Some people find that Christians are an odd bunch.
It is quite common in the world for a group of followers or disciples or fans to point to the great deeds that their prophet, guru or football team performed and use those deeds as proof, or at least as supporting evidence, of their idol's greatness.
Christians, on the other hand, point to their leader's execution and say that his death was the most significant thing that he ever did. If you had read some of the stories about what Jesus did you might expect that the symbol that Christians would choose for their faith would be a loaf of bread (as a reminder of Jesus feeding 5000 people with a small basket of food), or a pig (as a reminder of the time he cast out thousands of demons), or a heart (to remember his compassion), or a cup (to remember the time he turned water into wine). Instead the principle symbol of the Christian faith is a cross, as a reminder that Jesus was executed and died.
According to a Christian, Jesus' death is the greatest thing he ever did. Many people might think that the death of Jesus is a sad moment where a brilliant life is prematurely terminated and the story tragically ends. However, according to a Christian, the death of Jesus is a triumph so fantastic that its brilliance eclipses every miracle Jesus ever did. His death is a moment of tremendous, unimaginable, glory, and it is the point where the main story begins. In fact, according to a Christian, Jesus' death is just about the most wonderful thing to have happened since the world began. Odd, very odd.
Even more odd is the Christians' wierd claim that Jesus' death was the greatest thing he did, because at first reading Jesus' death was not something that he did but, rather, something that was done to him, by somebody else.
This article explains why Jesus died and from that it will, I hope, become obvious why Christians consider his death to be the earth shaking, and glorious beginning to a wonderful and exciting story. However, first let me briefly describe what this article will NOT tell you. A political historian might explain why Jesus died in terms of the political power structures of the time and by identifying who offended who. A doctor might explain why Jesus died in terms of the wounds that he suffered and their effect on his physical body. Fascinating as these matters are, they are not actually very important to a Christian, and I am not going to consider them in this article. This article will explain why Jesus died in terms of what his death was meant to achieve or, in other words, its purpose.
Death is the terminal fact of life. Death is that which takes us away from our hopes and our dreams of life. When a person dies they leave behind them only unfinished business and a smelly, decomposing corpse. Death is a one way trip into the unknown and the unknowable. From a biblical viewpoint death does not just separate a man from the sunshine, food, family and friends, it is also something that separates a man from God. Yet death is not nothingness and it is not a destination. From a biblical viewpoint death is more like a state that a man can enter even while his body functions. A man dies and for a few moments his heart continues to beat, and blood continues for a while to flow, the cells of his body main remain operational for several minutes or hours but despite this biologcal continuation the man himself has somehow already gone. In this sense, bodily death is the occasion at which a man permanently departs from sunshine, food, friends and family. His flesh remains but he moves on. Yet a man can, according to the Bible, can be dead even before this departure and thus we see that death is not a single state but can be approached in phases. In state one of death, a man has no communion with God and in state two of death he departs from his own body and enters a state that the living can neither enter not perceive nor comprehend. In death a man is separated from his bodily senses and also from communion with God, and therefore once a man enters death, death holds him as its prisoner.
However God planned that the power of death should be broken and that death would release its captives. How could this be accompished?
Just as a kingdom or territory can only be subdued and conquered by the invasion of a stronger army, so the power of death can be broken only if death is invaded or overcome by a stronger power. The only power that death cannot overcome is the power of God and therefore if death is to be successfully invaded, conquered and forced to yield, it must be invaded by God. But how is God to enter death? Of course death can only be entered by dying so if God is to enter death then God must himself die. How is God to die since he is Spirit and the creator of the universe? God can die if he takes the form of a man and lives and dies like a man ...
Why did Jesus have to die? Because Jesus was God incarnate, God as man, God clothed in humanity. As Jesus, God was able to enter death like any other creature and having entered it he was, as God, able to conquer it. To take away the power of death, God had to enter death and to enter death God needed the body of a man; that man was Jesus. In his love for us, Jesus willingly went into death and therefore it was something he did.
We too must die but if we are in Jesus then we are no more in the power of death than Jesus was. Just as Jesus was able to bring himself out of death so, if we are in him, he can also bring us out with him. For those who are in Jesus, death has no victory and no lasting power. We must enter death but having entered we will meet our master and our saviour who is able to release us from death.
The death of Jesus was not the end of the story; instead it was merely the end of the beginning. The cross that Christians use as a symbol of their faith is the door by which God willingly entered death and made death part of his own Kingdom. When Jesus entered death, the preliminaries were over and the party was about to begin. The cross that Christians use is not merely a reminder of their leader's pain and suffering though this it surely does. However it is also a taunt to the devil to remind him that he has lost his best tool and his best territory. On the cross Jesus died and the devil lost the war.
So, in this respect at least, Christians are not so odd after all ... football supporters hold up their team's trophies and keep mementos of the great matches won. Music fans keep recordings of their favourite artists' songs and music. Christians have a cross because it was by means of a cross that Jesus triumphed over death. The cross is not a symbol of defeat or of tragedy, it is not even primarily a symbol of pain and suffering. The cross is the symbol of the greatest and most important victory ever won.