Alan Foster, a former Elder of FBC who now lives in Brisbane, introduced me to the writings of Max Lucado, an American evangelist who is the author of several books on the Bible.
The particular book which inspired much of this discussion is titled He Chose The Nails, published in 2007. In examining the details of Our Lord’s passion and execution, Lucado focused on the various symbols involved. In tracing their origins he unlocks much profound relevance and significance of what took place on Good Friday. It is only by tracing the origins of those symbols and the contexts to which references are made, that one acquires a far greater insight into Jesus’s suffering and torment and the meaning of it all.
According to Lucado, in his lifetime Jesus fulfilled 332 prophesies of the Old Testament. Several of those were fulfilled in the last hours of his human life. Let us commence by considering the significance of the crown of thorns which was thrust onto Jesus’s head (Matt 27:28).
There are 50 references to thorns in the Bible – 34 of them in the Old Testament. Here are some random references:
Genesis 3: 17-18: To Adam, God said: “cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil, you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you….”
Numbers: 33:55: “If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land, those you allow to remain will become barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides….”
Proverbs: 22:5: “In the paths of the wicked lie thorns and snares….”
Isaiah: 7:23-25: “In that day, in every place where there were a thousand vines worth a thousand silver shekels, there will be only briers and thorns… for the land will be covered with briers and thorns….you will no longer go there for fear of the briers and thorns…”
From those references, it is clear that thorns represented the fruits of sin, failure, woe, suffering, punishment, despair, torment. In that Jesus took upon Himself our sins, the crown of thorns, roughly and crudely thrust onto his head in order to mock his claim of being a king, was a key symbol of the dress of sin with which Jesus allowed Himself to be clothed as part of his sacrifice to redeem us. Besides the obvious excruciating pain of the thorns piercing his head and the blood that would have coursed down his face and neck, the placement of the thorns on his head represented the cynical rejection that Jesus suffered because of who He said He is, a rejection that He forecast would occur among the wicked and the un-believing until the end of time. A rejection, as we will see, which would even be represented in the placement of the crosses on Calvary.
The dictionary refers to the act of spitting as the ejection of saliva from the mouth. As such, it is an act of getting rid of something foul, distasteful and unwanted. A rejection; an unclean act intended to curse and humiliate when aimed at a fellow human being.
Leviticus: 15:8: “If a man with a discharge spits on someone who is clean, that person must wash his clothes and bathe with water, and he will be unclean until evening.”
Numbers: 12:14: “The Lord replied to Moses: If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been in disgrace for seven days?”
Job: 30:10: “They detest me and keep their distance; they do not hesitate to spit in my face.”
Mark: 14:64-65: “They all condemned him as worthy of death. Then some began to spit at him….”
As the Old Testament references show, to be spat upon meant being in disgrace, being socially evicted and detached because one was considered unclean and unworthy of society. Those who did the spitting were expressing contempt, scorn, hatred – and rejection.
The saliva that landed on Jesus’s face was another significant symbol of sin; another part of the dress of sin with which He allowed Himself to be clothed. The slime and ooze of saliva discharge from his tormenters’ mouths on His face and body represented the ugliness of sin. Yet Jesus embraced it because of his commitment to redeem us from sin.
There are over 200 references to clothing in the Bible. Most refer to the tearing of garments. That practice was an expression of extreme emotion – shame, anger, mourning or rejection. It could also have been an act of self-denial or abnegation such as Joshua performed after the Israelites acted unfaithfully and God’s anger burned against Israel: “Joshua tore his clothes and fell face down on the ground before the ark of the Lord, remaining there till evening” (Joshua 7:6). In some respects tearing of clothes was a symbolic disrobing.
Jesus was stripped of his clothing when he was scourged. His nakedness exemplified the extreme state of shame and sinfulness before his tormentors that he accepted on our behalf. When afterwards the crown of thorns was thrust on his head, Jesus was clothed in a purple robe. The colour of that clothing was associated with authority, kingship and wealth. Although clothing Jesus in that robe after having savagely scourged him and crowned him with thorns was meant to be the ultimate mockery, the reality is that Jesus is the king of kings, the ultimate authority and possesses all.
Before his passion and death, Jesus’s cloak was associated with divine power. Mark 5: 28-30 tells of the woman in the crowd who had suffered menstrual bleeding for twelve years. Her faith was such that she believed that if she could merely touch the hem of his cloak, she would be healed. And she was. Jesus noted that when she touched his clothing “power had gone out of him.”
At the Transfiguration, Jesus’s clothing “became as bright as a flash of lightning” (Luke: 9:30). The point here is that dressed in his own clothes, Jesus exuded divine power and influence. Stripped of that clothing he was brought down to our level of sinfulness, scorn, shame – and, as we will see, – despair.
On Calvary, the removal of Jesus’s seamless robe has huge significance. Its seamlessness represented his unblemished character, purity and sinlessness – his perfection. By being reduced to nakedness when he was crucified, Jesus assumed a different wardrobe – one of indignity and the criminality associated with crucifixion. In other words, he was clothed in the full apparel and disgrace of sin. In other words, he changed places with us and bore and wore our sins.
The nature of Jesus’s seamless garment even had an effect on his executors. They cast dice to see who would own it as they did not wish to tear it into pieces (John: 19:24). The significant word here is “tear” – and what we know it meant Biblically.
Clothing was significant in the discovery of Jesus’s resurrection. The Jews tried to claim that the apostles had stolen his body. But consider the following facts: If his body had been stolen, how come his grave clothes were neatly folded up? Why, if stealing a body, would you want to remove the burial garments? (See: John 20:6-7). Of symbolic significance here is that Jesus’s unclothed state on Calvary had represented death – the death of sin, whilst the folded burial clothes in the tomb that Sunday morning attested to Jesus’s resurrection, his triumph over death and the very foundation of our Christian belief and faith.
There are over 270 references to blood in the Bible, mostly in the Old Testament.
Exodus 12:1-12 recounts the safe delivery of Israelites in Egypt who had painted their doorposts with the blood of a sheep or goat that was without blemish. Blood was fundamental in offerings seeking atonement. Bloodshed marked the birth of Jesus when Herod ordered the slaying of first-born males in an attempt to eliminate his fear that Jesus posed a threat to his position as King.
Of course, the most significant reference to blood was made by Jesus at the Last Supper when he gave notice that his “blood would be poured out for many” (Mark: 14: 24) as the founding of the new covenant between God and Man. As St Paul states in Colossians 1:20: “ For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him and through him reconcile to himself all things… by making peace through his blood on the cross.”
The blood Jesus shed on Good Friday is the blood of the new covenant which purchased our redemption. Just as the sheep or goat slain at the Passover in Egypt had to have been without blemish, so Jesus, the offering on which the new covenant was based, is without blemish. Without that and without his resurrection, there would be no foundation to our Christian faith. Thus, the blood Jesus shed during his torture, scourging and crucifixion was all part of his sacrifice to gain our redemption from sin.
Jesus’s bloodshed began when he was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. His anguish at his coming ordeal was such that he perspired blood. Severe pain always accompanies bloodshed. Excessive bloodshed causes a loss of consciousness. Scourging as inflicted by the Romans was intended to be so extreme that the victim was left literally half dead. Add to that the crown of thorns and the beating he received in trying to carry the cross and falling three times through severe loss of blood. The effects of the crucifying nails simply drained whatever blood reserves Jesus still had. In saying that his blood would be “poured out,” Jesus could not have been more specific.
Pilate’s sign – INRI
Scorn, contempt and mockery constituted the psychological aspect of Jesus’s suffering and death even to the extent of the written sign which Pontius Pilate had placed on the cross above Jesus’s head. INRI – written so as to be internationally readable – stands for: Jesus of Nazareth. King of the Jews.
Meant to ridicule Jesus and to placate the political sensitivities of the Jewish Sanhedrin for Jesus’s alleged crime in claiming to be a king, the irony of Pilate’s sign is its eternal truth. As Revelations 17:14 and 19:16 states: Jesus is the Lord of lords and the King of kings.
The three crosses
There is great significance in the fact that Jesus’s cross was placed between those of the two criminals who were also crucified that day. The one criminal rejected Jesus by mocking and scorning him. The other showed respect and repentance.
Thus, the placing of the three crosses is of profound relevance: Jesus’s cross represents redemption as the centre of Christian faith. He was flanked by rejection on the one side and repentance on the other. Our world is characterised by rejection of Jesus and by recognition of Him as Redeemer only through repentance.
When Jesus died on the cross, the curtain in front of the atonement cover of the ark, the most holy place, the barrier to the holiest of holies, was ripped in half. That curtain measured 60 by 30 feet in size. To tear it in half in a flash was physically impossible. Yet that is what happened. The tearing of the curtain paralleled the tearing of Jesus’s flesh when he was scourged and crucified.
Levitcus 16:1-2 tells of the extreme holiness of the temple’s sanctuary:
“The Lord said to Moses: tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover of the ark, or else he will die…”
Exodus 33:15-33 indicates the great barrier that existed between God and Moses. Despite their dialogue, God made it very clear that “no one may see him and live.”
By his death Jesus destroyed the curtain barrier to the holiest of holies. For 1,500 years that curtain had separated God from human beings. It had rendered him remote and unapproachable. By defeating sin Jesus removed that barrier, opened access to God and initiated, dramatically, a new beginning in the relationship of Man with God.
In submitting to the legal system of that time as a human being and in accepting the torture and torment of that system along with the sins of humanity, Jesus naturally evinced human emotions. When Jesus cried out on the cross asking why his Father had abandoned him (Mark: 15:34), he was exhibiting natural human feelings of abandonment and anxiety. Clothed in sin, rejected and in extreme pain, Jesus plumbed the depths of despair on our behalf. Apart from his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemene, those words of anguish on the cross constituted the lowest point of Jesus’s human psyche.
Excerpts from Psalm 88: 7-18 illustrate this: “Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves….. I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief; I spread out my hands to you….the darkness is my closest friend.”
Soon after that Jesus died. He had fulfilled his mission completely as the scriptures foretold. (See in particular Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53). As Isaiah stated: ‘For he bore the sin of many and made intercession for the transgressors’” (53:12).
Jesus’s greatest humility was to be born and live amongst humanity; to experience all the slings and arrows of life whilst simultaneously remaining sinless; to be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver; to be sentenced to the harshest, most inhumane of punishments exacerbated by vindictive, wilful, bestial cruelty, sentenced to crucifixion in place of a criminal who was released to go free.
Jesus’s ordeal on our behalf can never be atoned by us. Yet he accepted it as Isaiah states, “like a lamb to the slaughter, as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth….Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer…” (53: 7; 10).
Darkness and light
Finally, darkness and light played a highly significant role in the drama of Good Friday and its aftermath. There are over 200 references to darkness in the Bible. One of the most significant and symbolic is to be found in Exodus 10:21 – the plague of darkness. One of the punishments God unleashed on Pharaoh’s Egypt was to cover the Egyptians in extreme darkness for three days, so that no one could see anyone else or leave his place. “Yet all the Israelites had light in the places where they lived.”
Darkness is associated with God’s wrath and the prevalence of evil. When Jesus was arrested, anticipating what was coming, he said to the delegation of temple guards and priests: “Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour – when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:53).
When Jesus was on the cross, St Luke recorded that “darkness came over the land… the sun stopped shining” (23:44). As noted above, that darkness served to heighten Jesus’s feeling of the oppression of sin and evil and to manifest his anguish. Yet that gloom spelt doom for sin on account of Jesus’s sacrifice.
In contrast, light represents joy, justice and God’s grace – “let us walk in the light of the Lord,” says Isaiah 2:5. Not surprisingly, there are over 250 references to light in the Bible. Jesus lucidly contrasted the relevance of darkness and light when he said: “I have come into the world as a light so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness (John 12:46).
The darkness and all it represented on Good Friday was extinguished and dispelled by the sunshine and brightness of that Easter Sunday morning when the resurrection of Jesus was discovered. Mark’s gospel tells of the visit of the women to Jesus’s tomb “very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise” and of their alarm at seeing the tomb empty (16: 2; 6). But subsequent references in the four gospels to Jesus after his resurrection are of enlightenment in understanding his redemptory role and of unprecedented joy. Jesus’s entry into the world was indicated by the brightness of a star that illuminated the sky. His resurrection and ascension into Heaven took place in the light and brightness of day. As John wrote in Revelations (22:5), for those who accept the redemption Jesus offers, “there will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever.”