Power Struggle: Making Sense of Good Friday

It’s been said that you can’t experience the joy of Easter without the sorrow of Good Friday. You can’t fully appreciate and celebrate the amazement of the empty tomb without the utter confusion and devastation of the cross. The truth, though, is that there are few things that are as perplexing as the cross of Jesus. Often, we’d rather skip right over Good Friday because it’s difficult for us to understand its magnitude and its power, yet almost nothing is as central to our faith.

The cross, in so many ways, is the sign and the result of an epic power struggle that’s been ongoing since the creation of the word. There seems to be something innate in human beings that leads us to desire power. To be in control. To be at the top. 20th Century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche believed that something he called the “will to power” was at the heart of what it meant to be human. The Will to power, according to Nietzsche, is our primary driving force as people. We have a fundamental desire for power. For control. For dominance. We want to make a lasting impact. We want to be remembered. We want to be somebody. We dream as children of being in charge, of calling all the shots. Parenting in and of itself often feels like one long power struggle.

We all know stories of failed attempts at power, both small and large, both benign and destructive. I remember a time when my cousin jumped out of my grandparent’s treehouse because he was convinced he had the power to fly. He was only in the cast for about six weeks. On the devastating side of history are names like Hitler and Stalin, who allowed their hunger for power to lead them to commit unimaginable horrors.

We’ve all been in power struggles. At work. In families. With friends and co-workers. We’ve had moments when we’ve found ourselves with power and we’ve had moments where we’ve felt completely powerless.

All of which leads me to this question: If in a moment you found yourself in a situation where you had the power to do anything at all that you wanted to do, what would you do in that moment?

In the story of the last 24 hours of the life of Jesus, there are two different people who find themselves in a situation where they have enormous power, and they have a decision to make about how to respond.

The Gospel of John records a moment like this for Jesus:

“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God;so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

In a moment when Jesus understood that all things were under his power, he committed a humble, lowly act of service. The story goes on that shortly thereafter, Jesus, aware that all things are under his power, allows himself to be arrested, and paraded through the narrow streets of Jerusalem, beaten, and eventually nailed to a cross. It’s a scene where the very best and the very worst of humanity meet one another head on.

Quoting one of the earliest hymns of the church and describing this scene, Paul writes these words in Philippians 2:

“[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!”

If in a moment you realized that you had all the power imaginable, what would you do in that moment?

Preceding his crucifixion, after being questioned by the Jewish leaders, Jesus is led to the palace of the most powerful man in the city of Jerusalem, the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. As the Roman governor, Pilate is the only man in the city of Jerusalem with the power to sentence someone to death and with the power to release a prisoner once convicted.

Pilate is well aware of his power in this situation, because he says to Jesus at one point in their interaction, “Don’t you realize that I have power to free you or to crucify you?” The Gospels report that after questioning Jesus, Pilate doesn’t think he’s done anything worthy of crucifixion. Pilate thinks Jesus is innocent of the charges that have been brought against him. However, in the end, he makes the decision to have him crucified nonetheless.

All the Gospels report this interaction between Jesus and Pilate, but only the Gospel of Mark gives us Pilate’s motivation for handing Jesus over to be crucified. Mark 15:15 says, “Wanting to satisfy the crowd, he had Jesus flogged and handed him over to be crucified.”

These may be the most tragic words ever recorded in human history. All the Gospels agree that Pilate did not think Jesus was guilty. He had the power in that moment to set Jesus free, but he refused it to maintain his favored status with the crowd.

When Jesus realized he had all power, he chose self-sacrifice. When Pilate realized he had power, he chose self-preservation. Pilate, in his power, chooses to solidify his own place on the throne. Jesus, in his power, chooses to put himself on a cross.

If in a moment you realized that you had all the power imaginable, what would you do in that moment?

AW Tozer, a well-known 20th century pastor said this: “In every Christian’s heart there is a cross and a throne, and the Christian is on the throne till he puts himself on the cross. If he refuses the cross he remains on the throne. Perhaps this is at the bottom of the backsliding and worldliness among gospel believers today. We want to be saved but we insist that Christ do all the dying. No cross for us, no dethronement, no dying. We remain king within [our own little kingdoms] and wear our tinsel crown with all the pride of a Caesar, but we doom ourselves to shadows and weakness and spiritual sterility.”

The stark reality of Good Friday, the most startling and shocking truth of all, isn’t simply found in the event itself. Its not only found in Pilate’s motivation or his decision to exercise his power in this specific way. It’s not only found in the mocking soldiers or the jeering crowds. It’s found in the fact that every day since that day, in an attempt at self-preservation, men and women like you and I have continued to exercise our own power in order to solidify our place on the throne of our hearts, and every day since then we have sentenced Jesus to death and nailed him to a cross.

This is not a comfortable statement. It’s not a comfortable reality. But it’s a reality nonetheless. When I look in the mirror honestly, it’s hard to deny that I have been Pilate. It’s hard to deny that I have been Judas. It’s hard to deny that I have been the mocking crowds. I’ve remained silent when I should have spoken up in the name of what’s right. I’ve spoken up when I should have remained silent in order to maintain my status in a group, prioritizing my reputation above my values. I’ve chosen myself more times than I’d like to count. I have a hunch that I’m not the only one.

The cross is a devastating blow to our vision of the advancement of humanity, our hope for progress based on our own abilities or our own goodness, our notion that we can be anything other than broken when left to our own devices. In the epic power struggle that’s been ongoing since the creation of the world, when given a moment of power over the presence of God on earth, the embodiment of perfect love, we chose to put him to death rather than put up with him. Good Friday is the day when we must come to grips with this crushing reality.

At the end of this day, once we’ve seen the depth of our own brokenness, the best we can do at the foot of the cross is cling to the hope that God’s power will somehow prevail, and that the story is yet to be continued. We certainly don’t have the power to save ourselves from ourselves.

In all the moments in life in which you realize that you have power, what do you do in those moments? What do you do with that power?

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