I struggled to put on some clothing and made my way to the house. When I got there, the smoke was heavy, the smell was horrible and the cries were even worse. Every member of the family had escaped the burning house except the father. I will never forget standing before that burning house, holding the hand of the teenage daughter. I will never forget the teenager watching as they carried her father’s body out of the house, draped over by a sheet so that the family wouldn’t have to look at the stark reality of death. I will never forget her looking into my eyes and asking, "Pastor, why? Why did he have to die?"

Years later, another teenager had another question. She was a member of the church I then served and, like many teenagers, refused to accept clichés. She came to me and asked, "Pastor, why did Jesus have to die?" I didn't have an answer.

I don't remember the names of either teenage girl. Years have a way of erasing some things that are very important. I wish I could remember because I now have the answers to both of their questions. Wouldn't it have been better had Jesus lived to a ripe, old age? To have more time to teach us so that we might grow? Why did Jesus have to die?

Goodness

Jesus had to die because evil cannot stand in the face of good. "'Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst…you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death'" (Acts 2:22-23). Absolute goodness and absolute purity met evil; one had to be destroyed.

A woman once told me that she hated her sister. In an outburst of anger, she cried out, "I wish she were dead!" I asked the woman why and she answered, "Because my sister is beautiful and good."

Christ's absolute purity was an absolute threat to the evil, ugliness and hatred in the world. At the crucifixion, Evil prepared a cross. Evil drove the nails. Evil plaited the crown of thorns and pressed it on his forehead. Evil watched him die. And as he died, Evil laughed, laughed and laughed. Jesus Christ, as absolute goodness, could not be allowed to live.

Truth

Jesus had to die because a lie cannot stand in the face of truth. "He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him….For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:10, 17). Jesus said, "I am the Truth."

In the Civil War, Jefferson Davis had to flee from Richmond, from the force of the oncoming troops. When Davis left, he took with him three wagonloads of Confederate money that were later captured by a handful of Union soldiers. That night—tired, hungry and cheerless—the soldiers decided to play poker with the Confederate money for $100,000 per game. That is the way it is with the world—one great hustle for worthless tender. Jesus came to say, "Look! You're missing the reason why you were created.

You're wasting your life." At that, the world looked up from its poker game. One player took a cigar out of his mouth, pulled out a gun and shot Jesus dead.

It is dangerous to utter his truth in the world. His truth says that, in order to recognize God's sovereignty, men and women must give up their own. You either accept the truth or you kill it. Truth was crucified on Calvary. Truth was placed in the tomb. And when Christ got up and walked, his truth was loosed on the world, where no cross will ever stop it.

Love

Jesus had to die because aloofness cannot stand in the face of love. "'Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends. You are My friends…'" (John 15:13-14).

A while back, I talked to a man on the phone who didn't want his daughter to marry the man of her choice. He said, "I'll tell you what, if she marries him, she will no longer be a part of my family." I said to the man, "There isn't anything my daughters could do that would cause me ever, ever to say anything like that." He said, "Don't get me wrong, I love my daughter." I had to say, "No, you don't. What you're saying is that you will love her just so long as she does exactly what you want her to do."

You have to check out love. If there is no expression of love, there is no love. A lot of things are defined by what they are; a few things are defined by what they do and love is one. Love is not just a word. Love must be expressed or it isn't love. At the cross, Christ came and he died…because of love.

Empathy

Jesus had to die because inaction cannot stand in the face of empathy. "For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin" (Hebrews 4:15).

Jesus came into the world as human flesh. He didn't just sympathize; he empathized with us in the place where we live.

The day I received the telegram that my father was dying, I was preaching to five Presbyterian churches that had come together just outside of Knoxville, Tennessee. I had gone to minister to them and instead, they ended up ministering to me. I remember one big, beloved pastor who said, "Son, have you ever had anybody you loved die before?" When I answered "no," the pastor said, "Then use this. Use it so it can make you a better man of God." I didn't understand what he meant until I got back to the church I served. At the next funeral service, I found that I didn't just sympathize anymore. I empathized because I had been there. I identified; I knew.

God utilized the principle so that we might know his empathy. He died because you are going to die. He was lonely because you are lonely. He was afraid because you are afraid. When you face your cross, you can never say to him, "You just don't understand."

Reflection

Jesus had to die because vacuity cannot stand in the face of reflection. "For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps" (1 Peter 2:21).

As Christians, we are to reflect Christ's image; if that image is nothing but a vacuum, then we can't reflect it. We are to be a reflection of the cross of love.

When a Christian says, "It isn't fair!" that Christian has not yet understood what it means to have the mind of Christ. When a Christian complains that nobody understands, that Christian has not yet understood what it means to have the mind of Christ. "Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Philippians 2:5-8).

When a Christian says, "It isn't fair!" that Christian has not yet understood what it means to have the mind of Christ.

That is not just Christ. That is us when we follow him. Until we understand what servanthood and the cross in our lives mean, we haven't understood his cross. That is why Christ died…that we might understand.

God

Jesus had to die because sin cannot stand in the face of God. "For the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). That is a fact.

It is believed that when they thrust the spear into Christ's side, releasing blood and water, it was an indication that Jesus literally died of a broken heart. In other words, there was an actual break in the heart vessel. Most physicians say that a death on a cross should not have caused this unless he went through agony greater than the cross. On the cross, Jesus bore our lust, our jealousy, our hatred, our disobedience and our sin.

God is holy and righteous. For that reason, he is also frightening. God said, "The wages of sin is death." Who dies? Christ dies with your sin. Every time the Father looks at you, he looks to see if you have accepted it through his Son. Your penalty was paid on the cross. Are you forgiven, perfect, loving and kind? No way! But in God's eyes, you are…forever.

If I could go back to those two teenage girls, what would I tell them? I would tell the first girl whose father died in the fire, "Your father had to die in order to really live." I would tell the second girl who wouldn't accept clichés, "Jesus had to die so that another teenager's father wouldn't have to stay that way."

Why did Jesus have to die?

For you.