A Good Friday reflection
Good Friday is a day when we particularly recall the sufferings of Jesus. There were different dimensions to His sufferings. There was, of course, the physical agony of being scourged, wearing a crown of thorns and the torture of crucifixion. There was the trauma of bearing the sins of the world as He hung on the cross and the resulting sense of abandonment by God. Jesus also suffered psychologically through the verbal abuse directed against Him. Matthew’s Gospel records a very wounding verbal taunt that was hurled at Him:
“He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” Matthew 27:42-43
Let’s trace the line of argument here as to why it was such a wounding piece of verbal abuse. Those who taunted Jesus base their abuse around a statement of truth. They state that Jesus trusts God. Some of the worst examples of manipulations are those based on a truth but which then go beyond truth. That’s what happened at the cross that first Good Friday.
Starting from the true statement that Jesus trusts God, they then try and argue in the following way. Let me paraphrase their words. “Well, Jesus, we know you trust God. So where is God for you now, then? Why doesn’t He come and help you? You claim you are God’s Son, so if you are, then God would come and help you. The reason why you keep hanging on that cross is that you’re not God’s Son and He doesn’t want you. The longer you hang there without any rescue from God, the more it’s true that God doesn’t want you.”
Jesus’ accusers really went for the jugular in emotional terms. Their sharp words of cruelty cut right into Jesus’ sense of identity and tore into His sense of being loved by God. But, despite the cruelty of those verbal taunts, Jesus was able to persevere because His understanding of trusting God was different to His accusers. Those who taunted Him equated trust in God with rescue by God. But Jesus never saw it that way when it came to the cross.
If you travel with Jesus through the passion narratives of Matthew’s Gospel, you will see example after example of the way Jesus understood trust in His heavenly Father.
In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed:
“My Father! If it is possible, let this cup of suffering be taken away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” Matthew 26:39
Jesus’ heart was a heart of perfect purity, so His prayer was a prayer with the purest of motives. His desire was to be spared the suffering of the cross, but His chief commitment was to accomplish the purposes of God. And so, despite His fervent desire to be spared the cross, He was willing to accept that His prayer of perfect purity would be answered, "No" by God. Jesus saw no contradiction between the purity of His prayer and it not being answered in a positive way.
Amidst the violence of His arrest, Jesus spoke these words:
"Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” Matthew 26:53-54
Jesus knew full well the power that resided in His Father’s hands. The Father could have effected the most dramatic of rescues for Jesus – plucked from the earth by legions of descending angels, in bright raiment and flashing swords. But after wrestling in prayer about His trust in God, Jesus would not call for any angelic rescue mission. There would be no angels on Thursday, none on Friday and still none on Saturday. Let the angels wait until Sunday morning.
When Jesus stood before Pilate and felt the full force of his accusations, how easy would it have been for Jesus to state His defense. With words of the greatest eloquence and truth, He could have refuted every charge and stood bathed in the light of pure innocence. But He didn’t. Matthew records:
But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. Matthew 27:14
Jesus didn’t need any words to rescue Him from His accusers. For He had understood only too well by that point that there would be no rescue for Him. That was the point of it all. Those who taunted Him at the cross assumed that the absence of God’s rescue proved that Jesus was not God’s Son. But Jesus knew that in the greatest of all paradoxes, the complete opposite was true. The very absence of God’s rescue was a proof of Jesus’ divine identity. Here’s how the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament puts it:
While Jesus was here on earth, he offered prayers and pleadings, with a loud cry and tears, to the one who could rescue him from death. And God heard his prayers because of his deep reverence for God. Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered. In this way, God qualified him as a perfect High Priest, and he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him. Hebrews 5:7-9
It was precisely because Jesus was God’s Son that He chose the path of greatest trust in His Father, the path of obedience even to death. At the cross Jesus displayed the greatest trust every demonstrated. He was prepared to allow Himself not to be rescued and to surrender His entire life, because He trusted His Father would raise Him from the dead. If we get let down by someone we have trusted, there are usually ways we can correct the problem. So if someone promised they would bring something to our home and they forget, they can bring it on another day. If someone forgets to collect us from the train station to bring us home, we could catch the bus or a taxi. But if you allow yourself to die, trusting someone else will raise you from the dead, you don’t get the chance to correct that after you’re gone if the person you trusted doesn't do what the promised.
That’s why Jesus was displaying the greatest trust of all. Remember, up until the first Easter Day, no one had been resurrected from the dead. When Jesus brought people like Lazarus back to life, it should really be called a resuscitation rather than a resurrection, because Lazarus subsequently died again at a later date. No one had been fully resurrected to a new quality of life with a resurrection body that would never wear out or die. In the New Testament Jesus’ resurrection is called the firstfruits (1 Corinthians 15:20,23) because He was the first one. When Jesus gave up His life for us, He was trusting His Father to do something the Father had never done before, to perform a full resurrection. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that Jesus’ trust in His Father was proved right, but we must never forget what it felt like to be Jesus on the Good Friday side of Easter, having to commit His everything into the hands of God, to accomplish something that creation had yet to see – a New Creation, the start of the renewal of all things, expressed through the resurrection of His Son.
Matthew includes a piece of narrative about Good Friday that is unique among all four Gospels. This is what he records about the moment of Jesus’ death:
Then Jesus shouted out again, and he released his spirit. At that moment the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, rocks split apart, and tombs opened. The bodies of many godly men and women who had died were raised from the dead. They left the cemetery after Jesus’ resurrection, went into the holy city of Jerusalem, and appeared to many people. Matthew 27:50-53
It's fascinating to read about the godly people who were restored to life as soon as Jesus died. They were not seen publicly until after Jesus was raised, but the story records that they were restored to life, not on Easter morning, but immediately after the death of Jesus. I like to see this happening as a vindication of Jesus’ trust in God that He would be raised. Jesus had to allow death to completely overtake Him, but as soon as He did, new life began to break out across the city of Jerusalem. Jesus’ death was not in vain. His trust in God was not misplaced. The raising of those righteous saints was a sign of what was to come on Easter morning.
Those who taunted Jesus at the cross equated trust in God with rescue by God. But the greatest trust in God is displayed by those, like Jesus, who understand that at times the greatest purposes of God are accomplished through suffering and the absence of God’s rescue. It is in that place of seeming desolation and silence that the greatest work of God is surely taking place.