Why was the death of Jesus unique?
Sermon preached by Rod Benson, Good Friday, 28 March 1997
Alexander the Great once found his philosopher friend Diogenes standing in a field, looking intently at a large pile of bones. Asked what he was doing, the old man turned to Alexander and replied, “I am searching for the bones of your father Philip, but I cannot seem to distinguish them from the bones of the slaves.” Alexander got the point: everyone is equal in death. From the greatest to the least, from the most beautiful to the most ordinary, death is the universal equaliser.
Most of us know the shock and grief that comes with the death of a loved one or colleague: the sense of loss, perhaps numbness or anger, perhaps the realisation of our own mortality. Jesus – the King of the Jews, the Messiah, the Son of God – shared the human experience of death. His heart stopped beating, his lungs ceased their constant inhaling and exhaling, and the electrical impulses within his brain slowed and subsided into nothingness.
Each of the Gospel writers describes the event of Jesus’ death: “When Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit”; “With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last”; “When he had said this, he breathed his last”; “He bowed his head and gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46; John 19:30). But none of the Gospel writers focuses on the physical sufferings of Jesus. Each tells part of the whole horrific story, with his own emphasis and understanding of its significance. The death of Jesus was not only unusual – it was unique.
Jesus shared the common experience of death that we all must encounter. Some die accidentally, others by their own hand; some die deserving death; others unjustly or prematurely – but all die. Yet Jesus’ death was unique because it was perfectly timed.
People die in different ways. Sometimes the spirit leaves peacefully while the person is asleep. Sometimes it is violently removed, and there’s an agonising battle as the sufferer struggles frantically to hold onto life. Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died in 1953, and his daughter Svetlana penned this graphic description of his last moments:
The death agony was horrible . . . At what seemed like the very last moment he suddenly opened his eyes and cast a glance over everyone in the room . . . He suddenly lifted his left hand as though bringing down a curse on us all. The gesture was incomprehensible and full of menace . . . The next moment, after a final effort, the spirit wrenched itself free of the flesh (Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend).
Not so with Jesus: “After he took the wine, Jesus said, ‘It’s done . . . complete.’ Bowing his head, he offered up his spirit” (John 19:30, The Message). Even as he hung suspended by Roman nails between earth and heaven, he was in control, bringing his life mission to its ultimate climax. Augustine reminds us that “Jesus gave up his life because he willed it, when he willed it, and as he willed it.”
Until Sir William Deane signs the Andrews Bill nullifying the Northern Territory’s euthanasia legislation, you and I can choose to die in the Northern Territory by computer-administered lethal injection. We can choose the mode and time of our death, but we’re not masters of our spirits, able to dismiss them and expire. Jesus had that power, and he dismissed his own spirit; in this respect his death was unique.
His death was also an act of worship. Throughout his life Jesus pleased his Father. At his baptism heaven opened and God declared, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). To the Jews who persecuted him Jesus said, “I seek not to please myself but him who sent me” (John 5:30). And Hebrews 9:14 reveals that on the cross Jesus “offered himself unblemished to God.”
With the Old Testament sacrificial system in mind, the writer reminds us that Jesus Christ offered not a lamb or a bull but himself in sacrifice to God. Jesus was both the person offering the sacrifice for sin, and the sacrifice! Nothing less would take away the sin of the world, and nothing more valuable could take his place.
Unlike the temple priests who first sacrificed an animal to remove their own sins before sacrificing on behalf of the people, Jesus offered to God his own body – his own life – for our sins. In doing so, he demonstrated his complete obedience to God as his holy Father, and the complete worthiness of God as the object of his worship. In this respect also his death was unique.
When Jesus dismissed his spirit and died, the soldiers stationed nearby were surprised he had died so quickly; some victims remained alive for up to two days before dying. But they were not the only ones surprised. Across the valley, in the city centre, at the precise moment of Jesus’ death, Matthew records that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life” (Matthew 27:51-52). The death of Jesus had supernatural consequences.
The enormous, thickly lined curtain separating the holy of holies from the holy place was torn in two, symbolising that through the death of Jesus the way into God’s immediate presence was open to all, regardless of the distinctions often made between clergy and laity, Jew and Gentile, master and servant, man and woman. All people now had equal access to God and to his salvation, and equal opportunity for worship and service.
And then the earth shook and rocks were split in pieces! The event was, quite literally, earth-shaking, as the natural environment responded to the death of its creator. Burial chambers broke open, probably through the force of the earthquake. Then something occurred that no earthquake could achieve: the bodies of many dead people returned to life (verse 52)! The death of Jesus Christ triggered the resurrection of God’s people, and his resurrection guarantees our future resurrection when he returns to earth. There was no other death like it, before or since; in this regard also the death of Jesus was unique.
But his death also had eternal consequences. Immediately before he died, Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). What was finished? The work he came to earth to accomplish. Michaelangelo, the Renaissance artist of Sistine Chapel fame, was a genius. He excelled as a sculptor, designer, painter and architect. His statues of Moses and David are widely recognised and appreciated. What many people don’t know is that in Florence, there’s an entire hall filled with his ‘unfinished’ sculptural works. As great an artist as he was, he left much unfinished.
Jesus left no unfinished work – he accomplished everything he came to do. He completed his monumental mission. Hebrews 2:9 says with majestic simplicity, “In that death, by God’s grace, he fully experienced death in every person’s place” (The Message). Jesus not only died – he died in your place. He died so you could have life. He suffered so you could find peace. He endured the darkness of Calvary so you could experience the light of the Good News. He endured the curse so you could enjoy the blessing. He was alienated from God so you could be reconciled to God.
He who never did wrong suffered under the agonising weight of your wrongs, so you could be put right with God. “He personally carried the load of our sins in his own body when he died on the cross, so that we can be finished with sin and live a good life from now on” (1 Peter 2:24, LB).
In his death Jesus demonstrated God’s love for us in the fullest possible way, achieved total victory over evil, and made our salvation possible. He was not merely a good man who died as an example of virtue or meekness; he was the perfect God who took our burdens of sin and guilt and made them his burden. His death was not merely an example to inspire us but a sacrifice to save us!
As John Stott says, “A pattern cannot secure our pardon . . . an example can stir our imagination, kindle our idealism and strengthen our resolve, but it cannot cleanse the defilement of our past sins, bring peace to our troubled conscience or reconcile us to God” (Basic Christianity 1971:89). Only the death of the holy Son of God could achieve those purposes.
His death was an example, but it was much more than that. It was the only way God could bring you into relationship with himself, into his glorious kingdom, his new community. Jesus’ death was unique because it was perfectly timed, it was a priceless act of worship, and it had supernatural consequences; but above all his death had eternal consequences.
“There is one God and one mediator between God and men,” says Paul to Timothy, “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5). Jesus did not step out of his human body when he rose from the grave, nor when he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. And heaven will be filled with people from every nation, tribe, people and language because Jesus came, and lived among us, and died in our place. Will you be there? Thank God for Jesus, and his great love for us!
That’s the good news of Easter! It’s the kind of news that both sobers me and fills me with joy and a desire to know my Lord better. But you may not yet have surrendered your life to Jesus Christ and experienced his forgiveness and joy. Don’t let the opportunity pass by! I invite you, right now, to thank Jesus for dying for your sins, in your place, and ask him to enter your life, to cleanse you and take control of your life. Pray this prayer with me:
“Lord Jesus Christ, I acknowledge that I have gone my own way. I have sinned in thought, word and deed against you. I’m sorry for my sins. I turn from them now in repentance. I believe that you died for me, bearing my sins in your own body. I thank you for your great love for me.
“I invite you to enter my life. Come in, Lord Jesus, as my Saviour, and cleanse me. Come in as my director, my Lord, and take control of me. Fill me with your Holy Spirit, and with your joy. And I will serve you as you give me strength, all my life. Amen.”
Sermon 108 preached by Senior Pastor Rod Benson at Flinders Baptist Community Church, Ipswich, Australia, on Friday 28 March 1997. Unless otherwise noted, scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).