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Good Friday: a Thief, a Murder, and a Savior

Good Friday

The night was dark and the eyes of the disciples were heavy. Yet, Jesus their rabbi, asked them to pray with him. Three times he prayed, alone, because they just couldn’t fight off the heaviness of their eyes. So in Gethsemane, Jesus prayed—alone. As the darkness surrounded him, he fell to the ground and cried out, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:29). The strain and stress of what lay ahead pressed heavily on him, blood began to pour from his pores like sweat (Lk. 22:44). 

Jesus finished his prayer and submission to God, wiped the bloody sweat from his brow, and then approached his sleeping disciples. As the conversation began, flickers of light from torches broke through the darkness, a crowd was rustling in the distance—the cup that could not pass was now being handed to him to drink. 

Then, a kiss was placed on his cheek.

The betrayal was made.

Good Friday began. 

An innocent man sentenced to death

Grabbing Jesus “as a robber, with swords and clubs” (Lk. 22:52), the chief priests and officers of the temple drug Jesus from the presence of his disciples. He went willingly, this was his cup to drink. They tried him through their own makeshift council as the day began to break, ultimately leading to the decision to take him before Pilate on trumped-up charges. In fact, these religious authorities had been looking all night for anyone to bring false witness against their captive, yet could find none (Matt. 26:59). However, they knew within their steadfast minds that their plans could not be thwarted, this man was a blasphemer and a threat to their very way of life.

He had to go. 

They took him to the Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate because regardless of their intentions, nothing could be done without Rome’s approval. They knew this and something else as well: it was Passover. The Passover meant certain things for these conniving Jews, they wanted this traitor dead, but couldn’t do it themselves or risk defilement and forfeiting the Passover. And, so, to Pilate’s front door, they paraded their prisoner, all the while thinking of how they may charge this criminal in a way that made him Rome’s problem, not theirs. 

Like all good politicians, Pilate’s purpose was the people. And so, as the mob hurled mockery and accusations of the tired carpenter from Galilee, he quickly changed course and sent him to Herod – a ruler in charge of Galilee and the son of Herod who sought Jesus in birth. Herod continued the mockery the chief priests and scribes started, dressing the prisoner in “splendid clothing” (Lk. 23:11), having his fun with him, and returning him back to the Roman Governor. 

The tension in the necks of the Jewish rulers was growing as the ping-pong match between politicians continued to happen. All they desired was for this man to be dead, but not by their hand. So before the portico of Pilate, they once again gathered to sound out accusations against the arrested, like an angry mob of protesters. The governor’s response? “…after examining him before you, behold, I did not find this man guilty…” (Lk. 23:14). Fearing the crowd, the cowardly governor devised a plan to punish the innocent man and then release him. 

But this wasn’t good enough for the mob. 

Their anger grew to a fever pitch and they demanded that the prisoner be executed for the made-up crimes they hailed against him. “Crucify him … crucify him,” came the cry, then they traded an actual murderer, Barrabas, for the life of this innocent man. Pilate relinquished, turning Jesus over to them, wishing to satisfy the crowd; wishing also to satisfy his own conscience by washing his hands of “this man’s blood” (Matt.27:24). He released the insurrectionist and murderer, Barrabas, to the people and sent Jesus to be crucified.

An innocent man murdered between two thieves 

Their cheers could be heard for city blocks; the celebration of a life conquered, the triumph over the one who threatened their way of life. It started as the crowd gathered around a whipping post, where the hands of Jesus were tied and the Roman centurions blasted through the flesh of his back with a leather scourge that housed pieces of metal and bone; a punishment that often led to death itself. With every crack of the scourge the crowd cheered, Jesus agonized, and the cross grew closer. 

A beaten and bloodied body lay limp after the scourging. As Jesus claimed to be King of the Jews, once again he was adorned in mockery as a scarlet-violet robe was draped across his shredded back and a crown of thorns pressed into his skull. The Roman soldiers showed their respect to this King by spitting on him and striking him in the head with a reed (Matt. 27:30). Now, Jesus—the man in whom no evil could be found—had to carry his cross, a 30-40 pound weight on a lacerated back. 

They lay that bloodied back on the cross; they outstretched his arms and legs and drove spikes through them, pinning him to this instrument of death. 

On one side of him: a thief. 

On the other side of him: another thief. 

The mockery continued to be hurled as bystanders and those passing by attended the crucifixion as they would the Gladiator games in the Coliseum. It was sport. Their goal was accomplished, and now they could eat the Passover with a clear conscience. 

The agony of the cries of the three crucified grew as they lifted themselves on their pierced feet in order to draw a breath. And as Jesus lowered himself, the ripped skin from his back undoubtedly caught the splintered wood. The mockery continued, even from one of the neighbors hanging next to him. 

But the other one, oh, the other one. 

This man, hanging for his crimes, recognized who his neighbor was. 

To the mocking thief, he said, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but his man has done nothing wrong…Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom” (Lk.23:40-41). 

The response of Jesus was simple: “…today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43). 

It is finished

As the three men hung, “the sun’s light failed” (Lk.23:45) and the darkness that ushered in these events just a few hours earlier in Gethsemane once again painted the scene black. 

At the ninth hour, in complete darkness, the earth began to shake and rocks split in half (Matt. 27:51), and the veil in the Temple, the partition that separated God’s presence from mankind was rent in two—from top to bottom (Matt. 27:51). Jesus, the innocent man murdered, pushed up one final time on his pierced feet, drew his last breath, and uttered a loud cry (Matt. 27:46; Mk. 15:37), “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30). 

His body hung lifeless. It was over. The cup that could not pass from him had been drunk.

Jesus was dead. 

One centurion noticed what was taking place. With a trembling earth beneath, and with bystanders pounding their chest in approval (Lk. 23:48), he proclaimed: “Truly this man was the innocent Son of God” (Matt. 27:54; Mark 15:39; Lk. 23:47). 

Because the hour was drawing late and the Day of Preparation for the Passover was upon them, they could not leave the men hanging on the cross to die. Crucifixion was a cruel death, one that lasted days and ultimately resulted in asphyxiation. So to perpetuate the process the Roman guards broke the legs of the two thieves, so they could no longer draw breath, but when they came to Jesus he was already dead (Jn. 19:31-33). So to confirm what their eyes told them they drove a spear into his side, pouring forth blood and water (Jn. 19:34). 

The sacrifice that was planned before the foundation of the world had been accomplished.

It was finished. 

Good Friday was over. 

Why Good Friday? 

We celebrate Good Friday as a remembrance of what Christ did on the cross. The innocent man who was murdered was murdered for us. 

4Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. 6All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. 8By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people? 9And they made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. 10Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand. 11Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 12Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 53:4–12 (ESV), emphasis added 

The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was meant for our reconciliation. It was through this act that we like the thief on the cross can say, “The murdered innocent man on the middle cross said I could come to paradise.”

The restoration of our relationship with God, broken by the rebellion of the Garden, was now made complete.

The veil in the temple that separated the presence of God from mankind no longer stands, and the grace of God is offered freely to us all. 

That’s reason to celebrate.