Why Jesus Had To Die
2 Corinthians 5:17-21 (ESV)
One day while looking at the internet, I came across a blog that got my attention by a person calling themselves, VermillionUK, who said this, “If we consider the crucifixion of Jesus, what was the thinking behind it? Why would God sacrifice himself, to himself? Why not re-make the laws, or forgive everyone? Or indeed, if we are made in his image, shouldn't we be incapable of sin? And if it’s a case of using or abusing our "free-will", why are we not just forgiven? I can’t understand how the most logical way of forgiving us was to stage an incredibly horrific self-sacrifice, and have his corpse displayed on a hill-side. All of it sounds a bit...umm...strange.” In these words, VermillionUK raises a great question which is, in short, “Why did Jesus have to die?” Couldn’t God have picked a better, perhaps less inhumane, way of forgiving us than, as he puts it, “to stage an incredibly horrific self-sacrifice, and to have his corpse displayed on a hill-side?”
Well, as we think specifically about the crucifixion of Jesus, after having been beaten, spat upon, and ridiculed, and after having nails driven through His hands and his feet as the only way of attaching his battered body to a splinter-covered Cross, we also want to think about the reason why this all had to occur. Was it just a “staged event” by an overdramatic God to make an exaggerated point that we need to have our sins forgiven? Or, did Jesus death accomplish something for us that could have never been accomplished any other way?
In 2 Corinthians 5:17-21, the Apostle Paul answers this question when he writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
As we listen to these words of Paul, written to a church that had begun wandering away from the truth of the gospel and living once again only for themselves, not only do we discover why Jesus had to die, but more importantly that He did so to accomplish much more than just forgiving our sins; as if that wasn’t enough. And why? In verse 17, the first thing Paul tells us is that...
Point 1: Jesus, who is fully God, died to make us “a new creation” (v. 17).
Listen to what he says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Folks, as we listen to these words, one thing we must see is that we need more than just having our sins forgiven where God is concerned. Because He is perfectly Holy, and because the only way that we could ever come into His presence is for us to become perfectly Holy, God did the only thing that could be done, which was to give a part of Himself, in the form of His Son, to die for us. Only Jesus could do for us what needed to be done. There really was no other option. And yet, what did he do for us?
Well, not only are our sins forgiven, which we are all aware of, but through Jesus death something far greater than having our sins forgiven is being accomplished, which is that God is making us into something new; something holy, and able to stand in His presence. But how? Because of a simple little phrase Paul uses seen in the words, “in Christ”. This phrase, which is used 141 times in the Epistles alone, reveals to us all the extent of what Christ’s death has accomplished for us.
Summing up what this phrase actually means, Rankin Wilbourne in his book, “Union with Christ” writes, “When we are in Christ, every part of Christ’s life, not only his death, has significance for us. We share in his life and obedience, his death and his resurrection, even his ascension! We participate in another’s victory. All that is his becomes ours.”
But what does that mean in practical terms? It means that, instead of being under the judgment of God because of our sins, we are now viewed by God as righteous and holy because of Jesus’ death. His righteousness is now ours! It means that, instead of having to live up to a God-mandated standard we could never meet, we are now viewed by the “Standard Maker” Himself as having met that standard completely for us.
Let me give you an illustration of what God has done for us, and why is it so radical to our thinking. Growing up as a teen, I was a horrible student. I didn’t want to learn because I just couldn’t see how what I was learning would benefit me. So, I didn’t try, and as a result, did really bad, especially in high school. In fact, my mom and I laugh about it now as we think about how happy we were when I would come home with a “D” on my report card instead of a failing grade. It was pathetic! But, if truth be told, the only reason I didn’t get an “F” on my report card, which I deserved, was because of the kindness of my Science teacher, named Mr. Shouse. Mr. Shouse knew me pretty well. He knew that I didn’t care about school (especially science), and yet he still wanted to see me to succeed even though I didn’t care if I did or not. So, after I would fail one of my science tests, Mr. Shouse would ask me a few extra credit questions to help me try to get a passing grade. But probably not like what you are thinking.
Knowing that I loved to watch television, he would ask extra credit questions like, “Mr. Tansill, can you name for me the three sons of Ben Cartwright in the television show ‘Bonanza”? To which I would rattle off, “Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe.” Or, he would ask, “In the television show ‘Gilligan’s Island’, what were the names of each of the people who were trapped on the island, and what were their occupations?” And, of course, being a huge fan of the show I would give the right answer without missing a beat, get the extra credit, and get a passing grade for the class…barely. And that’s what many people think God is like.
For so many people, they live as if God is going to give extra credit to make up for the things that they didn’t do which He requires. Their thinking goes something this, “I know I don’t love God as much as I should, but I make up for it by being nice to people and doing good things. That’s got to count for something, right?” Or how about this one, which a close friend of mine actually said to me, “Dude, I believe Jesus died for my sins. And I know I have done some things in my life that God wasn’t pleased with. But at least I haven’t killed anybody.” Really?!
Here’s the point. Not only does God not give “extra credit” for good behavior, but because He is Holy and Perfect in His nature, anything less than perfect in meeting what He requirements deserves a failing grade. Simply put, you can’t be good enough in yourself, or do enough to meet the demands that God requires. He demands perfection. So, even if you do get a 99, you still fail.
But because of His kindness and justice, God does the unthinkable. The very demands that we are incapable of even coming close to meeting, God has met for us “in Christ”. Through the death of Jesus, those requirements which must be kept perfectly have been met on your behalf, and all the benefits which He met are now yours. Folks, truthfully, as long as people think they have something in themselves that will make God look favorably on them, they will never fully understand the gospel, or why Jesus had to die. I know because this is how I thought for the longest time, and many of those years were after I became a Christian. This is how we have been wired to think since the Garden.
But, like I said, because Jesus perfectly fulfilled God’s requirements, and because we are now “in Christ” by faith, we are viewed by God has having perfectly met those requirements. And that means that, instead of having a will and a desire to live only for ourselves, we now have a different will and desire to live for God, which is from God and is rooted in the death of Christ.
This is the “new creation” Paul is talking about! It’s a work that God is doing in all of those who have placed their trust in Jesus; a work where all that has alienated us from God and would lead to our destruction has been done away with, and a work where we are now declared as holy, and which God is perfecting until the day we stand before Him face to face. And it all begins at the Cross. This is one reason why Jesus had to die! But it’s not the only reason.
A second reason Paul gives us for why Jesus had to die, and why God even chose to do this work of making us a “new creation”, is seen in verses 18-19, and can be summed up this way,
Point 2: We are a “new creation” because God has “reconciled” us to Himself (vv. 18-19).
Listen to what he says, “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.”
Folks, once again, as we think about the crucifixion of Christ, we can’t miss the incredible truth behind this horrendous act, which is that God loves us! And because He loves us, He initiated a plan, which could only be accomplished through the death of His Son, to reconcile us to Himself.
By using this word, “reconciled”, which means, “to exchange hostility for a friendly relationship”, Paul is showing us how incredible God’s love for us really is because we should be the ones who want to be reconciled to God. After all, He is God! But, by nature, that’s not what we want.
So, God does the work of reconciling us to Himself by giving His Son to die for our sins, by doing away with our “old self” which is by nature hostile towards Him, and by making us into something “new”. That’s what Paul means when he says at the beginning of verse 18, “All this is from God…” The very reason we are made “new”, and given all the benefits of Christ, which is a result of His death on the Cross, is because God loves us, and wants to be reconciled to us.
And what is even more incredible is that, unlike any other religion in the world, God initiates this act of reconciliation with the goal of giving Himself to us. Said another way, God wants to have an intimate relationship with us. He wants us to think about Him as our God, just as He thinks about us as His people. Through Christ, God broke into space and time to personally reveal what He is like in both His life and His death, as well as to show how much He loves us by dying on the Cross. And He also reveals how much power He has by creating something new and holy, being us, because of that sacrifice. That’s incredible!
As one commentator said so well, “Justification, propitiation, and redemption — all benefits of Christ’s death — have one great purpose: reconciliation. Jesus’s death enables us to have a joy-filled relationship with God, which is the highest good of the cross. Think about how this works in our relationships with other people. When we sin, not only do we hurt the person we sin against, but we harm the relationship. It will never be the same until we seek forgiveness. So it is with our relationship with God. We enter this world sinful, and as a result, we’re alienated from God. Only forgiveness — forgiveness which was purchased at the cross — can heal the relationship so that we are able to enjoy fellowship with God.”
And how does this “reconciliation” impact us? In two ways, which Paul mentions at the end of verse 19 in these words, “not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” Because of Christ’s death, God no longer “counts our sins against us”. Now, why is that important? Listen to what Paul says in two other passages in his letter to the Romans regarding our sins. In Romans 2:6-8 he writes, “He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.” And in Romans 14:10-12 he says, “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
For all of us, a day is coming when we will have to give an account to God for our actions. And if left to ourselves, in our sin, our actions would result in God’s wrath and fury. But, out of His love for us, and because of Christ’s death on the Cross, God is not counting our sins against us. What would it look like if God were to count our trespasses against us? In effect, it means that every offense that we ever committed against God in our lifetime, in word or deed, would be remembered, and would be used by God to justify His wrath and fury being poured out on us. That’s what Paul means when he uses this phrase, “counted against them”. It literally means, “to keep a mental record of events for the sake of some future action”. And this is also why Paul can say in Romans 1:20 that we are without excuse. We deserve God’s judgment! But because God has reconciled us to Himself through Christ’s death out of His love for us, our sins are “no longer counted against us.” Instead, they have been nailed to Cross with Christ.
But there is a second way we are impacted by being reconciled to God which is that, like Paul, God is, “entrusting to us the message of reconciliation”. Even though in context Paul is talking about the special call that God has put on his life to bring this message of reconciliation with God through Christ, yet it still applies to us as well. Here is how one commentator sums up this thought when he says, “In this passage, those to whom God has committed the ministry or message of reconciliation are primarily Paul and his fellow ambassadors. Nevertheless, a reference to all believers cannot be excluded, particularly since not only apostles were reconciled to God.”
Folks, God has redeemed us for a purpose; a purpose that is rooted in what Christ accomplished on the Cross. Far from being a “staged event”, it is rather an incredible display of God’s love for people who don’t deserve it. A display of love where the Creator of the universe does everything that needs to be done to make unholy people who want nothing to do with Him, holy and “new”. And people who are so moved by this reconciling love of their God that they want to share this message of reconciliation with the world.
And this leaves us with a question we must all ask ourselves as we think about this crucified man, named Jesus. Does that describe us? Are we so moved by the love of God, displayed most clearly in the death of His Son, that we find it worth sharing with others, or at the very least exhibit it in our own lives? Do we understand the significance of what was accomplished through Christ’s death by having our sins “no longer counted against us”. Do we live in the truth that even now God has done the work of reconciling us to Himself by doing away with our “old nature”, and is making us into something “new” and holy?
For those in Corinth, they didn’t. Seeking to live for themselves, all while saying they were reconciled to God, many in Corinth had forgotten that their sins were “no longer counted against them”, that they were a “new creation”, and had been “entrusted with this message of reconciliation”. And that’s why Paul makes one final point that really is main reason for why Jesus died on the Cross, which is this…
Point 3: By becoming reconciled to God, we become the “righteousness of God” (vv. 20-21).
In the last two verses of our passage, Paul sums up everything he has just said in these words, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” For Paul, writing to a group of people who were living for themselves rather than for their God, he “implores them”, which means “to plead with”, to return to their first love. This is why the New Living Translation puts Paul’s words this way, “We speak for Christ when we plead, ‘Come back to God!’
Why does Paul make such a strong plea to the Corinthians after having just reminded them of all that God had done, and what they were becoming “in Christ”? Because of where all this was leading. Once again, far from being just a “staged event” so that God can simply forgive our sins and move on, Jesus’s death set into motion a plan with an outcome that is almost beyond our imagination. As if taking that which is “old” and making it “new” (being us!) wasn’t enough, in these last two verses we catch a glimpse of where Jesus’s death would lead.
And this is why Paul’s plea is so strong, and why he bases that plea on these words, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin.” As one commentator said so well, “The one who was devoid of sin took the place of those who were devoid of righteousness when he bore the consequences of their sin. As a result, they gain the right standing before God that they lacked.” And this is what Paul was pleading for; that the Corinthians, and us, would stand in the righteousness that was now theirs because of Christ’s death, and live out the message of reconciliation that God had shown to them that they now had “in Christ”. But why?
In verse 21, Paul tells us, “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Folks, truthfully, when I was studying this passage and came across this phrase, “the righteousness of God”, my mind automatically assumed that it meant the same thing as “the righteousness of Christ”, which means that when we stand before God He is going to see Christ’s righteousness in us rather than the sins we had committed against Him. But I was wrong! It doesn’t. It means far more than that! What this phrase, “the righteousness of God”, actually means is best summed up in Fleming Rutledge’s book, “The Crucifixion”, when she says this, “The righteousness of God is God’s powerful activity of making right what is wrong with the world. When we read, in both the Old and New Testaments, that God is righteous, we are to understand that God is at work in his creation doing right. He is overcoming evil, delivering the oppressed, raising the poor from the dust, and vindicating the voiceless victims who have no one to defend them. God’s righteousness is the same thing as his justice, and his justice is powerfully at work justifying, which does not mean excusing, passing over, or even ‘forgiving and forgetting’, but actively making right what which is wrong.”
I don’t know about you, but as I step back and look at the world we live in, it’s almost too hard to take at times. With all the suffering that we hear about in the news, with all the injustice and abuse of power we see on television, and even the pain we experience in our own lives, often times it seems as though, as one friend said to me, “God has left the building!” But He hasn’t. In fact, if you look carefully, you’ll see the “righteousness of God” in the most inconspicuous ways. Where?
In the lives of the people He has reconciled to Himself through the finished work of Christ on the Cross. You see it in the person who, after hearing a friend recently lost their job, decides to take some of the financial abundance God has given to them, and commits to support their friend until they can get back on their feet again. Or you see in the person who just found out a neighbor, who lives four doors down that they hardly know, recently lost a loved one. Overlooking the awkwardness of not knowing them well, they choose to display “the righteousness of God” by bringing their neighbor a meal to so that they can grieve their loss without having to worry about some of the other demands of life that are pressing in on them. And you even see it in the simple words of PGA golfer, Bubba Watson, who once said, "Golf is just an avenue for Jesus to use me to reach as many people as I can."
These are just a few examples of what the “righteousness of God” looks like in the men and women God has reconciled to Himself through Christ’s death on the Cross. It’s a power that should move people to display His righteousness, knowing that their sins have been forgiven, not because of anything they have done to earn it, but because of the kindness, mercy, and compassion of a loving God shown to those who don’t deserve it. This is how God has chosen to change the world.
And, as God continues to draw people to Himself through this reconciling message of the Cross, what will the end result look like? We see it in Revelation 21:3-5 in these words, “I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’ And the one sitting on the throne (who is Jesus!) said, ‘Look, I am making everything new!’ And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.”
Even though the version of the Bible called, “The Message”, gets a lot of heat for how it translates Scripture sometimes, listen to how it translates Revelation 21 once again, “I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: ‘Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.’ The Enthroned continued, ‘Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.’”
Folks, for those who are “in Christ”, this is where we’re headed! In a world that is becoming unhinged, where everything wrong with it is clearly seen by all, where sin is not only impacting what we see around us but us as well; in the midst of it all, God is at work making right was is wrong in the world. And it all began at the Cross!
On the side of that dusty, and death-scented hill, Jesus tilted His head back, pulled up one last time to draw breath, and cried, "It Is Finished!" For those standing around Jesus as he died on the Cross, hearing these words in the original language would have understood. It was an accounting term, which in the Greek is “Tetelestai”. Archaeologists have found papyrus tax receipts with "Tetelestai" written across them, meaning "paid in full." With Jesus' last breath on the cross, He declared the debt of sin cancelled, and completely satisfied. Nothing else required. Not good deeds. Not generous donations. Not penance or confession or baptism. Nothing. The penalty for sin is death, and we were all born hopelessly in debt. But Jesus paid our debt in full by giving His life so that we might live forever in a place where all that is wrong with the world will be made right, and where all that is old will become new again!
So, with that in mind, in the midst of the craziness we experience in all the various forms it can take in our lives, and in all the distractions that can cause us to look away from God, let me leave you with this simple plea, “Be reconciled to God!”, knowing that He loves you, has done everything that needed to be done so that you can stand before Him as righteous and holy, and is working even now to make everything right in this life, and in you, for His righteousness and His glory. This is why Jesus died!
Let’s pray together.
Father, thank you! Thank you for loving us and doing through Christ all that we need in order to be able to stand before You as righteous, and to have a relationship with You again. Even though we know we didn’t get what we deserved, I pray that as we leave this place, the reality of what Christ has done for us impacts not just our minds, but more importantly our hearts as the work You are doing in each of us to make us “new” is finally realized on that day when we see you face to face. And until that day, remind us again and again by Your Spirit where we’re headed because often times we lose sight of that! And in it all, may You, and You alone, receive all the glory. We ask this in the name of our crucified, and yet risen Savior and Lord, Jesus. Amen!