Heidelberg 40: Why Did Jesus Have To Die? (1)

From a purely human point of view, from a historical point of view, from an intellectual point of view, there have been few historical figures as compelling and important as Jesus of Nazareth. Many regard him as a sort of Jewish Socrates, as a provocative and important teacher, a moral philosopher. In that light one might well ask why he had to die? After all, if we consider all the good Socrates might have done had he lived longer, his death seems tragic. Certainly Jesus’ death was tragic and horrible. To put the question this way, however, is to miss some very important truths about Jesus. He was indeed a teacher but that was only one of his offices. He had three offices to fulfill during his earthly ministry: prophet, priest, and king. In his prophetic office he not only spoke God’s Word, after the pattern of Moses (Deut 18), but he is The Word. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God….” (John 1:1). Contra the Dynamic Monarchians, i.e., those heretics (e.g., Paul of Samosata) who taught that the Word was a faculty of God, Scripture says that God is one and he Father, Word, and Holy Spirit. God the Son, the Word, became incarnate to announce God’s Word (law and gospel) to the world. That he did to a mixed response, to put it mildly. From a merely human point of view any program that leads to one’s arrest, beating, and death at the hands of the authorities might seem a failure but it was not. His teaching was recorded in Holy Scripture and has been announced far and wide for more than 2,000 years.

Further, he had another office: king. He came announcing the inauguration of “the Kingdom of God” (Mark 1:15) which he also called “the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 3:2). There has been much debate, of course, as to what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven but there’s no doubt that he considered himself to be King of this kingdom. In John 18 Pilate asked him if he were attempting to set up a rival political kingdom. He asked if Jesus considered himself “King of the Jews.” Our Lord replied,

Jesus answered,“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:36–37; ESV).

Jesus’ kingdom was, as the title “Kingdom of Heaven” suggests and as our theologians sometimes say, an eschatological kingdom. By that we mean that the Kingdom is manifested on earth (where and how is the stuff of much debate but we can all agree that it is at least manifested in the visible church, in the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the use of church discipline. These are the “keys of the kingdom” of which Christ spoke in Matthew 16. See Heidelberg Catechism Q/A 83) but it does not originate on earth. This is why the Apostle Paul wrote that the citizenship of Christians is “in heaven” (Phil 3:20).

Third, and definitive for answering the question before us, Jesus holds the office of priest. According to the Mosaic law the function of a priest is to offer sacrifices for the sins of the people (see Leviticus). Those sacrifices are were to be a substitute for the people. The priest brings healing for their wounds. He interceded between the people and God. He is the mediator between God and his people. All those Levitical sacrifices, offered daily in the temple, were a picture of a priest to come. According to the book of Hebrews, Jesus is that priest. He is our Mediator. He is our representative. His priesthood is greater than that of the Levites. His has no beginning and no end. Melchizedek (Gen 14:18) was a type, an illustration, and a foreshadowing of Jesus our Great High Priest. He was more than a priest. He was also the sacrifice. Unlike the Levitical priests, he did not have to make sacrifices for himself. He came to make a sacrifice for us, to be the propitiation for our sins (Rom 6:23), i.e., to be the offering that turned away God’s wrath from his people and to be that on the basis of which God is justly favorable toward his people.

These are some of the reasons that we confess:

40. Why was it necessary for Christ to suffer “death”?

Because the justice and truth of God required that satisfaction for our sins could be made in no other way than by the death of the Son of God.

Jesus was not a failed, disappointed apocalyptic teacher. He had three offices. He was the Word came to speak God’s Word to the world, which he did but he came to do more than that. He came to inaugurate his Kingdom and he came to be the substitute, the Mediator for all of his people. We cannot overlook or eliminate any of his offices without fundamentally misconstruing his mission on this earth and the mission of his church.

Next time: What is justice?

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