Today is Good Friday. Traditionally, it is the day Christians, the world over, commemorate the death by crucifixion of their Lord, Jesus Christ.
If it commemorates such an horrific execution, particularly of Someone who did no wrong, then why do we call it ‘good’?
- Some consider it to be a corruption of the word ‘God’ – ie, God’s Friday
- Others suggest it comes from the German, ‘gute’ (good)
- Still others believe it comes from the old meaning of good, which was ‘holy – ie Holy Friday. In some parts of the world, it is still known by the name ‘Holy Friday’.
There is no consensus regarding the reason why the day got the name ‘Good Friday’, but for those who believe, the death of Jesus Christ (and His subsequent resurrection from the dead), there is a good outcome, namely, the salvation of those who believe in the vicarious death of Christ on behalf of all who believe in His Name.
Yesterday, someone sent me a cartoon depicting two characters discussing this very issue:
‘I don’t like Good Friday’ said one, despondently.
‘Why’s that?’ asked the other.
‘Because it was the day Jesus was crucified. What was so good about that?’
‘Well,’ replied his friend, ‘imagine you were due to be hanged on a certain day, then someone came along and said he would be hanged in your place so you could go free. How would that make you feel?’
‘It would make me feel good,’ said the first character, brightening.
‘I rest my case,; said the second.
Furthermore, it has been the tradition of the majority of the western church to commemorate this event on the Friday following the Jewish Passover (see part 2 for further information about this).
- The Gospels all mention ‘the Sabbath’ as the day following the crucifixion. As the Jewish Sabbath was held weekly on a Saturday, it naturally follows that the crucifixion was on the Friday.
- After the resurrection, Jesus met two disciples on their way to Emmaus. As He came near to them He could see they were sad and He asked them what the problem was. Not recognising Him, they explained what had occurred in the preceding days, namely the crucifixion, ‘and besides all this, today is the third day since these things were done’ (Luke 24v21). As we are told that this was ‘the first day of the week’ (v1, cf v13), then it follows, counting backwards, that the crucifixion occurred on Friday (Sunday – Saturday – Friday – the third day).
But wait a moment. Didn’t Jesus say something about being three days and three nights in the earth, speaking about His burial?
‘Then certain of the scribes and of the Pharisees answered, saying, Master, we would see a sign from thee. But he answered and said unto them, An evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign; and there shall be no sign given to it, but the sign of the prophet Jonas. For as Jonas was three dyas and three nights in the whale’s belly; so shall the Son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.’
The Jews calculated a day from 6pm one day to 6pm the next; the day from 6am to 6pm and the night from 6pm to 6am. If Jesus was crucified on Friday, then that only allows for one full day, one part day, and two nights. If you count part days as days, then that is only two days and two nights:
Friday afternoon (3pm-6pm) – day one
Friday 6pm-Saturday 6am – night one
Saturday 6am-Saturday 6pm – day two
Saturday 6am-Sunday 6am – night two
We know from the Gospel record that the women arrived at the tomb early on the first day of the week (Sunday) ‘as it began to dawn, toward the first day of the week’ (Matthew 28v1). In other words, as it says in John 20v1, the women arrived at the tomb ‘when it was yet dark’. Therefore, Sunday daytime cannot be counted as a day – and even if it were, that still only accounts for two nights. The stone was already rolled away; Jesus had already risen from the dead – some time between 6pm Saturday evening and 6am Sunday morning.
So did Jesus mean it literally when He spoke of ‘three days and three nights’? I have come across some who have said ‘it’s only one verse,’ as if it doesn’t matter. But we need to take into consideration ‘the whole counsel of God’, not leaving out the ‘odd verse’ because it doesn’t happen to fit with our theory or practice. If this is the case, then we have to allow for three days and three nights in the grave – which causes something of a dilemma for those who accept that the crucifixion occurred on Friday.
So let’s count backwards:
Saturday 6pm-Sunday 6am – night three
Saturday 6am-Saturday 6pm – day three
Friday 6pm-Saturday 6am – night two
Friday 6am-Friday 6pm – day two
Thursday 6pm-Friday 6am – night one
As we know that the death of Christ occurred at 3 in the afternoon, we then have:
Thursday 3pm-Thursday 6pm – day one
This places the crucifixion on Thursday afternoon and not Friday afternoon as previously thought. How can this be, especially when there are clear references to ‘the Sabbath’ in the Gospels?
The clue is given in John’s Gospel, ch.19v31:
‘The Jews therefore, because it was the preparation, that the bodies should not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away.’
In short, this Sabbath was not the regular weekly Sabbath, but a special one. While the weekly Sabbath occurred regularly every Saturday, Passover and the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread were always on a fixed date, namely, the 14th and 15th days of Nisan (the first month of the Jewish calendar), respectively. On occasion, of course, the two days (Passover or the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread and the weekly Sabbath) might coincide, it was by no means the case that they would do so every year.
In order to accommodate Jesus’s statement that He would be in the grave for three days and three nights, we need to look at the institution of the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread in the book of Leviticus:
‘These are the feasts of the Lord, even holy convocations, which ye shall proclaim in their seasons. In the fourteenth day of the first month at even [evening] is the Lord’s Passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread unto the Lord: Seven days ye must eat unleavened bread. In the first day ye shall have an holy convocation [assembly]: ye shall do no servile work therein. But ye shall offer an offering made by fire unto the Lord seven days: in the seventh day is an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein.’
The first and last days are described as ‘an holy convocation: ye shall do no servile work therein’. A convocation is a gathering together – the people were expected to gather as a whole on that day; work was also restricted, thus making the day a ‘Sabbath’ – ie a day of ‘rest’ (the word Sabbath means ‘rest’). By the time of the New Testament, the ‘holy convocation’ caused the day to be referred to as a ‘high day’ – a special Sabbath and not the regular weekly Sabbath, which was not a ‘high day’.
Thus, the events of Holy Week are as follows:
Wednesday – the Jews celebrated the Passover; Jesus and His disciples also celebrated the Passover. For Christians, this has become known as the Last Supper and instituted the communion service. This meal would have taken place in the evening: ‘In the fourteenth day of the first month at even is the LORD'S passover.’ (Leviticus 23v5)
Thursday – the Day of Preparation. The Jews would be purging their homes of all leaven (yeast/raising agent). Leaven in the New Testament is explained as a symbol of sin. Thus the house of Israel symbolically removed all ‘sin’ from their homes. The crucifixion took place on this day. It is fitting that ‘the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world’ should be crucified on the day when Israel symbolically removed all sin from their lives. Jesus died at 3pm; the Jews requested that the legs of the other two men crucified with Him would be broken. This was in order that they would die more quickly, so that the bodies could be removed before the high Sabbath, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, began, at 6pm on Thursday.
Friday – the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. This was the Sabbath referred to in the Gospels; the ‘high day’ mentioned in John’s Gospel, giving us the clue that this was not an ordinary Sabbath, but a special one.
Saturday – the regular weekly Sabbath. This particular year, the two Sabbaths were on consecutive days.
Sunday – the normal first day of the week. This was the first opportunity the women would have had to attend to the burial of Jesus. They came to the tomb as early as possible, after the Sabbath had finished, to embalm the body of their Lord, only to find the stone rolled away and the body gone!
Thus we can see that the crucifixion did not happen on a Friday at all, but on a Thursday. A Friday crucifixion does not allow for the words of Jesus that He would be three days and three nights in the earth. The question remains, does it actually matter?
In one sense, no. We commemorate the death of Jesus regularly in the communion service, as He commanded; and we can commemorate His death in a special way whenever we choose. There are those who say that if it isn’t in the Bible, then we shouldn’t do it (the ‘regulative principle’), however, the Bible does not forbid such a commemoration and says ‘One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.’ Romans 14v5.
On the other hand, to ignore Jesus’s words where He explicitly says ‘three days and three nights’ is to suggest we can play fast and loose with the Bible. If we can ignore one verse because it is ‘inconvenient’, what else can we ignore and dispense with?
Far better to readjust our traditions in light of the whole counsel of God, not picking and choosing what we want to believe, but accepting what the whole Bible has to say to us.