Ancient prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g., Genesis 3:15; Psalm 69:4; Isaiah 53:5) had anticipated the Lord Jesus' arrival and death, and the New Testament even describes Jesus Christ as the Lamb “foreknown before the foundation of the world” (1 Peter 1:20). The impact this one Man has had on civilization is entirely unrivalled - and that is owing to his death and resurrection on the first Easter weekend.
The Day of Jesus’ Death
But what we now know as Easter was not originally called by that name and, strictly speaking, it is not a biblical term. The Bible says the Lord Jesus died at the time of Passover. Passover is a religious festival of the Jewish people commemorating their redemption out of Egypt by the blood of a sacrificial lamb (Exodus 12). This timing of Jesus’ death is in itself a remarkable testimony to God’s sovereign control of history. Religious leaders of Jesus’ day had attempted to secure His death on earlier occasions, but God did not allow it. The one time that the Jews’ leaders did not want Jesus put to death was at Passover, in order to avoid a riot during the festival (Mark 14:2). But in the purpose of God, that is the one time that Jesus must be crucified, because He is the ultimate Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:18-20).
In accordance with the Old Testament “type”, the Lamb of God (as Jesus is called in John 1:29) died on the day of the Jews’ Passover – 14 Nisan on their calendar. To ascertain the precise year His death occurred, we need to piece together data from a variety of historical sources, but we are given a big clue by the Gospel records as they tell us the Lord’s death was on a Friday. All four Gospel writers tell us that Jesus was crucified on the day of preparation for the Sabbath – the Sabbath is our Saturday and the day of preparation is another term for our Friday. Comparing the records of Scripture to other historical data brings us to one of two dates for Jesus’ death: April 7, AD 30 or April 3, AD 33, with the weight of scholarly evidence supporting the latter date. We know that it was one of those two dates, though, because those are the only two years within the realm of possibility that the Jewish calendar date of 14 Nisan fell on a Friday. The Friday of Easter is called Good Friday because Friday was the day that the Lord Jesus Christ died.
What is Good About That?
Someone may ask, then, if Jesus Christ is the founder of Christianity, why would His tortuous death on a cross be considered good? It’s a great question – Jesus’ early followers certainly didn’t consider it good news at the time. Initially, they were crushed by the death of their teacher, and thought their hopes had perished with Him. But this question actually brings us to the essence of the gospel.
What Christ’s followers understood once Christ rose from the dead is that the death of the Lord Jesus was God’s plan (Luke 24:44-46; Acts 2:22-23). It was not the defeat of God’s Servant, but the fulfilment of His mission (John 17:4). This is why, just prior to his death, Jesus cried out victoriously, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). And this is why Paul begins his concise summary of the gospel – which means, “good news” – with the words, “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3). This is also why we are justified in describing the events of that day as good. On the day the Lord Jesus died, He “suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). In the crucifixion of His Son, God was demonstrating “His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
But About That Term . . .
While we are thankful for the tremendous work that Christ did for us on that Friday, it is worth pointing out that the Scriptures never use the term “Good Friday”, and it is difficult to pinpoint when it first came into popular usage. The earliest known reference is in the South English Legendary, a late 13th century text, where it is written in its Middle English form – “guode friday.” The word “guode” – our contemporary English word “good” – conveyed the now obsolete sense of “holy,” an idea supported by how Latin languages refer to the Friday of Easter (e.g., French, “Vendredi Saint”; Spanish, “Viernes Santo”).
What occurred on the middle cross of Golgotha on that Friday afternoon was certainly holy. There are details of the sufferings of Christ that our frail human intellect cannot fully comprehend and that are known by the Godhead alone. It is astonishing to hear the heart-wrenching cry of God’s beloved Son, recorded by both Matthew and Mark in fulfillment of Psalm 22:1, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Darkness covered the land for the final three hours of Jesus’ suffering, a clue that things transpired there that transcend our limited minds. But that is only reasonable when we contemplate a transcendent God and His works. There is an “otherness” to God that leads us to worship Him, and His becoming a man in the Person of His Son to bear our sins on the cross is the preeminent example. We may not fully understand every detail of the atonement, but we can appreciate in wonder and thankfulness that “His soul [was made] an offering for sin” (Isaiah 53:10).
All that being true, nowhere does Scripture actually say we need to treat this day on our calendars as more holy than any other day. Over time, many religious traditions have developed that appeal to the natural senses of man, but do not necessarily stem from a biblical tradition. We are considering religious nomenclature when talking about Good Friday, but the only New Testament teaching for Christians in regard to commemorating the death of Christ is to do so on the first day of the week, not on one special Friday in the year.
It Wasn’t Good Friday Without Easter Sunday
We don’t know that the early Christians marked Good Friday, but we do know that they regularly met together on Sundays to proclaim the Lord’s death in a simple memorial supper, with an emblematic loaf of bread and a cup (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26; cp. Luke 22:19-20). The Lord had told his disciples previously that He was going to die, and then rise from the dead on the third day (Matthew 17:22-23). He was crucified on a Friday – that was the first day, Saturday was the second day, and Sunday was the third day. And in the early morning hours of that first day of the week, the Lord Jesus Christ was raised from the dead (Luke 24:1-7).
If there was no resurrection Sunday, the events of Good Friday would have been an epic catastrophe. And as stated above, this was actually the initial thought of his followers. But then came Sunday morning! This is what Lord of the Rings author J. R. R. Tolkien called a “eucatastrophe” – a sudden turn of events that changes everything for the better, precisely when all seems lost. The Lord’s followers were despairing – until they saw the risen Christ!
The goodness of Christ’s death that Friday afternoon hinges upon the resurrection of Sunday morning – in fact, the whole Christian faith depends on Christ being raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:12-22). If His body had still been in the tomb, the story of Jesus of Nazareth could rightly be considered merely a pathetic tragedy. But the tomb was empty. The resurrection was God’s vindication of His Son and His stamp of approval on the work of Christ on the cross (Romans 1:4; 10:9). The events of that special Passover weekend – Good Friday and Easter Sunday – are inseparably united as a joint declaration of God’s good news for all men and women everywhere: He “was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25 KJV).