It was the single most horrible day in the history of the world.
No incident has ever been more tragic, and no future event will ever match it. No surprise attack, no political assassination, no financial collapse, no military invasion, no atomic detonation or nuclear warfare, no cataclysmic act of terrorism, no large-scale famine or disease — not even slave trading, ethnic cleansing, or decades-long religious warring can eclipse the darkness of that day.
No suffering has ever been so unfitting. No human has ever been so unjustly treated, because no other human has ever been so worthy of praise. No one else has ever lived without sin. No other human has ever been God himself. No horror surpasses what transpired on a hill outside Jerusalem almost two millennia ago.
And yet we call it “Good” Friday.
For Jesus, that most horrible of days dawned in Roman custody at the governor’s headquarters. His own people had turned him over to the oppressive empire. The thread that held the Jewish nation together was its pining for a promised ruler in the line of their great beloved King David. Both David himself, and the prophets who came before and after him, pointed the people to an even greater king who was to come. Yet when he finally came, his people — the very nation that ordered its collective life around waiting for him — did not see him for who he was. They rejected their own Messiah.
In his own day, David had seen pagans plot against him as God’s anointed one. “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and against his Anointed” (Psalm 2:1–2). But now David’s words had come true of his greater descendant, as Jesus’s own people turned on him to hand him over to Rome.
Judas wasn’t the first to plot against Jesus, but he was the first to “deliver him over” (Matthew 26:15) — the language of responsibility which the Gospels repeat again and again.
The schemes against Jesus began long before Judas realized money might be made available to a mole. What began with maneuvering to entangle Jesus in his words (Matthew 22:15) soon devolved into a conspiracy to put him to death (Matthew 26:4). And Judas’s love for money made him a strategic first domino to fall in delivering Jesus to death.
Jesus had seen it coming. He told his disciples ahead of time, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem. And the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes . . .” (Matthew 20:18). At first the traitor was nameless. Now he emerges from Jesus’s own inner circle of twelve. One of his close friends will turn on him (Psalm 41:9), and for a slave’s price (Zechariah 11:12–13): thirty filthy pieces of silver.
But Judas didn’t act alone. Jesus himself had foretold that “the chief priests and scribes” would “condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified” (Matthew 20:18–19). And it all unfolded according to plan. “The band of soldiers and their captain and the officers of the Jews” arrested him and delivered him to Pilate (John 18:12, 30). As Pilate would acknowledge to Jesus, “Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me” (John 18:35).
On the day God’s chosen Messiah was grossly and unjustly executed, the human agents of evil standing at the helm were the formal officers of God’s chosen people. Fault would not be limited to them, but to them much had been given, and much would be required (Luke 12:48). Jesus was clear with Pilate who deserved more blame: “he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin” (John 19:11).
Even Pilate could tell why the Jewish leaders had it out for Jesus: “He perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up” (Mark 15:10). They saw Jesus winning favor with the people, and quaked at the prospect of their own influence eroding (John 12:19). Jesus’s rise to renown posed such a threat to their fragile sense of authority, with its accompanying privilege, that liberal priests and conservative scribes crossed the aisle to work together.
In a web of wickedness, guilty parties serve their complementary roles. The Jewish leaders drove the plan, Judas served as catalyst, and Pilate too had his own part to play, however passive. He would try to cleanse the guilt from his conscience by publicly washing his hands of the whole affair, but he was not able get himself off the hook.
As the ranking Roman onsite, he could have put an end to the injustice he saw unfolding in front of him. He knew it was evil. Both Luke and John record three clear instances of Pilate declaring, “I find no guilt in him” (Luke 23:14–15, 20, 22; John 18:38; 19:4, 6). In such a scenario, a righteous ruler would not only have vindicated the accused, but seen to it that he was protected from subsequent harm from his accusers. Yet, ironically, finding no guilt in Jesus became the cause for Pilate’s guilt, as he bowed to what seemed politically expedient in the moment.
First, Pilate tried to bargain. He offered to release a notorious criminal. But the people called his bluff, incited by their leaders, and called for the release of the guilty instead. Now Pilate was cornered. He washed his hands as a show and “released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified” (Matthew 27:26; Mark 15:15). Pilate’s part, no doubt, was more reactive than the conspiring Jewish leaders, but when “he delivered Jesus over to their will” (Luke 23:25) he joined them in their wickedness.
The rank and file played their part as well. They allowed themselves to be incited by their conniving officials. They called for the release of a man they knew was guilty in place of a man who was innocent. Rightly would the apostle Peter preach in Acts 3:13–15 as he addressed the people of Jerusalem,
You delivered [Jesus] over and denied [him] in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release him. But you denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead.
As the early Christians in Jerusalem would pray, “Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel” (Acts 4:27). Neither Herod nor the Romans are clean as well. In the end, in a surprising turn, Jews and Gentiles worked together to kill the Author of life.
And soon enough we come to find that it’s not only Judas, Pilate, the leaders, and the people who are implicated. We see our own evil, even as we see through the blackness of this Friday to the light of God’s goodness: we delivered him over. “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). Jesus was “delivered up for our trespasses” (Romans 4:25). He “gave himself for our sins” (Galatians 1:4). “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). What we meant for evil, God meant for good.
God was at work, doing his greatest good in our most horrible evil. Over and in and beneath the spiraling evil of Judas, the Jewish leaders, Pilate, the people, and all forgiven sinners, God’s hand is steady, never to blame for evil, ever working it for our final good. As Peter would soon preach, Jesus was “delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23). And as the early Christians would pray, “Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, [did] whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place” (Acts 4:27–28).
Never has Joseph’s banner flown so truly as it did on that day: what man meant for evil, God meant for good(Genesis 50:20). And if this day, of all days, bears not only the fingerprints of sinners for evil, but also the sovereign hand of God for good, how can we not fly Joseph’s banner over the great tragedies and horrors of our lives? Since God himself “did not spare his own Son but gave him upfor us all, how will he not with him graciously give us all things” for our everlasting good (Romans 8:32)?
God wrote “good” on the single worst day in the history of the world. And there is not one day — or week, month, year, or lifetime of suffering — not one trauma, not one loss, not one pain, momentary or chronic, over which God cannot write “good” for you in Christ Jesus.
Satan and sinful man meant that Friday for evil, but God meant it for good, and so we call it Good Friday.