Lectionary Commentaries for April 6, 2012
Good Friday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 18:1—19:42

O. Wesley Allen, Jr.

Similar to the gospel lesson for Palm/Passion Sunday, the reading for Good Friday is an extended lesson comprising the whole of Jesus’ passion.

John18-19 takes the reader from Jesus’ arrest, through his trials (first before the Jewish authorities and then before Pilate), to the crucifixion and death, and ends with his burial.

The structure of John’s account is the same as that found in the Synoptics. But the details are quite different — the timing/dating of the events, the role some of the characters play, the use of Hebrew Scripture, the dialogue, and the theology of John’s passion narrative vary significantly from that found in Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Preachers need to consult a critical commentary to explore all of these differences, but in this essay I’ll highlight two that are especially important for preaching this text on Good Friday.

First, is the basic view of the cross itself. This view is presented more in material that precedes the passion narrative than is found in the details of our reading itself. In other words, the narrative leading up to 18-19 significantly shapes the readers’ experience of the story. In the first half of the narrative, Jesus makes clear that his hour to be glorified has not yet arrived (2:4; 7:6, 8 30, 39; 8:20). But just after he enters Jerusalem for the last time, Jesus chooses not to meet some Greeks who are seeking him because his hour to be glorified has arrived (12:23).

This language signals something important for John. The cross is not to be understood as defeat. The whole of Jesus’ ministry (i.e., the whole of John’s story) leads up to this moment of his being “lifted up” (see 3:14; 8:28; 12:32-33). The cross is the hour of Jesus’ (and God’s) glorification.

Too often the cross is presented as failure which is overcome in the victory of the resurrection. But tradition offers an appropriate understanding of John’s message by calling this day Good Friday. It is the scandalous paradox of the Christian faith that the death of the Son of God is a good thing.

One of the ways John deals with this paradox is to blur the theological lines between death and resurrection. Even though he narrates the death and resurrection in chronological order, throughout the Farewell Discourse, John has Jesus speak of his “departure” in ways that point to the crucifixion as well as the resurrection and ascension (see 13:1, 3, 33, 36; 14:2-5, 18-19, 28; 16:5, 7, 10, 16-19, 28; 17:11, 13). In many ways, for John, the crucifixion through the ascension (including the gift of the Spirit) is a unified salvific event instead of a series of events.

The second unique element of John’s version of the passion supports the first. It is the way the Fourth Gospel presents Jesus as being in charge of his own fate throughout the story:

When the Jewish authorities come to arrest Jesus, he walks out to meet them (18:4).
When Jesus claims that there is no need to question him because he has taught publicly, a guard strikes and rebukes him. But Jesus simply claims that he has spoken rightly and gives no impression of being intimidated (18:19-24).

In his trial before Pilate, not only does Jesus not answer the ruler directly, he assumes the role of investigator by questioning Pilate (18:24). Moreover, when Pilate, exasperated by Jesus’ refusal to answer him, claims to have power over Jesus’ life, Jesus quickly puts Pilate in his place: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given from above” (19:11).

Whereas in the Synoptics, Simon of Cyrene is forced to carry Jesus’ cross (Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26), John emphatically states that Jesus carries the cross “by himself” (19:17).

And, most striking of all, Jesus seems to be in charge of the moment of his death. He announces, “It is finished,” (19:30). Proof that he was correct in his declaration of completion is seen in the following scene when there is no need to break Jesus’ legs to speed up the process of dying (19:31-34).

This portrayal of Jesus as the one who in some sense choreographs his own suffering and death reinforces the presentation of the crucifixion as an element of God’s plan instead of a defeat which God must overcome with the resurrection.

But just because the death of Jesus is a work of God’s grace does not mean that there is no place for sadness in reflecting on it. The Fourth Gospel describes and interprets the crucifixion with great pathos. Intriguingly, John juxtaposes grief and rejoicing repeatedly in the Farewell Discourse (14:27-28; 15:11; 16:6-7, 16-24; 17:13). While this paradoxical element is not explicitly named in our reading, it is part of the tone of the Passion Narrative, if you will.

And this tone fits perfectly with proclaiming the good news of Jesus’ death on Good Friday in a sanctuary stripped of liturgical colors except for the shroud placed over the cross. Preachers will do well to offer a congregation the unresolved tension of the somberness of watching Jesus die on the cross combined with a celebration of the cross as the moment of Jesus’ glorification. It is not yet the day for leading the assembly in singing “Alleluias!” but we should certainly be able to help them muster up a hearty, “Amen,” even if they do so with a tear in their eyes.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12

Mark S. Gignilliat

In the history of Christian interpretation of the Old Testament, few texts are more revered than Isaiah 53.

The descending and ascending scales of Handel’s Messiah are embedded in the hearts and souls of many English-speaking parishioners. Even as I write this paragraph, a baritone’s voice is singing in my mind, “Surely, surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.”

The text’s liturgical placement on Good Friday also makes it nearly impossible for Christian readers of Isaiah to read Isaiah 53 in any other way than as a witness to the atoning work of Jesus Christ. The images of the rejected man of sorrows, suffering in isolation as he endures the blows of God for our iniquities seem ready-made for Christian reading.

As revered as Isaiah 53 is, few texts are more hotly contested in the scholarly world. Interpretive battles abound over the identity of the servant, the original intention of such a text, its form-critical setting in Judah’s exilic and post-exilic period, its reception in the inter-testamental period, and all these without mentioning the numerous textual-critical difficulties in the Hebrew text (Lord, help us with 53:10!). While affirming the numerous matters needing attention in this text, I will ask the reader’s indulgence if I sidestep many of these issues and simply read this text as the church has done since its inception, namely, as an enduring witness to Jesus Christ and his work.

The Ethiopian eunuch sat on the back of his chariot reading Isaiah 53 in dismay (Acts 8:26-40). Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch responded, “How can I unless someone explains it?” Then beginning with this Scripture, Philip explained the good news of Jesus Christ. Speaking of this episode in Acts 8, Gerhard Sauter reflects on the nature of faith in the process of reading Scripture: “Faith does not work, like a pair of glasses, however, that allows us to decode the text; glasses can be taken on and off. Faith, on the other hand, is constitutive, like the retina, which makes sight possible in the first place but can only cast an image of what is real!”1 Faith provides for us the very eyes needed to read such a text in its full witnessing potential.

The cause of the servant’s suffering is poignant and straightforward: our infirmities, our diseases, our transgressions, our iniquities. Place-taking is an offensive idea in the modern west. Kant put the matter bluntly: it is irrational and impossible for the guilt of one party to be transferred to another. But the logic of the Scriptures demands a different account of the matter. The vicarious humanity of Christ in both his life and death is a central metaphor for God’s act of reconciliation.

In the language of verse 5, he took our blow so that we could have peace (shalom). The innocent one, spotless and free of guilt, is standing in the place of others. He did so both by identifying himself with sinners — he made his grave with the wicked; he was numbered with the rebellious (53:9,12) and by taking their guilt on himself in innocent suffering — it was the will of the Lord to crush him; he shall bear their iniquities; he bore the sin of many (53:10-12).

These are heavy verses of Scripture. They bring before us an acute consciousness of our own sin and rebellion. These words are not laced with therapeutic attempts at self-help. They reveal us as we truly are, even if our consciences do not bother us; even if we do sleep peacefully at night. “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Whether recognized or not, our state is a precarious one when standing before the suffering servant on this Good Friday. While at the same time, beauty arises out of the ugliness. Hope emerges from the horror. We might call it the ugly beauty of God’s ultimate act of reconciliation. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). When we stand before the cross we see perfection itself suffering for transgressors like me.

As we saw in Isaiah 50:4-9, the servant is confident of his ultimate vindication. Isaiah 53:10 reveals the servant confidently looking forward to the seed promised him on the far side of his suffering and death. His days cut short by death will be prolonged in the offspring made righteous on account of his work. “Out of his anguish he shall see light.” Mourning yields to rejoicing. Or in the words of Hebrew 12, it was for the joy set before him that endured the cross, suffering the shame and despising the loss. Such love for sinners on this Good Friday causes us to put our hands over our mouths as we lift our hearts to the Lord.

George Herbert’s (1593-1632) oft-quoted poem “Love” makes effective the point.

LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.

1Gerhard Sauter, Protestant Theology at the Crossroads: How to Face the Crucial Tasks for Theology in the Twenty-First Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 38.


Commentary on Psalm 22

Jerome Creach

Psalm 22 is a prayer of complaint that, perhaps more than any psalm, serves as a link between the Old Testament and the story of Jesus’ passion.

Indeed, this psalm is an appropriate lectionary reading for Good Friday because the Gospels cite and allude to it at least five times in the crucifixion account. It is important to recognize, however, that Psalm 22 is not important simply because it appears in the New Testament. Rather, the New Testament writers drew from it because of its profound expressions of suffering and faith. 

Psalm 22 has “an intensity and a comprehensiveness” that is almost unequaled among psalms of this type.1 The psalm has two main parts:  (1) a prayer for help in verses 1-21a; and (2) a song of praise in verses 21b-31.  Both of these sections have two prominent divisions in which repetition of a main theme, sometimes with exact vocabulary, strengthens the psalm’s expression of both complaint and praise. Verses 1-11 has two complaints (verses 1-2, 6-8), each of which contains some of the most striking language in the Psalms. The psalm opens with the famous cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

At the other end of this section the psalmist complains, “I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people” (verse 6). In both cases, however, the complaint is followed by an extended confession of trust that recalls God’s protection in the past (verses 3-5, 9-11). The first confession of trust is corporate (“In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them,” verse 4) and second individual and personal (“Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast,” verse 9).

The prayer for help in verses 12-21a focuses on the nature of the psalmist’s trouble. Verses 12-13 and 16a include images of animals that circle the psalmist waiting to devour and destroy (“bulls encircle me,” verse 12; “dogs are all around me,” verse 16a). These images are followed in both cases by complaints of physical weakness: “I am poured out like water” (verse 14); “my tongue sticks to my jaws” (verse 15a); “I can count all my bones” (verse 17). The section concludes with a concatenation of petitions for God to be near and to save from the sword, the dog, and the lion (verses 19-21a).

The second major portion of the psalm turns to praise and assurance that God has heard and answered. This section offers praise and thanksgiving that matches the repeated calls for help in verses 1-21a. Verse 21b responds tersely to the complaints of verses 1-18 by saying “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.” The rest of the psalm then promises praise to God, promises that progress from the psalmist’s profession before worshippers (verses 22-25) to the praise of those who “sleep in the earth” (verse 29).

The psalmist’s promise of praise dominates verses 22-26. Twice the psalmist pledges to honor God by recalling God’s goodness (verse 22) and by making vows in the midst of the congregation (verse 25). After both promises of praise the psalmist then declares God’s past goodness to those in trouble and those of lowly estate (“the afflicted,” verse 24; “the poor” and “those who seek him,” verse 26; the word translated “afflicted” and the word translated “poor” are actually the same, ?an? ). Verses 27-31 then expand the promise of praise so that every person in human history is included: “all the families of the nations” (verse 27), “all who sleep in the earth” (verse 29), and “future generations” (verse 30).

The connection between Psalm 22 and the story of Jesus’ suffering and death is natural given the extensive description of suffering the psalm contains. Perhaps the most obvious connection between the passion story and Psalm 22 is Jesus’ cry of God-forsakenness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). Other portions of the psalm provide an outline of the experience of Jesus on the cross.

Mark 15:29 (Matthew 27:39) implies the language of Psalm 22:7 in the description of passersby at the crucifixion:

“All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads.”

Matthew 27:43 also frames the taunts of the religious leaders with an allusion to Psalm 22:8:

“Commit your cause to the LORD;
let him deliver —
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

In all four Gospels (Mark 15:24; Matthew 27:35; Luke 23:34; John 19:24) the description of the soldiers’ activity beneath the cross draws on Psalm 22:18:

“they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”

In addition to these examples, John 19:28 probably has Psalm 22:15 in mind when reporting that Jesus says, “I am thirsty” in order “to fulfill scripture.” The scripture fulfilled is most likely Psalm 22:15.

Though the original setting of Psalm 22 had nothing to do with the passion of Jesus, a Messianic reading is a natural result of the psalm’s extensive expression of suffering and its far-reaching declaration of hope. The psalm “explodes the limits” of poetic expression and thus expands the Old Testament understanding of God, human life, and death.2

Not only does the psalmist cry out to God with unparalleled expressions of pain and loss (verse 1), but the writer also expresses hope in something close akin to resurrection (verses 29-30). Thus, Psalm 22 is appropriate for the hope that accompanies Jesus’ passion as well as the grief. It anticipates a vision of God who holds the believer even after death that will only be expressed fully centuries later.  


1James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 107.
2Ellen F. Davis, “Exploding the Limits: Form and Function in Psalm 22,” JSOT 53 (1992), 102-103.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25

Susan Hedahl

Note: Part I explores the biblical text and Part II discusses homiletical strategies for the text.

Part I 

The mood of this text is one of profound encouragement based on the meanings of Jesus’ death on the cross.

The verses describe the divine rationale for the crucifixion, its benefits for humanity and the ways in which humanity is invited to respond to the Cross event.

The text starts at verse 16 but could be prefaced by beginning the reading at verse 15.  The Holy Spirit is mentioned in verse 15 as the prompting voice behind the prophetic texts which are quoted in both verses 16, 17.  This fact reinforces the author’s understanding of the eternal plan of God focused in Jesus Christ.  Verse 16 somewhat modifies the text of Jeremiah 31:33, which deals with the covenant God establishes with Israel.  The purpose of the covenant is two-fold: to inscribe the covenant in hearts and in minds.  In other words, the law will function both affectively and intellectually as a guide to a godly life.

Verse 17 offers another slightly modified text from Jeremiah 31:34b which realistically understands human response to God’s gift of the law.  It asserts that God will forget humanity’s inability to keep the law.  But how is this possible?  Verse 18 completes the circle of God’s intentions in terms of sin and repentance.  It reaches beyond the cultic actions of offering animal sacrifices for sin.  Verse 18 asserts “there is forgiveness” implying, but not stating, that this comes about not through animal sacrifices in the old covenental system, but through Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross.

In verses 19-21 the preacher goes on to spell out the meaning of this radical change from the former system of the temple as mediating God to humanity.  Verse 19 describes the entry way into the sanctuary — that is to the presence of God — comes now through “the blood of Jesus.”  His blood also gives the believer in his sacrifice a new attitude towards God, “…we have confidence….”  The Cross event dispels human hesitation before God since God has acted clearly in Jesus with an invitation to relationship.

The writer describes another well-known feature of the old temple system; the curtain which separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple.  One Gospel account of the crucifixion mentions the tearing of the temple curtain.  Here the curtain is reframed with an analogy: the writer notes in verse 21 that the curtain is now “through his flesh.”

This comment enables the writer to describe the new curtain in verse 19 as “the new and living way.”  This is startling language that ranks with the poetic and mystical.  It firmly places God in the middle of humanity as incarnated in flesh.  While this statement may be taken forgranted by modern day listeners, the writer of Hebrews’ thinking was critical in the early debates of the church in asserting that God in Jesus came in the flesh, not merely as spirit.

In summarizing verses 19-21 of this passage, Jesus is described simultaneously on many planes.   He is the blood sacrifice which satisfies sinners to God; his flesh has become the new curtain through which access to God is now possible.  Finally, in verse 21 he is identified as the welcoming “great high priest over the house of God.”  In other words, given all these functions, Jesus is the temple of God in its entirety in his flesh.  Nothing of the old temple system is needed anymore as his death has superseded all its manifestations and functions.  His body becomes the new temple of God.

Verses 22-25 take up the outcomes of Jesus’ sacrifice for believers.  The preacher uses corporate language — the “we” — to invite believers to unify themselves in encouragement around the cross event.  Verse 22 repeats the invitation to come close to God “in full assurance of faith.”  This means faith is fulfilled and blessed in approaching God in Jesus.  If preaching this text, research should attend to the term in verse 22 of “sprinkled clean.”

This has Old Testament references and does not refer to baptism.  The latter mention of this same verse, however, does refer to the cleansing of baptism, “our bodies washed with pure water.”   Here the writer maintains the historical connection between the cleansing of blood as a ritual form of purification in ancient times with purification through baptism.

Verses 23-25 are directives for Christians supporting and encouraging one another in view of the Cross.  They are to remember God, who is faithful; allow the Cross to instigate love and do good deeds; to meet together for the sake of mutual encouragement, and to do so remembering life eschatologically, “as you see the Day approaching.”

Part II

It is rare to hear any proclamation on Good Friday other than on the Gospel.  This text, however, could be used as a preaching text in a service that might contain several brief meditations.  One of the benefits of this text is that it spells out the historical and contemporary responses to the Cross event.  It describes the “why” of Jesus’ sacrifice in historical terms continuous with the Old Testament and what activities are to result for people as a result of the sacrifice.

The orderly arguments of the writer can lead to several different homilies.  One might use the first part of the passage to describe the changes in the old covenental system to a new way of life through the Cross event.  These verses display the work and presence of Jesus in many ways.   Another homily could focus on what human responses are to be towards this act of God’s love.   Here verses 21-25 can form the outline of a homily.

While many Good Friday services are routinely preached through the Gospel, what would a service sound like if the gospel proclamation was paired with these poetic, well-argued, pastoral and historical words of Hebrews?  The writer speaks lyrically and tenderly of Jesus’ work on our behalf.