For the joy: A meditation in anticipation of Good Friday
March 23, 2012 § 1 Comment
Generally, Good Friday services are presented as somewhat somber, if not downright morose, memorials of the crucifixion of Jesus. The Gospel accounts of his lonely vigil of prayer in Gethsemane, Judas’ betrayal, the fleeing of the disciples at his arrest, the sham trials, the beating and mocking and the cruelty of the crucifixion—all of these are recounted, often in a “you are there” fashion, woven together from Scripture and interspersed with melancholy music to picture for us the tragic reality of Christ’s suffering for sinners.
Though we cannot deny the tragic reality of the death of Christ, Scripture we never quite broods over it, either as an event of history or with a view toward its theological implications in quite the way we might think it should. I don’t mean this in any way to diminish the central emphasis of the cross in Scripture: the cross is that which shows the wisdom and power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) and it is to be our “boast” in this world (Galatians 6:14). What we find, though, is that the Bible never sees Christ’s cross-work as the “end game.” In a sense, one could say that Scripture even looks past the events of the crucifixion. Consider this passage in Hebrews 12:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12:1-3)
What exactly was the joy that was set before Jesus? Whatever else we might say, it is clear that “the joy” was a motivation, something on the other side of the cross which propelled Jesus to “endure” all that the cross was: human shame, physical torture—the wrath of God. None of these things were enough to dissuade him from his ultimate goal.
Biblically speaking, in the final assessment it was not the cross that was Jesus’ ultimate goal; rather, above all else, it was the joy that was set before him that was the Lord’s focus. Beyond this, I hope we also will see that it is God’s intention that we, too, enter into that joy with Jesus; because we have gained an interest in the Savior’s blood we have an interest in his joy—and it is this reality that makes Good Friday good.
If we are going to attempt to understand this joy that was set before the Lord Jesus we have to begin at the beginning—or, more accurately, before the beginning, “before the worlds began to be.” Jesus’ mission did not begin when he left home as a man of 30 for his public ministry. Nor did it begin when, at 12, he confounded the scribes in the Temple with his knowledge of God and his Law. It didn’t even begin in Bethlehem when the angels of heaven proclaimed Messiah’s birth. It may not even be appropriate to say that it actually “began” at all, because God—infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in the perfect fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit—had, from even before the first “Let there be…” of creation, always been about the mission of redemption. From “eternity past” the Triune God had purposed he would make for himself a people: He would create the world; he would bring about whatsoever he had ordained to come to pass; and he would enter into his world to secure those people so that they, too, might enter into their joy and share in the glory of God.
This is why Philippians 2 tells us that Jesus,
…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8).
Jesus laid aside his rightful glory as God—and the personal, experiential joy that went along with that glory—to humble himself to the point of death on a cross. He “endured the cross, despising its shame”—because he knew he would return to the joy that he had left.
That Jesus longed to return to the joy of glory is clear—and that is why he could set his face toward the cross and beyond it—for the cross was his way back to glory. We hear it in his prayers, as in John 17:
“Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:1-5).
But it isn’t merely that Jesus looked only for his own restoration to the joy of God’s glory; it was by the cross that he would bring with him all those whom the Father had given him to join with him in sharing into that joy:
“But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves….Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.” (John 17:13, 24-26)
This was precisely why he came into the world: to make known the name of the Father to the children, to redeem the children’s sins—and then to return them to the Father to enter into his joy. In his own words: “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” (John 12:27, 28a)
It was for this glory—the joy that was set before him–that Jesus endured the cross; it was by the cross, as a sacrifice given by God himself, that Jesus would bring his people to share the same joy he had shared with God the Father from the beginning. This had always been God’s plan—and therefore Jesus’ mission. No wonder, then, he is called “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8, KJV)!
This, then, is our Savior, who, for the joy that was set before him endured the cross—so that we would also have that joy set before us! Behold, the Lamb: Slain from the foundation of the world!
For all of this we rightly call Good Friday “good”; but make no mistake, I hardly mean to communicate that the cross was itself the joy. The Scripture plainly tells us that Jesus “endured the cross”—he did not enjoy it. For all that he would gain for us through the cross, and for all that he himself would regain on the other side of the cross, the cross was a place of shame, pain and suffering.
From the human standpoint it was the place where common criminals received a shameful execution for their crimes. Its human pain was beyond our comprehension; few among us can possibly conceive what it would be like to be driven to a stake of wood by sharpened iron more akin to railroad spikes than nails. By God’s amazing grace none of God’s people will ever know its spiritual suffering—the pouring out of the full wrath of God, the turning away of his presence—the descent, as it were, into hell, on our behalf.
No, the cross was a horrible place for Jesus to be—a place of untold sorrow. And yet it was to that very place that Jesus had to go—for it was “necessary for the Christ to suffer and then enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26)…“for the joy set before him he endured the cross….” Without question, then, it can truly be said: the cross is a place where joy and sorrow meet. Yet this meeting was not God’s wrangling some good out of tragedy; it was not God finding a way to make the best of an unthinkable crime, “MacGyvering” his way out of a bad situation. Far from that—it was in fact the very will of God—the united purpose of Father, Son and Spirit from before the foundation of the world:
…he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth….
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief…(Isaiah 53:5-7, 10)
“It was the will of the LORD to crush him…” His sacred head was wounded, ultimately, by God himself—for our peace with him.
What language, indeed, shall we borrow to offer thanks for the love God has shown through Christ?
In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (1 John 4:9, 10).
Perhaps there is, indeed, in this fallen world, no language at all that can be borrowed that will fully express thanks for such amazing love. But those who have known it cannot help but try—or else the rocks would cry out.
On Good Friday we look at the cross—and this Good Friday should be no different. The cross is, literally, the believing sinner’s justification for claiming the forgiveness of sins. For this very reason the cross is also, just as literally, the believing sinner’s claim to joy; indeed, the cross is how God sets before us the joy that calls us to endure! It is the cross that delivers us from God’s wrath against our sin; it is the cross that proclaims to us God’s forgiveness; it is the cross that declares to us the old has gone and the new has come. All that sin would keep us imprisoned within has by, the power of Christ’s cross, been thrown off; all that sin would keep from our enjoyment—above all, the Lord himself—has by the cross been overflowed into our lives:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fastbound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray—
I woke—the dungeoun filled with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free—
I rose, went forth and followed thee!
Amazing Love, how can it be—
That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
To have not only the forgiveness of our sins but the freedom of deliverance from sin’s clutches—what joy! It is this promise and reality of joy that is set before all who embrace the same cross that the Lord himself endured—for the joy that was set before him. He has made us free! Forgiven, delivered and set free from sin! But—amazingly, mercifully—that is not all. What is set before everyone who names Christ as Savior and Lord is the same joy that was set before Christ: the sharing of Christ’s glory! It is hardly only for the joy we would know on earth that we celebrate Good Friday; it is, above all, for the joy of our sharing in the unending fellowship of the Father’s glory! From the cross Jesus was resurrected—exalted—to enter into the fulfillment of that promised joy—and in so doing he brought with him every single one who was given him by the Father to enter into that joy:
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)
To be at last with Christ, worshiping him, not merely “to the glory of God the Father” but in the glory of the Father—in the very presence of the One
…who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, 16 who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen (1 Timothy 6:15b)
–how can we but hail him as our matchless King through all eternity?
When the Scripture tells us that we are to “run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” it calls us to be steadfast and to not give in to all that would sway us from the race by looking to Jesus alone as our strength and motivation. But when the writer goes on to say that Jesus, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” he calls us to much more than merely hanging on; he tells us that the endurance as worth it—because himself has entered into a greater joy than could ever be known in this world.
Not only this, but because of his endurance so, too, have a great cloud of witnesses also endured and entered that same glorious joy. Indeed, the arrival into glory of the saints who have finished their race is a part of the joy that God has set before us; and the assurance of that joy being ours then is what fills us with joy in anticipation now. It is this present joy that strengthens us for endurance; it is no coincidence that Nehemiah says “…the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). And as we press on we have the Lord’s own promise—“I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20). The only way we shall now endure, the only way we shall ever enter into true joy—is in Christ alone. It is a joy that is now and forever, because he himself, for the joy that was set before him, endured the cross! Beyond that cross’ shame, that joy belongs to all who in him endure, because He is risen!
He is risen indeed!