John Stott tells the story of an encounter that he once had with an Iranian student who had recently come to saving faith in Christ.
Brought up to read the Koran, say his prayers and to lead a good life, he nevertheless knew that he was separated from God by his sins. When Christian friends brought him to church and encouraged him to read his Bible, he learnt that Jesus Christ had died for his forgiveness. “For me the offer was irresistible and heaven-sent,” he said, and he cried to God to have mercy on him through Christ. Almost immediately “the burden of my past life was lifted. I felt as if a huge weight . . . had gone. With the relief and sense of lightness came incredible joy. At last it had happened. I was free of my past. I knew that God had forgiven me, and I felt clean. I wanted to shout, and tell everybody.” It was through the cross that the character of God came clearly into focus for him, and that he found Islam’s missing dimension, “the intimate fatherhood of God and the deep assurance of sins forgiven.”
Such, no doubt, was the experience of the man from Ethiopia of whom we read in Acts 8. In this historical account we have the wonderful testimony of a very religious, yet lost, man coming to faith in Christ and the joy that resulted from it. Here we also have the record of the cross of Christ beginning to impact Africa.
Recently, we spent time studying Acts 8:26-40 and the conversion of the eunuch as the gospel began to go to the uttermost. We now return to this passage to focus primarily on the text from which this man was reading, and how it led to the joyful salvation of his soul. But this joy that began in a desert in Palestine was soon to cross the bounder into the continent of Africa. Our celebration of Good Friday in Africa may very well be due to the salvation of this African so many years ago. Our joy today is an extension of the joy that he experienced so many centuries ago. If you do not have such a cross-centred joy, my prayer is that today you will begin to know this. After all, the Good Friday that occurred in Palestine was of such a nature that, today, we celebrate Good Friday in Africa.
The Preparation for Good Friday
The story begins in eternity past with the everlasting covenant. Revelation 13:8 speaks of those whose names were “written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Before He created the world God crafted the plan of salvation and sovereignly elected those whom He would save through the death and resurrection of Christ. And history is the story of God seeking to save those who are lost.
The Ethiopian eunuch was one of the lost elect whom God determined to save. In the text before us, we find the Lord pursuing him and doing what is necessary to save him.
The eunuch had just returned from a time of worship in Jerusalem. He was a serious seeker, who had journeyed thousands of kilometres. Somewhere along the way he had secured a copy of a scroll containing at least a portion of Isaiah, and quite probably the whole book. He was confused by what he read. I would surmise that he was also disillusioned by what he had experienced in Jerusalem.
Did he know of the recent persecution against the church there? What had he heard of Jesus? How was he treated by the locals? It should be noted that he could perhaps be characterised as wealthy, prestigious, well trusted and respected. His position indicates that he was a man of integrity—perhaps even a man of good works. He was religious and at least somewhat devout.
Perhaps in many ways he was like the Iranian student of whom Stott speaks. Like the Iranian, the eunuch no doubt carried a burden of sin and guilt, for which he sought forgiveness. He sought relief at the temple but found none. He sought relief in the Judaism of his day but found none. He sought relief in a religious pilgrimage but found none. He sought relief in reading the Bible and yet, at least initially, did not find it there. In fact, if anything, it appears reading the Scriptures intensified his burden.
We can almost imagine the intensity with which he must have been reading this text, for Luke tells us that Philip heard him reading it even as his chariot moved along the road. It was a noisy scene and yet the man’s reading of Scripture was heard.
The Lord had prepared this man as well as His messenger. Philip “glued”1 himself, as it were, to the chariot and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” This, of course, was a very pertinent question. Apart from understanding one cannot be saved. There must first be comprehension before there can be assent, and ultimately trust. Texts such as Romans 10:9-17 assume this.
The Perplexity of Good Friday
Philip heard this Ethiopian man reading from Isaiah 53:7-8. He was literally reading the prophecy of Good Friday. Philip then expounded the Scriptures so as to clear up the confusion and to secure conversion.
Not much has changed since those days. What happened in the Gaza desert back then is still the case with so many today. In point of fact, that very region is still to this day a place of religious confusion—both by Palestinians and Jews. Both remain, for the most part, clueless about Good Friday. And what is true in that part of the world is true also in our part of the world.
There are multitudes in Africa who are still confused about Christ, and with special reference to Scriptures that point to Him, such as Isaiah 53. South Africa has not escaped the confusion. The account of Good Friday baffled Africans nearly 2,000 years ago and it still does today.
In fact, I wonder how many thousands of people today in South Africa attend church services in honour of the day but leave as confused as they entered. My goal in this study is to do all that I can to ensure that each person reading this, who seeks Christ, will find Him today. I trust that the Spirit of God will use this study to guide you to the saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. May this consideration of Good Friday prove to be a great and joyful one as you, like the African in our text, come to believe with all of your heart that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Perhaps the most perplexing question is, why did such a Man suffer? What difference did this make to the Ethiopian? What difference does it make to us—to you? I wonder if the Ethiopian was perplexed by the seeming inconsistency of the passage. After all, it begins with exaltation, moves to degradation, and then back to exaltation again. How can this be?
The Prophecy of Good Friday
If you are looking for proof of the inspiration of Scripture then you need look no further than Isaiah 53. This is the Old Testament Good Friday passage. As Stott notes, “there is good evidence that Jesus’ whole public career, from his baptism through his ministry, sufferings and death to his resurrection and ascension, is seen as a fulfilment of the pattern foretold in Isaiah 53.” Every detail contained in Isaiah 53 was fulfilled on that sad, yet glorious, day so many years later—and, for us, so many years ago. Yet its message is as relevant today as always.
Isaiah 53 stands in the midst of the Servant Songs of Isaiah (chapters 42, 49, 50 and here, beginning in 52:13) in which Yahweh promises to send Messiah to establish His kingdom. These songs are somewhat strange, in that they present to us One who, though a conquering King, is at the same time portrayed as humble, meek and even insignificant by the world’s standards. After all, “servant” is an unusual way to describe one who conquers the world!
The Paradoxes of Good Friday
Of course, what caused (and still causes, for some) the confusion was the contents of Isaiah 53, which portray a suffering Messiah. The Judaism of New Testament days did not allow any room for such a concept. Its materialistic and imperialistic view of the Messiah was the very reason that Jesus was so cautious of being too soon revealed as Messiah. He was concerned that they would come and try and make Him a King by force.
It should, however, be noted that Jesus, on at least nine separate occasions, foretold His impending betrayal and suffering—including His crucifixion. He, the Messiah, understood that Isaiah 53 was all about His suffering on Good Friday, even though (seemingly) no one else—including His disciples—did. That is why He said, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). It is why, in the midst of a word about His impending death, quoted Isaiah 53 (Mark 14:24-28). It is why Luke quoted Isaiah 53:12 in reference to the crucifixion (Luke 22:37).
Since Israel would not submit to the Scriptures, Judaism reinterpreted (or, more correctly, misinterpreted) the passage to refer to either Isaiah or to the nation as a whole. But there was no reason for them to do so—especially with the hindsight of Good Friday. This prophecy was fulfilled in every detail. Just take, for example, a small sampling of this Servant Song and see its fulfilment in the light of Christ’s life and death.
Behold, My Servant shall deal prudently;
He shall be exalted and extolled and be very high.
Just as many were astonished at you,
So His visage was marred more than any man,
And His form more than the sons of men;
So shall He sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths at Him;
For what had not been told them they shall see,
And what they had not heard they shall consider.
Did Jesus not “deal prudently” during His life, and for that was He not “exalted and extolled . . . very high” by His contemporaries? As His glorification and exaltation were of the highest, was his degradation not also of the deepest (v. 14)? He was disfigured so greatly by the beatings preceding the crucifixion that He was hardly recognised as human! According to v. 15, in His degradation and disfigurement, He performed a purifying rite for others. Ultimately, even kings stand in awe and honour of what He accomplished through His suffering.
The paradox continues throughout the rest of the song. Verse 1 of chapter 53 expresses dismay that so few believed the prophecy. And yet, by the powerful arm of the Lord, people would believe (Isaiah 51:9-10; 63:12). Messiah, according to v. 2, would grow up like other Jewish boys, except that He would seemingly be at a social disadvantage. He would grow up “out of dry ground,” which is a way of saying that He would not seemingly have great prospects for the future. Further, He would not be distinctive in any outward manner. The appearance of the servant was such that, judging from a wrong perspective, one would completely misjudge him.
The Purpose of Good Friday
The reason that Jesus died on the cross was in order to be a substitutionary sacrifice for sinners, which would satisfy the justice of God. Note several important elements of Christ’s suffering, gleaned from Isaiah’s prophecy.
It Was Voluntary
According to 53:3, Jesus was “a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” He was “despised and rejected by men.” Importantly, He willingly chose to experience this suffering and grief—both physically and spiritually.
Messiah engaged a society that rent His heart with sadness (see, for example, John 11) and one that rejected Him. Though some found Him appealing, by and large He was despised and rejected. And in His hour of greatest need those who should have stood by and with Him “hid, as it were, [their] faces from Him” in denial. Those whom He came to save collectively turned their faces from Him as though He were stricken with a repulsive disease.
It Was Vicarious
The grief that He carried was not His own. “Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (53:4). He carried the weight of the world on His shoulders—for the world! He sacrificed Himself as a substitute for mankind’s sorrows and grief. In other words, He loved soul-sick and soul-destroying sinners. And in the face of such loving concern and commitment He was treated by God as an outcast. He was hanged on a tree, and “he who is hanged [on a tree] is accursed of God” (Deuteronomy 21:23; cf. Galatians 3:13).
Astonishingly, it was for the sake of sinners that He was wounded. “He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed” (53:5). God smote Him in judgement with various wounds, bruisings,, judicial chastising and judicial whippings. Because we had transgressed He was pierced through to death. In our place He was punished; and inasmuch as He was punished, God was at peace with us. He was literally crushed for our lawlessness!
It Was Violent
“All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (53:6). He suffered at the hands of God for the purpose of wandering sheep being restored to the fold of God! The phrase “laid on Him” means “to hit” or “to strike violently.” Rather than our iniquity coming back to strike us as it ought (as we deserve), it struck Him in our place.
Thomas notes, “The Messiah seemed more of a victim than a conqueror; the cross was after all a symbol of rejection and curse.” As one poet has stated it,
Jehovah lifted up His rod;
O Christ, it fell on Thee!
Thou wast sore stricken of Thy God
There’s not one stroke for me.
It Was Voiceless
Messiah was treated as a sacrificial lamb. And like a lamb when it suffers and is slaughtered, He was silent. “He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; He was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth.”
Jesus did respond in kind to those who cruelly oppressed and afflicted Him. He did not fight off those who wounded Him. He did not strike out against those who bruised Him, and did not curse those who whipped Him and both verbally and physically (and unjustly) chastened Him.
Instead, He suffered silently, as it were accepting all of this suffering as His appointed lot in life (cf. 1 Peter 2:23-25). This was wondrous and awesome behaviour in the midst of great affliction. He did not defend Himself, although He could have.
It Was Vicious
There was nothing just about Messiah’s suffering. “He was taken from prison and from judgement, and who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgressions of My people He was stricken” (53:8).
The Servant was humiliated as He was unjustly arrested, incarcerated and tried. When He died He left no progeny. He lived as a single man who died without an heir. And His death was such that no one even wanted to claim Him as their ancestor! You see, crucifixion was the most despicable means of death both in the Roman and the Jewish world (see Deuteronomy 21:21-23). “He was cut off from the land of the living.” That is, He was not only deemed to have died but, more so, to have been cut off from God. He experienced God’s covenantal curses (cf. Deuteronomy 27) on the behalf of those for whom He died.
He was cursed by God so that God’s people could be forgiven. In other words, Messiah was not accursed for His sins but rather for the transgressions of others. Pilate found no fault in him, and it eventually took false witnesses, contradicting one another, to secure conviction. At the cross, several individuals testified that Jesus was truly the Son of God.
He was taken away to death through an unjust trial. His enemies worked within judicial procedure but there was no justice in it. And yet, in injustice, God’s justice was satisfied (see Romans 3:25-27)! Through the most horrible injustice, those who were not God’s people can now be called His people!
He Was Vindicated
“They made His grave with the wicked—but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit found in His mouth” (53:9). Messiah died in the company of the wicked (as a criminal) and yet He was buried and identified with the rich. This is truly an anomaly. And yet of course this is precisely what happened. Joseph of Arimathea, in whose tomb Jesus’ body laid for three days, was a wealthy individual. His death was honourable, and not that which wicked men intended. And His burial was an honourable one because He was innocent! He had done no violence, nor was any deceit found in His mouth. The servant was given an honourable burial after his dishonourable death because of His perfect innocence.
The Profundity of Good Friday
The crucifixion was a profound event. As Isaiah tells it,
Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin,
He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,
And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.
He shall see the labour of His soul, and be satisfied.
By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many,
For He shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore I will divide Him a portion with the great,
And He shall divide the spoil with the strong,
Because He poured out His soul unto death,
And He was numbered with the transgressors,
And He bore the sin of many,
And made intercession for the transgressors.
Good Friday was profound because it was victorious. All these prophecies were fulfilled on Good Friday in Palestine. No one could have fabricated such a ruse, if indeed it was a mere ruse. No—a thousand times no!—Jesus was the fulfilment of this prophecy and the Ethiopian gentleman needed to know just who He was. This man needed to grasp the prophecy of Good Friday.
There is no doubt that this African was perplexed by the rest of the passage. In fact it was probably the rest of the passage that perplexed him about these particular verses. After all, “it pleased the Lord to bruise Him.” “How?” perhaps he asked? “How could God bruise an innocent man—and why would He do so?” These are profound and pertinent questions.
If what we have just examined perplexes you then you are not alone. I suspect that the Ethiopian man was also perplexed. Even though Messiah was honoured with a burial among the rich, it pleased Yahweh that Messiah should die the death of the wicked. How can this be explained? How did Philip explain it to the Ethiopian?
We know from Luke’s record that Philip preached Jesus from other Scriptures, thus filling in the blanks for this perplexed African. Are you perplexed? Do you wonder how Messiah could be treated thus and yet it pleased His Father?
The answer, of course, lies in the fact that, by so dying, Jesus became a sin offering in the place of others. And God delights to save sinners! It is the life of the Servant of God in communion with His seed, in carrying out the will of God, and not a life in isolation. The Good Shepherd delighted in laying down His life for the sheep—and it pleased the Father as well. And because God took pleasure in Christ’s sacrifice, the believer is united to God in Christ and can experience wonderful fellowship with Him (see Romans 6).
Jesus died so that others could and would be justified. “My righteous Servant shall justify many” (v. 11). And “He shall see the labour of His soul and be satisfied” (v. 11). Because the Servant suffered such anguish of soul, He received abundant satisfaction.
There is a very real sense in which Jesus Christ died with the wicked and for the wicked, and yet He did not die the death of the wicked. The death of the wicked is hopeless. Jesus died in faith and therefore with hope. In fact, this hope throbs in the latter portion of v. 10 through the end of the passage in v. 12.
Just before He died Jesus cried, “It is finished” (John 19:30). He then commended His spirit to God. He did not die and subsequently pay the penalty for sin. Instead, He died as the culmination of the penalty for sin. When He died the payment was finished. He had been stricken for the transgressions of God’s people. And the Father was satisfied!
Isaiah 53:11-12 reveal to us that when Jesus died on Good Friday that there was an underlying promise, a covenant of the Triune God, which was at the foundation His sufferings. Hebrews 12:1- 2 confirms this. It was for “the joy that was set before Him” that Jesus “endured the cross despising the shame.” The joy was not that Jesus would be forsaken of the Father. It was not that His soul would be made an offering for sin. It was not because of the sufferings that He would endure in the whole ordeal. Rather, what gave Jesus joy in the midst of the sufferings of Calvary was the promised prospect that He would secure what He came to secure by His death: the ransom of many. The thought is that the Servant was as successful and triumphant in His mission as other victors were in theirs. And His people participated in the enjoyment of the spoils of His victory.
The Power of Good Friday
Good Friday has the power to save and the power to produce joy. Isaiah 53:10 is an exclamation of victory. It clearly indicates that, on Good Friday, the Father was satisfied and a reward was awaiting His Son: those for whom He died. Yes, on Good Friday the Lord Jesus Christ, along with the other members of the Triune God, saw His seed—and the Ethiopian Eunuch was one of them. When the eunuch realised the reality of Messiah as the suffering Saviour it is no wonder that he went on his way rejoicing!
Jesus loves sinners and He loves to save repentant, believing sinners. After all, he is the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for the sheep. He loves to save His sheep. And we know from Acts 8 that He loves to save African sheep as much as He loves to save Jewish and Samaritan sheep.
It was for this reason that Isaiah in the next chapter commanded the spiritually barren nations to sing, for a day of fruitfulness was to come. That day commenced with the death of Jesus. It is because of Good Friday that all the nations and all kinds of people—including eunuchs (see Deuteronomy 23:1 and Isaiah 56:1-6)—can rejoice. The eunuch would forever be physically barren, but not spiritually so.
I have no idea of the day of the week on which the Ethiopian heard this news and was saved, but when the reality of what happened on Good Friday hit home, whatever day it was became a wonderful one! He went back to Africa and carried Good Friday with him.
One wonders as to how long this man had been wrestling with this text. Was he asking the same questions while in Jerusalem? Was he dissatisfied with the answers that he had received? Had he seen the boldness of this new sect called “the Way,” and did this stir his heart to understand if indeed reports of a crucified but resurrected criminal were true after all? Was he perhaps struck with the joy of the church in Jerusalem?
Perhaps he had heard about the events in Jerusalem some three years earlier and perhaps this, along with the contents of his scroll, was a challenge to his thinking and a stumblingblock to his faith. And yet when the Lord sent Philip into his life, the stumblingblock was removed by the Spirit of God as the Word of God was expounded. Is this the case with you?
You see, the concept of the cross has always been a stumbling block to those who do not believe its message. After all, “Who has believed our report?” (Isaiah 53:1). Unbelief did not begin in the first century.
How will you believe this report? Only by searching the Scriptures and by the sovereign Spirit using the Scriptures to search you. The only way you will believe this account is if God enables you to believe. Cry out to the Lord to make you a believer!
The Propagation of Good Friday
As we come to close let me use these paragraphs to remind you that though Good Friday occurred in another part of the world its effect has for 2,000 years been felt around the world—even in Africa.
Yes, the knowledge of Good Friday came to our continent long ago. But this historical fact, as recorded in Acts, although interesting, is also irrelevant if what happened on Good Friday has not yet made any difference in your life.
Have you believed our report? Have you believed the report that you have heard from your wife, your husband, your children, or a preacher that the Saviour died for sinners? Have you, like the African in Acts 8, believed that Jesus is the Son of God? Has this belief manifested itself in repentance and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?
Let me ask it this way: Has the reality of Good Friday so come home to you that you will go on your way rejoicing? Thanks be to God that Good Friday is celebrated even in Africa!