What is Good about Good Friday?
By Enoch Era
It is ironic that the death of the founder of Christianity is commemorated all over the world by His followers as ‘Good Friday’. Execution on a Roman gibbet was one of the most gruesome, excruciatingly painful and humiliating forms. There were six trials for his execution and all of them broke procedure. To call it ‘good’ is ironical because the death of a person is never celebrated in the first place and even if remembered, it is never considered good unless he was a bad or a wicked man whose death portends well for the others.
Few ever contest the fact that he was one of the best men to grace the earth. He lived his life doing good to the poor and the needy. The poor, the maimed and the prostitute found in him a friendly acceptance; such that his detractors’ frequent complaint was that he sat and ate with the ‘sinners’. He lived a clean life which hasn’t been sufficiently challenged, but for the wild and unsubstantiated allegations of a few stragglers. What he spoke and did had engaged the minds of men for the last two millennia and has influenced millions across the globe spanning history; the death of such a man could hardly be a case for rejoicing or to be considered ‘good’. Wouldn’t it be paradoxical if it were?
The key to it is in understanding who Jesus was and why he died such a death?
Historically, he was born in 6 BC in Bethlehem, a small town on the outskirts of Jerusalem, in a carpenter’s family, during the reign of Caesar Augustus in Rome. The account of the life of Jesus in the four gospels leaves no doubt about his historicity – Luke 3: 1-2. This is corroborated by the historians of the time.
His biographers in the gospels talk about a person whose birth was miraculous – the Hebrew prophets give details of the circumstances of his birth, life and death, more than 500 years prior to his birth which couldn’t have been imagined or thought of so early in time. He was born of a virgin by supernatural conception; the appearing of angels and the star which led the magi from the East to see him. In the last three years of his life he went about Jerusalem and the surrounding villages preaching, teaching and performing miraculous acts of healing the sick, raising the dead and casting out demons.
His teaching included expositions from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament), especially a revolutionizing and liberating interpretation of the Mosaic Law, which irked the religious leaders of the day. He made stupendous claims about himself, including the claim to forgive sins of the people, which is a divine prerogative, and he himself had never asked for forgiveness from anyone or even from God. He claimed that he was the resurrection and the life and that anyone who believed in him though he was dead yet he would live. He also claimed to be the way, the truth and the life and the only way to God and finally that he was equal with God, appropriating the name that was reserved for the God of the Bible. It was this last claim that angered the Jewish religious leaders which was their main accusation against him before Pilate the Roman Governor, and demanded his crucifixion.
Had he died and remained buried in the grave like any other mortal, he would have been forgotten. But the fact is that some of his followers reported seeing him alive three days after his death. And the grave where he was buried was now empty. The records also tell of his appearing on 10 different occasions to more than 500 of his followers over a period of 40 days. The circumstances of the death, the burial and the extra care taken by the Roman authorities to safeguard the tomb where he was buried preclude any other explanation other than what his followers claimed – that he had risen again from the dead as he claimed during his life and that now he was alive. Moreover they were now willing to lay down their lives for it. This compounds the mystery as to the true identity of Jesus and the necessity for such a death and the coming to life again. Over and above there is the fact of millions claiming to have a personal experience with the living Christ and have found it life transforming. And the fact of the Church which was purely as a result of the belief that Christ was now alive.
This possibly explains at least in part the reason why the day of his death is called ‘good’ – the fact that he rose again on the third day and he was now alive, transforming those who believed in him!
But has it ever happened in the annals of human history that a man died and rose again to life? If it is true then the resurrection could be the clue to understanding who he really was and why his death could be salutary or even propitious. If it had never happened that a man can ever rise again after he is dead; if all men are mortal and inexorably and inescapably head towards death, then the inevitable question is - Who was Jesus Christ? Was he just a man? Could he be God, as he claimed?
The fulfilled prophesies, the miraculous birth, his claims, his life and works and finally his resurrection do suggest that it is highly probable that he was who he claimed to be – GOD who became a Man.
But the question remains what was God doing as man and why did he have to die in such a manner?
Jesus reveals God
One of the claims of Jesus Christ was that he came to reveal his Father. “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.” Matt 11:27. One of the main theses of the Bible is that man doesn’t know and cannot know God unless God chooses to reveal himself. This is because of man’s finiteness and his sinfulness. So in his quest for God, man has often created his own images of God and worshiped them. God in his grace chose to reveal himself and this revelation comes to us in its completeness in His son Jesus Christ. Hence John writes, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.” John 1:18. And the claim of Christ that he is the way the truth and the life and the only way to God (John 14:6)
Jesus shows us how to live
One of the chief quests of man has been to explore what the good or virtuous life is. Philosophers of all hues have tried to define man and how he should live. But the genius of Jesus Christ demonstrated and taught such a life in a span of about thirty three and half years. One need go no further than Jesus of Nazareth if he wishes to learn how we should live as women and men. His life was a gracious and mellifluous combination of devotion and dependence upon God, humility and holiness, service and sacrifice for man. One of the first things that strikes you about the life of Jesus, when you read the gospels is that it was so simple, natural and normal. There is a total lack of pomp or show, and no attempt is made neither by him nor his disciples nor the writers of the gospels to impress anyone. Even the use of his powers to perform the miracles was so natural and matter-of-fact that there is no attempt to dazzle people with spectacular feats. We do not find him fretting about the daily need of food, clothes nor any of the insecurities that plagues most people, even though he did not have a place of his own to live. In fact he challenged with confidence and contentment one who wanted to follow him saying, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of man has no place to lay his head”. He was neither perturbed nor overwhelmed unduly by attention, adulation nor by ridicule and rejection. He lived above all these, on a totally higher plane. As Gordon McDonald writes, “Maybe this is one of the geniuses of Jesus: he knew when to stop, how to refuse the cocktail of privilege, fame, and applause that distorts one's ability to think wisely and to master self.” It is no wonder then that he challenged people to follow him. And those who did then and subsequently through history testify about the power of his life.
From Adam till date, no one ever lived the way we were meant to live except the incarnate Son of God. It is imperative that he lived as man was meant to live, so that he could be their representative and substitute. Is it any wonder then that the Bible mentions that during the course of His life upon earth there were at least two instances when a voice from heaven was heard saying, ‘This is my beloved Son in Him I am pleased’. And John writes “…God the Father has set His seal on Him.” (6:27). The first of those instances was before Jesus even uttered a single word by way of preaching in public nor had performed a single miracle. Obviously the divine approval of the Son came based on his life as a son at his home with his family and as a carpenter, not as a teacher or as miracle worker.
Propitious or propitiatory
It is precisely because Jesus lived such a life that he was worthy to offer his life as the atoning sacrifice for the sins of man. The third and the most important thesis of the Bible is that man had sinned against God and merits his judgment. Sin is a violation of God’s command and any and every violation must face retribution. It would mean death for man. Only man ought to pay the penalty for he is the offender. But there was no man worthy to do it, for all have sinned, hence the necessity for God to become a man. As Anselm, the medieval theologian said in his delineation of the theology of the cross, in the feudal language of the middle ages, in Cur Deus Homo, ‘Man the sinner owes, on account of sin, what he cannot repay, and unless he repays it, he cannot be saved.’ There was only one way by which this could be done: ‘There is no one … who can make this satisfaction except God himself…. But no one ought to make except man; otherwise man does not make satisfaction….The debt was so great that while man owed it, only God could pay it, so that the same person must be both God and man…. The life of this person was so sublime, so precious, that it can suffice to pay what is owing for the sins of the whole world and infinitely more.’ John the baptizer said pointing to him, ‘Behold the Lamb of God, which takes away the sin of the world.’ This explains the necessity for incarnation of Christ as well as his death upon the cross.
The goodness of Good Friday lies in the reason for the incarnation, the atoning death and the resurrection of Christ. His incarnation was for the good of man - as the angels sang on the day of his birth, ‘Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace and goodwill to man’. His death was for reconciling man with God and with one another. His resurrection empowers him to live a good and a virtuous life, as Jesus himself showed.
If this was the outcome of his death upon the cross then surely, his death was not only propitious but also propitiatory. The philosopher’s quest and every man’s dream are fulfilled not only in his life but much more in his death. Surely the day of his death could be celebrated and it wouldn’t be odious to designate it GOOD. Man’s GOOD in this life and the life to come.