How Did Jesus Understand His Death?


How Did Jesus Understand His Own Death?
Brian Zahnd

A question for Good Friday:

How did Jesus understand his own death?
What meaning did Jesus give to his crucifixion?
Did Jesus have a “theology of the cross”?

Jesus repeatedly predicted his own death by crucifixion to his inner-circle of disciples, but did Jesus ever speak about what it meant?


In Jerusalem a few days before Good Friday Jesus said this in reference to his impending crucifixion:

Now is the judgment of the world.
Now will the ruler of the world be cast out.
And when I am lifted up from the earth—
I will draw all people to myself.
–John 12:31, 32

Jesus says his crucifixion (seen in the light of resurrection) does three things…

1. Judges the world.
2. Reorganizes humanity.
3. Drives out the satan.

The Cross of Christ Judges the World

Caiaphas and Pilate were the representatives of towering human achievements: Religion and Government. Jewish sacrificial religion and Roman Imperial government.

Caiaphas and Pilate both judged Jesus.
Using religious criteria Caiaphas convicted Jesus of blasphemy and condemned him to death.
Using political criteria Pilate convicted Jesus of treason and condemned him to death.

So Jesus was stripped naked, put to shame, and crucified.

But when the Supreme Court of Heaven overturned the verdicts of the Jewish High Priest and the Roman Governor by raising Jesus from the dead, it was Caiaphas and Pilate and the principalities and powers they represented that were stripped naked and put to shame! (This is how the Apostle Paul describes it in Colossians 2:15)

Sacrificed-based religion had claimed to be wise in executing Jesus as a blasphemer.
Power-based politics had claimed to be just in executing Jesus as a criminal.

But the cross of Christ judges them as neither wise nor just. In their “wisdom” and “justice” the human structures of religion and politics murdered God! The naked ambition of a world built around scapegoating and power is forever judged and shamed by the cross of Christ.

The Cross of Christ Reorganizes Humanity

Human beings can only survive in a social structure. We are utterly dependent upon one another and this necessitates some organizing principle. From the dawn of human civilization that organizing principle has been power enforced by violence.

This is the truth the Bible tells with the story of the first four humans. Cain, the first child of Adam and Eve, kills his brother Abel, lies to himself and God about it, and then founds the first city. The result is that power becomes the organizing axis for human civilization and exponential violence becomes its defining characteristic. (see Genesis 4…and world history.)

In more sophisticated societies the organizing agent of violence is largely hidden, but it is always present. Our flags and monuments and anthems all venerate the sacred violence by which our society is organized. And we are convinced that this is just the way the world is.

But at the cross Jesus re-founds the world!

Instead of Cain’s axis of power enforced by violence, Jesus re-centers the world around an axis of love expressed in forgiveness. In the new world founded by Christ, love replaces power, and forgiveness replaces violence. The cross of Christ speaks (shouts!) — there is another way! Jesus calls for humanity to re-organize itself around his cross. This is the seismic shift that can save humanity from itself.

When we see the King wearing his thorny crown and nailed to his wooden throne we learn that…
The kingdom of God is without coercion.
The government of God persuades by…
And if need be…
But never by force.

We don’t have to stay barbaric.
We don’t have to remain beastly.
We don’t have to be red in tooth and claw.

There is another way of being human.
There is a better way of being human.
There is a more human(e) way of being human.

This way is revealed in the cross of Christ.
At the cross we see who God is.
At the cross we see how we are to be.

“Being disguised under the disfigurement of an ugly crucifixion and death, Christ upon the cross is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is.” –Hans Urs von Balthasar

“Christ’s teachings and Christ’s death on the Cross are not two separate issues. Christ’s WAY, the narrow path, is the road of loving and forgiving even unto death. And he didn’t say; ‘Let me do that for you.’ He said, ‘Come die with me.’” –Brad Jersak

Jesus is the defining Word of God.
The crucifixion is the defining moment in Jesus’ life.

Look at Jesus lifted up in crucifixion…
Hear him pray…
Father, forgive them…
Be drawn into a new orbit around Christ…
The life-sustaining orbit of love and forgiveness.
May the Holy Spirit give us enough theological imagination to see this.

The Cross Drives Out the Satan

Humanity went wrong when Adam and Eve listened to the satan as it accused God.
Human civilization went wrong when Cain listened to the satan as it accused Abel.

The satan is the spirit of accusation. (That’s what the Hebrew ha satan means: the accuser.)

As we relate to one another in terms of rivalry and competition, the satan begins to accuse our brothers and sisters: They’re not really your brother, they’re really your enemy. Watch out or they will take what is yours. You must not love them. You must fight them. You must kill them.

In our fear we form alliances by projecting our own anxieties and insecurities on a scapegoat called “them.” We achieve unity by pooling our collective fear and insecurity, loading it to a canon/cannon of common hate, and blasting “them” with it. This is how we exorcise the satan from our midst. This is how satan casts out satan. Except satan is not cast out — the whole phenomenon of achieving unity around the common enemy of an agreed upon scapegoat is the satan! It’s also the story of human history.

It’s why Jesus called the satan the ruler of the world. (Think about that!)

But at the cross the satan is driven out! When we choose love over power, forgiveness over violence, when we look to Christ instead of Cain…the devil is driven out of business. If we refuse to listen to the accuser and refuse to scapegoat our brothers, the satan simply has no place. Instead of unity achieved by the unholy spirit of the satan, unity is achieved by the Holy Spirit of self-giving love. When perfected love casts out all fear…the satan goes with it.

The cross is the place where Jesus re-founds the world by saving us from the dominion of sin and satan. At the cross Jesus bears our sins, sins that we sinned into him by our complicity with systems of domination and violence. But Jesus did not retaliate. Jesus absorbed our sins refusing to recycle it in vengeance. Jesus dies with forgiveness on his lips. And he is raised speaking the first word of a new world: “Peace be with you.” Jesus saves us by forgiving us and calling us into a new orbit — an orbit around himself and his axis of love expressed in forgiveness.

“God allows himself to be humiliated and crucified in the Son, in order to free the oppressors and the oppressed from oppression, and open to them a sympathetic humanity.” –Jürgen Moltmann

Think upon these things on Good Friday.


(The photo was taken last night by Aaron Zahnd.)