To say that today is GOOD Friday might easily leave someone with the wrong impression. What is good about the events we commemorate today, and what makes it GOOD is ultimately what God did with the absolutely worst thing that we humans did on this day. It is a day of the ultimate paradox – we did the worst thing we could possibly do as a race, in fear, jealousy and ruthless expedience we killed the God who came to rescue us. It was an action that honestly warrants our destruction.

It occurs to me to talk about the various characters and the choices they made in the real-life drama that played itself out in and around Jerusalem, Israel nineteen hundred and ninety-some years ago. Those choices got us ultimately to what we celebrate and grieve as Good Friday.

Let’s start with the High Priest, Caiaphas, the Sanhedrin, and the Pharisees. This is an interesting and difficult time to be a leader in Israel. Jerusalem fell to the Roman General Pompey in 63BCE and they were incorporated into the Jewish province of Judaea. While they were allowed to continue to practice their own religion and keep a modicum of self-rule, they, like all of the other conquered countries came under Roman rule. In 40BCE Herod, later to become known as Herod the Great, was installed by the Roman Senate as the: “King of the Jews”. The Romans took responsibility for naming and installing the high priest, which in Judaism of this time was the dual responsibility of both the highest religious and political leader of the nation. (a combination of Pope and Prime Minister if you will) Ultimately the High Priest and his council, called the Sanhedrin, were responsible for the day-to-day operation of the nation of Israel. Rome charged them with two primary functions above all else: keeping the peace and making sure the tributes or taxes were paid to Rome. The Roman Prefect, a regional government official, (who at this time was Pontius Pilate) was installed by the Roman government and supported by a Roman garrison of 3000 soldiers. The Prefects duties were primarily to hold the High Priest and Sanhedrin responsible for fulfilling their charge to keep the peace and pay the taxes. We will get back to Pilate in a minute. Meanwhile, the High Priest and Sanhedrin were also responsible for the purity and proper functioning of Judaism and Temple worship. 

Meanwhile, Jesus, the itinerant preacher of immense populous fame was causing these rulers significant worry on both the peace and the religious fronts.

In John 11 we hear of the conversation between Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin in response to Jesus growing popularity after he raised Lazarus from the dead. We know that there was a grassroots populace swell of wanting to anoint Jesus King with the idea he would help the nation throw off Roman rule. We also know that Jesus had repeatedly challenged and clashed with the Sanhedrin and Pharisees over the purity and proper functioning of the way they were practicing the Jewish religion. He publicly called them blind guides, broods of vipers, and white-washed tombs full of dead men’s bones. Not exactly the kind of language one uses to to win friends and influence people. Here is their conversation from John 11.

“What are we accomplishing?” they (the Sanhedrin) asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.”

Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.”

As Mr. Spock from the Star Trek movies would say: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one.” It made sense to them that killing Jesus was in the national interest. And so the choice was made, for the sake of the stability of the nation, both politically and religiously, it was their decision to make sure Jesus was killed. I’m sure they felt that killing Jesus was a good and noble course of action because it eliminated a double threat to their nation, not to mention their own power and stability. 

Pilate is an interesting character. He served as Roman Prefect for 10 years in Judea. Remember, the Romans did give a great deal of latitude to conquered countries as long as they cooperated by keeping the peace and paying their taxes. The Romans did, however, tend to take a particularly harsh approach to quell any hint of insurrection. Crucifixion, which was an absolutely horrible way to be executed, was one example of how they treated people who got sideways with them. They were quick and brutal and very effective at making public examples of people or whole nations as a deterrent to keep their conquered people in line. We know that by the time Jesus is brought to him for trial, Pilate and Caiaphas have been working together for 3-4 years. What is so interesting is that according to the Scripture, Pilate found Jesus innocent and understood at least some of the dynamics between Jesus and the Sanhedrin. Despite finding him innocent, he chose first to have him flogged, and then, with the pomp of washing his hands of the matter as though he was not responsible for what happened to Jesus, handed him over to be executed. One can best surmise that his decision to execute Jesus was at least partly motivated by political expedience. Matthew fills us in on some of the details when he tells us that as Pilate was trying to release Jesus and saw the reaction of the Jews: “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” So ultimately if executing an innocent man kept the peace and placated the High Priest and Sanhedrin, then so be it. Innocence and guilt and ultimately justice were not the primary considerations for Pilates decision. 

Judas – it’s hard to know what to make of Judas’ decision to go through with the betrayal. We are not given a definitive answer as to why he decided to go to the High Priest to betray Jesus. It is at least hinted at that Judas’ betrayal was motivated by greed or personal ambition. All 4 gospels mention that he received payment for his betrayal. John says that Judas was pilfering from the money collected and was greedy. One other theory is the speculation that Judas had grown disillusioned with Jesus because Jesus was not the political or military messiah the people had been waiting for. Some have even speculated that Judas’ intention was to motivate Jesus to reveal himself as the military and political messiah by forcing his hand and having him arrested. Whatever the reason he used to justify that betraying Jesus to the authorities who were seeking to kill him was a good idea, the Bible is clear that once he made the decision Satan entered into him. It is not clear exactly what that means or how that worked but what is clear is that Judas was misguided enough in his own heart and thinking that he gave himself over to be a tool used by Satan. That decision had extreme consequences for both he and Jesus. Jesus said of Judas that it would ultimately have been better for him to never have been born than to do what he did. Matthew reports that the next day, when Judas saw that Jesus had been condemned he regretted his decision to betray innocent blood and tried to return the money then went and hanged himself. 

Peter – there is so much that I personally love about Peter. He is portrayed as all in and most likely was Jesus’s best friend. He also seems to me to be a man with a penchant for writing checks with his mouth that his character couldn’t cash. Just on Good Friday alone he fought Jesus about getting his feet washed, declared that he would die with and for Jesus, resorted to violence and cut off someone’s ear in trying to protect Jesus, out of loyalty followed Jesus to the house where the trial was happening, and then ultimately, in a great test of character, had his character sifted like wheat as he succumbed to fear and self-preservation and denied even knowing Jesus when others in the courtyard began to identify him as one of Jesus associates. His last denial apparently included cursing as a means to emphasis his point. He ended up weeping bitterly as a consequence. It is interesting that there is no specific record in the Bible of any of Jesus’ disciples except John, being physically present at his crucifixion. We don’t know if Peter chose to be there or not. It is not hard, given the circumstances, to understand why Peter was reluctant to believe the initial reports that Jesus had risen from the dead on Easter morning. 

I want to spend a minute to consider the Soldiers who crucified Jesus. It seems an understatement to say human history is replete with examples of human cruelty and barbarism. This was no exception. The soldiers put a purple robe on him, wove a crown of thorns, gave him a staff, and knelt before him to mock him. Then they spit on him and beat him with the staff before they whipped him and finally executed him by driving nails through his hands and feet and hung him on a cross to die in slow agony. Psychologists who have studied such things tell us that to allow yourself to treat someone with such cruelty you first have to dehumanize them. They can’t be someone’s son or father or brother. Instead, they have to be somehow seen as less than a human deserving dignity and justice. That was the choice the soldiers made. 

For Jesus’ part, his choice, although difficult, is clearly made and unwaveringly followed through on. His choices are portrayed as being built on the dual pillars of obedience to God’s will and his love for humanity. It is so interesting for us to consider that in these moments and moving through those real circumstances that Jesus had real choices he was free to make. He was not a puppet or on some kind of God-ordained autopilot. If he was in fact fully human, then he was free to choose. All four gospels tell us repeatedly that Jesus had foreknowledge of what was going to happen to him if he chose to submit to drinking the cup of God’s will to the dredges. He knew that betrayal, abandonment, torture, and execution were the consequences of his yes. He knew that when they struck the shepherd the sheep he was leading would scatter and abandon him. I have come to believe that he had to know so he could choose to go through with it. I can’t help but think that part of his mission as the second Adam was to make better choices than the first one. The Gospel of John tells us so much about how Jesus tried to prepare his disciples on that last night and how the decision to obey was so painful that Jesus literally sweat blood over the anxiety of what it meant to say yes. Jesus had previously declared that he was laying down his life of his own accord and that he had the authority to lay it down and take it up again. He made it perfectly clear that no one was doing anything to him he did not allow to happen. Interestingly in Matthew, in response to Peter cutting off the servant’s ear Jesus tells Peter that he was free, even at that moment, to ask the Father and immediately 60,000 armed angels will be dispatched to fight for him if he so desired. The implication of that statement seems to be that Jesus was also at this point free to put an end to evil in this world by force without providing the redemption brought by the cross. (an interesting thought) So the picture is that motivated by love, the love of God that desires all people to be saved, that Jesus chose to willingly subject himself to violence, torture and death. In so doing, the innocent would choose to die for the guilty and the great reversal would therefore be empowered to occur. 

The High Priest and Sanhedrin appear to have been motivated by a combination of fear, jealousy, personal offense, a threat to their power, and fear for the national wellbeing. Pilate appeared to be motivated by keeping the peace and a willingness to sacrifice Jesus’ life for political expedience. While it’s not clear what Judas’s ultimate motives were we know they were misguided and self-serving enough as to be evil. Ultimately it seems that Peter’s love and loyalty were overwhelmed by his fear. The soldiers, for the sake of duty or the good of Rome decided to dehumanize Jesus and punish him with brutality. All of them made violent choices that can ultimately be described as self-serving in one form or another.

And then there is Jesus, who despite his natural reluctance to suffer, motivated by love, willingly absorbed violence for the true greater good. He allowed himself to be led like a lamb to the slaughter at the whim of corrupt powers that existed then and still exist today. And he did it for all of us. The innocent choosing to experience what the guilty deserve so the guilty wouldn’t have to.

And in that choice, Jesus enabled the great reversal. We, armed with our misguided power, fear, jealousy, religious fervor, ruthless expedience, dehumanization of others and justifying ourselves for the rightness of our violence killed the God who came to save us. It was the worst thing we could have done. 

And it was the very thing God used to redeem us. 

So on this Good Friday stand in awe and wonder of the choices made and the price paid on your behalf. On this Good Friday tremble in the presence of such love. On this Good Friday give your whole heart to follow the one whose hands, feet, and side were pierced in response to love for you. 

He is worthy of our praise.