Last week, one of the children in my class rightly asked, ‘Why is it called Good Friday if that’s the day when Jesus died?’ There is so much in the Christian faith that seems confusing at first glance but I think God has made it this way because He loves us to ask questions. He wants us to engage with what He’s doing; he wants us to use the brains that we’ve been given and work out the answers to such questions. And so I rejoiced inside when this child’s question was raised. Yes! She’s thinking, she’s curious, she’s asking just the kind of question God wants her to ask. There are some people who would shrug their shoulders in response; claim that ‘religion doesn’t make sense’ and continue life in self-inflicted ignorance. I was not going to let this happen. I feel that as a teacher it is my role to encourage children to grapple with their questions, even if they are only 8 or 9 years old.
So this week’s R.E. lesson began with a narrative of the events of Good Friday. We acted out the scenes. Jesus was taken before the religious rulers of the day, who in turn took him to the political leaders of the day, claiming he was causing unrest and needed dealing with. Now this political leader could find nothing wrong with Jesus: he found him innocent. Yet because of pressure from the religious leaders and the people of the city, he was forced to order the death sentence for Jesus and yet release a murderer and thief (as the custom was that a prisoner could be released at that time each year). So Jesus literally swapped places with Barabbas. Jesus was mocked, beaten and spat on, yet he did not retaliate. He carried his heavy wooden cross to the hill outside the city, where He was hammered to the wood in the (scientifically proven) cruelest form of death mankind has ever thought up. As He hung there, another man being crucified recognised who Jesus was and said ‘Remember me when you come into your kingdom’. Jesus responded, ‘Today you will be with me in paradise’. And there Jesus hung until he shouted ‘It is finished!’ All went dark at noon and the darkness lasted 3 hours. Meanwhile, the curtain in the temple – a thick barrier from floor to ceiling and wall to wall, which separated the humans from the place where God was thought to dwell (‘beyond the veil’) – this curtain was torn in two. The soldiers verified Jesus’ death and his friend was permitted to take him from the cross to bury him.
So what the heck was going on? It is clear that this is no ordinary death. Who else has caused night time to come at midday or an unexplained event at a local place of worship to happen the moment they died? Incredibly (but not unsurprisingly when you think about it), we need to go right back to the start of the Bible to understand what is happening near the end of it. In the Garden of Eden, God created human beings to be in perfect relationship with Him. The Bible shows us that God is a relational being who chose to create humans, not because he needed them, but because he wanted them. He wanted to pour out love on them and have them enjoy and delight in him. The relationship was perfect at first but very quickly Adam and Eve separated themselves from God. They did something to upset him. They disobeyed him. Sin is a jargon-y word that lots of people don’t understand but it simply means anything that you do to upset God. And so by disobeying Him, Adam and Eve sinned for the first time. Now God it so utterly perfect that He cannot stand sin. He can’t even be in its presence. And so no sinful being can approach him. In that way, the perfect relationship was broken and humans became distanced from God. Now this is when death as a state of being entered the world. The Bible teaches us that the consequences of sin is death so, whereas Adam and Eve were intended to live forever in harmony with God, by their sin they were now condemned to death. And this was the start of the human story.
The whole of the Old Testament is about God trying to show the humans that they were not good enough or strong enough to mend that broken relationship by themselves. No matter how hard they tried to ‘do better’, they always fell down again. But God was always hinting and showing through this time that He had a plan. He revealed snippets of the plan to prophets, who in turn told the people about a promised Saviour. He even revealed the plan or shadows of the plan in periods of history or individuals’ lives: so many events in the Old Testament act as a metaphor for the main event: Easter. And so, by the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the people were ready and waiting for a Messiah; a Saviour who would bring them back into perfect relationship with God. But they didn’t know how He would do it.
Now, we know that humans are too weak and too fickle to fight through the barrier of sin that is separating them from God. We know that because of the sin that scars their lives, our perfect God would not accept them in his presence even if they could ‘get to Him’. And we know that sin leads to death (the ultimate and permanent separation from God). So what God did was He sent his own Son (God in human form) to sort out the problem on behalf of the humans. Jesus, as a human, is attacking the barrier from the human side but, as God, has the power to push through the barrier. And as Jesus was sinless (because he is God), God will therefore accept Him into His presence. Things are looking up.
As Jesus is dying on the cross, there is far more going on than simply blood streaming, lungs suffocating and pain barriers being reached. On that cross Jesus is doing battle with sin. I cannot even begin to imagine what was going on in the heavenly realms during those 3 hours of darkness. But Jesus had voluntarily taken all the sin of human beings (past, present and future) on his shoulders and death was trying to claim its victory. After all, sin leads to death. Yet at the same time, Jesus is God and sinless and cannot die. And so the battle, the tension was evident.
What we do know is that Jesus cried ‘It is finished!’ meaning His work was done, the plan was complete. We know that the symbolic barrier, the curtain in the temple that separated people from God, was torn in two, showing that the way to God was now open again. And above all we know that on Easter Sunday Jesus rose again. He had died, which meant that all that sin had got what it deserved, but he had also risen. This proves that death could not hold Him. Jesus was sinless, Jesus is God and death has been beaten. This is why Christians celebrate!
So what does all of this mean? It means that the opportunity for relationship with God is here again. However, as sinful humans we still can’t approach God by ourselves. If we want to come back to God, we have to believe that Jesus has created the way and we can only approach God with Jesus at our side. When Jesus took our sins on himself and let death make its claim on them, He gave us in return His sinlessness, His perfection and His victory over death. A kind of ‘swapping places’, like He did with Barabbas – the sinner goes free, while Jesus takes the rap. Now when we approach God, He doesn’t see our sins (which have been dealt with); God sees Jesus and so He welcomes us into His presence, into relationship with Him once more. Can you see how important the Saviour is in all of this? It is only through Jesus that you can have your sins removed, and your future eternal life guaranteed (God now sees you as sinless, so you will beat death too). Jesus is more important than most people realise and this is why He said ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’
Are you ready to trust that Jesus really did all of this for you and come back into relationship with God, the relationship God intended?