Our family received an extraordinarily special Easter gift this year: our daughter, and third child, was born in the evening on Good Friday. Reflecting on the birth experience has helped me understand in a deeper way the meaning of this day. It has oft been noted the irony of calling the day commemorating the brutal, unjust, tragic death of an innocent man “Good.” The reason we can proclaim Jesus’ death as good is that it accomplished God’s plan for the salvation of His people. On the cross Jesus’ bore onto himself the full brunt of God’s utter anger toward sin. Being punished in our place, he fulfilled the demands of God’s justice and opened the way of reconciliation between man and God. Thus, Jesus submitted himself to excruciating suffering for a larger purpose: “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God”(Hebrews 12:1).
The promise of joy from holding one’s child likewise gives meaning to the terrible pain of childbirth. I have observed in the birth of each of my children how my wife’s pain is transformed in an instant into intense gladness when the baby finally emerges and is placed in her arms. To encourage my wife to persevere through the pain of labor, I have often whispered the words “redemptive pain” as she is enduring a wrenching contraction, reminding her that her suffering has purpose – to bring new life into the world (you can ask her if this has helped at all!). In this way a mother’s suffering in labor can truly be called ‘good’: not for what it is itself, but for the end it brings about.
What was the source of the prospect of joy set before Jesus as he suffered on the cross? On the eve of his death, Jesus employs the metaphor of childbirth labor to prepare them spiritually and emotionally for the ordeal that was about to come:
Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy (John 16:20-22).
The plain interpretation of the promised joy in this passage is the experience of the disciples when they would see Jesus risen from the dead. Indeed, Jesus’ death can only be considered good in a redemptive sense because of the resurrection, for in rising from the grave he defeated death, demonstrating a power greater than death. This power of new life – what Easter celebration is all about – is granted to all who trust in this death and resurrection for salvation: “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade” (1 Peter 1:3-4). His anguish on the cross did not only turn to joy for his followers when they beheld him in resurrected glory; it also has resulted in joy for him from the new birth of God’s children – his younger brothers and sisters in the family of God: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (Romans 8:28-29). The joy that he suffered for was the joy of new birth: his anguish on the cross was the pain of labor resulting in new life being formed in the hearts of God’s people. Not life that would fade and perish, but life that would continue for ever with him in the presence of God. This is the hope and promise of the resurrection.