Pastor James Hopkins preached this sermon on Good Friday, 4/15/2022 at the Chief Service at 9am. Due to ongoing technical difficulties, the service was not broadcast. The bulletin is available as a PDF: Good Friday Chief Service Bulletin
The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel reading. To read the Bible texts for Good Friday, click here.
The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said,
“Surely this was a righteous man.”
Pastor Luther wrote,
The right way to reach a true knowledge of Christ’s sufferings is to perceive and understand not only what He suffered, but how it was His heart and will to suffer. For whoever looks upon Christ’s sufferings without seeing His heart and will therein must be filled with fear rather than joy, but if we can truly see His heart and will in it, it gives true comfort, trust, and joy in Christ.
Here we see laid bare the problem that some have with the cross. They fail to see the heart and will of Christ. Our focus should not be on the agony and pain that our Lord endured. The focus should be, as it is in the Bible, on Jesus’ free and loving desire to bear our sins in His own body to death on the cross.
And if you cannot bear the thought of the cross, then you are not a Christian. If you will not have the crucified Lord, then you do not have the Lord. If you want something nicer, something kinder, something gentler, then Satan has plenty of alternatives. He will gladly hold your hand on the broad, easy path to hell. But you must not trip on the stumbling block that is the cross, the scandal of Jesus’ death. Rather, you must be overcome by it.
Thus, the centurion, saw what had happened, the kind of death that Jesus died, and he praised God. This is not the sentiment of General George Patton, looking upon the men he sacrificed for victory and urging us not to bemoan the fact that such men died, but to “thank God that such men lived.” That’s from a speech he delivered there in Copley Plaza almost 80 years ago. Rather, this centurion, this soldier, recognizes that this wasn’t his sacrifice to win some victory, but God’s sacrifice to win him.
So, he gets neither gloomy nor triumphant. He is not filled with terror, horror, or guilt, nor is he self-satisfied. After sinking his spear into Christ’s blessed side and setting free the water and the blood, he praises God, saying, “Surely this was a righteous man. Surely this man was the Son of God.” And that is something to praise God about. For if Jesus is the righteous Son of God, then payment has been rendered for the unrighteous sons of the devil – for us.
Jesus, then, is more than a martyr. His death is more than noble. There is joy at His death, not because He stood up for a cause or was brave, or even because He did the right thing. Rather, there is joy in His death because this is the atoning sacrifice for all the world and is the heart and will of the Father. This is not simply the death of an innocent man who loved His brothers. This is the great injustice and intervention of God Himself. God lays down His life for His enemies. Patton’s soldiers died at his command and will for their country. Jesus died of His own will for the sake of His enemies. If Patton’s soldiers had done that, we would call them traitors.
Gathered about the cross that Good Friday, only the repentant thief and the centurion seem to get it. The majority there, even the inner circle of disciples, Mary Magdalene, and the blessed virgin, they all beat their breasts and mourn over the sad fact of these three crucifixions. They see no glory, no power, no love of God there, but only another human tragedy.
But the centurion, seeing the kind of death Jesus died, recognizes, by the grace of God, who Jesus is. He rejoices and praises God. For the death of Jesus Christ is substitutionary. It was not a soldier’s death or a martyr’s death. It was sin’s death, and if Jesus seems a bit like a traitor in the process, then so be it. For He opened heaven to traitors.
The centurion recognizes that Jesus has died in his place, that Jesus has substituted His perfect life and death for his. He realizes that he could not have obtained this in any other way. In his sins, he was God’s sworn and eternal enemy, but Jesus died for him, to make him the friend and even the bride of God. And so, the centurion responds in praise.
Let us join him. We have no less to praise God for than he did. We too have been born anew in the water and the blood set free by his spear; we too have been made the friends and bride of God. This is truly something for which to praise God, for surely this Jesus is a righteous man for us, and by His righteousness we are declared righteous. Surely He is the Son of God, who makes us His brothers and thereby also sons of God. Surely His death is our salvation and His resurrection is the inauguration, the beginning, the breaking out of our own future resurrections.
The Son of Man has been lifted up on the cruel killing scaffold, and it is the tree of life. This event has drawn us to Him. It is a good day, the best day, the day the Lord has made, for it is the day He made us His.
Praise God, Jesus died to make us free. Praise God, He did not shrink from His mission but loved us to the end. Praise God, He is not dead. He lives, and we too live in Him. Our “Alleluias” draw nigh. Easter is coming.