by Greg Williamson (c) 2007

Witnesses: Jesus | Matthew | Mark | Luke | John | Paul | Other
The Meaning of Jesus' Death

Jesus Christ was condemned to die at the hands of the Roman government outside the city of Jerusalem in A.D. 33.The means of death was crucifixion -- an extremely painful and humiliating form of execution practiced by many ancient nations and perfected by the Romans. Roman citizens were automatically exempt from this form of legal murder in which, after being beaten with a metal- or bone-tipped whip, the victim was made to carry a crossbeam to the execution site where it was affixed to a waiting vertical pole. The victim's hands and feet were then nailed and/or tied to the cross, and he was left to die a slow death. Normally no vital organs were damaged and there was not excessive bleeding. Death took several days and came as a result of shock and/or asphyxiation as the muscles needed for breathing became fatigued. Oftentimes the dead body was left on the cross to rot or to serve as food for the birds. [ref]

Thanks to both biblical and extrabiblical/secular testimony from the first century A.D., today Jesus' death is readily accepted as fact. In addition to such historical evidence, however, there remain several good, solid reasons for believing that Jesus truly did die.

    1. The heavy loss of blood makes death highly probable. He had been beaten and whipped repeatedly the night before His crucifixion.
    2. When His side was pierced with a spear, water and blood flowed out. …. The spear entered through the rib cage and pierced His right lung, the sack around the heart, and the heart itself, releasing both blood and pleural fluids.
    3. The standard procedure for crucifixion was to break the victim's legs so that he could not lift himself to exhale. … Yet, the professional Roman executioner declared Christ dead without breaking His legs. There was no doubt in their minds.
    4. Jesus was embalmed in about 75-100 pounds of spices and bandages and laid in a guarded tomb. Even if He had woken up in the tomb, He could not have unwrapped Himself, rolled the stone back up the side of the carved-out track, overcome the guards, and escaped unnoticed.
    5. Pilate asked for assurance that Jesus was really dead before releasing the body for burial.
    6. In the article "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ" the Journal of the American Medical Society concluded: "Clearly, the weight of historical and medical evidence indicates that Jesus was dead before the wound to His side was inflicted ... Accordingly, interpretations based on the assumption that Jesus did not die on the cross appear to be at odds with modern medical knowledge" (March 21, 1986, p. 1463). [ref] (quoted verbatim)

As with crucifixions in general, Jesus' crucifixion was intended both to punish and to deter. "The public crucifixion of Jesus was meant to accomplish two objectives for the Romans and the Jewish leaders: first, to exterminate the troublemaker; and second, to send a message to His followers that such lawlessness -- opposition to them -- would not be tolerated." [ref] Israel's religious and political leaders hoped Jesus' death would spell the end of the movement he had begun. And for a brief time this looked like a real possibility. On the night of his arrest, Jesus' followers abandoned him. Some of them witnessed his trial and crucifixion. All of them gave up hope of ever seeing him again. "For most of Jesus' followers, including His disciples and family, the Crucifixion represented the abrupt end of a dream. The One Whom they had followed, believed, and loved had been violently taken from them. For them, life no longer had purpose. Their grief and loneliness knew no bounds." [ref]

The fact that Jesus, the self-proclaimed promised deliverer of Israel, had been put to death like a common criminal proved a major stumbling block for many. Popular belief, after all, held that the Messiah would be a conquering political and military hero who would wrench Israel from the hands of her captors and restore her to glory. If a suffering Messiah was difficult to believe, how much more so a crucified one. [ref] [ref] This fact forced the early Church to come to terms with the cross. [ref]

Thanks be to God that Jesus' death did not spell the end of the story. Jesus came out of the grave, appeared to many witnesses over a period of several days, and then ascended into heaven, after which God sent his Holy Spirit to establish a faith community founded on the words and works of Jesus Christ. From then until now, faithful witnesses have been boldly proclaiming the death and resurrection of their Lord and Savior. Many people have fought and died for a cause they believed in. Jesus' death, however, was special and unique. Jesus' "cause" was God's kingdom, and his death was (and is) the only means by which we can enter into that kingdom.

Jesus' death and resurrection were of foundational importance to the life and mission of the early Church, as reflected in its preaching, its worship (especially as related to baptism and the Lord's Supper), and its discipleship. [ref] What is more, this remains the case for any and every church today seeking to align itself with historical, biblical Christianity.


Several New Testament witnesses testify to the reasons for, and ramifications of, Jesus' death. (Jesus' suffering and death are also referred to as his "passion.")

Jesus was well aware of, clearly spoke about, and repeatedly alluded to, his upcoming death.

"Then Jesus began to tell them that the Son of Man must suffer many terrible things and be rejected by the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but three days later he would rise from the dead." (Mark 8:31)

" ... He said to them, 'The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of his enemies. He will be killed, but three days later he will rise from the dead.'" (Mark 9:31)

"'Listen,' he said, 'we’re going up to Jerusalem, where the Son of Man will be betrayed to the leading priests and the teachers of religious law. They will sentence him to die and hand him over to the Romans. They will mock him, spit on him, flog him with a whip, and kill him, but after three days he will rise again.'" (Mark 10:33-34)

"'And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up.'" (John 3:14)

"So Jesus said, 'When you have lifted up the Son of Man on the cross, then you will understand that I AM he. ... '" (John 8:28)

"'And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.' He said this to indicate how he was going to die." (John 12:32-33)

In addition, there are several clear allusions to death made by or about Jesus: [ref]

"'She has poured this perfume on me to prepare my body for burial'" (Matthew 26:12). "Mary alone had understood what Jesus had repeatedly said about his approaching death. The disciples were so wrapped up in their own notions of a political kingdom that they failed utterly to sympathize with Jesus as he faced the cross. But Mary with the woman’s fine intuitions did begin to understand and this was her way of expressing her high emotions and loyalty." [ref]  

"'So they grabbed [the landowner's son], dragged him out of the vineyard, and murdered him'" (Matthew 21:39). "The Jews put [Jesus] to death after they had persecuted and slain the prophets. This was done by giving him into the hands of the Romans and seeking his crucifixion." [ref]

"Then two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem" (Luke 9:30-31). Moses and Elijah "were talking about [Jesus'] exodus (departure from earth to heaven) very much like our English word "decease" (Latin decessus, a going away). The glorious light graphically revealed Moses and Elijah talking with Jesus about the very subject concerning which Peter had dared to rebuke Jesus for mentioning (Mark 8:32; Matthew 16:22).  This very word exodus (way out) in the sense of death occurs in 2 Peter 1:15 and is followed by a brief description of the Transfiguration glory. ... The purpose of the Transfiguration was to strengthen the heart of Jesus as he was praying long about his approaching death and to give these chosen three disciples a glimpse of his glory for the hour of darkness coming. No one on earth understood the heart of Jesus and so Moses and Elijah came." [ref]

"Jesus replied, 'Do wedding guests mourn while celebrating with the groom? Of course not. But someday the groom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast'" (Matthew 9:15). " ... the bridegroom meant Christ: the time in which he was taken away, his crucifixion, death, and the time he lay in the grave." [ref] 

... And a sword will pierce your very soul" (Luke 2:35). "A sword (rhomphaia). A large sword, properly a long Thracian javelin. It occurs in the LXX of Goliath’s sword (1 Samuel 17:51). ... [O]ne day Mary will stand by the Cross of Christ with this Thracian javelin clean through her soul ... " [ref]

On the eve of his trial and crucifixion, Jesus celebrated the Passover with his twelve disciples (the apostles). The event was rich with symbolism. "As the Passover brought an enslaved people into a new life of liberty and rest, so Christ anticipated that through His death believers would be brought into a new life of peace and rest. ... Christ's death was not an end in itself but the means of providing eternal blessing for those who would trust Him as Savior." [ref]  During the meal Jesus indicated that his body and blood were the means through which God would firmly establish a new covenant (see Covenant). 


Both Matthew and Mark "show the horror of the Messiah being put to death by human beings." [ref] Matthew frames the death of Jesus in terms of "Israel's rejection of God's Messiah." [ref] Jesus came to offer salvation first to Israel and then to the entire world. This way of salvation, however, could be opened only through Jesus' sacrificial death. [ref]

Anything but a helpless victim, Jesus is seen as the very Son of God who, if he chooses to do so, can avoid the cross. Being a faithful and obedient Son, however, Jesus chooses the much more difficult route of pouring out his life for others. Thus Matthew highlights Jesus' faithfulness to both God and his mission, and his willingness to personally identify with both the pain and the hope of his people. [ref]

The events associated with Jesus' death declare his innocence and affirm his claim to be the Son of God and Savior. These events include the tearing of the curtain the the temple, the earthquake, and the confession made by the centurion soldier.  [ref]


"The oft-cited judgment of a century ago that Mark's Gospel is a passion narrative with an extended introduction highlights the prominence of Jesus' death for Mark. ... In the cross Jesus is revealed as the Son of God who obtains salvation for the new community of faith -- a community called to follow him in sacrificial discipleship." [ref]

The true meaning of Jesus' life and ministry can be recognized only in and through his death on the cross. Hence it is at that very moment that the centurion recognizes and declares Jesus to be the Son of God. [ref]


Luke depicts Jesus as an opposed, suffering, and rejected prophet. Jesus' concern for social justice and his association with those on the fringe of society put him at odds with the religious leadership of his day. [ref]

Luke presents Jesus as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah (see Isaiah 40-66). Jesus suffered and died for the sins of the world, and his death was necessary in order to bring God's light to a spiritually darkened and dying world. Jesus' suffering and death also serves as our example and helps us understand what is most important in this world: serving God with faithfulness and humility as we seek to be channels through which his love and mercy can flow into the lives of those all around us. [ref]

In his Acts of the Apostles, Luke's emphasis shifts from Jesus' death/cross to his resurrection. This is especially noticeable as compared with the remainder of the NT (the epistles). This shift in emphasis is in keeping with Luke's aim and purpose. "The cross tends to be used in didactic (instructional) sections, the resurrection in apologetic (persuasive) or kerygmatic sections, when the basis for salvation is being presented. In actuality they were a single event in salvation history. Jesus 'was put to death for our trespasses and raised for our justification' (Romans 4:25)."  [ref]


For John, Jesus is "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). John presents Jesus' death as the means through which he is exalted. It is also a crucial part of the journey that is the life of God's Son: he preexists in Heaven, comes to earth to dwell among us, then returns to Heaven. Jesus' death and resurrection is the means by which he returns to his Father, thus completing the cycle of descending from and ascending to glory. [ref]


It is impossible to understand the full meaning of Jesus' death on a cross apart from the writings of the apostle Paul. Paul's phrase "Christ died for us" can be traced to the earliest days of the Christian mission. Rather than trying to present a historical narrative of Jesus' passion, Paul instead explores the tremendous ramifications of that well-attested historical fact. [ref] As if to say the implications and benefits of Jesus' death are limitless, Paul draws upon a multitude of images in seeking to explain the cross: reconciliation; vicarious substitution; representation or interchange; sacrifice; justification; and new creation (see 2 Corinthians 5:1ff). [ref]

Contrary to those who would seek to make salvation a human-centered event, Paul's understanding of the cross begins with and centers on God. Thus the cross is first and foremost a question about God (theology), and only then a question about humanity (anthropology) and salvation (soteriology). God is "the primary actor in the drama of salvation," and his goal is to work out his plans and purposes especially as they relate to his own "righteousness, wrath and love." [ref]

Paul taught that salvation comes through being personally identified with the death of Christ. This, however, is only half the story; the concomitant obligation is to be associated with Jesus in his life. We are called to die to self -- self-concern, self-motivation, self-seeking -- and live to serve Jesus by proclaiming in word and deed God's glorious good news of eternal life made available through -- and only through -- the death of his one and only Son, Jesus Christ.


In general, "[t]he writings of the NT interpret the death of Christ fundamentally in sacrificial terms as a vicarious atonement that secures the forgiveness of sins." [ref] In particular, the remainder of the NT authors present Jesus' death as: an atonement; a divine necessity; a pattern for believers; the means of deliverance and transformation; a propitiatory sacrifice; eschatological revelation; and redemption and triumph. [ref]  


Charles Ryrie helpfully summarizes Jesus' death as a substitution for sinners, a redemption in relation to sin, a reconciliation in relation to the world, and a propitiation in relation to God:

A Substitution for Sinners
Substitutionary or vicarious atonement simply means that Christ suffered as a substitute for us, that is, instead of us, resulting in the advantage to us of paying for our sins.

A Redemption in Relation to Sin
Redemption means liberation because of a payment made. To believers the concept has a special significance since the payment was the death of the Lord Himself.

A Reconciliation in Relation to the World
Reconciliation means a change of relationship from hostility to harmony and peace between two parties. ... Because of sin God and man are in a relationship of hostility and enmity.

A Propitiation in Relation to God
Propitiation means the turning away of wrath by an offering. In relation to soteriology, propitiation means placating or satisfying the wrath of God by the atoning sacrifice of Christ. [ref] (quoted verbatim)


To those who refuse to humble themselves before God, the death of Jesus does not make sense. Like the legalistic Jews of the first century A.D., many people today want to earn their own way into God's favor. Like the wisdom-seeking Greeks of that same era, many people today are trusting in their own intellect, hoping to think their way to utopia. But to the question "How can we be saved?" God has given his final and complete answer. "So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended and the Gentiles say it's all nonsense. But to those called by God to salvation, both Jews and Gentiles, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:23-24). This power not only transports us from the realm of death into the realm of life, but it also guides, directs, and strengthens us as we seek to live for Christ today.


(Click on the title for more information.)

Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible
Basic Theology
Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels
Dictionary of Paul and His Letters
Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments
Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Holy Bible, New Living Translation (2nd ed)
Tyndale Bible Dictionary
What's in the Bible
When Skeptics Ask
Word Pictures in the New Testament
The Words and Works of Jesus Christ