The Revolution 4: What happened on Good Friday? The witness of the Gospels

Fourth post on N.T. Wright, 2016. *The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion*. London: SPCK.

The day the revolution began is divided into four parts, and this post attempts to summarise the third chapter of Part Three. This is the first of four chapters in which Wright examines the New Testament texts—here the Gospels—to answer the question, What exactly happened on the first Good Friday? The question can be answered historically (what happened) or theologically (what it meant). But to get to a theological answer, Wright says, we have to go via the history. The previous post (The Revolution 3) on Tom Wright's book is here.

In the four Gospels the theological meaning of Jesus’ death is not found in abstract statements but in the way they narrate Jesus’ life and death. They agree that Jesus proclaimed God’s kingdom coming ‘on earth as in heaven’, by what he said, by his healings and exorcisms, and by his celebrations with ‘sinners’. In Jesus’ language the ‘kingdom of heaven’ means the rule of heaven — God’s reign — on earth.[1]  However, the Western church’s answer to the question ‘What did the crucifixion mean?’ has largely treated this kingdom message as background. But it isn’t: it's central.

Jesus in the Gospels: the return of Israel's God

All four Gospels tell the story of Jesus as the story of Israel’s God returning at last. Mark (1:2 NIV) opens with two quotations:
It is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
The first quotation[2]  recalls God’s words in Malachi 3:1 (NIV):
“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.
The second is Isaiah 40:3, which continues two verses later with:
“And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it.”
Mark is unambiguously identifying John the Baptist with the prophesied messenger who will announce God’s return to his people. Luke (1:67–79) does the same in Zechariah’s song (see previous post). He refers to the child in Mary’s womb as ‘God’s son’ (1:35) and Jesus’ prophecy of the temple's destruction includes the words, “you didn’t know the moment when God was visiting you.” (Luke 19:44) Matthew 1:21 has the angel telling Joseph that the child is to be called Jesus (‘YHWH saves’) because ‘he is the one who will save his people from their sins’, a promise that Israel’s exile will be finally ended. Two verses later the angel announces that the child will be ‘God with us’. Matthew (in 28:20) closes with Jesus telling his followers that he will be with them always. John opens with a prologue that climaxes in ‘the Word becoming flesh and revealing the divine Glory’ (1:14) and ‘the unveiling of the otherwise unseen Father through the divine Son’ (1:18). All four Gospel writers carefully link the story of Jesus back to the larger story of Israel and suggest that, in Jesus, God has returned to his people.

Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus’ compassion, love and power, reflecting Old Testament properties of God. The personal expression of that love reaches all the way to the cross.

The Gospels each see evil as the disease that Jesus is confronting throughout his ministry. ‘Matthew’s opening sequence includes Herod’s scheme to kill Jesus while still a baby…. Mark has Pharisees and Herodians plotting against Jesus from early on; Luke has Jesus’s fellow citizens in Nazareth wanting to throw him off a cliff. John’s Jesus is a marked man from as early as the Temple incident in chapter 2 and the healing on the Sabbath in chapter 5. … This is all part of the “why” to which the gospels are giving their answer.’

The ruling elite and the populist Pharisees opposed Jesus from the start. Wright uses an analogy. People in Scotland are used to politicians who campaign for independence. But suppose a new independence party arises, which simultaneously rejects the national symbols of the kilt, haggis and whisky and the bagpipes, and begins to gain wide support. The traditional independentists would react with jealousy and righteous indignation. This is what happened with Jesus. He talked about the kingdom of God, but ignored the very things that marked out the Jews as God’s people. ‘When Jesus warned Jerusalem of the things that would come upon the city because they had refused the way of peace (Luke 19:42), we have a sense that the implacable hostility to his proposed new way of being God’s people had reached its height at last.’ We see the gospel writers narrating the gathering evil, not talking about it abstractly.

There is a striking parallel between Satan’s temptation of Jesus in Matthew (4:3, 6: ‘If you really are God’s son,’ he said, ‘tell these stones to become bread!’) and the mockery at the cross in Matthew 27:40 (‘Save yourself, if you’re God’s son! Come down from the cross!’). Evil begins with a whisper and gathers itself together until it achieves its full force with the cross. Luke (22:53) recognises this in Jesus’ words when the soldiers come to arrest him: ‘your moment has come at last, and so has the power of darkness.’ (italics mine)

Also parallel is the claim of Satan to possess authority over all the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4:9; Luke 4:6) and its explicit reversal in Matthew 28:18 when Jesus announces, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me!” Wright tells us, ‘Something has happened to dethrone the satan and to enthrone Jesus in its place. The story the gospels think they are telling is the story of how that had happened.’

Representative substitution

In a section with this title Wright looks at how each of the gospels narrates Jesus’ career in order to give meaning to his death.


The high priest's political ploy ironically declares the truth. “Let one man die for the people, rather than the whole nation being wiped out” (11:50). For John this meant, “that Jesus would die for the nation; and not only for the nation, but to gather into one the scattered children of God (11:51–52) (italics mine).

This truth is hinted at from another angle when Jesus tells some Greeks that when he has been “lifted up from the earth,” he will “draw all people” to himself (12:32), alluding to the fact that when he dies for the nation, he will fulfil Israel’s unfulfilled calling and set the nations free from their ancient bondage.[3]  He is echoing his striking image in John 3:14–15:
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, in the same way the son of man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may share in the life of God’s new age.
Anyone who looked at the bronze serpent would be healed of their snakebites (Numbers 21:4–9). Analagously anyone who gazes at Jesus on the cross will be healed of the ‘snakebites’ of their sin and death. This leads directly to John’s famous statement about the one dying for the many, namely John 3:16:
This, you see, is how much God loved the world: enough to give his only, special son, so that everyone who believes in him should not be lost but should share in the life of God’s new age.


Luke’s narrative focusses on the means by which the kingdom is attained: Jesus is to die the death of a revolutionary, a brigand, in place of rebel Israel. Luke makes much of Jesus replacing Barabbas, the rebel, on the cross (23:18–19, 24–25), and, on the cross itself, of the second rebel’s assertion that Jesus is dying an undeserved rebel’s death (23:39–41). God’s sovereign rule over the world is effected through the innocent Jesus dying the death of the guilty. As Luke has him say in 22:37, quoting Isaiah 53:12:
Let me tell you this: when the Bible says, “He was reckoned with the lawless,” it must find its fulfilment in me. Yes: everything about me must reach its goal.
Luke also has Jesus himself saying that this means confronting the powers of darkness:
But your moment has come at last, and so has the power of darkness.’ (22:53)
From ch 9 onward, Luke’s narrative emphasises Jesus ‘constantly warning his people of the great disaster that is hanging over their heads. His message about God’s kingdom is offering a different way, but their determination to resist the way of peace that he is advocating will lead to nothing but ruin.’ He reminds them of the massacre of Galilean pilgrims in the temple and says, “Unless you repent, you will all be destroyed in the same way.” (13:1–5) Jesus is not talking here about Gehenna (hell), but about Roman troops.’

‘Judgment is coming upon God’s people as upon the tenants in the vineyard for their refusal to pay attention not just to a string of prophetic messengers, but to the owner’s son himself (20:9–19). But the climax of that parable tells its own story. The owner’s son, Jesus himself, will indeed be killed—and Luke has told the story in such a way as to say that in this large-scale scenario as well as the smaller ones with Barabbas and the dying brigand Jesus will take upon himself the death he had prophesied for the impenitent nation.’ Finally, ‘through his royal, representative, and substitutionary death he “comes into his glory” (24:26), that is, his newly inaugurated rule over the whole world.’


Matthew understands Jesus' career and death in relation to the coming of God’s kingdom, but he also recounts Jesus’ telling his followers in the Sermon on the Mount (5:3–12) what the kingdom looks like. It will come ‘through a different kind of power altogether’:
Blessings on the poor in spirit! The kingdom of heaven is yours. . . .
Blessings on the meek! You’re going to inherit the earth. . . .
Blessings on people who are persecuted because of God’s way! The kingdom of heaven belongs to you.
This is not just a promise of blessing: the Sermon depicts the people of the kingdom.[4]  ‘They will learn to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world (5:13–16). They will learn the way of forgiveness and reconciliation (5:21–26), the way of purity (5:27–32), the way of truthfulness (5:33–27). And, in particular, as chapter 5 comes to its climax, they will learn the way of nonviolence, the way of love for enemies and prayer for persecutors (5:38–48).’ This is a ‘dramatic outline of Jesus’s own vocation.’ The long story of Israel, sketched in Matthew’s genealogy (1:1–18), comes to its fulfilment in Jesus the Messiah, when a Roman officer in charge of the execution squad declares that Jesus really was the son of God (27:54).


James and John want to sit at Jesus’ left and right hands when he comes into his ‘glory’ (10:37).[5]  But they understand Jesus’ glory in terms of a conventionally Jewish picture of the Messiah becoming an earthy king. Ironically, they are unknowingly asking to be crucified on his left and right. Jesus asks them (10:38), “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?” and they, thinking this refers to a battlefield, say that they can. Jesus tells them they will indeed share in these things (10:39).

Mark’s irony, however, is not simply aimed at the foolish disciples: it is an assertion that God’s kingdom will come through the cross. Jesus is explicit about this:
You know how it is in the pagan nations. Think how their so-called rulers act. They lord it over their subjects. The high and mighty ones boss the rest around. But that’s not how it’s going to be with you. Anyone who wants to be great among you must become your servant. Anyone who wants to be first must be everyone’s slave. Don’t you see? The son of man didn’t come to be waited on. He came to be the servant, to give his life “as a ransom for many.” (10:42–45, alluding to Isaiah 53:11)

Drawing the message of the Gospels together

Wright writes, ‘First, it is vital to see that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are not simply telling us in descriptive language something that “really” belongs as a dogmatic formula. It is the other way around. The formula is a portable narrative, a folded-up story. The story is the reality—because it is the story of reality, historical reality, flesh-and-blood reality, Israel’s reality, life-and-death reality.’

The gospels are expositions of the truth, not illustrations.

Second, ‘we find the challenge of the cross reaching us in quite new ways. It is indeed revolutionary. Nothing is lost. We do not (of course!) have to give up the idea of Jesus “dying for our sins.” Indeed, that remains at the very center. But that idea is refocused, recontextualized, placed within a narrative not of divine petulance, but of unbreakable divine covenant love, embodied in the actual person, life, actions, and teaching of Jesus himself.’ ‘… the gospels invite us to make this story our own, to live within the narrative in all its twists and turns, to see ourselves among the crowds following Jesus and witnessing his kingdom-bringing work, to see ourselves also in the long-range continuation of that narrative that we call, in fear and trembling (because we know its deep ambiguities), the life of the church.’

Thus a concept of the atonement grows out of the narratives of the gospels themselves, despite their neglect in ‘atonement theology’. Wright summarises: ‘the overwhelming historical impression from the gospels as a whole is of a human being doing what Israel’s God had said he would do, of a human being embodying, incarnating what Israel’s God had said he would be across page after page in Israel’s scriptures. … The covenant was renewed because of the blood that symbolized the utter commitment of God to his people, the lifeblood that spoke of divine protection, of God’s self-giving love.’

All too often modern preachers impose their message on the Gospels rather than reading them for what they say. Jesus’ last shout ‘It is finished!’ or ‘It’s all done!’ (John 19:30) is turned into a statement about a bill being paid. But Jesus’ words echo his earlier declaration, ‘I glorified you on earth, by completing the work you gave me to do’ (17:4). John’s point is that this completion, ushering in the new creation, is parallel to the completion of creation in Genesis 2:2. It matches the parallel at the beginning of the Gospel, where John writes Ἐν ἀρχῇ (En arkhē) ‘In the beginning’, echoing the beginning of creation in the Greek (Septuagint) version of Genesis 1:1.

The next post on N.T. Wright's The day the revolution began: Reconsidering the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion is here.


  • [^1]   The dire warnings in the gospels mostly concern an imminent earthly disaster, the fall of Jerusalem.

  • [^2]   Mark interpolates a snippet of Malachi before his quotation from Isaiah.

  • [^3]   This train of thought is also present in 1 John 2:1–2:
    The Righteous One, Jesus the Messiah . . . is the sacrifice which atones for our sins—and not ours only, either, but those of the whole world.
  • [^4]  : Wright says, ’We should beware too of the usual trap of misunderstanding “heaven” here. The “kingdom of heaven” is Matthew’s way of saying “kingdom of God,” and as Matthew himself makes clear in both the Lord’s prayer (6:10) and the final claim of the risen Jesus (28:18) God’s kingdom is not a place called “heaven,” detached from “earth,” but the rule of heaven coming to birth on earth. Thus the “great reward in heaven” promised in v. 12 does not mean that people will get that reward when they “go to heaven.” It means that a great reward is stored up safely in God’s Presence until the time of its unveiling on earth.’

  • [^5]  : Wright says, ’We should beware too of the usual trap of misunderstanding “heaven” here. The “kingdom of heaven” is Matthew’s way of saying “kingdom of God,” and as Matthew himself makes clear in both the Lord’s prayer (6:10) and the final claim of the risen Jesus (28:18) God’s kingdom is not a place called “heaven,” detached from “earth,” but the rule of heaven coming to birth on earth. Thus the “great reward in heaven” promised in v. 12 does not mean that people will get that reward when they “go to heaven.” It means that a great reward is stored up safely in God’s Presence until the time of its unveiling on earth.’
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