Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts


Why Did Jesus Have to Die? The Perspective of the First Christians, Part 1

posted by Mark D. Roberts

The Earliest Christian Reflection

We have relatively little direct information about what the very first believers in Jesus thought about his death and its meaning. Acts of the Apostles gives us a small window into this period of time, but not much more. The earliest of the New Testament writings are the letters of Paul. Yes, they come after the Gospels in the Bible, but they were actually written before these accounts of Jesus ministry.

Several of the letters of the Apostle Paul were written around A.D. 50, or just about twenty years after the death of Jesus. These letters often contain earlier bits of Christian tradition, elements that get us back to within a very few years of Jesus himself. From these snippets of Paul’s letters we can learn what some of the very earliest Christians believed.

One of these passages occurs in 1 Corinthians 15. There, Paul refers to the core truth of the Christian faith, that which had been handed on to him from the first believers, and which he in turn passed on to the Corinthians. Then he quotes verbatim a portion of this tradition:

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: the Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. (15:3-5)

Notice that the first statement of this creed-like formulation concerns the death of Jesus and it’s meaning: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” His death was not simply a terrible accident or a result of his having offended Roman and Jewish authorities. Jesus died “for our sins,” both because of our sins and in order to insure our forgiveness. By implication, Jesus had to die so that we might be saved from that which caused our lives to be broken.

How did the earliest Christians know this? Because it was “according to the scriptures.” Remember that the scriptures of the first Christians were not the writings of the New Testament, but rather the collection we know as the Old Testament. These Jewish scriptures, though written centuries before Jesus, nevertheless pointed ahead to his death and its purpose.

The first Christians didn’t make up this idea, of course. They got it from Jesus himself. During his earthly ministry he connected his death with the suffering Servant in Isaiah. There, as you may recall, the Servant “was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities” (Isa 53:5). Indeed, the Servant of God “bore the sin of many” as he “poured out himself to death” (53:12).

Yet what Jesus said about his death prior to Good Friday was cryptic at best. That’s why none of his followers got it. After Easter, however, the resurrected Jesus himself explained to his disciples how the Old Testament foretold the necessity of his death (Luke 24:26). No doubt Isaiah 53 figured prominently in Jesus’ explanation, but it included far more, even “Moses and all the prophets” (24:27). So, following Jesus’ own example, the earliest Christians looked to the Old Testament for a way of understanding his death. And there they discovered, time and again, that Jesus died “for our sins.”

1 Corinthians 15 does not explain exactly how the death of Jesus was “for our sins.” The text doesn’t lay out some sophisticated notion of substitutionary atonement, for example. That we’ll find elsewhere in the New Testament. But in the simple language of earliest Christian reflection, we hear a clear and necessary connection between sin and the death of Jesus. He died, not only as a result of human sin, but also as a means for that sin to be forgiven. Through the death of Jesus, the new covenant was dawning, that of which Jeremiah prophesied:

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Our starting point for understanding the early Christian perspective on the death of Jesus is the basic statement that he died “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Upon this foundation the first believers reflected further on the meaning of Jesus’ death. In my next post I’ll examine these additional reflections.



  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Barbara

    Given the prominence of the concepts ‘ love’ and ‘forgiveness’ taught by Jesus in the New Testament, are we to think that the main message of His life is guilt and suffering? If we look beyond the cross, to the final event in Jesus’ time on earth, His resurrection, what we see enacted is a glorious triumph of life over death, and a demonstration of the eternal nature of the soul. What if the early church had not put so much focus on His suffering and crucifixion, and mankind’s “debt” of “sin”, but instead had seen in Jesus’ resurrection this fact and all its implications: that we are non-physical beings who have eternal life? What if, instead of cross after cross with Jesus’ body suspended in agony, Christian churches had been adorned through the centuries with beautiful paintings of the sunrise, signifying His glorious resurrection and entry into Heaven?
    The book of Matthew, chapter 17, describes the transfiguration of Jesus like this: ‘His face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light’. Why don’t we put up more pictures of this transcendent spiritual event? In John 14:12, Jesus says: “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” We are not Christ, but clearly we are being told that we have characteristics in common with Jesus, our brother. Through His teaching, and in His very life, the Master demonstrated this truth for us to see and understand: that we are spiritual beings. Looking at the Resurrection, the message is clear: we are spirit in nature, beyond the body, eternal beings , united with God, as individual waves are inseparably united with vaster ocean, as each ray of sun is inseparably connected to the solar star from which it emanates.

  • http://adangertosociety.com Michael Allen

    Why did Jesus have to die? It’s an interesting title because it’s an interesting question. But, the question is a little more probing than you can imagine. Your answer, sufficiently backed by scripture, is that he had to die for our sins. That is the truth. Won’t dispute that. But, I think the question is more in line with what is it all about. Why sin? Why is Jesus the method?

    The story of God can be likened to a kid at play. One kid puts together a Lego set and admires it before knocking it down. Another kid puts together a Lego set and wants to memorialize it, he never wants to see it destroyed. Why is our God the former? Why not the latter? Introducing free will into our lives gives us the freedom to choose as we wish. With that freedom, God would want us to devote it to Him. But, He doesn’t see that happen. He sees us taking our free will and doing just that, as we wish.

    We eat of the fruit. We erect idols. We worship other Gods…and that’s just the beginning. We haven’t even read through the Pentateuch before we witness every sin that would ever be committed. Oh, we’re pretty creative in figuring out how to commit those same sins in different ways. Other than that, not much has changed.

    So, why did Jesus have to die? Why was the world created so that it could be destroyed? Why are people so bent on turning against the one true creator? Why was Jesus God’s way? There are more questions than there are answers. But, I’ve only read Part I at this point.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Gary Mac

    Understanding the message in the cross is paramount if one is to understand what sin is. Jesus was made sin in that the law said you cant be son of God that would make you equal with Him thus a blasphemer, a sinner. The death of that man put the law to rest in that no matter what the law dictates its Gods SPirit in the man that makes him a son. The message in the death of Jesus is the flesh man dies and the Spirit man arises. This is what happens in us when the old man dies and the new man is born. Paul said in 1 Cor. 15 the first man Adam was of flesh, the second man Adam was of Spirit, that which is first is flesh then that which is SPirit indicating a born again experience in Adam. Once we see that it is we who bear that cross, dead to the flesh man, the sin part of us, and alive in the SPirit ,Christ in you … then we take on that person of Christ as Jesus did. Even He went through that same process in Matt 3:16 where the Spirit man came to life and His life changed from that moment on. If we have given up the right to ourselves, that old man dead, and Christ be formed in us and put on the Christ, Christ in you, then the power in the cross has done it job. Until then the cross is only a place for sympathy.

  • http://www.bethelagny.blogspot.com David Candel

    Jesus was born in a special way because He was specially born. He lived to preach the Kingdom of God and through that message, the forgiveness of sins. The life He lived evidently pleased God perfectly so that He was declared in scripture as God come in the flesh, seen of angels, believed on in the world, taken up to glory. When Moses heard the pattern shown to him in the Mount He was told that a Prophet like him should arise who will continue Moses work further. Moses as a servant built God’s House or Tabernacle but Christ as a Son over God’s House has more honor as a son, not just a servant. Even Genesis shows us early on what God had provided in the future in chapter 3:15. Namely that God would produce seed of the woman to crush Satan’s head and that Satan would bruise his heel (of the seed of the woman.) This bruising of the heel was Christ’s death. Satan was crushed at the cross but his sentence has yet to be carried out. It will be at the Second Coming of Christ when His Kingdom promise will be fulfilled and righteousness will be the order of the day. Jesus was both a sin offering and a scapegoat showing that He died for our sins and took our sins away as a scapegoat bringing the result, forgiveness of sins, a new, resurrected life for believers. Romans 5:1 says, “justification,” and Romans 8:1-3 gives us a better glimple when it says, “what the Law could not do in that it was weak through ther flesh God did sending His own Son in the likeness of sinfful flesh and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh that the righteous requirement of the law might be met in us who walk not after ther flesh but after the Spirit.” And II Corinthians 5:19 says Jesus reconciled us back to God and verse 21 says Christ, “became sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God IN HIM.” In short Jesus had to die because of Adam’s failure to heed the obedience of God’s imperative to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’s fruit. God is able to save those that come unto God by Jesus Christ seeing He ever liveth to intercede for them. He is not willing that any should perish but that all might come to repent.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Rare Jewel of Christ

    The above comments are very well said-I couldn’t have said it better. You guys have actually taught me something. Thanks!

  • http://Trullyenjoyedthecomments Esmeralda

    It is so great to know that eventhought we didn’t deserve it but then yet HE died for us.I am proud to be a Christan and never ashamed of the gosipal of Jesus.Keep it comming it really help us cope with the everyday trials and tribulations, may God bless you all.

  • http://www.ExpertWritingService.com Norton R. Nowlin

    There was a time, shortly after Jesus chose his twelve apostles from among his many disciples, when Peter, James, John, and the rest of the elect didn’t understand why, or how, Jesus was going to die. Yet, after Peter, James, and John witnessed the transfiguration of Christ, and heard him continually interact with the Pharisees and Sadducees, I think that they began to comprehend the Savior’s purpose on the earth, and how the temple would be demolished and rebuilt in 3 days. By the time Jesus appeared to his apostles in the sealed room after his resurrection, when they were afraid and thought he was a spirit, they pretty well understood the necessary atonement of the Christ and the purpose of his resurrection. After Christ’s ascension into heaven, I believe that those of the twelve who had not clearly understood the meaning of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection had been instructed by Peter, James, and John, the chief apostles. I recall that Jesus told Peter, “When thou art converted, go strengthen thy brethern.”

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment MOSESANDELIJAH

    SAUL DIED, AND BECAME PAUL WAS NEW CREATURE- WHEN HE WAS CONVERTED BY JESUS CHRIST IN TRUE REPENTS,ON THE WAY TO DEMACAUS ROAD AND BAPTISM OF THE HOLY GHOST BY THE DISCIPLES AND THEN BECAME A FOLLOWER AND DISCIPLE FOR HE SAID IM THE LAST OF THE DISCIPLES, HE TOOK JUDAS ISCARIOT’S PLACE, THEN LEARNED FROM JESUS AND GOD THREW THE SPIRIT OF GOD HE WAS LEAD BY THE SPIRIT AND THEN HE WALKED WITH OTHER DISCIPLES IN TRUTH, AMEN JESUS DIED ON THE CROSS FOR OUR SINS, AND ALSO TO OVERCOME THE DEVIL-THE WORKS OF SATAN.SO WE CAN OVER SIN AND LIVE HOLINESS, OBEDIENCE, FOLLOW JESUS IN TRUTH DOCTRINES AND HIS TEACHES, DO GOOD WORKS SHOWS OUR FAITH IN JESUS, WITHOUT WORKS IS DEAD FAITH, BAREFRUIT IN OUR FAITH SHOWS WE BRING PEOPLE TO JESUS, MINISTERING THE GOOD NEWS.JESUS SAID:WE MUST BE BORN AGAIN IN SPIRIT AND BE BAPTIZED IN HIS NAME-HOLY GHOST BOOK OF ACTS: LEAD US TO RIGHTEOUSNESS, TO HAVE ETERNAL LIFE- READ JESUS AND NECAUDEMUS JESUS SAID WITHOUT SPIRIT NO ONE WILL ENTER HEAVEN.AMEN
    SAUL (WAS)A SINNER IN THE PAST,WAS CONVERTED IN CHRIST-LIKE .AND A NEW MAN-CREATURE LEAD BY THE HOLYGHOST IN HOLINESS…. FREED FROM SIN,AND WALK IN HOLINESS AND RIGHTEOUSNESS MAN OF GOD. PAUL (WAS)A PHARISEE-SCRIBE UNDER THE LAW OF MOSES, BEFORE HE MEET JESUS AND GOD.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment JAMES

    THER IS NO DOUBT EVERTHING IS,WAS AND WILL BE CREATED BY GOD. WHEN HE CREATED MAN EVERYTHING WAS GOOD AND GOD IS GOOD,BUT MAN WAS ALONE-THIS WAS NOT GOOD–GOD SAID SO.HE SAID I WILL GIVE MAN A HELPER–A HELP MEET MATE(SOMEONE WHO WOULD HELP MAN MEET WITH GOD SO HE WOULD NOT BE ALONE).HOW WILL THE WOMAN HELP MAN MEET WITH GOD? THIS IS MY BELOVED SON IN WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED. NONE COME TO THE FATHER BUT BY THE SON.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Randy L

    The Comments above are interesting and I beleive mostly true, but do
    not explain exactly why Jesus had to die. I believe to answer that question one must have an understanding of the nature of God and his expectations for mankind. Since he has soveriegn power over his creation he will execute justice and judgement and because justice flows from his throne, ps 89:14. His mercy through Christ then is manifested, in Rom 5:8-10; God commendeth his love for us that while we were yet sinners Christ dies for us. Much more then being JUSTFIED BY HIS BLOOD we shall be SAVED from WRATH through him. Then we are Reconciled by the death of his son and shall be saved by his life. These verses tell the purpose of his death and must be studied and broken down and examined.
    From one perspective Since God is a God of justice and judgement demands payment for lawlessness or sin, otherwise he wouldn’t be just, neither would a judge in a court of law today if he let every one off the hook, most everyone would reign in anarchy. God’s wrath
    was appeased through a propitiating sacrifice that satisfied, (Pleased) the divine government and justice of God,I John 2: 2, Heb 10:6, IS 53:10 But only if we give all of ourself to Christ. Romans 12: 1-2, I Cor 6: 19-20. I think the other reasons given are good too.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Randy L

    Further,
    The word reconcile in Romans 5:10 means, bringing two enemies into a good relationship. That can only be accomplished in Christ, there is no salvation in any other, Acts 4:12-God was pleased with the life that Christ lived and in a nutshell is what God desires of all of us,
    to be like him and without him we are lost. God’s Justice will not permit any other champion in our life to whom we are to adore,
    That means no other faith except in christ is acceptable,
    Eph 4:4-5; Gal 2:16-21.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Abambagibus

    When generally weighing the religious mindset of Christ and His followers in the time of His ministry and immediately thereafter, what many moderns tend to forget is the specific gravity of the apocalyptic element. The end, they truly believed, was upon them. It was only a matter of time, a very short time, before the end of the world, as they knew it, would occur, supposedly within the lifetimes of many of them. It is for this reason that his suffering unto death and the existential reason for it was of prominent concern in the minds of the earliest Christians. Fortasse Ab Ambagibus.

  • http://Love!!! bruce evans

    Now we know it was some kind of pure Unconditional Love of God for us to give His only begotton Son to redeam of of our sins!!! He has taught us to Love each other as He Loves Us!! A covenant between God and Jesus Christ knowing what was going to happen way before it was to be!!! So cool if and when to be as the song John Lennon wrote .. Imagine… Life here would be better!!! Why not? Myself.. believes that Satan …Lucifer.. and his followers could and would if we prayed hard and sincere enough that they get on their knees and asks for God’s forgiveness….only if they believe it and they would have to go through Jesus to get to God!!!! Of course since they were kicked out of heaven they would have to repent by letting their evil desciples know of the lies they have been telling people of this earth and they would inevitably go toward Christs as the devil would would tell them of His (Jesus) ways!!! I believe it would take 7 years to do this and then the rapture would begin!! There is no reason that everyone could go to heaven!! Jesus Christ has died for ALL!! Not just a chosen few!!As the Lords prayer says… Heaven on Earth!!! It will be paradise here!!! “ALL CAN BE SAVED…WILL BE SAVED”

  • http://www.davvvyc.blogspot.com Dave Candel

    The Bible never says all will be saved. It says many will or few sometimes. Consider Lazaurus and the rich man. Jesus said, “If they won’t listen to Moses, neither will they believe if someone rose from the dead.” This means that even miracles or resurrections can’t save everybody. Only those who surrender to Jesus everything and renounce sins of all kind will have that grace attitude to become disciples that are saved! The Bible says, “Except you become as little children, trusting like them, you can’t enter the Kingdom of God.” Jesus is calling. Let’s open the door and let Him in. He will sup or dine with us! and we with Him Rev 3:20. God loves you!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Dave Candel

    I know I am a sinner and deserving of hell punishment forever because God’s Word says so that it is my state. (See Isaiah 60:1-5.) I know this because it says all have sinned and come short of the glory of God and all were in Adam when He fell, therefore all sinned (see Romans 1-4.) Romans 6:23 says, “For the wages of sin is death but the free gift of God is Eternal Life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Messiah said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one can get to the Father except by Me,” John 14:6. Jesus had to die to restore us back from where Adam failed. Mankind has a Resurrected Savior Who conquered sin, death, hell, and the grave so we can now belong to God and someday you too will have decided and you will be ending in either of two places, hell or heaven. Acts 4:12 says, “There is no other Name under Heaven given among men whereby we must be saved.” Believe (present active indicative) on the Lord Jessu Christ and call upon HIm and you will be saved. Obey His call of you. Transfer ownership to God of yourself as you approach Him a sinner in a desperate need of saving humbly bowing low. In Prayer say it and God will see and say over you, “My Son’s Blood.” Live for Him. Deny yourself, take up your cross and follow Him.

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