Greg Gilbert, in his book What is the Gospel, explains the significance and purpose of Jesus’ death:
Jesus himself knew from the very beginning that his mission was to die for the sins of his people. The angel had announced at his very birth that “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), and Luke tells us that “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). Jesus foretold his death many times in the gospels, and when Peter foolishly tried to stand in his way, Jesus rebuked him: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me” (Matt. 16:23). Jesus’ face was set like flint toward Jerusalem–and therefore toward his death.
Jesus also understood the significance and purpose of his death. In Mark 10:45, he says, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” And in Matthew 26:28, as he shared a last supper with his disciples, he took a cup of wine and declared, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:27-28). “I lay down my life for the sheep,” he said in another place. “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own accord” (John 10:15, 18). Jesus knew why he was going to die. Out of love for his people he willingly laid down his life, the Lamb of God slain so his people could be forgiven.
Taught by the Holy Spirit, the early Christians also understood what Jesus had accomplished on the cross. Paul described it like this: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13-14). And in another place he explained, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21 NIV). Peter wrote, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). And, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24).
Do you see what these Christians were saying about the significance of Jesus’ death? They were saying that when Jesus died, it was not the punishment for his own sins that he endured. (He didn’t have any!) It was the punishment for his people’s sins! As he hung on the cross at Calvary, Jesus bore all the horrible weight of the sin of God’s people. All their rebellion, all their disobedience, all their sin fell on his shoulders. And the curse that God had pronounced in Eden–the sentence of death–stuck.
That is why Jesus cried out in agony, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). God his Father, who is holy and righteous, whose eyes are too pure even to look on evil, looked at his Son, saw the sins of his Son’s people resting on his shoulders, turned away in disgust, and poured out his wrath on his own Son. Matthew writes that darkness covered the land for about three hours while Jesus hung on the cross. That was the darkness of judgment, the weight of the Father’s wrath falling on Jesus as he bore his people’s sins and died in their place.
Isaiah prophesied about this seven centuries before it happened:
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. (Isa. 53:4-5)
Do you see the significance of this? Ultimately, it means that I’m the one who should have died, not Jesus. I should have been punished, not he. And yet he took my place. He died for me.
They were my transgressions, but his wounds. My iniquities, but his chastisement. My sin, his sorrow. And his punishment brought me peace. His stripes won my healing. His grief, my joy.
His death, my life.
Scripture Meditation: Ephesians 1:3-2:10
Source: Gilbert, Greg. What is the Gospel? (Wheaton, Crossway, 2010) 66-68.