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Jesus and the Passion Week

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The Passion and Resurrection of Jesus

From the plot to the arrest

The amount of space devoted by all four evangelists to the account of the Passion of Jesus is strong testimony to its paramount importance. The previous outline of events and teaching gains its significance only in the light of the climax. If Jesus was an enigma to the religious leaders and to the common people of His day, it was because He had come to fulfill a unique mission which found its fulfillment in an act of crucifixion. The sense of coming doom is unmistakable in the progressive stages of the story.

At various times previously the intentions of the leaders to kill Jesus have been mentioned, but a definite plan is decided on with the treacherous cooperation of Judas (Matt 26:1ff.; Mark 14:1ff.; Luke 22:1ff.). This betrayal from within the Twelve was already arranged before the last meeting of Jesus with the Twelve.

Even the details of the closing events have an air of destiny about them (Matt 26:17ff.; Mark 14:12ff.; Luke 22:7ff.). Someone with an upper room offers its use to Jesus for the purpose of the feast. It was arranged for a man with a pitcher to guide the disciples to it, where the meal could be prepared.

Before sitting down to the meal, Jesus washed His disciples’ feet as an example in humility (John 13:1ff.). Peter’s objection that the Master should not perform for him so humble a task is overruled. As Jesus performed this service, His mind was centered on the tragedy of the betrayer, for almost immediately after resuming His seat He quoted Scripture alluding to the coming betrayal (13:18). With deep disturbance of spirit He announced that the betrayer was in the room with them. Jesus shows His feelings by offering to Judas the portion of honor. At length Judas withdrew, but it is not certain at what stage in the proceedings this happened, except that it happened before the farewell discourses.

The institution of the Lord’s Supper is described in all the synoptic gospels, but not in John. Its purpose was to provide a memorial feast to draw attention to the main mission of Jesus, i.e., to shed His blood for the remission of sins. In this way He was insuring that the memory of His work should not cease, but more than that, He was providing an interpretation of it which was to become central in the Christian Church. Bread symbolized His broken body, and wine His poured-out blood, but none but He knew the significance of the feast that night. His was a lonely path to Calvary, in spite of the fact that Peter had offered to lay down his life for Him (13:37). Peter was reminded that he would deny Jesus three times before cockcrow next morning (Matt 26:30ff.; Mark 14:26ff.; Luke 22:34; John 13:36ff.).

It is not possible in an outline of this nature to detail the contents of the farewell discourses. Part (John 14) took place in the upper room, but the following parts (chs. 15, 16) form an essential unity with it. The most characteristic feature throughout is the atmosphere of calm assurance which the words of Jesus convey. There is no sense of distress on His part. Instead, He talks of His joy and peace, which the disciples will later share. There is a confidence in the perfect planning of the Father which would make anxiety incongruous. A main feature is the repeated promises regarding the Holy Spirit, who would continue the work of Jesus after He had departed.

It was possibly immediately after leaving the upper room that Jesus gave the allegory of the vine and the branches to show how important it was for the disciples to abide in Him. Their future life was to be inextricably bound up with Him. Apart from this inseparable connection, they would not be able to accomplish anything. Throughout the discourses there is much that was calculated to encourage the disciples, esp. when they were to pass through tribulation. It is characteristic of the whole approach of Jesus that He shows greater concern about the disciples than about Himself in the hour of His crisis.

John records a prayer of Jesus for Himself, for the disciples, and for believers generally (ch. 17). It is deep in its revelation of the mind of Jesus. It reveals Him in close fellowship with the Father only a few hours before the cry of desolation from the cross. In that part of the prayer which concerns Himself, He prays for the Father’s glory to be seen. Most of His prayer is a supplication for others—above all that they might possess the same kind of unity as He possessed with the Father.

When Gethsemane was reached, Jesus was troubled (Matt 26:36ff. and parallels). Was there no other way? Yet, the Father knew best. Although Jesus passed through agony in doing the Father’s will, He accepted it uncomplainingly. While the bitter inner struggle went on, the three disciples specially chosen to share His sorrow fell asleep, while another was leading a band of soldiers and officers to arrest Him. It was greater sadness for Jesus to see the indifference of the three than to receive a kiss from the betrayer. Peter at least had protested His loyalty.

The arrest of Jesus set Him in noble contrast to His captors (Matt 26:47ff.; Mark 14:43ff.; Luke 22:47ff.; John 18:1ff.). John says that some of them fell back in amazement. Peter cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus rebuked Peter and chided the multitude for bringing their swords and clubs. He offered no resistance. This was the Father’s will; His hour had come, but all the disciples fled.

The Passion

There were several stages in the process which took Jesus to the cross. He was first examined in the high priest Annas’ house, during which time Peter denied Him three times before cockcrow (John 18:12ff.). It was therefore early morning. No specific charge was brought at this stage, but mockery was heaped upon Him.

It was later that Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin (Matt 26:57ff. and parallels), but previously there had been much activity on the part of the officials to find false witnesses to testify against Him. It was finally agreed to proceed on the charge of threatened destruction of the Temple, linked with the charge of blasphemy. Throughout this trial the dignity of Jesus remained unimpaired in face of degrading mockery, which would have been a disgrace at any trial.

Next, Jesus was sent to Pilate because the Sanhedrin had no power to execute its own decision to have Him put to death without the governor’s consent. (At this stage in Matthew’s account the remorse and death of Judas is narrated to form a tragic background to the callous attitude of the religious leaders [Matt 27:3-10].) Pilate’s examination convinced him that Jesus was innocent of the charges brought against Him. In view of this, Pilate tried to avoid having to make a decision by sending Him to Herod when he learned that Jesus was a Galilean.

Herod could do nothing but mock Jesus, and Pilate was again faced with the necessity of deciding on some course of action. He decided to offer the multitude a choice between Jesus and Barabbas as the one to be released according to custom at the feast, but the multitude cried for Barabbas. In spite of a warning from his wife and his own conviction of the innocence of Jesus, Pilate at length capitulated. No more sorry figure than this Rom. governor has ever disgraced the name of justice. Yet, Jesus had known beforehand that He had come to Jerusalem to be scourged and crucified.

After the governor’s decision to hand Jesus over to be crucified, further mockery took place with the arraying of Jesus by the soldiers in a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns (Matt 27:27ff.; Mark 15:16ff.).

Two noteworthy events occurred on the route to Calvary, where Jesus was crucified. Simon from Cyrene was forced to carry His cross (Luke 23:26ff.) and a group of women lamented over Jesus (23:27ff.). All the evangelists describe in detail the various stages of the crucifixion, the most cruel form of death, but none includes all the data (Matt 27:33-56; Mark 15:33-47; Luke 23:33-49; John 19:17-37). The focal points are the dispute of Pilate with the Jews about the superscription on the cross, the reaction of the two political insurrectionists who were crucified with Jesus, the attitude of the soldiers, the jibes of the passers-by and of the chief priests and scribes, the physical signs accompanying the crucifixion, including the unnatural darkness, the sudden rending of the veil, but most of all the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross. Apart from the momentary cry of dereliction, the suffering Jesus dies triumphantly, His work fully accomplished.

The mass of detail which the evangelists have preserved about the crucifixion reflects the great importance of the event in the minds of the early Christians. There was no attempt to gloss over the shame of it. The glory of the cross was real beyond the appalling physical sufferings which the Messiah endured. The actuality of the sufferings was indispensable to the glory. When Jesus said, “It is finished,” He was not thinking of His mortal life, but of His mission of redemption.

When the body of Jesus was removed from the cross, it was placed in a rich man’s tomb (Matt 27:57ff.; Mark 15:42ff.; Luke 23:50ff.; John 19:38ff.). Joseph of Arimathaea was bold enough to make special application to the governor. Matthew relates the request of the chief priests and Pharisees for the sealing of the tomb and the appointment of a guard to insure that the body was not stolen. That the fact of the burial had some importance for the early Christians is seen from a special mention of it (1 Cor 15:4).

The Resurrection

The gospels relate the fact of the Resurrection of Jesus on the third day. That the tomb was empty is established by all the witnesses. There were a number of appearances of Jesus during the period between the Resurrection and the Ascension.

Several observations are necessary concerning the character of the evidence. Beginning with Paul’s list (1 Cor 15) which is clearly selective, it is not at once evident on what principle the selection has been made. It has been suggested, not improbably, that Paul’s list is confined to those whose evidence had been used in preaching. This may account for the omission of specific reference to women witnesses or to the two on the Emmaus road. Whatever the reason for the selection, the evidence is invaluable, for Paul’s testimony is in all probability prior to the writing of the gospels. The evidence which he cites is based on traditions which he had received.

The remaining evidence is spread throughout the gospels, although that from Mark is somewhat uncertain due to doubts about the original ending of the gospel. Nevertheless the existing ending (Mark 16:9-20) can certainly lay claim to antiquity and may well preserve an authentic tradition distinct from the rest of Mark. It appears to support the evidence for four of the appearances mentioned above (nos. 1, 4, 8, 10) all of which also occur in either Luke or John. The difficulty of unraveling the sequence of the appearances is in itself a testimony to the authenticity of the various streams of tradition. There was no collusion between the evangelists to insure an account without difficulties, nor was there the use of a common source.

One of the major problems is the difference in location of the various appearances. Those of Mark and Matthew are set in Galilee, those of Luke in Jerusalem, and those of John in Jerusalem and Galilee. Paul gives no hint of location, which suggests that in the early tradition it was not regarded as important. It should be noted that Luke shows a special interest in Jerusalem in his gospel, which may account for his exclusive selection of Jerusalem-based appearances. Those who see two conflicting traditions are driven to choose one and reject the other. There is no insuperable obstacle to both being correct, as is suggested by John’s account. The journey to Galilee and back would naturally take time, but is not impossible. It is undeniable that the fact of the Resurrection of Jesus is one of the best attested facts of history.

A change of attitude toward the Resurrection has occurred in the realm of criticism. Earlier critics attempted to explain away the fact of the Resurrection on the basis of a swoon theory, a vision theory, or a hallucination theory, but these attempts failed to square with the evidence. Now the Resurrection is not explained away, but is re-interpreted, as it has been in the Bultmannian position. According to this view, the fact of the Resurrection ceases to have relevance because its crucial importance is as a factor in faith rather than history. Such an emphasis tends to nullify the objective reality of the Resurrection and makes it difficult to see how any common experience could be shared in the faith of all believers. The NT witnesses are not only varied in type, but also in the number who experienced the visitations at the same time.

Accepting therefore the fact of the Resurrection as an historical event, it is next necessary to inquire what details the narratives supply about the risen Lord. (a) He was in human form and yet His Resurrection body possessed properties beyond those of normal bodies. He could pass into rooms without visible entry and could appear and disappear at will. (b) He had features which were not readily identifiable with the Jesus they had known. More than one of the stories of the appearances refer to the fact that He was not recognized. The nail prints and the familiar voice were the marks of identification. (c) There was a definite continuity with the historical Jesus, as when He conversed with and challenged Peter in a threefold way (John 21). (d) The realization of the risen Lord on the part of the disciples was the occasion of remarkable joy and transformation. That Jesus was not dead but risen changed the despair of the disciples into incredible hope. (e) The Resurrection appearances were occasions for specific instruction. Acts 1:3 mentions the kingdom and Luke 24:44f. refers to the Scriptures and relates His present to His past teaching. It is reasonable to suppose that Jesus explained the significance of His own death and Resurrection during these appearances.

The major significance of the Resurrection for Christian faith was left to the early Christians to think through under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Two factors may be mentioned. It became the first fruits for the believer’s own experience. As Christ was raised from the dead, so shall the believer be. The Resurrection is, therefore, the surety for the ultimate triumph of faith over the grave. Second, it is by the Resurrection that the divine approval is shown for the work of Christ upon the cross. The Resurrection is the coping stone of the whole ministry of Jesus.

The Ascension

It is only Luke among the evangelists who records this event. It took place at Bethany when, after lifting up His hands to bless the disciples, Jesus vanished from sight (Luke 24:50, 51). Acts 1:1-11 fills in the picture with more details, the most noteworthy of which are the discussion between Jesus and the disciples regarding the restoration of the kingdom to Israel—an evidence of the disciples’ current immature understanding—and the announcement of His future return by two men in white.

The disciples were not left with mere memories, but with a deep conviction that the same Lord who had companied with them in a historical sense had returned to His former glory, exalted by God and ever living to perform a high priestly function on their behalf (cf. Acts 2:36; Phil 2:9f.; Heb. passim).