The Anguish of "Good" Friday
We call the day “Good.” — “Good Friday.”
I suppose that we call it good because it was on that day, the day that Jesus died, that the price was paid for our redemption.
But for the disciples of that day, it was not good. It was not good for the apostles, and it was not good for the other followers of Jesus. It was not good for Mary, the mother of Jesus, nor for the other women who were his followers. It was not good for the several others who, after Jesus had been crucified, retreated behind locked doors out of fear of the Jews.
The day for all of these people was not good. It was the darkest of all possible days.
These people were not only followers of Jesus, but they had placed every hope that they had in him. They did not have an option number two.
And now, Jesus was dead.
Of course, before he died Jesus had told them that they should wait for three days, after which he would rise from the dead. But these words of Jesus were for them, too difficult to grasp. Despite the very clear meaning of what Jesus said, they had put these words into the same category as other enigmatic sayings of Jesus. They either did not take what he had told them literally, or perhaps they simply did not understand.[i]
The only thing that was clear to them on this day was that Jesus had died. It was the worst form of death. They saw him die. No one ever survived the cross.
It was not “Good Friday” for them. It was the darkest of all possible days.
Today we celebrate Good Friday almost without thought. We color our Easter eggs and we hide baskets of candy. Most years there is a feeling spring in the air and we are in good spirits. Friday is the day for us to plan our happy weekend gatherings.
For very many people, Good Friday is no different at all from any other Friday. It is a good day for them because it is the last day of the workweek. The weekend is here. TGIF—Thank God It’s Friday!
But we cannot know the joy and the deeper meaning of Resurrection Sunday if we miss the agony of Good Friday. On this Friday, try to imagine the despair of the disciples on that day some 2000 years ago. They saw every hope in their lives dashed to pieces. Every single good thing had been taken away.
Whether we are conscious of it or not, this is exactly our own despair without Christ. Hope itself is dead. There is no option number two. If Christ is dead to you, you are among the most miserable of creatures and of all people most to be pitied.[ii]
It only when we come to full realization of our hopeless condition without Christ that we can know his resurrected life. Friday will pass. Sunday is coming.
I was a robber, but not just a typical thief. My partner and I became notorious for the terror that we exacted on the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. We prided ourselves for escaping capture for so long. I held great disdain for the law and for the people. I actually enjoyed terrorizing the people. It made me feel powerful and invincible.
However, in the end, my partner and I were caught. The courts tried, convicted and sentenced us. So hated were we that the sentence was the worst one that they could possibly give us. Not only was it execution, but it was execution by crucifixion, the most excruciating kind of death.
I almost did not care. I hated these people so much! I was almost glad to be taken away from them. My hatred for these people had grown so much that I also had come to hate my own life. I hated even life itself. I was glad to die! I loathed life!
But crucifixion is not a quick death. It sometimes takes days to die.It is a painful and prolonged sort of death. The executioners usually first whip the condemned one. They did this for the initial pain it inflicted of course, but also so that they could put deep wounds into the condemned man’s back so that it chafes against the rough wood of the cross.
That is what they did to me. But even in this, they were careful not to whip me excessively, because they wanted my misery to be extended to the crucifixion itself.
Oh, they knew their business! They knew just how many lashes to give to me to maximize my suffering for the longest period of time possible.
After the whipping, they tied that cursed beam across my shoulders. I was to carry it to the place where they were to put me on to the upright post. They had a special place for this to happen. It was a hill called Golgotha, “The Place of the Skull.” A fitting name.
The beam on my back was no small piece of wood. It was very heavy. When they dropped it across my shoulders, the whippings that they had put into my flesh immediately began to do their work. Even on their own, the wounds from the whip stung like knife cuts in my flesh, but the wooden beam also rubbed each cut that the soldiers had made high on my back. The torturers had made sure that the whip had made some deep cuts high on my shoulders, as well as on my back. They knew I would be carrying the wooden beam there, and they wanted me to feel every sliver.
As I struggled along on my way to Golgotha, there were some people spitting on me and cursing me. Oh how I hated those people! If I had the power, I would have killed them all right then and there.
However, I noticed that they had not actually come out to torment me and my partner in crime as much as for a man named Jesus. As I walked that road to the hill, I could see him once in a while, also carrying a beam on his shoulders. How the people seemed to loathe him! They spat upon him and cursed him with an intensity far greater than they did to me.
Someone had placed a crown made of thorns and pushed it hard down onto his head. Not only was he bleeding from the beating and whipping that he had received, but the thorns had also pierced into his brow, and his blood was running down his face. It was dripping to the ground as he walked, hunched over from the burden of the wooden beam on his shoulders. And despite the fact that he was already in great pain from the wounds and from the chafing of the cross, the people continued to beat him with rods as he walked by them.
At the time, I even got some kind of a perverse satisfaction from this fact. I had no pity on this other man.
I heard the people yell out “crucify him.” At first I was not absolutely certain who this man was, but then I heard someone mocking him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they cried, followed by bitter laughter from those around.
“It must be that man, Jesus,” I thought to myself.
I had heard of this Jesus. I had even been in the crowd during some of his teachings. The crowds that came to see him were so thick, it was easy to pass in between people and take some of their money purses. I had also heard a few of his teachings, but I paid not too much attention to them. He talked about loving other people and about setting our hopes and desires for a life after death—an eternal life.
I had no interest in these things. I hated other people instead of loving them, and my hopes and desires already had a goal. My hope was always only for what I could get today without being caught, and all my desires were for right now.
The walk to Golgotha was almost more than I could bear. The pain bit into my back at every step, and I could manage each of those steps only by putting all of my strength and mental energy into each movement. Besides this, there was the heavy weight on my shoulders. It drove me to the ground twice. I would have fallen even many more times had I not feared the whip.
I won’t tell you of the process of placing me up on the cross itself. I am not sure that I have the mental and emotional strength to do so. Why I did not black out with the nails being driven through my flesh, I do not know. Again, the Romans were well practiced at this. They knew exactly the placement of the nails between bones in the hands and feet so that, when the entire weight of the body hung on them, the flesh would not tear away.
Once they had driven the nails through my hands, they then bent the tops of them over, so that I would not be able to pull my hand off of the nail in order to get a little measure of relief in my struggle for breath.
The truth be told, that is the worst aspect about hanging on the cross. If you think that most difficult thing to bear in a crucifixion is the extreme pain, you are wrong. The very worst thing is the fact, that in addition to the searing pain, one cannot even get a good breath.
A great deal of your weight is upon the nails driven into your hands. This makes your arms hyper-extended, stretching the muscles around your lungs to the extreme so that you are not able to draw a breath. The only way that I was able to get any air at all was to put more of my weight upon the nails driven into my feet. This allowed me to draw myself up enough so that some of my weight could be taken off my arms, which gave me the ability to draw a little air.
Oh how I hated those people down on the ground jeering at me! If I would have been able to, I would have spat on each one. But I had no reserves to do that.
Nevertheless, as before, most of the jeering was not directed at me. It was directed at Jesus. He was hanging on his cross between those of my partner and me. The crowd was shouting at him, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
Some in the crowd who looked like they were priests mocked him. “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He says that he is the King of Israel. If that is true, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in him! He says that he trusts in God, let God rescue him now if he delights in him! After all, he called himself ‘the Son of God.’”
As much as I hated those people on the ground, I also hated this man Jesus. I even joined in hurling insults on him, at least what I could manage in my weakness. My hatred for the people and for Jesus was so strong that despite my terrible situation, I made myself manage to voice even disdain for him.
Then Jesus said something. His voice was so weak, I could barely hear it above the noise of the crowd, even though he was only a few feet away from me.
“Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
I was astonished. Forgive them! I wanted to kill each one of them. Yet Jesus said, “Forgive them.”
I fell silent. I looked at the face of Jesus. Under all of the blood running down his face, I looked into his eyes. He looked at me. I saw no hate there in his eyes, no regret. I saw only love.
My partner, on the other side of Jesus, was still hurling abuse at Jesus. He said in a voice as loud as he could manage, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!”
After Jesus had said what he did and after he had looked into my eyes, I could no longer bear to hear these abuses aimed at him. Somehow I found the strength to almost shout to the other thief on the cross, “Do you not even fear God? Even you, being under the same sentence of condemnation? We are suffering justly, for we are receiving what we deserve for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then to Jesus I said this, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom!”
Jesus again turned and looked at me. “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”
With those words from Jesus, nothing that the Romans or the people did could any longer torment me. The hatred that had so long ruled my life ruled it no longer. For the first time that I could remember, I felt love for another person. I especially loved that bloodied and battered person hanging on the cross next to me.
It was not long after Jesus gave me his promise of being with him that he died. I knew right when it was, because he cried out in a very loud voice. I do not know where he got the strength to call up the volume. He had been beaten far worse than I was, and by this time, even I could barely utter more than low groans. But Jesus called out in a voice for all to hear, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Then he cried out a second time, “It is finished! Into your hands I commit my spirit!”
After this, Jesus let his head fall forward. He would struggle for breath no more.
It was now getting toward evening, and the Sabbath was about to begin. The Jews did not want our bodies hanging on the crosses on the Sabbath, so they asked Pilate to have the soldiers break our legs. With our legs broken, we could no longer lift ourselves up by our legs to help us take in some air.
Actually, I was glad that the time had come. I was glad to be able to leave that cursed life to begin my new life in the kingdom of Jesus, with Him as my Lord. The soldier began over at the cross of my former partner in crime. When they struck his legs with a heavy mallet, he did not even cry in pain. At this point, we were almost beyond feeling pain.
When they came to Jesus on the middle cross, one of the soldiers declared him already dead. Because of this, they did not bother to break his legs. Nevertheless, I suppose out of spite, one of the soldiers trust a spear into his side. Of course, Jesus made no sound when this happened, but blood and water came out of the wound. Considering all of the bleeding that Jesus had done, I remember being surprised that there was any blood at all left in him. It was one of the last rational thoughts that I had.
The soldiers next came to my cross. When the mallet hit my legs, first one and then the other, I remember hearing the bones break and even felt some pain, but I was glad at this point to hasten my death. I was ready to leave that life that I had wasted.
With my legs now broken, I could no longer breathe. I think that, under most circumstances, this must be a terrifying experience. However, for me, I was glad not to breathe the air of that condemned earth any longer. I may have been condemned to death, but when I saw the eyes of Jesus and heard him speak of his kingdom, I knew that this whole world without him is the one that is condemned. Only those who place their trust in him will truly be pardoned, and will live.
That earthly air had become contaminated and foul to me. With joyful anticipation, I looked forward to soon breathing heavenly air.
As I felt my death coming, it was not with fear. Instead, it came with the all-comforting words of Jesus still sounding in my ears.
“Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise.”