If you follow Christ this is both a sobering and wonderful day. Good Friday, we call it. It is the day we believe God in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, allowed himself to be unjustly tried and convicted, scourged with whips that lacerated his flesh into ribbons, and then nailed to a Roman gibbet, in one of the most inhumane forms of execution human beings have dreamed up.
It is a day that poses many questions. One is “why did Jesus permit it?” He told his followers repeatedly that in going to Jerusalem, this is what would happen. And his prayers in Gethsemane (“Father, if it is your will, let this cup pass from me”) strongly suggest that this isn’t about a sick death wish or some heroic gesture. Rather, what it sounds like to me is someone facing a hard, but necessary choice involving personal sacrifice–kind of like the soldier covering the retreat of his comrades, knowing that their safety depends on his willingness to lay down his life.
And in fact, this is what is both sobering and wonderful about this day to me. It is this great exchange, that the apostle Paul speaks of in this way in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
What is sobering is this idea of being made “sin” for us. “Sin” in the singular refers to my basic propensity to reject and rebel against any thought of the living God being in my life. I’ve always thought about it as combination of spiritual adultery and treason–of “going over to the other side.” In some sense, all the things we read about death and judgment are just God’s way of confirming forever the choice I make in my life. Actually, it would be more tortuous to face an eternity with a God who one spent one’s life repudiating. This is a pretty sad state of affairs that the cross of Good Friday faces me with. But it is also wonderful news because it tells me that God has provided a costly way out of the impasse–one who became sin in my place–like the soldier who lays down his life for his buddies.
More than this, there is an exchange that becomes possible because of this day–God’s righteousness for my sin. Volumes have been written about this phrase, “the righteousness of God” that I can’t even begin to summarize in a blog. But what it does signify is that I can become something I wasn’t, someone considered in right standing with God, no longer under the cloud of treason for all my petty and not so petty acts of rebellion, no longer estranged by my spiritual adultery. There is full and free pardon, and reconciliation–the healing of a broken relationship.
Someone has said that the difference between real Christianity and religion is the difference between “do” and “done”. I can’t make this exchange. But I can gratefully receive the exchange made for me. That is why the two little words, “in him” in this verse are so important. It is in Jesus, on the cross, that this exchange took place.
And so I come back to this question of “why did Jesus die?” It seems to me that either it was to accomplish this great exchange, or that it was one of the most colossal follies of history. Why would Jesus die if there was any other way to rescue an estranged humanity for God, or for humanity to rescue itself?
This is what this day means for me. It sobers me to realize what my spiritual treason and adultery cost God. And it utterly amazes me that Christ willingly took that cost on himself to effect this great exchange. I can do no more than stand in wonder at such love that Jesus himself articulated:
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13, NIV)