Passion Week: The Grande Finale! (that wasn’t so final…)

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Passion Week - Easter Sunday

Today marks the last day of the 46-day season of Lent, a time that begins with Ash Wednesday and goes until Easter Sunday. Hundreds of years ago, the ancient Christian church fathers set aside this time to give believers season to purposefully remember and prepare themselves for the high-holy days of Good Friday and Easter Sunday. During that time believers are meant to meditate, fast and remember all that Jesus did while He ministered on earth – His teaching, His love, His grace, His sacrifice. Instead of being like the world and avoiding feelings of guilt, sadness, lament, suffering and sacrifice, we spend time asking ourselves hard questions, evaluating their lives and their souls, mourning and repenting from their sins, and fasting (giving up) things that distract us from God.

It is a time to think far less of ourselves and more about God our Father, Jesus our Saviour, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the believers around us, and those who do not know God. We shun consumerism and the life dedicated to the accumulation of pleasurable things, the idea that people are products who need to avoid pain at all costs, and commit ourselves to walking the path of Christ – the one that leads to the cross.

The last week of the season of Lent is often called Passion Week (or Holy Week). Each of these days is marked with a special significant event in the most eventful week of Jesus’ life – from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday.

Summary of the Week

Those of you who have been with us for the past four weeks have been on a journey going over each day in detail, others of you who haven’t been around perhaps know some of the stories already. Each one gives us an insight into the heart of God, the mission of Christ, and challenges us to look deeper into our own life.

On Palm Sunday Jesus rode into Jerusalem fulfilling many prophecies and declaring Himself to be the King and Saviour of Israel – but what troubled people was that He wasn’t the kind of King and Saviour that Israel were expecting.

Jesus did that a lot actually. Throughout His entire ministry He encountered people who expected Him to do one thing, but He ended up doing another – and their reaction was often awe, occasionally repentance and worship, but sometimes, they hated Him for it.

His teaching wasn’t like anyone else’s, neither was His power. He said things with authority that no one else had, and did could do things that no one else could do. He could gather crowds of thousands, but instead of relishing in His popularity and rising to power, He shied away and spent time in the wilderness. He would perform a miracle, driven by love and empathy for suffering people, and the crowd would react by trying to crown Him King. He literally had to run away from plans for His future.

Jesus treated people differently than a Jewish Teacher, especially the Messiah, was expected too. He talked to, healed, and even became close friends with all kinds of people: Romans, Samaritans, Gentiles, government officials, religious leaders, rich people, and poor peasants. His closest disciples were uneducated tradesmen, people who worked for the enemy government, rich-boys and even, perhaps, a former terrorist.

On that Palm Sunday the people were shouting “Save us! Save us! Hosanna in the Highest!” because they knew He was claiming to be their Saviour. But instead of being pleased, He began to weep over their foolishness and rebelliousness, knowing in five days they would reject Him. Instead, on that day in the height of his popularity, Jesus rode into town weeping, looked around at the Temple that would soon be destroyed, and then just left.

Monday

On Monday, Jesus returned, but did something strange again. He walked up to a fig tree, hungry and wanting to pick its fruit, but even though the leaves were green, it didn’t have any figs on it – so He cursed it to never bear fruit again! That seemed strange and harsh to the disciples, but when Jesus turned and went into the Temple we learned what he was doing – the fig tree was a picture of the hearts of the people.

In the midst of their Passover preparations, they looked very pious, with lots of religious activity in the Temple, everyone abuzz with activity – but their hearts were far from God. There were green leaves, but no true fruit. The Temple looked alive, but it was really dead. And that caused Jesus to do something else that surprised everyone. When he walked into the Temple Court of the Gentiles he saw that the religious frenzy had spilled over into the place where the world was supposed to come and worship God! They had turned the place of prayer into a mall where merchants and money changers could take advantage of poor travellers who wanted to worship God. This infuriated Him! It was so far removed from what God had intended that Jesus cursed them as He cursed the tree, kicking over the tables and driving them from the Temple.

Both of these days, Sunday and Monday, show Jesus’ hatred of people who are religious hypocrites who use the name of God to manipulate people, or try to use religion to manipulate God.

Tuesday

When He came back on Tuesday, Jesus was met on the steps by some of the most powerful men in the city. They wanted an answer for what he had been doing and saying against them and the Temple. He exasperated them to the point of murderous anger. They were sick of Jesus’ messages against them and their precious religious system, and His claims that He was the one sent by God to lead Israel.

They didn’t care that He could heal the sick, make the lame walk, the blind see, and raise the dead. He wasn’t playing by their rules, and made them look like fools. He was stirring up dissention against them, so they made a plan to trap Him in his own words and have him arrested as either a blasphemer or a traitor – but He was far too smart for them. After arguing with group after group of experts that tried to trip him up – and showing Himself to be wiser than all of them – they left Him alone to concoct a new plan to eliminate Him.

Jesus spent the rest of the day teaching about the destruction of the Temple and the end of the world.

Tuesday reminds me of how much people resent being under authority and how much they hate giving up control – even to the God who created them and Jesus who loves them. No matter how much evidence God gives them for His love and their need for Him to be their Lord, people still refuse to give up their lives to God.

But God doesn’t want to be one thing of many in our lives. He demands that we admit we are lost sinners who need Him to be in charge. But how many are willing to do that? The Sanhedrin, who knew the bible better than all of us, certainly weren’t. Even those who claim to be Christians struggle every day with turning over part of their life to Christ. Tuesday reminds me of my own rebelliousness and how we all have our favourite sins that we prefer over God, parts of our life that we refuse to give to God.

Wednesday

All of this controversy had a strong effect on one particular member of His inner circle, Judas, who, on Wednesday, decided he had had enough. For two years he had been watching Jesus build influence and show God’s power – and refuse to capitalize on it. For two years He had witnessed miracles that could have launched Him as a celebrity – and then watched Jesus tell people to keep it secret. Jesus could have been anything! He had the power to be rich, powerful, influential, King of the World – and shared it with his followers! But He refused to!

Judas was sick of hearing about how he would lose everything he had, be hated by everybody, and go through many trials on account of being a follower of Jesus. He was sick of seeing Jesus squander opportunities, so he took an opportunity to cash out. He left the disciples and went back to the Temple to find some of military guards that reported to the Sanhedrin, and promised to betray Jesus if they would give Him a large pile of money. Two years wasted – at least he’d get some cash out of it.

Thursday

On Thursday, Judas found his chance. Jesus and the disciples spent the day working out the details for the special dinner feast that would happen in the evening. As they sat down in the Upper Room to eat, Jesus got up and washed their feet – even Judas’ feet – and told the disciples that He knew that they would betray Him – and there would be one that would betray Him completely.

This confused the disciples, but it solidified in Judas’ heart what he needed to do. On that night during dinner, Jesus offered Judas friendship and a special place at His table. He offered Him a chance to turn around, to follow Him, to give up His plans, but Judas rejected Him.

He didn’t want Jesus as a friend… He wanted Jesus to be a conquering king! He didn’t want to eat at Jesus’ table… He wanted Jesus to give him his own country! Jesus was supposed to destroy the Romans and set His disciples up as Princes among men… but Jesus was talking about humility, suffering and death. No way! Satan entered into Judas’ heart and Jesus looked at Judas and dismissed him saying, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” (John 13:27)

Wednesday and Thursday remind us of how much we are like Judas. We want God to be the great Santa Clause in the sky, giving us all that we want, taking away our pain and giving us presents. We see no reason for God to allow us to suffer, for anything bad to happen. He’s God after all! He could make everything perfect!

We are frustrated that God doesn’t listen to us, that Jesus doesn’t do what He’s told. We know our way is so much better than His. So we, like Judas, go elsewhere to get what we think is best for us. We go to the world, leaving Jesus and His followers behind, to find someone else that will promise us the life we want – the life we deserve – the one we think is best. We are all like Judas.

Good Friday

When Judas left, Jesus began a long time of teaching and preparation for what would happen after He was arrested and crucified. He loved them so much, and wanted them to know that though He was going to die that evening, that they would scatter, that they would betray Him, and that He was leaving them, that it wasn’t the end.

He would forgive them, restore them, equip them for ministry, and always be with them. He would give them His presence, the Holy Spirit, to be with them, and He would give them each other to take care of one another. He warned them about the weakness of their hearts, and how to stay strong by being connected to Him. For hours, though the worst night of His life was coming, He spoke to them words of comfort and peace because He knew they were troubled.

As He sat there teaching, Thursday turned into Friday (which we call Good Friday) and when Jesus got up to leave the Upper Room, He invited His disciples – His closest friends – to come and pray with Him in one of His favourite places – an olive grove called the Garden of Gethsemane.

Eleven of the disciples had entered the garden with Him, and three, Peter, James and John, were invited to come in a little further to be with Jesus while He prayed. He shared His anguish with them saying: “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.” (Mark 14:34-35) As He prayed, the pain, sorrow and agony of the day – and all that would be coming – pressed fully into Him. A spiritual battle ensued, His sweat coming in drops of blood.

He released His pain and gave His will over to His Father praying, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36) He stood up resolved to do what was necessary to obey His Father’s will and take the punishment, God’s wrath against sin, upon Himself… for the salvation of everyone who would believe in Him.

As Jesus prayed, the disciples struggled to stay awake because they were exhausted from sorrow (Luke 22:45). Jesus kept coming back from His prayer and waking them, trying to get His best friends to support Him and pray for themselves, but they were physically and emotionally exhausted from all they had been through that week.

Mark 14:41-50 tells us what happens next: “And he came the third time and said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.’ And immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.”

This was the same group, the Sanhedrin, that had met him on the steps of the Temple. Since they couldn’t trick Him into condemning himself, and they were afraid of the large crowd following Him during the day, they had come in the night to arrest Jesus after everyone had already gone to bed.

Accompanying the Sanhedrin was Judas, and some Temple guards and a band of Roman soldiers. They “went there with lanterns and torches and weapons.” (John 18:3) This was no small group –potentially a hundred people – all descending upon Jesus in the middle of the night while He was praying in a garden, so they could illegally arrest Him.

They grab Jesus and are about to tie his hands when Peter decides to bring out His sword and fight this group of soldiers and policemen single-handedly. He’s prepared to show Jesus that he would never betray Him. He hacks off a servants ear, and Jesus tells him to put His sword away – it wouldn’t help and Jesus assures them that He is doing what He must do because it is the Father’s will. (Matthew 26:50-56) Jesus heals the servant’s ear, but after that outburst, the solders aren’t taking any chances and decide to arrest everyone.

And just as Jesus had predicted, all of His disciples, scared of what would happen “scattered, each to his own home” and left Him alone (John 16:32). Meanwhile, Judas has earned his ill-begotten wages, and disappears into the dark.

Many Trials

Jesus was then taken to be tried before many different courts, but none of them could find anything to charge Him with. He was first taken to Annas, the former High Priest’s who tried to intimidate Jesus into confessing to something. It didn’t work. Jesus wouldn’t even talk to him.

Then He was taken to Caiaphas, the reigning high priest, and the rest of the Sanhedrin who brought out false charges, false witnesses, and false accusations to try to find Him guilty of something deserving death. But even in their own, staged trial, they couldn’t find any way to condemn Jesus. Eventually Caiaphas had to do ask Jesus point-blank “Are you the Christ?” And of course, Jesus, who never lies – said Yes. He quoted scriptures that let them know that He is God, the Saviour, the Messiah, and the One who should be judging them! They wouldn’t listen and that was enough for the ruling leaders to want to condemn Him to death.

But they didn’t have permission to have Jesus crucified. They needed Roman permission for that kind of terrible punishment. So he stood trial before the Roman Governor Pilate – who kept finding him innocent! Over and over Pilate said Jesus was innocent. He didn’t want to condemn Jesus so he sent Him bound in chains over to the evil King Herod — who asked Jesus to perform tricks for him — and since He wouldn’t, Herod sent Jesus back to Pilate.

When Jesus returned, Pilate repeated to the crowds that Jesus was innocent, but they wouldn’t have it. The crowds, stirred up by their leaders, the chief priests, the elders and the scribes – started to chant, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him!”

Pilate yells out, “But He hasn’t done anything wrong!” but they won’t stop chanting. Pilate tries something else: every Passover it was tradition that he would release a Jewish prisoner. Pilate idea was to bring out the baddest guy he possibly could – Barabbas, a notorious thief, terrorist and murderer – and make the crowd choose between Jesus and Barabbas. But without a pause, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Scribes shout, “Release Barabbas to us!” Pilate is shocked at their hatred for Jesus and asks “What shall I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?” And the Sanhedrin begins to chant “Crucify Him, Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” (Matthew 27:17) Eventually the whole crowd joins them.

Pilate shouts above the crowd, repeating his finding of Jesus’ innocence, and comes up with a one last resort: He will have Jesus severely punished and then released. But this makes the crowd even more angry and it looks like they are going to start a riot. Pilate realizes that the only solution would be to punish and crucify Jesus in the place Barabbas. The Governor Pilate sends Jesus to flogged and then tortured to death in the worst way that humanity has ever conceived – He would be crucified.

On the Cross

You’ve no doubt heard the word “Excruciating”. It means “to torture, torment and cause anguish.” Inside the word “excruciating” you will find the root word “crux” or “cross”. It is a word invented to describe what happened to people who were crucified.

Jesus died on Good Friday. But before He did, He was beaten, humiliated, and then nailed to a wooden cross. He hung there for six hours, in ever-increasing and excruciating agony, gasping for air – only able to draw a breath when He put weight onto the nails driven through His hands and feet, He spoke in short sentences. Even as He hung there, He spoke words of Love and Hope.

His first words were “Father, Forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” (Luke 23:34). To the criminal beside Him, who only in his last moments, did He turn to God for help Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

Then, near the end, as God placed the sins of the world, and turned His wrath against Sin upon His Son– for the first and only time in eternity, Jesus was cut off from the favour and the fellowship He had had with His Father. He cried out in a loud voice with the words of Psalm 22, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46), expressing not only His anguish, but also His knowledge that this terrible time will end in victory.

And in the end, when He knew that the sins of His beloved people had been atoned for, and they no longer stood under the wrath of God, He gave up His life saying, “It is finished…” (John 19:30) and “Father into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)

In that moment, creation itself groaned. The world grew dark, the earth shook, rocks were split, the veil in the temple was torn, tombs opened, and a Roman Centurion in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus – after seeing all of this, and Jesus character, purity, self-control, and deep love, says, “Truly, this was the son of God!” (Matthew 27:54)

Jesus is stabbed through the heart, to ensure He is dead. Then His body was taken down, wrapped tightly in cloths, and laid in a hewn out stone tomb. They rolled a large stone in front of the tomb, and Jesus’ enemies stationed a guard in front so no one could steal the body.

Jesus’ disciples went home, broken and bewildered, and stayed that way until Sunday Morning.

Easter Sunday

And we know what happened on Sunday, right? Two women went to the tomb, bearing spices so they could embalm Jesus’ corpse, but they didn’t find Him! Mary is worried someone has stolen him in the night and runs to Peter and John to tell them. They come running and find the tomb empty, with only the cloths Jesus was wrapped in, lying there. They too were confused, and decided to go home and tell the others.

But Mary stayed outside the tomb, weeping. She heard someone behind her, and when she turned around to ask the person whom she though was the gardener, “Where did you take Jesus?”, she saw that it was Jesus! Jesus tells her to go and tell the others, and she runs off to find the disciples – but they don’t believe her until Jesus Himself appears to them, and then to hundreds and hundreds of other people, proving beyond a doubt that He had conquered death!

Why?

Christians know what happened on Good Friday and on Easter Sunday. We remember that He died on Good Friday and was raised from the dead on Easter Sunday. But Easter time makes us ask the question “Why?” Why did they hate Him so much? Why did He go through that? Why did it happen that way?

I believe an answer to that question comes in a passage of scripture that spoke of what Jesus would go through 700 years before Christ.

The Prophet Isaiah spoke of the coming of the Messiah, and what He would do for His people. He said:

“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:4-5)

Later, the apostle John would write:

“He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:10-12)

These verses tell us why Jesus did what He did. It was we that needed to stand trial before God – and Jesus stood trial before human courts, and God’s court, for us. We had griefs and sorrows that we couldn’t carry – the weight of our sin that doomed us to our own cross – and He chose to carry the cross for us. Because of our sins, we are under the curse of death, condemned to prison in Hell, and Jesus chose to be afflicted and stricken on our behalf, to take the sentence for us. We have transgressions that need to be paid for, and He chose to be the payment. We needed chastisement (punishment) for all the things we’ve done wrong because sin must be paid for. All the things that happened to Jesus will happen to every sinner, and was supposed to happen to us, but Jesus took our punishment upon Himself. We needed healing, and He took the wounds, so we could be healed. We went astray and He came and found us – and our running away meant we needed to be penalised by God. Jesus chose to take God’s righteous wrath upon Himself, for all who would believe in Him.

And even though His world rejected Him, even though it didn’t recognize Him, He loved us anyway, and made it possible for us to become children of God. He made it possible for us to be like Adam and Eve before they had sinned! By believing in Jesus, the Son of God, we can become children of God.

Why did He do that? Out of obedience to God and a deep love for us. He went through all the pain of Good Friday so we wouldn’t have to. He rose from the dead on Easter Sunday to prove that He has the power to conquer every evil thing – even death!

When He was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, Peter tried to fight against what was happening and Jesus said to him:

“Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” (Matthew 26:53-54)

He was telling Peter that He could have stopped at any time, but He wasn’t there for Himself. He was there out of obedience to His Father and love for us. Every step of the way to the cross was His decision. Every blow to His body was taken because He knew that the only way that sinners like you and me could be brought back into relationship with God, would be for Him to take the punishment for our sin.

That’s why we make such a big deal out of Passion Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. They are the greatest days in history! They are the days that Jesus saved us.