Mark D. Roberts

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In this series on the death of Jesus, I have presented four different perspectives on why Jesus had to die: Roman, Jewish, Jesus’, and Early Christian. I believe that each of these points of view has merit, and that we cannot fully understand the necessity of Jesus’ death without taking them all into account.

But many people today disagree. They prefer to accept one perspective as true, and reduce or deny other perspectives. You can see this, for example, in the letters to the editor in respone to TIME Magazine’s cover story “Why Did Jesus Have to Die?” One of these letters said:

Jesus stood up to the injustices of the world and was crushed in the process. That is happening all over the world today, and not only to Christians. People of every religion who see wrongs and try to right them lose their lives. That is what the Christian spirit is all about. LOUIS OSTROM Madison, Wis.

Now it’s certainly true that when people stand up to injustice, as Mr. Ostrom observes, they are often crushed in the process. Remember, for example, the brave soul faced down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square in 1989. He, as it turns out, wasn’t killed for his effort. But other students who protested against the Chinese government were put to death because they stood against oppression. Yet Ostrom’s explanation of Jesus’ death, however true, doesn’t go nearly far enough, either historically or theologically.

A pastor from New York City got the historical point in his letter to TIME:

It is inappropriate to look for explanations of Jesus’ death that blame God. God is not the one who killed him but the one who raised him from the dead. Jesus died because those in power ordered him killed. They could not tolerate someone who challenged the status quo as forcefully and thoroughly as Jesus was capable of doing. (THE REV.) DOUGLAS P. CUNNINGHAM New York City

Rev. Cunningham is also correct, to a point. Jesus did die because he challenged the status quo, and therefore people in power ordered him killed. But the Reverend mistakenly believes that this historical explanation tells the whole story. It doesn’t. At least it doesn’t if we take seriously the perspective of Jesus and early Christians. It’s not “inappropriate” to look for theological explanations that “blame” God (though the word “blame” misses the biblical nuance), even though we can accept historical explanations that blame people.

Yet, even as we allow for divergent perspectives on the reason for Jesus’ death, the New Testament presents the theological reason as foundational bedrock. Though it’s true that Jesus died “because those in power ordered him killed,” this answer doesn’t get to deepest truth. The bottom line is this, according to the New Testament: Jesus died for our sins, in fulfillment of God’s plan for salvation. The human agents who killed Jesus, though acting freely and responsibly, were, nevertheless, unwittingly carrying out the divine plan (1 Corinthians 2:8)

By claiming that the theological reason for Jesus’ death is somehow more basic than others, I’m not thereby denying the importance of historical explanations, but simply placing them in what I believe to be the ultimately proper context. You haven’t really grasped the reason for Jesus’ death until you’ve seen it in light of God’s plan. Of course the theological rationale for the necessity of Jesus’ death is also something that goes beyond historical proof. I can show you on the basis of historical data that early Christians believed Jesus’ death was part of God’s plan, but I can’t prove that this belief is true. If one takes the New Testament as God-breathed and authoritative, as I do, then one will accept that what the early Christians believed is also reflective of God’s own perspective

Ironically, the immense impact of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ made it both harder and easier to accept the idea that Jesus’ death was part of God’s plan for salvation. The film has made it harder because it exposed us to the brutal, bloody reality of crucifixion. As I have argued elsewhere, The Passion of the Christ forced people in to confront the scandal of the cross. Yet this film also made it easier for some people to see Jesus’ death as an expression of God’s loving plan. Almost all of those who view The Passion through the eyes of faith come away with a much deeper sense of God’s love and grace. They don’t blame the Jews for killing Christ, or Pontius Pilate, or even God. Rather, they take the blame on their own shoulders, realizing the Jesus died for their sins.

Let me close with the classic words of Isaac Watts. They seek to answer in a poetic way the reason for Jesus’ death on the cross:

When I survey the wondrous cross,
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God;
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.

See, from his head, his hands, his feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down;
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Can We Find God in the City?

Psalm 48:1-14

Go, inspect the city of Jerusalem.
Walk around and count the many towers.
Take note of the fortified walls,
and tour all the citadels,
that you may describe them
to future generations.
For that is what God is like.
He is our God forever and ever,
and he will guide us until we die.

In Psalm 48, Jerusalem is so closely associated with God that it reflects God’s own character. God’s greatness is seen in the height and magnificence of Jerusalem (48:2). God reveals himself as a defender in the towers of this city (48:3). The “fortified walls” and “citadels” of Jerusalem tell present and future generations that God is strong, protective, and permanent (48:12-13).

Does it make any sense in today’s world to think of a city as somehow reflecting the character of God? Many of us, I expect, think of cities as places of commerce, commotion, and crowds. We hear of great cities with declining populations and crumbling school systems. Surely, therefore, if we want to experience God, we must flee from the city to the country, where we can find rest and beauty.

As the Senior Director of Laity Lodge, a refreshing retreat center in a secluded canyon of the Texas Hill Country, you might guess that I’m a strong advocate of getting away on retreat. I do believe that, like Jesus, there are times when we need to steal away from the busyness of the city in order to be renewed in body, mind, and spirit. But Laity Lodge does not see the purpose of life as taking retreats. Rather, we understand that retreating for a season replenishes us so that we might go back into the world, which often means into literal cities, as God’s ambassadors.

I am encouraged to see more and more Christians embracing cities as places in which God is present and active. We are reclaiming our earliest roots, in which the cities of the Roman Empire were the focus of Christian mission. We are taking seriously for our own day the Lord’s command through the prophet Jeremiah: “And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare” (Jer 29:7). Churches throughout the world, like Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, are seeing their cities, not as hostile territory to be attacked or avoided, but rather as fertile ground for the seed of the kingdom of God. The compelling vision of Redeemer Pres reads: “To build a great city for all people through a gospel movement that brings personal conversion, community formation, social justice and cultural renewal to New York City and, through it, to the world.”

Whether you live in a giant metropolis or a small town, you have the opportunity to live out your faith in such a way that God is present in the place you live. Through acts of kindness and demonstrations of love, through speaking and living the truth, and through doing justice according to God’s Word, you can help your city or town be a place that reflects the very character of God.

QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How have you experienced God in the “city” of your ordinary life? How might you live so that God’s presence is revealed through you in your daily life?

PRAYER: Dear Lord, even as you once made your presence known in Jerusalem, we ask you to reveal yourself in the cities of our world. Show your justice and mercy, your grace and truth, to the multiple millions of people who live in cities.

Thank you, O God, for those who have embraced their city as a place of mission. Thank you for lawyers and teachers, for construction workers and city council members, for mothers and pastors, for police officers and bankers, and for all of your people who manifest your kingdom in the places where they work and live.

Thank you also for times of retreat, times that renew us so we can engage this world with deeper faith and broader love.

All praise be to you, God of the universe, God of the city. Amen.


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This devotional comes from The High Calling: Everyday Conversations about Work, Life, and God ( You can read my Daily Reflections there, or sign up to have them sent to your email inbox each day. This website contains lots of encouragement for people who are trying to live out their faith in the workplace. The High Calling is associated with Laity Lodge, where I work.

An Act and Symbol of Love

Perhaps one of the most startling of the early Christian interpretations of the cross was that it was all about love. It’s easy in our day, when crosses are religious symbols, attractive ornaments, and trendy jewelry to associate the cross with love. But, in the first century, crucifixion was about as far from love as you could get. To say that the cross – a horrid symbol of Roman oppression and barbarity – was a symbol of love was to speak like a madman (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). Yet this is precisely what the earliest Christians did, to the shock of their neighbors.

The Apostle Paul was one of the instigators of this paradoxical association of the cross with love. In Romans 5:6-8 he writes:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.

If, Paul reasons, we had been absolutely wonderful and virtually sinless people apart from Christ, perhaps his death for us would have been merely sensible. But since we were in fact sinners, and as sinners estranged from God and even God’s enemies (Rom 5:10), the fact that Christ died for us becomes a stunning demonstration of God’s gracious love.

One of the most common symbols of love in our day, which, interestingly enough, includes an element of implicit pain, is the piercing of a heart by an arrow.

But the cross is not merely a symbol of love. It isn’t just a sign that says, “God loves you.” It is also an act of love. Suppose, for example, you were drowning in a turbulent river. If a friend of yours erected a sign at that moment which read, “I love you,” you might feel a tiny bit grateful. Probably you’d wonder why your loving friend didn’t throw you a rope. At that moment you need, not just an indication of love, but an act of love. By dying on the cross, Jesus not only showed God’s love, but he acted in love toward us by taking our sin and dying in our place.

Indeed, the cross, which was once a terrifying symbol of Roman domination, becomes a symbol of divine love precisely because it was first the location of God’s supreme act of love in Christ. There has never been a more complete and astounding transition in symbolism. That which once sent shivers of fear and horror down the spines of Roman subjects now fills our hearts with gratitude and peace. What an astounding transformation of a symbol!

Yet many in our day have a hard time associating the cross with love. Many non-Christian people – and even some Christians – who saw The Passion of the Christ came away from the movie saying, “I don’t see how a loving God could ever demand that Jesus die on the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus was all about Roman cruelty, not God’s love.” Unless we grasp the big picture of God’s holiness and human sin, then we won’t be able to understand the cross as an act and sign of love. It is only in light of biblical truth that we will come to grasp, though never to comprehend fully, the fact that Jesus died “for our sins in accordance with the scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3).