Why did Jesus Christ die on a cross? That seems to be a strange question to ask. He obviously died there to pay our sin debt. But why did He pay for sin on a cross? It seems like it would have been more appropriate for God to allow Christ to die on one of the altars mentioned in the Old Testament—the bronze altar or maybe the mercy seat. Or maybe God should have erected an altar for Christ to die on. Where did the idea of the cross come from?
The cross of Calvary had everything to do with the Mosaic law. We have learned that no one ever received life from God by keeping the Ten Commandments. In fact, only one person ever kept them perfectly, the Lord Jesus Christ. Speaking of this, Jesus said that He did not come to destroy the law or the prophets. He came to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17).
Christ fulfilled the law in three ways: He kept it perfectly (John 8:46); He was the permanent sacrifice to which all of the temporary sacrifices in the law pointed (Hebrews 10:1–5); and, most importantly, He took its curse (Galatians 3:13).
The law of Moses is made up of many more laws than just the famous ten. It actually includes hundreds of laws and ordinances found throughout the books of Exodus and Leviticus. The whole complex system of commands, ordinances, and sacrifices was intended by God to make known to man His righteous requirement and man’s sin. Far from giving life, the law written on stones is called a killer, a minister of death, and a minister of condemnation (2 Corinthians 3:6–9).
How could this be? It is true because the law makes clear that we are sinners and separated from God. Because the law reveals man’s sin and death before God, it is God’s executioner. It pronounces that every member of Adam’s race is guilty before God and condemned (Romans 3:19).
The law shuts every mouth! It says to everyone—good, bad, moral, immoral, religious, or evil: “Quiet! You have sinned before God, and you must die” (Romans 3:10–17; Romans 3:23). The curse of the law is illustrated graphically in the Old Testament. Catch this glimpse!
“If a man has committed a sin deserving of death, and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain overnight on the tree, but you shall surely bury him that day, so that you do not defile the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance; for he who is hanged is accursed of God.” (Deuteronomy 21:22–23)
If a rebellious son committed a sin worthy of death, he was to be stoned to death and hung from a tree. His body was not allowed to remain on the tree all night; he was to be buried that day. The body hanging on the tree was a vivid reminder that the prisoner was accursed by God. The tree exposed the curse of sin. Keep this thought in mind as we investigate further.
Jesus Christ, God’s perfect lamb, died as the permanent payment for sin. To understand how Jesus died, we must recall how Adam died. Remember that death means “separation.” Remember also that Adam was separated from God the moment that he sinned (Genesis 2:17, 3:7–8). This unseen death was passed on to the entire human race (Romans 5:12). Every person born into this world from then until now has been born physically alive but spiritually separated from God (1 Corinthians 15:21–22).
Jesus Christ, having no human father, bypassed Adam’s sin and came into the world as the first freeborn human being. He was born not only physically alive, but also spiritually alive. He was the only one of His kind. He remained spiritually alive until He died upon the cross.
Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matthew 27:45–46).
How did God make known to us that the curse of the law had come upon His Son? Jesus Christ as the second person of the Trinity had throughout His life referred to the first person of the Trinity as “Father.” The Father and Son had enjoyed a special relationship throughout eternity. They had never been separated from each other. But here on this Roman cross was a tremendous contrast. About three o’clock Jesus Christ screamed from the cross, not “My Father, My Father,” but the impersonal words, “My God, My God.”
Why did He refer to His Father using the name God? Because His sinless, uncontaminated flesh was bearing at that moment the sin of the imperfect flesh of those connected to Adam’s sin. God the Father placed upon His Son all the guilt and penalty of our sin. Christ was separated from His Father and at that moment received in His body the curse that the law imposed upon us. He bore our sin in His body on the tree (1 Peter 2:24).
Paul applied the curse of the death on the tree in Deuteronomy 21:22 to the Lord Jesus Christ:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13)
When God placed our sin upon Christ, the law became God’s minister of condemnation (2 Corinthians 3:6–7). It cursed God’s most precious one. Jesus Christ bore in His body the curse of the law that was meant for us (2 Corinthians 5:21a). By bearing in His body the curse of the law, He destroyed forever the condemnation that the law had pronounced upon us. God removed the curse of the law (which Paul called the certificate of debt, consisting of decrees that were against us and hostile to us). He nailed it to His cross (Colossians 2:13–14).
We owed God a debt that we could not pay. We have all violated His law. The certificate of God’s law was hostile to us, that is, it was enough to condemn us to judgment and hell because “cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them” (Galatians 3:10). But when Christ died on the cross, He canceled the debt.
No trace of the debt remains to be held against us. Because of that old rugged cross, our forgiveness is complete.