How Good was Friday?
You stand in relaxed excitement with your friends. Small talk gives way to deepening silence as the huge gates open and your group begins to move into the court. Draped over your shoulder like a living shawl is a young lamb. His forelegs rest on your right breast, his hind legs on your left. Your hands grasp his little hooves. His breath warms your right ear as his rapid heartbeat pulsates against the back of your neck. Somehow his life seems dramatically real, more so than when he was in the flock at home. He is small for his one year of life, but the priest has certified him as spotless and appropriate for the sacrifice.
A razor-sharp knife is lashed to his horns. Everyone is in the courtyard now. The heavy gates close slow and tight. Silently you wait for the trumpet blast to signal the beginning of the sacrifice. There are several hundred of you, each with a lamb and a knife. In front of the altar are several lines of priests standing ready with golden bowls. It is quiet, tense. The sun slowly settles to the horizon. Why does it take so long? The shadows stretch as the life of the day ebbs. It is time. The trumpets split the air and the carefully organized ritual begins. Upwards of 200,000 lambs must be sacrificed between now and nightfall. Many groups like yours wait just outside for their turn. There is not a moment to lose.
You have been fortunate to be in the first gathering and your turn comes quickly. As the line moves steadily, you slip the lamb down over your head and hold him firmly under your left arm while untying the thongs that hold the knife. The lamb is shaking, but is unaware of what awaits. Your hands are shaking too, but for a different reason.
The man in front is finished and moves quickly out of the way. It is your turn. The priest looks kindly at you as he reaches back for a clean bowl. His tunic is already spattered lightly with blood. There will be more before the evening is over. He nods firmly in your direction as he holds the bowl under the lamb's chin. Grasping the top of the lamb's head, you pull it back gently. His wool feels soft, his muscles taut. You slide the knife quickly under his throat and look to the priest. He nods again, watching the lamb and the bowl. Closing your eyes for an instant, you pierce the lamb's throat and pull the sharp blade across. It moves deep and quick. He shudders and falls limp in your arms. You feel his weight but keep his head still while the priest catches the blood in the golden bowl. Some has spilled on the ground, sprinkling your sandals, some flows over the fingers of your right hand, but most is carefully preserved and passed deftly to the priest behind, then from one to another until it reaches the last in line. He dashes it quickly against the base of the altar where it mingles with other blood from the countless other bowls. It drains down through underground pipes and out under the walls into the Brook Kidron. Hundreds of gallons of blood from the sacrifices flows out and soaks into the Judean soil there.
The slaughter takes only a few moments. The blood reaches the altar quickly and the priests move with practiced speed to retrieve more. But for you the job is not quite finished. You lift the limp, warm lamb in your arms and take it to the wall where there is an iron hook on which to hang it. There you skin, clean and wrap him. Certain parts are given to the priests to be burned on the altar. The rest you take home to your family for The Supper - a meal of life celebrated at the cost of a life. This is Passover, the meal of salvation. This is also Good Friday.
Good Friday is the traditional day of the slaying of God's Lamb, Christ Jesus. It falls at the same time as the Passover celebration, and rightly so. (Actually, due to the variation between the Jewish and Western calendars, the days don't always coincide now. But they did in the first century and they do in the theology of the Lamb.) As the Passover lamb reminded the Jews of God's "passing over" their homes in the judgment of Egypt (Exodus 12), so Good Friday reminds us of the true and final atonement for our sins, our protection from eternal judgment by Christ "our Passover . . . " (I Cor.5:7).
Unfortunately, many of us lack an adequate grasp of the depth and meaning of our Lord's death. Oh, we can recite the creeds and pronounce the words, and we know what a cross is. But the actual impact of it all seems to escape us in daily discipleship. Perhaps we've been too insulated from the gory realities of the sacrificial system to appreciate the relief of not having to keep it any more. Maybe we've become so sophisticated, so used to carpet and clean drapes, that the harsh truths of sin and the cost of redemption don't impress us. I'm not against carpet or clean drapes, but we must never stray from the heart of our faith -- the death of the Lamb of God. Someone else's life has been given for ours.
Think of that lamb in the opening paragraphs. First, notice the sacrifice was violently effective. The description you just read of the lamb sacrificed at Passover may have disturbed you. In fact, it bothered me a little writing it. We aren't accustomed to the graphic realities of blood sacrifice. It offends our sensibilities to be forced to participate in the ceremonial killing of an animal. Butchering farm animals for food is one thing (I'm not fond of watching that either), but at least we don't bring the blood to church! But violent, bloody death is exactly what needed to happen so that we could come to church. Rebellion against God (and let's not kid ourselves; that's exactly what happens when we sin) requires the death penalty ( Lev. 17:11).
Sacrifice is the word for this transaction. Ephesians 5:2 says He . . . "gave Himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." It was real blood that pooled and slowly soaked into the soil at the foot of the cross, genuine, vibrant, sinless life being poured out on our behalf . And our Lamb didn't need to be held or forced. He faced His executioners voluntarily.
Forgiveness has never been as simple as just pretending we haven't sinned. God is not in what psychologists call "denial". He knows that His justice demands a actual punishment for real crimes. Wrath is the biblical word for the deadly personal reaction He has to all that is evil. It is the taking back of the right to live from those who have forfeited it by rebellion against the Originator of life. The wages of sin is death, said the apostle Paul, and he was right. Death, both physical and spiritual, filled Jesus drank at Calvary. The Lamb's sacrifice actually absorbed the wrath of God. He experienced it all, paying with His life for ours.
Second, the substitution was personal by necessity. Isaiah 53:5-7 says, "Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows. Yet we considered Him stricken by God, smitten by Him, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The punishment that brought peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all." (NIV).
In other words we should have been there, but He took our place! The Lamb was your personal substitute in death. That's why Christians don't stay dead when they die (Jn. 11:25-26). He did it for us. The death penalty was hanging over us for our sin, but the Lamb's blood was poured out instead.
This individual and personal aspect of the sacrifice also reminds us that we must each come to the Lord in the same way -- alone and on purpose. We must face our sin and admit our need. In humility and faith each of us needs to release our lives, guilt and all, to Him for cleansing.
Good Friday is good indeed. It was why the Lord came. When He cried out from the cross that it was finished -- it was! And it remains so today. Finished. The resurrection three days later gave vibrant affirmation to the effectiveness of the sacrifice on Calvary. We, by simple faith in our Savior/Lamb/Lord, receive the most marvelous rescue ever accomplished. Should we remember in this graphic way? Absolutely! The communion table is the remembrance. He told us to do it regularly, to ". . . declare the Lord's death until He comes". (I Cor. 11:23-26).
But the Atonement on Good Friday should also remind us of some other daily realities -- like the fact that sin is deadly. It's a crime against God Himself, a rebellion against the Author of Life which requires the forfeiture of life as payment. And even though Christians need never fear judgment again, we should loath and avoid sin completely. We need to see it as the ghastly thing it is, not something to be flirted with and fondled. A light view of sin betrays a shallow understanding of God and redemption. When in temptation, remember the cross.
On the other hand, His love for us is stronger than we can imagine. He must love us infinitely more than we love ourselves, for He died on our behalf while we were still in bitter rebellion (Which of us would do this for an enemy? Rom. 5:8). This is divine, sovereign, boundless love. It means He personally, individually, cherishes each of us. David was right in Psalm 139:6, this is too wonderful for us to completely grasp. But we must try if we are to live in the glorious grace of the New Covenant. God loves His children absolutely and has proven it by purchasing their souls and bodies. We need a regular dose of this -- God's grace -- to ward off the condemnation that twists our minds from time to time. When in doubt, remember the cross.
Back to the Cross, brothers and sisters, back to the Cross! Back to the Atonement, the Sacrifice, the Love, the Security, The Lamb. Back to Good Friday. And on to Resurrection.