Good Friday

April 14, 2006
See Also: 

Year A
Year B
Year C

Lenten Candle Liturgy
Lenten Benedictions/Commissioning/Blessings

Preaching Lent/Easter I
Preaching Lent/Easter II
Preaching Lent/Easter II

John Cobb on atonement
John Cobb on redemption
John Cobb on Jesus
John Cobb on Death of Jesus

Reading 1: 
Isaiah 52:13–53:12
Reading 2: 
Psalm 22
Reading 3: 
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16, 5:7-9
Reading 4: 
John 18:1-19:42
By John B. Cobb, Jr.

The lectionary readings for this day are lengthy, including two chapters from the Gospel of John. These constitute a deeply moving account of how an innocent man was unjustly convicted, executed, and buried. It has been read by hundreds of millions of people and has deepened their devotion. Much sacrificial and loving action has come about because of its effects. Verse by verse it is a rich source of homiletical material.

But before we celebrate this story too much, we need also to understand how it has done great harm. Over the centuries of Christian history, nothing has contributed more to the hatred and vilification of Jews. All of the gospel accounts place the primary blame for the crucifixion on the Jewish leaders, but it is John who makes their responsibility most emphatic. Modern historical scholarship reverses the relative responsibility, emphasizing that Jesus was crucified by the Romans for his threat to Roman rule. But the Gospels do not read this way. The focus of these gospel accounts on Good Friday has led to persecution and slaughter of Jews. Jews have been called Christ-killers, and many Christians have believed that, in punishment for their killing of Jesus, they should be made to suffer.

It should, of course, always have been obvious to Christians, even those who take the biblical accounts uncritically, that the Jews who were responsible were a few leaders many centuries ago. It is absurd to hold the Jewish community of that time as a whole responsible. Many Jews supported Jesus, and most were probably largely ignorant of what was taking place. It is even more absurd to treat later generations of Jews as if they shared in the responsibility. We have to ask how this blanket accusation of Jews in general could have arisen, when so many Christian heroes, including Jesus and his disciples were also Jews..

The problem is that in the Gospel of John the term “the Jews” is used often to identify those who rejected Jesus. In the passage before us this term appears several times with that meaning. In particular, it is “the Jews” who cried out to Pilate: “if you release this man you are no friend of the emperor.” The reader’s anger is directed thereby, not so much against a particular high priest, who died many centuries ago, as against “the Jews.” Even today it is dangerous to read this passage in church without warning congregations against thinking of Jews collectively. In this sense the responsible pastor will preach against the text.

Good Friday offers an occasion for other dangers as well. These are associated with theories about the purpose of Jesus’ death, how that death is salvific for us. Some of these theories can have seriously harmful results. Some of them are based on ancient ideas of performing bloody sacrifices to appease the gods and gain their favor. The sacrifice is often that of a farm animal, although it can even be a human being. This sacrifice was thought to atone for sins and thereby restore relations between those who sacrificed and God.

In this context, Jesus is depicted as the sacrifice, with God as the one who offers the sacrifice. God is then the one who slays Jesus. This is done for our sake; so that, through this one final and wholly adequate sacrifice, all human sin is atoned for. Jesus’ death substitutes for our well-deserved punishment. In this model God is both the one who sacrifices Jesus and the one who is thereby satisfied.

There is no doubt that the preaching of this idea has brought to many people the assurance that they are forgiven by God and can live without guilt. This is surely good. But the price is high. The God depicted in this model, one who cannot or will not forgive sins apart from the death of Jesus is very different from the one who is presented in Jesus’ teaching or revealed in Jesus’ life.

Further, to win people to this form of Christian faith, preachers typically accent human sinfulness and helplessness to change. It is no doubt true that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But Jesus does not accent this. Jesus calls us to rejoice in God’s love and to join him in following in God’s way. The focus on God’s sacrifice of Jesus too often overshadows this call to discipleship. It so emphasizes our inability to follow, that the challenge to do so is no longer effectively heard.

There is a third problem with this model. Jesus’ suffering death becomes the one redemptive act. In order to strengthen appreciation for what Jesus has done for us, we are invited to meditate on Jesus’ suffering, imagining more vividly the physical pain and emotional anguish that he experienced. No doubt this can increase the gratitude that motivates believers to positive service of others. But the preoccupation with suffering can also be unhealthy. If one finds suffering to be the central characteristic of the one Christians are to follow, one may even impose unnecessary and useless suffering on oneself. More commonly one may accept suffering that could and should be ended. It can be thought of as the cross one is called to bear. For example, abused wives may feel Christ-like in accepting the suffering inflicted on them by their husbands.

Because some such idea of the meaning of Good Friday has been so prevalent in the church, I have chosen first to lift it up and then examine our texts in its light. Did the authors of these texts have this kind of idea in mind?

John’s account of the passion does not strike these notes. Jesus does not appear as the helpless victim sacrificed by another, certainly not by God. On the contrary, he continues to be pretty much in charge. He identifies himself quickly to those who come to arrest him. He stops Peter from fighting for him. He does not try to defend himself before the Jewish authorities. Whereas Pilate would like to release him, Jesus does nothing to help him do so. Jesus has challenged the authorities, and he is ready to die at their hands. They can kill him only because of his acceptance of this fate.

Human sin is very much in evidence in this story. Two of Jesus’ disciples, Judas and Peter, betray him in different ways. His enemies do not play fair. Jesus asserts that the Jewish leaders are sinning more than Pilate. But these sins are simply part of the story. That people are sinful is not in doubt, but it is not thematically considered. Equally, no reader can doubt that Jesus suffered both emotionally from the betrayal by his disciples and physically from the flogging and crown of thorns and most of all from the crucifixion itself. But John does not dwell on this. He is far more interested in showing how each element in the story can be understood to fulfill Messianic expectations. If Jesus’ suffering death was an atoning sacrifice, John did not know it.

How, then, did John understand the significance of Jesus’ death? Perhaps most important for John was the display of the stark contrast between the world of light and truth and the religious and political world inhabited by people generally. These people could not understand Jesus. They could imagine no kingdom other than a worldly one, whereas Jesus denies that his kingdom is from this world. They experienced Jesus only as a threat. They aimed to get rid of him. Jesus told Pilate with respect to his kingship: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

For John, therefore, crucifying Jesus was the final, futile effort of the authorities of this world to negate and destroy the divine truth that came into the world through Jesus. Jesus accepted his death knowing that those who killed him would not succeed in their goal. The story of the passion fleshes out what is written already in the prologue: Chapter 1, verses 5, 9 and 11 through 12. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. . . He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Again in Chapter 3, verse 19, we read: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”

In John’s vision, the eternal Word of God, which is light and truth, became flesh in Jesus. Jesus might be killed, but the light and truth, incarnate in him, could not be extinguished. The truth has nothing to say of a God who needed appeasement or of God’s sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus allowed himself to be killed, believing that this belonged to the way in which he embodied the deathless Word of God in its radical opposition to the ways of this world. The Jewish and Roman leadership play out their pitiful parts without understanding and without real power. Throughout, even on the cross, Jesus is in charge.

John’s understanding of Jesus’ death is only one of many in the New Testament. Here and there are some that are closer to the view that Jesus was sacrificed by God to atone for our sins. The author of Hebrews comes closest to this view because of his focus of attention on priestly sacrifice. In the crucial passage, 5:7-9, Jesus asks God, who could have saved him from death, to do so, but when God declined, Jesus reverently submitted. He learned obedience through what he suffered and was thereby made perfect. He became “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”

In Hebrews it seems that it was not the death itself but Jesus’ obedience even to death that perfected him and thereby enabled him to be the source of salvation for others. To understand how he saves others, we need to set this passage in its context. This context is a discussion of Jesus as high priest. In verse 10 we are told that God designated Jesus high priest forever (“according to the order of Melchizedek”). It is because of Jesus’ new status as high priest that those who obey him are saved.

Although some of the themes of traditional atonement theory are present in this account, it is still quite different. No analogy is drawn between God and a priest offering a sacrifice. The role of the high priest is to mediate between God and the people. The relation of Jesus to God is obedience in accepting death. He offers himself. This does not appease God or replace the need for obedience. Instead it turns Jesus into the permanent high priest.

There is a substitutionary element in Hebrews. But there is no suggestion that Jesus died in our place. Jesus’ death substitutes for all the repetitive acts of animal sacrifice that have characterized the priestly tradition. It brings to an end the need for this practice.

(Although nothing by Paul is included in the lectionary readings, it would be misleading to leave the impression that in him we find the ideas about the atonement that became important to the Western church through Anselm. The chief basis for supposing this to be the case is Romans 3:24-25a. The New Revised Standard Version still lends support to this reading: “they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” In this translation of 25a, it seems that God is the agent in sacrificing Jesus for the sake of atonement. While working on a commentary on Romans with David Lull, however, I learned that 25a could be translated in another way: “God presented Christ Jesus as an act of conciliation through [and because of] Jesus’ faithfulness even to death.” This fits better with the immediate context and with Paul’s theology generally. It is closer to Hebrews as well.)

We find more support for the idea of atonement in passages applied to Jesus from the Christian Old Testament than in the New. This is especially true of Isaiah’s image of the “suffering servant,” which has played a considerable role in Christian reflection about the crucifixion, even if not much in John or Hebrews. Consider the following phrases: “upon him was the punishment that made us whole;” “the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all;” “yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain;” “when you make his life an offering for sin;” and “the righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”

These phrases certainly suggest substitutionary atonement, and in some verses God appears to impose the suffering. The inclusion of this passage along with those from John and Hebrews can easily lead to reading these meanings into John and Hebrews. The popularity of this passage in the early church shows that this tendency has been present throughout Christian history. Nevertheless, this kind of blurring of the multiple voices in the Bible is not what we need today as we struggle anew to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death.

John did have in mind Psalm 22, our other lectionary reading. He tells a story about soldiers casting lots for Jesus’ garment in fulfillment of verse 18. But he makes nothing of the first phrase of this psalm, placed on Jesus’ lips by Mark: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” There is no hint in John that Jesus’ felt abandoned by God.

Neither of the Old Testament readings envisions death and resurrection in any literal sense. Both depict a time of terrible trouble and suffering followed by a reversal of fortune. The suffering servant will “see his offspring, and … prolong his days;” “he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge;” God “will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong.” The despairing cry at the beginning of Psalm 22 and the subsequent account of misery is followed by the announcement that God “did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him.” The application of these positive conclusions to Jesus does not have the same fit as some of the account of suffering.

Good Friday is a wonderful opportunity to be touched again by the story of Jesus’ self-sacrifice. It is also a time to reflect on its meaning or, better, many meanings for us. We will gain most if we take our various texts seriously with their quite diverse teachings about these meanings. If we try to make them all support doctrines that emerged much later in the church, we will miss much of this richness. If we allow the anger toward “the Jews” that characterized the community out of which John’s gospel came to poison our relation with contemporary Jews, we will have failed radically in understanding the true meaning of Jesus’ death.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D., has held many positions including Ingraham Professor of Theology at the Claremont School of Theology, Avery Professor at the Claremont Graduate School, Fullbright Professor at the University of Mainz, Visiting Professor at Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Chicago Divinity Schools. His writings include: Christ in a Pluralistic Age; God and the World; and co-author with Herman Daly of For the Common Good which was co-winner of the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order. He currently serves as co-director for the Center for Process Studies and also teaches a course during the Summer Institute for Process & Faith at the Claremont School of Theology.