We are drawing closer to Easter, to the time when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Last week, we saw how the four Gospels of the New Testament tell us what happened to Jesus. They relate how Jesus was arrested by the Jewish leaders on Thursday night. Then the Jewish leaders took Him before Pilate, demanding that Pilate have Jesus killed. Pilate hesitated because he could find nothing Jesus had done that deserved death. However, in the end Pilate relented because the Jewish leaders kept pressuring Him, and Jesus was crucified on Friday. Jesus died and was buried. On Sunday morning, a group of women went to the tomb and found it empty. Later, Jesus appeared to many people in His human body. He had risen from the dead. That’s what Christians celebrate at Easter.
Jesus and the Jewish Leaders
Of course, before Easter comes Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified. But why did Jesus die? From what the Gospels tell us, it appears obvious. Jesus died because the Jewish leaders didn’t like Him and wanted to get rid of Him. If you look in the Gospels, you’ll see that’s why they killed Jesus. He had been in escalating conflict with the Jewish leaders, and they wanted to get rid of Him. However, Christianity has never seen that as being the whole story. Christianity has always attached a deeper meaning to it than that; in other words, the death of Jesus has always been seen to have more meaning than just that the Jewish leaders didn’t like Him and wanted to get rid of Him.
So what is that deeper meaning? Why did Jesus die?
Jesus Died for Our Sins
Many Christians look at the deeper meaning as that Jesus died for our sins; in fact, they say that Jesus came here for that purpose, to die for our sins. Of course on the surface level, it’s true that Jesus died because the Jewish leaders didn’t like Him and wanted to get rid of Him, but on a deeper level, Jesus died for our sins. The reason He died for our sins was to make it possible for us to get forgiveness for our sins. That’s what many Christians have been taught, that Jesus came here so He could die for our sins so we could get forgiveness for our sins. That’s so basic to many Christians that they don’t even think about it. They just accept it.
But if you stop and think about it, you realize that idea of why Jesus died separates the death of Jesus into two separate things, two unrelated things, two things that are completely unconnected. The first is that Jesus died because the Jewish leaders didn’t like Him and wanted to get rid of Him. The second is that Jesus died so we could get forgiveness for our sins. Those are completely unconnected, completely unrelated. They don’t share anything in common. There’s no relationship between Jesus dying so we can get forgiveness for our sins and Jesus dying because the Jewish leaders wanted to get rid of Him. They’re two completely separate things.
That leads to a disconnect in Christianity. People hear from the Gospels about Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion. They hear how all that happened because the Jewish leaders wanted to get rid of Him. Then they hear about Jesus dying so we can get forgiveness for our sins. Nothing connects those two.
And so people make an attempt to connect them. You might say that Jesus came here and intentionally provoked the Jewish leaders so that they would kill Him so that He could die on the cross for our sins. After all, if the reason Jesus came here was to die on the cross for our sins, He had to find some way to get Himself crucified. If He had come here and just died of old age, or if He had died in some kind of accident, it wouldn’t be the same. It would be hard to talk about Jesus dying for our sins if He had come here, lived His life, and then died of old age. If Jesus came here in order to die on the cross for our sins, He had to find some way to get Himself crucified. Did He intentionally provoke the Jewish leaders into crucifying Him? Or, if not that, did God make the Jewish leaders crucify Him?
See what kinds of questions this raises? Many other questions arise when you try to fit together these two unconnected ideas, that Jesus died for our sins and that He died because the Jewish leaders wanted to get rid of Him. You’re taking two things that have nothing in common, two things that don’t fit together, and trying to make them fit together.
So is there any way to come up with an understanding of Jesus’ death that is connected with the Jewish leaders trying to get rid of Him, so we don’t have to try to fit two unconnected things together? Yes, there is. It’s right there in the Bible, plainly stated, in plain view. It’s just that most Christians don’t see it because they never look for it.
The Jewish Leaders as Instruments of Evil
To understand it, the first thing we need to do is think about what the Jewish leaders represent in the Gospels. Fortunately, we don’t have to make any assumptions to find that. We don’t have to read between the lines to come up with it; we don’t have to do a lot of interpreting and twisting around with Bible verses to come up with it. We can get it straight from things Jesus Himself clearly said.
In John chapter 8, Jesus is in a dispute with the Pharisees. At one point He tells them, “You know neither Me nor My Father.” In other words, Jesus tells them they do not know God. I think sometimes people read that, or hear it, and it skips on by, and they never really stop and think about what it means. So think about it. Jesus tells the Pharisees, arguably the largest and most respected group of Jewish leaders of His day, that they do not know God. Period. They do not know God. That’s what Jesus said about them.
Later in the same chapter, Jesus is again arguing with the Pharisees. They insist to Him that they are of God, that they are descendants of Abraham. And Jesus tells them this, “If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe Me. Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.”
There’s a lot in that passage, and again, many people completely miss this. Jesus plainly tells these Jewish leaders that they are not of God. He flat out says it. “You are not of God.” But He goes farther than that. He tells them who they are of. He tells them they are of Satan, the devil. In fact, He tells them that Satan is their father. They come from Satan, in other words. Let that sink in. Jesus tells these Jewish leaders, who are the most respected Jewish leaders of His day, that they are of Satan; they come from Satan. Jesus tells them they are of the devil.
All this comes straight from the mouth of Jesus Himself.
That comes from the Gospel of John. Let’s see what the Gospel of Matthew says. In Matthew chapter 23, Jesus is talking to scribes and Pharisees. These are two main groups of Jewish leaders of that day. Jesus calls them “sons of hell.” He calls them “serpents,” “vipers.” He tells them that their fathers murdered the prophets, and if they had been alive back then, they would have participated in it. He tells them they are hypocrites, that they are full of uncleanness and lawlessness.
Let’s see what the Gospel of Luke says. In Luke chapter 22, Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, is going to betray Jesus to the Jewish leaders. It says this, “Then Satan entered Judas, surnamed Iscariot, who was numbered among the twelve. So he went his way and conferred with the chief priests and captains, how he might betray Him (that’s Jesus) to them. And they were glad…” This presents in unmistakable terms that when Judas betrayed Jesus to the Jewish leaders, he was doing the work of Satan. It says that Satan entered into him, and he went and made a deal with the Jewish leaders. This connects the Jewish leaders with Satan.
So far, we’ve seen Jesus connect the major groups of Jewish leaders of His day with Satan, with evil.
Satan and the Jewish Leaders
After having seen all this, we can now go back and see who the Jewish leaders represent. They represent Satan, the devil. They are of Satan, they are operating for Satan, and they are doing Satan’s work. So now we can say that, in the Gospels, when we see Jesus in conflict with the Jewish leaders, what Jesus is really in conflict with is Satan, evil. The Jewish leaders are of Satan; they are doing Satan’s work.
Jesus in Conflict with Satan
Now we can go back to what we talked about at first. We said that all four Gospels agree that Jesus died because the Jewish leaders wanted to get rid of Him. They had Him killed to get rid of Him. They wanted to get rid of Him because He was in conflict with them. Now, after seeing who the Jewish leaders represent, we can see who Jesus was really in conflict with—Satan, the devil. The devil is the one Jesus was really in conflict with, the devil is the one who really wanted to get rid of Jesus, and the devil is the one who really got Jesus put up on the cross. Of course, it was technically the Jewish leaders, but they were of Satan and were operating on behalf of Satan, so really, it was Satan Jesus was in conflict with, Satan who wanted to get rid of Jesus, and Satan who got Jesus up on the cross.
So why did Jesus die? Because He was in conflict with Satan.
Now let’s think again about something we talked about earlier. We said that on the surface, Jesus died because He was in conflict with the Jewish leaders and they wanted to get rid of Him, but we also said that Christianity has always seen a deeper meaning to that. Then we saw that in Christianity today, the deeper meaning is often seen to be that Jesus died for our sins, but we saw how that is unconnected with Jesus dying because the Jewish leaders wanted to get rid of Him. We saw how that creates a disconnect in Christianity, like trying to force two unconnected things together that don’t fit together.
But now, after having talked about who the Jewish leaders actually represent, we are in a position to see it the way ancient Christianity saw it. Ancient Christianity saw it a lot different than American Christianity sees it today. In ancient Christianity, the Jewish leaders were seen as coming from, representing, and operating on behalf of Satan, and so the deeper meaning of why Jesus died, in ancient Christianity, was seen to be that Jesus was in conflict with Satan, with evil. Jesus died because He was opposed by the devil.
When you read the Gospels, you find over and over again a struggle going on between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, a conflict between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. But according to who the Jewish leaders represent, the struggle was really between Jesus and Satan, because the Jewish leaders were of Satan and were operating for Satan.
Jesus Died to Free Us from Satan
In John chapter 12, Jesus is talking about how He is going to die, and He says this, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be cast out. And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all to Myself.” Jesus is going to cast out the ruler of this world, who is Satan, and the result of that will be that He will draw all to Himself.
First John 3: 8 says this, “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” So why did Jesus come? Does this verse say anything about getting your sins forgiven? No. It says Jesus came to “destroy the works of the devil.” Hebrews 2: 14-15 says this, “that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage.”
Now of course, Hebrews is the book of the New Testament that people pull out selected quotes from to tell us Jesus died for our sins, but here, straight from Hebrews, it plainly says that Jesus died, “so that He might destroy the devil.” Why did Jesus want to destroy the devil? According to Hebrews, so He could release people from the “fear of death,” from “bondage,” bondage to Satan.
In Luke chapter 11 Jesus says this, “But if I cast out demons with the finger of God, surely the kingdom of God has come upon you. When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are in peace. But when a stronger than he comes upon him and overcomes him, he takes from him all his armor in which he trusted, and divides his spoils.”
Remember that in the Gospels, Jesus often cast out demons. Here He is talking about that, and He likens it to a strong man, fully armed, guarding his own palace, and everything he has is secure. But than another comes, stronger, and overpowers him, and takes away what was his. The strong man who guards his own palace is Satan. Everything Satan has, the world, is under his control because he is so strong. But someone comes who is stronger, that’s Jesus. Jesus overpowers Satan, and takes his goods away. The “goods” represent us, or actually the whole world, all that is held by the power of Satan. Jesus, stronger than Satan, comes and releases us from captivity in Satan’s “palace.”
In John chapter 10, Jesus refers to Satan as a thief, and He says, “The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” What Satan wants is to steal, to kill, and to destroy. But what Jesus wants is to give us life.
Near the beginning of the book of Second Peter, it says this, talking about Jesus, “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue. By which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust.”
There’s a phrase in that passage that says, “through these you may be partakers of the divine nature.” Literally, “partakers of the divine nature” is “participants in the divine nature,” in the sense of joining in and having a share of something. Of course the divine nature is the nature of God, so what this says is that what Jesus did makes it possible for us to join in and have a share of the nature of God, for us to be united with God.
What God Really Wants
So what God really wants is for us to be united with Him. God wants us to have a personal, individual, face-to-face connection with Him. But there’s something standing in the way of that—Satan. Satan wants to steal us away; Satan wants to destroy us, to kill us. Remember Jesus said that the thief wants to steal, kill, and destroy. Remember Jesus said that we are held in Satan’s power, under guard in Satan’s palace.
And so what Jesus does is come to rescue us from Satan’s palace, to protect us from the thief who wants to kill, steal, and destroy. That’s why, from the moment He appeared on the scene, Satan was in conflict with Jesus, struggling against Jesus. He didn’t want Jesus to come and take away those who were in captivity, in bondage to him. He didn’t want Jesus to come and take away those he was going to destroy. So he fought against Jesus. He did it through those who were his, through those who were doing his work, the Jewish leaders. And, it seemed like Satan got the upper hand, for He got Jesus up on the cross and killed Him there. When Jesus was taken down from the cross and put in a tomb, it seemed like Satan had won.
But Jesus turned the tables on Satan, for He defeated death and rose from the grave. Satan did his worst; he mustered all the power he had and got Jesus up on the cross and killed Him there. But Jesus turned out to be stronger, for he defeated the power of Satan and rose from the grave.
The Struggle Between Jesus and Satan
This struggle between Jesus and evil played out as a struggle between Jesus and the Jewish leaders, but it was really a struggle between Jesus and the power behind the Jewish leaders—the power of evil. On that Friday, when they killed Jesus on the cross, it looked like they had won. They killed Him, and His body was buried, sealed in a tomb with a big rock.
But by Sunday, Jesus had defeated the worst they could muster against Him, and He rose from the grave. The power of Satan had been broken; something stronger had defeated it.
So now we can go back to our original question: Why did Jesus die? Jesus died because God wants us to have life. God wants us, each one of us, to have an individual, personal, face-to-face relationship with Him for all eternity. But there was something standing in the way of that—the power of evil, which wanted to snatch us away and destroy us. For so long, for so many years, it looked like that power of evil would get its way. But then Jesus came. Jesus struggled against it on earth; it got the upper hand on Him on earth, where the Bible tells us it rules, and it killed Him. But beyond the world, in the spiritual realm where it really matters, Jesus proved to be stronger, and He broke those bonds that Satan had over us, defeated the power of Satan, which is death, rose from the dead, and released us from captivity in Satan’s “palace.”
So why did Jesus die? Because God wants each one of us to have life for all eternity, a personal, individual face-to-face relationship with Him for all eternity. God wants us to be His for all eternity. And He wasn’t going to let anything stand in the way of that.
Jesus as Victor
That’s why Jesus died. He died in the struggle between Himself and Satan. But of course, you might never know this from all the emphasis you hear on Jesus’ death on the cross from American Christianity. All you’ll hear is getting your sins forgiven. But the good news of Christianity, and the real message of Christianity, is that Jesus’ death was not the last word. The cross didn’t have the last word, the empty tomb did. Jesus defeated death and rose from the grave. Easter, when Jesus rose from the dead, had the last word, and not Good Friday, when Jesus was crucified. The cross didn’t have the last word; the empty tomb did.
Jesus’ death was the way Jesus could go down into the realm of Satan and fight him on his own turf, fight Satan in Satan’s own realm, and by destroying Satan, He ultimately destroyed the entire power of evil itself, so nothing can stand in the way of us being God’s forever.
In the struggle for us, Jesus won.
Now I realize all this is hard for “modern” Christians to accept, all this stuff about Satan. Surely you can’t expect modern people to believe there really is a Satan, there really is a power of evil. That’s just so old-fashioned, so unscientific.
Well, it may be, but that’s the way the Bible presents it, and that’s what the religion of Christianity actually says. It’s up to each individual whether they want to accept it or not.