The following is the text of an essay I wrote to help east Asian graduate students at my university understand the foundation of Good Friday and Easter.
Many who are familiar with the Bible's story of Jesus wonder why Christians refer to the Friday of Easter weekend as "Good Friday", given that it commemorates an outrageous act of violence and injustice. We say that the death of Jesus was far from being a happy event, but it was a good event -- morally good -- because it represented the completion of a plan that had been in the works for thousands of years. The events of Good Friday mean it is now possible for people to be reconciled with their creator. This is the essence of the Good News.
This coming weekend marks the Christian observances of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Good Friday is the commemoration of the day almost two thousand years ago when Jesus was put to death. Easter Sunday is when, according to the Bible, Jesus rose (that is, was resurrected) from the dead.
The Bible says that Jesus came to earth for one reason: to do what was necessary to reconcile mankind with its Creator. Man’s sin (that is, his tendency to rebel against God’s perfect moral law) had broken his relationship with God. Throughout history, God showed time and time again that no ordinary man could ever be good enough to restore that relationship.
Before Jesus came, God required that people atone for their sin by sacrificing an animal, usually a lamb, a bull or a goat. The animal was to be flawless, representing purity (that is, innocence) before God. This innocent animal was considered qualified to take the punishment on behalf of someone who was not innocent.
Jesus was called the “lamb of God”, because he came to fulfill the role of the innocent lamb—not for one person, or one sin, but for all people of all nations, for all sins, for all time. By living a life of perfect innocence and perfect obedience to God’s law, he was considered qualified to take the punishment on behalf of all who are not innocent—including you and me. By taking this punishment upon himself, he made it possible for us to be reconciled with God.
More than seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, a Hebrew prophet named Isaiah described to the people of his day a “servant” who would voluntarily take upon himself this punishment. It would become clear later that he was referring to Jesus. The following is taken from the 53rd chapter of his prophecy.
My servant grew up in the Lord’s presence like a tender green shoot, sprouting from a root in dry and sterile ground. There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him. He was despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with bitterest grief. We turned our backs on him and looked the other way when he went by. He was despised, and we did not care.
Yet it was our weaknesses he carried; it was our sorrows that weighed him down. And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God for his own sins! But he was wounded and crushed for our sins. He was beaten that we might have peace. He was whipped, and we were healed! All of us have strayed away like sheep. We have left God’s paths to follow our own. Yet the Lord laid on him the guilt and sins of us all.
He was oppressed and treated harshly, yet he never said a word. He was led as a lamb to the slaughter. And as a sheep is silent before the shearers, he did not open his mouth. From prison and trial they led him away to his death. But who among the people realized that he was dying for their sins—that he was suffering their punishment? He had done no wrong, and he never deceived anyone. But he was buried like a criminal; he was put in a rich man’s grave.
But it was the Lord’s good plan to crush him and fill him with grief. Yet when his life is made an offering for sin, he will have a multitude of children, many heirs. He will enjoy a long life, and the Lord’s plan will prosper in his hands. When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish, he will be satisfied. And because of what he has experienced, my righteous servant will make it possible for many to be counted righteous, for he will bear all their sins. I will give him the honors of one who is mighty and great, because he exposed himself to death. He was counted among those who were sinners. He bore the sins of many and interceded for sinners.