Good Friday, the Friday of Holy Week, puts to us this question: Who do you say Jesus is?
Late Thursday night in Gethsemane, Jesus was arrested—betrayed by one of his own disciples and abandoned by the rest. The Chief Priests and the Sanhedrin called for secret trials in the dead of night, and the verdict handed down was that Jesus would be crucified. This was an official order the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate, would have to give. And reluctantly, on Friday morning, he did just that.
After a severe beating, Jesus was nailed to a cross where he would remain for six hours until dead.
He was crucified between two thieves. As he hung there, weak, bloody, and exposed, people from the crowd taunted and mocked him—scoffing that if he really was the Son of God, then why didn’t he come down from the Cross. They could not begin to fathom the irony of their logic. That cross was the reason the Son of God had come, and his place as our atoning sacrifice was one only he could occupy. It was his presence on the cross, not his ability to come down from it, that would soon prove his divinity. They knew not what they did.
One of the thieves started in with contemptuous words of his own, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself. Save us!” But the gravity of the scene settled on the other thief as he watched Jesus respond to the brutality of his captors with a prayer for mercy. The thief also watched Jesus give his own grieving mother to his treasured friend. Seeing the grace by which Jesus received this death, the second thief broke into sobs, saying to him, “Forgive me. I am here for the wrongs I have done, but you have done nothing. Please, remember me when you pass from this place into your waiting kingdom.”
At around 3:00pm, Jesus died.
Never before or since has more been lost and gained at the same time as at Jesus’ crucifixion. The world gained the atoning sacrifice of Christ. But for many of those present, their hearts broke because the one they believed to be the Savior of the world was dying at the hands of men. They couldn’t stop it and they didn’t yet realize he was dying for them. Many had put their hope in him, and though he had told them earlier that he would suffer many things and rise three days later (Mark 8:31), how could they have possibly known this was what he meant?
The reactions of the condemned men crucified on either side of Jesus and those gathered at the foot of the cross tell the story of every man when it comes to what we make of his crucifixion. The cross of Jesus confronts us all with the question of the true identity of Christ. Times of desperation can harden us or soften us, but the question of Easter never goes away: Who do you say that Jesus is?
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Russ Ramsey is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative, and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He is a graduate of Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary. Follow Russ on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.