Jesus is the only religious leader who appeared for the express purpose of dying. He had one mission in life, and that was to die a terrible death on a cross in order that lost sinners could have a way to be reconciled to God. And what is true of the master is also true of the servant.
The Christian is one who dies to self – who puts to death the things of the old life in order that the things of the new life might flourish. So the actual physical death of Jesus is intimately connected with the metaphorical death of the Christian. In both cases the way to life is through death.
So let me speak to each. I have had atheists and others try to tell me that Jesus was just a nice moral teacher, and he had no plans to die on a cross. Simply reading the Bible quickly dispels those foolish claims. Jesus came to die. He was a man on a mission. That is why he came to planet earth.
All the gospel accounts state this quite clearly. With dozens of such passages to choose from, let me simply offer one from each gospel:
-Matthew 16:21 From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
-Mark 10:45 “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
-Luke 9:44 “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.”
-John 12:27 “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.”
Add to this all the numerous Old Testament prophecies about the life, work and death of the Christ, and it is irrefutable that Jesus came to die, and he knew this all along. But as followers of Christ, we share in his life and work. No, we do not die on behalf of others and atone for their sins. But we do come to the cross and embrace it, and all that it means.
Again, the New Testament is full of such talk. Jesus certainly emphasised this truth in the gospels. Let me provide just one quote from each:
-Matt 10:37-39 Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and anyone who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
-Mark 8:34-35 Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.
-Luke 9:23-24 Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.
-John 12:24-25 Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
While these are metaphors of course of denying to self, saying no to self, and saying yes to Christ. The reality of what Jesus was talking about would not have been lost on the disciples. Everyone back then knew exactly what the cross was all about: it was an instrument of execution.
To speak of the cross was to speak of being put to death. Just as Jesus carried his cross to his own execution, so he commands his followers to go and do likewise. We are to die to self. We are to mortify the flesh. We are to put to death our worldly passions and desires.
Paul of course often spoke about these very things. In theological terms we speak about the issue of mortification. This has to do with death – dying to self. See here for more on this: billmuehlenberg.com/2016/01/31/on-mortification/
Let me mention just a few Pauline passages on this issue:
-Romans 6:5-8 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.
-Romans 6:11-14 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.
-Romans 8:12-13 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.
-Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
-Galatians 5:24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
-Colossians 3:4-6 When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.
The Christian life is the cruciform life. The cross is central in all of biblical Christianity. It of course is where our Lord died a sacrificial, substitutionary death on our behalf, and it is how we are meant to live our lives for Christ. The cross is everything.
Let me finish with a number of quotes which all come from the 2005 volume, The Radical Cross, which is a collection of writings about the cross penned by A. W. Tozer:
“We must do something about the cross, and one of two things only we can do – flee it or die upon it.”
“The man with a cross no longer controls his own destiny. He lost control the moment he picked up the cross. That cross immediately became an all absorbing interest and overwhelming interference. No matter what he desires to do, there is only one thing he can do; that is, move on toward the place of crucifixion.”
“The new cross is not opposed to the human race; rather, it is a friendly pal and, if understood aright, it is the source of oceans of good clean fun and innocent enjoyment. It lets Adam live without interference. His life motivation is unchanged; he still lives for his own pleasure, only now he takes delight in singing choruses and watching religious movies instead of singing bawdy songs and drinking hard liquor. The accent is still on enjoyment, though the fun is now on a higher plane morally if not intellectually.”
“The old cross is a symbol of death. It stands for the abrupt, violent end of a human being. The man in Roman times who took up his cross and started down the road had already said good-by to his friends. He was not coming back. He was going out to have it ended. The cross made no compromise, modified nothing, spared nothing; it slew all of the man, completely and for good. It did not try to keep on good terms with its victim. It struck cruel and hard, and when it had finished its work, the man was no more.”
“In every Christian’s heart there is a cross and a throne, and the Christian is on the throne till he puts himself on the cross; if he refuses the cross he remains on the throne. Perhaps this is at the bottom of the backsliding and worldliness among gospel believers today. We want to be saved but we insist that Christ do all the dying. No cross for us, no dethronement, no dying. We remain king within the little kingdom of Mansoul and wear our tinsel crown with all the pride of a Caesar; but we doom ourselves to shadows and weakness and spiritual sterility.”
“The cross stands in bold opposition to the natural man. Its philosophy runs contrary to the processes of the unregenerate mind, so that Paul could say bluntly that the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness. To try to find a common ground between the message of the cross and man’s fallen reason is to try the impossible, and if persisted in must result in an impaired reason, a meaningless cross and a powerless Christianity.”
“The cross has gathered in the course of the years much of beauty and symbolism, but the cross of which Jesus spoke had nothing of beauty in it. It was an instrument of death. Slaying men was its only function. Men did not wear that cross; but that cross wore men. It stood naked until a man was pinned on it, a living man fastened like some grotesque stickpin on its breast to writhe and groan till death stilled and silenced him. That is the cross. Nothing less.”
“If I see aright, the cross of popular evangelicalism is not the cross of the New Testament. It is, rather, a new bright ornament on the bosom of a self-assured and carnal Christianity… The old cross slew men, the new cross entertains them. The old cross condemned; the new cross amuses. The old cross destroyed confidence in the flesh; the new cross encourages it. The old cross brought tears and blood; the new cross brings laughter.”