January 27, 2021

Classic iMonk: A Good Friday Meditation

As you prepare to commemorate Good Friday, here is a classic Michael Spencer devotion from April, 2007 on “seeing the terrible cost of our salvation.”

My mother had an unusual experience as a teenage girl. She was present at the last public hanging in the United States.

She recalled that day in the mid-1930’s very clearly. It was, she said, like a carnival. Popcorn was being sold by vendors. People were milling about and visiting. The executed man, a young African-American named Rainey Bathea, had been convicted of raping and killing an elderly woman. Of course, the crowd was entertained by the spectacle of public justice.

It would be very strange indeed, if we visited my hometown today and found people wearing the gallows around their necks. It would be bizarre to see buildings with nooses hanging from steeples. It would puzzling to go into a gathering held on the anniversary of that execution and hear people singing songs about the death of Raney Bathea.

It wouldn’t be particularly odd to find some civil rights historian looking into these events, or to find that African-Americans were aware of the day and the execution as part of their history. But to celebrate it? To sing about it with gratitude? To say that such an event should become the defining event of a community’s history? That would be very strange.

This week we’ve asked why we’re still talking about Jesus. I’ve told you four answers:

  • His transformation of individual lives.
  • The discovery of his worth that sets people to following him throughout life.
  • Jesus is “the way” that people are looking for, and “the way” that God shows himself to us.
  • Jesus answers life’s deepest questions.

All of these things are insignificant in comparison to the death of Jesus. No single death in history can compare to the earthquake of meaning that comes from the death of Jesus.

Of course, the death of Jesus alone doesn’t create that significance. Most of Jesus’ followers were no where to be found when he died. It was his resurrection and appearances to his disciples after death that caused those followers to see the death of Jesus differently than all the other deaths, executions, martyrdoms and sacrifices in history.

Jesus’ life ended badly by any measurement.

When things were going well in the life and ministry of Jesus, no one mentioned death. Healings, raisings from the dead, miracles: these don’t focus the mind of death. But at the height of his ministry, Jesus began talking about death. He brought it up repeatedly, mentioned it at inopportune times and refused all advice to change the subject.

When his disciples confessed that he was the Messiah, Jesus began to repeatedly and consistently talk of his coming betrayal, torture and execution. The Bible says that unlike his parable and stories, the talk of death was “plain” and frequent.

When Peter rebuked Jesus, he was told that he was as far from God’s purposes as it was possible to be. When James and John wanted to talk about the appointments that would certainly take place in a “King Jesus administration,” Jesus asked if they were ready for the ultimate baptism of suffering that he was about to undergo?

When Passover came around, the disciples wanted to hear the familiar interpretations of deliverance from Egypt. Instead, Jesus changed the meaning of passover to his own death: this is my body, this is my blood. We may disagree over what Jesus meant, but Jesus knew exactly what he was placing at the center of the consciousness of the disciples: his execution.

Pilate is not eager to crucify Jesus. He would have been happy to release Jesus with a flogging, but the crowd manipulated by the religious leaders convinces him that Jesus should die. Of course, in the end, it is Jesus himself who chooses the cross in the Garden, and at every moment he refuses to turn aside from suffering torment and death.

On the cross, the taunters demand that Jesus give them something truly worth believing by coming down from the cross. Come down so we can believe in you. But Jesus instead embraces the cross, even when an eternity of abandonment floods over him.

Good Friday asks us to stay here, with Jesus, at that moment when he is executed. At the moment, the meaning of the event is hidden. In the light of the resurrection, and eventually in the full light of the coming of the Spirit, the glory of the atonement is revealed. But Good Friday is darkness. It is an execution. It is a bitter and meaningless end of an innocent person.

When the worldling sees the cross, he or she may see many things. Singer Kanye West recently appeared on a magazine cover as the suffering Christ. West sees Jesus as a symbol of his own suffering as an artist, a frequent sentiment among those who feel oppressed and misunderstood. Such interpretations of the cross as expressions of solidarity with suffering or the evil that oppressors perpetrate on the weak are not meaningless, but they miss entirely the meaning of the cross for the Christian. They shrink the cross into something else entirely.

In Romans 5, Paul unpacks what the Christian sees, in the light of the Holy Spirit, on this Good Friday:

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

On the one hand, there are sinners, enemies and those deserving God’s holy wrath. On the other side, there are those reconciled, forgiven, rejoicing and set free. How can these be both one and the same person?

Because Jesus, on the cross, fulfilled his role as the one mediator between a holy God and sinful persons. He, the innocent, took the place of the guilty, becoming guilty in their place. He, the perfectly loved, became the one rejected and under the wrath of God. He wept so we may rejoice. He suffered punishment so that we would never have to be punished.

This is just one of many ways the execution of Jesus becomes the good news of the gospel. On this Good Friday, this is what we see when he come to the cross.

Some of you may have grown up in churches that tried various illustrations to make the removal of sins real. You may have been asked to write your sins on a piece of paper and to put them in a shredder, a trash can, or to burn them in a fire.

Such illustrations are well meaning, but they fall very far from the truth. God doesn’t have a shredder or a bonfire. He has an innocent son. He puts our sins on him, and plunges him under his ocean wave of wrath, sending him to the bottom with our sins tied to him. He punishes his son with our sin, our death and our wrath. In the other side of this amazing story, God tells us that he will give us Christ’s righteousness, purity, “right-ness” and acceptance. The innocent son is lynched; the guilty criminal is adopted, forgiven and celebrated.

When you see this “great exchange,” it is a blinding light. It’s too much for those who understand it. You cannot watch The Passion of the Christ and be munching popcorn. You cannot even tell the story to children without tears. You cannot hear the St. Matthew’s Passion or the old hymns or a simple chorus without tears.

Isaac Watts said “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.” Love? Where?

Can you see it? Do you know what it demands? Have you given your life, your soul, your all to the one who purchased you with his blood?

Master, this day is our day to stand and look. To be amazed and disturbed. This is a day to put away glad songs, and to see the terrible cost of our salvation. This is also a day to believe, and as Watts said, to know what is demanded in the Great Exchange at the heart of the Gospel. Forgive me for living in the shadow of this bloody execution as if it were religious art or a cultural symbol or the inspiration for music or preaching. This is my life, my death, my sin and your love. This is the beating of the heart of a Christian. Give me grace to pause and look. To see, feel, weep and above all, believe and keep on believing. Through Jesus. Amen.


  1. Louis Winthrop says

    Executions can still have this kind of atmosphere, even though they’re not open to the public. People mill around the prison gates. In Texas, if the condemned is black, then a bunch of redneck types can be counted upon to show up and play “Dixie,” stuff like that, and then cheer when midnight arrives. Sometimes people protest against the death penalty. Of course the family will be inside.

    For those who believe that Christ overturned the tables of the money-changers and threatened / flogged them with a whip–and this during the crowded, tense pilgrimage season (think Mecca)–then how can you say that Jesus was innocent? Capital punishment may be a bit much (anyway, the stated charge was actually rebellion against Rome), but…well, how much time do you think I should serve, if I go to the bank and do the same thing?

    • Louis, I think Jesus’ action was intended as, and would have been interpreted as, a public prophetic protest. It was not an act of crime, like your example of robbing or disrupting business at the bank. Israel had a long history of prophets doing similar disruptive acts in order to get the attention of the religious leaders.

    • Gordon McNutt says

      Depends. Which bank are you talking about?

  2. The innocent son is lynched; the guilty criminal is adopted, forgiven and celebrated.

    I struggle with this, and probably always will. I understand that it is one way to view the Cross but can’t accept that it is the only way.

    For a start, it’s an appalling insult to natural justice. In the awful public execution that began the post, what would it have meant if, instead of the rapist and murderer being hanged (assuming he was guilty that is), some other innocent person had offered his life instead and been hanged in his place?

    Would the victims feel that justice had been done? Would anyone?

    The only way God could take our place is if God took responsibility for our sins and that would only work if God was, in fact, responsible for our sins.

    Khanye West has it right, I’d say. He is not the one who has “shrunk” the Cross to something small. Western legalism and the subsitutionary atonement already did that. He’s making a meaning out of it that the Evangelical movement, ever the offspring of the bourgeoisie, would not and does not connect with. It is the meaning sought by the victim, the underdog, the oppressed who cannot open their mouths, who are treated worse than animals in life and in death. The meaning of Auschwitz, of Abu Ghraib, of Goromonzi.

    In this story, Jesus goes once for all into the darkness, goes where God is not, and ransacks Hell. In doing so, his act of love ransacks all the Hells that ever were and ever will be. In history, Jesus’ death happened as it happened; it embraced public humiliation, torture, mockery and physical pain. Worse things have happened to innocent people before and since (read the document “Cries from Goromonzi” for descriptions of small Passions that went on for months instead of merely for hours and which involved sexual violence and rape, to which Jesus was not subjected as far as we know).

    I guess I’m saying that I find the argument that Jesus had to die to appease the wrath of a “holy and just” God unconvincing because the means to this appeasement (innocent death) is so obviously unholy and unjust; and so obviously does nothing whatsoever to address the suffering caused by sin. That may sound heretical to Evangelicals but I don’t think I’m alone in questioning this.

    Sally D
    South Africa

  3. Thanks for enhancing my Good Friday meditation. This is indeed a day for focusing on the “terrible price” He paid for us with reverent gratitude. May His name be forever blessed!

  4. http://www.theopedia.com/Christus_Victor
    Sally, I believe you are espousing what some call the “Christus Victor” understanding of what Jesus did on the cross. “As Gustav Aulén writes [in his book Christus Victor], ‘the work of Christ is first and foremost a victory over the powers which hold mankind in bondage: sin, death, and the devil.’ ” Another quotation from that page above is that the theory was “predominant in the early church and for the first thousand years of church history and supported by all Greek Church Fathers from Irenaeus to John of Damascus. To mention only the most important names Origen, Athanasius, Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John Chrysostom. The Christus Victor view was also dominant among the Latin Fathers of the Patristic period including Ambrose, Augustine, Leo the Great, and Gregory the Great. A major shift occurred when Anselm of Canterbury published his Cur Deos Homo around 1097 AD which marks the point where the predominate understanding of the atonement shifted from the ransom theory to the Satisfaction Doctrine in the Roman Catholic Church and subsequently the Protestant Church. The Eastern Orthodox Church still holds to the Ransom or Christus Victor view. This is built upon the understanding of the atonement put forward by Irenaeus, called ‘recapitulation.’ As the term Christus Victor indicates, the idea of ‘ransom’ should not be seen in terms (as Anselm did) of a business transaction, but more of a rescue or liberation of humanity from the slavery of sin. Unlike the Satisfaction or Penal-substitution views of the atonement rooted in the idea of Christ paying the penalty of sin to satisfy the demands of justice, the Christus Victor view is rooted in the incarnation and how Christ entered into human misery and wickedness and thus redeemed it. Irenaeus called this “‘Recapitulation’ (re-creation). As it is often expressed: ‘Jesus became what we are so that we could become what he is.’ ”

    I am quite satisfied with the Christus Victor view of what happened on the cross myself. I feel it takes away nothing our appreciation for the love that God has for us, his beloved creation.

    I believe there is enough in scripture for folks to hold to either (and sort of both) “theories.” Sometimes I think it is best to say that SOMEHOW Jesus threw open the gates of heaven to all of us. But that’s a simplistic way of thinking of it, I know.

    We also need to remember that the Son was united to the Father and Jesus said that when we saw him, we saw the Father. Now, he wasn’t saying that he WAS the Father, but it helps to put things in perspective when we realize that it was God himself on that cross. God allowed Himself to be killed, loving us all throughout the whole ordeal.

    (Sorry for copying/pasting so much from that page, but I was concerned that not many would read it and I think it is important to understand the Christus Victor view. I have read Gustav’s book. It’s kind of repetitive and I think more “modern” explanations may be better for many of us to read.)

    • In Robert Webber’s classic book Ancient-Future Faith he talks a lot about that Christus Victor view and how it’s the starting point for understanding what he calls “Classical Christianity” which he believed was the key to dealing with postmodernism from a Christian perspective.

    • Thank you Joanie! Much appreciated.

      An Internet friend from Australia pointed me in the direction of Christus Victor earlier today, along with a couple of variations on it.

      It seems to me that the Ransom version of Christus Victor is very close to the scene in CS Lewis’s book The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe where Aslan gives himself as a ransom for Edmund. The theory makes the Devil out – perhaps – to be a bit dimwitted, and portrays Jesus as something of a Trickster figure since like the Witch in CS Lewis’s story, the “powers of darkness” are fooled into engineering their own defeat.

      Which is also just fine with me.

      I like the idea that all of these ways to understand the Cross have some valence and that we should try to hold them in creative tension. But I’m feeling a bit touchy about it at the moment, because my children attended a Baptist sports meeting yesterday and I heard them being regaled for what felt like ages by a presentation of pure undiluted Penal Substitution, since when I’ve been wondering how to provide a better balance for them. Difficult when the predominant local expressions of Christianity seem to take for granted that it’s all about Satisfaction for God.

      Sally D

  5. I too find the Christus Victor view much more understandable and consistent with the Good News. Thank you for sharing that. The ultimate triumph of Good over evil is something we can hold to even in the midst of total blackness. Penal substitution has always seemed to me as if I caused my daughter to die so that I could forgive my dog for barking all night. God sent the Word and the Light into the world, the evil world killed Him, and God raised Him back up to teach us the most powerful lesson of all.

    • Katie in Seattle says

      God sent the Word and the Light into the world, the evil world killed Him, and God raised Him back up to teach us the most powerful lesson of all.

      Thank you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it explained more succintly.

      i left the evangelical church and returned to the Catholic church, partly because I could never grasp the whole “penal substition” thing (among other things).

      • Katie wrote, “i left the evangelical church and returned to the Catholic church, partly because I could never grasp the whole “penal substition” thing (among other things).”

        That’s interesting, Katie, because I noticed that article I linked to said that in 1097 the Roman Catholic church started going with the “Satisfaction” theory as opposed to Christus Victor. BUT…I saw a sermon online that the Franciscan priest who preaches to the Papal household gave in which it was VERY much within the Christus Victor theory. I have tried to find it again and wasn’t able to. You can find some of his sermons at:
        His name is Raniero Cantalamessa. Michael Spencer has linked to a homily or two of his at times so I know Michael likes him. I have read a few of his homilies (sermons) and thought they were great.

  6. Fish wrote, “Penal substitution has always seemed to me as if I caused my daughter to die so that I could forgive my dog for barking all night.”

    Wow, that’s quite a comparison! 🙂

    I am glad that the Christus Victor view resonates with you.

  7. Lukas db says

    C.S. Lewis supported the Christus Victor view, or something like it, in Mere Christianity (Book 2, chapter 4). His explanation of the view, and its rationale, is very simple and coherent; it is this explanation that really helped me understand the theory.

  8. This’ll be my fourth attempt to make a post that comes out with any semblance of coherence. I’ve thought all day on this post and the comments. My old list form seems to work, so I’ll just try that. Online it’s just easier to go down the bullets, I’ve noticed.

    In no particular order…

    a. My understanding is that there’s more that happened in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ than we’ll ever fully understand. The entire thing is so loaded with depth and meaning that we’ll spend eternity wrapping our heads around the entirety of its vast significance.

    b. On some level it’s all-of-the-above: freedom from the bondage of sin and death; the triumph of Light over Darkness; the redemption of a life doomed to die; the restoration of fallen Man with his Maker. Just as we have a myriad of descriptive terms and tiles for God, and just as Jesus had to use so many different pictures to try to describe the Kingdom of God to us, so there are a multitude of descriptions as we try to get a grasp on the Crucifixion. To say, for example, that God is merciful but never discuss that he is just is to skew who and what he is. In the same way, maybe to simply describe the Cross as strictly penal substitution, or strictly a ransom, or strictly good over evil, is to only see part of the picture.

    c. As far as, to use a gross phrase, the idea of “the divine whipping boy” goes (yes, I just cringed using that phrase), remember also that Jesus willingly gave up his life, and he willingly took it up again. I don’t think I’m equipped to get into a full breakdown of the Trinity, but since Jesus was fully man and fully God, then I don’t know that the idea of a father killing his son works as a complete analogy (which is why Scripture winds up, again, using several analogies) because there was more going on.

    d. On the whole good & evil showdown thing, where the analogies fall short is that they wind up putting God and Satan on a scale of equal opposites. I don’t think Satan is stupid, but he has nowhere near God’s scope of understanding and wisdom. Satan’s got a lot of power, but in the end he’s just a fallen angel, not the Almighty. (No, I don’t think you’re trying to imply they’re equals. Just saying.)

    e. Sidenote on the temple thing: one, mostly the argument I hear is that he didn’t actually hit anyone with it; two, evidently no one seemed to have bothered to even go after him about it (that I remember), three, I don’t know that pacifism is inherently a teaching of Jesus, four, what Chaplain Mike said, and, five, that’s actually something I try to remind “WWJD” people to take some caution about — Jesus may have done that, but I don’t know that a repetition of it would be a wise idea.

    Okay, I think that’s everything.

    • Addendum, because I missed something (again): Remember also, in this case, that God is the one offended. So as far as victims go, God, in this case, is the ‘victim,’ meaning he’s the one whom Man has offended. He was the offended; he was the redeemer; he was the executioner, if you will allow me to say it that way.

  9. Thanks for an interesting discussion, folks!

    And Kaci, I was correct…you ARE a bright twenty-something! 🙂

Speak Your Mind