Counting winners and losers on Good Friday—and Easter

The Resurrection of Christ / Noel Coypel, 1700

The Resurrection of Christ / Noel Coypel, 1700

What is winning? And what is losing? In a baseball game, it’s obvious. At the end of the game, the team with the most runs wins. The other loses. In life, the distinction is not nearly as clear cut.

This is Holy Week. On Good Friday, it looked like Jesus lost. The two thieves crucified on either side of him had different views. On Easter, it turns out Jesus, and the second thief, won.

The chief priests gloated in triumph. “You claimed to be the Christ. Well, if you’re the Christ, let’s see you come down off that cross, loser!” His friends, those who dared to show up at all, cowered at a distance. That was Friday. On Sunday, Jesus rose from the dead.

One powerful lesson of Good Friday is that we can’t tell who’s winning and who’s losing based on what things look like at any moment. God, who sees the end from the beginning, has declared himself the winner over Satan.

He has also said that, regardless of appearances, we, his people, are more than conquerors through Christ. As the saying goes, “Read the back of the book. We win.”

  • Regardless of what’s happening to our investments?
  • Regardless of how sick and frail we might be?
  • Regardless of how strained our relationships might be?
  • Regardless of whether we achieved any of the goals we set for ourselves in our youth?

Yes. We win, because God wins. If we’re feeling whipped and beaten, well, it’s only Friday. The victory comes on Sunday.

Two criminals

Jesus was not crucified alone. In popular parlance, he was crucified between two thieves. Actually, these guys were not ordinary thieves. They were at least armed robbers. They may have also been Zealots, a sect of Jews that committed acts of terrorism against the Romans.

The way I have always heard this passage explained is that the first criminal joined the chief priests in mocking Jesus, but the second criminal was a believer and expressed faith in his kingdom. What does Scripture really say?

39 Then one of the criminals hanging there began to yell insults at Him: “Aren’t You the Messiah? Save Yourself and us!”

40 But the other answered, rebuking him: “Don’t you even fear God, since you are undergoing the same punishment? 41 We are punished justly, because we’re getting back what we deserve for the things we did, but this man has done nothing wrong.” 42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”

43 And He said to him, “I assure you: Today you will be with Me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43, HCSB)

The first was certainly heaping abuse on Jesus, but it was more scolding than mocking. Since he acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah, he was clearly a believer, but a disappointed and frustrated one.

He believed correctly that Jesus was Messiah, but he believed incorrectly that the Messiah should overpower the Romans and restore the Jewish kingdom. And here was the Messiah on the cross next to him.

There wasn’t much time left for him to get to work, to get himself and the two loyal followers on each side of him off the cross and defeat the Romans. And so the first criminal rebuked his Messiah for acting like a loser.

The second criminal rebuked the first, and then turned to Jesus and asked to be remembered when Jesus came into his kingdom.

It is rare in the New Testament for anyone to address Jesus by name. The disciples usually call him Master or Lord. The religious leaders rarely address him at all. I have not taken the time to investigate carefully, but in skimming through Luke, the only other person I noticed addressing him as Jesus was a demon.

But it is striking that the first criminal explicitly acknowledged Jesus as Messiah or Christ and the second one didn’t.

I have seen the suggestion that this man felt sorry for the harmless lunatic in the center and decided to spend his last moments humoring him. At the very least, then, Jesus’ answer shows that simple kindness can have a great reward.

I think it more likely, though, that both criminals were believers. The second somehow recognized that Jesus’ crucifixion was not the defeat that it appeared. He somehow knew that at the end of the story, God and his Messiah win, no matter how desperate things looked at the time.

That is extraordinary faith, to look at a man dying on a cross and see a coming king. On any view, this man’s dying moments make him a tremendous role model for us.

Which criminal are you?

Crucifixion by Hans von Tübingen showing the good thief on the right side of Christ, and the impenitent thief on the left side of Christ with a devil.

Crucifixion by Hans von Tübingen showing the good thief on the right side of Christ, and the impenitent thief on the left side of Christ with a devil.

But I want to turn back to the first criminal, because I see in him how we all too often act ourselves.

How many times have you said or heard people say something like,

  • I tried prayer, and it doesn’t work.
  • I prayed when my mom got sick. Lots of people prayed, but she died anyway.
  • How could a loving God let that child die?
    • or allow cancer to exist?
    • or allow earthquakes and floods to harm so many people?

How many of people who complain like that are Christians? Many, if not most. Many of the rest are ex-Christians, having allowed accusations like that to turn them away from faith.

The first criminal acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, but his attention was focused on his own needs and his own conception of what the Messiah should do.

When his Messiah failed to meet his needs his way and in his time, he became bitter and critical. We have probably all done that from time to time, and we certainly know others who have.

But here’s the problem. That’s a question to ask on Friday. The first criminal did not realize that Sunday would bring his Messiah’s great victory. Every Christian since then has known for sure.

How long must Friday’s questions make us forget the inevitability of Sunday’s victory?

Photo credits:
Resurrection / Coypel. Public domain, from Wikimedia Commons.
Crucifixion / Tübingen. Public domain from Wikimedia Commons.

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