Every year on Good Friday, we slow down for a moment to take time to really reflect on just what happened at the cross. We reflect on how Jesus, hanging on the cross, paid for the sins of all mankind—including your sins and mine. This is what makes Good Friday good. But the question I want to focus on this evening is why was it necessary? Why did Jesus have to die? I believe the answer to that question will help us to reflect on Good Friday with the right perspective.
One of the most popular depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus is the movie, the Passion of the Christ. It portrays a gruesome picture of what the death of Jesus was probably like. The focus of the film is the physical agony that Jesus faced during the crucifixion. Watching the movie, however, you find yourself left with a big question…why? Why was all this necessary? Why would God let all of this happen? Wasn’t there another way?
In order to find the answer to that question, we need to look backward, to what the Old Testament prophecies said about the Messiah. One of the most well-known (and most telling) prophecies is found in Isaiah 53, and that is where we will turn our attention this evening.
He Died to Pay for Our Sin
The reason Jesus had to die on the cross of Calvary is that you and I are sinful people who deserve condemnation. We deserve to be punished for our sin, and there’s not really anything we can do to spare ourselves from that punishment. Jesus died in order to pay the penalty for our sin. The whole point of Jesus’ death was to accomplish something that we could not accomplish for ourselves. On the cross, Jesus took the penalty for our sin upon himself. Listen to how Isaiah describes the Messiah’s purpose.
3 He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way. He was despised, and we did not care. 4 Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God, a punishment for his own sins! 5 But he was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed. 6 All of us, like sheep, have strayed away. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the sins of us all. (Isaiah 53: 3-6, NLT)
Isaiah says Jesus would be pierced for our rebellion and crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be made whole and He was whipped so we could be healed. Jesus’ purpose in coming to earth was to take on himself the penalty for our sins. One of the questions some people ask is why it was necessary for God to punish Jesus in the first place. Couldn’t God have simply overlooked our sin? Couldn’t God simply declare us to be not guilty? After all, he’s God, right?
Lots of people like this notion, because the idea of a God who punishes sin is scary and uncomfortable. People would much rather imagine God as someone who declares that our sin is “no big deal” and so He will simply overlook it. But God cannot simply overlook sin—it is against His nature.
There are people who conclude that since God does not simply overlook our sin and demands payment for it means that He is an uncaring monster who only wants to carry out vengeance for the way people have slighted him. They see God as petty and childish. But those who take such a view are seeing things far too narrowly. They only look at how God responds to them, but not how God’s response to us impacts everyone else.
Imagine a situation where someone has done great harm to your family. Maybe they have stolen from you, caused terrible injury or even death to a member of your family, or have irreparably damaged something you hold dear. In order to rectify the situation, you go before a judge, who hears your case. At the end of the case, the judge sides with you, concluding that the other person was absolutely guilty of the crime of which they had been accused. Despite finding the person guilty, though, the judge decides to simply overlook the offense and act as though it had never happened. What would we think of such a judge? We would think of him or her as unfit for the job and unconcerned with truly upholding the law.
The same is true with God. Because He is good, He is concerned with truth and with doing what is right. As a result, His character demands that He punish sin. If sin were to go unpunished, if He were to simply let it slide, God would not be good.
Jesus came to the earth to offer us forgiveness while still fulfilling the requirements of the law. His purpose in coming to earth was simple—He came in order to allow himself to be punished for our sins.
As we look at the cross, we cannot help but be reminded that Jesus died and suffered and was punished because of what I have done and what you have done. The reason Jesus had to die was because of us and our sin. That fact makes us uncomfortable—and it should! It is through Jesus that we begin to see the horror of our own sin. But when we see the horror of our sin, we have a much greater appreciation for the forgiveness that is offered by Jesus.
Many artists who have sought to portray the crucifixion of Jesus have understood the importance of this point. Rather than seeking to pardon themselves from culpability in the crucifixion of Jesus, they take full responsibility, recognizing that it is because of their sin that Jesus had to die. Rembrandt, in his painting depicting the crucifixion not only portrayed Jesus, but he portrayed himself as the one who was part of the crucifixion. Mel Gibson, when he made the movie, The Passion of the Christ, was insistent that when it came time to drive the nails into Jesus’ hands, he needed to be the one to do it—he understood that because of his own sin he had already, in essence, helped nail Jesus to the cross.
It is uncomfortable to think about our sin having such dire consequences, but until we understand the magnitude of our sin, we cannot understand the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice and the magnitude of his gift.
He Was Innocent But Died Willingly
Jesus was different from every other human being that ever lived. Unlike every other human being, Jesus didn’t sin. It was because of his sinlessness that Jesus was the only person whose life could be used as payment for sin, because he had no sin of his own, and therefore had no penalty he had to pay. Jesus was innocent, and did not deserve the punishment he received, but he went to the cross willingly for us. Isaiah echoes this truth of the sinlessness of the Messiah, but goes even a step further in describing how the Messiah would live.
He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. 8 Unjustly condemned, he was led away. No one cared that he died without descendants, that his life was cut short in midstream. But he was struck down for the rebellion of my people. 9 He had done no wrong and had never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave.
Isaiah tells us that Jesus was unjustly condemned and that he had done no wrong and never deceived anyone. Jesus was completely innocent and didn’t deserve the punishment he received. But the other picture Isaiah paints for us is of a willing sacrifice. Someone who didn’t have to die, but did it anyway.
Isaiah described Jesus as being like a sheep that was silent as it was being sheared, or a lamb being led to the slaughter. He was making the point that Jesus did not try to fight back as he faced the crucifixion. He could have summoned all of the forces of heaven to oppose his accusers. He could have sent a legion of angels to fight against the Roman soldiers, but he didn’t. He could have stepped down from the cross and spared himself the punishment that lay ahead. But he didn’t. Jesus submitted himself to the agony of the cross, and bore God’s wrath for our sin.
We see the heart of Jesus most clearly on the night on which he was betrayed, as he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. As he prayed with great intensity, we get a glimpse of his heart.
“Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine.” (Luke 22:42, NLT)
Jesus knew what lay ahead for him. He knew that he would be beaten to within an inch of his life, then nailed to a cross and left to hang there until he died either from suffocation or heart failure. But he also knew the suffering that lay ahead of him was beyond simply the physical agony. He knew that he had to face the “cup of suffering”—the cup of God’s wrath. He knew that if he went forward, he would ultimately face all of the wrath, all of the penalty for all of the sin which we had earned. As He prayed to the Father, He knew what He was planning to accomplish, but He also wanted to spare himself of that agony if there was another way. He knew exactly what lay ahead, but he went willingly, because He knew that it needed to be done.
This is precisely the reason why we call Good Friday good. It is at the cross that the love of God is most clearly revealed. At first blush, it seems as though there couldn’t possibly be anything good about the murder of an innocent man, but when that innocent man willingly surrenders his life in order to take on the penalty that you deserve, it is the epitome of good.
His Death Accomplished Something
If Jesus was simply a great teacher who was misunderstood and ultimately killed for his teachings, then Good Friday really wouldn’t be a day to celebrate; it would be a tremendous tragedy—a man whose life was unfairly cut short. Jesus’ life was unfairly cut short, but it was by his choice. The reason he chose to submit to this path was because he knew the end result—the forgiveness of sins for all who would believe.
10 But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and cause him grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have many descendants. He will enjoy a long life, and the Lord’s good plan will prosper in his hands. 11 When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of his experience, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins. 12 I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier, because he exposed himself to death. He was counted among the rebels. He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels. (Isaiah 53:10-12, NLT)
Verse 11 gives us the perfect depiction of why Jesus went to the cross—because he knew that by going to the cross for us, by willingly taking on our sins, we could be viewed by God as whole again—our sins would no longer be on our record. Jesus knew that because of what he did, we could be forgiven.
It is amazing what we are willing to go through when we know what it will accomplish. People willingly undergo painful surgeries and treatments because they know that those treatments will eventually lead to health. Women who have given birth to a child once before willingly get pregnant, knowing full-well what they will have to endure over the course of the pregnancy and delivery because they know that in the end it will be worth it. Many of you have spent many sleepless nights working to complete an educational program because you know what doing so will accomplish. We are willing to endure hardship when we know that hardship will accomplish something worthwhile.
The same principle was at work at the cross. Jesus knew what lay ahead of him. He knew the suffering he would need to endure, but he willingly went to the cross anyhow, because he knew that it would accomplish something that would make it all worth it.
I am often amazed when I hear about someone who is willing to donate an organ to someone else. The process of harvesting an organ is incredibly invasive, and the donor will face a long time of recovery, and they are putting themselves at risk. Why do they go ahead with the donation? Love! The donor knows that by going through this pain, they will provide life for the other person.
I hope you see the parallel here. Jesus died and faced the punishment of your sins because he believed that you were worth saving. He believed that seeing you restored to right standing before God was worth it. Jesus endured the cross because He loved you.
I can only imagine the feeling an organ donor must have 10 years after they’ve donated their organ and they see the person whose life they saved. They get to see the person living a full and vibrant life, all because of what was accomplished by the donor’s gift. I imagine Jesus looking at us in a way that is similar to that organ donor. No matter what is going on in your life right now, Jesus looks at you with pride and love. He knows that you have a new relationship with God because he died in your place. He knows that you will experience eternal life because of His sacrifice. And as he looks at you, He knows that it was all worth it.
The reason we celebrate Good Friday is because Jesus willingly offered himself as a sacrifice to pay for our sin. We were helpless in our sinful condition, with no hope of fixing things for ourselves. Our only hope was and is the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
Practically speaking, if we remember what Jesus did at the cross, it should change the way we live. We should no longer live as people who feel defeated and unworthy. We are still going to sin, but the cross reminds us that God doesn’t turn his back on us. If we have trusted in what Jesus did on the cross, then we are forgiven, even though we don’t deserve to be. Even when we feel like we have messed up so badly that God could never accept us, the cross reminds us that Jesus paid for every one of our sins at Calvary. We no longer need to bear the shame for our past sins, we no longer need to feel like second-class citizens because we don’t measure up. Jesus Christ, the One who created the world saw you as valuable enough to willingly sacrifice himself in order to set you free—so you are free indeed!
As we look at the cross, we should have conflicting emotions. On the one hand we feel an unspeakable joy at what we have received through Jesus. But on the other hand we feel shame and guilt because we know that Jesus had to die because of us. The joy of Good Friday comes from understanding both of these truths, and understanding that Jesus went to the cross willingly, knowing what lay ahead, because He loved us. He knew what his death would accomplish, and so he was willing to endure the scorn of the cross. He was willing to be “pierced for our rebellion” and “crushed for our sins” because he knew that by his suffering, we could be healed. And that’s why we call it “Good” Friday.