“Jesus, the Christ, the King of the Jews, God who became a man in the womb of the virgin Mary, died one Friday afternoon between two criminals. He had lived obediently to God the Father; worked miracles to demonstrate the power of a coming kingdom; spoke of a day when God would judge the nations; painted word pictures of blessedness and abundance; suffered under the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate; was crucified, died, and was buried.”
And he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called “The Place of a Skull,” which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them.—John 19:17–18
Jesus died. This short sentence shows Christianity as unique among other religions. In the introduction of her book The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus, Fleming Rutledge makes this powerful claim: “The world’s religions have certain traits in common, but until the gospel of Jesus Christ burst upon the Mediterranean world, no one in the history of human imagination had conceived of such a thing as the worship of a crucified man” (1).
Of course, without the resurrection Jesus’ death would have meant nothing more than that a charismatic Jewish leader died at the hands of Roman authorities—a tragedy for friends and family, but hardly enough to ignite a movement that would last for over two millennia to the present day. Still, as important as the resurrection of Jesus Christ is for Christianity, the resurrection must be understood through the death of Jesus. Again, Fleming Rutledge makes this point well:
The resurrection is not a set piece. It is not an isolated demonstration of divine dazzlement. It is not to be detached from its abhorrent first act. The resurrection is, precisely, the vindication of a man who was crucified. Without the cross at the center of the Christian proclamation, the Jesus story can be treated as just another story about a charismatic spiritual figure. It is the crucifixion that marks out Christianity as something definitively different in the history of religion. It is in the crucifixion that the nature of God is truly revealed. (p. 44)
Death and resurrection are two important events in the life of Jesus and the life of the church. Here, I want to show three ways Jesus’ death shapes Christianity and makes it unique.
1. Through death, Jesus defeated death, the devil, and the rebellious world.
Jesus, the Christ, the King of the Jews, God who became a man in the womb of the virgin Mary, died one Friday afternoon between two criminals. He had lived obediently to God the Father; worked miracles to demonstrate the power of a coming kingdom; spoke of a day when God would judge the nations; painted word pictures of blessedness and abundance; suffered under the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate; was crucified, died, and was buried. Yet, on the Sunday morning following the Friday of his death, Jesus rose, passing from death to life.
This was the beginning of God’s victory over rebellion, God’s victory over death, and God’s victory over the demonic powers that hold men and women captive to self-worship, cruelty, and hate. We need not feel sorry for him. He willingly gave himself up. He voluntarily died. Paul taught, “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15).