A man named Jesus hung on a cross. Prior to that point, this man had endured the rejection of his people, arrest on false pretenses, an illegal trial in which he was falsely accused, beaten and abused, and ultimately condemned to die because of the spiritual arrogance of his accusers.
To the eyes of many, this man was a good teacher, perhaps even a prophet; certainly a healer, and a remarkable leader. But he claimed to be something more—much more. And then this—he hung on a cross to die among the lowest of criminals.
His followers abandoned him for fear of their lives. In the end it appeared he died in complete failure. There was no kingdom, no deliverance. To many it appeared he died humiliated, broken, and completely alone. He even cried out to the God he called his father: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me!?” This Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. But to him belonged the fate of crucifixion.
What kind of heir could he possibly be?
Some had believed his message, but they were all gone. He was now flanked in his fate by two criminals, crucified with him. The Roman centurions before him mocked and ridiculed him. This scene was dark and hopeless, and continued for about three hours.
But something remarkable happened in those moments. One of the criminals at his side made a plea: “Jesus, remember me when You come in your kingdom” (Lk 23:43). Jesus acknowledged the plea as if he had the authority to grant forgiveness and control the future. How strange, coming from a man who seemed helpless, dying on a criminal’s cross.
Jesus cried out with a loud voice “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:46). Then he died. But he died in such a way as to capture the attention of a centurion nearby. Jesus bowed his head, and then gave up his spirit (Jn 19:30). Perhaps understanding that Jesus had died on his own terms, the centurion praised God, and acknowledged that Jesus was innocent (Lk 23:47). Perhaps it was this man who exclaimed, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mk 15:39)!
Even in death Jesus’ claims were profound. Not long before, he had claimed he would die to pay for sins (Jn 12:32-33 1:29). And now he was dead. There appeared no remedy for sin, no reconciliation between God and man. Jesus was gone, and as the people of Israel remembered the Passover, many did not realize just what exactly that remembrance portrayed. That Sabbath began and ended with a hopeless pall not experienced before.
On Friday afternoon, as Jesus died the sky was darkened, and there was an earthquake (Mt 27:45-51). The veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom—and while it couldn’t have been of human agency, it must have been coincidence. For what else could it have meant? Was it a symbol that there was now access to the holy of holies—to the very presence of God? How could that have been? Jesus was gone. He was dead.
But there was a rumor that many people were at that moment raised from the dead, even walking into the city and appearing to many (Mt 27:52). But surely, that could not have been true, because this Jesus was gone. He was dead. He had failed. Death claims every mortal, no matter how grand their intentions.
And so, Friday passed into Saturday. Jesus was still gone. The hope that accompanied his life and ministry had vanished on a cross, and few held on to any hope at all. But something remarkable happened in the early moments of the new day. Sunday had come. Jesus was gone, but He wasn’t dead. He was no longer in the tomb, and angels proclaimed He had risen (Mt 28:7).
It was all true.
Any man can die, as all men must. But this One owed no debt of His own, and in His resurrection He had proved that He was indeed the Son of God (Rom 1:4)—even God to be worshipped (Jn 20:28). He proved that the criminal who appealed to Him was correct. He proved that the centurion who worshipped Him was correct. He proved to have power over death. He proved He was qualified to pay for the sins of all. Only someone who had no sins of His own could have paid such a price as Jesus paid on that cross. Any man can die making great claims, but this One proved His word was true.
The earthquake, the tearing of the veil, the raising of the dead outside the city—these things were enough to show that He was who He claimed to be. But the resurrection—that was the key. Without that, He could not have been the Messiah—He could not have been the Passover Lamb. He had claimed He would be raised on the third day (Mt 26:64). Had He not been, He would have been simply another dead liar. But because He rose from the dead, we can be certain that the price He paid was sufficient for us.
Years later the Apostle Paul recounted that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:3). He was buried and raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures (15:4). If Christ has not been raised then our faith is worthless, and we are still dead in our sins (15:17). But Christ has been raised from the dead, bringing hope to all who will call upon His name in belief (Rom 10:11, Jn 20:31).
Just like the guilty man who hung next to Jesus in Gethsemane that day, we all stand guilty before a holy God. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ…for by grace you have been saved, through faith, and that not of yourselves, the gift of God, not as a result of works that none may boast (Eph 2:4-9).
Something remarkable happened during those three days nearly two thousand years ago. Let us not neglect so great a salvation (Heb 2:3)—for while it is freely offered to us, it was the most costly gift ever purchased, and one we could never afford.
Dr. Christopher Cone serves as Chief Academic Officer and Research Professor of Bible and Theology at Southern California Seminary. He formerly served as President of Tyndale Theological Seminary and Biblical Institute, Professor of Bible and Theology, and as a Pastor of Tyndale Bible Church. He has also held several teaching positions and is the author and general editor of several books. He blogs regularly at drcone.com.