“Rarely will someone die for a just person, though for a good person perhaps someone might dare to die. But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us!” (Romans 5:7-8). That’s how Paul describes the wonder that is the cross. That Jesus died “for us”. It’s an amazing claim, a stumbling block for some, the best news others. People have questions . . . How can you die for another? Why does anyone need to die for my sins? Did the cross work for people who were already dead? Perhaps you have questions like these. I could tell you stories about soldiers dying for each other, for parents giving their lives to rescue drowning children, for nurses risking their lives with Ebola. But today I want to look at the story of Jesus’ trial and see how, embedded in this story, there are three natural ways that Jesus died for people. But there’s more. I want to give you three analogies of how Jesus died for someone in the natural. Then I want to describe the supernatural.
“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his stripes we are healed.” Isaiah 53:5foretells that there was a lot more going on that Friday at noon than those present understood. Jesus’ death is more than a symbol, it is the mechanism by which God has saved the world, you, me and everyone else, if we will follow.
Firstly the priests. The priests didn’t like Jesus. He was like a student that kept asking difficult questions. He wasn’t naughty, he was disturbingly challenging. It was like he understood the curriculum better than the teacher. He was a threat to the priests in a whole lot of ways at the Passover 33 AD. He was attracting crowds, he was accomplishing miracles, and the people were beginning to believe in him. Now, from a worldly point of view, the priests were desperately worried about this. You see they lived with a number of compromises; they could keep the Nation of Israel and keep the temple if they allowed the Romans to rule them. This set of priests had long ago accepted that this was the best of a bad situation. To them it looked like Jesus was stirring up a rebellion – now listen to these words. “If we let him (Jesus) go on like this, everyone will believe in him (and he will begin a rebellion), and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation (and lots of people will die, and we will lose our privileges)”. John 11:48
“Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not realise that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish'.”
Do you see it? At a natural level, the priests were doing their arithmetic - if we kill him a whole lot of other people don’t need to die. Now John takes it further, but we’ll come back to that.
Our first picture of Jesus dying for someone – Jesus died to protect his countrymen from dying in a rebellion.
Secondly Pilate. Pontius Pilate was the Roman prefect (or governor) of Judaea (AD 26–36) under the emperor Tiberius. Pilate is his name and Pontius refers to the fact he was a Roman knight. He was a friend of Sejanus the Chief Administrator of the Roman Empire for Tiberius. By 33 AD he had made enemies with the Jews by bringing images of the Roman emperor into Jerusalem. He’d been a strong man, but by 33 AD Sejanus had fallen from influence and Pilate may have been feeling more vulnerable. In fact by 36 AD Pilate was recalled to Rome and stood trial himself.
So, without too much reading between the lines, I would suggest that Pilate killed Jesus in fear for his own life. Pilate interrogated Jesus and didn’t find Jesus guilty of doing anything that deserved death. But by this stage Pilate was on shaky ground and his enemies were gaining power, and I suggest he decided, ‘better for Jesus to die, than for me to be at risk’. Now, that might seem a bit of a stretch, however Pilate appears to have been executed three years later. Luke is the only writer who tells us that Jesus was also sent to Herod, and he adds this interesting verse indicating Pilate and Herod’s collusion to deal with Jesus, “That day Herod and Pilate became friends – before this they had been enemies.” (Luke 23:12). Jesus is an acceptable sacrifice in Pilate’s deadly game of politics. Pilate convicted Jesus; he was the only one who had the power to have him crucified. His action of publicly washing his hands (Matthew 27:24) andtelling the crowd it was their decision, in my opinion was just theatre – Pilate killed Jesus to protect himself. “Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate … had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.” (Mark 15:15)
Second picture of Jesus dying for another. Jesus died for Pilate.
Thirdly Barabbas. This is theclearest analogy in the Gospels of Jesus dying for someone else. I believe God caused this to happen to present us with a natural picture of what was happening supernaturally. Barabbas was a prisoner who was due to die. He was a zealot, an insurrectionist, who had committed murder in an uprising. He undoubtedly deserved to die. Some ancient manuscripts name him Jesus Barabbas - the name Jesus was perhaps dropped to avoid confusion. The Gospels tell us that it was customary for the Roman’s to release a prisoner during the Passover feast, one of the biggest feasts of the year. Jerusalem would have been teeming with people and again, this was a way of keeping the people happy. Pilate might have thought this would be a convenient way to get rid of Jesus. Condemn Jesus to keep the priests happy, release him to keep the crowds happy, but the crowds chose Barabbas. So Jesus quite literally died in Barabbas’ place. The day before Barabbas was due to die, suddenly Jesus has taken his place.
A third picture. Jesus was chosen to die over Barabbas, Jesus died in Barabbas’ place
So, we can see that Jesus literally died in place of some others. The miracle of Easter is that these natural analogies point to a supernatural truth. On the cross, one person died at one place and at one time àbut the effect of that death reaches every person, in every time and in every place. This is the miracle of the atonement, that Christ died for our sins, that Christ died once and finally in your place and in my place. We have all done things that are wrong, the bible calls it sin. “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). “The wages of sin is death” so without Jesus’ sacrifice the consequence of our sins would be eternal death. But here’s the good news, “the free gift of Jesus Christ is eternal life” (Romans 6:23). You see, in the bible forgiveness and life are glued together. You can’t have life without forgiveness and, if you are forgiven, the inevitable result is that you will have life.
Do I believe in universal salvation? No, I believe that Jesus’ death has paid for our sins, and can be effective for everyone no matter what you have done, but you have to appropriate the gift. It’s like being given a World Cup Final ticket - it’s paid for, it’s valid, but you have to use it. You have to travel; you have to give up your other plans. It’s a golden ticket, but you have to go through the gate. You have to sign over your life to Jesus. It’s free because you could never afford it. It’s costly because you have to give over everything you have to use it. “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
Let’s finish with some of the great things the scripture says about this.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21)
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends.” (John 15:13)
The scripture points to Jesus’ effect before he was born. Take what Paul says in
1 Corinthians 10:1-4,“For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” Paul clearly sees that Christ’s ministry was effective backwards in time. 1 Peter 3:18-19 “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. He was put to death in the body but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison.” By this last phrase Peter is making a reference to Christ’s activity with people in the days of Noah.
There is no place that the power of the cross cannot reach.
Do you need forgiveness? Have you ever committed your life to Jesus? Now is a good time.