Ecce Homo (“Behold the Man”) by Antonio Ciseri
We hate death. We don’t like to think about it. We feel its crushing weight when it happens to a loved one. We especially don’t like thinking about our own deaths that will ultimately happen one day. And we get downright mad when we think about Jesus’ death—how he was so innocent yet was betrayed and killed without mercy. Didn’t they know they were killing the Son of God, of all people? We hate death. It does not seem fair.
Jesus’ death is especially hard to grasp. We have all probably read the details of his crucifixion account in the gospels—how he was handed over to Pilate, accused, beaten, scourged, mocked, stripped, and nailed on a cross to suffer for hours before death finally took away his breath.
And we have all probably seen the movie The Passion of the Christ—with the extreme visual details of Jesus’ death—blood everywhere. That makes us very uncomfortable. We do not even want to speak of it.
I remember early on in my discovery of Christianity that I thought the death of Jesus was the saddest and biggest mishap of all human history. It was JESUS, after all—God on the earth—and he gets killed at around age 33. What?! Wouldn’t God at least see to it that he should save his own Son from a terrible death at the hands of mere humans? Apparently not. How wrong is that? So I thought.
But the appearance of something is not always what it seems.
What is really behind this death of Jesus?
At the least, God allowed it to happen. Considering that, is there something more than it seeming to be just a sad and unfortunate end to a great life?
Is it surprising then, or even a shock, to read that Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23)? You mean to tell me that it was God’s plan to deliver Jesus over to a terrible death on a cross? Unbelievable! Yet the answer is Yes. But why?
Consider the following verses:
we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son (Rom. 5:10)
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 (2 Cor. 5:17-18)
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross (Col. 1:19-20)
and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross (Eph. 2:16)
God was reconciling the world to himself through Jesus’ death on the cross. “Reconciliation” simply refers to resolving the differences between two disputing parties by the use of a third party mediator. In this case, God and the whole human race are at odds, because humanity has sinned against God, and now God’s judgment and wrath (eternal death) await the sinner. Jesus is the “mediator” who underwent the penalty of death in order to bring us back to God.
Consider Scripture again:
…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify ourconscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he [Jesus] is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. (Hebrews 9:14-15)
But how does Jesus’ death bring us back to God?
God used Jesus’ death to accomplish our being reconciled back to him. It is surprising to some that this kind of thing would have to happen—particularly, Jesus’ death. We think
“God is God, and he can do anything he wants to do.”
And then we think
“If God just wants to forgive our sin and forget, he can do that; he doesn’t have to adhere
to any formalities. And he surely doesn’t have to put his own Son to death in
But the truth is God cannot just forgive and forget our sin, because he would have to violate his own nature in order to do so, and he will not do that.
Violate his own nature?… Huh?… Can a God of love suddenly not be loving? Can a holy God just suddenly act like he doesn’t care about sin? Hang with me here, as the payoff will be huge…
…because now we come to perhaps one of the, if not the, greatest concepts in our present universe. It is definitely one of the greatest things I have ever strived to try and understand.
Basically, the necessity of Jesus’ death is rooted in God’s righteous nature—that he is always both holy and love.
God is holy and God is love. These are two separate attributes of his nature. Neither is over the other, or more important than the other. God is also righteous, meaning that he always conforms to the way he is in his nature. “Righteousness” simply means conforming to a norm or standard.
Therefore, God cannot be unloving and God cannot be unholy. He is as he is because it is his nature.
The holiness of God means by nature he is totally separate from sin and cannot be united with it. The love of God means by nature he has a desire to see goodness done to his creatures as well as to express it.
In relationship with his creatures (you and me), when sin enters the relationship on our part and is present, God’s holiness expresses itself in wrath. God must punish the sinner. But also when sin is present, God’s love expresses itself in mercy and grace; God desires to save the sinner from the wrath that his holy nature requires him to express. Because God is righteous, he always conforms to his own nature, and so his holiness expresses itself in wrath against sin, and his love expresses itself in grace toward the sinner.
Man’s central problem is that he has sinned against God, and is thus under God’s wrath, waiting to receive the punishment for sin—eternal death (or what the Bible calls hell). But God desires to save the sinner from this punishment, because he loves his creation. And it is here that God faces a dilemma: what is the solution where God will still be true to his nature (righteous) in that his holiness will express itself in wrath to punish the sinner, but also where his love will express itself in grace to save the sinner? The answer is…the death of Jesus on the cross (John 3:16).
Understanding God’s righteous nature of holiness and love opens the door to realizing why Jesus had to die that terrible death on the cross. It was God’s plan to pour out his wrath on Jesus through his death, instead of making us pay the penalty of eternal death that we all owed God because of our sin. God chose to make Jesus pay it instead of us—as a substitution. In this not only is his wrath satisfied, but so is his love. This is what it means that Jesus “bore our sins” on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24). This is what it means that Jesus took our place (Gal. 3:13, 2 Cor. 5:21). This is what it means that Jesus died for us, paid the penalty for us, saved us, and on and on. This is what the prophet Isaiah meant when he said
4 Surely he took up our infirmities
and carried our sorrows,
yet we considered him stricken by God,
smitten by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7 He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.
8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
And who can speak of his descendants?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was stricken.
9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.
10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After the suffering of his soul,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.