Why did Jesus Christ suffer and die upon the cross?
This post is a chapter from Dr. Timothy Tennent’s book, 30 Questions: A Short Catechism on the Christian Faith available for purchase from our store. This resource makes for a great teaching tool in local churches, especially for catechesis purposes. We’re featuring a chapter each week in hopes of encouraging you to pick up the book and share it with others as well.
The cross has become the central symbol of the Christian faith. It is truly amazing that such a symbol of torture devised by the Roman Empire to inflict cruel punishment on common criminals would become the most recognizable symbol of love and grace in the world. However, for God’s plan of redemption to be complete, it was not only necessary for Jesus to live and walk among us, but also that he die for the sins of the world. He had to become the perfect, sinless sacrifice which could atone for sins, once and for all.
To understand why his death on a cross was so important we must go all the way back to the dawn of creation when sin first entered the world. When Adam sinned, we immediately see three effects which rippled out from that first sin: fear, guilt, and shame. It is after the first sin that we discover that Adam was afraid, and filled with guilt and shame. He tried to hide from the presence of God because he felt shame and fear. It was, therefore, essential that the death of Jesus overturn every aspect of sin, including fear, guilt, and shame.
In the West we normally associate sin with guilt, so the mere fact of Jesus’ death, regardless of how it occurred, would be sufficient to satisfy our guilt and make us right with God. From the standpoint of guilt, the death of Christ is like a legal transaction. We are guilty of innumerable sins. Jesus died for those sins, thereby making a full payment which atones for them. Therefore God, as judge, is able to maintain his holiness in forgiving us and declaring us “not guilty” through the atoning sacrifice of Christ.
Other cultures are governed not so much by guilt as by shame or fear. The public humiliation of Jesus which involved torture and a mock coronation with the crown of thorns and the royal robe is a crucial feature of the suffering of Jesus. It was essential that his death be a public act of shame and humiliation, especially one in which Jesus was shamed and mocked by his own people. In many parts of the world one’s place within a larger social context is the primary source of one’s identity. For Jesus to be reviled and ridiculed by his own people was a source of unbearable shame.
Furthermore, the cross was the most feared form of punishment in the world. The fact that Jesus faced this particular kind of death is also his way of bearing our greatest fears. Therefore, we should understand the death of Jesus not simply as being nailed to a cross to satisfy a judicial requirement of God. In addition, the entire passion of Christ from his arrest and imprisonment, to his arraignment, to his beating, to his lonely walk publicly carrying the cross, to his being stripped naked and nailed to the beam is all part of the great drama of redemption whereby Jesus Christ faced all the ravages of sin (guilt, shame, and fear) and triumphed over them through the cross.
1 Corinthians 1:18–25
1 Corinthians 2:2
1 Corinthians 15:3–4