The Book of Isaiah, written around 700 years before the coming of Jesus Christ, is quoted more times in the New Testament than any other book of the Hebrew Scriptures. Why? Because Isaiah 53 so explicitly refers to the Lord Jesus it doesn’t need much by way of explanation. Indeed it became so obvious that Isaiah was referring to Jesus death and resurrection that, as the Church separated from the Synagogue, Isaiah 53 was no longer read as part of the Jewish lectionary.
“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-6)
This is the heart of Isaiah and takes us to the very core of why Jesus came.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
Why did Jesus have to die? Matthew gives us 3 reasons:
1. Because God Was Angry
Jesus had to die because God was angry.
“He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him. From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land.” (Matthew 27:42-45)
Despite the mocking crowd, God the Father was not going to rescue Jesus. Just the opposite. And God gave a supernatural sign to reinforce it. At the moment when the midday sun should have been at its brightest in the sky, a darkness fell over the whole land and remained until three in the afternoon. That is very unusual. What happened? Some people say that it was an eclipse. But it could not have been an eclipse, for two reasons. First, Jesus was crucified at Passover. Passover always falls on a new moon, so a solar eclipse is out of the question because solar eclipses do not take place during full moons.
And second, solar eclipses never last more than 6 minutes, and the darkness that fell when Jesus was crucified lasted 3 hours. So, something else was taking place.
Something unusual, even supernatural, was taking place when Jesus was crucified. In the Bible, light sometimes symbolizes God’s presence and blessing, while darkness is a sign of God’s anger and judgment. For example, for three days the Egyptians experienced a “plague” of darkness for not letting the Israelites leave Egypt (Exodus 10:21-22). When Israel did escape, darkness foiled Pharaoh’s host in their pursuit (Exodus 14:20). So when Jesus dies and darkness comes over the land, we know that God was angry.
Now, we won’t understand this if we see anger as something that is unpredictable, wild, and irrational, the product of a quick temper. God’s anger is not like that. It is his settled, controlled, personal hostility to all that is wrong. And a God who cares about injustice is right to be angry about sin, and right to punish it. God is a God of holiness, of blazing purity, and he hates what is evil. When it comes to evil he doesn’t lean back in a rocking chair and pretend nothing has happened. No, evil matters to God. So, lying matters to God, as does selfishness. Likewise, adultery matters to him. Greed matters to him. Stealing matters. Bitterness matters. Murder matters. He will not simply overlook them.
Surely if we care about the injustices we see in the world, we cannot expect our loving Creator to care any less. So, as Jesus was dying on the cross, darkness came over the whole land. God was acting in anger to punish sin. But that leaves us with a question: Whose sin was God angry at? The staggering answer is that God seems to be angry at Jesus. Jesus died because God was angry.
2. Because Jesus Was Abandoned
The second thing we learn about the significance of the cross is that Jesus was abandoned.
“About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)” (Matthew 27:46)
Now there is no doubt that Jesus suffered physical agony on the cross. But what is being spoken of here is spiritual agony—being forsaken by God. And the word Jesus uses for “God” here is “Eloi.” Normally Jesus uses the word “Abba,” which is close to our word “Daddy.”
But “Eloi” has none of that warmth or intimacy. On the cross, Jesus was abandoned by God. It was Jesus that God was punishing. But Jesus had led a sinless life.
Not even his fiercest enemies could find any fault with him. So why should God be punishing him? Answer: So that we can be rescued. How can this be? Suppose I have a DVD in my left hand. And it is a complete record of my entire life. The Bible says
“Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13)
So everything that I have ever done, said and thought is on this DVD. Now there is stuff on here that is good and wholesome. There is a loving home, a great wife, wonderful children, acts of compassion, academic achievements, fruitful ministry. But there is also a lot on this DVD that I am ashamed of. There are things that I would rather people did not see. There are things that I have done of which I am ashamed. And there are also thoughts that are unedifying: bad attitudes, jealousy, bitterness, lust, hatred, and so on. Frankly, I would be terribly ashamed if you knew what was on this DVD.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes once sent a telegram to the twelve most respectable people in London as a joke one night. The telegram read: “Flee—all is revealed.” Within 24 hours, six of the twelve had left the country! Like them, we all have secrets that we would hate to have exposed. But the Bible tells us they’re all recorded.
And not just the way we’ve treated others, but the way we’ve treated God as well. Now let’s suppose that my left hand represents me, and the ceiling represents God. The Bible says that between God and me is this “record of my debts,” and it separates me from God. God is so pure, that even if only one second of my life were recorded on this DVD, it would be enough to separate me from God. My sin cuts me off from God; I am utterly forsaken.
But suppose that my right hand represents Jesus, and remember that the ceiling represents God. As Jesus hung on the cross there was no barrier between him and God. He always perfectly obeyed the will of God. But, while Jesus was on the cross, he took my sin upon himself. [Transfer the DVD from my left hand to my right hand.] That’s why Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).
It couldn’t have been his sin that separated him from God, because the Bible tells us that Jesus had no sin. No, it was my sin that separated him from God. In those agonizing moments, Jesus was taking upon himself all the punishment that my sin, everything on this DVD, deserves. Jesus died in my place, taking the punishment I deserve.
As I now look at my life (represented by my empty left hand), I understand that the result of Jesus’ extraordinary self-sacrifice is simply this: I can be accepted by God, forgiven, justified – just as if I had never sinned. Jesus paid the price for sin so that I never have to. The amazing truth is that Jesus loved me enough to die for my sin. He died for my sin, and for the sin of each person who their trust in him. Jesus died because God was angry. Because Jesus was abandoned.
3. So We Can Be Accepted
The third thing we learn about the significance of the cross is that we can be accepted.
“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and[e] went into the holy city and appeared to many people.” (Matthew 27:50-53)
Now, here Matthew records the exact moment of Jesus’ death, but then he turns our attention to something that happened simultaneously in the temple.
When Jesus died, the thirty-foot high 3 inch thick curtain in the temple, was torn from top to bottom. God wants us to understand that the two events are connected in some way. Why is that significant? This massive curtain hanging in the temple, separated people from the place where God was said to live. The curtain was like a big “Do not enter” sign. It said loudly and clearly that it was impossible for sinful people like you and me to walk in-to God’s presence. But, suddenly, as Jesus died on the cross, God ripped this curtain in two, from top to bottom. It’s as if God was saying: “The way is now open. People to approach me.” And that’s only possible because Jesus has paid the price for our sin. And it’s not as if Jesus was some innocent third party, being picked on by God. As Paul said in Colossians 1:19,
“For in him [i.e., Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” (Colossians 1:19)
The remarkable truth is that God himself was making peace with us by taking upon himself the punishment we deserve.
Three truths we learn about the death of Jesus. Because God was angry. Jesus was Abandoned. So that you could be accepted.
Matthew records that when the Roman centurion witnessed the death of Jesus, the unusual darkness, the tearing of the curtain, the earthquake and the dead raised, he and others exclaimed “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54).
At one level this appears to be a declaration of faith. But was it? “This was the Son of God” or… “This IS the Son of God” Notice the difference one word makes? Is Jesus dead or alive? Do we revere a dead leader or worship a living Lord? That’s the difference between religion and Christianity. And we don’t have to wait till Easter Sunday for the answer.
Today the question is this – what will you do about your sin? Will you take it with you to the grave and to the condemnation that must inevitably fall? Or will you take it to the cross to be forgiven so that you too can be accepted? Let’s pray.
Dear Father, we recognise Jesus Christ is the Son of God, in human form. He came was to rescue rebels. We learn in your Word that we are all rebels, and we are all in great danger of going to hell. However, Jesus died on the cross to rescue us from your judgement. For this we thank you. In Jesus’ name. Amen.