What does Jesus' death on the cross deliver us from? Is his sacrifice primarily about our forgiveness so that we can have a restored relationship with God now and go to heaven when we die? When we see the words of Jesus and the apostles from within a first century Jewish apocalyptic worldview, the story gets bigger and better than the typical modern "gospel" often presents.
Hey everyone, Josh here. Why did Jesus die? Someone might say: well, Jesus died so that we could be forgiven of our sin. Or Jesus died so that we could be reconciled to God. Or Jesus died so that we could have fellowship with God again. And if someone said those things, they would be speaking of those beautiful realities truthfully. Songs have been sung for centuries and so much ink has been spilled to describe and expound upon the importance of the death of Jesus on a Roman cross in the first century. But the key questions I want to address today are: “when does the death of Jesus matter” and “in what way does it matter”? And the reason why I want to talk briefly about those questions is because our 21st century Gentile worldview causes us to answer those questions very differently than a first century Jew would. And getting the answers to those questions right really matters for how we live our lives in the present.
So we’re probably all aware of one of the most well known verses in the Bible, John 3:16. “For God so loved the word that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life”.
We can quote it from memory on command, but what we don’t bring to mind is how the first century Jew would have understood these words. Typically the cross is presented as God’s free gift to have a restored relationship with him and where he would take away the guilt and shame of sin because of his forgiveness. When we look at history, however, the first century Jew didn’t have this kind of plagued conscience and wasn’t wondering how they could have their sins forgiven or how they could live a life that was free from shame related to their past. Though it didn’t prevent them from sinning over and over again, God had already given them a system by which they could be forgiven. It’s important that we understand that they viewed the world through an apocalyptic lens, meaning that history was moving toward a climactic day called the Day of the Lord where God would raise the dead, reward the righteous, punish the wicked, restore the kingdom to Israel, and usher in a new heavens and new earth, the home of righteousness. The question in their minds was “when are these promises going to come to pass”, and “how could one be certain that they would inherit them”? If a day of judgment was coming when God would really throw the wicked into a lake of fire where they would perish, how could one make sure they were on the right side of history and on the right side of that great day of judgment? We can see these themes echoed earlier in the gospel accounts with John the Baptist, who had said to the Pharisees who came out to be baptized by him, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” But back to John 3:16. God so loved the world that he gave his only son, meaning Jesus gave up his life on the cross as a sacrifice so that whoever believes in him, or perhaps more clearly understood as whoever relies on him, should not perish - that they would not be thrown into a lake of fire on the day of judgment. Guys, the day of judgment is the context for the cross. The New Testament authors understand the cross as God’s mercy that has been graciously given in light of the day of judgment. As 2nd Peter 3 says, God doesn’t want anyone to perish on that day but he desires all to reach repentance. So the way that someone escapes the wrath to come on the day of the Lord, the way that one is cleared of their wrongdoing on the day of judgment, is through this act of God’s own son giving up his life. For every human, the day of judgment is when the death of Jesus matters the most. What affects our lives now is the knowledge that our sins won’t count against us on a very real day in our future, when we stand before a very real judge.
But what is this unto? Jesus didn’t die JUST so that we aren’t thrown into a lake of fire on the day of judgment. There’s a reason why those hell, fire, and brimstone preachers you may have heard at some point in your life have annoyed you. Because as John 3:16 goes on, God gave his only son so that we can actually get eternal life, and again this is “eternal life” as the first century Jew would have understood the idea - to live forever in a body that never dies, to no longer be subject to the curse, to be able to know God and approach God in a real temple in Jerusalem. “Eternal life” for a first century Jew was not about going to heaven to live in a disembodied state and sing and play a harp on a cloud forever, neither was it about having a nice life in this present evil age where we could be free from shame and have some good community. Eternal life was about being physically raised from your grave to never die ever again, to inherit a new heavens and new earth without sin or sorrow or death or pain. And so this is why the death of Jesus matters. Yes, to beckon us to repent and escape the wrath of God on the day of judgment, but unto actually living forever here on the earth as God intended in the beginning.
Another verse that I want to look at briefly is Galatians chapter 1, verse 3 and 4. It says:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age
Here we are again, this time from the words of Paul. Jesus gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age. Paul didn’t say “he gave himself for our sins to give us a better quality life in this present evil age”. No, if anything, the lives and the writings of Jesus’ apostles make it clear that even more difficulty awaits us in this age as followers of Jesus. But Paul says he gave himself to DELIVER us from the present evil age. Now within a first century Jewish apocalyptic framework, history was divided into two distinct ages: this age, or as Paul calls it here, this present evil age, and the age to come, an age of righteousness free from sin and death - with those two ages divided by the Day of the Lord. Paul says that Jesus gave himself for our sins to bring us into the age to come, the age that follows the day of judgment on the Day of the Lord. Do you see that Paul is saying is the same thing as John 3:16 - that when Jesus returns and judges the living and the dead, that those who have counted God as trustworthy and reliable to his words will inherit eternal life, that they’ll be delivered from the present evil age to live forever in the age to come.
Friends, Jesus didn’t die so that we could merely close our eyes and go to a happy place with God in our minds or have a nice quiet time where we picture God as a ball of light on an ethereal throne in the sky. It’s a awesome thing to have knowledge that God loves and forgives us, but this is about something far bigger and far better than Jesus filling that God-shaped hole in your heart, or the cross being the bridge over a great chasm between you and God, and you somehow having a nice relationship with the Father again before you die and go to heaven. He gave himself for us so that we can - in a physical and tangible way and in a body that never dies anymore - actually approach him again, like it was back in Eden’s garden. This isn’t possible yet, though, because the day of the Lord hasn’t come yet. But God has made exceedingly great and precious promises for the future, and the death and resurrection of Jesus in context to the larger story of the Bible should give us confidence that the world won’t be this way forever. Inherent to this gospel is that the wrong will be made right on a real day of judgment, and that He has graciously extended his mercy in the giving of his own son so that we can actually participate in the restored heavens and earth. God is patient with humanity right now, not wanting any to perish on the day of judgment. The day of the Lord hasn’t come yet because he’s giving time for men to repent. Now we don’t yet have what he has promised, but when we dispense of our modern, culturally influenced perspective and get the Bible’s vision for the future and what Jesus has done to guarantee that future for those who turn from their sin and set their hope fully on the age to come, oh… it changes everything and dramatically shapes how we live in the present.
Guys this is the message that’s worth giving everything for. As we boldly proclaim the death of Israel’s messiah on cross in context to the day of judgment unto the hope of eternal life, may the Holy Spirit bring us comfort and certainty related to the days ahead. He really is going to accomplish all that he’s promised, as he spoke it in the Law and the Prophets and through the words of Jesus and his apostles.
Amen. If this was encouraging, then give it a thumbs up below and subscribe for more. Leave a comment below if you have a question, and share this with your friends as well. God bless, and Maranatha.