John Coffey is the main character in the film, The Green Mile. We only know that he is an African-American, in prison for murder, and waiting to be executed.
The actor Michael Duncan plays this part in a very gentle manner, but who is this character? Why do the prison guards believe that he has done no wrong?
One guard, Paul Edgecomb (played by Tom Hanks), gets to know the man well, and is sure that he is innocent. Coffey even heals Paul from a painful illness. It seems that those who meet Coffey must make a choice about him, about the way that they see him. Who is he? There are some unusual things about him.
He is gentle and kind. He hates evil. Yes he has some kind of power, and is somehow able to take evil back into himself. He is able to heal others. He sees into the hearts of men. He is punished by death for something he did not do. He accepts the punishment.
People wait to see him killed and laugh at him. He dies a terrible death. There are two prisoners with him – one (called Delacroix) is sorry for what he has done, the other (Wharton) is not sorry. Yet somehow, he gives a new sort of life to those he meets. Coffey is not an ordinary man. Even the first letters of his name – 'JC' – may make us think of someone else. 2700 years ago, a prophet called Isaiah wrote some strange and powerful words, about this same 'someone else' who would come later, a 'suffering servant'. (See his words below.)
These words point to only one person – Jesus Christ. All these things happened to him exactly as they were written hundreds of years before. He too was punished by a wrong use of the law, in the same way as John Coffey. Yet we see that his suffering had a reason. Everything that we have done wrong – and all our sufferings and hurts too – were placed on Jesus. He took them – so we can go free. Completely free. Wonderfully free. Free from punishment for what we have done wrong. Free from the things that have hurt us in the past. Free from fear. Free from evil powers. Free from worry. Free from trying to 'earn' God's love and help, or a place in heaven. Free to be the 'real us' – the people we always wanted to be. It is a new life, waiting – just round the corner.
"His servant grew up like (the same as) a small young plant. He was like a root growing in dry ground. He did not have any beauty or majesty that made us notice him. There was nothing special about the way he looked, that drew us to him. Men looked down on him. They did not accept him. He knew all about sadness and suffering. He was like someone people turn their faces away from. We looked down on him. We did not have any respect for him. He suffered the things we should have suffered. He took on himself the pain that should have been ours. But we thought God was punishing him. We thought God was wounding him and making him suffer. But he was given pain to suffer for the wrong things we did. He was crushed for our guilt. A debt we owed – our punishment – was given to him. We were healed (forgiven) because of his pain.
"All of us are like sheep. We have gone away from God. All of us have turned to our own way. And the Lord has placed on his servant the sins of all of us. He was beaten down and made to suffer. But he did not open his mouth. He was led away like a sheep to be killed. He was like a lamb that makes no sound when someone cuts off its wool. He never opened his mouth to defend himself. Men used force and took him – and they did not judge him fairly. He was cut off from this life. He was punished to pay for the sins of my people. Who among those who were living at that time could understand those things? He died and was buried with the rich. He was buried with evil men. He was killed even though he had not hurt anyone. And he had never lied to anyone."
You can read these words in the Biblical book by the prophet Isaiah, chapter 53.