Good Friday sermons aren’t always easy to sit through. They’re even tougher to preach. Never have I been more moved or more likely to squirm in my seat in church than on Good Friday. Perhaps that’s because they invite us to sit in the midnight passages of Scripture, caught up with suffering, death, and the purposes of God. For many of us, it is a trial to read Good Friday texts and still see God as good.
Might I suggest that the careful use of historical Christian doctrine can help?
Take Isaiah 53’s shadowy prophecy of the Suffering Servant. In its own context, mystery lies thick around the Servant. A disturbing portrait of travail and torment mystifies and perplexes, even as it enthralls. In the earlier Songs of the Servant in Isaiah, he is clearly a communal figure for Israel in exile. But in this chapter, the communal figure becomes a concrete individual—an enigmatic and tragic one. Despised and rejected by men, oppressed and led away to death by his enemies, he seems among men the most to be pitied.
The worst of his lot lies not in the abuse by his enemies, or even the rejection of his friends—it is his treatment by God that is most unnerving. Even though he was innocent and there was no “deceit in his mouth,” it seems “it was the Lord’s will to crush him” in order to make “his life an offering for sin” and bring about the salvation of many (Isa. 53:10).
But how could it serve the purposes of Israel’s God to see this righteous one crushed? What does it tell us about the way God treats his servants, his elect? These are truly dark sayings. A gleam of light begins to shine, though, not only when we recognize their fulfillment in Jesus, the human Messiah, but when we recognize him as the divine Son, the second person of the Holy Trinity.
Jesus paraphrases Isaiah 53 to explain his mission to his disciples: “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Here, Jesus is confirming that he is indeed the mysterious, prophesied Servant coming to give himself in death as a representative substitute—an obedient sin offering for a sinful people.
But it’s only with the doctrine of the incarnation that it dawns on us that the one whom it pleased the Lord to crush is not merely a hapless, righteous surrogate, but the One God of Israel himself. The Holy Eternal Son took upon himself the flesh of the Servant for us and our salvation. The Lord elects himself to bear our burden. The Lord sends himself to die on our behalf.
Light blazes brighter when we contemplate Jesus’s words in John 10:17–18, “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.” It’s easy to get the impression that God is an angry Father who needs to crush an innocent victim, and so the loving Jesus comes along and saves us from him. Historic Trinitarian doctrine reminds us that this is not what we read in the Bible nor is it the teaching of the church.
Instead, theologians like Augustine taught that since God is one and undivided, the works of the Trinity are inseparable in history—whatever the Son is doing, the Father and the Spirit are doing with him. In John 10 we catch a glimpse of that, as Jesus teaches that the will of the Son and the Father are one and the same. The Son freely comes in the flesh to lay down his life and take it up again for our salvation, and the Father loves him for it. As Calvin says, “this is a wonderful commendation of the goodness of God to us,” because it demonstrates that “our salvation is dearer to him than his own life.”
It is fashionable for some people today to claim that historic Christian doctrine is a hindrance to preaching and teaching the mysterious texts of the Bible. Nothing could be further from the truth; doctrine illumines Scripture. Only by its light do we see the goodness of the one God in the Suffering of the Servant in Isaiah 53. Out of great love for us, the Son comes in the power of the Spirit, by the will of the Father, as the Servant to deal with our sins by his self-sacrifice. This is the goodness of God in the good news of Good Friday: that God sacrifices himself for us.
Derek Rishmawy is a doctoral candidate at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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