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Millions of Christians around the world will attend a special church service today in which a group of pastors will recite and reflect on Christ’s seven final statements from the cross. These were powerful words that many Christians believe were revelations of His heart and ministry to us. While each statement carries with it the weight of the Gospel, taken as a whole these words help to provide a portrait of God’s plan of salvation through the blood of Jesus. Good Friday service has been a mainstay of many Christian denominations for generations, and while no one can be absolutely certain of the meaning of Jesus’ final words, the Christian faithful take this yearly opportunity to reflect on Christ’s suffering and give praise for the ultimate sacrifice He made for humanity.

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34).

Christian theologians would agree that Jesus did not ask forgiveness for Himself because he didn’t need to. He was sinless. Jesus did not ask for a quick, painless death. He knew His purpose for dying on the cross. Jesus did not ask God for vengeance on the people who sentenced Him to death. Instead, He prayed on their behalf. In His suffering, Jesus was able to forgive His tormentors and care about their souls.

“I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43).

In one of his final interactions, Jesus extended eternal life. As He openly forgave others, Jesus sparked an internal transformation in the criminal hanging next Him. Jesus did not allow His own suffering and torment to distract Him from the cries of faith from a repentant sinner.

“Dear woman, here is your son.” “Here is your mother.” (John 19:26-27).

Jesus’ first two statements clearly revealed His divinity—His power to forgive sin and to grant eternal salvation. His third statement reflects His humanity. As fully God and fully man, Jesus’ concern for Mary was not just as the Savior, but as a son. His compassion for His earthly mother can serve as a reminder that Jesus remained concerned about a person’s well-being and direction in life. Jesus was asking Mary to show courage, and was asking John, his disciple, to care for Mary.

“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:45-50)

Christian theologians would say that this statement is the very heart and necessity of the crucifixion. It is the fulfillment of prophesy from Psalm 22, and for the first time in eternity, the Son knew the wrath and judgment of God. The sins of man were poured out on Jesus and God could look upon Him carrying our sins. This brief separation from God has been looked upon as even more agonizing for Jesus than the physical torture he endured.

“I thirst.” (John 19:28-29).

After enduring unthinkable stress, three days of imprisonment, trials, floggings and crucifixion, Jesus experienced extreme dehydration and thirst while being executed. In this statement, Jesus fulfilled another prophesy but many believe there was a deeper meeting to His thirst. In Psalm 42, King David writes: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” Some believe Jesus cried with the psalmist as He, too, was thirsting for the presence and fellowship with God during their separation on the cross.

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:44-49).

Christians believe that this statement was not a cry of defeat, but a profession of victory. It was not the cry of being conquered by death, but of conquering death. It was not a cry of a person who was a victim of circumstances, but one who is in control of His circumstances. In other words, as a master who would dismiss his servant from his presence, Jesus dismissed His own spirit and went to be with God as he spoke the words of Psalm 31:5. When the centurion at the cross witnessed Jesus’ victorious cry, the officer recognized the difference between Jesus and every other dying man he had seen. It was at this moment that the centurion reportedly said, “surely this was a righteous man.”

“It is finished.” (John 19:28-30).

In the Gospel of John, Jesus spoke frequently about this moment. He would say “My hour has not yet come” or “the hour is coming.” Christians look at these statements as if Jesus was hearing the chimes of a clock that no one else could hear. He knew of the time and place of His death. The life of Jesus, or the sum total of His ministry and mission, was leading to one final cry of “Tetelestai” or “it is finished.” From His birth, through boyhood, manhood and public ministry, Jesus’ focus was to finish the work assigned to him by God.

The “cross”

At the very heart of Christianity stands the cross. On Good Friday, the Gospel message is that God brought forth redemption from sin through the crucifixion of Christ, therefore Christians believe the cross exists as a distinctive feature of their faith. The atonement of Christ has been understood to reflect several perspectives on the overall work of redemption.

For 2,000 years, Christians have interpreted Jesus’ atoning death on Calvary’s cross as the “perfect sacrifice.” According to Hebrews 10:10, it was a sacrifice that the various Old Testament practices could only point to but never accomplish. Jesus’ sacrificial death was unique in that it consisted of a “once for all atonement” that effectively brought about the forgiveness of human sin. Moreover, in offering Himself on the cross, Christ served as both priest and sacrifice or, specifically, He both officiated and offered Himself. Therefore, in light of Christ’s crucifixion at the hands of Pontius Pilate, there is no other sacrifice for sin available to or needed by mankind.

Jesus’ suffering as forgiveness

Christians identify the cross of Christ as God’s way of dealing finally and fully with the problem of human sin. Christians profess that Jesus’ atonement took away sin (John 1:29) and brought about full access to God and pardon and remission from all transgressions. In God’s forgiveness via the cross, theologians believe this results in the complete removal of all alienation between God and the sinner as Calvary’s atonement cleanses a person from all sin, thus providing true forgiveness, peace and the restoration of a spiritual union with God.

Christ’s presence on earth represented ultimate love. The Christian faithful believe that Jesus’ death on the cross stands as evidence of God’s love for human beings.

In John 3:16 it is explained that God sent his Son into the world to die in the place of sinners. The incarnate Son of God demonstrates His devotion by leaving His heavenly place and takes Himself a human form in order to ultimately lay down His life on a Roman cross. Christ accepts humiliation, pain, death and, finally, separation from God to accomplish redemption. Romans 5:8 explains that crucifixion is God’s definitive demonstration of love for His flawed creatures.

Christ’s resurrection is recognized by His followers as victory. Jesus’ death on the cross finally defeated the hidden and hostile forces that had enslaved and harassed humanity since the beginning of time, namely knowledge of our own death. Jesus’ atoning death and bodily resurrection from the grave permanently defeated such colossal world powers as sin, death and Satan. And while many now refer to Easter Sunday as Resurrection, some Christians celebrate Good Friday as VE-Day or “Victory Upon the Earth” through the blood of Jesus Christ.

What is the “cross”?

The meaning of the cross was originally death. From about the 6th century BCE until the 4th century AD, the cross was an instrument of execution that resulted in death by the most torturous and painful of ways. In crucifixion, a person was either tied or nailed to a wooden cross and left to hang until dead. Death would be slow and excruciatingly painful (the word excruciating means “out of crucifying”). But because of Christ and His death on the cross, the meaning today is completely different.

In Christianity, the cross represents the intersection of God’s love and His justice. In John 1:29, Christ is described as the “Lamb of God” who takes away sin from the world. The reference to Jesus as the Lamb of God goes back to the Jewish Passover in Exodus 12. The Israelites were commanded to sacrifice an unblemished lamb and smear the blood of that lamb on the doorpost of their homes. The blood would be a sign for the Angel of Death to “pass over” their house, leaving those covered in blood in safety. When Jesus came to John the Baptist to be baptized, John recognized Him and shouted to the assembled crowd “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29) thereby identifying God’s plan for Jesus to be sacrificed for sin.

While scripture reveals that Jesus was the Son of God, some ask, “Then how could he be killed? Couldn’t he have simply come down from the cross unscathed?” Christians believe that His death is the over-arching message of the New Testament. It is the story of redemption. Beginning with the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, all human beings would inherit this sin and guilt. Therefore, God sent His only Son into the world to take on human flesh and to be the Savior of humanity. Born from a virgin, Jesus avoided the curse of the fall that infected all other human beings, and being unblemished by sin, Jesus could provide the ultimate sacrifice that God required.

In Matthew 16:24, Jesus called on his followers to “take up their cross” and follow Him. Today, the concept of “cross-bearing” has a different meaning. Typically, people will say “this is my cross to bear” meaning they’re facing a difficult time. Jesus was calling on His followers to engage in radical self denial. Anyone under the jurisdiction of 1st century Rome knew that the cross was associated with death, but in Matthew 16:25 we find Jesus making the remarkable—if not incredulous—statement: “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

Why call it “Good Friday”?

Why do we recall the suffering of Christ as “Good Friday”? The origin of the term is not clear, although some linguists trace the meaning to the German “Gute Feitag” or “Gottes Freitag” (“God’s Friday”). The Baltimore Catechism declares that Good Friday is called “good” because Christ, by His death, “showed His great love for man, and purchased for him every blessing.” Therefore, “Good” in this sense means “holy” as in the common terminology among Eastern European Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox. Good Friday is also known as Holy Friday in the languages of Spanish, Italian and French.

While Christians continue to face persecution in some parts of the world—even to the point of death—Good Friday represents victory over spiritual death and how Christ’s ministry 2,000 years ago would not only change time, but remain imbued within the hearts of His followers for eternity.