by Justin Dillehay
I once saw a comic strip of B.C. by Johnny Hart. You know, the one where all the characters are cave men? In this particular piece, two of the characters are talking, and one of them says “I hate the term ‘Good Friday.’” “Why?” the other asks. “Because my Lord was hanged on a tree that day,” he replies.
You can kind of see his point, can’t you? A bloody execution isn’t the sort of thing that usually comes to mind when we hear the word “good.” When the stock market crashed in October 1929, they didn’t call it Good Tuesday; they called it Black Tuesday. When 30 Irish protestors were shot and killed in 1972, they didn’t call it Good Sunday; they called it Bloody Sunday.
So why Good Friday? Why not Dark Friday or Sad Friday or Bloody Friday or Tragic Friday?
Given the fact that our Lord was hanged on a tree this day, why do we call it Good Friday? I’d like to offer three answers to this question, all drawn from the Gospel of Mark.
I. Because of Who Jesus Was
One of the reasons Black Tuesday was black is that those stock-holders didn’t wake up that morning planning to lose all their money. They had no control over the crash that day, and they were powerless to stop it. Because they were just ordinary people like you and me. That’s who they were.
But what about Jesus? Who was he? The answer to that question makes all the difference in the world as to whether that Friday was actually good, or whether Jesus was simply a powerless victim like the stock-holders on Black Tuesday.
So who was this man on the middle cross? That’s the question. And Mark spends the first half of his Gospel answering it.
And he doesn’t waste any time telling us. In the very first sentence of the book—chapter 1 verse 1—Mark says: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). Spoiler alert. Not to kill the suspense or anything, but the person you’re about to meet—the man who dies on a cross at the end of this book—he was no ordinary man. He was the Son of God.
Just a few verses later in chapter 1, we hear it again. When Jesus is baptized, God the Father speaks from heaven and says “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased” (1:11). Even the demons know who he is—in chapter 3:11 Mark says that “…whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and cried out, “You are the Son of God.”
So Mark tells us straight up who Jesus is. But he also shows us what that looks like. Beginning in chapter 4, Mark gives us a series of four miracle stories in which Jesus stops a stormy wind (4:35-41), commands an army of demons (5:1-20), heals an incurable disease (5:25-34), and raises a little girl from the dead (5:35-43).
And when Jesus stopped that stormy wind, the question his disciples were asking was “Who is this man? Who is this man that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (4:41). Mark has already told us the answer. Now he’s showing us. This is a man who can stop a storm with his voice! This is a man with extraordinary power. So by the time we get to Good Friday in chapter 15, and we see this man on the cross, Mark expects us to realize, “This is no powerless victim. Surely a man who can control the weather and bring a dead girl back to life could stop these men from killing him if he wanted to.”
Everything Mark has told us about Jesus tells us that the soldiers were not simply taking his life—he was laying it down freely and according to plan. Good Friday wasn’t some surprise that took Jesus off guard. In fact, earlier in Mark there are three separate times in which Jesus predicts his own death. In 10:33 he says this:
“We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him.” (10:33-34)
Jesus knew what was coming on Good Friday, and yet he marched straight toward it like a man in control—because that’s who he was: the Almighty Son of God.
That’s the first reason why we can call it Good Friday, despite all the blood and death. Because of who Jesus was. But there’s a second reason Mark gives us for why Good Friday is good. It’s not just because of who Jesus was, it’s also…
II. Because of What His Death Did
The key verse here is Mark 10:45. Many scholars consider this verse to be the theme of Mark’s whole Gospel. Listen to how Jesus explains the purpose of his own death:
For…the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Mark 10:45 ESV)
We all know what a ransom is. And we all know what kind of people need to be ransomed. Captives. Slaves. Prisoners of war. People who are in bondage and can’t get out. A ransom is simply a payment that sets the prisoners free.
Now if I were a prisoner, and I knew that my crime was so great and the penalty so severe that I could never pay off the debt, and I got word that someone had actually stepped in and paid my ransom—do you know what I’d call that? I’d call that good news! And when I looked back and remembered the day when my ransom was paid, I’d call it a good day.
I say “If I were a prisoner,” but of course according to Mark, this isn’t hypothetical. We are those captives. Every last one of us has sinned against a good and holy God. Which means that our lives were forfeit—because the wages of sin is death. In other words, the ransom that you owe to God is your very life. There is only one hope for sinful slaves like you and me. Our only hope is for someone else to pay the ransom for us. Someone who doesn’t already owe it for himself. Someone who isn’t sinful like us. And someone who is so infinitely valuable and precious and glorious that his death can ransom not just one, but many.
According to Mark’s Gospel, that is exactly what has happened. Someone has come and paid the ransom for us, and his name is Jesus Christ. The word that describes this is substitution. We are the ones who ought to have died. But instead, on Good Friday, Jesus took our place—our punishment—our death. In the words of Isaiah 53:
…he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Can you see why we call it Good Friday?
To sum up this second point, let me show you the rest of that B.C. comic strip that I mentioned at the beginning.
We call it Good Friday because of who he was. We call it Good Friday because of what his death did. Finally, we call it Good Friday…
III. Because of What Happened Three Days Later
So far I’ve assumed that Good Friday was good in and of itself . Because Jesus wasn’t simply a man—he was the Son of God. Because he wasn’t simply murdered—he laid down his life freely. Because he didn’t simply die as a helpless victim—he died as a glorious victor. Good Friday is good, in and of itself, because it was on that day that Jesus paid our ransom.
Try to imagine Good Friday without Easter, and see if the goodness doesn’t begin to fade.
Just read Mark’s Gospel, and see what kind of shape the Apostles were in between Friday and Sunday. They weren’t rejoicing and saying to each other, “Praise God, Jesus may be dead, but at least our sins are paid for!” No, they were scared and confused and wondering what on earth had just happened. They had no clue what any of it meant. Do you think we would be any different?
So yes, Good Friday is good in and of itself, but it could never be good by itself—because it took Jesus coming back to life and explaining the Scriptures for them to grasp Good Friday’s meaning.
But we must go further than that. It’s not just that without Easter we wouldn’t be able to grasp how Good Friday was good—it’s that without Easter Good Friday wouldn’t be good! I don’t know if Mark had ever read Paul’s letter of 1 Corinthians, but if he had I’m sure he would have agreed that “if Christ is not risen, then our faith is worthless and we are still in our sins” (1 Cor. 15:17).
Mark would have agreed. But that’s why his Gospel doesn’t end with Good Friday and a bloody cross. It ends with Easter and an empty tomb. And it doesn’t simply end with the empty tomb, as though the resurrection somehow came out of left field. Instead what we find when read Mark is that Good Friday and Easter are joined at the hip in one great work of salvation.
Remember how I said that Jesus predicts his own death three times in Mark? Well I left off the end of that verse. The full verse reads like this:
“…we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered…over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.”
(Mark 10:33-34 ESV)
Just a couple of observations to tie all this together and then we’re done.
First, notice how high the stakes are. Jesus is making a prediction. A prophecy. A promise. “After three days I will rise.” Which means that if he hadn’t risen, he would have broken his promise, become a false prophet, and his death wouldn’t have ransomed anybody! That would not have been good.
And finally, consider what it says about Jesus’s power that he is able to make such a promise. Notice how Mark records the words. It’s not simply “After three days I will be raised,” (as it is in Matthew), but “after three days I will rise.” Mark’s wording puts the emphasis on the power of Jesus himself. Which brings us back to who he was—and is.
He is the Almighty Son of God, who had the power to lay his life down, and who, even when he was dead, had the power to take it up again. This is the good news.
It’s who he is.
It’s why he died.
And it’s why we call it Good Friday.