The big words of our English translations of the New Testament matter: justification, sanctification, predestination, election, and so on. They matter for understanding the Christian faith. But so do small ones. This post is devoted to a small word that is as vital for the growth of faith and love in the believer as some of the big ones. I refer to the word must. Various passages of the New Testament state that the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection had to happen or must happen. These are too many of these texts for us to conclude that such wording is the product of mere stylistic variation; rather, the quantity of these passages indicates that the necessity or mustness of our Lord’s death and resurrection is central to the narrative. Here are some examples from the New Testament:

  • And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders. (Mark 8:31)
  • The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise. (Luke 24:7)
  • Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. (Luke 24:44)
  • The Son of Man must suffer many things. (Luke 9:22)
  • For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me. (Luke 22:37)
  • And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up. (John 3:14)
  • God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24)
  • We must work the works of him who sent me. (John 9:4)
  • I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also. (John 10:16)
  • The Son of Man must be lifted up. (John 12:34)
  • These things took place that the Scripture might be [that is, must be] fulfilled. (John 19:36)
  • That he must rise from the dead. (John 20:9)
  • It was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead. (Acts 17:3)
  • He must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. (1 Cor. 15:25)

These are not meant to take in all the references to must but are meant to be a generous sample. In other examples, words other than must are used, but they are equivalent in meaning to must. The quotation from Paul’s address in Thessalonica (Acts 17:3) makes the point that Jesus’ sufferings and rising from the dead were “necessary”—they were necessitated or inevitable. Sometimes the translators of the ESV use “might be” instead of “was necessary that” or “must” to refer to these events, but the sense of necessity remains in such places (e.g., Matt. 26:56; John 19:36). Note that the KJV often uses the phrase “should be,” which also has the sense of “must.”

Jesus’ sufferings and rising from the dead were “necessary”—they were necessitated or inevitable.

We can see that the sense of necessity, of mustness, has to do chiefly with aspects of the work of Christ as our Redeemer, specifically His crucifixion and rising again. That mustness is present especially in the Gospel of Mark, which emphasizes Jesus’ awareness of the necessity of His redeeming us on the cross. He solemnly refers to the mustness of His death, revealing it to His disciples at key structural points in Mark’s Gospel, with growing explicitness.

  • He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)
  • The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise. (Mark 9:31–32)
  • Taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be [that is, must be] delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” (Mark 10:32–34)
  • The gospel must first be proclaimed to all nations. (Mark 13:10)

So what is all this telling us? A passage in John 19 is instructive. John tells of the order for the soldiers to break the legs of Jesus and the two men crucified alongside Him to speed their deaths (John 19:31). However, the soldiers end up not breaking Jesus’ legs. John comments:

But when they (the soldiers) came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth—that you also may believe. For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.” (John 19:33–37)

Could Jesus’ legs have been broken? In one sense, they certainly could have been. Jesus’ body was a true human body, and human legs are breakable. In another sense, however, they could not be broken. Why? Because their behavior was “governed” by a word of Scripture, a prophetic word. It is a case of what the scholastics referred to as “hypothetical necessity,” which speaks of something that is necessary to achieve a goal. The necessity of Jesus’ bones remaining unbroken was not tied to the attributes of His human nature, for a true human nature has breakable bones. Rather, something else made it necessary that Jesus’ bones remain unbroken and that His side be pierced. What generates the necessity in this case were the words of prophecy that said the Messiah’s bones would remain intact and that Messiah’s side would be pierced.

John 19:37 tells us that this word that foresaw the piercing was Zechariah 12:10:

And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.

The must of Jesus’ legs remaining unbroken was a hypothetical necessity governed by the necessity of God’s good pleasure as revealed in the words of prophecy, which cannot be broken. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5, “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Cor. 5:7), which is an integral part of the “festival” of the Lord’s Supper, the remembering of His death, which includes the piercing of His side. John reports that Christ the Son of God “came by water and blood” (1 John 5:6). Piercing is mentioned in John 19:24, 37 (see also Rev. 1:7). When Jesus taught His disciples about the path He had to walk, it was not about His possession of special legs but that by the will of God the Father He must suffer for His people. This was the curtain of His flesh that was torn as His flesh was pierced, to which the author of the letter to the Hebrews refers (Heb. 6:19, 20; 10:20)


This article first appeared at Helm’s Deep

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