The Passion Week – A Dark Sabbath

The crucifixion itself began shortly before noon, or the sixth hour (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:25, 33; Luke 23:44; John 19:14).  Jesus died at the ninth hour or 3:00pm (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34; Luke 23:44).  The crucified victim may have remained on the cross for days.  Yet Jesus died in only three hours.  This surprised Pilate (Mark 15:44).

Pilate inquires, “Is it true?”

The centurion replies, “Yes.  He is dead.”

Jesus experienced immense physical trauma.  The gospels flesh out what Isaiah foresaw in Isaiah 53:4-5.

  • Jesus was beaten by the Jews (Luke 22:63).
  • Jesus was scourged or whipped by Roman soldiers (John 19:1).  This leads to tremendous loss of blood.
  • A crown of thorns was crunched down upon his head (Mark 15:17).
  • He was struck with the reed they used as a mock scepter (Mark 15:18).
  • He was beaten some more by Roman soldiers (John 19:3).
  • He was forced to carry his own instrument of death a significant distance, especially for a man in such a condition (Mark 15:20; John 19:17).
  • He faced insatiable thirst on the cross (John 19:28).
  • There was the unbearable agony of taking a breath on the cross.  Crucifixion meant a slow, painful death by suffocation.

All of this physical suffering is enough to cause life to ebb away from any person.  Yet people remained in the cross for days.  Why only three hours for Jesus?  There may be more to the time of Jesus’ death than purely physical reasons.   First, remember this took place during the Passover on the day of Preparation, i.e., the day before the Sabbath.  If a holy day was near, and one was, the Roman soldiers would expedite death by smashing the shin bones of the victim so he could no longer breathe.  The OT indicated that not a bone of Jesus would be broken (cf. Exodus 12:46; Numbers 9:12; Psalm 34:20).  Second, remember that Jesus died at the ninth hour or 3:00pm.  The Passover was commemorated with the slaughter of lambs, as God commanded.  The slaughter of the lambs was supposed to take place on the 14th day of Nisan (Leviticus 23:5).  This began on the ninth hour, or at 3:00pm!  Just as the cries of the dying Passover lambs began in Jerusalem, the Lamb of God excruciatingly but triumphantly cried out on the altar of Golgotha, “It is finished!” (John 19:30).  As the Apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians 5:7, “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”  The fulfillment of prophecy, no broken bones, and the sacrificial work of the Lamb of God both were factors, I believe, in the duration of Jesus suffering and the timing of His death.

Jesus’ corpse is taken down from the cross.  Joseph of Arimathea asked for the body of Jesus and received it.  His lifeless body was prepared for burial, placed in the tomb, and its entrance was sealed by a massive stone (Mark 15:42-47).  Sabbath has arrived.  This would be an unusually dark Sabbath.

What a disheartened Sabbath this must have been for Jesus’ disciples.  The Sabbath was a day of rest, or delighting in God.  It was instituted on the occasion when God created and said, “It is very good!” (Genesis 1:31-2:3).  The followers of Jesus just witnessed the death of their Messiah by the cruelest method ever known.  Current reality can be abrasive.  One wonders how much goodness the followers of Jesus perceived this particular Sabbath; how much delight they experienced on this particular Sabbath.  It was a very dark day.  This Sabbath was probably not characterized by delight but by mourning the death of the Christ.  But there was more.  The current reality was not the end of the story.  There was a providential hand still very much at work; though it was unseen.  The morning was coming . . .

This is a rather common human experience, isn’t it?  Days that were supposed to be filled with delight were filled with sorrow.  Relationships that were supposed to bring us joy brought disappointment.  Endeavors that promised fulfillment yielded emptiness.  Yet God was doing something on this Sabbath day that Jesus’ followers did not see.  God is also doing something in the times in your life when things have not turned out as you thought they should.  This is why God’s ways are not our ways–they are better.

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Passion Week Meditation – Friday

The choices people make can be flat-out baffling.  We wonder, “What were they thinking?”  We encounter one of these perplexing moments on Friday of the Passion Week.  It is now early Friday morning (John 18:28; Mark 15:1).  Jesus had been subjected to what can only very loosely be called a trial by the Jewish leaders.  He is now turned over to the Roman authorities to be tried for political reasons (the title “King of the Jews” was a two-edged sword in a Roman province).  Jesus was before Pontius Pilate, prefect of the Roman province of Judea from 26-36 AD.  After interrogating Him, Pilate concludes that Jesus is innocent.  The Jews, particularly the chief priests (Mark 15:10-11), had one final recourse to see that Jesus was crucified.  Pilate had a custom of releasing one prisoner during the Passover (Mark 15:6).  Their options: Barabbas and Jesus.  The former was a murderer and a notorious insurrectionist (Matthew 27:16; Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19; John 18:40).  In short, Barabbas was a convicted thug.  The latter was a Man who had done nothing wrong and posed no threat to Rome.  On the contrary, He taught that Jews should render to Caesar what is Caesar’s (Mark 12:17).  No brainer right?  A reasonable and just people would call for Jesus’ release.  The chief priests would not have it and they chided the crowd to choose Barabbas, so they did and Barabbas was released (Mark 15:11).  This takes us to noon on Friday of the Passion Week (John 19:14).

By any account, the Jews made an irrational and unreasonable choice on Friday of the Passion Week.  How about you?  Who would you have chosen that day, Barabbas or Jesus?  Let’s move beyond the hypothetical and into the here and now.  Have you chosen Jesus over any other religious figure?  Have you chosen Jesus over any pleasure or ambition?  Jesus is the only reasonable choice.

Martin Luther wrote well-known hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.”  In it he declares,

Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing:
Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He!

On this Good Friday we are reminded once again, “Christ Jesus, it is He!” who suffered and died for our sins.  This is why Jesus of Nazareth was and remains the only reasonable choice for all people.  In 1871, Antonio Ciseri painted a depiction of the scene of Jesus’ trial.  He called it “Ecce Homo” which is a Latin phrase that means, “Behold the Man.”  In the painting, Pilate is looking out that the crowd with his back to those looking at the painting with his hand pointing back at Jesus.  Similarly, Good Friday calls our attention to look upon Jesus, the One who endured the ignominy of the cross for your sins and mine.  On this Good Friday I urge you to “Behold the Man!”  Choose Christ.  For His suffering and death is the basis of our glorious justification.  This is what makes Good Friday, well, good.

Passion Week Meditation – Thursday

What we eat is often of little consequence, except when it’s our last meal.  What we say is often rather ordinary, except when they are our last words.  Thursday of the Passion Week was the day of Jesus’ last meal and His last words, at least His last extended discourse.  Jesus and His disciples observed the Passover in an upper room; known as the Last Supper (Matthew 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-23; John 13:1-5).  Following the supper, Jesus gave what is known as the Upper Room Discourse (John 13-17:26).  Jesus taught on His departure, i.e., return to heaven, and the coming of the Holy Spirit.  He concluded His instruction with a poignant High Priestly prayer in John 17.  Then they sung a hymn (probably Psalm 118) and went out to the Mount of Olives.

Jesus never lost sight of His mission or ministry.  John 13:1 tells us that “Jesus knew his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father.”  Jesus was fully aware that unspeakable agony was just hours away.  But the reality is that His anguish began in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:32-42).  Jesus transparently shared, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Mark 14:34).  The intensity of Jesus’ prayer is palpable.  Luke the physician recorded a unique but important detail, “And being in an agony, he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).  Blood-mingled sweat is a rare but real condition during extreme levels of stress known as hematidrosis.  The cross before Jesus was a more than adequate reason for this physiological expression.

It is right to call this Passion Week.  Jesus suffered immensely.  He tasted anguish not only on Friday but throughout the week, including on Thursday, the day before His crucifixion.  He was rightly called a man of sorrows by the Prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 53:3).  Not only did He bear His own sorrow but He also carried ours (Isaiah 53:4).  The last meal and the last words of Jesus are momentous.  He experienced all of this enormous distress for you and for me because of your sin and mine.  What a Savior!

Man of Sorrows what a name
For the Son of God who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
Hallelujah, what a Savior!
(Philip Bliss, “Hallelujah, What a Savior!”)

Passion Week Meditation

The Passion Week reminds us that Jesus’ suffering is not merely a blip on the historical radar.  It is so much more significant.  In fact, there is no greater event than Jesus’ death on the cross two millennia ago.  The work of Christ is the sun in the universe of God’s purposes as the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 1:9, “making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ.”

Once we realize that the work of Jesus is central to the mind and heart of God we are forced to grapple with the significance of all that transpired leading up to, during, and following the death of Jesus including His Triumphal Entry, His betrayal, His Jewish and Roman trials, His crucifixion, His burial, and His resurrection.  We must ask ourselves the orientation question, “Who do I say that Jesus is in light of this sequence of events?” followed by the application question, “What place does Jesus have in my life?”

Palm Sunday answers the orientation question with, “Jesus is King!”  Palm Sunday answers the application question with, “Jesus should be the Lord of my life.”  His rightful place is Sovereign of my life.  As the song writer expressed it, “King of my life, I crown Thee now, Thine shall the glory be” (Jennie Evelyn Hussey, “Lead Me to Calvary”).  The Lordship of Christ in my life means that every thought, word, and action has as its aim to please my Savior (cf. Psalm 19:14; Romans 6:13).  The risen Christ declared, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).  Consequently, “All authority in the universe is his, and all creation owes its allegiance to him” (John Piper, What Jesus Demands from the World, 26).  Because Jesus is Lord, we are strangely off-kilter when we forbid Him to take His rightful seat on the throne of our hearts.

Is Jesus Lord of your life?

Rethinking the Crucifixion?

I read this article today.  Gunnar Samuelson, an evangelical preacher and theologian, has concluded in his doctoral dissertation that the traditional Christian teaching that Jesus was crucified on a cross as historically conceived is misguided at best.  He says in a tweet that he is an ordained minister in the Mission Covenant Church of Sweden. 

In his dissertation abstract he states,

A survey of the ancient text material shows that there has been a too narrow view of the “crucifixion” terminology. The various terms are not simply used in the sense of “crucify” and “cross,” if by “crucifixion” one means the punishment that Jesus was subjected to according to the main Christian traditions. The term… more inology is used much more diversely. Almost none of it can be elucidated beyond verbs referring vaguely to some form(s) of suspension, and nouns referring to tools used in such suspension. As a result, most of the crucifixion accounts that scholars cite in the ancient literature have to be rejected, leaving only a few. The New Testament is not spared from this terminological ambiguity. The accounts of the death of Jesus are strikingly sparse. Their chief contribution is usage of the unclear terminology in question. Over-interpretation, and probably even pure imagination, have afflicted nearly every wordbook and dictionary that deals with the terms related to crucifixion as well as scholarly depictions of what happened on Calvary (emphasis added).

So what are we to make of Samuelson’s conclusion?  Three initial responses come to mind.  First, Jehovah’s Witnesses will love this.  Second, on a matter as foundational to Christianity as the death of Christ, it is unlikely that this conclusion is new.  This is an informed suspicion, but I may be wrong.  Third, according to the article on abcnews.com,

Samuelson devoutly believes the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but says for generations people have misinterpreted and mistranslated the Greek word ‘stauros’ to mean crucifix, when really the term just means a suspension device, which might have been anything such as a ‘pole or a tree trunk.’

The statement suggests that his thesis has to more do with the means of Christ’s death rather than its significance.  Nevertheless, his conclusion opens the door to other questions and I think unintended doctrinal consequences.  There is something important about a symbol that corresponds to its signficance (for example, the bread and wine in Communion).  To do away with the cross (even as a symbol) is to remove the glory, the ground of boasting, for the Christian and the Christian gospel.  Does Galatians 6:14 still carry the same weight with Samuelson’s conclusion? “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.”  

I imagine we will hear more on this.  Incidentally, the chapter “The centrality of the cross” in John Stott’s classic The Cross of Christ is a worthy read on this subject.

Remembering the Suffering of Our Savior

On Good Friday, we remember the suffering and death of our Savior.  Before He died, He suffered a great deal.  Jesus told His disciples this would occur.  Luke 9:22, for instance, records one of the occasions when Jesus foretold His suffering as well as His death and resurrection,

The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Romans 3:25 reminds us of the suffering and death of Jesus in the phrase “by his blood.”   

whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins.

Jesus’ suffering was real and horrific.  We can see many of the elements of His suffering under the light of the Biblical text, yet words can never fully describe or capture the ethos of the events surrounding Christ’s passion.  Jesus suffered in at least two ways, emotionally and physically, to provide our justification.

Jesus suffered emotionally

  • In John 12:27, Jesus said, “Now is my soul troubled”
  • In Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus once again said, “My soul is very sorrowful, even unto death” (Mark 14:34).  Mark described Jesus as “greatly distressed and troubled” (Mark 14:33).  Luke tells us that Jesus, “being in an agony he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
  • The disappointment Jesus dealt with when those closest to Him could not pray with and for Him in His darkest hour (Matthew 26:40-41).  They were sleeping.
  • Jesus was betrayed by Judas.  As he approached Jesus he said “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed the door to heaven (Matthew 26:49).
  • Jesus was betrayed by Peter.  As Jesus was under trail in the High Priest’s house, Luke tells us that after Peter denied Him, “And the Lord turned and looked at Peter” (Luke 22:61). 
  • Jesus was betrayed by the Jews.  Just a few days earlier they exuberantly cried, “Hosanna!” now they angrily demanded, “Crucify Him!” (John 12:13; Luke 23:21).   
  • Jesus faced blatant injustice.  Barabbas, a guilty man was released, the innocent One sentenced to death (Luke 23:18, 24-25).  
  • Jesus experienced the humiliation of Roman Soldiers who stripped Him naked, mocked Him, and spit on Him.
  • Most of all was the sense of being forsaken by His Father moments from death expressed in His anguished cry from the cross, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46).   

 Jesus suffered physically

  • Jesus was beaten by the Jews (Luke 22:63).
  • Jesus was scourged or whipped (John 19:1).  ‘The victim was stripped and tied to a post.  The Jews scourging was limited to forty lashes, but the Romans were restricted by nothing but their strength and whim” (Carson, “Matthew,” 571).  “This was insanely cruel and vicious.  The scourge was a whip constructed of a short stick (about twelve to fourteen inches long) having several strips of leather (about three feet long) attached.  Often the leather strips had stones, metal particles, or bone fragments imbedded so as to tear into the flesh” (Glasscock, Matthew, 530).  Isaiah 53:5 says, “with his stripes we are healed.” 
  • A crown of thorns was crunched down upon his head.  It’s said that these thorns were 6 to 8 inches in length (Carson, Scandalous, 16). 
  • He was beaten some more by Roman soldiers (John 19:3).
  • He was struck with the reed they used as a mock scepter (Mark 15:19).
  • He was beaten so severely that He was beyond human recognition.  Isaiah 52:14, “his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind.”  This was the prophet Isaiah’s way is describing the severity of His suffering (Young, Isaiah, 3:338).  How right Peter Gerhardt was when he expressed Bernard of Clairvaux’s poem, “How art thou pale with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!/How doth Thy visage languish that once was bright as morn!”
  • He faced insatiable thirst on the cross (John 19:28).
  • Crucifixion meant a slow, painful death by suffocation. 

Mercy and severity are intermingled in the righteousness of God. God is patient and forebears with the sins of humanity.  God “does not hurry to punish every sinner” (Morris, Romans, 183).  But He could withhold because the cross was in His plan.  Peter said in Acts 2:23,

this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 

God’s severe righteousness came crashing down on the cross.  It fell like a sledgehammer, delivering a crushing death-blow to Jesus. 

For family devotions, Martin Luther once read the account of Abraham offering Isaac on the altar in Genesis 22. His wife, Katie, said, ‘I do not believe it. God would not have treated his son like that!’  ‘But, Katie,’ Luther replied, ‘He did’” (Wiersbe, The Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching & Preachers, 191).  “Both justice (the divine attribute) and justification (the divine activity) would be impossible without the cross” (Stott, Romans, 116). 

What verses more candidly captures the suffering and death of Christ than Isaiah 53:5, 10,

But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him.

This is both the horror and the glory of Good Friday. 

Just before Jesus died, John 19:30 records these agony-filled but precious words,

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, ‘It is finished,’ and he bowed His head and gave up the spirit. 

Christ died having provided the payment my sin required.  It is because of Christ’s suffering and death that I can be justified.  Amen!

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9) 

On Good Friday we remember,

There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins,
and sinners plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains.

A Good Friday Text and Image

As Good Friday approaches, here is a text and an image for you to meditate on.

The text is John 19:1-11.  The image is Antonio Ciseri’s 1871 depiction of this scene, “Ecce Homo” (Latin for “Behold the Man!”).  Both are moving. 

Then Pilate took Jesus and flogged him. [2] And the soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on his head and arrayed him in a purple robe. [3] They came up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and struck him with their hands. [4] Pilate went out again and said to them, “See, I am bringing him out to you that you may know that I find no guilt in him.” [5] So Jesus came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold the man!” [6] When the chief priests and the officers saw him, they cried out, “Crucify him, crucify him!” Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and crucify him, for I find no guilt in him.” [7] The Jews answered him, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has made himself the Son of God.” [8] When Pilate heard this statement, he was even more afraid. [9] He entered his headquarters again and said to Jesus, “Where are you from?” But Jesus gave him no answer. [10] So Pilate said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” [11] Jesus answered him, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above. Therefore he who delivered me over to you has the greater sin.”