Good Friday Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Good Friday

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Good Friday is the day in Holy Week each year that marks the death of Jesus Christ. In English this day of death is paradoxically called "good" because of what Jesus's death means for the redemption of the world: What happened to Jesus was terrible for him but "good" in that it (along with the resurrection) fulfilled God's righteous plan of salvation. Other languages use phrases that mean "Holy Friday" or "Long Friday" or "High Friday" or "Great Friday." In German this day is usually called Karfreitag, using the old German verb kara, meaning "bewail" or "grieve." Worship on this day may focus on three aims: (1) to narrate and remember the events of Jesus's death, (2) to open up the meaning of these events for our understanding of God and the redemption accomplished by the cross, and (3) to invite worshipers to renewed prayer and dedication.

In Scripture

The Curse in Genesis 3:14 - 19: "The Lord God said to the serpent, `Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals and among all wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel'" (Gen. 3:14 - 15).

God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22:1 - 14: "[God] said, `Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you'" (Gen. 22:2).

The one who is raised up in Numbers 21:4 - 9: "So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live" (Num. 21:9).

God's curse in Deuteronomy 21:22 - 23: "When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession" (Deut. 21:22 - 23).

Jesus cries out with the words of Psalm 22:1 - 18: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?" (Ps. 22:1).

The servant's humiliation in Isaiah 50:4 - 9: "The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting" (Isa. 50:5 - 6).

The suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12: "Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:4 - 6).

God's love endures in suffering in Lamentations 3:1 - 9, 19 - 33: "For the Lord will not reject forever. Although he causes grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone" (Lam. 3:31 - 33).

Mourning for God's pierced one in Zechariah 12:10 - 13:9: "And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn" (Zech. 12:10).

Eternal life in John 3:13 - 21: "And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life" (John 3:14 - 15).

The good shepherd in John 10:14 - 18: "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep" (John 10:14 - 15).

Justified by grace in Romans 3:21-26: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith" (Rom 3:23 - 25).

Set free in Christ in Romans 8:1 - 17: "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death" (Rom. 8:1 - 2).

The power of the cross in 1 Corinthians 1:17 - 21: "For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18).

Redeemed from the curse in Galatians 3:1 - 14: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, `Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree' — in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith" (Gal. 3:13 - 14).

Reconciliation through the cross in Ephesians 2:13 - 22: "He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it" (Eph. 2:15 - 16).

The Kenotic hymn in Philippians 2:5-11: "And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:7 - 8).

Peace through the cross in Colossians 1:19 - 23: "For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross" (Col. 1:19 - 20).

Jesus the representative human in Hebrews 2:5 - 9: "We do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Heb. 2:9).

Enduring like Christ in 1 Peter 2:19 - 25: "He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed" (1 Pet. 2:24).

God's love revealed in Jesus in 1 John 3:16; 4:7 - 21: "We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another" (1 John 3:16).

Praise to the slaughtered lamb in Revelation 5:6-14: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" (Rev. 5:12).

Points to Ponder

Historical Remembrance/Seven Last Words: The historical remembrance is often best accomplished through a dramatic reading of the gospel account of Jesus's passion (the account in John 18 - 19 is perhaps the most commonly used). In some churches the reading is structured to follow the "seven last words of Christ." None of the four gospels actually contains seven final words from Jesus. Matthew and Mark each contain just one saying (the cry of dereliction "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"). Luke has Jesus speaking three times (asking for forgiveness for his tormenters, assuring the one thief he would join Jesus in paradise, and commending his spirit to the Father). John also contains three sayings (commending his mother to the care of a disciple, indicating thirst, and the climactic "It is finished"). Critical scholars often flag these variations as discrepancies that undercut the reliability of the four gospels. Others claim such variation bears the hallmarks of eyewitness accounts from multiple vantage points and see no reason to doubt Jesus spoke all seven sayings at various moments during his crucifixion.

Tenebrae: A traditional service of shadows, a Tenebrae service is structured around a deepening darkness as the service proceeds. As various portions of the passion narrative are read from Scripture, candles are extinguished one by one — and the light in the worship space dimmed accordingly — until finally only the Christ candle remains. At the moment when Christ's death is noted, this candle is also extinguished and the worship space becomes totally dark (in some services a soloist may sing during this time). As a sign of the resurrection to come, the Christ candle is sometimes relit and carried out at the conclusion of the worship service. Many Good Friday services are somber because of this historical remembrance of Jesus's death.

Theological Interpretation: The theological interpretation of these events may highlight the complementary metaphors and images that the New Testament uses to convey the mystery, power, and significance of Jesus's death — simultaneously an atoning sacrifice for sin, a picture of divine glory, an example of perfect, self-giving love, a surprising means of conquering evil, and a means for redeeming all creation. This interpretive aspect of Good Friday worship may happen through preaching or through hymnody or other music that explores these themes and images. While the historical remembrance dimension may well give the service a somber feel, this interpretive dimension should not in any way lead people to be sad in the sense of sadness having the last word. Profound wonder and gratitude are more appropriate responses! Worshipers gather not only to remember the suffering of the dying Savior but also to rejoice in the purposes of God, who wills to redeem his children, and to offer profound gratitude for God's greatest gift.

Intercessory Prayer: Good Friday is also appropriately marked by intercessory prayer. In some traditions dating back to the early church, Good Friday worship includes the longest intercessory prayer of the entire year (traditionally called the "solemn intercessions"). Prompted by Hebrews 4:14 - 16, these prayers feature sustained intercessions for the needs of the world, of the church, and of the local community.

Lord's Supper: Some Christian traditions also mark Good Friday with a celebration of the Lord's Supper, focusing on how the supper "proclaims the Lord's death until he comes." In other traditions Good Friday is the one day of the year on which the Lord's Supper is not celebrated.

The Cross: The worship space for this day may be simple and stark, including only visuals that remind us of the cross and its purpose. A cross may be displayed prominently.

Stations of the Cross: Some traditions (particularly the Roman Catholic Church) design worship spaces to include as many as fourteen places or stations, each of which represents some event that transpired as Jesus traveled the Via Dolorosa or The Way of Sorrows on his way to Golgotha. During Lent and on Good Friday, a worship service may be structured around pondering each station. Beginning with Jesus's condemnation by Pontius Pilate and ending with the placement of Jesus's body in the tomb, the intervening twelve stations may include Jesus taking up his cross, Jesus stumbling for the first time, Jesus seeing his mother, Simon helping Jesus with the cross, a woman called Veronica wiping Jesus's face, Jesus falling a second time, the encounter with women from Jerusalem, Jesus stumbling a third time, the stripping of his clothing, the nailing of Jesus to the cross, his death on the cross, and his body being taken down from the cross.

The Irony: Few if any religions in the world — and few if any nations in the world — do the ironic or paradoxical practice of celebrating the death of its founder or of a key leader. Americans, for instance, may sadly remember the days when Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy were assassinated, but those days are not called "good" or endowed with positive significance. Only Christians are able to look at their Savior's death and find cause to celebrate because of the theological conclusion that the only way for God to heal the breach caused by evil's arrival in God's good creation was to have the Son of God suffer the ultimate consequence of sin: death itself. Further, as an accursed way to die, the crucifixion makes clear that all the iniquity and evil of history was being brought down upon Jesus, who took the place of all humanity in paying the price for a world gone bad. By raising the Son back to life again three days later, God the Father put God's stamp of approval on this method of saving the world and validated that this particular death indeed leads to new life — indeed, to life everlasting.

Staying Somber: There is always the temptation liturgically or homiletically on Good Friday to make the service a kind of anticipatory pre-Easter celebration of life and light after all. Perhaps we fear that too much somber reflection is a downer or a turnoff to some worshipers. Perhaps we think worship services always need to be on some level upbeat and joyful. Probably these are tendencies to resist on Good Friday. It is well to let the gravity of Christ's suffering and sacrifice sink into our souls as followers of Jesus. Yes, as the saying goes, "It's Friday, but Sunday's coming!" But the joy on Sunday will be the greater — and the deeper — if we let the sorrow of remembering Christ's agony on Friday be as real as possible. As noted above, the goal is not fostering sadness for the sake of sadness but generating awe and wonder about what Christ accomplished and about how he accomplished all salvation.

The Passion Narrative: One of the richest traditions of Christian worship involves the reading of complete passion narratives from one of the four gospels each year interspersed with songs and prayers of reflection. The following suggestions divide the passion narrative of each gospel book into nine sections:

Matthew 26:30 - 46, 47 - 56, 57 - 75; 27:1 - 5, 6 - 23, 24 - 31, 32 - 44, 45 - 50, 51 - 54

Mark 14:26 - 42, 43 - 50, 51 - 72; 15:1 - 5, 6 - 15, 16 - 20, 21 - 32, 33 - 37, 38 - 39

Luke 22:39 - 46, 47 - 53, 54 - 62, 63 - 71; 23:1 - 12, 13 - 25, 26 - 38, 39 - 46, 47 - 56

John 18:1 - 11, 12 - 24, 25 - 27, 28 - 38, 38 - 19:16; 19:16 - 25, 25 - 27, 28 - 37, 38 - 41

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.