Of the many paradoxes of Good Friday, one of the strangest is the way in which Jesus’ death transformed something totally ugly into something stunningly beautiful. Crucifixion was a punishment reserved for the worst of the enemies of the state. It was cheap–prisoners could be nailed to any tree and left to hang there till dead. It was public–the passersby could come by and gawk, suitably discouraged from committing such crimes. And it was excruciating–beheading was instantaneous, but a crucifixion victim could linger in agony for days.
The Romans’ worst punishment was God’s choice for the punishing of his Son, whom he now considered to be the worst sinner of all time. The prophet Isaiah, seven centuries before Christ, was allowed to look into the future to see the strange way in which salvation for the human race would be won. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5). There is no longer any condemnation or punishment for those who believe in Christ. His precious body was pierced by dreadful nails; his precious wounds bring you healing.
The death of Jesus has transformed an instrument of torture into a symbol of inspiration for our churches. The cross has become our logo, our “mark.” We use it for artistic decoration, place it atop our steeples, and hang it above our altars. It is now such a beautiful symbol that Christians use it as jewelry.
Wear your cross with pride.
If you visit the Tower of London, you may wish to see the dazzling display of the royal crown jewels. Included in the treasury is Queen Elizabeth’s consort crown, platinum and purple velvet, encrusted with a dazzling array of gems including the 105-carat Koh-i-Noor diamond. Its value is beyond estimating.
King Jesus was given a crown to wear as well, but there was no velvet, platinum, or jewels. The “obeisance” he received from the Roman soldiers was mockery and jest. The “scepter” he was given was a reed, and his “crown” was a strip of thorns twisted into a circlet. As a gesture of total contempt, they beat it into his dear head, intensifying the humiliation and agony. The idea that he claimed to be the King of the Jews brought only resentment–they wanted no further claims on their accountability.
Isaiah had said it would be like this: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” (Isaiah 53:3). It is the paradox of the gospel that Jesus’ path to glory lay through humiliation, that his path to delight lay through pain, that his path to victory lay through suffering, and that the way in which he could crush Satan involved letting himself be crushed first.
It is the paradox of the gospel that it is through the wounds of Christ that you and I are healed.
Every story needs a villain in order for the hero to shine. It sure isn’t hard to find villains in the Lenten stories of Jesus’ suffering–clueless and faithless disciples, hard-hearted Pharisees, Sadducees protecting their privileged positions, cruel and inhuman soldiers, and a cynical imperial governor. To this list could be added our names, for it was our sins that made Jesus’ terrible ordeal necessary.
You can add God’s name to the list as well. What!? God caused Jesus’ suffering? Yes. Behind the lash of the scourge was the hand of God, who was pouring out the judgment, wrath, and punishment for the sins of the entire world upon the Son. Isaiah’s prophetic insights allow us to see what was really happening in Jerusalem on Good Friday: “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days” (Isaiah 53:10).
As you are compelled to visualize the leather lashes cracking down on Jesus’ bare back, first raising red welts, then drawing blood, and finally tearing the flesh apart, realize all over again how bad sin is–your sin. This is what hell is like, and Jesus offered to experience it so that you wouldn’t have to. If God actually followed through and did this to his Son, he will certainly do what he says he will do to unbelievers on the Last Day.
The price was paid. Jesus got to see his offspring (you and me) and live again.