Good Friday is a reminder of the greatest exchange that has ever been made. Jesus was substituted for you and me. It is in this moment that our sin was paid for, and we could go freely to heaven. While there are some who dislike the church calendar, I think setting aside some time to contemplate Christ’s sufferings is helpful.
We tend to avoid thinking about pain and sadness because they are unpleasant, but it is exactly this pain that we need to focus on here. In our lives as Christians, we can spend far more time thinking about the positive moments in Jesus’ life, His teachings, His miracles, and His resurrection. All of these are important, but we mustn't skip over Jesus’ suffering and death. After all, that is a major part of why Jesus came to Earth in the first place and one of the main reasons Jesus was born in a physical body. Think about it. What is the one thing that Jesus needed a body for? He could have healed without a body. He could have done miracles without a body. God did that all the time in the Old Testament. But Jesus couldn’t die without a body. God, having a divine nature, cannot die, but when He takes on humanity, now it is possible to experience pain and death in His humanity.
On the cross, Jesus experiences physical pain and spiritual pain. Sometimes we can be overly descriptive on each side of this. We can exalt the physical pain over the spiritual pain because that is what we can most clearly see, understand, and relate to. On the other hand, we can point out that bearing the wrath of God that was aimed at us is far harder than the physical pain of crucifixion. After all, many have endured crucifixion that physically was harder than Jesus’, but no one has been crucified and simultaneously borne the wrath of God for the sin of the elect. This is absolutely true, but we don’t use that fairly abstract concept to numb the horror of the physical pain that He endured.
On the physical side, Jesus would have been whipped first, a tremendously painful punishment. The whips would have contained bits of glass, bone, and other sharp things to make the damage to one’s back substantial. Some even died just from that experience alone. The blood loss and pain are almost unimaginable from this experience alone.
From there, Jesus was told to carry His own cross, but He was too weak to do it. This isn’t because Jesus didn’t have the arm strength due to a lack of training in the gym. He would have been just as strong as anyone else in that time. If anything, due to His likely work as a carpenter prior to His ministry, He was probably physically strong as they wouldn’t have had power tools or easy means of lifting and sawing trees. He would have been too weak to carry the cross due to the beating He has already received. He likely has lost a lot of blood. So another man, Simeon of Cyrene is compelled to carry the cross for Jesus.
The cross as we imagine it, indeed, as it is depicted behind me, may have been different from what Jesus actually was hung on. One source I came across described a cross beam nailed to an already existing tree, with the feet hammered into the trunk of the tree and the hands nailed to the cross beam (Martin, Beck, and Hansen, 180). There were a couple ways to die on a cross like this. One has the victim eventually unable to breathe, as the position the body is placed in would only allow breathing when pulling on the nails in the hands and pushing on the nails in the feet. This would have been even more painful given the flogging that has already happened, and the roughness of the tree bark. The other way to die would be simple dehydration or blood loss (Keener, 684), which might take days.
Regardless of how Jesus would have died (and it is key to realize that Jesus gave up His life rather than had it taken from Him [John 10:18]) or exactly what shape the cross was, there is a shame component as well. In the Old Testament, it is clear that whoever hangs on a tree is cursed of God (Deu. 21:23), and now Jesus is hanging in that spot! What’s worse, He is hanging on a cross in the midst of other criminals. Anyone walking by would assume that Jesus was guilty of the same sorts of crimes that they were. Have you ever been in a group where a couple of people in your group did something wrong or stupid and the whole group was implicated, including you? Even though you had nothing really to do with the act in question, you feel the heat of judgment from those around you. They assume you did it, too, or were at least in agreement with the act. That shame by association that you feel is something that was thrown towards Jesus as well.
And here is where we transition to the spiritual pain of Jesus. It is here where we don’t have as much clear Scripture to guide us on how to think about it. In some way, Jesus, God the Son Himself, is absorbing the wrath of the Father aimed towards us. How that works is a mystery, but it is clear that Jesus became sin for us so that we might have His righteousness. In some way, He was turning away a real wrath from God towards Himself away from us, and it is difficult to even begin to imagine what that must have been like. He endured the wrath of God so that the elect would not have to. This is something that Jesus dreaded tremendously yet willingly suffered on our behalf.
How people respond to this death is dramatically portrayed in the two criminals on either side of Him (for the following, I am indebted to Martin, Beck, and Hansen, 178-9). One responds in mockery based only on what he saw with his eyes. A bleeding victim of crucifixion is hardly the Messiah everyone is looking for. What kind of savior is unable to save Himself? Yet the other looks to Jesus and despite what he saw with his eyes, he could see with the eyes of faith a vision of a King about to enter into His Kingdom. Is this not what Jesus pictured in Matthew 25:31-46? The sheep on the one hand and the goats on the other. (Martin, Beck, and Hansen, 179).
These are the only two responses to Jesus. Anything less than trust in Christ is against Him. That one thief with the eyes of faith saw his Lord, and was given the incredible promise that today he would be with Jesus in paradise. Jesus knew what was going to happen, and He was going to His exaltation. The thief could see that by grace, and asked Jesus for help. Note he doesn’t ask to get down from the cross. He simply asks Jesus to remember Him in His kingdom. The thief's hope lay beyond this life and comprehended what was important. What comfort would it be to get off the cross only to die later in life to eternal judgment? The thief knew what was truly important and knew the only person He needed to be united to. There wasn’t time to do good works, join a church, or even read the Bible. The thief only trusted Jesus, and based on Jesus’ invitation alone was he worthy to enter heaven. I’m sure if we could speak to the thief today, we would have loved to get to live and serve Christ here on Earth, which is our privilege, but the promise is still the same: look to Jesus, and you will live.
What is your reaction to Christ? You will have one. Is it the eyes of faith like the faithful thief? Is it with the understanding that you can’t save yourself, but Jesus can save you? Is it with a vote of no-confidence in yourself but every confidence in Christ?
Or is it like the other thief? Are you only interested in Jesus as long as you think it might pay off for you in gaining some other goal?
Either way, Jesus stands ready to save you. Just ask Him!
From here, Jesus gives up His life, is taken down from the cross and buried in a tomb. It is here that we leave Jesus and wait.