Why Did Jesus Have to Die on the Cross?

Topical Scripture: Acts 10:38–41

Dirk Nowitzki of the Dallas Mavericks told a capacity crowd at the American Airlines Center last Wednesday night that he is retiring the NBA.

Nowitzki was undoubtedly one of the greatest players in NBA history: a league champion and Finals MVP, league MVP, fourteen-time all-star, and the sixth-leading scorer of all time. He played twenty-one years with the same franchise, which is a record as well.

But the adulation he has received in Dallas and across basketball is about much more than what he did on the court.

While Dirk’s salary was lucrative, he took pay cuts so his team could try to sign other players. He cared about the locker room attendants wherever the Mavericks played. His many unpublicized hospital trips to visit children (who called him “Uncle Dirk”) were just part of his commitment to his community.

At his last home game, five of his basketball heroes came to Dallas to pay him homage. The standing-room-only crowd showered him with ovation after ovation. Owner Mark Cuban promised him a job for life and a huge statue in front of the arena.

For all he has meant to basketball and to our community, we hope he will never wonder if the community loves him in return.

Today is Palm Sunday. We’re one week from Easter. Each week we’ve been asking the “whys” of this season. Why was Jesus born as a baby rather than merely coming to earth as an adult? Why did he have to die for us? Next week we’ll ask, why did he have to be raised from the dead?

Our question today is: Why did Jesus have to die on the cross? Of all the ways he could have died for our sins, why the cruelest, most horrible form of torture ever devised?

When we understand the answer, no matter who we are and what we’ve done, we’ll never again need to wonder if God loves us.

Why did Jesus have to die?

Let’s begin by remembering why he had to die at all.

Last week, we learned that because God is holy and heaven is perfect, the debt of our sins must be paid before we can enter his paradise. Since sin removes us from God, the only source of eternal life, the consequence of sin is death. Thus, someone must die to pay our debt.

But since we’re all sinners, we cannot pay each other’s debt. Only a sinless person could do that. And Jesus is the only sinless person who has ever lived (Hebrews 4:15).

Thus, he had to die to pay the debt we owed in order for us to be forgiven and given eternal life with God. As the chorus says, “He paid a debt he did not owe; I owed a debt I could not pay.”

But why did Jesus have to die in the way he did? The Jews executed by stoning, as we see with Stephen; the Romans executed their citizens by beheading, as with Paul.

Why did Jesus have to suffer the cruelest, most horrific form of death ever devised?

Jesus’ death fulfilled prophecy

The word of God predicted the manner of Jesus’ death a thousand years before it happened.

In Psalm 22, David wrote these words: “Dogs encompass me; a company of evildoers encircles me; they have pierced my hands and feet” (Psalm 22:16). Note that he made this statement five centuries before the Persians invented crucifixion.

So, Jesus died on the cross to fulfill prophecy. But why did the Spirit author this prophecy?

Why did the Father decide that his Son must die in this way? If he simply needed to die for our sins, the Lord could have predicted his death by stoning, beheading, or any number of other means. Why this?

The nature of crucifixion

Research has revealed much about the manner of Jesus’ death.

We know that he was scourged, a whipping that tore flesh from bones and caused many victims to die.

The victim was then taken to the place of crucifixion. This was intended to shame the victim as he was paraded through the streets, stripped of most of his clothes, and executed in such a public and violent way.

Victims were typically nailed to the cross through their wrists, as nails through the hands could not support the weight of the victim. For instance, in 1968, archaeologists discovered the remains of one Johanan, a victim of Roman crucifixion during the Jewish uprisings of AD 70. A nail seven inches long was still embedded in his heel bones.

If the Romans wanted the person to suffer longer, they could tie the arms to the crossbeam with ropes. They would then nail the hands to the cross, as the ropes would support the body’s weight.

Since Passover was coming, the Jews wanted Jesus to die as quickly as possible. Thus, spikes were driven through his wrists into the cross and through his heels. The body weight of the victim crushed his lungs, forcing him to pull himself up on his crucified wrists to breathe. Eventually, he lost use of his arms and had to push upon his crucified heels.

The Romans would then break the legs of the victim, who would die shortly of suffocation. But Jesus chose to die before the Romans took his life from him.

Crucifixion is so horrific that it has been outlawed in nearly every country on earth. Why did Jesus die in this way? Any death would have paid the debt for our sins. He needed to die publicly so the world would know what he did for us, but stoning or beheading could have been just as public.

If there was an easier, less horrible way to die, don’t you think he would have chosen it? Don’t you think his Father would have chosen it for him?

If you could choose between lethal injection and crucifixion for your child, which would you choose?

Why Jesus chose the cross

I can think of only one reason why the Father and the Son chose the cross: to show us their solidarity with our most horrific, indescribable pain and shame.

There is no physical pain we can feel that is worse than his. No pain from disease or disaster, war or criminal attack or accident. The worst that can happen to us is no worse than what happened to him.

There is no shame we can feel that is worse than his. We know the shame of our individual sins; he took the shame of the entire human race on himself. Then he demonstrated that fact by dying in the most shameful manner possible—paraded through the streets, stripped to all but a loincloth, and executed before his mother, his best friend, and his enemies.

None of this was necessary for Jesus to understand our pain and shame. He was and is omniscient. He did not learn something about us at Calvary that he did not know beforehand.

But we learned something about him at Calvary we did not know beforehand. We now know that the God of the universe is not a Zeus atop Mt. Olympus, impervious to our needs; he is not an Allah, removed from our sufferings; he is not an impersonal force like the Hindu Brahman; he is not simply a judge of right and wrong as some in Judaism picture him.

The Son felt the worst we can feel. His Father watched his Son suffer in such pain and shame, proving that he understands all we feel for those we love.

The bottom line: Jesus chose the cross to show us that he will help us bear our cross, whatever it is.


Name your suffering or shame. Bring it to Calvary. Know that Jesus died to pay your debt, to forgive your sin, to bear your cross. Trust your need to his grace, your pain to his love. On this Palm Sunday, know that he came to the Holy City to die for you. And that he would do it all again, just for you.

One of my favorite stories of the year is about a mother who heard a commotion in her back yard. She rushed outside to find a cougar attacking her son. She started “crying out the Lord,” she says, as she grabbed the wild animal and tried to pry its mouth open.

“Three sentences into me praying, it released and it ran away,” she said later. Her son is expected to make a full recovery.

That mother’s love, as powerful as it is, cannot compare to your Father’s love. He proved it on the cross and is ready to prove it again in this chapel.

Who or what is attacking you today?