Over the past week French police have been piecing together the final moments of Germanwings flight 4U 9525, the plane which crashed in the southern Alps with the loss of 150 lives. As they have reviewed the evidence and listened to the flight recorder, they’ve concluded that the event was a tragedy, a catastrophe – something that should never have happened.
Today, as we review the evidence of Christ’s crucifixion, a similar question faces us. Was the death of Jesus a tragedy, a catastrophic end to a human life? Was it something that could and should have been avoided? Or was the Cross actually the climax to Christ’s life. The hour for which he had come. Part of God’s plan all along?
In short, was Good Friday really good? I hope to persuade you this morning that it truly was. But before I go further, let us pray: Heavenly Father, on this day that your Son died, help me to explain the events and help us all to understand its significance. Amen.
We have just listened to Mark’s account of the final hours of Jesus’ life. Final hours in which Jesus came into contact with many people. A few hours in which there were many witnesses to what took place. Some of those witnesses included:
- The Jewish religious authorities – “the chief priests, with the elders and teachers of the law” (v.1). Men who all claimed to be wise in the ways of God.
- The Roman political rulers also played their part – the Roman governor Pilate, of course, but also Roman soldiers and an unnamed Centurion (v.1, 39). Men with the responsibility to keep the peace, execute justice and uphold the law.
- A man called Barabbas was also central to what took place (v.7). Barabbas was an insurrectionist, a revolutionary – and now a prisoner. A man who had recently committed murder in an uprising against Roman occupation.
- And finally, Mark also mentions crowds of bystanders (v.8,-15, 29). Men and women of Jerusalem who were witnesses as events unfolded.
If we were to take a microphone and interview those involved that day, we would have heard very different ‘takes’ on what was taking place. No doubt if I asked members of the public today what they thought of the events of Good Friday, we would also get a very varied response.
- A tragic end?
No doubt many would view the events of that Friday as a tragic accident, an avoidable disaster, something that should never have happened. Surely something must have gone terribly wrong to allow an innocent man to be condemned to die? Surely if anyone deserved to die that day it was Barabbas, the violent rebel and convicted killer – certainly not the compassionate carpenter’s son from Nazareth?
Indeed, verse 10 of our passage this morning makes clear that Pilate thought Jesus was innocent. Pilate knew that Jesus’ popularity had aroused the “envy” of the chief priests. He believed that was the real reason they wanted him out of the way. But Pilate also knew that the chief priests could make life difficult for him. They could stir up the crowds and make trouble in the city. They could report back to Pilate’s political masters that he had failed to remove a threat to Roman authority.
So even though Pilate could find Christ guilty of no crime, he still had him crucified and released Barabbas instead. Many would say that Jesus was an innocent victim of political expediency. Many would say that Jesus suffered a premature, avoidable and untimely death.
- A deserved death?
But an alternative take on the events of Good Friday would come from the Jewish authorities. They had convicted Jesus the night before of blasphemy. They had rejected Jesus’ claims to be God’s Son, and ridiculed his prediction that he would one day come on the clouds of Heaven.
For the chief priests the idea of God becoming man was absurd. They thought there was no way a holy God would choose to live a human life on earth – no way a Creator God would condescend to walk, talk, eat and drink with creatures he had made. Jesus was a liar or madman, they believed, a blasphemer who deserved to die. And so they took him to Pilate to be sentenced to death.
The opinion of the religious authorities would have been hardened by what happened after Jesus had been condemned by Pilate. Mark tells us that Jesus was flogged, mocked, spat at, stripped and then nailed to a cross. Surely no Son of God would allow himself to be humiliated, rejected and ridiculed in this way? Surely God would not allow his Son to suffer and die at the hands of Roman soldiers?
You see, the religious leaders only associated God with power and glory, not suffering and weakness. They could envisage God’s Son wearing a crown of gold, but not one made of thorns. They could countenance the idea of God’s chosen king sitting on a throne, but not hanging from a Cross.
The attitude of the religious authorities to these events is summed up by their words at the foot of the cross. In verse 31, Mark tells us that “the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked Jesus, saying ‘He saved others but can’t save himself! Let him come down now from the Cross…that we may see and believe!’” Even passers-by joined in, and “hurled insults” at Jesus (v.29). Surely his claim to be the Christ was ridiculous, and his humiliating death proved it? If he truly was God’s Son, surely he would have saved himself?
- A perfect sacrifice
But there is a third perspective on the events of that Friday. A perspective that is based on the beliefs and behaviour of Jesus himself. A true perspective that is supported by the text of Scripture. This perspective says that Good Friday was indeed ‘good’. It says it was Good Friday because it was planned by God in advance. It was good because at the cross Christ became the perfect sacrifice for our sins. And it was good because it showed the true character of God.
For a start, Jesus’ death was planned by God well in advance. It was no accident. Hundreds of years earlier, prophets like Isaiah had foreseen Christ’s cross. Isaiah had predicted that God would send a suffering servant, someone whose God-given mission would succeed at great personal cost. Listen to these powerful, poignant words from Isaiah 53 – words that point to Jesus’ experience on the first Good Friday: “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, familiar with suffering. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet did not open his mouth. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.”
It wasn’t just Isaiah who saw what was coming. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, Psalm 22 predicts the death of a man who would be pierced in his hands and his feet, a man who would be mocked and ridiculed. A prediction with a striking resemblance to the events that took place when Jesus died.
Most importantly, however, Jesus himself predicted his own death. Throughout his ministry, Jesus said that his life would culminate at the Cross. It was, he said, the ‘hour’ for which he had come.
What is more, Jesus made no effort to avoid this fate. Only in prayer to his Father in the Garden of Gethsemane did Jesus express any fear about his fate, but even then he submitted to the will of his Father. Jesus did not flee when he saw his arrest party approaching. He stayed largely silent during his trial before the Jewish Sanhedrin. And in verses 4 and 5 today we see that Jesus offered no defence when Pilate questioned him on the morning of his death. It seems Jesus willingly went to the cross, all according to plan.
But why this plan? Why did Jesus have to die?
Jesus had actually explained the reason for his death to his disciples in advance. He had said he would lay down his life as a “ransom” for many. He explained he would surrender his body and blood to the Cross for the forgiveness of our sins. He said that on the cross he would experience God’s anger against our sin, so that we don’t have to.
Once again the ancient prophet Isaiah can help us here. He described Jesus’ future death in the following words: “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (53:5-6)
You see we are all something like Barabbas. By instinct we are all rebels – not rebels against Rome, but rebels against our good God. We so often do what we want, not what God wants. Like Barabbas we are rebels who deserve to be punished for our rebellion. But wonderfully, like Barabbas, we can all be set free because Jesus went to the Cross in our place. Jesus went through hell so we don’t have to. Christ took the penalty we deserve, so we can enjoy friendship with God forever.
Three details Mark describes in our passage today help us to be sure this is true:
- For a start, verse 33 tells us it went dark when Jesus was dying. This darkness wasn’t an eclipse or a gathering storm, but a sign of God’s judgement. A sign that God’s anger at our sin was being poured out on Christ on the cross. Judgement we deserved was being endured for us.
- Secondly, Mark tells us in verse 34 that Jesus cried out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The Son of God was experiencing separation from his Father for the first time in eternity. He was being separated from his Father so we could be reconnected and reconciled with God.
- And thirdly, this reconnection with God was visibly shown by the tearing of the Jerusalem Temple curtain. Verse 38 tells us that the Temple curtain “was torn in two from top to bottom” as Jesus died. That curtain had served as a giant ‘No Entry’ sign to the most sacred space in the Temple, the holy place where God’s glory was present. That curtain had been a visual representation of the separation that existed between imperfect people and a perfect God. But now the cause of that separation had gone. Sin had been paid for. Our debt had been paid. Friendship with God was now possible for all.
Contrary to the beliefs of the chief priests and the other religious experts, the death of Christ showed the true character of God. Above all, Jesus’ willingness to suffer and die for sinful men and woman shows God’s great love for humankind. God’s Son was humble enough to be humiliated and ridiculed to secure our salvation. The Son of God set aside his glory and surrendered his heavenly status to put on a crown of thorns and carry a cross. Jesus loved our lives so much that he was willing to lay down his own.
Sadly none of the Sanhedrin, the spiritual leaders of Jerusalem, had the insight or wisdom to see what was really going on. In verse 39, Mark tells us that only one person, a Roman Centurion, had the spiritual vision that day to see clearly who Jesus was. Only a hard-bitten Roman soldier could to recognise God in the face of Christ. Because when he saw Jesus die, he exclaimed: “Surely this man was the Son of God!”
As I finish this morning, I hope we have been reassured that Good Friday deserves its name. The death of Christ was no tragic accident nor a rightful penalty for a false prophet. On the contrary, it was a God-given event long planned in the past. An event that paid the price for our sin. An event that revealed the true character of God.
The challenge for us today is to learn the lessons that Barabbas and the Centurion learned that first Good Friday:
- Like the Centurion, we need to recognise Jesus for who he is. Not a crucified criminal, a tragic victim or a failed prophet, but the Son of God. A Lord who deserves our loyalty & our love.
- And like Barabbas, we must recognise that Jesus died in our place. Do we appreciate that Christ was crucified to take away our guilt and make us God’s friends forever? Have we asked God for forgiveness for Jesus sake? I hope so. But if not, there is no better time than today.