Various answers could be given to the question, and there would be truth in all of them.
We could, for example, say that Christ died because of the actions of the Roman soldiers and Pilate. The soldiers ‘crucified him’, Mt 27:32-35; Mk 15:21-25; Lk 23:26-33; Jn 19:17-18. And Pilate, the Roman governor, allowed them to do so even though he knew Jesus to be innocent.
We could also say that Christ died because of the actions of the Jewish people and their priests. It was they who, out of hatred and envy, handed him over to Pilate to be murdered, Acts 3:12-15.
Or, again, we could say that Christ died because he was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, 1 Cor 11:23.
Of each of these three groups or persons it is said that they ‘handed over’ (Gk paradontos) Jesus.
‘First, Judas ‘handed him over’ to the priests (out of greed). Next, the priests ‘handed him over’ to Pilate (out of envy). Then Pilate ‘handed him over’ to to the soldiers (out of cowardice), and they crucified him.’
And, we must add, in our own greed, envy and cowardice, ‘we were there when they crucified my Lord’.
But we must add, too, that Christ ‘handed himself over’ (same word – paradontos – again in Gal 2:20), and that the Father ‘handed him over’ (same word again), Rom 8:32.
But in order to discern what the divine purpose was in all this, we will need to look deeper.
If the death of Christ was due, not merely to the actions of Pilate and the Roman Soldiers, of the Jewish people and their priests, and of Judas Iscariot, but also to the set purpose of God, voluntarily accepted by Christ, then we must enquire further as to what that purpose was.
We can begin to answer this in four stages:-
1. Christ died for us. His death was not only voluntary, is was altruistic and beneficial. He suffered for our sake, not his own. As the Good Shepherd, he laid down his life ‘for his sheep’. He gave his body ‘for us’. He ‘died for us’.
2. Christ died for us in order to bring us to God, 1 Pet 3:18. He died for our salvation, to reconcile us to God.
3. Christ died for our sins. Our sins formed the great obstacle between ourselves and God, and Christ, in dying for us, dealt decisively with them, 1 Cor 15:3; 1 Pet 3:18; Heb 9:26; 10:12; 1 Jn 1:7; Rev 1:5-6.
4. Christ died in our place, when he died for our sins. According the Scripture, death is the penalty for sin, Rom 6:23. But Jesus had no sin of his own. At (for example) his Transfiguration, he could readily have stepped up into heaven. But he chose not to do so. He chose to lay down his life, in order to die the death our sins had deserved.
When Jesus celebrated the Last Supper with the disciples in the upper room, and spoke of his body, given for them, and his blood of the new covenant, which was poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins, he was teaching at least three important lessons:-
1. He was teaching the centrality of his death. They were to repeat the memorial of his death in remembrance of him.
2. He was teaching the purpose of his death. He referred to the ‘new covenant’ associated with his blood which was shed ‘for the forgiveness of sins’. This recollects the old covenant, promised to Abraham, and the new covenant predicted in Jer 31.
3. He was teaching the need to appropriate his death personally. Those who were present ate the bread (representing his body) and drank the wine (representing his blood). He had already taught the significance of this in Jn 6:53-55.
Some of the significance of his death is found in his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. Many Christian martyrs have gone to their death with great calmness and peace of mind. But Jesus was overwhelmed with gried and sorrow. Why? We must understand that ‘the cup’ from which he shrank symbolised neither physical pain or mental distress, but rather the spiritual agony of enduring the divine judgment which our sins deserved.
And the agony in the garden led onto the greater agony on the cross, expressed in the cry of dereliction. Our sins sent him to hell – to the place of punishment for sin.
In conclusion the cross enforces three truths:-
1. Our sin must be extremely horrible. The extremity of the solution reveals the extremity of the problem.
2. God’s love must be incomprehensibly wonderful. God could have abandoned us to our deserved fate. But in Christ he sought us out.
3. Christ’s salvation must be a free gift. If salvation has been purchased at such a cost, then what is there left to pay? Nothing!
Based on Stott, The Cross of Christ, 47-84.