 2 ½ bathroom home, with two of those bedrooms empty, while I feast on filet mignon and fresh shrimp.  I hope that we can all see that sin is more than just something we do that doesn’t affect other people.  We sin in many ways, even when we don’t realize it.

           

Now I don’t intend to skip over this reason why Jesus died too quickly.  It is huge.  Jesus died because it was a part of God’s plan for redemption of his creation.  The in-breaking of God into this world in the form of Jesus Christ is the pinnacle of salvation history.  We know that, but we can’t reduce Jesus’ death to just salvation from sins.  Because Jesus’ death meant much more than this.

The political reason 

As I mentioned earlier, today is Palm Sunday.  Today is the day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and the people laid palm branches before him and yelled, “Hosanna to the Son of David.”  You better believe that this was some sort of a political inauguration.  The people call Jesus the Son of David, that is son of King David, meaning he is an heir to the Davidic throne that was to be eternal.  The word “hosanna” means save us in Hebrew.  They wanted the heir to the throne to come in and save them from the occupation of the Roman Empire.  The Jews saw Jesus as a powerful leader who could overthrow the Romans and help the Jews regain their freedom.

 

There is even symbolism in the palm branches that the Jews lay before Jesus.  The palm branch is a symbol of triumph and victory (wikipedia).  And just a little tid bit of information.  If we look at one of our coins, who is on them?  The president of the United States.  We also know that it was common for people living in Jesus’ day to put a political figure on their coins.  Caesar was on the Roman money.  About forty years after Jesus died, the Jews revolted against the Romans and they made their own money for a while.  Guess what was on their coins?  A palm branch.  So there is a lot of political symbolism behind Jesus’ triumphal entry.  However, I think it is safe to say that the Jews and Jesus had a little different understanding of what his role was to be as king. 

 

When we look at our scripture for today, what does Pilate ask Jesus?  What are the charges against Jesus?  Jesus is asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?”  It is my belief that Pilate didn’t come up with this question on his own.  He got this idea that Jesus was claiming to be king from Caiaphas and the other leaders of the Jews, from the same people that brought Jesus to Pilate.  That was the charge that Caiaphas brought to Pilate because they thought that if they wanted this man crucified, they had to make him seem like a threat to the Roman Government.  So they said that he claimed to be king.

 

Pilate knows that the Jews only handed Jesus over out of jealousy.  He tries to give Jesus a second chance, but the people want his blood.  And Pilate eventually hands Jesus over to be crucified.  Not because he found him guilty, but because he knew that if he didn’t he would have a large angry crowd to deal with.  That is also a good political move, give the people what they want.  Jesus died because he was a threat to the government, or at least a perceived threat to the government.  His death did have a political reason.

 The Social Reason 

So Jesus died for our sins, but is that why he died?  Caiaphas and Pilate didn’t say, “Well Jesus, we don’t want to see you die, but it needs to be done for the forgiveness of sins.”  And though Jesus was accused of being a threat to the government, Pilate didn’t really think he was that dangerous.  So why else might Jesus have died?  Perhaps because he stepped on the wrong toes.

 

Perhaps before we get too deep into this reason for Jesus’ death, we might need to look at some of the things that led up to our scripture for today.  On Thursday evening Jesus was enjoying his Last Supper with his disciples.  Afterward he and a couple disciples went out to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray when Judas and a mob armed with clubs and swords, sanctioned by the high priest and the elders, came to arrest Jesus.  The mob brings Jesus back to Caiaphas’ home to find evidence against him so that Jesus might be put to death.  We have probably all heard the saying that in our courtrooms the defendant is innocent until proven guilty.  Well in Caiaphas’ court Jesus was guilty even if proven otherwise.

 

The scripture tells us that the whole council before whom Jesus was brought was looking for false testimony to bring against Jesus.  They had people bring false witnesses against him so that they could bring charges against Jesus to the Roman governor.  But Jesus neither confirmed or denied the charges.  He was silent, he knew the council had already made up their mind.  He knew what was going to happen to him.

 

Then Caiaphas got angry, he got right up in Jesus’ face and he said (v. 62), “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the son of God.”  And finally Jesus gives them the answer they have been looking for.  He answers (v. 63), “You have said so.  But I tell you, From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”  The next day leaders took Jesus to Pilate and make the claim that he was the king of the Jews.  Did Jesus mess with the wrong guy?

 

Last week I had the chance to read “Cotton Patch for the Kingdom.”  This is a book about Clarence Jordan, a Baptist preacher from Georgia who began a farm in Americus Georgia dedicated to living out the teachings of Jesus found in the New Testament.  Jordan and another man began what they called Koinonia Farm in the 1940’s on a stretched of over-farmed land.  Koinonia Farm was an intentional community where those living in the community shared all they had in their possession right down to their last dollar.  Everyone shared in the chores around the farm.  Everyone had the same wages.  They shared common meals together.

 

Now that doesn’t sound to intimidating to any of us, does it?  The participating in the community of goods is biblical.  We have evidence of the early church doing this in Acts 4.  Maybe we wouldn’t want to be a part of a community like that, but if someone else wants to, I wouldn’t try to stop them.  But there were many that tried to stop Jordan back in the 40’s, 50’s, and 60’s.  Because Jordan and the other founders of Koinonia Farm included people any nationality in their community.

 

It wasn’t considered wrong in those days to have an African-American employee.  But it was considered wrong to eat with an African-American, to socialize with an African-American, or to even pay equal wages to an African-American and a white man.  Jordan did all three, and then some.

 

Koinonia Farms survived through a lot of persecution from the local farmers around them.  Bullets were fired into the homes on Koinonia Farm, a road side vegetable stand was subject to vandalism on multiple occasions.  And perhaps one of the most painful things that was done to Koinonia Farms was the local boycott on the farm.  Local companies would not sell seed, fertilizers, machinery, or goods to Koinonia Farm.  The feed mills and stores wouldn’t buy their crops and produce.  The boycott years nearly broke Koinonia Farm, and probably would have if other Christians that supported Koinonia’s project wouldn’t have contributed by buying things like pecans and clothing through Koinonia’s new mail order business.

 

But perhaps the scariest events occurred after the sun went down.  Jordan and his family’s lives were threatened many times.  Jordan tell the story of the night when the Ku Klux Klan showed up at his front door.  They charged Jordan with eating with African-Americans.  And they were going to lynch him.

 

Jordan didn’t know what to do, so he said the first thing that came to his mind.  He said, “Hello, I’m Clarence Jordan.  I’m a Baptist preacher.”  He stuck out his hand in the direction of another man who bumbled around a bit and said, “My, my, my daddy was a Baptist preacher, too.”

 

Why did the mob try to kill Clarence Jordan?  Because he was doing something that wasn’t culturally accepted.  He was doing something that made other people in his area feel uncomfortable.  He was standing in contrast to the larger culture around him.  What did Jordan do wrong?  What was the charge against him?  Eating with African-Americans.  Making friends with people he was supposed to hate.  Sounds like someone else that a mob tried to kill.

 

This brings me back to the question, “Why did Jesus die?”  He died for the same reason the mob wanted to kill Clarence Jordan.  Jesus stood in opposition to the culture that was around him.  The culture of Jerusalem in the 1st century was very much a Jewish culture (duh).  Even though the Romans occupied Jerusalem, the Jewish leaders still set the cultural norms for their society.  And it was the Jewish leaders that Jesus seemed to but heads with most often.  And it was the Jewish leaders that had Jesus captured, tried, and killed.

 

But why?  What did Jesus ever do to them?  I think I remember Jesus calling the Pharisees “broods of vipers” and “whitewashed tombs”.  These were not terms of endearment.  He was calling these supposedly right living people out on the carpet.  Look at Matthew 23 sometime if you really want to see why these leaders wanted Jesus dead.  They were living the high life.  The Jewish leaders were enjoying the attention they got from the people around them.  The Jewish leaders enjoyed the seat of honor at a meal.  They enjoyed living their self-identified pious life.  And when Jesus came, he brought a new light on these people and their actions.  He challenged their social status.  He challenged what they had come to know and expect.  So the high priest and the elders tried to find false testimony against Jesus to bring before Pilate so that they could finally be rid of this “nuisance”. 

 

Clarence Jordan was willing to stand up for what he knew to be right, even when the people around him didn’t agree with him to the point that they thought they needed to kill him.  Jesus was willing to stand up for what he knew was right, and it did cost him his life.  And thus we have the definition of what it means to bear our crosses, we have the reason Jesus died.  Now this isn’t some blank check to persecute the Jews, calling them Christ killers or anything like that.  I think the story of Clarence Jordan shows us that even Americans are willing to kill an innocent man for doing nothing other than living as a part of the kingdom of God.

 

Yes, Jesus died for our sins.  The Bible is very clear on this.  But Jesus also died because he was seen as a threat to the Roman government.  But the reason that Jesus died is also because he stood in opposition to the culture around him.  He was truly a prophet, speaking out against the culture around him, speaking of the way God intended his creation to be.  Jesus came preaching and teaching the kingdom of God.  And he was killed for it.  May we all have the courage to do the same.

 

If we skip over the middle of a story, we can miss a lot of important stuff. This holy week, let us not skip too easily from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.  Because we would hate to do a disservice to ourselves, to God the author, and to the character Jesus.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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