The agony of Good Friday can seem distant from our contemporary experience, no matter how hard we try to “remember Jesus” (2 Tim 2:8).
Yet something happened recently that has altered my awareness of Christ’s passion-filled presence in the difficulties of life.
Suffering a situation of being bombarded with multiple accusations I sensed no witness in the Spirit to bring reply (Ps 31:13).
Left shocked and saddened by this event I was driven into a deeper revelation in prayer of the mystery of Christ’s death.
First I recalled how Jesus remained silent whilst attacked at his trial; “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” (Isa 53:7; Mark 14:60-61).
In the darkness of asking the Lord what he was trying to teach me it became acutely clear he was speaking about standing with me in times of trial.
This is something I have rarely experienced.
Looking around at the widespread failure of the people of God to bring Jesus’ testimony to every sphere of life there is an experience of strengthening we all need. I hope the following reflections on the power of the presence of Good Friday will help reverse this lack. Before looking at the suffering of Jesus it is valuable to see through the lens of Paul’s “famous last words”.
“At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (2 Tim 4:16-18).
Paul’s life was framed by the theme of witness. At his conversion Jesus commissioned him with, “you will be a witness…to everyone of what you have seen and heard.” and at life’s end he was still bearing witness to “all the Gentiles” (Acts 22:15; 2 Tim 4:17).
God standing by his witnesses is a rich biblical thread. The Lord “stood by” Moses when he revealed his glory and renewed the covenant at Sinai (Ex 34:5ff.). A heavenly vision of Jesus supported Stephen as the first martyr-witness for the gospel (Acts 7:56).
Contrary to our assumptions Jesus stood by Paul when all had abandoned him not as a comforter but to empower his witness at whatever cost (cf. Rev 12:10). Paul’s end of life encounter is with the God who stands by his witnesses (2 Tim 4:17).
Scripture records such things so that our testimony might also be strengthened; what is often missing in our experience is a connection with the Good Friday witness of Jesus himself.
THE STAND OF THE CROSS
Christ confidently confessed that his Father would stand by him in his agonies; “Behold, the hour is coming, indeed it has come, when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and will leave me alone. Yet I am not alone, for the Father is with me.” (John 16:32).
Despite this confidence the Lord recoiled in Gethsemane at receiving “the cup” of divine wrath for it would mean separation from ““Abba, Father”” (Mark 14:34-36). The terrible cry of dereliction from the cross; ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” seems to utterly contradict any previous assurance of Jesus that the Father stood by him (Mark 15:34).
Yet scripture interprets itself.
The cry of dereliction is drawn from Psalm 22:1, which goes on to testify of God’s presence throughout the experience of the sufferer; “he has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him.” (Ps 22:22-24). Whatever Christ felt on Good Friday his Father was ever-present in the witness of his Son. However dark the day, Jesus was not standing alone bearing the sin of the world but was carried in and by the presence of the Spirit of his Father (Heb 9:14).
Good Friday is a perfected Trinitarian testimony of the saving love of God (John 19:30).
Christ is the “faithful and true witness” precisely because he points beyond his own agonies to the victory of God in him; a victory revealed in resurrection (Rev 3:14). This triumphant other-centred suffering is at the heart of the prophetic witness Jesus shares with us (Rev 19:10). Scripture illuminates how this victory in struggle is ours
The “fellowship of sufferings” means our witness is carried in and by the witness of Jesus himself (Phil 3:10). When Paul remarks, “all deserted me” (2 Tim 4:16) he uses the same verb employed by the suffering Jesus; ““why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34).
Paul’s suffering is one with Christ’s.
Jesus’ prayer on the cross, ““Father forgive them”” (Luke 23:34), penetrated Paul’s own intercession for those who abandoned him, “May it not be charged against them!” (2 Tim 4:16 cf. Acts 7:60).
The apostle testified of being “rescued from the lion’s mouth” (2 Tim 4:17) because it was prophetically true that by resurrection Jesus was saved “from the mouth of the lion” (Ps 22:22).
The trial of Paul is encompassed in the trial of Jesus. Deliverance “from every evil” was Paul’s confession (2 Tim 4:18) because the perfect Witness had been himself delivered by resurrection (Ps 22:20ff; Heb 5:7-8).
Tragically, few of us seem to be sharing in this mystery of the Good Friday presence.
Though Jesus promised, “what you are to say will be given to you in that hour. …the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”, the moral and spiritual degradation of our nation grows worse daily (Matt 10:19-20).
The presence of Jesus is dimming in the realms of family, politics, education, arts, media, sport, law, business, trades…
This crisis of confidence in the testimony of Jesus through the Church into the world may be traced back to three great obstacles.
• First, we are idolatrous people leaning on prosperity and popularity rather than sole dependence on the presence of Christ.
The Lord recently showed Donna and I he has providentially kept her off the scene of my most painful encounters so that I might learn to lean on Christ alone!
• Second, convicted we are “unworthy servants” we are deceived into believing that we are too poor a witness as to stand boldly in Christ’s name (Luke 17:10).
Hypocrites you and I may be, but our testimony is not to ourselves or the Church but to Jesus and he will stand by us in blamelessness at the Last Judgement (Eph 1:4).
• Finally, we lack faith that Jesus is really standing by us when we suffer in his service.
To live by sight will keep us silent but to “live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” will see our mouths open wide, whatever the consequences (2 Cor 5:7; Gal 2:20)
Jesus’ great trial on Good Friday envelops every one of the trials of his witnesses.
The risen Christ testifies to us today that the pain of Good Friday is triumphant pain.
It is a pain that has fully accomplished its saving purpose (John 19:30).
Tragically, we are increasingly surrounded by lost people who in their moral, mental and relational distress entirely lack the witness of a Victor’s suffering.
The broader Church’s inability to bring the testimony of Jesus into such suffering calls us to a much deeper Spirit led immersion in the Good Friday drama.
This urgent need requires of us a very definite decision; to agree with Jesus’ decision in Gethsemane that the only way to victory is to trust God in the midst of blindness pain for the sake of the coming of his kingdom with resurrection power.
This is a call for a Good Friday meditation.