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Editor’s Note: Bart D. Ehrman is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, focusing on the New Testament and the history of early Christianity. He is the author of “Armageddon,” “Misquoting Jesus” and “Heaven and Hell.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.


Good Friday and Easter Sunday celebrate two events that the disciples of Jesus never saw coming. In our Gospels, they did not accept what he repeatedly said: His goal in life was to die. And they were to follow his example.

Bart D. Ehrman

The disciples instead believed Jesus was the powerful Messiah — the one who would destroy God’s enemies and establish his kingdom here on earth, with himself at its head. They assumed he was going to Jerusalem the final week of his life to be coronated. When he entered the holy city, he would come in conquest. The crowds would hail him as the king to come, sent by God to deliver them in fulfillment of prophecy.

But he raised no army, and at the end of the week the crowd turned. Jesus was unceremoniously arrested, tried and publicly tortured to death. The disciples’ hopes were brought to a brutal end. Jesus was no conquering hero; he was a criminal crucified for crimes against the state, and the disciples were not sanguine about their own fate. They fled the scene.

But the reversal of their hopes was itself reversed. On the third day they claimed that God raised Jesus from the dead. He really was the Messiah. He really was the Savior. He really was the king and Lord. And so began the Christian movement.

As celebrated in the Easter season, the events of Jesus’ last week embody a striking divine sequence: shattered hope — renewed expectation; incomprehensible defeat — everlasting glory.

When I was a committed Christian, I found this shift profound but its celebration perplexing. I could not understand why most people were so eager to bypass the pain to get to the glory. For me, Good Friday was the most moving day of the year, a day of suffering and death that the Savior willingly experienced for others. This was the climax of the year that revealed the ultimate mystery: to live means to die. And following Jesus meant imitating his example: Life meant service to others despite the personal cost — even, as Paul put it, “the death of a cross.”

But then the pain and suffering quickly passed by. Thirty-six hours later, the life of service and sacrifice was suddenly transformed into a celebration of glory and power. That always seemed too abrupt to me, and I could not help but notice that few Christians in my world even bothered to commemorate Good Friday. It was all about Easter. What mattered was the victory at the tomb, not the sacrifice at the cross.

In some sense, Good Friday and Easter provide Jesus’ followers with a choice: Is life about service to others or the passion for glory?

This tension is not new: It is embodied already within the narrative arc of the New Testament itself. The Christian canon begins with Gospels that record Jesus’ life of self-giving and death for the sake of others and ends with an Apocalypse that describes his powerful destruction of his enemies.

Most Christians prefer to read the Gospels, but in the end, they adopt the view of the Apocalypse. Christian faith is not about service but sovereignty. What ultimately matters is not Jesus’ life and death — his humanity — but his resurrection and return.

It is not that the Gospels themselves refuse to countenance the coming glory. Jesus does indeed predict that his death will lead to a resurrection. This will be a vindication by God, a kind of stamp of approval on what Jesus has taught and done. But what was that?

Did Jesus spend his ministry bullying sinners into submission, destroying his enemies with supernatural power, accumulating massive wealth and striving for world domination? That is certainly the Christ many of his followers embrace today.

But it is not the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount; it is the Christ of the Apocalypse, where the “lamb who was slaughtered” comes back for blood, wreaking vengeance on a world that rejected him before judging the earth and ordering those who are not among his most faithful followers to be thrown into a lake of burning sulfur.

The Jesus of the Gospels embodies the opposite ideal. He abandoned everything to minister to others. He came “not to be served but to serve.” Not to exercise power but to show love. Not to acquire wealth but to give it away for the sake of others. Not to cling to this world but “to give his life as a ransom for many.”

And he insists his followers do likewise. They are not to assert power or “lord it over others.” They are to be humble and meek. They are to feed the hungry, welcome strangers, tend to the sick, sell what they have and give to the poor — even those they don’t know, strangers, foreigners, followers of other religions. Most emphatically, Jesus insists his followers not be violent, not seek revenge, not return evil for evil. They are to turn the other cheek; they are to love their enemies.

This is the teaching of Good Friday. It is not the teaching of Revelation. Is it the teaching of Easter?

It certainly can be. But, in our day, how often is it? John of Patmos was not the last follower of Jesus to paint Jesus in his own image to use his victory over death as leverage for a personal quest of wealth and power. Those who celebrate the glory of the resurrection but neglect the pain of Good Friday are always in danger of going down that path.

As a scholar of the New Testament, I am convinced it was not the path of Jesus. The ultimate sacrifice for others on Good Friday was not a merely inconvenient steppingstone to a glorious victory at Easter. And the ultimate victory at Easter was not a warrant to use power to harm and destroy others, to acquire masses of wealth in a city of gold and to achieve world domination. Just the contrary: The resurrection was meant to show that, in the end, God sets his mark on a life of service. Easter is not the goal but the surprising outcome.

Good Friday is not a recipe for personal success: “no pain, no gain.” It is a lesson in selflessness. Others matter. Following Jesus is about helping those in need, not dominating them.

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