A few years ago, I was talking with a sweet Vietnamese-American student about Jesus and why I believe in him. As we talked in the student center, I felt that it would be helpful for us to have something to look at in order to better focus our attention on the concepts that could seem abstract – God, who He is, and what it means to know Him. So I pulled out a little booklet that outlines the basics of Christianity, and we started to read through it together.
Although she came from a very different religious background, she listened as we read through the first point: There is a personal God who loves us and actually created us to know Him personally. We moved on to the second point: We are not perfect, so there’s a huge gulf between us and this perfect God. Our imperfection – well, really, our rebellion against Him – separates us from Him, and since He’s the Source of life, we find ourselves reaping death. Moving along to the third point, I showed in the booklet how God sent His Only Son, Jesus, to die on the cross in our place.
Wait… What?? How on earth could this “loving” God make His own son die such a horrible death?? If He treated His own SON so terribly, what would he do to me? My friend came to an abrupt halt in our discussion. And quite honestly, I had no answer for her.
I’ve thought of that conversation many times since then. She had a good point. I’d never thought of Jesus’ death from that perspective before, and it did seem like an awful thing for a Father to do. I began to search out answers.
I had to use both my brain and what I know of God from what I read in the Bible. As I searched it out, I came to a couple of conclusions.
First, I looked to see what Jesus himself thought about his death. Reading the stories of his life recorded in the Bible, I saw that he knew that he was moving towards a pretty nasty death, but he seemed to think it purposeful and worthwhile. For example, in John 10, Jesus talks about his coming death. Here is what he says:
“I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”
(John 10:14-18, NIV)
So Jesus lays down his life of his own will. He says that he has authority to lay his own life down AND authority to take it up again. That is, he is in control of his own death, and he also has the power to bring himself up from the grave. I sure can’t claim that kind of power, and I don’t know anybody else who can either. And that authority over life and death was given to him by His Father. Yes, the Father loves him because of his sacrifice – but also knowing that his sacrifice is in light of his resurrection. Knowing the victory that comes after, even the brutality of the before is endurable.
I began to think what else it means that Jesus has authority over his own death and subsequent life. Later on in chapter 10, Jesus claims that “the Father and I are one” (verse 30). So the Father gives the Son authority over his own death and life, but here we have an even further mind-boggling truth: If Jesus and the Father are one, then God gave His own life. God gave his own life in Jesus’ death on the cross. Why?? Why would the immortal God choose to die?
Reading more in John 10, Jesus gives a pretty clear answer for why he lays down his life. His purpose is more important to him than his grueling death – that his sheep will have life. In verse 10 of chapter 10, he says that “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that [the sheep] may have life, and have it to the full.”
Well, first of all, who are these “sheep”? They are the people who follow him. From the context of his whole ministry, we know that the people of Israel are his people, and yet he also came for “other sheep that are not of this sheep pen” – people who are not Jews. In other words, anyone who will follow Jesus is one of his sheep.
Secondly, why would Jesus give his life so that the sheep could have life? Well, the only answer I could come up with is love. Why does anyone make painful sacrifices? They do it either to have a better life themselves, or because they want a better life for someone they love. Sacrifices are made because of the belief that the reason for the sacrifice is greater than the sacrifice itself.
But Jesus already had the best of all possible lives before he was even born as a man. John 1 says that in the very beginning of time, Jesus was with God, and he was God. So Jesus had already made significant sacrifice just in becoming a man. He left the beauties of a perfect Heaven for the tawdry shadow of Earth. He didn’t die to gain a better life for himself; he already had the best life in Heaven.
So then, what does it mean that Jesus came so that the sheep could have life?
Well, I found I had to go back to the basics of what I’d already covered. If God created me to know Him, but my very nature of wanting to do things my own way instead of His perfect way keeps me separated from Him, then He has to be the one to do something about bringing us back together in relationship. So Jesus very willingly lay down His life as a substitution for mine.
It wasn’t anger or even just plain meanness that “made” the Father kill His Son. It was the love of both the Father and the Son, combined with the knowledge of what victory and joy would come after the sacrifice – love for me. And for you. I think that means I can trust Him.
Does this mean that I won’t have trouble in this life? No. In fact, Jesus himself told his followers, “In this world you will have trouble. BUT,” he goes on to say, “take heart! I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33)
(This post was written as an article for everystudent.com, an excellent online source for students questioning spirituality.)