The Church’s life flows from, and in everything is centered on, her Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. That is true for corporate worship, too. The worship life of the church follows a yearly cycle in which we hear, in Word, song, and prayer, the life of Jesus. The Church year begins with Advent and Christmas, where we hear about the birth of Jesus. Epiphany focuses on the events and earthly ministry of Jesus where He begins to reveal in word and deed who He is and why He has come into the world. The season of Lent prepares us to revisit the events observed during Holy Week, where the events that secured the forgiveness of our sins and our salvation took place. Holy week is the high point of the church’s year of worship for obvious reasons.
Each of the Gospels contain the account of Jesus’s life – his birth, life, and ministry. But each of the Gospels devotes at least a third of their total length to the events of Holy Week, starting on Palm Sunday. It is evident, then, that this week of Jesus’s life hold a very special focus for the Church!
On Palm Sunday Jesus triumphantly entered Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem, being welcomed by a huge throng of people waving palm branches and shouting out hosannas. Both the palm branches, a nationalistic symbol for an independent Israel, and the shouts of “hosanna,” an acclamation used to greet kings, indicate the political expectations that the crowds had for Jesus. They expected him to throw off Roman rule and to establish a new Kingdom of Israel. While Jesus accepts their acclamations as a King, it will become obvious in the coming days that His vision of his kingship was radically at odds with their expectations.
On Holy Monday Jesus cleanses the Temple of the money changers. The Temple was a pilgrimage site for Jews of the entire Roman Empire, who would want to purchase animals to offer as a sacrifice to the Lord. Money changers allowed them to exchange their territorial money for the money accepted in Israel, allowing them to purchase their sacrifices. But through the years the money-changers began charging a fee for their services, and because human greed knows no bounds the once useful service of exchanging money became a lucrative money-making business. It was in response to what money-changing had become in the holy Temple that Jesus angrily flipped over the exchanging tables and drove the money-changers out. He reminded people that people were not to make themselves rich by religion.
On Holy Tuesday Jesus once again went to the Temple. Waiting for him there were the religious leaders, who were upset at Jesus for establishing himself as a religious authority even above themselves. They ambushed him with the intent of discrediting Him in front of the crowds and arresting him. But Jesus avoided their traps and pronounced hard judgement on them. In the afternoon Jesus went to the Mount of Olives with his disciples and taught. That period of teaching is often referred to as the Olivet Discourse. In it Jesus prophesied about the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of the world, including His Second Coming. After a full day Jesus and his disciples returned to Bethany for the night. It was also on this Tuesday that Judas Iscariot entered into negotiations with the religious leaders to betray Jesus.
The Bible is silent about Jesus’ activity on Holy Wednesday. Perhaps Jesus and the disciples used it as a day of rest after a busy first-half of the week, and preparing for the excitement of the imminent Passover celebration.
On Holy Thursday, a.k.a. Maundy Thursday, Jesus sent two disciples from Bethany to Jerusalem to prepare the room and food for their Passover feast. In the evening as they are gathered in an upper room Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, teaches them about the obligation to love one another, and institutes the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
Sometime late in the evening when their meal was finished Jesus and his friends went to the Garden of Gethsemane. There Jesus prayed, was betrayed by Judas with a kiss, and was arrested by the Jewish authorities. Early in the morning hours he would be taken to the home of the High Priest, tried before the Sanhedrin (the governing body of Israel), and receive the death penalty for engaging in blaspheme.
The Roman government of the Empire let conquered territories keep their government and allowed them to make and enforce laws. But in regard to criminal law it reserved capital punishment to itself. The Jewish Sanhedrin, though it had pronounced the death penalty over Jesus, was unable to enforce that judgment. If it were to be carried out the Roman governor of the province would have to be convinced to “see it their way” regarding Jesus. So as morning was breaking Jesus was presented before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
Good Friday began with Jesus’s second trail, this one in the Roman judicial system. Pilate served as judge and jury. Though the Gospels indicate that Pilate privately wanted to let Jesus live, he finally gave in to the political pressure being applied by the Jewish authorities, and ordered that Jesus be crucified.
Jesus was crucified at about 9:00 a.m. on Friday. Somewhere around 3:00 p.m. he “breathed his last.” While on the cross Jesus spoke seven statements that have come to be known as his Seven Words from the Cross, beginning with his prayer on behalf of his executioners (“Father, forgiven them, for they do not know what they do”) and ending with his last words (“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”).
Around 6:00 p.m. Joseph of Arimathea – a Pharisee and secret follower of Jesus -- took Jesus’ body down from the cross, having received permission from Pontius Pilate himself to do so. Together with Nicodemus, another Pharisee and secret Jesus follower, he laid Jesus's body in his own newly hewn tomb. The crucifixion took place in, or near, an abandoned rock quarry just outside of the walls of Jerusalem, and the tomb had been cut into the rocky wall of the quarry, not far from the cross. The men hastily performed a shortened burial ceremony with spices, bought by Joseph, because the day was almost over and the Passover Sabbath would soon be beginning.
On Holy Saturday the body of Jesus lay in that tomb, guarded by a cohort of soldiers placed there by the Jewish authorities who were at least somewhat acquainted with Jesus’s claims that He would be resurrected. The guards were to make sure that none of Jesus’s disciples would steal the body and then claim that Jesus had been resurrected. And so throughout the day on Saturday and through the night the guards stood watch over the closed, sealed tomb.
And so comes to an end the events of Holy Week. It began in joy, but ended in sorrow. It began with people expecting Jesus to be enthroned as King, an expectation that Jesus doesn't reject. But as the week went on He revealed just what kind of a King he had come to be -- not a King demanding praises and homage; not a King that would liberate the people from Roman, their supposed enemy, but a King who would liberate them from their truest enemies (sin, death, and the Devil) by giving up His own life ensure their life.
With Jesus’s suffering, death, and placement in a tomb the penalty for our sin was paid. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23) says God’s word. But Jesus stepped in to receive those wages in our place as our substituted. Being fully human He could pay the penalty of death with his body. Being fully God His death could be credited to an infinite number of sinners. Peter summarizes all of this in his first letter when he writes, “For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And the ransom he paid was not mere gold or silver. He paid for you with the precious lifeblood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God." (1 Peter 1:18-19, NLT).
However, the work of humanity’s salvation wasn’t complete with just the penalty of sin being paid. The punishment for sin – death itself – also had to be overcome if sin and its consequences were to be completely eradicated. And so the events of Holy Week, ending as they do with Jesus’ body in a tomb, aren’t done quite yet. Easter Sunday is right around the corner. That’ll be the topic for our next post!
A very blessed Holy Week to all!
Pastor Eric Gawura