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Three Men, Three Deaths

 

Luke 23:32-43

“Good Friday.” What’s good about it? In mediaeval England it was called “God’s Friday.” Said quickly (and perhaps thoughtlessly) “God’s Friday” became “‘Gd’ Friday.” Really, was it ever God’s Friday? What did he ever do that day besides stand around uselessly? Surely it’s more accurate to speak of Pilate’s Friday. Because of this one Friday Pilate’s name will never be forgotten. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to speak of the crowd’s Friday. After all, the crowd triumphed, howling for Christ’s head until its bloodlust was satisfied.

In many respects there was nothing unique about this Friday. Pilate had executed many people before it and would execute many after it. The crowd was neither better nor worse than any crowd in any era. The city, Jerusalem , Hier Shalem, city of shalom, city of salvation (supposedly) was the city that had always slain the prophets. This Friday was no different.

None the less, Christians have always known that Good Friday genuinely is God’s Friday. Christians have always found God’s Friday anticipated repeatedly in God’s dealing with a rebellious creation. As far back as Genesis 3:15 early-day Christians saw this day anticipated in the declaration that the offspring of woman would crush the serpent’s head, the serpent symbolising sin’s seduction. The sacrificial system of the older testament came to be seen not as efficacious in itself but efficacious inasmuch as the secret substance of its slain animals was the sacrifice of the Lamb of God slain on behalf of everyone everywhere. The culmination of the sacrificial system was the Day of Atonement, when Israel ’s sin was “confessed” upon the scapegoat that was then driven off. (The goat, rather than a sheep, as our Lord’s parable would make plain centuries later; the goat typified rejection at God’s hand.) Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, was serving as priest in the temple’s sacrifice-service when he was told that the son to be born to him would herald the one whose rejection at the hand of the Father would make possible your acceptance and mine.

I: — Israel ’s centuries-long preoccupation with sacrifice adds up to something the early church knew unshakeably: on Good Friday one died for sin. Jesus of Nazareth , Son of God and Messiah of Israel; this one died for sin. The apostles are united in their conviction of this truth. Mark insists that Jesus came to give himself a “ransom” for us. Peter insists that Jesus “bore our sins in his body on the tree.” John speaks repeatedly of our Lord’s “hour”, and by it means only our Lord’s atoning death that reconciles God to us. Paul writes, “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us.”

It’s no wonder that so much of the church is feeble today when so much of the church denies the centrality and cruciality and efficacy of the cross. How central is the cross to the apostolic mind and heart? Fifty per cent of the written gospels discusses one week only of Christ’s life, the last week. How crucial is it? When Jesus speaks of the purpose of his coming and when his followers speak of the purpose of his coming they all point to the singular event of the cross. How efficacious is it? Paul says that the only sermon he has in his briefcase (which sermon, we should note, he will therefore have to repeat again and again) is a sermon about the cross. He calls it “the word of the cross.” He tells any and all that he intends to speak only of “Jesus Christ and him crucified.” With what result? The apostle has seen the hardened unbeliever moved to repentance and the contemptuous scoffer moved to surrender and the uncomprehending dabbler brought to apprehend the wisdom and work and way of God.

A minute ago I spoke of the goat on which the sin of Israel was laid (as it were) on the Day of Atonement. I said that a goat, unlike a sheep, betokened rejection. The Son of God was rejected on Good Friday. His cry of dereliction can mean nothing else. Yet we mustn’t think that the Father cruelly rejected the Son while the Son lovingly identified himself with sinners. “Son of” is a Hebrew expression meaning “of the same nature as.” To speak of Jesus as “Son of God” is to say that Father and Son are one in their nature, one in their purpose, one in its implementation. We must never think that the Father severely judges sin while the Son mercifully bears that judgement. Father and Son are one in their judgement upon sin and one in their absorbing the penalty of sin. Then to say that the Son tasted the most anguished rejection at the Father’s hand is to say that the Father’s heart was seared with the self-same anguish. To say that Jesus died for sin and therein tasted the bitterest death (utter alienation from his Father) is to say that the Father himself tasted the bitterest self-alienation.

All of this adds up to the centrality, cruciality and efficacy of the cross; namely, provision was made for us through the sacrifice of that crucified One who died for sin. To be sure, our Lord wasn’t the only person crucified on Good Friday. Still, his crucifixion was unique: identified as he was with all humankind, he, God-incarnate, made provision for all. He, he alone, died for sin.

II: — The provision our Lord made for you and me he plainly made for the two men who died alongside him. One of them, it should pain us to note, died in sin. This man spurned the provision made for him.

To say he spurned the provision made for him is to speak of loss; ultimate loss, indescribable loss. Still, we can no more deny our Lord’s teaching here than we can deny his teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. The “Jesus” whose teachings – some of them – Pollyanna people deem “gentle, meek and mild” happens to be the Jesus who warned of ultimate loss every day of his public ministry.

Luke tells us a construction accident occurred in first century Palestine when a tower fell on the men building it. It killed them. Some feisty Galileeans decided to test Pilate’s patience when they fomented an insurrection. Pilate executed them. Jesus insisted that the crushed workmen and the executed insurrectionists were no greater sinners than anyone else. “Nevertheless”, says Jesus in making a point out of these events for the benefit of his hearers, “unless you repent you will all similarly perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

“Do you know whom you should fear?”, Jesus asked on another occasion, “Don’t fear humans. What can they do to you, ultimately? You should fear him who can destroy you: God.” (Matthew 10:28) “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) “You’re lying”, his enemies jeered at him. “Am I?”, said Jesus, “Where I’m going, you can’t come. You will die in your sin.” (John 8:21) Then it shouldn’t surprise us, however much it should horrify us, that one fellow in particular did just that.

Scripture speaks of the “riches of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience.” (Rom. 2:4) We are told that we mustn’t presume upon God’s kindness and forbearance and patience. We mustn’t presume upon them just because they are meant to lead us to repentance. God’s kindness and forbearance and patience are never meant to let us indulge our sin but always and only to lead us to repentance. In the Hebrew bible repentance is a turning towards God, a turning towards God that is really a returning to him who has made us, has suffered for us and now claims us. When the Hebrew mind hears of returning to God it thinks in terms of three vivid pictures of returning in everyday life. The first is of an unfaithful wife returning to her husband; the second is of idol-worshippers (in Hebrew ‘the idols’ are ‘the nothings’) returning to the true and living God; the third is of rebel subjects returning to their rightful ruler. The unfaithful wife returns to longstanding, patient love. The idol-worshippers return to truth, to substance, to solidity. The rebel subjects return to legitimate authority.

The riches of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience are meant to induce repentance in us as we return to him to whom we’ve been unfaithful, return to him whose truth we’ve trifled with, return to him whose authority we’ve disregarded and even disdained.

The unrepentant fellow who was crucified alongside Jesus; unrepentant, he frittered away the day of God’s kindness and forbearance and patience. Unrepentant, he refused to turn towards God, refused to return to faithful love and shining truth and rightful authority.

Our Lord had said, “I am the light of the world; anyone who follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” “Don’t give us that,” the disdainful had said then as they say now. “You should know then”, our Lord had continued, “that where I’m going you can’t come. You’ll die in your sin.”

III: — The third fellow, however, died to sin. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” And our Lord’s reply we all know: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:42-3)

What did the fellow mean when he said, “Jesus, remember me”? What’s the force of “remember?” Did the dying felon mean, “Think of me once in a while? Recall me nostalgically now and then?” In fact the fellow meant something very different. Jewish as he was and therefore possessed of a Hebrew mind, he knew that when God remembers someone, that person is granted the innermost longing of his heart, his profoundest aspiration. Hannah of old was publicly distraught and privately frantic on account of her childlessness. Then God “remembered” her, we are told, and she became pregnant with Samuel; with Sam-u-el, whose name means, “I have asked him of God.”

The man dying alongside Jesus, penitent where his partner-in-crime had remained impenitent; this fellow asked Jesus to remember him. He wanted granted to him the innermost longing of his heart and his profoundest aspiration. What was it? We can tell on the basis of what was granted him: “Forever with me, the sin-bleaching one, in paradise forever, today.”

In view of the fact that the word “remember” is richer in Hebrew than we commonly think, we should also probe the Hebrew significance of “today.” Throughout the Hebrew bible “today” refers to the event of God’s incursion, the event of God’s visitation. When “today” occurs God’s visitation is upon us, which visitation we can’t control, can’t manipulate, can’t postpone and then bring back when we are more in the mood or ready for something less inconvenient. “Today” means God has loomed before us now, is acting upon us and speaking to us now, and we trifle with him at our peril.

“Today, when you hear God’s voice, don’t harden your hearts”, both the psalmist and the writer of Hebrews warn us. (Heb. 4:7) “Today I must stay at your house”, Jesus tells Zacchaeus, only to announce at the conclusion of the meal, “Today salvation has come to your house.” (Luke 19:42, 50) When Jesus declares the paralysed man forgiven and sets him back on his feet as well, the bystanders, we are told, “were filled with awe and said, ‘We have seen remarkable things today.’” (Luke 5:26. NIV) “Remarkable”? Of course. “Today” means that eternity has intersected time and the hour of someone’s visitation is upon her.

The penitent criminal knew that his last moment was also the time of his visitation. Our Lord knew it too. He knew that his proximity to the dying man was God’s visitation. The result of this visitation was that the penitent fellow was “remembered.” The man was granted his heart’s innermost longing and his profoundest aspiration; namely, that his sin be purged and he himself be cherished eternally. At the moment of his visitation this man died to sin. To be sure, he could die to it only because someone else had been appointed to die for it. Still, unquestionably he died to it.

IV: — The longer I live the more impressed I am at the unitary voice with which scripture speaks. Decades after the event of Good Friday apostles were speaking of the event in a manner consistent with those who had been eyewitnesses of it. Centuries before the event prophets spoke of the event in the same way. The prophet Ezekiel had written, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?” (Eze. 18:23) Six hundred years later Paul would write to young Timothy, “God our Saviour…desires all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim. 2:4) Peter would write, “The Lord…is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should repent.” (2 Peter 3:9)

God desires all to be saved. He takes no pleasure in the loss of anyone. And in the days of his earthly ministry the Incarnate One himself cried before the city, “How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not.” (Matt. 23:37) Exactly. One fellow died in sin as surely as another fellow died to it. Yet God desires all to be saved and permits all to be saved just because the Son of God died for it.

Then whose Friday is it? Pilate’s Friday? The crowd’s? Good Friday is and always will be God’s Friday. By God’s grace it was also the penitent fellow’s Friday. By God’s grace it has been my Friday too, for years now. And by his grace it may be yours as well.

Victor Shepherd
Good Friday, 2010