Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Holy Week | Violence & Victory in Palm Sunday to Good Friday

Artwork from The Final Week of Jesus video series by Crossway

"Here is Your King!"
How Jesus Humbly Brought
the Peace of God
to the Desperation of Our Humanity
and Received the Crown

In honor of Holy Week, the following narrative below provides a revelatory backdrop to the day and age in which Jesus lived, along with how He proved to be the ultimate peacemaker in the midst of turmoil and fear during His last week before being crucified. On this Good Friday, we are invited to remember again that Jesus is our Deliverer who came and still comes to overcome death even when it looks like defeat. 

And for a unique look at the time in the village where Jesus was waiting with His disciples before entering Jerusalem, check out: Pomegranates Over Palms

Jesus mounts a donkey
outside of Jerusalem
and unleashes a perfect storm

During the last week of Jesus' life, nearly everyone in Israel prepared for a war. Masses of pilgrims gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the exodus and their ancestors' deliverance from slavery – all the while thinking of their own bondage, their own pain, their own reasons to pick up swords. The pilgrims sang emancipation songs as they approached the city of King David, every stanza affirming that the God who had split the sea and supplied the manna in the wilderness would once again make them free.

The Roman occupation of Jesus' day had been particularly cruel. As a sign of humiliation and supremacy, the Romans had desecrated the Jewish temple with pagan images, oppressed the Jewish people with high taxes, and crucified those who opposed them. Though Rome allowed large gatherings such as the Passover, they watched the festivities closely for any sign of revolt.

The chief priests – stewards of the Jewish people – were responsible for the lives of tens of thousands of pilgrims entering Jerusalem that week. They were responsible for dealing with both Rome and their fiery Jewish countrymen and women. Far from being a burden, this responsibility had a reward. The religious elite enjoyed comfortable lifestyles and great power because of their talent for compromise. That year, however, they found it much more difficult than usual to keep pilgrims calm, for many believed Messiah had come at last – the one who would retake David's throne and rule Israel again with justice and the blessing of God. Had this Messiah not been a man claiming to be the Son of God, perhaps the chief priests, too, would have followed Him. But according to the religious leaders, anyone who listened to the man from Nazareth should have realized He was a heretic. The only remedy for such a man was spelled out clearly: he ought to be executed with divine blessing.

Yet the masses endorsed Jesus. He drew large crowds wherever He went, and many claimed that He healed all the sick He touched. A rumor was even spreading concerning a man who had died in Bethany, just a short walk from Jerusalem. After lying in a tomb for four days, the man from Bethany was raised back to life by this would-be Messiah (John 11:1-44). Though the religious elites concluded this was an obvious lie, it had spread quickly through the ranks of pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the Passover.

The chief priests and their council had few solutions to the growing excitement. The drums of war were beginning to bang loudly. If Jesus decided to start a revolt, Rome would surely come and crush Jerusalem. The situation was explosive. The masses had gathered, longing to see God move on their behalf. The religious elite were alarmed and desperate. And hundreds of Roman soldiers were already in the city, prepared to do everything necessary to keep order and maintain their dominance. They would erect fields of crosses outside the city walls and nail the bodies of rebellious pilgrims and their families to them if it came to that. 

Artwork from The Final Week of Jesus video series by Crossway

Jesus' followers sing psalms
of God's triumph for Jerusalem.

As Jesus mounted a donkey outside of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, He unleashed a perfect storm. That day, two processions entered Jerusalem – one from the west, where Pontius Pilate and his entourage of military calvary came into the city with swords, armor, and all the trappings of empire, and another from the east, where Jesus rode into the royal city to the waving of palm branches, just as Judas Maccabeus had done two hundred years earlier when he kicked out the Syrians. It was a sign to all that Jesus had come with a Kingdom in mind. 

Many pilgrims arriving for the Passover celebration surrounded Jesus as He moved toward the city, singing the psalms of festival time:

When hard pressed,
I cried to the LORD;
He brought me into a spacious place.

The LORD is with me;
He is my helper.

I look in triumph on my enemies.
All the nations surrounded me,
but in the name of the LORD
I cut them down.
They surrounded me on every side,
but in the name of the LORD
I cut them down.

I was pushed back and about to fall,
but the LORD helped me.
The LORD is my strength and my defense;
He has become my salvation.
I will not die but live,
and will proclaim
what the LORD has done.

Open for me the gates of the righteous;
I will enter and give thanks to the LORD.
I will give you thanks, 
for You answered me; 
You have become my salvation.
The stone the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
the LORD has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Blessed is he who comes
in the name of the LORD.

From the house of the LORD
we bless you.

+ Psalm 118:5, 7, 10-11,
13-14, 17, 19, 21-23, 26

a psalm designed to be sung
by pilgrims going to the temple

Psalm 118 – most likely also sung on the Mount of Olives as Jesus and the disciples descended into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9; Mark 11:9; Luke 19:38– begins with the language of conflict and ends with pilgrims making their way to the temple on Mount Zion to worship. This psalm among many others that may have been sung has heavy overtones of war and God's triumph over a tyrant. And now, after decades of oppression, Jesus gave the people a reason to sing. Like a challenger entering the ring at the same time as the champion, Jesus' actions told the people He had come to deal with the enemies of God. Jesus was the one through whom God would exercise His justice.

Many of those singing had prayed for years that someone empowered by God would come and, like Joshua entering Canaan or Gideon fighting the Midianites, drive out the pagan occupiers and reclaim the former glory of Israel. Jesus possessed that power. Not only could He raise the dead and heal the blind; Jesus could walk on the sea and feed thousands from simple items such as a few pieces of bread and fish. He commanded the weather with His voice, and, more important still, Jesus was a man of God. John the Forerunner and Baptizer – a prophet to be sure – had anointed Jesus and it was rumored that a voice from heaven spoke over Jesus that day. The solution to years of misery was here at last. Surely at Passover – the celebration of the Jewish exodus from Egypt – the Messiah would call on God to destroy the pagans and reconstitute Israel as the light of the world.

Artwork from The Final Week of Jesus video series by Crossway

Jesus calls out the religious elites

With palm branches in hand and shouts of "Hosanna" (a word of praise for God's coming salvation) on their lips, the people were expressing their expectation. Each palm branch was a vote for rebellion; each shout of blessing was a call to pick up the sword. (For a consideration in relation to how Jesus might have asked them to pick something else up instead of palms, see Holy Week | Ephraim to Emmaus + Pomegranates over Palms).

Everyone who understood the situation began taking sides. The pressing questions that Holy Week were whether the thousands of festival-goers would follow this new Messiah into battle and whether the power of Jesus would be enough to overcome the brutal hand of Rome. Was God truly on Jesus' side? Would He act through this teacher and healer from Galilee? Jesus entered the city of David riding a donkey, the symbol of Israel's new king (Genesis 49:8-12; 1 Kings 1:32-35; Zechariah 9:9). If He was not the heir to the throne – if God failed to act through Jesus – then calamity was certain.

Then Jesus began to act in a radically unacceptable fashion. Instead of seeking the support of the religious elite, He condemned them with harsh language. Jesus stepped into their territory – the temple itself – and called it a mere pile of stones (Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-6), a hiding place for those who had robbed the Jewish people of their identity to be a Kingdom of priests for the life of the world (Mark 11:11-1812:1-11; Exodus 19:5-6). Jesus called the religious leaders disobedient in front of the crowds (Matthew 21:28-32), wicked shepherds of God's people (Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:1-12; Luke 20:9-19), men whose work – and even whose temple – was like a fruitless tree that deserved to be tossed away (Mark 11:12-23, 12:9-11).

Artwork from The Final Week of Jesus video series by Crossway

Jesus' enemies plan for vengeance

The religious elite, defamed and humiliated, sought vengeance. In their wrath, they decided to kill Jesus. An opportunity dawned when one of Jesus' own followers
 – Judas, a former Zealot revolutionary now disenchanted with Jesus' methods – came to them because he now heard in Jesus' message the language of certain defeat (Matthew 24:1-14; Mark 13:1-13; Luke 21:5-19).

The final turn of Judas's heart came when a woman with an expensive bottle of oil blessed Jesus by pouring all of it on Him (John 12:1-8
). After the woman poured out the contents, Jesus said to His disciples that she had anointed Him for His burial. This would not be a comforting message to hear if, like Judas, you thought the Kingdom of heaven would come through the military victory of God's Messiah. If Jesus expected to die, then He must not have thought He could win the battle against Rome and retake Israel's throne. Judas left the company of the disciples immediately and went to the chief priests. They would know what to do about this shepherd leading the sheep astray.  

Jesus' disciples misunderstandings
about His Kingdom continue

The closer Jesus drew to Jerusalem, the more He talked about His own impending death. Yet the other disciples were willing to fight and to die if necessary. That week, Peter had said in front of everyone that he would go to prison
 – even give his life – for Jesus (Matthew 26:35; Mark 14:31; Luke 22:33; John 13:37). Peter had prepared himself to pick up the sword long ago when he guessed rightly that Jesus was Messiah, and Jesus had said that hell itself would not stand against them as they were headed to the holy city (Matthew 16:13-20). The other disciples were also prepared for battle, collecting swords (Luke 22:38) and asking whether they might use them (Luke 22:49).

Jesus alone did not act
according to the script

And yet, the only death Jesus prepared for was His own. After He celebrated the Passover with them on Thursday (for more background about what else happened on Maundy Thursday, check out: 
"Maundy" Thursday's Act of Sacrificial Love), Jesus led His disciples to a garden on the east side of the city and they sang a hymn together, most likely this Hallel Psalm:

The snares of death encompassed me;
the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me;
I suffered distress and anguish.
Then I called on the name of the LORD:
“O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!” ...
What shall I render to the LORD
for all His benefits to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
and call on the name of the LORD,
I will pay my vows to the LORD
in the presence of all His people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of His saints.
O Lord, I am Your servant;
I am Your servant,
the son of Your maidservant.
You have loosed my bonds.
I will offer to You
the sacrifice of thanksgiving
and call on the name of the LORD.

While the Psalm unveils some of the script of Jesus' coming suffering and passion, as well as the cup of salvation He just lifted up as His own blood, the disciples expected a different deliverance of Jesus than the deliverance He was about to offer for children, women, and men of all nations through His capture and crucifixion.

Once they arrived at the garden, Jesus wrestled with His impending execution for many hours even as His closest disciples slept (Mark 14:32-42). Though He had eluded arrest and murderous plots before, this time when armed guards came for Him, Jesus surrendered willingly. Again, the disciples had not expected this. They were sleeping when the armed men carrying torches, lanterns, and weapons entered the garden and awakened them.

Holding to his promise, Peter was the first to act. He began swinging the sword he had kept hidden. Certainly God would give him the strength and guidance he needed to slay the enemies of his king. Even if he were to die, he would die defending what was right, warring against evil, killing those who suppressed justice. And it was at this moment that he heard Jesus' voice: "Put your sword back in its place, ... for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" (Mark 14:27-29John 18:10-12Matthew 26:51-53).

When the opportunity came for one of Jesus' followers to use violence against the wicked, to establish justice through aggression, it was God Himself through Jesus who restrained Peter's hand. Jesus knew that evil is and would be overcome in a different way.

Jesus promised peace,
and is given violence

On Friday morning, when the Passover lambs were being prepared to be sacrificed later that day, Jesus stood in the dock at two trials as the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" as John the Baptizer had prophesied. One trial was before the Sanhedrin, the noblest and most developed religious order in history. The second was before the Roman procurator, a representative of the greatest legal system of the ancient world. Together these were the high points of humanity's ancient religious, political, and legal achievements, and together they failed. (Jesus also stood before King Herod, but this was far less like a trial than an exhibit at a circus.)

After a quickly drawn-up midnight hearing, the temple authorities agreed to push for Jesus' execution. Unable to kill Him themselves, the religious elite bound Jesus and took Him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. Pilate was Caesar's official representative. He could request all the power of the Roman Empire and get it. The chief priests came to Pilate claiming that Jesus was a revolutionary – a would-be Messiah, one who claimed David's throne: "He stirs up the people all over Judea by His teaching" (Luke 23:5). Hearing the accusations, Pilate turned to Jesus and asked, "Are you the king of the Jews?" (John 18:33), his sarcasm thick. "Are you (a beaten, chained peasant from Nazareth) the king of the Jews?"

Yet this was the only charge the religious elite could muster. They argued Jesus' guilt as a rebel and said He was a direct threat to Caesar. And Pilate thought the high priest and his entourage were jealous of Jesus' popularity (Matthew 27:18; Mark 15:10). Not wanting to be part of this circus, Pilate decided Jesus' fate through the vote of those gathered outside his stronghold. Pilate paired Jesus with an insurgent murderer named Barabbas (Mark 15:7) (Matthew 27:15-17; Mark 15:6-8; Luke 23:13-19; John 18:39-40), whose name means, "son of the father." When Pilate offered the people the Son of God to have as their own, they chose the one with blood on his hands instead, a "son" of their own murderous desires, the violent man instead of the one who promised peace.

But Pilate was still confused. In Jesus he saw someone he could destroy with ease. In order to emphasize the point and show the lunacy at hand, "Pilate took Jesus and had Him flogged. The soldiers twisted together a crown of thorns and put it on His head. They clothed Him in a purple robe and went up to Him again and again, saying, 'Hail, king of the Jews!' And they slapped Him in the face." Pilate then came out and addressed the Judeans: "Look, I am bringing Him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against Him." As Jesus was brought out, Pilate said, "Here is the man!" (John 19:1-5Yet the chief priests pressed on, demanding Jesus' execution. 

Instead of releasing the one he clearly saw as innocent, Pilate made Jesus a toy with which to mock the temple aristocrats. It's as though Pilate were saying, "If this man had any power at all, I could not do this. He is no threat to me. He is no threat to Rome, and if you had any sense, He would not be a threat to you either." Yet the religious elite pushed even more vigorously for Jesus' crucifixion (Matthew 27:22-23; Mark 15:12-14; Luke 23:20-22; John 19:6-7). At this point Pilate gave up. In a final act of mockery, Pilate said to them, "Here is your king" (John 19:14), and Roman soldiers took the seemingly defeated Jesus away to be crucified. The soldiers marched Jesus through Jerusalem to a hill outside the city. They nailed a board to the top of His cross that displayed His name and His crime, and then they nailed Jesus there, lifting Him up so that all could see His broken body from the highways leading into the holy city. Here Jesus would die naked and friendless. When His dead body was brought down late on Friday evening, it seemed that all promise of a new kingdom had died with Him.

Good Friday Illustration by Bible Project

Yet Jesus' death was not a defeat.
In God's grandest irony,
it was a royal coronation.

In the early hours of Good Friday, Jesus had confirmed to the Roman Empire that he was king. In John's gospel we read, "You are a king, then!' said Pilate. Jesus answered, 'You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to Me'" (John 18:37).

A military escort then took Jesus out before the people. The crowd shouted for Him and no other to take the throne (Matthew 27:15-23; Mark 15:6-14; Luke 23:18-22; John 18:39-19:7; 19:15). Soldiers took Jesus away and draped a royal robe on His bleeding back. They crowned Him and knelt before Him, all singing, "Hail!" (Matthew 27:27-30; Mark 15:16-19; John 19:2-3). We even note that Luke has Herod, the supposed "king of the Jews," robing Jesus (Luke 23:11) in what would look like an exchange of power in any other scene. Then Pilate, the representative of the Roman Empire presented Jesus, dressed in royalty, to the religious elite. "Here is the man!" Pilate said to the priests. "Here is your king" (John 19:5, 14). The soldiers then paraded Jesus through town, with Jews and Gentiles alike lining the streets to see Him (Matthew 27:31-34; Mark 15:20-23; Luke 23:26-33; John 19:6-17) as they would a new emperor.

Jesus was marched to the highest place in the land to sit on His throne 
– the saddle of a cross (as crosses were often outfitted with a small seat-like notch where the body of a crucified person might rest though this was not done out of mercy the saddle prolonged the execution and therefore the agony by allowing the crucified one to breathe more easily). Priests, soldiers, and relatives surrounded Him at His throne while a servant gave Him wine (Matthew 27:34, 41; Mark 15:23; John 19:25) and a sign overhead proclaimed, "THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS," written in the three great languages of the day (Matthew 27:37; John 19:19-20) to declare His coronation.

Here Jesus was enthroned for the entire world to see (Psalm 2). For example, even in this Middle Eastern area seemingly secluded by the powerful Roman Empire, the Good News of Jesus' Kingdom was reaching out to Africa. Before He hung on the cross, 
Simon of Cyrene was compelled to carry Jesus' cross (Matthew 27:32). Cyrene is a city in North Africa in what we now call Libya. The Gospel of Mark tells us that Simon is the father of Rufus and Alexander (Mark 15:21). Why does the Gospel mention these men? If anyone was tempted to doubt the veracity of Mark's account of the crucifixion, they could ask Rufus and Alexander, living members of the Christian community whose father carried the cross of Christ himself. At some point in his return home to Cyrene, Simon as an African father became convinced of the truth of the Gospel of Jesus and passed that faith to his sons and possibly his wife (Romans 16:13). So at the moment in which Christ is reconciling the world to Himself on the cross, an African family is making its first steps toward the Kingdom as Simon is sent back to Africa to spread the Good News to his family, community, and nation.

St. Simon of Cyrene Block Print by Kreg Yingst

As darkness covered the land, another key funnel of light shone out from this instrument of torture. Looking at the dead body of Jesus, a pagan Roman soldier knew that the sign above was not an accusation but a reality. He knew the crown was real, the robe had been real, and the cross he helped raise was truly a throne: "And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how He died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!" (Mark 15:39). It was the title that emperors reserved for themselves. It was printed on their coins alongside Pax Romana
 – Roman peace. As the centurion looked up at the body of Jesus, he saw one worthy of the greatest title in the Roman Empire. To be called a son of God by a Roman was the highest praise, for it meant that you were the true reflection of divinity for everywhere the empire of Rome touched in the known world. 

I could never myself believe in God,
if it were not for the cross.

The only God I believe in
is the One Nietzsche ridiculed
as "God on the cross."

In the real world of pain,
how could one worship a God
who was immune to it?

I have entered many Buddhist temples
in different Asian countries
and stood respectfully
before the statue of the Buddha,
his legs crossed,
arms folded,
eyes closed,
the ghost of a smile
playing round his mouth, 
a remote look on his face,
detached from the agonies of the world.
But each time after a while
I have had to turn away.

And in imagination
I have turned instead to that
lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross,
nails through hands and feet,
back lacerated,
limbs wrenched,
brow bleeding from thorn-pricks,
mouth dry and intolerably thirsty,
plunged in Godforsaken darkness.
That is the God for me!

He laid aside his immunity to pain.
He entered our world
of flesh and blood,
tears and death.
He suffered for us.

Our sufferings become more manageable 
in the light of his.
There is still a question mark
against human suffering,
but over it we boldly stamp
another mark,
the cross that symbolizes divine suffering.

"The cross of Christ ...
is God’s only self-justification
in such a world as ours....
The other gods were strong;
but thou wast weak;
they rode,
but thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only
God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds,
but Thou alone." 

+ John Stott

Excerpts above compiled and adapted
Jeff Cook's Seven, 
with insight from N.T. Wright's 
Jesus and the Victory of God, 
Fleming Rutledge's
Crucifixion, and
John Stott's The Cross of Christ,
along with some original reflections. 

And here are a few bonuses: 

If you would like to listen to an
abridged reading of the narrative above,
go to 
Good Friday? Let's Listen Again. 
or click on the image below
for a video that I had the honor
to create in 2020.

The video description reads:

The darkness that loomed over the first Good Friday seems to be seeping into the nations of our world and into our very own souls in this historic moment. Yet Holy Week invites us again to wholly embrace a spark of courageous curiosity. Will we consider the crazy story of the thorn-crowned Christ again? Will we sit in the darkness and listen, asking for ears to hear, to catch a grand irony of an ancient story of seemingly terrible defeat? Will we open our eyes and pause, waiting for them to adjust (or to be adjusted by Another), to see a glimmer of light from the Christ on the cross, considering holy and wholly anew that perhaps the hope we need is beyond what is first perceived, that a greater story of deliverance is being revealed ... 

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