HAVE YOU EVER WANTED to see Jesus with your own eyes? I certainly have. When reading the Gospels, I try to imagine what it would have been like to be there with Jesus in person—to see his facial expressions and body language, hear his tone of voice, walk with him along the road, listen to him teach in a field or a house somewhere, sit next to him in the synagogue. How lucky the disciples were to do those things.
But I have to admit that when it comes to Jesus’ crucifixion, I’m glad to be a twenty-first century Westerner. It is enough for me to read about his torturous demise on a cross and watch it unfold on the ‘screen’ of my imagination—or perhaps on an actual screen. I don’t mind if the crucifixion I see has been scripted, storyboarded, captured on film, and pieced together in an editing room. It means I can be reminded of the death Jesus died in my place without having to face up to the gory details.
Yet I am conflicted. Part of me yearns to be closer to what happened to my Saviour on that haunting day at Golgotha—‘the place of the skull.’ I can’t shake the feeling that, because I know what happened on Easter Sunday, I habitually skate over the emotions of Good (Ghastly?) Friday. Jesus’ disciples had no such luxury, did they? They weren’t stretched out on their favourite recliner perusing the New Testament at their leisure; nor were they sitting in a darkened cinema watching The Passion of the Christ. They were there in person, looking on while the blood-spattered event played out.1 I wonder what was happening for them as their Lord suffered and died? Perhaps their human experience of his loss is my way into a deeper encounter not only with Good Friday, but with Jesus himself.
Chapter 1: Groundwork
For three unforgettable years, the disciples had walked with the man they knew was the Messiah (or Christ, meaning ‘anointed one’). He was the one promised in the Scriptures, the one who had come from God to save Israel. And Israel sure needed saving: her people had been wedged under the giant thumb of the Roman Empire—oppressed, mistreated, disrespected—for almost a century. The Messiah would save Israel from her enemies and make her into a glorious kingdom. He had come to boot the Romans off the Jewish homeland, and in the process wreak vengeance on them for what they had done to God’s people. And here’s the best part: he had chosen them—a mixed bag of nobodies from rural Galilee—to be his disciples.
Their mission of proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom of God had taken them throughout Judea, Samaria and Galilee. They had been part of a real-life human drama that welcomed outsiders (beggars, cripples, widows, tax collectors, Samaritans) and denied advantage to self-proclaimed insiders (Pharisees, priests, teachers, lawmakers, tycoons). From the start, Jesus had challenged the status quo and offended sensibilities, making himself unpopular with the Jewish religious leaders in Jerusalem; so unpopular, in fact, that they had wanted—still wanted—to kill him.
A few months earlier, Jesus had shocked his disciples by announcing that they were going to Jerusalem where he would suffer many things, be killed, and on the third day be raised to life. He had repeated this prediction a number of times, but they hadn’t really grasped what he was saying; it didn’t fit their idea of who the Messiah was. Titles ascribed to him in Scripture—King of the Jews,2 Saviour of Israel, Son of God, Mighty God—conveyed the idea of invincibility: God’s Messiah cannot die. On arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus had been hailed by the masses who were there for the Passover (an annual Jewish festival celebrating God’s freeing of their ancestors from slavery). His predictions that he would be killed in Jerusalem must have seemed far away to the disciples; he was being welcomed and acclaimed and celebrated. This was surely his hour of victory, when the kingdom would be restored to Israel.
But at the Passover meal, Jesus did and said some things that unsettled them. First, he washed their feet—a job usually performed by a servant because it meant making oneself unclean for the sake of others. Why was the Messiah of God lowering himself in such a manner? Next, he predicted that one of them would betray him. Surely you don’t mean me, Lord? Then he broke some bread, telling them, ‘Take and eat. This is my body’; and passed around a cup of wine, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ Then the biggest shock of all: he told them he would soon be leaving them. ‘Where I am going,’ he explained, ‘you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.’ ‘Lord,’ Peter protested, ‘why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.’ Jesus’ reply must have drilled into his heart: ‘Will you really lay down your life for me? I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.’
Jesus followed up with some words of comfort, encouragement and instruction. He finished by praying for them (along with all who would believe in their message); then they sang a hymn together. It was the calm before the storm. Nothing could prepare them for the horrors to come.
Overtaken by darkness
Just past midnight on Friday morning, Jesus led the exhausted disciples out of Jerusalem, across the Kidron Valley and up the Mount of Olives. ‘You are going to have the light just a little while longer,’ he had said to a crowd at the Passover festival. ‘Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you.’ That very day, the Jewish people would indeed lose their light and be overtaken by darkness. The loss would be felt most intensely by the disciples.
The rest of the night must have felt surreal. First, there was Jesus’ command to Peter, James and John to keep watch while he prayed—a test they failed due to fatigue. They had caught glimpses (during rare wakeful moments) of Jesus throwing himself down before the Almighty, pleading for his life and yet wrestling within himself to remain obedient, his heart so overwhelmed with sorrow that he was perspiring drops of blood. There was the abrupt arrival of Judas with a band of armed thugs—a betrayal from among their own, just as Jesus had predicted. Judas, you traitor! How can you do this to our Lord? How can you do this to us? Then there was the arrest: the men seized Jesus roughly and bound him with rope,3 no doubt cursing him as they did so. Hey! That’s my Lord! Leave him alone! Why are you letting them do that to you, Jesus? There was Peter’s violent reaction: he pulled a sword and slashed wildly at a servant of the high priest, slicing off his ear.4 Then there was the disciples’ escape—a moment so awash with panic that when Mark pulled away from his captor, his clothes tore and he ran off stark-naked.5 Then there was Jesus’ forced march back to the house of Caiaphas the high priest6—a procession shadowed at a safe distance by Peter.7 Then there was the pre-dawn trial, observed by Peter in Caiaphas’s courtyard—a sham investigation in which Jesus was slapped across the face, branded a blasphemer worthy of death, and pummelled mercilessly by the temple guards. Oh no! What are they doing to my Lord? Stop that! Please, stop! Punish them, Lord! Remember who you are! Finally, there was the fulfilment of another prediction from Jesus: Peter denied knowing his Lord three times, the last offence drawing stern eye-contact from Jesus himself. The conscience-stricken disciple ran out of the courtyard, weeping bitterly.
Poor Peter. He had so much passion for following Jesus, and (to that point in his journey) such on-again-off-again courage. I’m glad he was there with Jesus, warts and all, and I’m glad he was so in touch with his pain. He reminds me that when I let Jesus down, I’m letting down my human friend. Am I willing to see Jesus looking at me on those occasions? Am I willing to feel disappointed with my own faintheartedness? Peter also reminds me that, just as there was room for him with Jesus, there is room for me too. Come back, Peter. Jesus loves you.
As the first fingers of light clawed at Jerusalem—the place where the prophets die—the Jewish leaders debated how best to bump off the Son of God. If the Romans hadn’t forbidden them from carrying out executions, it would be a simple matter of stoning him. But as it was, they would need to go cap-in-hand to Pilate, the Roman governor, and make the case that the pathetic-looking Galilean—bound, battered, bruised—was a threat to the vast Roman Empire.
What kind of experience did the disciples live through that morning as the holy city descended into madness? No doubt, they heard the buzz as it spread through Jerusalem, and hurried with many others to Pilate’s palace (the Praetorium). Before long, Pilate came out onto the steps and listened to the Jewish leaders’ accusations against Jesus: ‘We have found this man subverting our nation. He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Messiah, a king’ (that is, a rival to Caesar). It was clear that they wanted him put to death. Then Pilate went back inside, where Jesus was in custody, and began interrogating the accused man. What an anxious wait for the disciples!
After a while, Pilate reappeared on the Praetorium steps. He hadn’t found any basis for a charge against Jesus, he said, and neither had Herod (the official King of the Jews); therefore he would punish Jesus and release him. It was an outcome that gave the disciples little reason for relief. The Jewish leaders, however, immediately went into uproar. ‘No, not him!’ they shouted. ‘Give us Barabbas!’ They began inciting the crowd to demand the release of the notorious killer in line with the governor’s custom at Passover. Moments later, the disciples watched Barabbas walk free. What about Jesus? Set Jesus free! Barabbas is a murderer! Jesus is innocent! How they must have cried out when their Lord was taken away to be flogged.
Imagine them grimacing and lamenting as they stood outside the Praetorium and pictured their dear Lord, bare-backed and shackled to a post, being thrashed with a flagrum—a short whip to which were tied leather thongs containing iron balls and sharp pieces of bone. They knew well that it would flay open his skin, and even some of his muscles, causing extensive bleeding. The pain would be searing, the shock to the body devastating, the blood loss potentially deadly. If things followed their usual course, however, Jesus would survive. The soldiers would then ‘make sport’ of him by any method that took their fancy.
A while later, Pilate emerged onto the steps once more and announced that he was bringing the punished man out to them. As Jesus staggered out gingerly, the governor played to the crowd, shouting, ‘Here is the man!’
The people no doubt erupted, some roaring their approval because of Jesus’ obvious suffering, and others mocking him. Lost in the hullabaloo were the weeping, despairing disciples, who were seeing their Lord for the first time since the pre-dawn hours of that morning. Only Peter had seen him after his beating in the courtyard of the high priest, but that had been under the moonlight. Now they were all looking at him together under the bright morning sun.
There he stood. Twitching. Contorting. Wheezing. Hurting. Bleeding.
It must have been bewildering for the disciples to see their Lord adorned in an elegant purple robe—the colour of royalty—and carrying a sceptre in his right hand. They noticed, too, that he was wearing a crown—and then gasped with horror to see that it was made of thorns; it had been woven together by Pilate’s soldiers and pressed down into his scalp. His face was blotted black and blue, and misshapen due to swelling. The robe was half hanging off one of his shoulders due to the beating he’d received while wearing it. As a result, they could see that he had reddening welts everywhere and long lacerations, some of them deep, wrapping around his torso and upper arms. Large patches of the robe were soaked through with blood.8
The disciples stood and gaped at him, hands cupped over their mouths because of the state he was in. Pilate still wanted to set him free, so he asked the crowd caustically, ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ Imagine the disciples’ alarm when a sudden shout rang out from the Jewish leaders: ‘Crucify! Crucify!’ Please, no! Not crucifixion! Don’t do that to our Lord! The crowd quickly joined in, producing a rhythmic force that pressed in on the disciples from all directions. ‘CRUcify him! CRUcify him!’ No! Please don’t do that to Jesus! ‘CRUcify him! CRUcify him!’ Pilate protested again: he had found no reason to put Jesus to death. ‘CRUcify him! CRUcify him!’ Eventually, faced with a riot, he relented. He washed his hands of the life of an innocent man, handing him over to a barbaric death simply to pacify a bloodthirsty mob. NOOOO!
Chapter 2: Lifted Up
How awful it was for the disciples. They watched their cherished Lord, now dressed in his own clothes but still wearing that brutal crown, swaying and lurching his way through the streets of Jerusalem with a heavy crossbeam on his back. His forearms were bound by rope to the crossbeam’s two ends so that if he fell forward, it landed on top of him and he had to struggle to get up from under it. If he didn’t get up quickly enough, a soldier’s whip would tear mercilessly at his already-shredded skin. The burden, in the end, proved too much for him, so the soldiers pulled one of his followers out of the crowd—Simon from Cyrene—and forced him to carry the crossbeam behind Jesus. Trudging after the two men were many of Jesus’ followers, possibly including the disciples. Among them was a large group of women, one of whom was probably Jesus’ mother Mary. More than a few of these women were wailing at full volume. They were giving voice not only to their own distress, but to the disciples’ distress too.
The sombre procession arrived at Golgotha, a field outside the city of Jerusalem. A gathering of Jesus’ disciples and friends stood watching proceedings from some distance away, probably as a mark of respect for Mary. John, who was Jesus’ closest disciple, also stood near the cross. Gospel-writer Mark tells us succinctly what happened next: ‘And they crucified him.’
A note about crucifixion
Mark and his peers—Matthew, Luke and John—were writing to people of their own era who were familiar with crucifixion, used routinely across the Roman Empire. They didn’t need to explain the procedure, as their original readers knew how it worked.
Jesus was nailed (quite literally) to a wooden cross: one nail through each of his hands and into the crossbeam he had been carrying; and another single nail through both of his feet and into the vertical beam (to which the crossbeam had first been attached). This would have been done while the cross was lying flat on the ground. To accomplish this, Jesus’ arms would have been stretched out as wide and as high above his head as possible—a process that may have dislocated his shoulders—and his legs would have been bent at approximately forty-five degrees.
Once the cross had been lifted up to the vertical position with Jesus on it, the three points at which his body was affixed to the cross would have taken his weight. This would literally have been ‘excruciating’ (or in Latin, ‘excruciare’—the word invented to describe the pain of crucifixion). He would then have had to work out how best to distribute his weight between his hands and his feet. If he pushed down with his leg muscles, his body would rise up so that he was no longer hanging from his hands—but the pain in his feet would be agonising. When he could stand this pain no longer, he could relax his leg muscles and allow his body to hang down—but then the anguish would shift to his hands. Thus he would have had to alternate between the two positions. As his strength slowly diminished, he would have been forced to put his weight on his hands all the time. This, together with a build-up of blood and serum around his heart and lungs, would have increasingly impeded his breathing. As such, he would have died of asphyxiation. This process sometimes took days, but in Jesus’ case it played out more quickly, possibly because he had been flogged so severely.
The well-practised soldiers set about their deadly task. To the top of the vertical beam they hammered a sign that Pilate had dictated: ‘THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.’ Even now, the King was wearing his barbed crown. The soldiers stepped back and surveyed their work, the cross and its wretched prey casting a shadow over them. It was nine o’clock in the morning.
The Son of God (along with two other condemned men, one either side of him) was now languishing on a roughhewn cross in front of a leering, heckling rabble. The bread was broken. The blood of the covenant was flowing. ‘Father, forgive them,’ Jesus prayed loudly, ‘for they do not know what they are doing.’
The disciples were upset to hear people taunting Jesus from all directions. There was the crowd: ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.’ There were the Jewish leaders: ‘He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, “I am the Son of God.”’ The soldiers were joining in the chorus, and so was one of the criminals next to him. The other criminal, however, defended Jesus and asked him to ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’ Mercy from the cross for the guilty—and there was yet more mercy to come. Seeing that his mother was soon to be bereaved of her firstborn son, he said to her (referring to John), ‘Woman, here is your son’; and to John, ‘Here is your mother.’
Jesus’ followers, despite their grief, must have been holding on to hope: God might rescue him, or Jesus might save himself and put the mockers in their place. Nothing less than a miracle would suffice, for no cross had ever let go of the man pinned to it before killing him. Now is the moment, Jesus. Show everyone who you are! Please, we beg you, don’t suffer anymore! Save yourself and Israel too! The Nazarene was their great hope, their matchless Lord, their nation’s mighty Saviour—yet he was still hanging there, nailed to a cross.
Groaning. Shuddering. Crying. Writhing. Sighing. Arching. Calling. Heaving. Slumping.
Suddenly, darkness. No one knew why; it was midday. Perhaps the disappearance of the sun was a sign? The people fell into awed silence, their taunting of Jesus on hold while they stared uneasily up at the heavens. The disciples were also gazing skyward—in awe, yes, but also in suspense. There was still a grain of hope that Jesus, who had performed miracles in front of their eyes, would perform one more. They waited and pined and ached while the slow torture of their Lord continued, his moans puncturing the bleakness. Eventually, at three o’clock in the afternoon, a definitive movement. Was this it? Jesus bent his back and forced out a heart-rending question that implied no miracle was on offer: ‘MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?’
He had been on the cross for six hours. From close up, John could see that he was gaunt, his skin pallid, his wounds enflamed, his hair matted with blood, his body in paroxysms. His pain, it seemed, hadn’t diminished in the least. Now he appeared restless, as if trying to say something. The soldiers craned toward him. They, with John, heard him say in a gravelly voice, ‘I am thirsty.’ One of the soldiers soaked a sponge in some wine vinegar, gored it with the end of a long stalk, and passed it up to him. Jesus allowed the sponge to touch his lips and drew back on it weakly for a few seconds, swallowing reflexively. His breathing was becoming rapid and narrow, and his head was starting to loll. He said softly, ‘It is finished.’
The disciples, still some distance away, must have goggled through their tears at what they saw next. Without warning, Jesus suddenly seemed to find some strength. Drawing breath and stiffening his body against the nails, he cried out, ‘FATHER, INTO YOUR HANDS’—and now John saw him become slightly breathless and emit a tear—‘I commit my Spirit.’ And he bowed his head.
For the disciples, that moment felt like the end. The man who had changed everything had died, and everything that mattered to them had died with him. Their Messiah, their Lord, their King, their Teacher, their Saviour, their light, their love—gone. He wasn’t breathing anymore; he wasn’t with them anymore. He had left them alone, like sheep without a shepherd.
What were they to do now? Where were they to go? They felt nothing inside and saw nothing ahead. The last flicker of hope had been extinguished.
- John tells us that Jesus, while on the cross, saw ‘the disciple whom he loved standing nearby’ (John 19:26). John also uses this term on three other occasions (John 13:22; 21:7,20). The disciple in question is generally thought to be John (the author of John’s Gospel), who presumably did not want to draw undue attention to himself or detract from the attention that he thought was owing to Jesus. We can be confident that the other disciples also witnessed the crucifixion because Luke tells us that ‘all those who knew [Jesus], including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching [the crucifixion]’ (Luke 23:49). The only member of the Twelve who definitely wasn’t present at Golgotha was Judas. He had hanged himself due to his remorse at having betrayed an innocent man (Matthew 27:3,5).
- The prophet Nathan predicted that the Messiah would be King of an everlasting kingdom (2 Samuel 7:12-13)—that is, of the eternal ‘Israel’ comprising all who believe in Jesus.
- John 18:12. John’s Gospel records a fascinating incident that occurred just prior to Jesus’ arrest. Jesus approached the armed men and asked them who they were looking for. When they answered ‘Jesus of Nazareth,’ he declared, ‘I am he.’ At this, they all drew back from him and fell to the ground (John 18:4-6).
- Matthew 26:51. Despite the fact that Jesus was on the verge of being arrested when he had done nothing wrong, he was gracious enough to heal the servant’s ear with nonchalant ease; a simple touch is all it took (Luke 22:51).
- Christian tradition identifies the ‘young man’ described in Mark 14:51-52 as John Mark, author of Mark’s Gospel.
- John records that Jesus first stood before Caiaphas’s father-in-law Annas (John 18:13), who questioned him before sending him to Caiaphas (John 18:24).
- Matthew 26:57 says that ‘those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest.’ The short journey from Gethsemane to Jerusalem would presumably have been made in a strictly controlled way so that Jesus couldn’t escape, and so that his followers (who had fled in any case) would be unlikely to attempt a rescue.
- More than half a century later, when John was an old man, he saw an apocalyptic vision of a mysterious figure who is ‘dressed in a robe dipped in blood’ (Revelation 19:13). His eyes are ‘like blazing fire’ (all-seeing) and ‘on his head are many crowns.’ He ‘judges and wages war’ (Revelation 19:11-12), John tells us, and ‘his name is the Word of God’ (Revelation 19:13). Who is he? He is very clearly the ascended Jesus Christ. This is supported by the fact that John refers elsewhere to Jesus using the epithet, ‘the Word’ (John 1:1,14; 1 John 1:1). We are not told in any of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion whether his robe actually had blood on it, but it does seem plausible. More importantly, it serves a theological principle: the man who allowed his blood to be spilt for our salvation on Good Friday is the eternal and omniscient judge of all the earth.