Ask me what really happened on Good Friday and I’ll give you an answer; that was the day religion died.
How so? Religion is alive and well today and Christians identify as being religious. Unfortunately to accept this is to deny the whole point of the Christian faith.
Christ died to end the power and stronghold of religion over people’s lives and restore them into a right relationship with our creator, God. On the surface, it’s that simple.
But underneath there sit deeper truths and some mystery.
There’s so much happening around this one crucifixion event, we can only survey the cross’ power with a feeling of awe and humble reverence.
The crucifixion in history
So what exactly has the execution of a ‘controversial’ rabbi from the backwaters of Galilee have to do with the end of religion?
The event and significance of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth are central to the claims of Christianity. Jesus, who claimed explicitly and implicitly, to be the promised Jewish messiah was tried and executed for assuming the authority of God Himself.
Small wonder his claims cause controversy, even to this day.
His life and ministry were a challenge to the religious establishment and the Roman civil powers. So for that reason, they had to deal with him.
But the early Jesus followers saw something more.
This was the very hand of God in the act of Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection. They viewed his death as a sacrifice for sin.
The importance of sacrifice in all religions.
And this is where it gets especially interesting because pretty much most of the religions in the world require some form of ‘payment’ to appease the gods or God. We know it as propitiation.
Offering sacrifices to deities to appease them is deeply ingrained in all cultures and civilisations around the world and in all time. Whole societies were structured and focused on the religious functions of sacrifice and worship.
It brings to mind the apostle Paul’s words about the non-Jewish world;
‘the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them, and at other times defending them.’ Romans 2:15.
Could it be that just one human sacrifice could negate the need for all sacrifice, regardless of the religion?
If we are to accept, as the early Christians did, that the Hebrew Bible was for all humanity, then yes, Christ’s death on the cross was the ultimate sacrifice.
And this is because Christ is the person of God in human flesh. The very incarnation of Himself. His death came to be understood as God freely giving himself in the person of His son, to offer himself back as the one perfect offering.
Is your head spinning yet?
The gospel of John puts it neatly and clearly. You probably know the verse; ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ John 3:16.
On Good Friday religion died with an act of atonement.
As Jews familiar with the atoning of sin through sacrifice, the early Christians came to understand the death of Jesus as doing exactly that, but on a universal scale for the whole of humanity.
‘For by one sacrifice, he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.’ Hebrews 10:14.
This one act of atonement completely negated the entire religious system of animal sacrifices and ritual requirements of Jewish law.
“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds, you have been healed.” 1 Peter 2:24.
Religion died because of the work of Christ, not ours.
On Good Friday religion died because of love.
But you may think that this all sounds a little overly theological. We try to comprehend its depths with theology but the cross is this and so much more.
The cross is love.
‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.’ John 15:13.
This self-sacrificing love is known in the Greek word agape. It is the word for love most often used in the New Testament.
We have parallels in our own time.
There was an Islamist terrorist attack only recently in France where a group of people were held hostage by a gunman. Gendarme, Lt Col Arnaud Beltrame swapped places with one of the hostages and as a result, gave his life so that one of them could go free.
There is no greater love than this.
Beltrame has been honoured posthumously with France’s highest honour, the Legion of Honour.
But this is the oldest and noblest of stories, someone sacrificing their own life for others. And all inspired by a love of their fellow humans. It’s a parallel of the Christian story itself.
How ironic that this terror incident was also inspired by fanatical religion, a different variant to the one in Jesus’ time, but the effects of religious oppression and its control of people being equally harmful.
The way of the cross is to take away the need for a religion of sacrifice and control and to replace it with love.
On Good Friday religion died so we can be close to God.
The crucifixion is as much a supernatural event as a natural death in the most unnatural way. Of all the unusual events that happened at this time, the most significant is the tearing of the curtain to the Holy of Holies in the temple of Jerusalem.
‘At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom’. Matthew 27:51.
The Holy of Holies was the very dwelling place of God among His people. It was so holy that only one person could ever enter it. That was to be the High Priest once a year on the Day of Atonement.
The tearing apart of the curtain represents the ending of religion.
The holiness code, priestly hierarchy and sacrificial system that separated men and women from God were finished in this one dramatic demonstration.
But when we look back at the ministry of Jesus, it was inevitable in hindsight.
It was Jesus who referred to God in the Aramaic word, Abba, an affectionate term of endearment for Daddy.
It was Jesus who said:
‘I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. I no longer call you slaves but friends.’ John 15:15.
Now we can live all of life in Him.
I can only begin to tell of the power of the cross and how its changed the world and our spiritual life forever.
But Good Friday marks a starting point for believers and a moment when the earth changed.
To borrow the title of a Hollywood movie, it’s the ‘Day the Earth Stood Still’.
It’s the day when the power of religion over man was reset and replaced with a direct relationship with our creator.
It is a day of sadness, sorrow but significance. And with that the seeds of our hope and redemption.
It is the event as Christians, that is foundational to our confidence in God.
Now we can be set free from the shackles of religion, to live all of life in Him.
This is the greatest privilege and gift of all. It was the events on this Good Friday so long ago that enables us to live in Christ and for Him and to be changed to be like Him in our death and future resurrection.
Religion is dead.
Resurrection is coming.
Hope for humanity is being reborn.
It is deep, it is mysterious and it is real today as it ever was.
‘Can you discover the depths of God? Can you discover the limits of the Almighty?’ Job 11:7.
Jeremy. Not Only Sundays.