Simply Jesus: Why did Jesus have to die?


It has been awhile since I posted on my readings through Simply Jesus. Part of that has been the fact that life has been full of other activities. And part of that is because in this chapter Wright addresses an incredibly important question (which I wanted to take time to explore).

Why did the Messiah have to die?

Wright spends much of chapter 13 exploring how God surprised everyone in combining the roles of Messiah, servant, and returning God into the same person – Jesus.

This combination was a small step exegetically, but a giant leap theologically … Nobody, so far as we know, had dreamed of combining these ideas in this way before.

Jesus’s vocation to be Israel’s Messiah and his vocation to suffer and die belong intimately together.

Wright then explains that the reason Jesus had to die was to defeat the true enemy – which was not Rome nor Israel’s failed leaders but the Accuser (Satan) and death. And this could only be done by taking ‘upon himself the full weight of evil … so that its force would be annulled and the new world would be born‘.

This is part of the mystery of his crucifixion: “wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquity.” He cannot establish the new creation without allowing the poison in the old to have its full effect. He cannot launch God’s kingdom of justice, truth, and peace unless injustice, lies, and violence do their worst and, like a hurricane, blow themselves out, exhausting their force on this one spot.

Wright ties the battle with the Accuser into the New Exodus theme, which is woven throughout the book:

Instead of Passover pointing backward to the great sacrifice by which God had rescued his people from slavery in Egypt, this meal pointed forward to the great sacrifice by which God was to rescue his people from their ultimate slavery, from death itself and all that contributed to it (evil, corruption, and sin). This would be the real Exodus … the establishment of the “new convenant”…

Walking through these themes in the Gospel of John, Wright reminds us the Jesus mission was always focused on the cross.

the “king of the Jews” must complete his scripturally rooted vocation by giving his life for his people, for the world, expressing and embodying the saving, healing, sovereign love of Israel’s God, the world’s creator.

For Wright, the cross is the climax of the narrative of the Scriptures, in which all of creation is rescued from the devastating and corruptive effects of our rebellion. It is the initial victory that guarantees our future and ultimate victory. His presentation of Jesus is within this bigger story and centered on God’s goal of total restoration which spills over into several other incredible truths – including the forgiveness of sins.

The point was not to rescue people from creation, but to rescue creation itself.

There is apparently was (and probably still is) a debate as to whether Wright supports substitutionary atonement (see Trevin Wax’s post here and here) or not (see Denny Burk’s post) based on comments he made regarding the books The Lost Message of Jesus and Pierced for Our Transgressions. I am not going to dig into that episode but since we are exploring Wright’s book Simply Jesus, which deals with why Jesus died I want to share this video. In this video, Wright clearly explains his views on the atonement.

… the point to that narrative is to say that all the evil and wickedness and violence of the world converged on to this one point, which was Jesus, … that was the ultimate defeat of violence.  … all the powers of the world including sin and death and violence themselves did their worst to Jesus and that force was exhausted.

Wright clearly sees the victory of Christ on the cross being primarily about the victory over Satan, sin, and death, which paves the way for the great restoration project in which He is ‘putting the world right‘. However, accepting or focusing on one explanation does not mean he is rejecting all other views.

That is why I tend to embrace what classically is called the Christus Victor motif, as a pretty central, I don’t necessarily say the central way of understanding the cross, I don’t think we can necessarily get at that…

On this next point I am in hearty agreement. The multiple theories on the atonement paint a much richer and fuller picture of the cross than any one of them on their own.

I find that when I told the story of God’s desire to liberate the whole creation from its slavery to corruption and decay, the the story from Genesis one to Revelation 21 and 22 in other words, and when I say that story all passes through this moment when Jesus dies on the cross, the idea of the forces of evil and decay being defeated, if I put that in the middle, it doesn’t rule out the other theories of atonement it gives them space to make their proper contribution. I want all the theories of atonement because I think they all do ultimately fit together.

As Wright wraps up chapter 13 he summarizes how each atonement theory has something to contribute to our understanding of why Jesus had to die.

  • Jesus is the ultimate example of love in every aspect of His ministry from performing miracles and compassion for the hurting, right up to and including the cross.
  • Jesus is the ‘representative of His people and through them the whole world’ and is thus their substitute.
  • Jesus announces judgment and then takes ‘that judgment, literally, physically, historically upon himself’.

In battling the true enemy – the Accuser – Wright summarizes the idea toward the end of chapter 13 with these words:

Jesus, in other words, has taken the accusations that were outstanding against the world and against the whole human race and has borne them in himself. This is the point of the story the way the evangelists tell it.

So back to the question asked in the title of the chapter:

Why did the Messiah have to die?

It was the only way that God could defeat the powers of evil, establish His kingdom, restore creation, and offer healing and forgiveness to those He loves.

I will conclude this post with Wright’s opening words in the video:

We should not be surprised that the cross has been hugely controversial because it is so central. If the cross means anything like what we Christians have traditionally said then it’s bound to be a storm center, it’s bound to have mud thrown at it, misinterpretations, people getting it wrong, and then other people attacking them. Anything to distract us from actually coming and kneeling before the cross and saying thank you.

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