Luke’s account of the crucifixion provides a succinct yet vivid portrayal of the gospel message. Within the span of a few verses the essence of the Christian message is clearly and forcefully put on display.
Luke provides us with a diverse community of people who are present during the crucifixion. “Soldiers,” “rulers,” “people” and at two “criminals” comprised the motley fabric of people who were present.
Essential to understanding the gospel message were the different reactions to the crucifixion.
First, the ‘people’ who were present were ‘watching’ and ‘deriding’ the Messiah (35, Mt. 27:39) Second, the ‘rulers’ (chief priests, scribes, elders) ‘scoffed at him,’ “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” (35) Third, the soldiers also ‘mocked him,’ taunting the Lord with a similar phrase to that of the religious rulers, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” (37) Fourth, one of the criminals ‘railed’ or ‘blasphemed’ the Messiah with an invective strikingly similar to the preceding abusive chorus, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (39) The unanimity of scorn of the first four actors makes the fifth and final reaction that much more significant.
The fifth and final reaction forms the framework for the authentic gospel message. The second criminal crucified next to Jesus rebukes the first, warning him of the impending judgment and condemnation that they both face and both deserve. (41) That the second criminal sees the justice of his condemnation as he is being crucified is indeed a miracle. It is a supernatural revelation and gift from God to see one’s depravity, guilt, and the justice of one’s corresponding punishment and condemnation. It is precisely this ‘revelation’ from God which forms the critical background and context to the salvation process. ‘Salvation’ must always come within the context of humankind’s utter destitution and hopeless depravity before Holy God, and the wrath of God which corresponds to each infraction of the law. It is only within this context that a person can make a genuine plea to God for grace and mercy. The criminal’s next ‘revelation’ is in fact that of the grace and mercy of God. He cries out, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (42) because God has revealed to the criminal His love and mercy in spite of his depravity and helpless condition.
It is also noteworthy that the criminal recognizes Jesus to be a king. This too was revealed supernaturally, in light of the fact that Jesus appeared to be anything but a king, having been beaten and scourged ‘beyond any human semblance.’ (Isaiah 52:14) In light of the criminal’s repentance and plea for mercy, Jesus reveals the Father’s heart for lost and broken humankind when he replies, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” (43)
The Gospel Message
The ‘gospel’ is good news. What is the ‘news’ or information? The news is that God has not left us in our helpless depravity and subsequent condemnation, but out of the depths of His love for humans, has provided the perfect sacrifice for our salvation; the death of His Son Jesus. Essential and prior to the ‘good’ news of salvation is to comprehend, as the criminal did, the justice of one’s condemnation. It is when a person sees the gravity of his condition, that he stands ready to plead to God for a pardon. To ‘see’ one’s tragic condition pre salvation is a gift from God. It is knowledge that is unobtainable without the assistance of God. Humans are blind to their own woeful condition until the Lord ‘reveals’ this spiritual knowledge.
By introducing people prematurely to God’s love, grace and mercy, we may inadvertently prevent the gospel from taking root. Without a prior understanding of the destitution of the human condition, people may wonder why they need to be saved in the first place. This is all too common in modern Christian proclamation. The stain and gravity of sin are often hidden in an effort to avoid messages which appear less than ‘entertaining’ and ‘uplifting.’ The Gospel will never be ‘good’ news to the sinner who has not been first convinced of His sin and the justice of his condemnation. (John 16:8)
“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound That saved a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see. ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, And grace my fears relieved; How precious did that grace appear The hour I first believed!” John Newton, 1725
The Goodness of Holy Week: Good Friday in John’s Gospel
Why is Good Friday, well . . . good? Even a casual acquaintance with Good Friday observance suggests it ought to be called Sad Friday, Bad Friday, or God Is Really, Really Mad Friday. (Sorry—I couldn’t resist the Dr. Seuss allusion.) The question remains, however: why call it Good Friday when the events are so horrifyingly bad?
Celebrations of Good Friday often center on the most gruesome and violent events in the gospel narrative. In sacramental churches, worshipers will participate in a walking meditation of the 14 Stations of the Cross, pausing before images evoking Jesus’ physical torture and death. Other churches will have meditations on the seven words Jesus spoke as he was being crucified, or somber readings from the Passion narratives followed by a sermon focused on the themes of sinfulness, death, and judgment. Worship spaces are more somber, sparsely decorated, darker on Good Friday.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a quintessential Good Friday film with its gruesome and graphic exposition of the suffering and agony of Jesus from his arrest in the garden to his death on a cross.
The casual observer would be forgiven for thinking Christian sensibilities are more than a little off. How is the torture and death of an otherwise loving, compassionate, and inspiring man something worth celebrating? And why would you celebrate it by remembering anguish and pain? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was brutally and callously murdered, but we don’t dwell exclusively on the gruesome details of his assassination on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.
But many Christians also find Good Friday puzzling. We may have atonement theologies that interpret Jesus’ suffering positively, as the hymn by Andraé Crouch says: “The blood that Jesus shed for me . . . it will never lose its power.” But atonement theologies don’t themselves resolve the dissonance that emerges between what Good Friday remembers—Jesus’ torturous death on a cross—and what Good Friday signifies: the life of God made available to all in Christ.
The Gospel of John helps bring this practice of remembering the Passion of Jesus and the significance of Jesus’ Passion together, revealing a Good Friday that is worthy of the name “good,” even though the events are tragicomic.
John’s thesis is stated in chapter one: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (v. 14). Reading John’s Passion narrative with this thesis in mind helps us see goodness, beauty, and truth where we might otherwise simply see violence, exploitation, and death.
Word Became Flesh
John’s prologue emphasizes incarnation. The “Word” (logos in Greek) mentioned here evokes much more than our English translation suggests. For Jewish readers, this “word” connotes the story of Genesis 1, where God speaks creation into existence. It also suggests the character of God known through the “word” of the Law and prophets. In addition, for Greek readers this “word” invokes the philosophical tradition. Logos referred not simply to words as symbols, concepts, and signified objects, but also to reason, meaning, and rationality. Like a poet, John compresses all of that history and potency into this “word” and then declares that the Word has become flesh.
This image, carried through the Gospel, reaches its stunning climax in the Passion narrative. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is arrested because of the unnerving potency of his words in his ministry. It is after he calls Lazarus out of the grave by speaking a simple command that the chief priests and Pharisees begin to plot his death, saying, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (John 11:48). John wants us to see that Jesus’ words have power, even power over death, because of Jesus’ identity as the Word made flesh.
After being arrested and brought to Pilate, Jesus embraces the title of Messiah and King. The two men talk about power, authority, and truth. And from that moment on, Pilate is revealed as a slave to the mob, unable to exercise his will, while Jesus is revealed as the suffering servant king of Isaiah 40–53. John wants us to simultaneously see the potency of Jesus’ words as they challenge the political power structures with incisive reason (the Greek notion of logos) and the way Jesus’ behavior embodies the word of the prophets (the Jewish notion of logos).
Then Jesus is taken away and flogged. Instead of a laurel wreath befitting a king, the soldiers twist a crown of thorns for his head. They also dress Jesus in a purple robe (the color of royalty). These acts are meant to be a mockery of Jesus’ royalty, but instead they simply reinforce Jesus’ true identity. These trials do not strip Jesus of his dignity; they reinforce Jesus as the embodiment of Isaiah’s word. Pilate announces, “Behold the man!” as Jesus is revealed to the crowd, unaware that he is unwittingly revealing the Word made flesh.
John wants us to behold eternity, existence, creation, revelation, authority, and meaning in the swollen, bleeding face of Jesus. Nowhere else in history or creation has such authority and vulnerability come together as in Jesus, Messiah of Israel, Lord of the world.
Good Friday is truly good when we can see beyond the brutality and cleansing blood, and behold the man—Jesus, that beautiful man who holds power for the sake of others and absorbs pain and punishment out of love and obedience to his vocation.
Behold His Glory
John also uses the word “glory” throughout his Gospel, starting in 1:14. Over and over again throughout the book of John, Jesus speaks of his coming glory. In his dialogue with the religious leaders in John 8, he speaks of glorifying the Father. The theme picks up again in chapter 12 and in chapter 17. Every time, and with increasing transparency, John draws the connection between glory and Jesus’ Passion and death.
The Old Testament uses the language of glory to refer to God’s presence, particularly his presence in the exodus and in the temple. The glory of God is associated with God’s holiness, incredible power, uncontainable presence, and total purity. Before going into the temple, before beholding God’s glory, everything—from people to furniture—needed to be purified with the blood of a sacrificial offering. This was not because God is particularly angry and needed to vent his rage on something so that he didn’t vent it at his followers (although sometimes even our atonement theologies point in this direction) but rather because, symbolically speaking, blood is associated with life, and God is the author of life. While it’s hard for us to wrap our imagination around, the symbol of life offered to God in worship was a sacramental disinfectant of sorts. The sacrificial system prepared a place and people to behold the glory of God.
John therefore looks at Jesus’ Passion and sees the glory of God, not in the sacrifice of animals in the temple, but in the suffering death of the Messiah. In Jesus’ crucifixion, John sees the author of life offering up his own blood so that the water of God’s promised renewal (see Ezekiel 47; John 7:38; John 19:34) would flow from his side.
Good Friday is good when we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus crucified. It is the glory of a God who holds nothing back. It is the beauty of a lover dying so that the beloved might live. It is the glory of a man fully alive willingly trading perfection for pain so that the sick who look on him might be healed.
Keeping Good Friday
This Holy Week I’ll be reading through the Gospel of John every day. (Depending on how fast you read it’ll take somewhere between 30 minutes to an hour.) I’ll be praying for God to open my eyes to see the Word made flesh and to behold God’s glory. I want to steep my heart and mind in the themes that run through the Gospel in order to appreciate the Passion of Jesus more deeply.