To read Part 5 go HERE
As a society, we have attached a great amount of hoopla to Christmas. Those of us who claim a Christian faith may start insisting that Christmas needs to be about Jesus, not Father Christmas, presents and getting off your head on creme de menthe while watching yet another Christmas TV special. But I personally feel that it’s all slightly missing the point. Absolutely, it was important that Jesus was born. But it’s how he died and what his death means that Christians should be pouring their efforts into sharing and shouting from the rooftops. This is the crux of it. These three days are the theological Mount Everest of the faith, and NOTHING is more important than this.
Good Friday on the face of it sounds like a daft name for the day when a man died, in one of the most terrible ways imaginable. What’s good about passing sentence on an innocent man, nailing him to a cross in the baking sun and allowing him to slowly suffocate to death? It makes absolutely no sense and yet it happened. More than that, it had to happen and everyone involved was simply playing their part in a profound divine plan.
What Father willingly sacrifices his own Son for the benefit of a bunch of ungrateful reprobates on an inner-city housing estate; who have no job, no hope and a £100 a day crack habit which they fund by stealing? Or for a significantly overweight and unhappy thirty one year old woman who’s absolutely convinced that she’ll be happier if she just has more stuff in her life. Why would God allow his Son to die for these people and also for you, yes YOU sat reading this screen? What’s so special about you for God’s sake?
We’re back to that old thing about love again.
So with the Chief Priests having got Jesus to admit that he’s the Messiah and found him guilty of being nothing more than being who he was, they pass sentence of death. We can wonder how on earth an innocent man can be convicted, but we all know that it’s possible; we see it year after year when gross miscarriages of justice are carried out and people are discovered to have been set up. Jesus was a threat to their authority, to their control on the people and with him out of the way things would be a whole lot easier. But crucifixions were only allowed by the Roman Governor, and so it was to Pilate that Jesus was taken.
Reading about Pontious Pilate is interesting. There was no love lost between him and the priests. He faced a constant struggle to keep control over this area, not really much different to today, and as such he’d become cynical. He could see at once that Jesus was innocent, three times he declared him not guilty. But because of the power of these priests and the likelihood of them sending word back to Rome that Pilate had failed to quash a potential rebel leader in Jesus, Pilate goes against his own convictions, chooses to do what he knew to be wrong and allowed Jesus to be crucified.
Have you ever seen Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ? I’ve seen it once and I don’t know if I will ever have the strength to watch it again. Not because it’s a bad film, it’s because it brings alive in a graphic way some passages of the gospels that in our rush to get to the happy-clappy Easter morning celebration we overlook and sometimes forget about:
“Then Pilate had Jesus flogged with a lead-tipped whip.” John 19:1
They didn’t just take Jesus from Pilate’s presence and put him on a cross; they humiliated him. Matthew Mark and Luke speak of Jesus being mocked and spat on by the Roman soldiers. He was blindfolded, hit with a stick, forced to wear a crown of thorns and a purple robe as if he really was a king as they understood what a king should be. John is the writer who mentions that he was flogged. Watching that scene in the Passion of the Christ was distressing in the extreme and I can’t think about what Jesus went through for me without tears coming to my eyes as I write. Look behind the simple words of the Bible, put the picture together and imagine for yourself what was going on. Put yourself there and it brings the words alive for you.
These days we have film makers who can take books and turn them into visual stories for us and whatever you may personally think of Mel Gibson, there is no getting away from the fact that he took those words above and laid out very graphically what they meant. We glibly talk about Jesus suffering and dying for us; well this is the suffering bit.
Then, as if that’s not enough in being flogged to within an inch of his life, Jesus has to drag his own cross through the streets of Jerusalem. He’s not Superman and he stumbles; so the Romans force a man from the crowd – Simon of Cyrene – to carry Jesus’ cross because Jesus could barely stand.
They reach the location, Golgotha (which means skull hill) and the nail him to the cross. Ever tried sticking a nail through yourself? No, I can’t think you’d ever want to. It’s bad enough if you accidentally stand on an upturned drawing pin. There’s yet more suffering for Jesus and we’re not done yet. Jesus refuses the offer of wine drugged with myrrh (how interesting that one of the gifts the Magi brought to him at birth makes a reappearance now). The myrrh was used as a narcotic to deaden the pain, but Jesus refused the help and went to the cross fully conscious of everything. Finally they hoist him up and leave him in the sun, hanging there with two other criminals.
Crucifixion is a slow death by suffocation. Because of the loss of strength a person starts to be unable to breathe because of the weight of their body. It was common practice for the soldiers as the day wore on to break their legs so that they couldn’t stand up. Death came quicker then. I really don’t think it’s possible to imagine anything worse.
And it’s from the cross that we see the final suffering of Jesus. Up until now he has been linked with and in perfect relationship with his Father, in that state we were always meant to be in until that fateful day when we thought we knew better and decided to disobey God. It’s here now that all the sin that has ever been or every will be committed was heaped on Jesus. He was the perfect sacrifice to atone for our sins. But God can’t be anywhere that sin is and so that link between God and Jesus was broken, separating them just as we are separate from God in our sinful states. More than anything; the beatings, the pain and the humiliation, it is this spiritual separation from God that makes Jesus cry out in agony. So we get Jesus shouting ‘My God, My God why have you forsaken me?’ He’s not questioning God, he’s quoting the first line of Psalm 22. And don’t we all do that when we’re looking around to find some meaning when it all gets very painful and we’re desperate for help? Where’s God in my hour of need? Jesus identifies with us right there in our distress.
And there on a cross; tried, found guilty when innocent, humiliated, beaten, bloodied, spat on, derided, forced to walk through the streets and left to suffocate to death and separated from his Father; Jesus fulfils everything he came to do, calls out ‘it is finished,’ gives up his spirit to God and dies (Luke 23:46, John 19:30).
Just take a moment to think about all this and appreciate what Jesus went though when we utter the four words ‘he suffered and died.’ All this but for what? On the face of it, this is simply the death of a man who at best could have been thought to be slightly deluded; at worst a potential revolutionary who could have destabilised the whole region.
Oh no. Oh no, no, no.
Because now when the sacrifice has been offered to God, we start to see exactly what this has all been for. If we pull it together from the accounts in Matthew 27, Mark 15, Luke 23 and John 19 we see God powerfully at work.
But first, let’s get one thing straight. Jesus was dead. He wasn’t in some drug-induced feint, he was dead. As I said earlier it was usual practice to break the legs of the crucified person, and the soldiers did on the other two, but on Jesus they didn’t need to, he was already dead. Instead, they made doubly so by sticking a spear into his side (John 19:34). Out gushed water and blood which is evidence that they’d stuck the spear in so deeply that the sac around his heart and his heart itself had been pierced. The Romans weren’t the sort of people to let anyone get down off a cross alive, there was nothing in this for them, they were just carrying out orders to make sure he was dead. So please, don’t let these lies keep circulating. Jesus was dead, end of.
But as he gave up his spirit God acted powerfully. Outside there was a commotion. There has been darkness for three hours and as Jesus breathed his last there was an earthquake, rocks split apart, tombs opened and previously dead people were resurrected (Matthew 27: 52). But the really stunning stuff was happening elsewhere, although if you weren’t in the Temple you wouldn’t have seen it, but this was where everything changed!
In the Temple there is a curtain around the Holy of Holies, the most sacred space and a space where the High Priest and only the High Priest goes into the very presence of God once a year to make atonement for the sins of the people. In this room is the Ark of the Covenant which contains the tablets that God had written the Ten Commandments on and given them to Moses. The curtain was the barrier between God and people, keeping the Holy of Holies closed off from view. But at the point of Jesus’ death there was a ripping sound and that curtain tore in two from the top down to the bottom. Ripping from the top down meant that God was opening the way to him, we weren’t doing this – we would have ripped from the bottom upwards. And Jesus is our new High Priest who is making atonement for all our sins, all of them, once and forever. The entire sacrificial system is swept away and we have Jesus in its place. Jesus is the reason that we can pass into the Holy of Holies into the presence of God and have that link between God and us restored. You can be forgiven, you can be cleansed, you are acceptable to God and you can approach God through Jesus. Generations of people since that day have heard this message, responded to it and received this gift that Jesus gives us now. Perhaps none more so than Paul, who in 1 Corinthians 1: 30, says this:
“God alone made it possible for you to be in Christ Jesus, For our benefit God made Christ to be wisdom itself, He was the one who made us acceptable to God. He makes us pure and Holy and he gave himself to purchase our freedom. As the Scriptures say: “The person who wishes to boast should boast only of what the Lord has done.” ”
And so I do boast in what Christ has done for me. It was listening to Stephen Plummer telling me in a sermon at Ampthill Baptist Church and reading it for myself in my Bible that I started to understand the enormity of what Jesus did for me on the cross. Everything I’ve ever done wrong, everything I’m ever going to do wrong (and believe me there are days when I can’t even get out of bed without committing a sin), all that is drenched in his blood and in front of God I am pure and holy and acceptable to him.
Of course, in understanding what’s happened and responding to God’s love for us, we can no longer continue to go down the path we were on. Changes need to be made because everything is different now. I don’t have to pay for a brace of doves to sacrifice to atone for my sin, Jesus does all that but I need to be honest about myself and confess what I’ve done to God. My new sacrifice is a sacrificial life.
I think Eugene Peterson puts it particularly well in The Message when he paraphrases Romans 12:1
“So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him.”
That’s what this is now, giving my very life to God in humble and grateful thanks for what he’s done and allowing Jesus, through his example while he was with us, to live my life for him.
But I know I’m going to constantly get it wrong; because unlike Jesus I am not perfect. But Jesus has paid the price for all my mess-ups for all time and he’s right there, giving me the strength everyday to get out of bed and go out and live my life for him, because of what he did on a cross for me on a very, very good Friday.