This holiday, which is uncomfortable and frequently half ignored, is one of the most important for believers, so what do we miss by skipping over it to Easter?
Autumn has a certain smell.
For some, it’s pumpkin chai lattes and baking pecan pie. In my memory, it’s scents of dying grass, accumulating mulch with hay and manure, the ripening apples in the orchard, a slightly wet Labrador whose been running beneath the lavender bushes, freshly cut wood, raw meat and lambs’ blood.
Fall was prime time for butchering that spring’s lambs. My grandfather and father would pull out the lambs that neighbors or customers had bought, cut their throats and let them drain. My brother and I would sometimes sit by the skinning table, and my father would show us a dark liver or startlingly aquamarine gallbladder.
Then the adults would heft a new carcass onto the table. I was staring at it when the glassy eye suddenly blinked. The black, fuzzy head turned toward me, beads of blood as bright and clear as rubies winked on its twitching nose.
My father was back barely a heartbeat after I screamed. “It’s still alive! It’s still alive!” I was gulping air as his hand gripped my shoulder.
“No, it’s not. It’s dead, but sometimes the body keeps running for a bit after death. The nerves are still trying to work.” His voice had the same calm weight as when he was explaining why a lamb’s heart didn’t look like the Valentine’s pictures. “It still might move a little, but the spark of life is gone.”
“Could we bring it back?”
“No. Only God can give something a soul and a spirit. He takes both back too, in the end.”
Yes, autumn has a certain smell in my memories, and sometimes it returns to me unexpectedly in the spring, out of season, on Good Friday.
When the Angel of Death Passed Over
Jesus’ death immediately following the Passover hardly seems like a mistake. This Jewish feast was the pinnacle of their long history and the birth of their nation. How many little Jewish children over the generations had been told about the sacrificed lamb, the blood on the door frame and the angel of death whispering down the street outside?
Every beat of Jesus’ life was a divine orchestra driven by the Father’s will. Surely his final work on the heels of a holiday centered around a sacrificial lamb and the supernatural wraith of judgment was no accident.
The whole observance is rather gruesome, actually. In the Western world, it’s all too easy to think about the Jewish people unwrapping their lamb from the grocery store, bloodless and already sectioned into neat little chops on the styrofoam tray. The reality is they had to kill that young creature, skin it, debone the meat and burn anything they couldn’t eat.
When their children had questions, as children inevitably will when watching a critter die, they were to tell them, “It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for he passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, when he struck the Egyptians but spared our houses” (Exodus 12:27, ESV).
Why is this death necessary? Why does anything or anyone have to die? If God’s all powerful, couldn’t he do away with death altogether?
Why does he require the death of any lamb, much less his son?
“To cleanse the sins of the world.” We know the pat answers, if we’ve spent any time in church or Sunday school. Repeat those answers to the carcass of an innocent creature who has done no wrong in its life and yet still had its throat slit; the words become much harder to say.
Repeat such a glib answer to the dying Son of Man, gasping out the last of his life as his lungs collapse and the swollen pericardial sac strangles his heart, and the words just might choke you.
Judgment, Blood and Costly Holiness
“Without a doubt, the blood of Jesus Christ is the most precious gift our heavenly Father has given to his church. Yet, few Christians understand its value and virtue,” lamented David Wilkerson.
“They sing about the power of the blood. In fact, the anthem of the Pentecostal church is, ‘There is power, power, wonder-working power in the precious blood of the Lamb’ (Lewis E. Jones). And we constantly ‘plead the blood’ as some sort of mystical formula of protection. But few Christians can explain its great glory and benefits, and seldom enter into its power.”
If we honestly examine Good Friday, it’s hard to call that bloody business glorious, and yet we’re told that Christ willingly wears his wounds in heaven, so it does seem like he celebrates his business on the cross more seriously than we often do.
A death means a problem is dire, and in the case of humankind, the issue was indeed fatal. An existence apart from the giver of life inherently meant death, but that was what our forebearers chose. Their choice to be apart from God would not only bring their own death but the deaths of many other things in order for us to attempt sustaining ourselves apart from our Father.
Christ’s sacrifice would undo this age-long separation that would otherwise hound us straight into our graves, quite literally.
David Wilkerson explained, “I am convinced that before I can do battle against principalities and powers, before I can resist lust and temptation (our modern-giants), I must have the knowledge that under the blood I am secure. Though I am not yet fully delivered, I am out of judgment. The fleshly enemies loom ahead, but the blood has made me a safe soldier.
“Listen to this word: You cannot fight giants, pull down strongholds, or stand against overwhelming odds unless there is an assurance of absolute security under the blood. No matter what my heart says, no matter how guilty or condemned I feel, no matter what little voices may whisper — I must know beyond a shadow of doubt that I am safe."
The ancient Jewish sacrifices were not only a visceral reminder of this separation’s price tag but also of the power they had when they were right with their God.
The cross is an even more powerful reminder of these duel truths; but like the Israelites who frequently wandered away from God or grew indifferent to the messages behind their rituals, we can easily grow numb to Calvary’s significance.
This passivity is a very purposeful attack against us because resting in the starkness of the cross and soberly dwelling on the seriousness of this sacrifice will change us.
The Great and Bloody Victory
In his conclusion about the power of Christ’s blood, David Wilkerson boldly wrote, “I am not going to judgment! The blood on the door of my heart secures me in his sight. By his gracious act, God was saying to Israel, ‘Now that you see I have secured you and removed you from fear of judgment, let me deliver you bodily. I secured you to make you holy.’”
An impossible and bloody price made way for an extraordinary gift, but we can only fully live out the power of the gift if we absorb the reality of that price.
Reflecting on Good Friday and Christ’s death, Karl Vaters wrote, “His trial was a farce, but his torture was real. On the cross, he hung naked and bleeding. His flesh hung in strips from his barely-recognizable body. As he died, he didn’t just feel forsaken by God, he actually was forsaken by God.
“Jesus’ life, ministry and message looked like a failure. Until the resurrection. That changed everything. For you. For me. For everyone.
There is power in the sacrifice of this holy lamb, but we must look at it squarely, without flinching or glancing away. This is death that grants us eternal life.
This is Christ’s brutal battle and great victory.