Ultimately, Jesus never died for our sins. Jesus died for causing the religious and political authorities to feel seriously threatened by his activity. To say otherwise is to say that people do not act with any reasonable purposes or motivations. The notion that Jesus died for our sins is a later interpretation of theological instead of historical importance. I want to explain the historical realities of the Jesus movement to the best of my abilities before I jump to theological conclusions. In order to understand the Jesus movement in which we participate, it behooves us to understand how Jesus understood himself and how his followers interpreted what happened. Part of this means admitting that Jesus really did espouse a message that threatened the religious and political elite like many other movements. Only Jesus’ movement looked distinctly different from other movements.
Keep in mind, Jesus was not the only Messiah in 1st century Palestine. He was not even the last person people called the Messiah. There were at least a dozen other movements like Jesus’ that we know of 100 hundred years either side of Jesus. Of course, this is why people were expectant of a person they called “The Messiah”, after all. Others promised and failed. What were people hoping for in these messiahs?
Israel faced a serious faith crisis. They were the people G-d led out of Egypt. G-d gave them the promised land. Despite all the promises, foreign, pagan rulers, for centuries, ruled the holy land. The Judean leaders did little to nothing in order to remedy this problem. In fact, most of the powerful elite encouraged it. As a result, people began to question G-d. Were G-d’s promises worth anything? Were they still the people of G-d? Movements sprang up in order to distinguish the people of G-d from the others. These groups believed they would be shown to be correct at the resurrection.
Considered the Messiah by some, Judas and his brothers ended the foreign rule. Thus, it seemed those living in Israel apart from foreign domination could once again be considered the people of G-d. After Judas’ death his brothers took over the title of Messiah, and when Simon established the monarchy, everything seemed to finally work out. Reconstituting Israel meant G-d’s blessing. When the Hasmoneans sold out to Rome, the excitement ended. The messiahs failed. Israel faced exile once again.
Jesus, bursting onto the scene, maintains all the distinctive Jewish qualities of a messiah. He initiates a messianic movement. He acts in ways that appear to be reconstituting Israel (picking 12 men as a way to renew the tribes, cleansing the temple, starting in the desert and heading toward Jerusalem, etc.). Most importantly, Jesus claims the authority and power of Israel’s G-d. He identifies the G-d of his ancestors to be the G-d of the whole world, and it is precisely in this affirmation that Jesus appears different than the other movements. Thinking of G-d as ruler of the whole world, Jesus looked at Rome as the foreign occupier not just of Israel but of all its colonial possessions. Everyone needed out from under the injustice of the imperial system and into the justice of the baisleia tou theou (the empire of god). Of course, this belief surely constitutes enough evidence to kill a revolutionary leader of a movement. However, killing him failed to end the movement. If anything, it escalated it. Why?