We know that Jesus died as an atoning sacrifice for our sins on the cross (1 John 4:10, Hebrews 2:17). The full depth of why he had to die is something that we will spend forever investigating and rejoicing in. What I’m considering now is why he had to die in the specific way that he did. Why die publically on a cross? Why not another method of death? Why does Jesus say he has to die in this particular way? (Matthew 20:18-19, Mark 8:31, 10:33-34, Luke 18:31-34, 24:25) to limit this to a reasonable length I’m only going to consider the manner of his death, not the events leading up to it (though that was specifically planned) nor the resurrection afterwards (also specifically planned). Obviously this isn’t exhaustive, and suggestions are welcomed via or twitter. Some of these reasons are taken from Athanasius’ On The Incarnation which devotes a chapter to why Christ must die in this manner. Some of them are plain statements from scripture, and some are logical inferences from scripture. I’ve tried to steer clear from too much speculation.
So It Is Not A Natural Death
“The death of men under ordinary circumstances is the result of their natural weakness. They are essentially impermanent, so after a time they fall ill and when worn out they die. But the Lord is not like that. He is not weak, He is the Power of God and Word of God and Very Life Itself. If He had died quietly in His bed like other men it would have looked as if He did so in accordance with His nature, and as though He was indeed no more than other men.” St. Athanasius. On the Incarnation
So It Is A Public Death Done Professionally
Christ had to die publicly so that all could see he had died. It had to be done by professionals so there was no doubt he died.
“A secret and unwitnessed death would have left the resurrection without any proof or evidence to support it… And how could His disciples have had boldness in speaking of the resurrection unless they could state it as a fact that He had first died? Or how could their hearers be expected to believe their assertion, unless they themselves also had witnessed His death? For if the Pharisees at the time refused to believe and forced others to deny also, though the things had happened before their very eyes, how many excuses for unbelief would they have contrived, if it had taken place secretly” St. Athanasius. On the Incarnation
So It Is Done To Him By His Enemies
Christ couldn’t have died a death he had arranged for himself in an honourable manner. He could not have negotiated for one of the disciples to kill him in a certain way;
“This would have given ground for suspicion that His power over death was limited to the particular kind of death which He chose for Himself; and that again would furnish excuse for disbelieving the resurrection. Death came to His body, therefore, not from Himself but from enemy action, in order that the Saviour might utterly abolish death in whatever form they offered it to Him. A generous wrestler, virile and strong, does not himself choose his antagonists, lest it should be thought that of some of them he is afraid. Rather, he lets the spectators choose them, and that all the more if these are hostile, so that he may overthrow whomsoever they match against him and thus vindicate his superior strength. Even so was it with Christ. He, the Life of all, our Lord and Saviour, did not arrange the manner of his own death lest He should seem to be afraid of some other kind. “ St. Athanasius. On the Incarnation
So He Dies Willingly
If the death had been in a manner that surprised him, say an assassination in the crowd, or if one of the stonings the Jewish people tried on him had worked, then it could be argued he didn’t go to his death willingly. But Christ had to choose to obey his Father unto death, so his death had to be one he went to and accepted willingly.
So Both Jews And Gentiles Are Found Responsible
Scripture places mankind into two races, the Jews who are children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob or the Gentiles who are not. So that neither Jew nor Gentile could hide from their guilt in killing Jesus, both had to conspire together to kill him.
So He Dies At The Hands Of The Rightful Authorities
There was no trial more a sham than that of Jesus. But it was the high priest of the Jewish people who chose him to die, and ruler of the area who gave permission for his death and the king of the Jewish people who agreed it. By dying at the hands of the rightful authorities appointed by God he showed Godly submission even to death. And if Christ had died at the hands of an unlawful lynch mob, then the authorities of the world could have properly washed their hands of the deed. As it is both the authorities and those under authority stand guilty.
So He Dies At The Hands Of The Religious Rulers
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone” (Psalm 118:22)
“This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone” (Acts 4:11)
Jesus must be rejected by the religious rulers as the Son of God. At the cross they conspire to kill Jesus and in doing so reject him. This is because they sought their righteousness by works not faith (Romans 9:30-33). In rejecting him Jesus has become the cornerstone for all who believe but also a stumbling block for those who seek to justify themselves.
So He Dies In Weakness, Foolishness, and Shame In The Eyes Of The World
Christ’s death must be humiliating and weak in the eyes of the world, because God will use the weakness of God to overcome the wisdom of the world.
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” (1 Corinthians 1:18-31)
So He Could Bear Scars To Witness To His Work For Us.
If ever the church doubts that Christ has loved them and completed His work to save them, they can look to the scars in his hands and side and feet, and declare like Thomas “My Lord and God” (John 20:28). His death in this manner allows him to bear the scars of his ministry even in the new creation.
So Christ Could Be The True Passover Lamb
He had to die on passover so he could be the true passover lamb promised a long time ago. His blood had to be shed so that judgement could pass over the people of God. And because he is the true passover lamb, he had to be killed by the High Priest.
So Christ Might Be Cursed On A Tree
“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13)
At this point though, we could ask why did God ordain it that a man who dies on a tree is cursed? Why not cursed a man who is beheaded? Speculatively, I wonder if it’s so that there might be a second tree. If the curse of death and sin was brought through the good tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then the blessing of life and forgiveness was brought through the evil tree of suffering and punishment.
So He Might Suffer
“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.” (Isaiah 53:5)
Christ bore the wrath of his heavenly Father on the cross, the wrath we deserved. In this he had to remain obedient to the Father and not step down off the cross. He had to endure for the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:2). As such it’s fitting that he suffered on the cross physically as well. If he had died a painless death then it would be easy for people to declare that he hadn’t suffered for sins, or that he hadn’t had to endure as much as he could. But by suffering in such a horrific manner, he declares not only the wickedness of sin and the depth of God’s anger against it but also how perfect his obedience is.
So He Might Be Lifted Up In The Open
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” (John 3:14)
“So Jesus said to them, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” (John 8:28)
“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven: “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgement of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.” (John 12:27-33)
The Son of Man must be lifted up. He can’t die strapped to a table, or hidden in room. He must die lifted up so that everyone can see His glory in obeying the Father perfectly. So that everyone can look to him to be saved, like they looked to the serpent in the wilderness. So that he can survey all the earth and draw everyone to himself.
So He Might Overthrow The Prince Of the Power Of The Air.
“Again, the air is the sphere of the devil, the enemy of our race who, having fallen from heaven, endeavours with the other evil spirits who shared in his disobedience both to keep souls from the truth and to hinder the progress of those who are trying to follow it. The apostle refers to this when he says, ‘According to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that now works in the sons of disobedience.’ (Ephesians 2:2) But the Lord came to overthrow the devil and to purify the air and to make ‘a way’ for us up to heaven, as the apostle says, ‘through the veil, that is to say, His flesh.’ (Hebrews 10:20) This had to be done through death, and by what other kind of death could it be done, save by a death in the air, that is, on the cross? St. Athanasius. On the Incarnation
Because the devil (the prince of the power of the air) has his habitat between the heavens and the earth purified, so Christ can make a way into the heavens. Thus it’s fitting He died hanging between the heavens and the earth as a bridge. Calvin supports this view when he writes about Jacob’s vision of a ladder to heaven:
“It is Christ alone, therefore, who connects heaven and earth: he is the only Mediator who reaches from heaven down to earth: he is the medium through which the fullness of all celestial blessings flows down to us, and through which we, in turn, ascend to God. He it is who, being the head over angels, causes them to minister to his earthly members. Therefore, (as we read in John 1:51) he properly claims for himself this honour, that after he shall have been manifested in the world, angels shall ascend and descend. If, then, we say that the ladder is a figure of Christ, the exposition will not be forced.” Calvin. Commentary on Genesis Chapter 28.
So That He Could Suffer For A Determined Length Of Time.
Christ hung on the cross for three hours, from noon till 3pm. He could not have died nearly instantaneously as with a firing squad or guillotine, because he had to suffer for a period of time and because he had to accomplish things on the cross and fulfil prophecy. Why this length of time? I don’t know. He had to die in the day time as this was a public deed and the sun needed to hide itself and darkness cover the land. He had to stay on the cross for a set period of time, because he had a set amount of sins to pay for and because on the cross he had to speak words and fulfil prophecy.
So He Can Freely Give Up His Spirit When He Has Paid The Price
“Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last.” (Luke 23:46)
“And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50)
When Christ had paid the perfect sacrifice and knew his death was imminent, he showed that he was trusting and faithful to His Father, but not hanging on to life as long as possible, but by freely giving up His spirit. In what other manner of execution could Christ have freely chosen when to lay down his life?
So He Could Be Taken Down Before The Next Morning
You shall not “let the sacrifice of the Feast of the Passover remain until the morning” Exodus 34:25. This was ordained so that Jesus could be taken off the cross when his work was completed. He did not need to remain lifted up when he had finished his work.
So He Could Be Mocked
“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads;
‘He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!’” (Psalm 22:6-8)
“I am an object of scorn to my accusers; when they see me, they wag their heads.” (Psalm 109:25)
Christ needed to be mocked, so he must die in public for all to see. I think there may be two reasons for this. The first is that he would suffer as much as he could. Not only the physical torment, or the separation from the Father, or his friends deserting him, but also the emotional insult of people tormenting him. The second is that people must be still be tempting him to step down off the cross until the last minute. The accusations are not just against the Son, but also against his Father. How tempting for Jesus would it have been to step down off the cross and silence their lies?
So He Might Be Pierced For Our Transgressions But Yet Not Be Broken
He has to shed his blood for the forgiveness of sin, because “for the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life” (Leviticus 17:11). So he needs to be pierced physically and pierced on the side as well (Zechariah 12:10). But his body cannot be broken (Psalm 34:20). So a death of the cross is fitting to fulfil these things.
So He Could Say The Seven Things He Has To Say
By dying on the cross he can still speak to his accusers and followers. His death on a cross permits him to speak to the world and the church about what is happening. Other forms of death would not have let him speak freely and preach to us from the cross. If he had died in the way that had left him with no way of speaking or no time to speak in, how could we have heard him say “It is finished?” And if we had lost those words of such great comfort!
So the Legal Demands of Sin Could Be Nailed To The Cross
“And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by cancelling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14)
It was fitting for Christ to be nailed to the cross, because it allows us to declare that all the legal demands of sin were left nailed to the cross.
So He Could Die Between Two Criminals
“Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:12)
The manner of his death meant scripture could be fulfilled that he would die alongside sinners, to demonstrate who he would save. The two criminals also gives us a clear illustration. “Do not despair; one of the thieves was saved. Do not presume; one of the thieves was damned” (Samuel Beckett – Waiting For Godot who says he took it from Augustine, but no-one seems to know where in Augustine)
So He Could Be Buried As One In The Ground
There are many deaths that prevent someone from being buried. He could have been burnt at the stake, or throw into the sea, but he has to die in a manner that allows him to be buried so he can rise up again out of the earth. It is fitting for him to go down to the depths so that he can be raised up again. And if his body had been separated, if he had been guillotined or quartered, he would not have able to be buried as one single seed that falls to the earth and rises up again.
“Therefore it is also, that He neither endured the death of John, who was beheaded, nor was He sawn asunder, like Isaiah: even in death He preserved His body whole and undivided, so that there should be no excuse hereafter for those who would divide the Church.” St. Athanasius. On the Incarnation
So He Might Die With His Arms Open
“How could He have called us if He had not been crucified, for it is only on the cross that a man dies with arms outstretched? Here, again, we see the fitness of His death and of those outstretched arms: it was that He might draw His ancient people with the one and the Gentiles with the other, and join both together in Himself.” St. Athanasius. On the Incarnation
So He Might Be Able To Call His Followers To Take Up Their Cross
“And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” (Luke 9:23)
A crucifixion is one of the few deaths where you knowingly carry your own instrument of execution to where you’re going to die. As such Jesus sets the model for his followers; to deny their own will and head towards their own death, giving up their life so they will save it.
So He Could Die Outside The City Walls
“So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood” (Hebrews 12:13)
“You know that when the High Priest offered the sin-offering, because it typified sin, it was so obnoxious to God that it might not be burned upon the great altar, but it was always burned outside the camp, to show God’s detestation of sin and His determination not only to put it away from Himself, but also to put it away from His Church. Now, when our Lord Jesus Christ came into this world to be our Sin-Offering, it suited Him, also, to be put outside the camp—and it is very interesting to note how remarkably Providence provided for the fulfilment of the type. Had our Lord been killed in a tumult, He would most likely have been slain in the city. Unless He had been put to death judicially, He would not have been taken to the usual Mount of Doom. And it is remarkable that the Romans should have chosen a hill on the out- side of the city to be the common place for crucifixion and for punishment by death. We might have imagined that they would have selected some mount in the centre of the city and that they would have placed their gibbet in as conspicuous a spot as our Newgate, so that it might strike the multitude with greater awe. But, in the Providence of God, it was arranged otherwise. Christ must not be slain in a tumult! He might not die in the city and when He was delivered into the hands of the Romans, they had not a place of execution within the city, but one outside the camp, that by dying outside the gate, He might be proved to be the Sin-Offering for His people.” – C.H. Spurgeon Sermon #2660
So It Would Involve Hyssop
“Take a bunch of hyssop and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and touch the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning.” (Exodus 12:22)
“Then a clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water and sprinkle it on the tent and on all the furnishings and on the persons who were there and on whoever touched the bone, or the slain or the dead or the grave. And the clean person shall sprinkle it on the unclean on the third day and on the seventh day. Thus on the seventh day he shall cleanse him, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe himself in water, and at evening he shall be clean.” (Numbers 19:18-19)
“Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalm 51:7)
“A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth.” (John 19:29)
Hyssop was the plant used for spreading blood at the sacrifices, the blood that would wash you and make you clean. Jesus’ death on a cross permitted hyssop to give to him.
1 The tradition is that Isaiah is the person being referenced as sawn in two in Hebrews 11:37 and while it’s a strong tradition, there’s no evidence from scripture he was. He also means John the Baptist not John the Apostle (who tradition has is the only apostle to die of old age).