Words often have more than one meaning, don’t they? Depending on the way in which they are spoken, words can have multiple interpretations. Sentences can be spoken seriously or sarcastically – they can be said in earnest or in jest. One word can have very different meanings from different people’s mouths. Did you know, for example, that the word “set”, can have over 200 different meanings?!
Our Bible reading this morning ended with words that could also be taken more than one way. They are the last words from the lips of Jesus Christ – words spoken as he hung dying on the Cross. “It is finished” he said. Read one way, those words could be understood as a statement of defeat and despair. They could be read as the final sentence of a great tragedy – as a confession that all hope is lost. But alternatively, “It is finished” could be a shout of triumph. A declaration of accomplishment – of a job well done!
So which is right? What interpretation of those words is correct? Was Jesus’ death a tragedy or a triumph? Well, as we look at the crucifixion in John’s Gospel this morning, I want us to be reassured that Christ’s cry from the cross was a cry of accomplishment and fulfilment, not defeat and despair. The first Good Friday certainly had all the ingredients of a human tragedy. But behind it all, at a deeper level, God’s good purposes were gloriously fulfilled. John’s Gospel wants to leave us in no doubt that Christ’s death was ultimately a triumph, not a tragedy.
John’s account of Good Friday is certainly one we can trust, its an account full of eye witness observations and details. In fact, it seems highly likely that John himself was there that day, standing at the foot of the cross with Jesus’ mother Mary. Many Bible scholars believe that John was the beloved disciple whom Jesus entrusts with the care of Mary in verses 26 and 27 of our passage today.
So as we examine John’s eye-witness evidence today, let me pray: Father, as we look at John’s Gospel on this Good Friday, may we understand its significance and importance for us all. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
1. A human tragedy – sinful men and innocent suffering
We’re at the end of a week which has had more than its fair share of human tragedy. Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels took the lives of over thirty people, while the civil war in Syria has just entered its sixth year. We only need to turn on the TV this week to be reminded of the reality of human sin, and the innocent suffering it can cause.
TV cameras recording the events of Holy Week around 30AD would have had a similar story to tell. Superficially at least, the events of Jesus’ trial and execution bore all the marks of a great tragedy. Because John’s Gospel describes for us a tragedy involving many sinful men and one innocent victim.
The first group of sinful men we encounter on Good Friday are the Jewish religious leadership. Specifically, those members of the Sanhedrin (the religious ruling council) who had arrested and tried Jesus the previous night. They were chief priests who claimed to be close to God.
Their sin was to see Jesus as a false prophet, a blasphemer, a fake Messiah. Rather than recognise their rightful king, they rejected him. Rather than seeing Jesus’ miracles as signs that he was God’s Son, they dismissed him. These priests preferred to believe he was a madman or a sorcerer – someone who could stir up trouble and lead the people astray.
You may have noticed that on our front signboard over the past fortnight we’ve had a poster asking passers-by a simple question. It says: “Who do you say Jesus was? Mad? Bad? Or God?” Tragically, the Jewish leaders on the first Good Friday went for the first two options – he was either mad or bad. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, couldn’t stand the idea that Jesus really was God’s Son. These chief priests couldn’t countenance the thought that he was their God-given king (v.21)
Tragically, these chief priests preferred to stay subjects of Emperor Caesar, rather than follow Jesus Christ. They preferred to humiliate Christ, rather than honour him. And in so doing, they turned their backs on the one person who could have given them God’s forgiveness and favour forever. It was a huge mistake – a mistake which millions still make today. It is a tragedy to ignore the evidence that Jesus is Lord.
The next tragic figure to take the stage of Good Friday was Pontius Pilate. As the Roman Governor of Palestine he was a powerful politician – a man who had the authority to set Jesus free or condemn him to death. Tragically, he too made the wrong choice. To use a phrase that’s often used by politicians today, Pilate was ‘on the wrong side of history’.
In the first half of John chapter 19 we’re told repeatedly that Pilate knew Jesus was innocent. Pilate could see clearly that Jesus was neither mad or bad, yet he still condemned him to death. Pilate was more afraid of an uprising in Jerusalem than upholding justice. He was more interested in preserving his popularity with the local religious leaders than in preserving the life of Jesus. Tragically, he was more concerned with his reputation back in Rome, than with righteousness and integrity.
The third and final group of sinful individuals in our passage today are the soldiers who “took charge” of Jesus and crucified him. Of course, they were only obeying orders – they were employed by Pilate after all. But our passage today tells us that after they had hammered nails into his hands and feet, they divided his clothing and cast lots for his undergarment. Sitting at the foot of the cross, these three soldiers were more interested in gaining a few extra possessions, than looking up at Jesus. They were unwilling to look up at the one person who could show them God – the one person who through his death could have given them eternal life.
The same is true today, isn’t it? So many people in our materialistic society are so obsessed with getting more money and more possessions that they forget to ‘look up’. They forget to look up at the God who made them, the God who is the ultimate source of all good things, the God to whom they owe an enormous debt. The God who could carry them through death. You see, the real root of all evil is not money, but rebellion against God. Sin is rebellion against our maker, ungratitude to God, a refusal to live selfless lives of service to God and our fellow human beings. As well as offending God and arousing his anger, sin so often leads to human suffering. By definition, our selfish acts hurt those around us. The innocent invariably suffer when sin and selfishness run riot.
On Good Friday, it was the sins of the chief priests, Pilate and those three soldiers that directly led to the suffering of Jesus – the suffering of an innocent man who had fed the hungry, healed the sick and given sight to the blind. A man who was blameless and righteous in every respect. By the time we join the story in John 19, Jesus had already suffered betrayal, trial and torture. His ordeal worsened when he was then made to wear a crown of thorns, before being forced to carry his own cross to the place of crucifixion. Once there he was stripped, humiliated and left to die in pain.
2. A divine triumph – a God-given Saviour
If such a story was to appear in our newpapers today, there’s no doubt we would consider it an absolute tragedy, an unqualified disaster. As yet another instance of innocent suffering in our fallen world. But, thankfully, there is another perspective on the story – a more insightful, deeper perspective. A perspective which sees the Cross a triumph rather than a tragedy. A perspective which is based on the words of Scripture, and on the words of Jesus himself.
It is striking how the events of Good Friday fulfil numerous Old Testament prophecies and predictions about the death of the Messiah. John’s Gospel tells us that dozens of details predicted centuries in advance all came true at the crucifixion. For example, Psalm 22 correctly foresaw that Christ’s hands and feet would be pierced, that he would be mocked and ridiculed, that they would cast lots for his clothes.
The clearest Old Testament explanation of why Christ’s died comes in Isaiah chapter 53. Isaiah explains the events of Good Friday in the following way: “He was pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought us peace was upon him.” In other words, Christ came to be our substitute. He came to be the perfect Passover lamb to take away our sin. He offered the ultimate sacrifice to secure our forgiveness.
This positive perspective on Christ’s death is also supported by the words of Jesus himself. John’s Gospel tells us that during his life Jesus repeatedly referred to his own death as the “hour” for which he had come. He regularly reminded his disciples that one day he would be “lifted up” on a cross for their salvation and for God’s glory.
Jesus also stressed that this death would be voluntary. He would lay down his life willingly – it would not be taken from him. And so it proved to be. He did not block Judas’ betrayal. In the Garden of Gethsemane he did not resist arrest. He remained largely silent at his trial before the Chief Priests. And he did not contest his conviction before Pilate. Even when he died, we’re told in verse 30 today that Jesus “gave up” his spirit, rather than having his life wrenched from him. Throughout Good Friday, Jesus gave the distinct impression that everything was going according to plan. All according to God’s plan for the salvation of the world.
So when Jesus cried out “It is finished!” we can be confident that it was a cry of victory, not defeat. It was his way of announcing ‘mission accomplished!’
Conclusion: A finished work, not an accidental death
Well, as we finish this morning, I hope John’s account of Good Friday has reassured you that it was more of a triumph than a tragedy. I hope you are convinced that Christ’s death was a perfect sacrifice, a finished work – not an accidental death. I hope you have put your personal faith and trust in him for forgiveness, and begun to follow him as your God-given king.
On the first Good Friday it was Pilate who sat down on a judgement seat to pronounce his verdict on Jesus. But the Bible is clear that one day it will be Jesus who is our judge. One day he will be in the position to acquit us or condemn us. Unlike Pilate’s judgement, Jesus’s will be perfect, pure and above reproach. And it will be full of grace and mercy to all who have already come to him for forgiveness in this life. So let’s make sure we, and all those we know and love, are ready to meet him on that great day.