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Commentary: Christ died for us

Commentary: Christ died for us

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: Christ died for us

An e-Review commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker | March 20, 2009 {0986}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

On Good Friday Christians everywhere remember Jesus’ death on the cross. This terrible day is called good because of the message of the apostles “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (I Corinthians 15:3, Paul’s statement of the tradition he had received from the original apostles).

We Christians believe this message is the core of the Gospel. It is the message the apostles announced to the world following the resurrection of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The New Testament does not explain how Christ died for our sins. Rather, it proclaims that Christ died for our sins.

This message that Christ died for our sins is an affront to many, and it has been so from the beginning — “a stumbling block to Jews (who do not believe that the Messiah would be crucified) and foolishness to Gentiles (who do not know there is a Messiah, or that they need him to do anything for them),” as Paul said (I Corinthians 1:23).

For Christians, the death of Christ for us is a great mystery. It is part of the divine plan of salvation, which we humans cannot fully comprehend.

Even though Christ’s death for us is a mystery, it is not a cipher, like a message in code whose meaning is known only to the sender. Even this mystery requires some understanding to be believed, although it will always be beyond our full comprehension as an act of God.

Over the centuries theologians have presented “theories of the atonement” to try to explain the meaning of Christ’s death for us. None of these explanations is sufficient, but most of them do help us to see at least one angle on the meaning of Christ’s death.

I think the proper method to approach the meaning of Christ’s death for us is not through some “theory of the atonement,” such as “a satisfaction paid for our sins” or “the moral influence” of Christ’s love. Rather, it is by telling a story. This is what the apostles did when they talked about Christ’s death for our sins “in accordance with the scriptures.” They meant that Jesus’ death fits the whole story of Israel told in the Jewish scriptures or Old Testament.

A penitent drags his chains during a Good Friday procession in Malta. A Wikimedia Commons photo by Inkwina.
Jesus’ death would have been a mere martyrdom of a prophet probably known to us only as a footnote in Josephus’ history of the Jewish people if God had not raised him from the dead. Jesus’ resurrection revealed him to be the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of the world (Acts 2:36). In light of the resurrection, Jesus’ death was not a tragedy, but a fulfillment of his meaningful vocation as the Messiah of Israel.

No one was expecting the Messiah to suffer and be killed. Yet when the scriptures were read in light of this event, suddenly the story line in the scriptures was illuminated. The Messiah was the Servant of the Lord who “was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). The Messiah, the representative of the people of Israel — who was Israel — showed in his suffering that the whole story of Israel, which seemed to have ended in sinfulness and humiliation, was not a disaster, but had been fulfilled in the obedience of the righteous Messiah, who died by taking all sin upon himself and inaugurating a new covenant for the forgiveness of sins.

God accepted the death of his Messiah not by retaliating, but by forgiving. Now Israel could be renewed to be the light of the nations, which was the purpose for which God chose it in the first place. This renewed Israel would be the people of the Messiah, which would include both Jews and Gentiles. The crucifixion, which was so devastating because the people “had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21), became good news. He was the Messiah who turned the whole story of sinful Israel’s long suffering into a redemptive event by carrying all sin upon himself, bringing the story of Israel to a climax, while, at the same time, starting it all over again in his commission to his apostles to go “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).

This story the apostles told places the meaning of Jesus’ death in the context of the entire narrative in the scriptures of God’s purpose of choosing the people of Israel to be a light to the nations. In the context of that story, the good news or Gospel is that “Christ (the Messiah) died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” The message only makes sense as the climax of the narrative of God’s action in history of making covenant with Israel. This covenant could be renewed only when the one who had not broken the covenant, the one who was Israel, accomplished the vocation of the Messiah by offering a new covenant for the forgiveness of sin by making his death on the cross a means of taking on the sin of Israel and the world.

The mystery is still there, the mystery of divine love, which suffers redemptively for our sins by taking our sins upon God’s self in the person of the Messiah, God’s own Son, so that we might be forgiven and become members of a new community. Yet it is the mystery of a love disclosed in a relationship — not merely that of an idea or “theory,” which, considered in the abstract, seems to be little more than a cipher. This is the kind of mystery we know even in our human relationships: “rarely will anyone die for a righteous person — though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die” (Romans 5:7).

All of us are deeply moved when we see the sacrifice of love displayed in an act of heroism when one person gives his or her life for others. Who can understand such a sacrifice of love? Yet the death of God’s Messiah for us is of a different order, and here the mystery reaches a depth we can scarcely fathom: “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

The God we worship on Good Friday is no vague deity, but the God who is active in history, creating the story of a people who know and obey him. He is the God who began a relationship with Israel, which came to its climax in the redemptive death of Israel’s Messiah, so that the story may go on. And we who have faith in Jesus the Messiah are an integral part of it.

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.