What is Good Friday and why do we call it that?
For Christians, Good Friday is a crucial day of the year because it celebrates what we believe to be the most momentous weekend in the history of the world. Ever since Jesus died and was raised, Christians have proclaimed the cross and resurrection of Jesus to be the decisive turning point for all creation. Paul considered it to be “of first importance” that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, and was raised to life on the third day, all in accordance with what God had promised all along in the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3).
On Good Friday we remember the day Jesus willingly suffered and died by crucifixion as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins (1 John 1:10). It is followed by Easter, the glorious celebration of the day Jesus was raised from the dead, heralding his victory over sin and death and pointing ahead to a future resurrection for all who are united to him by faith (Romans 6:5).
Still, why call the day of Jesus’ death “Good Friday” instead of “Bad Friday” or something similar? Some Christian traditions do take this approach: in German, for example, the day is called Karfreitag, or “Sorrowful Friday.” In English, in fact, the origin of the term “Good” is debated: some believe it developed from an older name, “God’s Friday.” Regardless of the origin, the name Good Friday is entirely appropriate because the suffering and death of Jesus, as terrible as it was, marked the dramatic culmination of God’s plan to save his people from their sins.
In order for the good news of the gospel to have meaning for us, we first have to understand the bad news of our condition as sinful people under condemnation. The good news of deliverance only makes sense once we see how we are enslaved. Another way of saying this is that it is important to understand and distinguish between law and gospel in Scripture. We need the law first to show us how hopeless our condition is; then the gospel of Jesus’ grace comes and brings us relief and salvation.
In the same way, Good Friday is “good” because as terrible as that day was, it had to happen for us to receive the joy of Easter. The wrath of God against sin had to be poured out on Jesus, the perfect sacrificial substitute, in order for forgiveness and salvation to be poured out to the nations. Without that awful day of suffering, sorrow, and shed blood at the cross, God could not be both “just and the justifier” of those who trust in Jesus (Romans 3:26). Paradoxically, the day that seemed to be the greatest triumph of evil was actually the deathblow in God’s gloriously good plan to redeem the world from bondage.
The cross is where we see the convergence of great suffering and God’s forgiveness. Psalms 85:10 sings of a day when “righteousness and peace” will “kiss each other.” The cross of Jesus is where that occurred, where God’s demands, his righteousness, coincided with his mercy. We receive divine forgiveness, mercy, and peace because Jesus willingly took our divine punishment, the result of God’s righteousness against sin. “For the joy set before him” (Hebrews 12:2) Jesus endured the cross on Good Friday, knowing it led to his resurrection, our salvation, and the beginning of God’s reign of righteousness and peace.
Good Friday marks the day when wrath and mercy met at the cross. That’s why Good Friday is so dark and so Good.
A Prayer on Good Friday
Today, God, I ask that You would teach me to mourn. Don’t let me rush to Easter Sunday too quickly. Give me the grace to linger here, in the place where sorrow meets redemption. Make Your death as real to me as Your resurrection. Keep me always near the cross.
As I wait at the foot of the cross, God, reveal to me again the costliness of my sin. Don’t let me live in an imaginary world where Easter’s happy ending makes my selfishness irrelevant. Remind me that Your all-consuming grace came at the highest price. Forgive me for the times I’ve lived as if sin is no big deal as if Good Friday never really happened.
Fill me with the joy and sorrow and reverence and gratitude that befit a Good Friday funeral: joy for Your victory, sorrow for Your death, reverence for Your holiness, gratitude for Your grace. Don’t let me settle for just one of those emotions at the expense of the others. Give me a heart big enough to hold them all in tension. Make me bold enough to search after a truth that’s really true, not just a truth that fits easily in the palm of my hand.
Give me eyes, God, to see the triumph of the cross. Even when all seems lost, even as I mourn Your death, remind me that You conquered the grave by sneaking inside of it and unraveling it from the inside out. In the midst of defeat and disappointment, sing songs of victory over me. Turn my world on its head so I can recognize the upside-down Kingdom of God at work.
Jesus, You tell me to take up my cross and follow You. Today more than ever, I remember what a weighty invitation that is. You won by dying—and it’s only by dying that I can follow in Your footsteps. It’s only by dying that I’ll ever truly come alive.
Teach me, God, to mourn and celebrate Your death. Then take me by the hand, lead me into my own death, and teach me to mourn and celebrate that death too. Amen. ~ written by Gregory Coles
Romans 5:6-10 - "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!"
1 Peter 2:24 - “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.”
Isaiah 53:3-5 - "He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed."
Matthew 27 - The Crucifixion and Death of Jesus Christ
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal priest and teaches theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and Knox Theological Seminary. Justin wrote On the Grace of God and co-authored with his wife Lindsey Rid of My Disgrace and Save Me from Violence. He is also the editor of Christian Theologies of Scripture. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and at JustinHolcomb.com.
This article is part of our larger Holy Week and Easter resource library centered around the events leading up to the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We hope these articles help you understand the meaning and story behind important Christian holidays and dates and encourage you as you take time to reflect on all that God has done for us through his son Jesus Christ!
Holy Week, Passion Week Timeline
What is Lent?
What is Palm Sunday?
What is Ash Wednesday?
What is Maundy Thursday?
What is Passover?
What is Good Friday?
What is Easter
Holy Week and Easter Prayers
What are Pentecost and Shavout?