As part of the Apostle’s Creed, we confess that we believe in Jesus Christ who was “crucified, dead and buried” but very rarely do we simply say: Jesus died. There is almost always a qualifying statement immediately attached. Jesus died for our sins. Jesus died and rose again. Jesus died to set His people free. Jesus died, my soul to save. Each of those statements are essential and we must continue to stress them all; however, we should also learn to simply say: Jesus died. This article will lay out three reasons why this is so.
The first reason that we need sometimes to say only that Jesus died is so that we can stand amazed. The simple phrase “Jesus died” encapsulates a great mystery. We partake of life in comprehensive dependence as a gift given to us but Jesus lives simply because he is. Jesus is the source of life. All things were made by him, for him, and continue to exist because they are upheld by him (Col 1:16-17). All the life that is now bursting out after another long Canadian winter has its roots in Christ and it is difficult to fathom the sheer quantity of the draw upon him. Every individual blade of grass, every bud on every twig, every green shoot emerging from a long-buried bulb, every returning bird, and every note of every song that they sing springs forth from this one fountain. In him was life for he is the life itself (John 1:4; 14:6). When he walked among us death and darkness fled his approach as he healed both gnarled limbs and gnarled lives and yet, he died.
“And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last” (Mark 15:37, ESV). Jesus did not merely appear to die and he did not toy with death. In breathing his last he “poured out his soul to death” (Isa 53:12). This is not merely tipping a little off the top, for Jesus was entirely poured out. He was utterly drained and emptied. His life was dispensed, it was splashed and splattered on the ground until not a drop more could be given and thus Jesus became a corpse. The color drained from his face and left only the unnatural and empty grey stillness of death. Not a single nerve fired and not one muscle moved. His heart stopped pushing blood through his body, his chest ceased to rise as his lungs fell limp, and his body grew cold as the warmth of life faded away.
Gazing upon this wonder draws us to worship as we see both the fullness of his Incarnation and the depth of his love. He was only held by death because he gave himself to its grip (Jn 10:17-18). What wondrous love is this!
The second reason we need to be sure to emphasize the unadorned phrase “Jesus died,” is because it is the foundation of what follows it. For example, we do not get to say that Christ is raised and at the right hand of God interceding for us unless we say first that “Christ Jesus is the one who died” (Rom 8:34). We can only be presented “holy and blameless and above reproach” before God because we have been “reconciled in his body of flesh by his death” (Col 1:22). It is because Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” that “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name” (Phil 2:8-9).
There is a very real danger in overlooking the cost while we enjoy the benefits of the gospel. If we fail to emphasize that Christ died, the grace of the gospel can become little more than goodness that happened to slosh and spill over from the bucket of benevolence in the sky. If we lose sight of the fact that Jesus died we are in danger of seeing the grace of the gospel as a matter of course. Remembering that Jesus died reminds us that we do not deserve these things and could not earn them. It deepens our confident trust because we are reminded that what he gives to us is the hard-won reward of giving himself. It strengthens our grip on the gospel as we see that is not a collection of trifles but a purchase made at the greatest price.
The third reason we need to underline that Jesus died is that it frees us to follow him into death. Easter now falls almost exactly between the anniversary of the death of my mother and the death of my wife. Both deaths were cancer related and both have raised the stakes at Easter for me and my family. It is likely not surprising that we find ourselves leaning more on Christ’s victorious resurrection but what has surprised me is that I find more and more comfort in the fact that Jesus died.
It has been two years since my mom passed away and five for my wife. With both, I have vivid memories of sitting alone with them in a hospital room in their last few days. As breathing becomes more labored and the spaces between breaths grow longer and more irregular it is difficult to keep yourself from anxiously wondering if each is the last. It became a great comfort to me to know that Jesus had also been here. As I sat and listened to that tell-tale rattle grow louder I could look back and remember Jesus heaving and straining for his last breaths. To walk into death is to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Even in dying we cannot go where Jesus has not already gone before us.
There is a danger in sensationalizing the details of the death of Jesus but there is just as great a danger in sanitizing them. Jesus died and the process of dying is horrible. Quite often for believers it is not death itself that scares us but rather the experience of dying. So let us remind ourselves, as we unceasingly shuffle towards death and as we are faced with the sorrow of many goodbyes, that to walk into death is to go where our Lord has already walked before us. When we helplessly watch a loved-one’s face strive with pain, remember that Jesus has already been there. When we see that the last glimmer of the light of life has gone out, remember that Jesus gave himself to such entire extinguishing as well.
I make sure to tell my three children that Jesus died. This reminds us that we are loved, that we have a gospel of infinite and undeserved preciousness, and that even in death we can only go where Jesus has gone before us. This does not take away from us the permission to grieve and it does not make everything suddenly ‘okay,’ but it does take our times of grief and fear and it turns them into opportunities to look to Jesus. And that makes a big difference.