What’s so good about Good Friday? Click here.
All human history and the balance of the entire universe shifted some two thousand years ago through one cruel and common act on the outskirts of a dusty town in a corner of the Roman Empire.
This was a common practice. In 40 BC, two thousand people were executed by the cross in one day. Some historians estimate, in AD 70 alone, two hundred people were killed each day throughout the year by crucifixion. On the surface, one more day of executions did not stand out as anything particularly special.
It was common. It was cruel. It was shameful. The act was so base, so offensive and so shameful that the Romans would be careful to avoid using the word “cross” in their everyday language. To utter the word crux was considered rude; to say that someone deserved the cross was a deeply insulting statement. The cross was, even then, politically incorrect.
The image of the cross predates the Romans. Originally, it was a short cross with equal length vertical and horizontal bars. Early on, it didn’t point to death, but symbolized the intersection of heaven and earth. On that Friday, on that day of redemption, heaven and earth intersected in a way as never before as the God-Man faced his death. The Lord God chose one of the most common, cruel and shameful ways to demonstrate his love for us and his hatred toward our sin. It was a cruel death because it was wrath toward sin. The Cross is cruel because our sin is severe.
Cruel and common.
Christ was born in a lowly, common place because there was no room for him, and he died in a shameful place, outside the city, in the common way of many before and after him. Some Roman did his duty by hammering a few nails into the bodies of the condemned, and when I think of that nameless soldier, in my mind I always give him a name. I give him my own name; my sins nailed the Savior to his Cross…my cross.
But Jesus was not alone in his death that day, two nameless rebels were beside him, dying for their sins against the state. One of them, having insulted Jesus shortly before (Matthew 27:44), came under conviction and asked for mercy.
One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:39-43)
In my imagination, I wonder if that repentant rebel, after his death, ever thought, “What if I had died on another day?”
That criminal could not have known, as he waited on that Thursday night, the pain his tomorrow would bring. He could not have known what carrying his own cross would feel like. On any other day, at any other execution, assuming his heart remained hardened, his last ragged breath on earth would have marked his bitter reception into Hell. The pain that would wrack his body through sharp nails and rough wood, crushed nerves and muscle spasms, would be nothing compared to eternal torment.
But that rebel didn’t die on just any Friday. It was a special and specific day. Hoisted up next to the God-Man himself, he joined the other thief in cursing. Mocking. Jeering. Somehow the hatred of holiness overrode the pain of crucifixion. Jesus felt that weight too.
That thief could not have known that eternal justice would be settled and salvation found at the top of that hill well-marked with the promise and presence of death. What if he had died on any other day? God had another day – this day – in mind.
The thief would die to self before dying as flesh and blood. His curses fell silent. His sin was exposed. His heart softened.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
“You will be with me in Paradise.”
Paradise promised at the eleventh hour. The man who had taken from others what he did not earn would now be given what he did not deserve. He was in good company. The One who would take the penalty for all theft would become the ultimate robber himself and snatch Hell’s prize from its awaiting grasp.
That meeting on that hill was orchestrated before the dawn of time. Before any “Let there be’s” echoed through the universe, the trajectory of that rebel’s broken existence had been plotted for a divine intersection just as surely as the crossing of those two beams of harsh wood holding the Eternal One. The thief was a part of a perfect master plan, the culmination of which was unfolding only a few feet away. It makes one stop and consider, if God can time the crucifixion of a rebel, put him in earshot of the Son of Man and mercifully alter his eternity, can we not trust him with our pain?
The God-Man, stretched between heaven and earth, cried out. His heart, full of grace, thumped one last rivulet of redemption to mingle with the dust from which humanity was fashioned. His body went slack. His head pitched forward.
The thief would soon follow. At the moment of his last breath, the rebel would be more alive than ever before because of the death of Christ.
In that cruel and common act of crucifixion, all things changed. The symbol of the cross took on new meaning. An instrument of execution more unsettling and cruel than any gas chamber, electric chair or hangman’s noose became the ultimate emblem of grace, mercy and love. And that is why it was a scandal to the Jews and utter foolishness to the Romans to hear that only through the Cross could one know God (1 Corinthians 1:23). Not only do we depend upon the Cross, we glory in it, praise it and love it for its beauty.
But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).
Commentators tell us that there isn’t a word that corresponds exactly to the word we translate as “boast” in this passage. It’s more than to “brag on” the Cross. It means to “boast in, glory in, trust in, rejoice in, revel in, and live for” all rolled into one. You can’t talk about anything in Christianity without ultimately coming back to the Cross.
And you can’t view the Cross as being active in your live now without being confronted to live a life crucified, in body and will, to the Holy One. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” says Jesus (John 14:15). When I willfully choose to disobey him, I am saying, quite directly, “Jesus, I don’t love You.”
Three Roman nails were not enough to hold the all-powerful, King of the Universe to two pieces of wood connected by sinful humans; his own choice to love us kept him on the Cross that Friday.
The choice to love him will keep us busy crucifying ourselves daily.
What if we miss what Jesus is doing now in our lives?
What if we don’t die to self today?
What if we don’t take up our cross and climb that hill today?
What if we miss a resurrection because we are avoiding our cross?
Since he sacrificed everything for us, how could we rightly withhold anything from him?
We would find glory, trust and life only in the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross. – Galatians 6:14 But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.
We will show our love for Jesus by following his commands. – John 14:15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
We will consider nothing to be as valuable as the gain of knowing Christ and bearing his righteousness. – Philippians 3:8-9 Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.
We recognize the beauty in the promises of God for salvation for those who call on Jesus. – Romans 10:13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
We will give God thanks for his steadfast love toward us. – Psalm 107:1 Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!
We will quickly and freely confess our sins to God as we trust his faithfulness in forgiving us and cleansing us. – 1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.