No Really, Why Did Jesus Die?
Yesterday I asked the question, “why did Jesus die,” and reflected on how, not only have the answers to that question changed, evolved, and vary between people and time, but also for me personally it has shifted from a question I used to answer with great certainty and gusto to one that I now sometimes shrug my shoulders at.
Who knows why he died.
Who knows why people killed him or wanted him dead.
Who knows what it has to do—if anything—with the relationship between God and humans.
Certainly not me. So why am I writing this?
Well, because even if it might be an unanswerable question, I still think it’s worth meditating on. And because I think some answers truly are better—more beneficial, more holistically accurate—than others.
Especially if they can lead to the liberation of humanity.
Over the past several years I’ve felt unsatisfied with most answers as to why Jesus (had to?) die. Recently, however, I came across something that just sorta clicked in to place. Suddenly, the death of Jesus not only makes sense, but I dig it.
The Gospel of John includes seven metaphors to describe what Divine Love looks like in human flesh. The author of this Gospel communicated these metaphors by putting them in the mouth of Jesus as “I Am” statements. What is Divine Love and what does it look like? The Light of the World. The Bread of Life. The True Vine. And so on.
In chapter 10 there are two metaphors placed back to back: I am the Gate, and, I am the Good Shepherd. Importantly, both of these metaphors are employed as a response to the event that transpired the chapter before.
In that chapter (John 9) Jesus healed a man born blind, causing an uproar because
A) he did it on the Sabbath, and
B) doing so put the religious leaders in a tricky spot.
The religious leaders didn’t like Jesus—calling him a sinner—so they couldn’t accept the story that he successfully healed someone blind from birth. But after interrogating the healed man, and after dragging his parents to court to confirm he truly was born that way, the religious leaders couldn’t find a way to disprove what had happened.
Therefore, their solution? Expel the man. Kick him out.
Perhaps you can relate?
You showed up to your religious community with some new ideas or simply asking questions (aka, you were blind but now you see) and your community resented you for it. You’ve messed with the status quo. You’re not doing it right. You’re mucking things up. And so they, like the pharisees in John 9, showed you the door.
Don’t get too mad at them, after all that’s the function of religious gatekeepers. Monitoring who’s in and who’s out. Who’s good and who’s bad. Who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s a nasty, treacherous business. But as long as religion has existed so has the necessity for its gatekeepers.
In response to the man being excommunicated Jesus told a parable about sheep, thieves, and so on. People didn’t catch on, so he further explained, and it’s in his explanation where he said “I am the Gate” and “I am the Good Shepherd.”
As it turns out, it’s in his unpacking of the Good Shepherd that I found an explanation for the crucifixion that once again has me pumped for Good Friday.
According to John 10 you can expect three things from a shepherd… if that shepherd is good:
that they exist for the flourishing of the sheep,
that they know their sheep intimately, and
that if their sheep are threatened in any way, they would lay down their life to keep them safe.
It’s in that third description of what a Good Shepherd does that we find a hint as to why Jesus died.
In reflecting on the stories of Jesus, and in trying to show how the Word of God was uniquely reveled in Jesus, the author of John likened Jesus to a Good Shepherd: one who laid down his life (in Jesus’ case, that meant willingly going to the cross) on behalf of his sheep.
But this raises a very, very important question (as evidenced by my double usage of “very” and through italics): if a shepherd lays down their life in an effort to protect their sheep from harm, than what threat were Jesus’ sheep under that led him to the conclusion that laying down his life would keep them safe?
Or, to ask that differently, how might the Good Shepherd Jesus have envisioned his own death as a potential mechanism for the rescue of his followers?
Well, to answer that, I ask another question: when John wrote the Good Shepherd metaphor, what threat were those sheep under? In John 9, the threat was clear: religion and its gatekeepers. Remember, all of John 10 is a response to a man being kicked out by his old tribe because he no longer fit their mold, because he caused cracks in their foundation of certainty and security. So when Jesus spoke of the thieves who break in and steal, or the wolves who prey upon the sheep, the context was clear: he was referring to the way religious gatekeepers control and manipulate people’s access to God.
In other words, religious systems and religious gatekeepers were the threat to the sheep.
And a Good Shepherd—out of their deep love for their sheep and out of their commitment to their flourishing—will lay down his/her life to protect them from such a threat.
So why did Jesus die?
I think Jesus died because people were under attack. People were being threatened.
Attacked and threatened by what? By whom?
By religion. By its systems and its gatekeepers.
The threat to his followers back then is the same threat to you and I today. Whenever men and women seek to control the flow of Love, whenever people seek to contain the mysteries of God, whenever people seek to implement systems of who’s in/out, right/wrong, good/bad, that is a massive threat to the well-being of people everywhere.
Religion—with its insistence that it has figured out God and can mediate the divine with humanity;
and religious leaders—with their insistence that they must keep watch over the whole thing and arbitrate who is acceptable to God and who isn’t,
these two realities inherently work against the full flourishing of free people.
Jesus came so that we might have life to the full. Abundant and glorious life (John 10:10, right before the Good Shepherd metaphor), and that cannot happen in the context of systems and leaders who seek to control and contain the flow of God’s love, mercy, and grace.
Why did Jesus die?
Because the well-being of his sheep were threatened.
But why does the cross help with that?
Because perhaps—either for Jesus, his earliest followers, or both—they believed that his death might work to expose the falsity of the entire system. One final sacrifice in order to end the whole sacrifice business. “Go and learn what this means,” Jesus once told religious gatekeepers, “God desires mercy and not sacrifice.”
There is no separation between us and God. Never was.
But religion insists there is, and then it offers a way to bridge the gap, and then it controls who can cross the bridge.
That’s messed up.
You know it. I know it. And Jesus definitely knew it.
So why did he die?
Because he wants us all free.
Not free from the wrath of an angry God who cannot be in the presence of sinners.
Free from the grip of an ignorant people who hand out labels like “sinner” and “saint,” who think they get to decide who’s in and who’s out.
Why did Jesus die?
To expose religion as the stumbling block it is, hindering the full flourishing of humanity.
And to rob religious leaders of their non-existent power in trying to control us sheep.
The Good Shepherd Jesus saw this. He saw how religion and its gatekeepers were holding humanity back from coming fully alive, and so he literally laid down his life to save us.
So today, on Good Friday, may you receive the Good gift of grace.
The Good gift of freedom.
The Good gift of knowing that you and God are not separated, and that God is ever-and-only Love and that Love runs in and through you.
Religion and religious leaders executed Jesus.
But Jesus died in order to eradicate religion and religious leaders.
How Good is that?!
Want to dig deeper?
You can hear more about The Good Shepherd in a message I gave titled “What Makes the Shepherd Good.”
Learn about Jesus as the Gate in my ground-breaking message, “The Gate of Actual Salvation.”
And for one more exploration of an “I Am” statement, check out, “The Way, the Truth, the Life.”