Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The Last and Longest Day

We come now to the last and longest day in the life of Jesus. What a day!! Who in the world gave it the name "Good Friday"? Even the most sketchy and benign account of that day is enough to make the strong shudder and the weak faint. No one there that day would ever have agreed to call it "Good Friday".

When Jesus died on that Friday even speechless nature cried out in horror. "At midday darkness fell over the whole land, which lasted three hours." (Mark 15:33) The sun refused to shine, and the stars hid their faces in shame. The earth grumbled and shuddered. There was an earthquake. Rocks split and graves opened and the curtain of the Temple was torn from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:51-52) A Good Friday?! That thought surely did not cross the minds of anyone there that day. It was a day of human infamy, when the very Son of God, who came in gentle love, was hurled back into the face of the Father who sent him. It was humanity at its worst, but God at God's best. Good Friday?! Whatever good there may have been was not to be understood on that day -- only later.

However, that Friday was just another day for some. Pilate was anxious and hesitant because he had used up his political capital with Rome, and he could not afford to make a mistake dealing with Jesus, a political "hot potato". Pilate was concerned about the possible political consequences of his decision regarding Jesus' case, he had no personal interest in Jesus. It certainly was not the first time he had spoken those terrible words to a condemned man: "Ibis ad Crucem" (You will go to the cross) and probably was not the last.

It was just another day for the Roman soldiers who happened to draw crucifixion duty -- whip and crucify yet another prisoner. They had done it before. Obviously bored with the tedium of this ghoulish business, they amused themselves by making sport of Jesus. They taunted him, placed an old purple cloak on him, and a crown of thorns on his head. Only one member of the execution squad sensed that this was not just another crucifixion. When the centurion who stood facing him watched Jesus died and saw the response of Nature itself, he said, "Truly this man was a son of God". But for all the other soldiers it was just "another day at the office". They had been there before. They would be there again.

It was just another day for the curious bystanders who came to gawk in some perverted amusement at the suffering and death of the condemned. It was not their first time. It would not be their last.

It was important to the religious establishment only that the problem of another disturber of "their peace" was being silenced. To them Jesus was another false messiah who was making trouble for them by getting the Jews and the Romans upset. He was hurting their temple business of money-changing and selling sacrificial animals. There had been others. He had to go. Really, just another day.

However, it was not just another day for the family and followers of Jesus. It was the most terrible day of their lives. Not only did they lose a dear and special friend; their faith and hope also died on that cross. It certainly was not their idea of a "good" day. This small crowd of followers was much too grieved and upset to remember that Jesus had said earlier that it was "good" that he was leaving -- even to their advantage that he go. He had promised he would be more substantially with them in his absence than when he was physically present. They did not understand what he meant then, and if his words crossed their minds on that Friday, they were not words of comfort.

It was three days before the significance of that Friday began to dawn on the followers and family of Jesus; shortly after that the Romans and the Jewish religious establishment began to sense that there was more going on that Friday than "just another day". Unbeknownst to themselves they had played into the hand and plan of the Great God Almighty in a way they would never have dreamed. None of those who were instrumental in putting Jesus to death had any idea of what they were really doing. Jesus was speaking words of fact as well as forgiveness when from the cross he prayed, "Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing". Jesus knew they didn't have a clue.

Those of us who know how the story ends tend to forget that those who were there did not and could not have known the outcome of this dark day. God is always doing things in our world and in our lives that are beyond our understanding, the significance of which will dawn on us later. We are never far from painful events which we do not understand. Things happen which seem to us like the end of the world, but which later we will understand to be of positive significance beyond our knowing at the time. Suffering in our lives has the potential of either crushing or refining us. And, we do have a choice as to our response when our lives turn dark at midday. When we go into the tumbler, we have a choice as to whether our mind and spirit will come out crushed or polished. The God who turned the most awful day in history into "Good Friday" is still at work in our world and in our lives. Take courage!

On Good Friday, as we walk the Via Dolorosa with Jesus and weep at the cross, we are kept from despair in the sure knowledge that this was not the end but rather an alchemy of premeditated Grace through which we have been given a new beginning. Good Friday is our reminder that when faith in the power and wisdom of God is the theme and mood of our lives we can live with the pain of the moment in events we do not understand.

All the gospel writers say that Jesus gave a great shout and then died with a prayer on his lips. John tells us what he shouted, "It is finished". In English "It is finished" is three words, but in Greek it is one word -- "Tetelestai". In classic Greek, "Tetelestai" is the victor's shout. It is the triumphant shout of one who has survived the struggle and now stands in the winner's circle. What a great difference this shout of victory makes at the end of this tragic day! Jesus does not go down in defeat. His life has not been taken from him. He has willingly and purposefully "laid down his life". Tetelestai !!.

This is not an attempt to put a nice facade on what has been a terrible day. "Tetelestai" is a fitting precursor to the next surprising mystery on which we all bet our lives -- the Resurrection. The story does not end with a tragic death on the cross on Friday. There is more. Get ready. It is only Friday. Sunday is coming.