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’ (Matthew 27:33). 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.
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 (Matthew 4:23; 9:35; 11:5; Mark 1:15; Luke 4:18,43) 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 (Matthew 12:14; Mark 3:6; John 5:18).
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 (Matthew 16:21). He had repeated this prediction a number of times (Matthew 17:22-23; 20:18-19), 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 (Jeremiah 23:5-6; see also Jeremiah 33:15-16), Son of God (2 Samuel 7:14), Mighty God (Isaiah 9:6)—conveyed the idea of invincibility: God’s Messiah cannot die. On arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus had been hailed by the masses (Matthew 21:8-9; John 12:13) 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 (John 13:4-5)—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 (Mark 14:18). Surely you don’t mean me, Lord? (Matthew 26:22). Then He broke some bread, telling them, ‘Take and eat. This is My body (Matthew 26:26-28); 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’ (Matthew 26:26-28). 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’ (John 13:33,36). ‘Lord,’ Peter protested, ‘why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you’ (John 13:37). 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’ (John 13:38; Luke 22:34).
Jesus followed up with some words of comfort, encouragement and instruction (John 14-16). He finished by praying for them (along with all who would believe in their message) (John 17:6-26); then they sang a hymn together (Matthew 26:30). 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’ (John 12:35), He had said to a crowd at the Passover festival. ‘Walk while you have the light, before darkness overtakes you’ (John 12:35). 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 (Matthew 26:38,41,44)—a test they failed due to fatigue (Matthew 26:40,43,45). 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 (Matthew 26:38; Luke 22:44). There was the abrupt arrival of Judas with a band of armed thugs (Matthew 26:47)—a betrayal from among their own, just as Jesus had predicted (Matthew 26:25; John 13:26). 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 (Matthew 26:56)—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 (John 18:22), branded a blasphemer worthy of death (Matthew 26:65-66), and pummelled mercilessly by the temple guards (Matthew 26:67-68). 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 (Matthew 26:70,72,74), the last offence drawing stern eye-contact from Jesus Himself (Luke 22:61). The conscience-stricken disciple ran out of the courtyard, weeping bitterly (Matthew 26:75).
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 (Mark 15:1). 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 (John 18:29): ‘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) (Luke 23:2). It was clear that they wanted Him put to death (John 18:31). 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 (Luke 23:14-16). 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!’ (John 18:40). 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 (Luke 23:25). 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 (John 19:1).
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 (John 19:4). As Jesus staggered out gingerly, the governor played to the crowd, shouting, ‘Here is the man!’ (John 19:5).
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 gawped 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!’ (John 19:6). 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!’ (Luke 23:21) 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 (Matthew 27:24), handing Him over to a barbaric death simply to pacify a bloodthirsty mob. NOOOO!… Go to Part 2
- 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.