Easter Tuesday

Yesterday I began publishing a harmony of the four Gospels regarding the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This continues the harmony, picking up in the afternoon of Easter Sunday.

That afternoon two disciples of Jesus were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus. One of them was named Cleopas; the name of the other is unknown. (It might have been the wife of Cleopas; we don’t know.) Jesus joined them on their journey, but they didn’t recognize him. At his urging, they reported to him what had happened in Jerusalem. Jesus took the opportunity to give them a thorough Bible lesson, showing how Moses and the prophets had described all the events of the weekend. Jesus explained how he accomplished the plan and the promises of God. Cleopas and the other disciple invited Jesus to stay the night at their place. When they sat down to supper Jesus took the bread and broke it, and they recognized him. Then he disappeared from their sight. In excitement, the two disciples ran back to Jerusalem to describe their conversation with Jesus (Luke 24:13-35).

It probably took them two hours or more to run the distance they had just walked. Meanwhile, Peter had a private meeting with Jesus (Luke 24:34, I Corinthians 15:5). We know nothing about what was said in that conversation. When Cleopas and the other disciple joined ten of the twelve apostles, they were hiding in a locked room (John 20:19). Some believed the accounts of the resurrection, but others doubted (Mark 16:13). As they were sharing their various accounts of the resurrection, Jesus joined them (Mark 16:14, Luke 24:36, John 20:19). He used the usual Hebrew greeting of “Shalom,” meaning, “Peace be with you” (Luke 24:36, John 20:19). At first they were frightened, even after hearing from Peter and Cleopas that Jesus was alive. They thought they were seeing a ghost, and Jesus had to eat some fish to prove that he was physically alive (Luke 24:37-43). Then they worshiped him. Jesus again reminded them that Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms (the entire Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament) described his mission, now accomplished (Luke 24:44-47). He also breathed on them to grant his Holy Spirit. “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven,” he said (John 20:21-23). Then he told them to rest in the city until they were clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49). This instruction seems to contradict the earlier message to meet him in Galilee. Jesus was not forbidding them to set foot outside of the city; he was giving them a general instruction to rest until the next stage of their preparation was complete. (It is also possible that Luke combines all the meetings of Jesus with his apostles into one conversation, starting with Easter night and ending shortly before the Ascension. If that is the case, then the instruction to rest in Jerusalem was spoken only a few days before Pentecost and after the events in Galilee.)

Thomas was not with the other apostles that night (John 20:24). (Luke says that Jesus appeared that night “to the eleven.” Paul even refers to them as “the twelve” in I Corinthians 15:5. Both writers are using the numbers as titles for the group of apostles chosen by Jesus, not requiring their readers to believe that eleven or twelve of the apostles met Jesus Easter night.) A week later, the apostles were in the same locked room, still hiding out of fear, but Thomas was with them. Jesus returned and invited Thomas to inspect the wounds of his crucifixion to verify his resurrection. Thomas confessed his faith, saying “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28), and Jesus gently scolded him and the others for their lack of faith (Mark 16:14, John 20:29). Perhaps at this time he reminded them of his desire to meet with them in Galilee and explained that his instruction to rest in the city was not to be taken literally.

The third time Jesus met with his apostles was in Galilee. Some of them went fishing but caught nothing. Jesus met them on a beach in the morning and reenacted a miracle that he had first worked when he called them to follow him. Over breakfast they had a conversation in which Jesus gave Peter three chances to reverse his three denials (John 21:1-24).

Probably also in Galilee, Jesus met with five hundred disciples (I Corinthians 15:6). Quite likely, many of them had not been in Jerusalem for the Passover, but Jesus wanted to affirm their faith as well. Perhaps on this occasion, or perhaps in a fifth appearance, Jesus told his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them… and teaching them….” (Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus was with the apostles and other disciples a number of times during the forty days after his resurrection, strengthening their faith and preparing them to make disciples as he had instructed them (Acts 1:3). He also had a private meeting with his brother, James (I Corinthians 15:7), who would become the head pastor in Jerusalem.

By the fortieth day from the resurrection, the apostles had returned to Jerusalem. Jesus met with them one more time (I Corinthians 15:7) on a hillside not far from Jerusalem. From there he ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:6-11). After his ascension, Jesus sent his Holy Spirit to empower the leaders of his Church (Acts2:1-13); yet the ascended Jesus also had the power to be with his disciples always, even to the end of the earth (Matthew 28:20). J.


Easter Monday

Opponents of Christianity sometimes claim that accounts of the resurrection of Jesus cannot be believed, not only because the thought of a dead man returning to life seems preposterous, but also because the Bible’s accounts do not agree with one another. As for the resurrection being preposterous, that is the entire point of the event: Jesus did something amazing and incredible to call attention to his victory. Evil and death have been defeated and Jesus won the victory. Doubt the resurrection and Christianity disappears; trust the news of the resurrection, and the rest of Christianity follows.

Are the accounts of the resurrection in the Bible different? Do they contradict one another? Naturally, if they all said the same things in the same way, opponents would use that conformity as a reason to doubt the truth of the message. Different writers focus on different events and omit different details. Some atheists have offered financial rewards for any writer who can knit a consistent narrative out of the Bible’s accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. Without any hope of winning a reward—for surely the atheists would find some part of my explanation far-fetched just to keep their money—here is my narrative of the events of Easter, using the books of the New Testament as my sources.

Jesus died about three o’clock in the afternoon (Matthew 27:46, et al.). Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin (the seventy men who ruled Israel regarding religious matters), sought permission from Governor Pontius Pilate to bury Jesus (Matthew 27:57-58, et al.). This was unusual—crucified criminals usually were thrown into a common grave. After Pilate had confirmed that Jesus truly was dead (Mark 15:45), he gave permission for the burial. Joseph had recently acquired a vault in a garden near Golgotha, the place where Jesus was crucified. This was to be a tomb for Joseph and the members of his family when they died (Matthew 27:60). No one yet had been buried there (John 19:41). Joseph bought a shroud of linen (Matthew 27:59, et al.) and, according to Jewish burial practices of the time (John 19:40), tore it into long strips to mummify Jesus. Assisted by Nicodemus, he cleaned the body of Jesus and wrapped the linen around his body, along with seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe (John 19:38-42). They placed the body of Jesus in the vault and rolled a large stone in front of the entrance to complete the burial (Matthew 27:60 et al.).

Several women had come from Galilee with Jesus and his disciples for the Passover holiday. They included Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, Salome, Johanna, and others (Matthew 27:61, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10). At least some of these women watched as the two men buried Jesus. Feeling that the rushed burial (completed before the sun set and the Sabbath began) was incomplete, the women provided themselves with spices and ointments. After the Sabbath, they planned to complete what they men felt they had finished.

Meanwhile, the authorities in Jerusalem remembered the prophecy of Jesus—that he would be crucified and would rise three days later. Saying that they feared that his disciples would steal his body to fake a resurrection, they warned the governor of this possibility. “You have a guard,” he reminded them, speaking of the Temple soldiers. He gave them permission to guard the tomb, and also to place a seal on the stone, making it a crime for anyone to move the stone (Matthew 27:62-66).

During the Sabbath, Jesus rested, his body dead and buried, and his soul in the hands of his Father in Paradise (Luke 23:43 and 46). Sunday morning he rose to life again, soul and body recombined. He did not need the stone removed for him to leave the tomb, but the stone had to be removed for others to see that he had risen. Meanwhile, the risen Jesus proclaimed his victory over the spirits of those who had died resisting his commands (I Peter 3:19-20).

The women from Galilee got up before sunrise to take their spices to the tomb (Matthew 28:1, John 20:1). They were probably staying in the suburbs, so their journey took a while. As they traveled the sun rose (Mark 16:2, Luke 24:1). There was an earthquake (Matthew 28:2), perhaps an aftershock from Friday’s quake. As the earth shook, an angel descended from heaven, threw the stone out of place, and sat upon it (Matthew 28:2-3). Instead of arresting the angel for moving the sealed stone, the guards fainted (Matthew 28:4). (There were probably only two or three of them; how many guards are needed to guard a tomb?) They must have revived quickly and slunk away; no mention is made of their presence when the women arrived at the tomb.

When she saw that the stone had been removed (Mark 16:4, John 20:1-2), Mary Magdalene immediately left the other women and ran to where Peter and John were staying. “They have taken the Lord’s body,” she told them, “and we don’t know where they have laid him” (John 20:2). While this was happening, the other women entered the tomb. They saw the linen in which Jesus had been wrapped, now clearly not containing a body (Luke 24:3). They also saw two angels. (Matthew and Mark mention only one angel; Luke mentions two. Since Matthew and Mark do not say “only one angel,” they are not contradicting Luke’s report of two angels. In the same way, Matthew, Mark, and Luke mention Joseph burying Jesus without mentioning Nicodemus. Only John mentions the help of Nicodemus. But the first three writers do not say that he acted alone, so there is no contradiction. It would be difficult for one man to mummify the corpse of another.) The first angel said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” (Luke 24:5) The second angel said, “Do not be afraid; I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here. He has risen. See the place where they laid him?” pointing to the empty pile of linen (Matthew 28:5-6, Mark 16:6 ). The first angel added, “Remember how he told you in Galilee that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and rise again on the third day?” (Luke 24:6-7) The women remembered his words and started to understand what had happened (Luke 24:8). The second angel said, “Go tell the disciples, and Peter” (Mark 16:7—Peter had recently denied being a disciple of Jesus), “that he is risen and will meet them in Galilee” (Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:7). The women left with mixed feelings, a combination of fear and joy, as they were starting to understand and believe in the news of the resurrection, but they still were frightened. At first they said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid (Mark 16:8).

Their outlook changed on the way into Jerusalem when they met Jesus. They worshiped him, and he reaffirmed the angel’s message to tell the disciples that he would meet them in Galilee (Matthew 28:9-10). Meanwhile, Peter and John—having been told part of what was happening—raced to the tomb. John, being younger, arrived first, but lingered outside the tomb. Peter barreled past him and entered the tomb, seeing the empty pile of linen but not seeing or hearing any angels. John also entered the tomb and started to understand what had happened, but Peter remained befuddled (John 20:3-10 ; Luke 24:12 mentions Peter’s visit).

Peter and John returned to the city. Mary Magdalene must have followed them back to the tomb, because when they left she was alone in the garden (John 20:11). First she saw two angels in the tomb and spoke with them (John 20:12-13), then she turned and saw Jesus. Thinking he was the gardener, she asked him what he had done with the body of Jesus. When Jesus spoke her name, she recognized him and grabbed his feet, worshiping him (John 20:14-16). “Don’t cling to me,” Jesus said (not “Don’t touch me,” as some translations say), and he sent her to the disciples with a message like that he had sent through the other women (John 20:17). (Mark 16:9 says Jesus appeared first to Mary Magdalene. This does not mean his first appearance of the day, but the first appearance in Mark’s list.)

Meanwhile, the guards who had fainted at the sight of an angel reported to the chief priests what had happened. (This shows that they were Temple guards, not Roman soldiers.) They were paid money to spread the story that the disciples had stolen the body of Jesus from under their noses (Matthew 28:11-15).

To be continued tomorrow… J.


Christ is risen!

The moon, two days past full, was hanging in the western sky as the women from Galilee left the place where they were staying. They had come to Jerusalem with Jesus, but on Friday he had been crucified. Joseph and Nicodemus claimed his body, burying it in a family tomb recently acquired by Joseph. They wrapped the body of Jesus with strips of linen, along with seventy-five pounds of myrrh mixed with aloe. The women watched the burial from a distance. They were not satisfied; they knew they could do a better job.

On the Sabbath the women rested. They arose before dawn, though, gathered their spices for burial, and began walking to the tomb. The sun rose while they traveled, and as it rose the earth shook, perhaps an aftershock from Friday’s earthquake. The women did not worry about the earthquake; their only concern was who would help them move the heavy stone away from the entrance to the tomb.

When they came close to the tomb, they saw that the stone had been moved—not merely rolled to one side, but thrown out of its place. One of the women abandoned the others and rushed into Jerusalem to tell Jesus’ disciples that something had happened. The other women went into the tomb. The strips of linen were there, but the body of Jesus was missing. The women saw a mystery. Tomb robbers would not have stripped the corpse bare in the tomb. Yet the evidence of a miracle did not, at first, convince them of anything.

Two angels appeared in the tomb and spoke to the women. “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” one asked them. “He is not here; he has risen.” The other angel added, “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that he Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” The women then remembered his words. They believed, not because of what their eyes saw or because of what their brains perceived, but because of the power of the words of Jesus as they were spoken to them.

Miracles do not create faith. They strengthen the faith of believers, but nonbelievers can always find another explanation for a miracle. Jesus said in one of his parables, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31). Paul wrote to the Romans, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). Thomas did not believe the news that Jesus was risen; he demanded physical evidence. When Jesus provided that evidence, Jesus added, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). Faith is a blessing, a gift from God, which is granted to his people by the power of his Word.

“These things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). We cannot travel back to Jerusalem this Easter Day to visit the empty tomb, to see the strips of linen, or to talk with angels. We do not need to make that trip. By his Word Jesus grants faith and strengthens faith. We celebrate his resurrection today, joyful and confident that all his promises are true. Our sins are forgiven. Our enemies are defeated. Eternal life is guaranteed. Jesus lives, and because he lives we will live also. J.

Holy Saturday

According to the book of Genesis, when God created the world, he did so in six days. By the power of his Word he called into existence everything that exists, aside from God himself. Then, on the seventh day, God rested. Even before sin entered the world, God commanded his people to rest on the seventh day of each week. He created a weekly holiday so people would have a break from their usual work and would have time to celebrate fellowship with God and with each other.

In the Ten Commandments, God reaffirmed this commandment to rest on the seventh day of the week. Through the prophets he repeated the message that his Sabbath Day was to be respected. God never told any of the prophets that he was going to change his mind about that commandment (although he did reveal to Jeremiah that a new covenant was coming). Jesus debated with his opponents about the meaning of the Sabbath Day, saying that it was appropriate to do good and helpful things on that day. But Jesus did not signal that he was going to change God’s weekly holiday.

The vast majority of Christians in the world today worship God on Sunday. Sunday morning is treated as the weekly anniversary of the resurrection of Jesus. Christians are free to move their time of rest and worship from Saturday to Sunday, or to Wednesday night, or any other time they please. The apostle Paul wrote to the Colossians, “Let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Kosher rules no longer apply, because they were related to the animals sacrificed on the altar, and Jesus has fulfilled the substance of which they were a picture. Christians are free to hold a Seder and observe the Passover week if they wish, but most choose instead to celebrate Holy Week and Easter, since Jesus has fulfilled the substance of which Passover is a picture. Christians do not have to make a Sabbath rest every Saturday, because Jesus has fulfilled the substance of which the Sabbath is a picture.

In the week of creation, God rested on the seventh day. In Holy Week once again, God rested on the seventh day. The body of the Son of God rested the rest of death, buried in a borrowed tomb. The soul of the Son of God rested in Paradise, in the hands of his Father. Whenever a Christian dies, that Christian rests the same way—the body buried or otherwise resting on earth, the soul with Jesus in Paradise.

But the rest of Jesus was short. When the Sabbath ended, a new day began, and Jesus no longer rested. The substance of the Sabbath was fulfilled, as the substance of Passover and of animal sacrifices was fulfilled in the death of Jesus. Christians are free, not only from sin and death, but also from the burden of the Law. “Let no one pass judgment on you,” for God has already judged you worthy of eternal life in his Kingdom. J.


Good Friday

Early in the morning of the Day of Preparation for Passover, the religious authorities met in Jerusalem and affirmed their vote convicting Jesus of blasphemy. They intended to take him outside the gates of Jerusalem and stone him to death, but first they needed Roman permission for an execution. Governor Pontius Pilate was hearing other civil cases that morning, so the authorities brought Jesus to Pilate.

Blasphemy is not a crime in Roman law—especially not blasphemy by claiming to be the Son of God. The Romans had lots of gods, and many of them had sons. The authorities adjusted their verdict to get the governor’s attention. They said that Jesus claimed to be a king, making him a rebel against Roman rule. After a brief investigation, Pilate realized that Jesus was not guilty of rebellion. Three times he publicly announced that Jesus was innocent. (A few hours earlier, Peter had said three times that he did not know who Jesus was.) Pilate attempted several ways to escape the verdict that the local authorities wanted from him. Finally, in desperation, he offered the authorities and the mob supporting them a choice: to observe the Passover, the governor would release one prisoner. Either he would release Jesus, an innocent man, or he would release Barabbas, a convicted terrorist.

No one had mentioned crucifixion up to this moment, aside from the several times that Jesus had predicted how he would die. Evidently, Barabbas had just been sentenced to this form of execution. Now, the authorities and the mob demanded freedom for Barabbas; when the governor asked what he should do with Jesus, the mob shouted, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

Christians know that we are all just like Barabbas. We are guilty of breaking God’s laws. We deserve punishment. The evidence of our wrongdoing is inescapable. Yet we are set free. Jesus takes the punishment we deserve, and we are given our freedom. More than that, we are granted the rewards Jesus deserves for his sinless life.

Jesus was beaten by the Roman soldiers. They mocked him, thinking it laughable that anyone would even want to be “King of the Jews.” They followed orders, having him carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem. Jesus was crucified outside the gate of Jerusalem between two thieves (possibly partners in crime with Barabbas). Roman soldiers, guarding the place of execution to prevent a rescue, were granted whatever property the condemned men had carried with them. Jesus had only the clothes on his back, but the soldiers gambled to see who would claim that clothing.

Over the years, thousands of people were crucified by the Roman government. Some survived the torture up to two days. Many people have suffered other kinds of excruciating pain, and some have endured it for years. Many people have been abandoned by their families and their friends. Physically, nothing is unique or special about the way Jesus died. Yet one thing is different: Jesus, the sinless Son of God, was abandoned by his Father. Always the two Persons had been with each other, loving each other, doing things for each other. Now the Father treated his Son as guilty of all sin. This separation is what sinners deserve—our rebellion against God signals that we do not want to be with him. God’s just judgment against us (“You don’t want to be with me? Fine, then I will abandon you.”) was turned against Jesus. In agony of separation Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

Jesus knew the answer to his question. His words are not meant as a philosophical query; they describe the despair Jesus was feeling in his heart. A thousand years before, David had written a Psalm that begins with the words Jesus prayed; Psalm 22 contains vivid descriptions of crucifixion, even the detail of enemies gambling for the victim’s clothing. A possible temporal loop exists here, as Jesus prays the words written a thousand years earlier, words which prophesied his predicament. The beginning, though, is with Jesus. He was forsaken by his Father and endured the cross, and then earlier in time he spoke of his experience to David, who wrote about what Jesus faced.

Judgment Day is coming. Every human who ever lived will stand before the judgment seat of God, and God will express his wrath over every sin that has been committed. The sun will turn to darkness, according to the prophets, and the moon will change to blood. The earth will shake because of the judgment of God. Christians do not need to fear that Day. Jesus has already endured his Father’s wrath in our place. The sun refused to shine for three hours on that Good Friday. The earth did shake. And, if historians are correct that these events took place in Jerusalem on April 3, AD 33, then the prophecy was completed, because the moon that rose at sunset was a “blood moon,” stained by the shadow of the earth.

“It is finished,” Jesus said before he died. He did not merely mean that his life or his suffering was finished. He meant that his mission was finished. The war between God and evil was finished. Evil’s claim on the lives of sinners was finished. The power of death was finished. Jesus had fought and had prevailed; goodness and love and life had won. For those reasons, we call the Friday when Jesus died “Good Friday.” J.


Maundy Thursday

On Thursday of Holy Week, Jesus sent Peter and John into Jerusalem to make preparations for their Passover Seder. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there had been no room for him and his family in the inn. Now a borrowed room was available for Jesus and his followers. (The same Greek word is used in the Bible for the Bethlehem inn and the borrowed room in Jerusalem.)

That night Jesus washed the feet of his disciples and told them that they were to be humble servants to one another. He gave them a new commandment, telling them to love one another. (Of course that commandment had been given before. It is new in the sense that his people are new every day through the work of their Savior. Therefore, every day this commandment is new to his people.) Jesus prayed for his disciples and for all who would believe in Jesus because of their testimony. That same night Jesus predicted that Peter would deny him, that Judas would betray him, and that all the disciples would abandon him.

Jesus took the bread of the Passover meal—bread made without yeast—gave thanks, broke it, and distributed it to his disciples. “Take, eat,” he said, “this is my body, given for you.” He took the cup of thanksgiving—the third cup of wine in the Seder meal—and said, “Drink of it, all of you. This is the cup of the New Testament, shed for you for the forgiveness of sin.” He also said, “Do this often, remembering me.” Christians continue to obey this command of grace, remembering Jesus and rejoicing in his gift of forgiveness and eternal life, promised through his sacrifice and through this act of remembrance.

After the Seder, Jesus took his disciples and went to a garden called Gethsemane (which means “olive press”) to pray. While he prayed, they fell asleep. Jesus prayed that a cup would be taken away from him—the cup of God’s wrath, the anger deserved by sinners. Jesus had already given his followers a cup, the cup of the New Testament. Now he was taking the poisonous cup deserved by sinners and drinking it dry for the rescue of sinners. While Jesus prayed, his disciples slept. It was late at night. They had eaten a large meal with a lengthy ceremony of prayers and Bible readings. Jesus had added many new thoughts to the ancient ceremony. Each of them had drunk four cups of wine during the meal. Now they were tired. Already, as Jesus prayed, they were abandoning him.

Judas Iscariot brought guards from the Temple to arrest Jesus secretly in Gethsemane. Trying to defend his Lord, Peter swung a sword wildly, slicing off a man’s ear. Jesus healed the man, his last show of divine power before being led to the cross. The disciples fled. Jesus was taken to a series of hearings in Jerusalem. During those hearings, outside the building, Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus.

Jesus was put on trial for blasphemy. The Law of God required that no one be condemned to death without identical testimony of a crime by two witnesses. The prosecution failed to find two witnesses who agreed about Jesus, even as they tried to recall what he had said about destroying the Temple. In frustration, the chief priest put Jesus under oath and asked him if he was the Christ, the Son of God. If Jesus did not claim to be the Son of God, he could have escaped condemnation and punishment. Instead, he affirmed under oath that he is the Son of God, and the authorities condemned him for blasphemy, saying that he insulted God by claiming to be his Son. They began to beat him and insult him.

According to God’s Law, because he was convicted of blasphemy, Jesus should have been taken to the gate of Jerusalem and stoned to death. Stoning was the “firing squad” of ancient times. When a criminal was stoned, the entire community participated, rejecting his crime and cooperating in his death; yet no one person could be said to have thrown the one fatal stone.

According to Roman law, though, no criminal could be executed in the provinces until a Roman official had reviewed the case and the evidence. Evidently, this law prevented a community from rising against the Romans by first convicting and executing supporters of Rome. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, happened to be in Jerusalem because of the Passover celebration. (His presence gave him an excuse to bring extra Roman soldiers into the city while it was crowded with Jewish believers from all over the known world because of the holiday.) When the sun rose on Friday, the authorities intended to bring Jesus to the governor and to seek permission to stone him to death according to God’s law. J.

Christ and the Passover

On Thursday night of Holy Week, Jesus celebrated the Seder (the Passover meal) with his disciples in a borrowed room. The next night, the priests and all the citizens of Jerusalem celebrated their Seder. I have not been able to fact-check this statement, but I have read that at that time thousands of Jews did what Jesus and his disciples did: they came to Jerusalem for the Passover and celebrated the Seder a night early, while the citizens of Jerusalem celebrated on the night of the full moon.

The Seder and the week of Passover commemorated an event that had taken place twelve to fourteen centuries earlier. The Israelites were slaves in Egypt, but God sent Moses to command the pharaoh to release them. When the pharaoh refused, God sent a series of plagues against Egypt, showing that his power was greater than that of the Egyptian gods. The tenth plague was the death of the oldest son in every family, except that God spared those families that trusted him. They were told to kill a lamb, to paint the blood around the doors of their houses, and to roast and eat the lamb. They were to eat quickly, prepared to travel, because freedom was just around the corner. They were to bake bread without waiting for it to rise. That night the Israelites began their journey toward freedom, a journey which would take them to Mount Sinai where the Lord would say to them, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.”

Among the instructions God gave the Israelites through Moses was a command to observe the week of Passover every spring. During the week of Passover they would eat bread made without yeast, remembering the bread made during their hurried escape from Egypt, and also representing a life lived without sin. They would eat bitter herbs to remember the bitterness of slavery. They would kill and eat a lamb (without, however, painting the lamb’s blood on their houses), remembering the lamb of the Passover in Egypt and the way God rescued them both from slavery and from death.

God wanted his people to remember how he had rescued them in the past. He also wanted them to know how he would rescue them in the future. He killed the oldest son in every family among the Egyptians but spared the oldest son in every family marked by the blood of the lamb. In the same way, God spares all sinners marked by the blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (as John the Baptist described Jesus). Jesus is also the only-begotten Son of God, but he is the first-born son in a family that is filled with adopted children. The sacrifice of Jesus is the price paid to adopt all those children into the family of his Father. Like the bread made without yeast, Jesus lived a life without sin, yet he was broken on the cross so he could make whole the lives that have been broken by sin.

Jesus and his disciples came to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They had their Seder meal on Thursday night. Later that night Jesus was arrested, tried, and convicted of blasphemy. Friday morning he would be handed over to the Romans, who would mock him, torture him, and crucify him. As the Passover lambs were being slaughtered for the Seder meals of the citizens of Jerusalem, the Lamb of God was shedding his blood and giving his life for all the sinners of history.

Through Moses, God commanded his people to celebrate the Passover every year. Some people continue to do so this year. On the other hand, Jesus fulfilled the meaning of the Passover celebration by his sacrifice and by his victory. The Israelites were led out of Egypt across the Red Sea toward the promised land the third day from the Passover. So also Jesus, on the third day, blazed a trail across the valley of the shadow of death to bring his people to a promised land—eternal life in a new and perfect creation that will have no end. J.

Christ and the Temple

During Holy Week, Jesus (after clearing buyers and sellers out of the Temple courtyard) taught the crowds and debated with opponents. Temple authorities were investigating Jesus, hoping to trap him into some misstatement that would make them able to bring him to trial and convict him of some crime. Jesus overcame their verbal attacks, which only made them more frustrated and more determined to destroy him.

One day, after this verbal sparring, the disciples of Jesus pointed out to him the magnificence of the Temple. The building was, at that time, undergoing renovation, funded by the Herod family. Apparently trying to win some loyalty from the Jewish people, the Herod family was trying to give the second Temple the same splendor that Solomon’s Temple had displayed. Jesus seemed unimpressed by the large stones and beautiful artwork. Instead, he prophesied that the entire Temple would be destroyed. This prophecy was fulfilled forty years later when the Jews engaged in a war of rebellion against the Roman Empire. The prophecy of Jesus about the Temple prompted other questions from his disciples, with the result that Jesus gave them information about future history and about the coming Day of the Lord.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all report the cleansing of the Temple by Jesus, with Mark indicating that this cleansing took place on Monday of Holy Week. John does not mention this cleansing, but near the beginning of his Gospel he describes a different cleansing which Jesus accomplished early in his career. At that time, the authorities asked Jesus who gave him the right to kick people out of the Temple. He responded, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” These words of Jesus were misquoted at his trial Thursday night of Holy Week. John adds the detail that Jesus was speaking, not of the building in Jerusalem, but of his body, when he said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

How could the body of Jesus be a Temple? In the Bible and in other religions, a temple is a place where a god can be found. Temples are points of communication between gods and believers. Prayers and sacrifices are the key events in any temple. A temple is a physical structure which connects believers to their god. Therefore, the body of Jesus is a Temple. It is a physical structure in which God can be found. Jesus truly is God, so his physical body is a Temple of the true God.

In fact, the body of Jesus is more than “a Temple.” It is the Temple. The Tabernacle constructed in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, and used for centuries by the Israelites, was a picture of Jesus, the true Temple of God. Solomon’s Temple, modeled upon the Tabernacle, was a picture of Jesus. The second Temple, built during the Persian rule and then renovated by the Herod family, was a picture of Jesus. All of these buildings were physical access points to God, but only through Jesus can people come to God the Father.

Because it is a physical structure, a Temple can be destroyed. Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. The second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. In both occasions, the destruction of the Temple was recognized by God’s people as judgment by God, rejection of his people because of their sins. The physical body of Jesus was also destroyed. After a series of brutal beatings, that body was nailed to a cross and killed. In this destruction also the judgment of God is seen—his wrath against sin and against sinners. Yet Jesus never sinned. God the Father saw the sins of the world upon Jesus and treated Jesus as sin itself. By this exchange, sinners are now free from guilt, rescued from God’s wrath, and made able to approach the throne of God and even to call him Father.

“Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” When the Romans destroyed the Temple building in Jerusalem, it remained destroyed. To this day it has not been rebuilt. The true Temple, though, the physical body of Jesus Christ, was restored. He was tortured and killed on Friday, but Sunday morning he was alive again. Now he lives and reigns to all eternity, and death has no power over him. He shares that victory with all who trust in him. He remains the true Temple, every believer’s access to God. No other Temple is needed. J.

Cleansing the Temple

Some years ago I was watching the movie Jesus Christ, Superstar on television after the children had gone to bed. One young daughter left her bedroom for some reason and happened to see a scene from the movie through the doorway—it was the scene in which Jesus violently disrupts the buying and selling that is taking place in the Temple. My daughter recognized that the actor in the movie was representing Jesus, but she was not familiar with this event as described in the Bible. The anger and violence with which Jesus confronted the misuse of God’s Temple puzzled and frightened her.

According to Mark, this cleansing of the Temple happened on Monday of Holy Week, the day after Jesus rode a donkey into Jerusalem. Matthew and Luke both describe the two events without transition, but neither of them says they took place on the same day; John does not mention this cleansing of the Temple, but he includes a similar event near the beginning of his account of the Gospel. Jesus was passionate about the Temple. It provided God’s people a place to have access to God. Animals were sacrificed there as an offering to atone for sin, though they were only pictures of the ultimate Offering that would atone for sin. Prayers were said in and around the Temple. As Jesus pointed out on that Monday, God’s house was intended to be a house of prayer.

Jesus then added that the buyers and sellers had made the Temple a den of thieves. I have not been able to verify this account, but I have read that when people brought their animals to the Temple for the sacrifice, they were told that their animals were flawed and unacceptable for sacrifice to the Lord. The buyers offered to purchase the flawed lamb or goat or bull from the worshipers and sell them a proper animal for sacrifice (at a higher price, of course). After the sale, the flawed animal was taken to a pen elsewhere on Temple property until it was sold to another worshiper in a similar way.

In the same way, the money-changers were cheating the people. The priests of the Temple said that Roman money was no good in God’s house. The money-changers offered to exchange the temple shekel for Roman coins. The exchange rate was not favorable for the worshipers. Of course the money-changers and even the priests had no difficulty spending Roman coins in the marketplace. When they asked Jesus, during Holy Week, about paying taxes to Rome and he asked them to show him a Roman coin, they had no trouble finding one to show him, even though that money was supposedly no good in God’s house.

Even today enemies of the Church accuse Christians of hypocrisy and greed. Unfortunately, they often find enough examples to prove their point. Jesus does not want his people to be known for their sins. He has paid a great price to take away their sins. Jesus still wants his house to be a house of prayer and a place where people may approach the Lord to receive his grace, his forgiveness, and his love. Therefore Jesus still fumes when he sees his Temple distracted by worldly things to the point that they no longer proclaim the message God has given them to share.

The wrath of God is real, as I had the opportunity to explain to my daughter that night years ago. God’s wrath at sin is not confined to the Old Testament; Jesus himself strikes out at sinful injustice and the way some people take advantage of others in the name of the Lord. If we are like Jesus, we will oppose evil wherever we find it. We will seek to make God’s house a house of prayer, not a den of thieves. But we will also make God’s forgiveness through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ the center of our message to a sinful and needy world. J.

Palm Sunday and Holy Week

Most weeks consist of seven days, but Holy Week—the most important time in the Christian calendar—is eight days long. The first day of Holy Week is Palm Sunday, and the eighth day of Holy Week is Easter Sunday. The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each devote at least one-third of their volume to these eight days.

As he was approaching Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday called Passover, Jesus sent two of his disciples into the suburbs to get a young donkey that had never been ridden. The donkey was so young that, according to Matthew and Mark, the disciples also brought its mother to Jesus. A donkey is a simple beast of burden, hardly fit for a king, but the privilege of being first to ride an animal is indeed the prerogative of kings. The prophet Zechariah had foretold that Jesus would enter Jerusalem in this way. He wrote, “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

Thousands of other people had come from Galilee to Jerusalem for Passover. Some of these people had heard Jesus preach and had seen some of the miracles he performed. Maybe the Galilean crowd included some who had eaten bread and fish when one boy provided his lunch and Jesus used the food to feed five thousand people. Maybe some of these Galileans had been healed by Jesus and others had friends or relatives who had been healed by Jesus.

The crowd gave Jesus a red-carpet treatment. They lined the road with their cloaks so the donkey would not get its feet dirty. Others cut branches from the trees to line the road, and still others waved branches in the air. John reports that some of the people waved palm branches, which is why the commemoration is called Palm Sunday. Palms do not grow in the hills of Jerusalem, but their branches can be obtained in the Jordan River valley near Jericho, and many of these travelers had passed through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem. The palm branch is a symbol of Israel, so waving a palm branch is like waving a flag at a parade today for the people of Israel.

The crowd also sang as Jesus entered Jerusalem in their midst. They sang “Hosanna,” a Hebrew word that means “Save us.” It had become a word of praise, since only the mighty can save others. The people sang, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” a quote from Psalm 118 that their teachers said refers to the Messiah. They sang about the King, the Son of David, other labels given to the Messiah. They openly declared their belief that Jesus was going to keep the promises God had made to Moses and the prophets, that he was going to redeem and rule the people of God. Some of the Pharisees in the crowd objected to the parade and the words the people were singing, but when the citizens of Jerusalem asked who was causing all this fuss, the Galileans told them, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”

Jesus chose to enter the city of the Lord on a special day. He entered on the tenth day of the month of Nissan, a day of preparation for the coming Passover celebration. On this day, every family among God’s people was to take a lamb into their household and treat it as a pet for half a week. Then they would kill, cook, and eat this lamb. The death of this lamb would remind these families of the cost of their sins, but it would also remind them how God rescued his people from slavery and death in Egypt at the time of the first Passover. Jesus now began to fulfill the promise John the Baptist made when John pointed to Jesus and said, “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” This is what Jesus came to Jerusalem to accomplish that week. J.