On the First Good Friday
Late on the evening of Thursday, the night before the celebration of the Passover, Jesus was arrested in a garden on the Mount of Olives. So afraid were the authorities that they might encounter resistance that they deployed “a detachment of soldiers together with police from the chief priests and the Pharisees,” all very well-armed (Jn 18:3). Even then, when Jesus confirmed his identity, they did not immediately lay hands on him, but “stepped back and fell to the ground” (Jn 18:6).
The small militia group led him away to the high priest's house. Peter and another disciple (presumed to be John) followed and entered the precincts. A woman, who was on guard at the gate, and two other bystanders questioned Peter' relationship to the prisoner: “are you not one of his disciples”? They recognised that he was from the region of Galilee, presumably because of his accent. Peter, famously, denied three times that he knew him.
After a hastily arranged meeting of the Sanhedrin, that attempted to force a confession out of him that he claimed to be the Messiah(Lk 22:66-71), they took him to Pilate's headquarters. There, before the Roman Governor, they accused Jesus of subversion against the occupying power: “perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king” (Lk 23:2). All the time, through these comings and goings, Jesus was mocked, manhandled and maltreated.
During a second session of cross-questioning (as recorded by John), Pilate elicited from Jesus a fascinating and important series of statements about the accusation that he was a king. He delivered a mini-discourse on reality and power. To the question, “are you the King of the Jews ?” Jesus replied, “My kingdom is not from this world”. His kingdom represented a quite different reality. The kingdoms of this world (nations, states, civilisations) arise, prosper for a time and then fade away. They are built, like the Tower of Babel, on human ambitions. His kingdom does not correspond to what this world might imagine. To a further question, “so you are a king?” Jesus declared his mission in the world, “for this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (Jn 18:37). This evoked Pilate's legendary reply, “what is truth”? Jesus had already answered that question in his prayer to the Father: “your word is truth” (Jn 17:17).
On the question of power, Jesus responded to Pilate's assertion that “I have power to release you, and power to crucify you”, “you would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (Jn19:10-11). Although Pilate was entirely ignorant of Jesus teaching, Jesus had already declared his freedom from the power of the state: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and power to take it up again” (Jn 10:17-18). The rest of the story that led to the crucifixion does not need repeating, for it is so well known. So these are some of the events that happened on the first Good Friday.
However, these incidents are not all that happened on that truly amazing day. On two other occasions, Jesus explicitly declared the purpose of his mission in the world. He resolved a dispute between two of his disciples and the remaining ten over a matter of privilege by proclaiming that “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant...for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life a ransom for many”. (Mt 20:28)
On the cross Jesus, by implication, interpreted the wider, universal meaning of his death. In four phrases, he stated what the sacrifice of his life signified in its deeper meaning. His first words were, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). To one of the criminals crucified at the same time, he said, “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). “At three o'clock (in the afternoon) Jesus cried out...'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34). And his last words were, “it is finished” (Jn 19:30). Exploring these exclamations further we can discover why the death of Jesus was not just a total miscarriage of justice. It represented what John in his first letter called “the atoning sacrifice (propitiation) for... the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn 2:2; 4:10; also Rom 3:25).
Firstly, then, Jesus prayed that God, the Father, would forgive his persecutors. Forgiveness is God pronouncing the verdict of guilty against sinners null and void. It is one of the consequences of Jesus atoning sacrifice. It is a response to sinners admitting their responsibility for wrongdoing, the barrier its sets up against God's loving kindness and its contempt for the well-being of other people. Admission of guilt requires repentance if it is to lead to forgiveness (Lk 13:1-5).
Secondly, one of the criminals, crucified alongside Jesus, recognised the connection between repentance and forgiveness: “we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds” (Lk 23:41). He asked Jesus to be admitted to his kingdom. This is what one might call a death-bed repentance, for Jesus responded, “today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). The criminal was the first person to respond directly to the act of salvation being carried out there and then.
Thirdly, Jesus cry of dereliction - “why have you forsaken me?” - coincided with the ending of a period of darkness, between 12 and 3 in the afternoon, that affected the whole land. It marked humanity's estrangement from the unconditional goodness of God. Jesus bore in himself, to the absolute limit, God's judgement on sin, for “God made him to be sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor 5:21). He took the place of all sinners and bore their condemnation. At that moment, Jesus, the Son of God, as he took on himself the penalty that a just God has to pronounce on a rebellious humanity, was separated from his Father: “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa 53:6).
Finally, Jesus exclaimed that “it is finished” (Jn 19:30). What is finished? The work of bearing the sin of the whole world, and ending the alienation that exists between a just and merciful God and a perverse human race, was accomplished for all time. For all who recognise the meaning of God's act of redemption and make it their own, reconciliation was complete: “God reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Co 5:18).