“Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour.” — John 12:27
Good Friday is a day set aside by Christians for special observance in commemoration of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It marks the historical anniversary of Christ’s death on the cross and thereby represents a central feature of the Christian faith. It is “Good” Friday because it is at the heart of the good news or gospel.
“In Roman times,” writes Martin Hengel, “crucifixion was practiced above all on dangerous criminals and members of the lowest classes. These were primarily people who had been outlawed from society or slaves who on the whole had no rights.” Yet, this is not what Christians commemorate. It was no criminal being punished for his crime. It was no rebel slave suffering for his defiance. It was no victim suffering helplessly under the caprice of a cruel oppressor. It was no weakling under the subjection of greater strength. It was no failure who had better intentions. It was not good overcome by evil. It was not wisdom frustrated by folly. The cross was no real surprise. It was no mistake. None of these would effect transcendent good.
Crucifixion was the cruelest and most shameful form of capital punishment, devised to cause the greatest possible amount of prolonged pain. It was exceedingly offensive, abhorrent, repulsive. Christians do not commemorate this as good. Of the multiplied hundreds of thousands, only one historic crucifixion is the subject of countless replicas, emblems, and symbols indelibly etched on every page in the annals of time since. The symbol of the cross and Good Friday commemorate something absolutely and eternally unique. From first to last, the Bible insists that the cross was purposed for propitiation.
propitiation \prō-ˌpi-shē-ˈā-shən\ noun: the turning away of wrath by an offering; a sacrificial offering that satisfies the demands justice.
Good Friday observes one annual day to commemorate the once-for-all voluntary and vicarious substitutionary sacrifice of the sinless Christ on behalf of sinners for their salvation.
Of all that must be said about Christ on the cross, let us emphasize that He gave Himself as a willing sacrifice. It was voluntary. He was not coerced or forced. Christ was constrained by nothing but His love for the Father and mankind.
In fact, the cross was the chief mission of Christ’s first advent. He plainly said, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:15). Again, “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:18).
What of those statements about necessity? Indeed, there was undeniable necessity. Only one crucifixion could effect transcendent good. Only one cross is worthy of transcendent commemoration. The necessity was wrapped up in the fact that only one could atone for sin. The sinless Christ alone, the only God-man, could propitiate divine wrath against sinners. But this necessity was not for Christ but for us. Indeed, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9:22). But this “must” was not for His sake but ours. The divine necessity was on Christ for us because “there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). So although it was necessary for our salvation, it was voluntary for Christ. “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
Lastly, in the crucifixion of Christ, Christians commemorate a vicarious death. This means a death suffered by one as a substitute for another. His agonies were on our behalf for our sin: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). As the prophet foretold nearly a millennia beforehand, “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4–5).
This singular death on this singular cross has commanded the allegiance of more hearts, bowed more knees, changed more lives, conquered more pride, furnished more hope, demonstrated more love, and set in motion more pens than any event in history. And let us remember that the glory of what Christ has done chiefly derives from the glory of who Christ is. The cross exists to make much of Christ, not the cross. This is what Christians commemorate on Good Friday.