History and Theology—Why Jesus Had to Die

The following is an excerpt from our weekly Lenten Devotional written by N.T. Wright. 

The question we are faced with when we look at the New Testament or when we think about Christian preaching and teaching in general is: Why did Jesus die? I’ve been haunted by that question and actually sometimes amused by it for many years.

Amused because once I was teaching a Sunday school with a class of bright 12-year-olds. We had been working through the Gospels, as you do in Sunday school, and we got to the point of the cross. I asked them at the beginning of the class why did Jesus die? And I said, ‘We are going to go around without conferring. I want you each to write two sentences on a piece of paper about what you think the answer is to that question: Why did Jesus die?’.

But for Jesus himself, what did Jesus think was going on? Click To Tweet

And so they all did and we went around and they read them. Roughly half the class did one sort of thing and the other half the other sort of thing. It wasn’t a male-female division or anything like that, it was just random. Half of them gave me what you might call ‘historical reasons’.

Jesus died because the Romans were frightened that he might be leading some sort of revolution. Or the chief priests didn’t like the way he was teaching and attacking the temple. Or the Pharisees didn’t like the sort of things that he was saying and leading people to believe and they didn’t like the fact that he was mixing with all the wrong sort of people. Historical reasons of one sort or another.

The other half gave me theological reasons. He died to save us for our sins. He died so we could go to heaven. There are hymns, of course, which make it easier to remember all that…

…I think that the history and the theology really do go very closely together. But for Jesus himself, what did Jesus think was going on? And again, isn’t it interesting that many Christians when they are thinking about the meaning of Jesus death, don’t actually pause and ponder very much about what Jesus himself seems to have had in mind?

Read this week’s entire Lenten HERE, and get a new one every Wednesday!

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David P. Seemuth

David Seemuth is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Center for Christian Study and coordinates seminars and classes. He and Prof. N.T. Wright collaborate in online course development. David has been an Adjunct Professor at Trinity International University for over 25 years and teaches in the area of Biblical Studies, specializing in the New Testament. He also served as an Associate Pastor at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, WI for 33 years.

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