There is nothing pastel about Good Friday. There is nothing benign about a cross. For the people of the first century the cross had a very real symbolic meaning–don’t mess with Rome. It’s the ultimate symbol of Roman hegemony because it’s the ultimate combination of suffering and shame devised by human hands. For their part, the Romans used it as much as they could. In an effort to have dominance over their known world, they frequently crucified those who fell out of line. It’s estimated that the Roman’s crucified around 100,000 people in all. Here are a few examples taken from first hand witnesses (historians usually feel that the numbers are somewhat exaggerated, but you’ll get the point):
1. In 71 B.C., the Roman legions finally defeated the gladiator Spartacus’ slave army after several battles. 6,000 of the surviving rebels were crucified along the Appian Way to Rome.
2. After the death of Herod (4 B.C.) an outbreak occurred in Galilee, Roman Legions came in and crucified 2,000 rebellious Jews.
3. During the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Roman soldiers captured and crucified around 500 people a day for several days until they ran out of wood for crosses.
What better way to remind the local populace that you are in charge than by nailing rebels to crosses and placing them in public areas so that everyone can see them rotting away? What better way to declare that Caesar is Lord than by crucifying his rivals?
Where are you in the crucifixion story?
Is there a lower point in human history than the crucifixion of the Son of God? God shows up in our midst, heals our sick, fixes our broken lives, patiently teaches us the ways of his kingdom, and we execute him. Sure, it wasn’t actually us. It was those bloodthirsty Romans and hardhearted Jews. Still, as we read the Gospels we are invited to put ourselves in the narrative. How do we respond to Jesus? Where would we find ourselves in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion? I invite you to read all of Matthew 26-27. Here is some of Matthew’s picture of what took place:
Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand. Then they knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him….
Two rebels were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” In the same way the rebels who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
Where do we put ourselves in this story of the first Good Friday? Jesus is mocked, tortured, or ridiculed on all sides. The Roman soldiers take it the farthest. Interestingly, though, they were essentially doing the same thing as the Jewish leaders, and the Jewish leaders were essentially on the same page as the two rebels being crucified with Jesus. These groups had nothing in common, except for a common enemy: Jesus. The powerful pagans, the religious snobs, and the lawless rebels all agreed that he must go. Both the crucifiers and the crucified spat, mocked, and insulted. Even those who passed by joined in. The picture we get from Matthew is that on that first Good Friday, humanity was united in one respect–its vitriolic hatred of the Son of God.
This sort of hatred resonates with something deep inside all of us. It’s the hatred that unites people into demonizing what they don’t understand. It knows no lines of race, gender, political ideology, or religious creed. It’s directed at the one percent, and it comes from the one percent. It’s what Muslims do to Christians, it’s what Christians do to Muslims. Inspired by the hatred we see in others toward our enemy, we release the animal within. We crucify. And in our lowest moment of the human race, we all crucified.
Are you like one of the disciples in the Matthew crucifixion account? Matthew’s narrative includes the stories of two disciples. The first is Judas. After conspiring with the Jewish leaders to hand Jesus over for 30 pieces of silver, he is torn up with guilt and hangs himself. The other disciple only fares slightly better. Peter originally defends Jesus by chopping off an ear when Jesus was arrested, but soon he is cold and scared, sitting by a campfire cursing in an effort to convince people that he doesn’t know Jesus. Do either of these sound like you? If you’re like me they both do. How many times have we said with Peter, “I don’t know the man!” How many times, like Judas, have we taken the silver?
I don’t really blame Judas. We all have wanted more from Jesus. More miracles, more proof, more peace in our life, more justice. Judas was greedy and disappointed, just like us.
Peter was shocked. He had been so faithful, so bold. And now his Messiah was being crucified. His Messiah had failed. Certainly Peter’s denial was to save his own skin, but it may be more. Perhaps Peter felt like he didn’t know who Jesus was anymore. He may have wondered how the Messiah, the Son of God, could be so openly shamed. It didn’t make any sense to him, he had to distance himself. He had to disassociate.
Then there is Pilate. The most politically powerful man in the story, yet the weakest, most spineless of them all. Pilate knowingly allowed an innocent man to die because he was afraid of a revolt. He washed his hands in front of the people to symbolically absolve himself of any culpability in Jesus’s death. It works so well that every Sunday in every nation on the planet millions of Christians confess that Jesus “was crucified under Pontius Pilate.” Sorry Pilate, you won’t be exonerated.
I feel sorry for Pilate. After all, Pilate was a Roman Governor while Jesus was only the “King of the Jews.” If I were a Roman Governor, I probably would have done the same. I sometimes cave when my children cry too much, I’m pretty sure I would have buckled under the threat of a revolution. All he did was deny responsibility. All he did was allow his soldiers to have a little fun. All he did was look the other way.
The other crucifixion on Good Friday
There is no escape, we were all crucifying Jesus on that first Good Friday. Its at this point that I find Paul’s words in Colossians so surprising. “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-15)
Come again? Who and what were crucified on Good Friday? And who did the crucifying?
This passage is fascinating because it uses the language of a crucifixion and turns it on its head. While Jesus was being nailed to the cross, he was nailing our “legal indebtedness” or the weight of our sin to the cross. What’s more is that while he was being stripped, humiliated, and made into a public spectacle, he was disarming the spiritual powers behind all sin, he was making a public spectacle of those who opposed him, and he was triumphing over his enemies. In other words, Jesus was crucifying sin.
So, where do we find ourselves in the story of Good Friday? If you are like me, you find yourself right alongside everyone in this story except for Jesus. At best we get to be Pilate or Peter, but we know that we all have a little bit of a Roman Soldier in us. Undoubtedly, we have a lot of religious leader in us. And what we all have in common is a deep desire to save our skin, show our own superiority, and demand our own way.
When we crucified Jesus, he crucified our sin. He nailed our self-centeredness to the cross and exposed it for what it really was–brokenness. The cross exposes all our pride, all our greed, all our self-absorption like hurting children with clinched fists. The powers of this world, whose lies we were listening to, conspired against Him and he crucified them. Before Christ the cross was the ultimate symbol of the victory of the powerful over the powerless. It now stands as the ultimate symbol of the victory for the powerless, the humble, the open handed.
It was humanity’s collective worst moment, but it was God’s greatest occasion. How did he turn our rebellion into victory? How did he make this Friday Good? That is something you will need to see for yourself on Sunday.
Read Part 5 here.