The good thing about Friday is not an upcoming spring recess. Nor is it a long holiday weekend, or dinner with family on Easter Sunday. These are all good things, but Good Friday is so much more.
Christ was crucified nearly two thousand years ago after living a human life of about thirty years which culminated in a brief three-year ministry. Ever since, his existence has been questioned, as has the truth of his crucifixion and resurrection. Multiple authors in the New Testament confirm Jesus’ life, ministry, and death. According to the biblical accounts, hundreds saw him again after he was resurrected including the twelve who knew him best. He was also seen by a former Jewish Pharisee named Saul (more commonly referred to as Paul in the Greek) who became the most prolific author of the New Testament letters. Outside of the biblical text, non-Christians such as Jewish historian Flavius Josephus confirm his existence in mentioning “Jesus, the so-called Christ” in his history of the Jewish people roughly 60 years after the Crucifixion. Twenty years later, Roman government official Pliny the Younger confirms that Christians worshipped Jesus as God. Another Roman official named Tacitus confirms the timing of the Crucifixion as during the the time of the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate in Judea, and also during the reign of the Roman Emperor Tiberius. Both of these facts are confirmed in the gospel accounts.
There are nearly six thousand complete copies of the New Testament in the original Greek with about a twenty-five-year gap between when the events were originally recorded (anywhere between ten and fifty years after the Crucifixion) and the date of the copy. By comparison, Homer’s Iliad has 643 copies in existence, none of which is dated closer than four hundred years after the poem was originally written.
Forensic scientists and medical practitioners have studied the written evidence surrounding the Crucifixion and confirm the details described in the Bible as accurate and consistent with death by crucifixion. A Roman centurion at the scene of the Crucifixion who witnessed the alarming events that immediately followed, quickly confessed, “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).
A Tale of Two Robbers
But recently, I’ve been reflecting on the two robbers who were also crucified that day, one on either side of Jesus. They heard the crowd taunting Jesus: “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (Matthew 27:40). The mocking words of the chief priests, scribes, and elders added to the clamor, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matthew 27:42). The books of Matthew and Mark even say that at some point both robbers joined in on the jeers of the crowd.
Yet Luke’s Gospel recounts a conversation between Jesus and one of the two robbers who was being crucified alongside him. One robber chooses to mock Jesus (Luke 23:39) while the second chooses to confess his own guilt and defend Jesus’ innocence, rebuking the other (vv. 40-41). He did this even though he had heard how the crowd and religious leaders mocked Jesus telling him to save himself. This second robber asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (v. 42) to which Jesus responds, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (v. 43).
In agonizing pain and facing imminent death, this second robber chose to put his trust in what appeared to be a dying man like himself. He did this even as he heard religious authorities, the crowd, and the other robber ridiculing Jesus. According to Matthew and Mark, he too mocked Jesus. The man who was also God, Jesus Christ, hung on his own cross enduring the ridicule of the crowd, seemingly suffering the same fate as both robbers. Things could not have appeared bleaker for any of the three, and yet something changed for this second robber. There was something about Jesus that engendered trust in this robber’s heart and mind.
What was it? Why did this second robber defend Jesus and eventually place his trust in another dying man? What was it about Jesus that changed his mind? What might change yours?
What Does This Mean?
When we look at the cross, we feel the weight of sin and death. Jesus Christ bore that weight for all of mankind, even though he lived a perfect, sinless life. At the cross, Jesus’ humanity comes into sharp focus because he suffered and died just as every human before and since has. But he did not deserve to; We do.
To look at the cross of death and sin and shame without seeing Jesus’ divinity leaves us feeling powerless and hopeless. As God, he could have stopped the religious leaders and authorities. He could have disappeared into the crowd as he had once done before. But Jesus chose to go to the cross, willingly and obediently, for the joy set before him. As it has often been said, it was love for mankind that kept him there, not the nails that pierced his hands and feet.
Jesus’ resurrection would come in three days, securing victory over sin and death for those who like the second robber choose to believe Jesus was who he said he was. Following the Crucifixion, the disciples grieved their beloved friend, rabbi and Lord. But on the third day when they saw the resurrected Christ, the disciples would respond in initial disbelief, then with gladness and astonishment.
As one of those disciples who bore witness to these events, Peter would later write to a beleaguered church facing suffering and persecution near the close of the 1st century A.D., “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 1:8-9).
This is the good thing about Friday. It is Good News so powerful that the eyewitnesses to this historical event risked all to tell others about it. Do you believe this?
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