The Goodness of Holy Week: Good Friday in John’s Gospel
Why is Good Friday, well . . . good? Even a casual acquaintance with Good Friday observance suggests it ought to be called Sad Friday, Bad Friday, or God Is Really, Really Mad Friday. (Sorry—I couldn’t resist the Dr. Seuss allusion.) The question remains, however: why call it Good Friday when the events are so horrifyingly bad?
Celebrations of Good Friday often center on the most gruesome and violent events in the gospel narrative. In sacramental churches, worshipers will participate in a walking meditation of the 14 Stations of the Cross, pausing before images evoking Jesus’ physical torture and death. Other churches will have meditations on the seven words Jesus spoke as he was being crucified, or somber readings from the Passion narratives followed by a sermon focused on the themes of sinfulness, death, and judgment. Worship spaces are more somber, sparsely decorated, darker on Good Friday.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is a quintessential Good Friday film with its gruesome and graphic exposition of the suffering and agony of Jesus from his arrest in the garden to his death on a cross.
The casual observer would be forgiven for thinking Christian sensibilities are more than a little off. How is the torture and death of an otherwise loving, compassionate, and inspiring man something worth celebrating? And why would you celebrate it by remembering anguish and pain? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was brutally and callously murdered, but we don’t dwell exclusively on the gruesome details of his assassination on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January.
But many Christians also find Good Friday puzzling. We may have atonement theologies that interpret Jesus’ suffering positively, as the hymn by Andraé Crouch says: “The blood that Jesus shed for me . . . it will never lose its power.” But atonement theologies don’t themselves resolve the dissonance that emerges between what Good Friday remembers—Jesus’ torturous death on a cross—and what Good Friday signifies: the life of God made available to all in Christ.
The Gospel of John helps bring this practice of remembering the Passion of Jesus and the significance of Jesus’ Passion together, revealing a Good Friday that is worthy of the name “good,” even though the events are tragicomic.
John’s thesis is stated in chapter one: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (v. 14). Reading John’s Passion narrative with this thesis in mind helps us see goodness, beauty, and truth where we might otherwise simply see violence, exploitation, and death.
Word Became Flesh
John’s prologue emphasizes incarnation. The “Word” (logos in Greek) mentioned here evokes much more than our English translation suggests. For Jewish readers, this “word” connotes the story of Genesis 1, where God speaks creation into existence. It also suggests the character of God known through the “word” of the Law and prophets. In addition, for Greek readers this “word” invokes the philosophical tradition. Logos referred not simply to words as symbols, concepts, and signified objects, but also to reason, meaning, and rationality. Like a poet, John compresses all of that history and potency into this “word” and then declares that the Word has become flesh.
This image, carried through the Gospel, reaches its stunning climax in the Passion narrative. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is arrested because of the unnerving potency of his words in his ministry. It is after he calls Lazarus out of the grave by speaking a simple command that the chief priests and Pharisees begin to plot his death, saying, “If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation” (John 11:48). John wants us to see that Jesus’ words have power, even power over death, because of Jesus’ identity as the Word made flesh.
After being arrested and brought to Pilate, Jesus embraces the title of Messiah and King. The two men talk about power, authority, and truth. And from that moment on, Pilate is revealed as a slave to the mob, unable to exercise his will, while Jesus is revealed as the suffering servant king of Isaiah 40–53. John wants us to simultaneously see the potency of Jesus’ words as they challenge the political power structures with incisive reason (the Greek notion of logos) and the way Jesus’ behavior embodies the word of the prophets (the Jewish notion of logos).
Then Jesus is taken away and flogged. Instead of a laurel wreath befitting a king, the soldiers twist a crown of thorns for his head. They also dress Jesus in a purple robe (the color of royalty). These acts are meant to be a mockery of Jesus’ royalty, but instead they simply reinforce Jesus’ true identity. These trials do not strip Jesus of his dignity; they reinforce Jesus as the embodiment of Isaiah’s word. Pilate announces, “Behold the man!” as Jesus is revealed to the crowd, unaware that he is unwittingly revealing the Word made flesh.
John wants us to behold eternity, existence, creation, revelation, authority, and meaning in the swollen, bleeding face of Jesus. Nowhere else in history or creation has such authority and vulnerability come together as in Jesus, Messiah of Israel, Lord of the world.
Good Friday is truly good when we can see beyond the brutality and cleansing blood, and behold the man—Jesus, that beautiful man who holds power for the sake of others and absorbs pain and punishment out of love and obedience to his vocation.
Behold His Glory
John also uses the word “glory” throughout his Gospel, starting in 1:14. Over and over again throughout the book of John, Jesus speaks of his coming glory. In his dialogue with the religious leaders in John 8, he speaks of glorifying the Father. The theme picks up again in chapter 12 and in chapter 17. Every time, and with increasing transparency, John draws the connection between glory and Jesus’ Passion and death.
The Old Testament uses the language of glory to refer to God’s presence, particularly his presence in the exodus and in the temple. The glory of God is associated with God’s holiness, incredible power, uncontainable presence, and total purity. Before going into the temple, before beholding God’s glory, everything—from people to furniture—needed to be purified with the blood of a sacrificial offering. This was not because God is particularly angry and needed to vent his rage on something so that he didn’t vent it at his followers (although sometimes even our atonement theologies point in this direction) but rather because, symbolically speaking, blood is associated with life, and God is the author of life. While it’s hard for us to wrap our imagination around, the symbol of life offered to God in worship was a sacramental disinfectant of sorts. The sacrificial system prepared a place and people to behold the glory of God.
John therefore looks at Jesus’ Passion and sees the glory of God, not in the sacrifice of animals in the temple, but in the suffering death of the Messiah. In Jesus’ crucifixion, John sees the author of life offering up his own blood so that the water of God’s promised renewal (see Ezekiel 47; John 7:38; John 19:34) would flow from his side.
Good Friday is good when we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus crucified. It is the glory of a God who holds nothing back. It is the beauty of a lover dying so that the beloved might live. It is the glory of a man fully alive willingly trading perfection for pain so that the sick who look on him might be healed.
Keeping Good Friday
This Holy Week I’ll be reading through the Gospel of John every day. (Depending on how fast you read it’ll take somewhere between 30 minutes to an hour.) I’ll be praying for God to open my eyes to see the Word made flesh and to behold God’s glory. I want to steep my heart and mind in the themes that run through the Gospel in order to appreciate the Passion of Jesus more deeply.
Want to join me? If we’re able to see the beauty, glory, and wonder of the Word made flesh this Good Friday, I wonder what grace we might receive as Passion gives way to resurrection.
Jason Gaboury serves as regional director for InterVarsity’s undergraduate ministry in New York and New Jersey. He has worked for InterVarsity for 19 years and contributed to two InterVarsity Pressbooks, Drama Team Handbook andDrama Team Sketchbook. He and his wife, Sophia, have two children and live in New York City.
For more reflections on Holy Week, check out these resources: