Why did Jesus die?

Here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago, and which I’ve touched up slightly. In the lead up to Easter, I hope you find it informative and thought provoking.


I really enjoy the “rock opera” Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.¹ Despite its somewhat apocryphal take on the events leading up to Jesus’ death, one of the things it tries to do is explore the reasons why Jesus, about whom there was so much excitement, ended up dead on a Roman cross. In the climactic title song, Judas asks of Jesus,

Did you mean to die like that — was that a mistake?
Or did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?

There are a numbers of ways we could answer the question “Why did Jesus die?” On the historical level, we can say that Jesus was caught between the crunching gears of apocalyptic messianic expectation, Jewish temple politics, and Roman imperial intrigue. On the theological level, there is so much more to say.

On the Sunday before his death, Jesus entered Jerusalem riding a donkey to the frenzied cheers of his followers. It was a provocative messianic stunt, aimed at fulfilling the image of the returning Davidic King in Zechariah 9.9. And his followers were not blind to its significance. Their cry of ‘Hosanna in the highest!’ was not an exclamation of praise, the way it is often used today. Rather, it was a slogan. ‘Hosanna’ means ‘To the rescue!’ ‘In the highest’ does not refer to people’s praise reaching the highest heaven, but rather an urging of Jesus to reach for the highest echelons of power in his rescue of Israel. Here was the Davidic messiah coming to his royal capital to overthrow the current order, free his people, and establish the new Kingdom of God.

The following day, in a brash act prefiguring the end of the old order, Jesus marched into the temple complex and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and opened the pens holding sacrificial animals for sale. A small riot seems to have ensued. By doing this symbolic act, Jesus was clearly stating that he believed the temple and the authorities that ran it were no longer in favour with God. Time was rapidly running out — the time of judgement and the dawn of a new era were now imminent. Jesus was, in other words, playing the part of an apocalyptic prophet. And by claiming the right to bring the temple down and rebuild it, he was making a clear claim to be the rightful Davidic king of Israel—the son of David who builds the temple and establishes a permanent kingdom (cf. 2 Sam 7:11–13).

JerusalemTemple

Visualisation of the Jerusalem Temple. Credit: Courtesy of The Western Wall Heritage Foundation

To the Jewish authorities, for whom the temple was their institutional power base at the heart of Jewish identity, Jesus was dangerous. For the remainder of the week, they worked to arrest Jesus. After trying unsuccessfully to discredit him publicly, and fearing the incendiary riot that a public arrest would spark, they managed to arrest him on the sly by bribing Judas Iscariot, a member of Jesus’ inner circle—one of his twelve commissioners (i.e. ‘apostles’) responsible for the dissemination of Jesus’ claims and for gathering people around him. The arrest occurred at night, as Jesus and his other eleven commissioners were trapped in an olive grove in the Kidron Valley, just outside Jerusalem’s walls. Jesus gave himself up to his captors, and successfully pleaded for the release of his followers, who then abandoned him.

Jesus was taken under arrest, questioned and tried overnight. In fact, it was probably an illegal trial, since it was held during the midnight hours within the houses of former High Priest, Annas, and his son-in-law, the incumbent High Priest, Caiaphas. It seems that they tried to pin the charge of treason on Jesus by implicating him for threats against the temple, the institution that stood at the heart of Jewish identity and piety. This would be akin to charging someone today with a plot to blow up the White House. Given events earlier in the week, one would have thought it would be easy to implicate Jesus. However, the Gospels tell us that the witnesses brought forward could not agree, and therefore Jesus could not definitively be found guilty.

However, the High Priest, Caiaphas, used another strategy. He asked Jesus if he was the Son of God. In asking this, Caiaphas was probably not asking Jesus whether he believed he was the second person on the Trinity. Rather, he was asking Jesus whether he believed himself to be the messiah — the son of David who was to sit eternally on the throne of Israel, for the son of David in the Hebrew Bible was also seen as the ‘son of God’ (2 Samuel 7.14). Jesus’ response implied that he did believe this. But even more than this, Jesus appealed to the image of the Son of Man in Daniel 7 — an apocalyptic image of God’s chosen one who would bring about the end of the world order and establish God’s eternal kingdom. In the eyes of the authorities, this was an admission of revolutionary intent. Jesus was found guilty, given a beating, and sentenced to death.

Since the Jewish authorities at this time were unable to exact the death penalty (it had been revoked by Rome a few years earlier), Jesus was hurried off to the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate. If they wanted Jesus dead, they would have to ask Pilate to enact the death penalty.

Politically, Pilate was fighting battles on two fronts. On the one hand, Pilate was probably a protégé of Aelius Sejanus, who had been running the Roman Empire for a few years while the emperor, Tiberius Caesar, enjoyed a leisurely lifestyle on the Italian isle of Capri. However, in October, AD 31, Sejanus was executed for conspiracy against the emperor. Anyone connected to him was now also under suspicion. Pilate, therefore, would have had to watch his steps very closely to demonstrate unambiguously that he was loyal to Tiberius Caesar. On the other hand, though, Pilate had to maintain face and an air of authority over those he governed. In the years before Sejanus’ ignominious death, Pilate had thrown his weight around in various displays of power. Amongst those he needed to keep in check were the Jewish temple authorities. One of the ways he had managed to do so was to plunder the temple’s treasury for public works, and to keep the High Priest’s ceremonial garments under lock and key in the Antonia Fortress. These measures were belittling to the Jewish temple authorities and told them in no uncertain terms who was boss.

So, on the morning of Friday, April 3rd, AD 33, the Jewish authorities brought Jesus to Pilate to seek the death penalty for him. Normally, it would appear that the Jewish authorities were in the position of grovelling subordinates, and thus for Pilate to agree to the death penalty would simply be a show of his own authority. However, Pilate also had to contend for his own reputation now that he was in the spotlight after Sejanus’ death. He could not afford to show any weakness before those he governed, and acquiescing to their request could now be interpreted as just such a weakness. And yet, he could not be seen to be letting a potential revolutionary go free either. That would endanger his standing with the emperor. Accordingly, Pilate attempted to hand the decision over to someone else — to Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea, who was in Jerusalem at the time. However, the move backfired. Jesus was returned to Pilate, who now had to make a decision. Not wishing to imply that he was vulnerable or susceptible to weakness, Pilate himself questioned Jesus, flogged him in a display of Rome’s discipline, and was then on the verge of releasing him. Pilate seems to have been convinced that Jesus was harmless. Jesus had been separated from his followers, was unarmed, and did not really hold any human power. By thus overriding the request of the Jewish leaders for the death penalty, Pilate was stamping his authority over them.

However, Caiaphas and his comrades were not stupid. They now held the trump card. John’s Gospel tells us that the Jewish authorities said to Pilate, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend” (19.12). They were implying that if he were to release Jesus, Pilate would be letting an insurrectionist go free to destabilise one of the imperial provinces that Tiberius governed directly (as opposed to consular provinces, which were governed via the Roman Senate). This would implicate Pilate as a traitor to the emperor. To put it another way, the Jewish authorities were asking Pilate, “Whose skin do you want to save: this nuisance from Nazareth’s, or your own?”

Checkmate!

Pilate summarily ordered the execution of Jesus. He was led outside the city walls of Jerusalem with two other condemned criminals, stripped naked, and barbarically nailed to a cross where he was left to die a searingly painful death. The charge against him? Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews.

On the surface of things, it seems that Jesus was in the wrong place at the wrong time — a victim of circumstance, crushed by political machinations that were far bigger than he could humanly control. Some have pointed to the apocalyptic outlook that Jesus had, in wanting to draw the old order to a close and establish a new order, concluding that it was idealistic, unreal, and fraught with danger — that his beliefs and motivations just got him in too deep. Indeed, one can understand why most of his followers abandoned him and became so disillusioned by his death. He was an apparent failure. All the expectation surrounding him had come to nought, and like so many others before him, he fell foul of theauthorities and lost his life because of it.

But history also tells us something else. It tell us that not long after these events, Jesus’ followers—his eleven remaining ‘commissioners’ and other hangers-on—reassembled and began boldly proclaiming that on the Sunday after his death Jesus had emerged from his tomb alive again. And despite attempts to silence them by the very same authorities who had arrested Jesus and ensured his execution, they continued to proclaim the resurrection of their master. He had not been a failure. He had been a fulfiller. He had indeed brought the old era to an end and inaugurated a new one, but had done so in a way that no one had anticipated: through his death. The Acts of the Apostles tell us that on one occasion, after being reprimanded by the Jewish authorities, Jesus’ followers prayed to God affirming, “In this city, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, conspired against your holy servant, Jesus, whom you anointed, doing what your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4.27–28). This had been no accident of history. In fact, this was what God had been mobilising all of history towards: the death and resurrection of Jesus. It was a moment of supreme fulfilment. This was the central moment of human history that held significance for every man, woman, and child who has ever lived or ever will live. The final bell on the old order, characterised by sin, death, hate, hostility, and human failure, had sounded. The new era of forgiveness, life, love, peace, and reconciliation was now dawning. Jesus had not only met expectations, he far exceeded them.

So why did Jesus die? There are so many things we could say to unpack the significance of Jesus’ death and his resurrection. The Apostle Paul puts it succinctly well, though, in Romans 4.25: “He was handed over for our transgressions, and raised for the sake of our justification.” And our response? Paul again captures it well in Galatians 2.20: “The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Related: Why the Tearing of the Temple Curtain is a Bad Thing


¹ This is not an endorsement of the ‘theology’ of Jesus Christ Superstar (in fact, I have major problems with some of it). It’s merely an acknowledgement that I enjoy it as a musical and thematic experience, just as someone might really enjoy a movie without endorsing all the action that occurs within it. Appreciation does not necessitate agreement.

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There is a reason this terrible Friday is called ‘Good’

shadowofcrossOn the night Jesus was betrayed, he had dinner with his friends. But they would all abandon him later that night.

That same night, Jesus was trapped by his enemies, who wanted him dead. Having nowhere on earth to turn, he turned to God the Father. God didn’t come to his rescue.

Within hours, Jesus was violently hustled out of Jerusalem. He was nailed by the limbs to a cross—transfixed to a gibbet by hate and rejection.

And yet, as the shadow of death suffocated his life, he prayed for the forgiveness of those who harmed him.

And he was heard.

In the depths of human despair, when God seemed to be nowhere, yet God was acting to save. When screams of hate and betrayal seemed to drown out cries for love and reconciliation, God was listening. When God seemed callously absent, he was there in the One he had sent. At the moment Jesus seemed to have failed, he triumphed over all.

Things are not always as they seem.

There is a reason to celebrate the death of this man. There is a reason this terrible Friday is called ‘Good’.

‘Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.’

The Nature of Creation

In the lead up to a seminar on Genesis 1–2 I recently gave, I did some reading about creation in biblical texts and science. One book in particular stood out: Mark Harris’ The Nature of Creation: Examining the Bible and Science (Durham: Acumen, 2013).

This is the most intelligent and theologically consistent treatment of the topic of creation and science I’ve come across. It examines creation texts in the Bible, carefully bringing out what they do and don’t claim. This is done within a carefully articulated Christian theological framework that understand the Bible as authoritative revelation. It looks at the challenge of science, explaining some of the most pertinent ideas affecting a biblical doctrine of creation, such as the ‘Big Bang’ and evolution. It then seeks to bring the two alongside each other, not in a harmonistic manner, nor in a competitive manner. Rather, Harris seeks to explain what each contributes to an understanding of creation.

The book has ten chapters:

  1. Introduction
  2. Creation According to Modern Science
  3. Creation According to the Bible I: Genesis
  4. Creation According to the Bible II: The Creation Motif
  5. The Framework of Biblical Creation
  6. Creation–creation: How can a Relationship be Described?
  7. The Fall
  8. Suffering and Evil
  9. Scientific Eschatology and New Creation
  10. Conclusions

There are three things that really struck me about this book:

  1. Harris does not gloss over difficulties or try to explain them away. He superbly describes both theological and scientific issues in a way that gives adequate voice to both, thus fostering understanding. He is well placed to do so, being Lecturer in Science and Religion at the University of Edinburgh. He capably brings both theological and scientific expertise to bear on the issues in a very constructive way. The result is an articulation of problems that gives more clarity to the issues than anything I’ve read before.
  2. Harris’ theological method is not proof-texting. He discusses biblical texts with a good eye for their texture, and also how they contribute to an overall theology. In his own words, he ‘explores how the Bible’s creation texts may be integrated into modern discussions in the science–theology field, first by discussing ways of understanding the scientific framework of the biblical texts, and then the theological framework‘ (p.83). He is not trying to align his exegesis to a previously determined conclusion, but rather seeking to survey the theological ‘lie of the land’ before picking the best trail across it. He is guided by a good Christian theo-logic that appreciates revelation, Trinitarian theology, soteriology, and eschatology. His conclusion is that the Bible has many complex things to say about creation and the creator. Each of these complexities needs to be appreciated and understood rather than flattened out into a single homogeneous notion. Only then can we bring the Bible into dialogue with science in a fruitful way.
  3. Harris’ handling of scripture is rational, respectful, and riveting. He knows his biblical scholarship and his theology. And because of the first two points above, his discussion is able to blaze some new trails that are productive and profound. Not everyone will agree with some of the ideas he puts forward, but I don’t think Christians can ignore what he says either. He exposes some key flaws in previous thinking that need to be addressed. Harris pushes into new directions, but not for novelty’s sake. He is, rather, seeking to move in the direction that the Bible itself suggests, and seeing how these new directions intersect with science. He is not being a radical—he’s being reasonable.

Mark Harris

I particularly liked Harris’ exploration of the concepts of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), creatio continua (ongoing creation), and creatio ex vetere (creation out of the old). He sees creatio ex nihilo as a necessary theological conclusion, but not the end of creational discussion. The fact of creatio ex nihilo means that God created a world that is other than him, and therefore not divine. It is, rather, wholly contingent for its being on him. This therefore critiques the concept of Deism (the notion that God created in the beginning, but takes no further part in creation), and necessitates creatio continua—God’s ongoing acts of creation in sustaining and propagating life and the universe. This concept opens the door for a dialogue with evolutionary biology, though Harris recognises that there are difficulties in this dialogue that aren’t easy to digest. Then, on the basis of the death and resurrection of Christ, Harris talks about creatio ex vetere—creating something new out of the old. This is the essential redemptive dynamic involved in framing an understanding of the age to come. Eschatology thus becomes an important factor in considering the nature of creation and should act as a guiding concept in any dialogue between theology and evolutionary science. He does not want to collapse the supernatural act of God into a scientific naturalism, but nor does he want to sideline science. Rather, he sees science as offering valid, though incomplete and constantly updating, perceptions of the world that God has created, sustains, and will ultimately redeem. And though science creates difficult theological questions, Harris’ three concepts of creation provide some good stakes in the ground for focusing the dialogue. For example, the possibility of death and suffering in a ‘good’ world, as proposed by evolutionary biology, should be informed by the nature of life as contingent rather than perfect, and redemption as regenerative. It may not solve all the difficulties, but it certainly moves the discussion beyond an apparent impasse. It gets us to consider the nature of God and the nature of creation, rather than judge the issue purely on how closely it approximates a biblical text.

Some further quotable quotes:

If the science-religion dialogue has proceeded with little engagement so far with Scripture then that is perhaps because Scripture’s cutting edge has not been brought to bear with sufficient accuracy (Heb 4:12). [p.9]

 

These texts [in Genesis] may be controversial in our modern times, but they are of enormous significance to the Bible, since they set out basic features of its worldview…If we fail to appreciate this point, and unthinkingly impose our own worldview on the text, we will quickly misunderstand them, along with their claims about key worldview issues such as cosmology, (ancient) science, and the human condition and its relationship with the Creator and other creatures. Without awareness of this point, we will learn relatively little from the texts. [pp.56–57]

 

[S]cience has played an important part in renewing appreciation of biblical ideas of creation, even if it is unable to shed much direct light on these ideas themselves. Ultimately the texts say rather little about the physical makeup of the world, but much about God’s creative relationship with it and about who God is. [p.186]

In short, this book is profound and intensely thought provoking. Any Christian discussion of creation and science should be engaging with Harris from now on. It’s not always an easy read, because the subject matter is complex. However, it is a very worthwhile read. I particularly recommend that Christians read this book immediately after reading John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010).

Blood Moon and the Day of the Lord

Tonight (15 April 2014) was a ‘blood moon’. That is, there was a total eclipse of the moon (I dare you not to think of Bonnie Tyler!) that turned the moon a reddish colour for a short time. Unfortunately, here in Sydney it was overcast and raining, so I didn’t get to see it. However, I’ve seen images that others were able to take, and it’s quite a phenomenon to behold.

The lunar eclipse creates a red moon above Melbourne. Photo: Jason South. Published: The Age.

In Joel 2.31, we read these words:

The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the great and awe-inspiring Day of Yahweh comes.

There has been a lot of talk about how the particular blood moon of today might be a fulfilment of this prophecy, especially since there seem to be more such celestial phenomena to come in the near future. Some see in this blood moon a sign of the imminent return of Jesus.

I beg to differ.

But not because I want to be a heretic, party-pooper, or a lover of novelty. I’m just taking my lead from the Apostle Peter.

In Acts 2, we read that the Apostle Peter preached to crowds of Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem. The Spirit of God had just rushed upon Peter and the other Apostles, enabling them to proclaim the death and resurrection of Jesus in all the languages of the various pilgrims in Jerusalem at the time. This was such a groundbreaking event that Peter interpreted it as the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy. And he quoted directly the very passage that contains the ‘moon to blood’ quote. There was no astronomical phenomenon happening at the time. It was, rather, a bunch of people speaking in languages they didn’t natively know, proclaiming ‘the magnificent acts of God’ (Acts 2.11). Yet Peter saw the entire passage from Joel as appropriate for describing this linguistic phenomenon. He didn’t just quote the part from Joel that referred to various people prophesying, dreaming, and seeing visions—he chose to quote the whole passage, which included reference to signs of blood, fire, and smoke, the sun growing dark, and the moon turning to blood.

In other words, Peter did not see Joel’s image of celestial catastrophe as a sign in need of literal fulfilment. Rather, he interpreted Joel’s prophecy as fulfilled in a figurative manner by the apostles speaking in other languages on the Day of Pentecost. The motif of cataclysmic events is frequently seen in proto-apocalyptic and apocalyptic texts. It is not meant to be taken in a literal fashion. It is, rather, a vivid way of portraying something that is going to ‘rock the world’, so to speak.

We do this kind of thing today without batting an eyelid. When we talk about something being ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘earth-shattering’, we don’t actually mean that the earth under our feet has split open. We simply use it to refer to something new, exciting, and highly significant. The image of a blood moon in biblical literature is very similar to this.

What this means is that Peter viewed the events of his day, namely the death and resurrection of Jesus, as the most groundbreaking event of history. It was the Day of the Lord—the time in which God would act in such a significant way that nothing would ever be the same again.

Now, while I believe that Jesus will one day return, I don’t think we need to be looking for eclipses, blood moons, and celestial catastrophes before he can return. Many will point to other supposed signs that are meant to happen before Jesus returns (e.g. the re-emergence of modern Israel, or the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple), but I don’t think a rigorous and prophetically responsible reading of either the Old or New Testament supports any of these. There is only one substantive sign that the Bible gives as a prerequisite for the return of Jesus, and that is the destruction of the Jerusalem temple. And that occurred in AD 70.

In biblical thought, the Last Day is characterised by the resurrection from the dead. This day began when Jesus was raised from the dead. He was the first one to experience Judgement Day, when God declared the verdict of ‘righteous’ on his life. The rest of us will experience judgement at a later stage. But there is nothing more than need happen before this occurs, for it the day has already begun. And the return of Jesus as the judge of all humanity, which will wrap up Judgement Day, will occur at any time.

So what should we make of this blood moon today? Let it remind you of Peter’s speech in Acts 2. Let it remind you that the death and resurrection of Jesus was the most groundbreaking (or should that be ‘tomb-breaking’) event in all of history. But also marvel at the natural phenomena the Creator has put in place. Let the words of Psalm 8 resound:

Yahweh, our Lord,
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth,
how you put your majesty over the heavens!
From the mouths of infants
you have established strength,
so that your rivals stop,
the enemy be avenged.
When I observe your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and stars,
which you have set in place,
what is humanity that you remember them,
the son of man that you look after him?
You made him less than gods,
yet crowned him with glory and splendour.
You have him rule the works of your hands,
everything have you put under his feet;
sheep and oxen all
even the animals in the wild;
the birds of heaven,
and the fish of the sea,
that which swims the paths of the seas.
Yahweh, our Lord,
how magnificent is your name throughout the earth!

 

Did the Camel Break the Bible’s Back?

I’ve written a short response to the recent excitement about claims that ancient camels have disproved the Bible. It’s specifically in response to Sam de Brito’s article in the weekend’s Sydney Morning Herald. You can read my response at ABC’s Religion and Ethics site.

camel1

It’s OK to use the Bible on your iPad when you preach

My attention was drawn today to an article by Matthew Barrett (Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University, and executive editor of Credo magazine) on the Gospel Coalition’s website. It’s titled ‘Dear Pastor, Bring Your Bible to Church’. Barrett argues that it’s unwise, perhaps even wrong, for pastors and preachers to use an iPad in the pulpit instead of a classic hardcopy Bible. You can read his article HERE.

I found myself disagreeing with Barrett’s arguments almost at every point. The digital revolution is huge. The change it is bringing about in the world of books is similar to the great shifts that occurred in the past. Just as we moved from the stone or clay tablet to the scroll, and then from the scroll to the codex, so we are now moving from the codex to the e-book on digital tablet or phone. Like the previous shifts, this is just a change of medium. The word of God is not the medium on which it is printed. The word of God is the words that convey the Word, whether they are inscribed by a chisel, written with a quill, printed by a laser printer, beamed by a projector light, or present in an app. That’s why the title of Barrett’s article is perhaps unfair and misleading. If a pastor brings an iPad into the pulpit, he is still bringing the Bible to church. The Bible on iPad is no less the Bible than a printed hardcopy. Barrett’s article should probably have been titled ‘Dear Pastor, I want you to bring a Bible codex to church’.

In any case, with the Bible on your tablet, you’ve still got something physical in your hands (something Barrett demands), and you usually glimpse the various books of the Bible in making your text selection (something Barrett says promotes biblical literacy). If we want a seriously authentic experience when preaching, why don’t we just go back to having a repository of biblical scrolls in our church buildings, and the pastor can go pick the relevant scroll and unfurl it at the pulpit. This is what happens when the Torah is read in the synagogue. In fact, you could even argue that the iPad offers a more ‘original’ experience than a codex because you can actually ‘scroll through’ the Bible. I suspect Barrett just needs to get used to the new medium, as do the rest of us. It is quite a revolution after all, but we are also reading more than ever. Why, we could even think about using the Bible on our iPads as a means of ‘redeeming’ the new medium!

If the person in the pew has an issue with a pastor using the Bible on iPad in the pulpit, then perhaps the pastor should think twice. After all, a pastor needs to care for the flock. But in and of itself I see no problem whatsoever in the use of the Bible on iPad. I’m happy to hear other people’s views on this and open to being convinced otherwise, but I really can’t see what the fuss is about.