Jesus died. Whether or not one believes he was the Messiah, the fact that he lived and died is a matter of settled history, even among his harshest critics.
Evidence certainly indicates that he was a real man, an influencer, a teacher with followers, and a historical figure of great notoriety. Also, yes, he died.
Jesus’ death holds immense theological significance for every Christian. According to the theology of many Christian traditions, on “Good” Friday, God gave himself up for his creation. In other words, God came to earth in the form of a man named Jesus, willingly suffered, and died to take on the sins of humanity so that the high price of low and sinful living would be paid.
Hymns of the ages recall the fact that “Jesus paid it all,” and behind these cherished melodic declarations, we find the idea of substitutionary atonement: Jesus died so we wouldn’t have to. He took our punishment; as a result, we change our inherited fiery downward trajectory and now head straight up to heaven, where we’ll live forever with Jesus. Notwithstanding the layers upon layers of additional theological constructions explaining the significance of his death, the previous few sentences articulate the understanding of many, many followers of Jesus regarding his entire purpose on earth.
Jesus came for one reason: to die for me.
Is it any wonder then that the cross receives such a significant amount of attention for billions of Christ-followers? Whether it’s Mel Gibson’s 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, the countless artistic portrayals of the crucifixion, or the litany of popular hymns and choruses, Jesus’ death and the forgiveness it earned us is, sometimes, the whole story.
Let’s be very clear: The cross is and must be a core component of our lives as disciples.
We should never forget what was accomplished that day and how Jesus “emptied himself … [and] humbled himself … to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8). The cost of our sin was high, and he indeed paid it all “on a cross.” We all feel some degree of vicarious pain when we see Jesus hanging on that cross. The ideas of the innocent martyr, the selfless hero, and the undeserving victim all strike deep chords within us. There’s a part in us that needs to meditate on the crucifixion to understand what he did for us. This is why millions of people flocked to the theaters to see Gibson’s movie. As the credits rolled, so did the tears from nearly every audience member as they silently shuffled out of the literal and figurative darkness of the theater. We hate injustice. Jesus did all those miracles; he lived such a great life. There was no one quite like him, and he didn’t deserve the cross.
This is all completely true. However, there is a problem we must consider. For too many people, the necessary awareness and gratitude for the cross have such outsized importance that they miss the rest of the story: The cross is only the beginning. It’s an essential part of the story, but we miss the point if we stop there without moving on to the story’s triumphant culmination.
It’s important to remember that death by gruesome crucifixion was not out of the ordinary in Israel. For many Jews, life ended on a cross. There were many heroes, martyrs, and innocent victims taken by the cruel, torturous hands of Roman soldiers. Some of them were criminals deserving of death, but many were good people who died unnecessarily and unjustly.
Remember also that there were other Jewish miracle workers performing healings, multiplying foodstuffs, and even bringing people back to life. Elijah and Elisha are two examples from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Death on a cross, miracles, and even messianic claims—these are not unique in Judaism. However, Jesus is unique in one specific way: He came back from the dead. Though this fact receives approximately one minute and thirty seconds of attention in The Passion of the Christ, it was that moment that truly transformed the world, that moment that fueled the joy and passion that daily animates the life of every disciple of Yeshua. That miracle reconfirmed the good news—the kingdom had indeed drawn near.
Professor Paula Fredriksen writes:
Two of the prime promises of the messianic age—the resurrection of the dead and the vindication of the righteous—had been realized. When Jesus came back from the dead, the cross, as important as it is, was overshadowed by the resurrection—the culmination of Jesus’ mission and the assurance of salvation and redemption. Only at the resurrection was the hope of humanity solidified.
Jesus rose, and through that resurrection, God confirmed to an incredibly diverse and divided Jewish community in Jerusalem that the kingdom of God was indeed among them. He placed his seal of approval on the teaching of the Pharisees, for they taught that the resurrection of the dead was real. He silenced the Sadducees. There will be a real, visible, tangible, corporeal resurrection of our bodies after we die, just as the prophets had promised. Jesus’ resurrection, unlike the crucifixion, was an unequivocal sign from God.
It was the resurrection, not the crucifixion, that truly inaugurated the kingdom and guaranteed our destiny. There can be no kingdom without the resurrection, for there would be no king. The hope of the World to Come hinges on Jesus’ resurrection. Paul often wrote of the cross, but he knew the rest of the story centered on the resurrection:
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain … Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power.
(1 Corinthians 15:13-14, 23-24)
Jesus died. We remember and honor it. We do it in accordance with his instruction in the Gospels:
“This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:19-20).
Every Passover, the recollection of the cross and the death of our Messiah flood our hearts and minds with feelings of humility, gratitude, and even sadness. This is as it should be for that moment. The crucifixion is a critical part of the story of salvation, both historically and theologically. Without it, there would be no forgiveness of sins; without it, the nations would not be able to enter the congregation of Israel.
Most importantly, however, without the crucifixion, there would be no resurrection—and the resurrection is the true pinnacle of Jesus’ saving work. This is why we must not remain weeping at the foot of the cross. We must instead understand that the cross paved the way for the resurrection, for the hope of the glorious Messianic Age that is coming. The disciples took that calling seriously. Just as Jesus was resurrected in the flesh, so would they be. The kingdom was real, and the good news was really good. So they put their hands to the plow, not looking back, and set about the work of preparing for the kingdom’s arrival.
They came looking for his body and heard these words:
Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. (Matthew 28:5-6).
Our hope is not at the foot of the cross where Jesus died. Our hope is at the empty tomb, where Jesus rose from the dead.