The story of the arrest, trial, torture, and execution of Jesus, the Son of God, is overwhelming. I’m reminded of Hab 2.20: “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him.” The Lord is betrayed, abandoned, mocked, spit upon, slandered, beaten, condemned, flogged, pierced with nails, hung up naked on the cross, pierced by a spear, buried in the earth: let all the earth keep silence before him. What word can the preacher hope to speak, when death shrouds the Word of God in silence? Even so, tonight we declare the praises of the Lamb who was slain through preaching the word of his cross. For on this very day about 1,985 years ago, under Pontius Pilate, the Son of God suffered and died for us. Worthy is the Lamb who was slain!
1. The Facts
(a) What Jesus suffered at the hands of the Romans. St John was there (18.15, 19.26f). He bears eyewitness testimony to the historical truth: “He who saw it has borne witness, his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth, that you also may believe” (19.35). This all really happened; that’s why Pontius Pilate’s lamentable name is forever etched in the Creed. Judas betrayed Jesus. Peter denied him. Annas and Caiaphas, too holy to enter the house of Pilate on a feast day (18.29), contrived to execute the real High Priest and to slaughter the Passover Lamb (19.14). Pilate looked Truth incarnate in the eye and said: “What is truth?” (18.38). The soldiers beat Jesus, crowned him with thorns, arrayed him in purple, mockingly hailed him King of the Jews (19.1-3). Again and again, Pilate declared Jesus innocent (18.38, 19.4, 6, 12). But he was a coward, and out of fear he sentenced the Righteous One to death. The soldiers then scourged Jesus. That is, they tied him to a post and beat him with a leather whip laced with shards of metal and bone until his bones and intestines were exposed. Then they laid the rough wood for the cross upon the back they had torn open, and Jesus carried the instrument of his own execution out of the city to the place of the Skull. There, along with two criminals, the soldiers drove nails through his wrists and feet and hung him up to die a slow and agonizing death on the cross (19.17-18). He suffered for a few hours, saved the thief, provided for his mother, cried out in despair to his Father. As the end drew near, he took a sip of sour wine to moisten his parched throat, declared one single, precious word—“Finished”—bowed his head, gave up his spirit, and died (19.29-30).
(b) What Jesus suffered by the will of the LORD. In the prophecy of Isaiah, we learn that it was not only Pilate who handed over Jesus to be crucified. “It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief” (53.10).
(i.) Jesus did not suffer physical torment alone. He was crushed and put to grief by a suffering far worse than any torture. For in the garden, when he trembled with fear, fell to the ground, and sweat great drops of blood, it was not death by crucifixion, but “the cup” he begged Father to take away that struck fear into the depths of his holy soul. In the OT the prophets speak of the “cup of the wrath of the LORD” that one day will be poured out upon the nations in judgment, e.g. Ps 75.8: “In the hand of the LORD there is a cup with foaming wine, well mixed, and he pours out from it, and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs.” God’s Son came down from heaven to drink this cup for us, and on the cross he drained it down to the dregs. And the wrath of the Almighty which he drank from this cup made up the chief part of his agony and bitter sufferings. If God is for us, who can be against us? What harm can torture, crucifixion, and death do to me if God is on my side? But if the LORD GOD himself, in the awesome holiness of his wrath, should enter into judgment against me, then even if the whole world & every pleasure it has to offer is mine, I am doomed. And Isaiah is painfully clear on just this point: “It was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief.”
(ii.) This is why Jesus asked Father to take away the cup. This is why cried out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If you’ve ever suffered the pain of spiritual abandonment, ever felt forsaken and cast off by God, then you’ll be able to form a small idea of what it meant for Jesus to drink this “cup.” But the gravest spiritual sufferings the saints endure are at most tiny little sips from the dreadful cup that Jesus drained to the dregs. No, not one of us can fathom what Jesus suffered for us in his holy soul.
(iii.) But Isaiah explains why he suffered this agony. Jesus bore our griefs, and carried our sorrows. He was wounded for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the punishment that brought us peace. By his wounds, we are healed. All we like wayward sheep have gone astray; we have turned, everyone of us, to his own way. Yet the LORD has laid all our iniquity upon him (53.4-6). For he is the Lamb of God, who took away the sins of the world by taking the sins of the world upon himself (John 1.29), into himself (1 Pet 2.24), suffering by grace what we deserved by right, and so setting us free.
(iv.) That’s why Isaiah’s prophecy continues in v. 11 to explain what will issue from the Messiah’s obedient suffering: “Out of the anguish of his soul he will see and be satisfied; by his knowledge the Righteous One, my Servant, will make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.” The Lamb took upon himself the sins of his people for him alone to bear. Therefore, our sins lie upon us no longer. In fact, our sins (properly speaking) are ours no longer, but Christ’s: otherwise the prophecy of Isaiah and the promise of John the Baptist, that this Man is the Lamb of God and that he bears the sins of the whole world, are empty and untrue.
(v.) This is the very heart of the gospel, the gracious truth that makes this worst of all Fridays Good. The Lord weighed down his sinless Lamb with our sins and crushed him, in order to relieve us of the burden that would otherwise have crushed us. The Righteous One is accounted a sinner in our place; we sinners are accounted righteous. The faithful Servant of God is condemned; we faithless sheep, through faith in God’s Lamb, are justified. The goodness of Good Friday lies in this fact alone: that it was not only by the will of Pilate that Jesus was delivered up to be crucified. It was the will of the LORD to crush him. In an unimaginable act of grace and love, he did not spare his own Son, but delivered him up for us all (Rom 8.32). These are the facts of the matter. This is what happened on Good Friday.
(a) Finished. In his last sermon, Jesus needed just one word to preach the whole gospel: tetelestai, “It is finished” (19.30). The work of redemption is finished. The mission of the Son of Man, to seek and save the lost: finished. The debt sheet that stood against us with its legal demands—Christ has paid it all in full at the ransom-price of his his body and blood, so that that whole business is finished & done. There is not one more holy work, there is not one more ounce of bitter suffering, that remains to be done or to be endured by us in order to secure our own redemption. For it is all finished now. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has redeemed us by his blood.
(i.) That’s the big point in Heb 9 & 10. Jesus is the Mediator of the new covenant of grace; by his death he has redeemed us from the transgressions committed under the first covenant of works (9.15). Finished. He has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself (9.26). Finished. By his the perfect obedience of his holy will, we sinners have been sanctified by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all (10.10). Finished. When Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God … for by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (10.12 & 14). Finished. The very moment God’s Son drew his last breath and died in our place, the work of redemption was finished & done.
(b) The spiritual conclusion drawn from this “finished” is confidence. Jesus Christ has redeemed us, forgiven us, justified us, set us free; it is all finished & done. Therefore, Heb 10.19: we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus. Jesus Christ is our High Priest, who has sprinkled our filthy consciences clean by his blood even as he washed our dirty bodies clean by the pure water of baptism. Therefore, Heb 10.21: we draw near to God with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Come to him! Come boldly! Run to the throne of God with confidence as the throne of mercy and grace! Run along the path that Jesus has paved for you by his cross.
(i.) Now I want to tell you the tale of two Good Fridays. The first is about me. In past years, at a time when I didn’t understand the little word “finished,” and when I never could’ve preached what by God’s grace I have preached to you this holy night, I did what I could to crawl to the cross. I dared not presume to run into God’s arms. I tried to offer my own humility as a sacrifice that would earn his good favor and grace. I promised to do what I could to pay back the debt I still owed. What a poor Good Friday did I keep, then. I was so bound by religion that I did not know how to sanctify this day and keep it holy.
(ii.) A few years later I was in prison on Good Friday, to preach in the chapel service. I don’t remember at all what I said that day. But I will never forget how one of the inmates read the story of the Passion. When he got to John 19.30, he paused, and then cried out in a loud voice: “Tetelestai! It is finished!” That dear brother had come to know the power of the cross. With empty hands, by faith in Christ alone, he ran confidently into the loving arms of his Father at a time when I, an ordained clergyman, was still learning to walk. Perhaps it is easier for a convicted felon to receive the gift of the cross than it is for a seminarian, or a priest, or a pious man. My prayer this holy night is that the Holy Spirit come to teach each one of us to run boldly (like that holy prisoner) into the Holy Places of the Almighty, through faith in the blood of the Lamb. Amen, come Lord Jesus! Make St Michael’s a church of grace, a church that lives by your cross, a church of miserable offenders washed white in your blood & filled to the brim with confidence in the love and mercy of our Father. To Him, together with you and the Holy Spirit, be endless glory, now and forever, Amen.