Sermon 04-02-2023: “Why Jesus Had to Die”

April 18, 2023

Scripture: Isaiah 52:13-53:12 Matthew 21:1-11

Today’s sermon is the next-to-last in our series, “The Gospel According to the Old Testament.” This Thursday, Maundy Thursday, I’m preaching on Passover and the exodus from Egypt. But no series on this topic can be complete without examining Isaiah 53. It is the most explicit Old Testament passage about what Jesus accomplishes through his atoning death on the cross.

And so, with both this passage and our Palm Sunday scripture, I want to answer three questions: First, what is our biggest human problem, which Jesus came to solve? Second, how does Jesus solve this problem? And, third, what is different as a result?

But first, Point Number One… our biggest human problem

It’s been said many times before that many in this crowd who are shouting “hosanna” as Jesus rode into Jerusalem for the Triumphal Entry, will very soon—in just five days—be shouting for Jesus to be crucified. What accounts for the change?

To say the least, Jesus did not live up to their expectations… The crowd wanted their Messiah to save them, sure, but they misunderstood the kind of salvation that the Messiah came to bring. 

The crowd failed to understand that their biggest problem wasn’t something or someone out there… outside of themselves: it wasn’t the Roman Empire, or Roman military might, or Roman paganism. It wasn’t the economy or the oppressive tax system… It wasn’t corrupt politicians or corrupt religious leaders… In fact, it wasn’t “other people” at all… no matter how bad “other people” were. 

No, Israel’s biggest problem in the first century is also our biggest problem today: It is something inside of us. It is inside the hearts of each and every person alive!

Indeed, it’s the same problem that the prophet Isaiah himself faced earlier in his book, back in Isaiah chapter 6, when he first answered God’s call to be a prophet. Isaiah is in the temple, worshiping God, when he has a vision in which God reveals himself to the prophet in a powerful way. But does this make the prophet happy? Not at all! Instead, he says, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 1

This is a recurring theme in scripture: When sinful humans get too close to a holy God, these humans become afraid for their lives! They worry that they’re going to die! Even in the gospels, just before Jesus calls Peter to be one of his twelve disciples, he enables Peter, the professional fisherman, to have a miraculous catch of fish—more fish than Peter had ever caught at one time in his life. Their nets were breaking; the boats began to sink. 

So many fish! Think of the money that Peter will make!

But does this miracle make him happy? Does he fall at Jesus’ feet and say, “Thank you, Lord! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Let’s do this again tomorrow!” Not at all! Instead, Peter does something strange: He does fall at Jesus’ feet, but instead of thanking him and asking him to repeat the miracle tomorrow, he says to Jesus, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” 2

Sounds a lot like Isaiah’s response to encountering God, doesn’t it? It’s terrifying for sinful humans to come into the presence, or to realize suddenly that they’re in the presence, of almighty God! We cannot survive being in a relationship with a holy God… because we are sinners.

Our biggest problem is our sin

Isaiah puts his finger on this problem in Isaiah 53:5 and 6, “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities”—transgressions and iniquities are synonyms for sin. But then he says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way.” 

We have a couple of young cats… They’re about a year old now—still kittens, I guess. They’re brothers, Wally and Cash. And I often get the feeling that they are quietly conspiring against Lisa, Ian, and myself. They seem very smart, and very independent. They don’t seem to need us humans. And most of the time they don’t seem to want us. They can take us or leave us. Their one virtue is that they love Ringo, our beloved Spaniel… so that’s one redeeming quality.

But it strikes me that Isaiah doesn’t say, “All we like cats have gone astray.” That image wouldn’t work: because cats are by nature independent. No, in relationship to God, we are meant to be like sheep, not cats. And sheep, as Cavonna would be happy to tell you, are incredibly dumb… and defenseless… and helpless… They are made to depend on their shepherd… to follow their shepherd… to be guided by their shepherd… to be kept out of trouble by their shepherd… to be protected and cared for by their shepherd.

It is a relationship, in other words, of total trust, of complete dependence. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil.” Proverbs 3:5-7.

Without our shepherd, we are in serious trouble. And the very nature of sin is that we are like sheep who have gone astray. Instead of following the path that Christ our Good Shepherd has set before us, we have tried to follow our own path.

And in human affairs, we often celebrate our independence as a virtue. Years ago, there was a TV commercial from Apple Computer. While pictures of famous “free spirited” celebrities and non-conformists flashed on the screen, a narrator says, “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things.”

You get the idea… I’m not at all opposed to “seeing things differently,” or being perceived as “crazies” or “misfits” or “rebels” or “troublemakers” or as “square pegs in round holes.” Paul and the apostles were certainly viewed that way by many. But let us only be perceived that way because we are in a relationship of trust and dependence on God and on Christ our Good Shepherd!

Because that’s what we’re made for… 

And that relationship has been broken by sin.

Sin is our biggest problem. And unless or until God does something to solve this problem, we are not merely like sheep who’ve gone astray, we risk being eternally lost.

Please recall a detail from our Palm Sunday scripture in Matthew 21: When Jesus rode into Jerusalem, scripture tells us that he was riding on a literal baby donkey—not a majestic stallion… not a warhorse… that’s what a highly exalted, soon-to-be victorious king ought to be riding in on… not a baby donkey. 

Do you know what kind of king rides into Jerusalem on a baby donkey rather than a warhorse

The kind of king who gets slaughtered! And that leads us to Point Number Two… How does Jesus solve our biggest problem…

Isaiah 53, which was written seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, tells us! It is all about what Jesus does for us through his atoning death on the cross. Specifically, it’s about the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement—or just “substitutionary atonement”: It means Christ substitutes for us, on the cross, and receives the penalty for our sins—the penalty or punishment that we otherwise deserve. His suffering is for us; the punishment he receives is for us. His death is for us. Indeed, the hell he experiences is for us. Listen to some of what Isaiah writes in verses 4 through 6:

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…

But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed…

and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all

I can hardly talk about the doctrine of substitutionary atonement without also addressing some of the misconceptions about it. It has become deeply unpopular in much of our modern world… So much so that many Christians today argue that Jesus didn’t have to die on the cross; it was just an unhappy byproduct of Jesus’ life of faithful obedience. But anyone who argues this way is doing so as if we don’t have to let the Bible form our understanding of Christian doctrines! As one Bible scholar, Tim Chester, puts it, substitutionary atonement “doesn’t come out of the blue.” The logic of substitution is everywhere in the Old Testament! Chester writes,

Substitution was there at the beginning when God made clothes for Adam and Eve out of animal skin; something had to die for the shame of human sin to be covered (Genesis 3:21). The idea of substitution was there when Abraham was about to kill Isaac, but an angel told him to stop and kill a ram “instead of his son” (Genesis 22:13). Substitution was there in the first Passover when the Lord killed every firstborn child throughout Egypt but passed over Hebrew homes with blood daubed on their [doorposts] (Exodus 11 to 13). The Passover lamb died in the place of the firstborn so they could go free. Substitution was there in the sacrifices of Israel (Leviticus 1 to 15). Day after day the price of sin was paid in blood, but not the Israelites’ blood. An animal died in their place. 

The entire sacrificial system was meant to point to Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross!

Many years ago, an English pastor famously slandered our traditional understanding of the cross by characterizing it as “cosmic child abuse”—as if the doctrine teaches that an angry, vengeful Father would send his Son Jesus, an unwilling and innocent victim, to die on the cross to appease God’s wrath. But that’s nonsense! That’s a caricature of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. God is a Trinity of three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Together they are one God—and each person of the Trinity wants the same thing: to save us sinful human beings from our sin! So what the Father wants is also what the Son wants… And they each want to save humanity from its sin… and salvation, God knows, requires a cross!

But God does have wrath, that is, justifiable anger about sin. And some Christians have a problem with this. Why does God have anger about sin?

But that answer should be obvious if we think for a moment about how we felt just last week when get news from Nashville of yet another evil school massacre! Were we wrong to be righteously angry about it? Of course not! 

In his classic book, The Reason for God, Tim Keller describes God’s anger like this:

When you see people who are harmed or abused, you get mad. If you see people abusing themselves, you get mad at them out of love. Your senses of love and justice are activated together, not in opposition to each other. If you see people destroying themselves or destroying other people and you don’t get mad, it’s because you don’t care. You’re too absorbed in yourself, too cynical, too hard. The more loving you are, the more ferociously angry you will be at whatever harms your beloved. And the greater the harm, the more resolute your opposition will be. 3

So by all means, God has anger toward sin and evil. But his anger is a because of his love; it’s not in spite of his love. 

nd because God loves us he knew—he knew before he even created this world—that one consequence of creating it would be that he would come to us, as God-in-the-flesh, Jesus, to save us, through his death on the cross. There was never a time in all eternity when God didn’t know that he was going to come and die on the cross for us. Both 1 Peter and Revelation tell us that Christ was the lamb slain “from the foundation of the world.” It was always a part of God’s plan. 

And because God is a Trinity, God the Son wants the same thing that God the Father wants: Jesus doesn’t go to the cross as some kind of unwilling victim: As Jesus says elsewhere in John’s gospel, “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” 4

And when Jesus realizes that his “hour” has come—that it’s time for him to go to the cross—he says, “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” 5

Jesus was no mere victim. While he wasn’t looking forward to the suffering of the cross—he very much wanted to die on the cross if that’s what he had to do in order to save us!

Remember during the Super Bowl, a group of Christians that included the founder of Hobby Lobby paid something like 100 million dollars to run two one-minute-long commercials about… Jesus, of all people. The ads portray Jesus as an immigrant, a refugee, a radical, and an activist who took a stand against injustice. 6 And each ad ended with the tagline, “He gets us.”

I don’t know… They weren’t bad.

But that tagline, “He gets us,” was interesting… I suppose it meant, “Jesus understands us”—as in Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” 

And it’s true: Jesus does “get us” in that way.

But there’s a deeper, more profound way in which “Jesus gets us”…

I mean, Jesus gets us, all right: He gets us at our very worst. Because in order for God to save us from our sins, Jesus got all of our sins… All of our sins—past, present, and future—were transferred from us to him on the cross—and he voluntarily suffered the penalty for them, including death and hell… and hell was nothing other than the experience of being separated from his Father.

And that’s the only way God could solve what is our biggest problem… And that’s Point Number Two.

Point Number Three: What is the result of God’s solving humanity’s biggest problem? What difference does it make?

Well, it’s makes a lot of difference, but I’m going to focus only on a couple of differences in today’s sermon.

I just told you that Christ gets us… as in, he gets all of our sins, on the cross… and he suffers and dies for them… 

That’s good news for us. But here’s good news for God. Are you ready?

Jesus gets us! God gets us!

As in our God now possesses us… As in, he has purchased us with the blood of his Son Jesus… As in we now belong to God… 

Remember, I said earlier, “all we like sheep have gone astray.” Well, we’ve now come home to our Good Shepherd, who’s paid the price to rescue us. We are now safely in his fold forever!

And here’s something that some of you might have a hard time believing, but it’s absolutely true: The Bible says that our Lord Jesus loves possessing us as his own. He loves that we belong to him. We bring him joy.

Which is the same as saying, “We bring God joy!” Because Jesus is God, remember: The way that God the Son feels about us is the way God the Father feels about us is the way God the Holy Spirit feels about us. You and I, because we are in Christ, bring God joy. We do!

We see this, for instance, in verse 11 of Isaiah 53: “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied”—satisfied… Christ is “satisfied” in partbecause he has now done everything necessary—out of a love for us that we can scarcely comprehend… he has done everything necessary to make us a part of him, and a part of his family… forever!

I like the way Hebrews 12:3 puts it: “Because of the joy awaiting him, he [Christ] endured the cross, disregarding its shame.” Because of the joy… In other words, it was worth enduring all the pain, all the indignity, all the hell of the cross because why? Because of the joy waiting for Christ on the other side… by which the author means the joy that comes from God’s being glorified through the cross… but also…  the joy that comes from God’s possessing us as his own.

Because our lives bring God joy. Well, of course we do! Remember the Parable of the Lost Sheep: The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to go find the one lost sheep and says, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” 7 “Rejoice with me” just means: experience with me the joy that I am already experiencing because I have rescued this sheep that I love—and he will be safely with me forever!”

If you want to be reminded of God’s love for you in a powerful way, please read the Song of Solomon—which on one level is a love poem between a man and woman… but it has meaning at a much deeper level. Because the church has always rightly understood it as a parable of the love that God has for us, his “Bride,” the church, which is you and me who believe in Christ.

In fact, there’s a Vacation Bible school song that kids used to sing that comes from the Song of Solomon… [sing]“The Lord is mine and I am His/ His banner over me is love.” The verse is from chapter 2, verse 4. It describes a wedding reception and says: “He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love.” Or as the NLT puts it, “He escorts me to the banquet hall; it’s obvious how much he loves me.”

I wrote the following in my journaling Bible on Song of Solomon chapter 2, verse 4:

In the heavenly courts right now, if someone—like an angel—could see the way in which God deals with me, the way he attends to my deepest needs, the way he plans for my welfare, the way he protects me, the way he always works in every moment for my ultimate good, then that creature would say, “It’s obvious how much God loves Brent White. It’s undeniable.

Indeed, it’s as if God placed a banner over my head announcing to heaven and earth just how much he loves me!

And if you’re a Christian, the same is true for you. Indeed, the most obvious way in God loves us is that he was willing to suffer and die for us in the way that Isaiah 53 describes!

I’ve told you before that I’m a fan of a Presbyterian pastor in Florida named Steve Brown. Steve Brown famously has a very deep voice—and he used to have a radio call-in show that I listened to back in the ’80s and ’90s. Maybe he still does, but it’s also on the internet now. 

Steve Brown is always talking to his listeners about the pure gospel: about how through Christ God had done everything—literally everything to make us acceptable to God and about how there’s literally nothing that any of us can do—or just as importantly, leave undone—that will change the way God feels about us… change how much he loves us. 

We can do nothing… other than receive the gift of eternal life that God wants to give us!

Steve Brown stands against any kind of legalism that says, “We have to do X, Y, and Z if we want completely loved and accepted by God.” Brown won’t hear of it! If you’re a Christian, God has already done everything in Jesus to make you loved and accepted by God.

And he’s exactly right! Oh how desperately people in Toccoa, Georgia, need to hear this good news! Oh how desperately people need to enjoy being in a relationship with Jesus Christ!

And by the way, this is my vision for this church: I simply want people to enjoy being in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. And, yes, our church has a specific way that we put it. What is it? Do any of you know? Look at the front of your bulletin: Treasuring Christ above all and teaching others to do the same. That which you treasure is simply that which you most enjoy… that which you most love.

This isn’t just a “slogan” to me. 

I want everything we do as a church to reflect this vision. I mean, I’m sure we have a long way to go to implement this vision… How does our music ministry help people treasure Christ? How does our children’s ministry help our children treasure Christ? How does our youth ministry help teenagers treasure Christ? How does our visitation ministry—our ministry to senior adults—help us treasure Christ? How does our Sunday school ministry help people treasure Christ? How does our ministry to the poor and homeless in our community help them treasure Christ? 

And of course people can’t even begin to treasure Christ until they are in a relationship with him through repentance and saving faith in him.

I happen to think that there are a lot of badly wounded, beaten-up, and guilt-ridden people in Toccoa who need to hear our message.

Anyway, getting back Steve Brown… one time Brown received an urgent phone from a listener who was deeply troubled by something her pastor told her… and wanted to know what he thought about it. She wrote that she was overweight… that she had always struggled with her weight all of her life—I mean, join the club, right? But her weight problem was so bad, apparently, that it prompted her pastor to tell her, “Don’t you know that your body is a temple?”

He said, “You are dishonoring God by being so fat.” That’s what her pastor said.

What a cruel and hurtful thing for anyone—much less a pastor—to say to someone!

And the Reverend Brown said, “Respectfully, ma’am, your pastor is a twit. Now you go eat a doughnut for Jesus!”

I’ve lost some weight recently. I’m disappointed that very few of you noticed. I mean, if I do something good and no one even notices, what’s the point of doing it, right? Didn’t Jesus say something about that?

But seriously, I’m not going to let it go to my head, because let’s face it: I’m just going to gain it all back sooner or later. My point is, I’m not currently worried about dishonoring God by not being sufficiently thin.

But I got plenty of other stuff I worry about… It’s as if I have this voice in the back of my head that whispers, “God is mad at you. God is disappointed in you. You’re such a failure, how can you imagine God still loves you?” 

Maybe you have a voice like that, too.

If so, don’t you believe it! The cross of Jesus Christ ensures that God is not mad at you, he’s not disappointed in you, and he couldn’t love you more!

If you’re in Christ, that is, if you are a Christian at all… that banner hanging over your head does not say, “God loves you”… with an asterisk… then the asterisk says, “But… God would love you more if…” Dot, dot, dot.

It’s simply not true. If you’re a Christian, God’s banner over you is love—pure, unadulterated, unchanging, unqualified, unconditional love. God is crazy about you. And there’s nothing you can do, and there’s nothing you can leave undone, that changes God’s love for you!

The cross of Jesus Christ did that for you! Amen.

  1. Isaiah 6:5 ESV
  2. Luke 5:8
  3.  Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008), 71.
  4.  John 10:18 ESV
  5.  John 12:27
  6.  A.J. Willingham, “The truth behind the ‘He Gets Us’ ads for Jesus airing during the Super Bowl,” 13 February 2023, Accessed 30 March 2023.
  7.  Luke 15:6 ESV

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