The Death of Jesus

Jesus himself describes his death on the cross in terms of the Glory of God. It was the supreme demonstration of gracious love, and mercy; giving sinners the possibility of salvation and bringing glory to God.

Without the death and resurrection of Jesus there is no Christian message: it brings the possibility of salvation for humanity and demonstrates God's supreme love. This page is a brief attempt to understand the death of Jesus by looking at some of the things he said in preparation for his death and the seven sayings from the cross itself.

The Cross

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1. The Glory of God

In Matthew 16:21, Jesus tells his disciples that that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up. The disciples were not really listening at that time but Jesus knew well before that he would be executed. Later on in John 17:1-5 and close to the time of that execution Jesus prayed that his own death would be for his and his Father's glory. Jesus knew the reason for his death and the salvation it would accomplish and that this would become the glory of God: God's supreme act of love, mercy and grace to fallen humanity.

Jesus on the way to the cross:
From that time, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and the third day be raised up.
Matthew 16:21

The Cross: The Glory of God
Jesus said these things, then lifting up his eyes to heaven, he said, "Father, the time has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may also glorify you; even as you gave him authority over all flesh, so he will give eternal life to all whom you have given him. This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus Christ. I glorified you on the earth. I have accomplished the work which you have given me to do. Now, Father, glorify me with your own self with the glory which I had with you before the world existed.
John 17:5

In John chapter 17 we read that Jesus asks his Father to glorify himself and God with the glory they had before the world existed. This means that the cross of Christ is where the pinnacle of God's glory and very essence of God is most completely and most perfectly revealed. The cross displays the true identity and deity of Jesus and displays his perfect self-sacrificial loving nature to every living being in the universe now and forever.

The cross is where the glory of Christ (God's identity, character and essence) is revealed at its most perfect, most complete, most intense.

The glory of the living, eternal, almighty, holy, loving, triune God was about to become the glory of the living, eternal, almighty, holy, triune God, who became man, died and broke himself apart that he might make his underserving enemies his friends. What kind of God would do such a thing? Surely gods should be defined by conquering other gods and empires! But the glory of this God is in his self-sacrificial love, his mercy, his grace at a cost not met out of the royal treasury or taxes but at the cost of his own life. Yet in this apparent weakness there would be a victory over another kingdom: a victory over the kingdom of death, sin, lies, unrighteousness and injustice. What God could be more glorious? Who could imagine such a God as this God?

2. God's will

God's Will
Then he said to them, "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful, even to death. Stay here, and watch with me." He went forward a little, fell on his face, and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass away from me; nevertheless, not what I desire, but what you desire."
Matthew 26:38-39

In Gethsemane, just before his betrayal, Jesus prayed three times sayings "My Father, if this cup can't pass away from me unless I drink it, your desire be done." Despite the pain and horror of the cross and the unimaginable implications of God the Father forsaking God the Son, the death of Jesus in this way was God's will and there was no other way for humanity to be saved.

3. Father forgive them...

God's will.
When they came to the place that is called "The Skull", they crucified him there with the criminals, one on the right and the other on the left. Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing." Dividing his garments amongst them, they cast lots.
Luke 23:33-34

All those who see me mock me. They insult me with their lips. They shake their heads, saying, "He trusts in the LORD. Let him deliver him. Let him rescue him, since he delights in him."
Psalms 22:7,8

On the cross, Jesus does not cry out for justice for himself: that the angry crowd wanting his death should receive vengeance from God. Instead he prays that God will forgive them: Jesus cries out 'Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing.'

Jesus prays for those standing by and agreeing to his death. Although we were not physically present, in a sense we also are part of that crowd: we have turned away, we have all despised and rejected him, we all share in the guilt of murdering the Lord of creation, the Living God. In that same sense, Jesus prays this prayer for everyone. His death was the justice that we deserve from God for our sin. Jesus accepts our punishment so we could be forgiven. Jesus' prayer was also for the crowd of onlookers in a specific way because we read how in Acts chapters 2 and 3 when Peter preaches to them, about 3000 of them were saved. (see Acts 2:36; 2:41 and 3:17 where Peter repeats Jesus' words that the crowd acted in ignorance.) Likewise, we can be forgiven if we believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

We can learn from Jesus words that vengeance and bitterness are never the right response to personal harm or suffering. It is for God to execute judgement. But this does not mean that the Christian should be unconcerned about justice. It is right for the Christian to pray for God to execute justice against the injustice we see in the world - even that the righteous wrath of God would be revealed against all injustice, persecution, oppression, exploitation of the poor and so on. It is also right for the Christian to seek legal human justice as this is a God appointed measure to implement his standards, although imperfectly in a nation or society.

4. Today you will be with me in Paradise

Today you will be with me…
He said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom." Jesus said to him, "Assuredly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour.
Luke 23:42-44

Alongside Jesus there are two criminals who are face to face with their own death. But what lies beyond? Is there nothing after death? Is there some ghost-like existence in the realm of the dead? The Bible makes it clear that death is not the end and we will all we face judgement. (Hebrews 9:27 'Inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once, and after this, judgement.') These two criminals are a picture of all humanity: we are all facing death sooner or later, and we all deserve death because we are guilty before God. The criminals had an experience of Jesus - they were dying with him - and we also have some experience and knowledge of his words. One of the criminals hurls abuse at Jesus, the other is perhaps scared and is ready to ask Jesus for help.

Why would the criminal ask Jesus to 'remember me when you come into your Kingdom?' This does suggest he had some knowledge of Jesus' ministry. It is possible that he might have been familiar with Psalm 88:5. This verse is reminding us that if we die without Jesus 'knowing us' he will not 'remember us'. We have our life here on earth to make sure Jesus 'knows us' and 'remembers us' so that he will call us when he does come to establish his kingdom.

This exchange shows us that there is nothing we can do ourselves to receive eternal life. It depends on our reaction to Jesus - whether we want to accept him and his free gift of life. The criminal, and we ourselves, have nothing to recommend us. The criminal has no good works, no baptism, he has taken part in no sacraments, no rituals, no prayers, no giving, nothing. Jesus graciously grants the sinners petition. He has done nothing to earn it, his life has been spent causing pain and loss to others. The only thing to commend him is that he sees Jesus is different.

Jesus tells this criminal that he will be with Jesus in paradise that very day - the day of his death. From Jesus' mouth we can know that if we trust in him we will be with Jesus when we die and there we will await the resurrection of our bodies.

We must also learn from the other criminal. He was in the presence of Jesus. He witnessed the divine atonement. He saw a compatriot admit his guilt, accept Jesus and receive the promise of eternal life. But he, himself still refused to believe. His eternal destiny hung in the balance; he let his last chance of salvation slip through his fingers. It is a terrifying thought but this is a picture of a man hanging precariously on the edge of a cliff with hell at the bottom and he refuses to take hold of Jesus, the only life-line. Maybe he was offended that the other criminal who was no better than him and just as guilty should receive Jesus favour. This demonstrates our natural reaction to grace: we want to be favoured because we think we deserve it and we don't want other people to be favoured because they are no better than us. We are not likely to want Jesus until we can accept that no-one deserves favour from God but it is freely available if we accept our total destitution and ask Jesus to remember us.

5. Jesus ensures his Mother's care

Behold your Son...
But standing by Jesus' cross were his mother, his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Therefore when Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing there, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son!" Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother!" From that hour, the disciple took her to his own home.
John 19:25-27

Mary stands by the cross seeing her son crucified. The son who she knew was the Son of the Most High God, Israel's Saviour, she now sees in agony and a few hours away from certain death. Simeon's words have now really come true: the sword is piercing her soul. She has (most likely) lost her husband and now she is losing her firstborn. Not what you would expect for the mother of God's Son! Perhaps she was wondering; Why did her Son have to die? Why didn't he heal his father Joseph? Why did he even say his followers were his brothers and sisters and mother (Matthew 12:50)? We do know that Mary knew her Old Testament scriptures and she would have searched these for understanding.

On the cross Jesus is telling John (the writer of John's gospel) to care for Mary. Jesus does not ask his family brothers to take care of Mary, but rather another of his disciples. What can we learn from this?

6. Forsaken by God, his God, his Father

My God, My God...
About the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lima sabachthani?" That is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Matthew 27:46

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, and from the words of my groaning?
Psalms 22:1

Crucifixion was death by extreme, sustained pain. In addition to the unbearable pain of all the injuries, are to be added the pain of thirst and great difficulty breathing. It is hard for us to imagine the severity of this pain; almost too horrific to even think of someone experiencing this. But as well as the physical pain Jesus was experiencing great anguish of spirit; his peace was gone; his rights were being violated; the love of his Father which he had known for all past eternity was being taken away from him. He was bearing the sins of the world, suffering punishment and the wrath of God as though he had committed every wicked deed by every wicked sinner.

It is impossible, for us to understand the enormity of what was happening. God was saying to God 'why have you forsaken me?' The relationship of the Divine Trinity is being broken apart. God offers himself to himself. God accepts the sins of the world and the punishment that we deserve is accepted by our judge.

Throughout all eternity, Jesus had known his Fathers love and perfect unity with the Holy Spirit. God the Father had always delighted in his Son and everything he did in the power of the Holy Spirit. This most precious and perfect relationship was to be set apart. For what? Something more precious? Well, it was set apart for human beings: so we who were God's enemies could be treated as his family. This was the hardest thing Jesus could ever do, the hardest thing his Father could ever ask him to do. Somehow this would define the essence of God in a new way. Somehow it would display God's glory across time and the universe, all over again, and to an even more dazzling extent.

7. The source of Living Water is thirsty

I am thirsty…
After this, Jesus, seeing that all things were now finished, that the Scripture might be fulfilled, said, "I am thirsty." Now a vessel full of vinegar was set there; so they put a sponge full of the vinegar on hyssop, and held it at his mouth.John 19:28,29

I am poured out like water. All my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax. It is melted within me. My strength is dried up like a potsherd. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You have brought me into the dust of death.
Psalms 22:14,15

Jesus, knowing everything was completed wants to cry out in a loud voice 'It is finished.' But before he can do this his mouth is too dry, so he says that he is thirsty and receives vinegar on a sponge. Why does this happen?

Jesus was God in his almighty fullness but also was totally human like us with a physical body with flesh, bones and blood. Jesus felt hunger, thirst, pain, loss just like every human. Only by being God and man together can Jesus be our saviour. If Jesus was not fully God then he cannot fully reveal God to us. If Jesus was not fully man, his death cannot save us.

8. It is finished: Salvation is accomplished

It is finished…
When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, "It is finished." He bowed his head, and gave up his spirit.
John 19:30

Ever since the fall of mankind into rebellion and sin, a Saviour has been promised. That salvation is now complete. The one who created the universe, has now redeemed it from judgement. The punishment for sin is now paid and Jesus says his final words to mankind before his resurrection - 'It is finished'.

Jesus has completed everything, the demands of a perfect God have been perfectly satisfied. The temple curtain which represented the barrier between God and man can now be torn apart. Anyone can now enter in to a new relationship with God, receive eternal life as a free gift by simply believing and trusting Jesus.

9. Father into your hands...

Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, "Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" Having said this, he breathed his last.
Luke 23:46

Into your hand I commend my spirit. You redeem me, LORD, God of truth.
Psalms 31:5

How could the living, immortal eternal God be killed?

From John 10:17-18 we realise that Jesus gave up his life. He was in control. He is the Author of Life, and had authority to give up his life and take it back. Right through his trial and crucifixion Jesus was in control. As he says in Matthew 26:53, it would be a small matter for him to command twelve legions of angels to terrify and destroy his attackers.

The death of God is not something we would expect to fully comprehend. We return to where we started: it is the glory of God. But we must remember that though popular culture assumes death equates to annihilation, that is not what the Bible says. It is much more to do with separation - from the body and if we die without Jesus, from God. So Jesus died in the body, and in his death he did experience separation from his Father as he bore our guilt - when our sin was laid on him. After death, Jesus was in the spirit with his spirit committed to his Father, until he took back a body at his resurrection. Jesus has saved us from the anger of God against our sin. When we receive eternal life through belief in Jesus, that new life is a life that is for ever - even though our bodies will die, our life is with God and we await our new resurrection bodies.

Jesus has accomplished everything his Father had planned and now sits at God's right hand with everything under his authority. Praise God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Spirit.