Following Jesus through Holy WeekWritten by Subby Szterszky
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The events of Holy Week, from Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to his resurrection on Easter Morning, make up a huge chunk of all four Gospels. About a quarter to a third of Matthew, Mark and Luke, and nearly half of John, is devoted to these last few days of Jesus’ public ministry.
This is no surprise. After all, Holy Week was the culmination of the mission Jesus came to accomplish, the climax of God’s grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. It was the most crucial week in the history of the world.
Even more than that, Holy Week was a concentrated display of every aspect of Jesus’ life – his deity and his humanity, as well as his character and his power.
For followers of Jesus, then, it’s good to follow our Lord through these climactic days of his time on Earth. It’s valuable to reflect on them as we walk through our own Lenten and Holy Week commemorations and prepare our hearts to celebrate Easter.
Coming to Jerusalem
In the ancient world, rulers would make a triumphal entry into the cities they’d conquered, seated on a horse to symbolize their military might. Jesus, however, flipped this tradition on its head – and also fulfilled Old Testament prophecy – by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, a symbol of humility and service.
The crowds welcomed him with palm branches and shouts of hosanna, to the chagrin of the Pharisees, who told him to rebuke his followers. Nevertheless, Jesus accepted the messianic fervour of the crowd as an appropriate response to his arrival.
Yet he also wept for Jerusalem because it didn’t understand who he was, and he prophesied the judgment that would fall on the city and the nation 40 years later.
He was indeed the promised messianic ruler, but not the kind the people wanted, a warrior king to free them from Rome. Within a few days, the same crowd singing his praises would be shouting for his crucifixion.
In the village of Bethany
Whenever Jesus and his disciples visited Jerusalem, they’d stay with their friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus, in the village of Bethany near the Mount of Olives. During Holy Week, Jesus spent his days teaching at the temple, then retiring to Bethany in the evenings.
The commutes were eventful teaching moments, as well. On one occasion, he cursed a barren fig tree, which then withered and died, an object lesson of God’s judgment on those who lack spiritual fruit. Another time, he gave a discourse about his return at the end of the age, warning his followers to be ready, because it would come when they least expect it.
One evening, his friends at Bethany gave a dinner in his honour, during which Mary broke out a bottle of expensive perfume – worth about a year’s wages – and poured it over Jesus’ head and feet, wiping them with her hair.
The disciples grumbled that the perfume could’ve been sold and the money given to the poor. But Jesus rebuked them and defended Mary, explaining she had anointed him for his burial. She was an attentive disciple who, at this point, understood Jesus’ mission better than the twelve. By contrast Judas, offended at the rebuke, decided then and there to betray the Lord to the authorities.
At the temple
One of the first things Jesus did in the temple was to cleanse it of those who’d turned it into a marketplace. He flipped over their tables and chairs and physically threw them out of the building. This wasn’t an act of polite restraint, but of righteous anger, human and divine.
Even so, the common people flocked to Jesus in the temple. He healed their diseases and taught them about the Kingdom, and he took special note of people like the poor widow who gave her two small coins, everything she had, to God’s service. Children ran freely through the temple singing his praises, with his approval.
However, the various religious factions came at him in waves, with questions designed to trap him in something he said, in order to condemn him. Jesus disarmed their rhetorical attacks and delivered a searing condemnation of the Pharisees, calling them hypocrites, blind fools, a brood of snakes and children of hell.
He turned the tables on them with a question of his own, about David calling the Messiah his Lord, thereby making him not only a human descendant of David, but also the divine Son of God. After that, they wouldn’t ask him any more questions, but began plotting in earnest how they might arrest and kill him.
In the upper room
As the end drew near, Jesus celebrated a final Passover with his disciples in the upper room. For 1,500 years, the Passover had been the symbol of God redeeming his people. But now, the true Passover Lamb had arrived, slain according to God’s plan since before creation.
Prior to the meal, Jesus, who had come from God and was returning to God, knelt and washed his disciples’ feet, the most menial household task in the ancient world. As they ate, he took bread and wine and instituted the Lord’s Supper, a symbol of the New Covenant in which his body would be broken and his blood shed for the redemption of sinners.
In this intimate human setting, Jesus also revealed his deity to his friends in unequivocal terms: he was leaving the world and returning to the Father, from whom he had come; to see him was to see the Father; the only way to the Father was through him; he and the Father would send the Holy Spirit, thereby showing that the one God exists in three persons.
After supper, on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed for all his followers from all time – including us – that we would share in the joy and glory he had with his Father since before they created the world.
In the Garden of Gethsemane
Once they arrived at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus’ humanity was on full, raw display. He confided to his friends that his soul was in anguish and asked them to stay with him while he prayed to his Father.
As the Son of God, he knew what was happening and was in control of it. But as a man, he dreaded the horror of the cross and asked his Father whether he might avoid it, even though he was committed to the Father’s will. He was in such distress that he began sweating drops of blood. And when he returned to his disciples, he found them asleep.
By the time Judas arrived with the arresting mob, Jesus had regained his composure. At first, the mob stepped back and fell to the ground when he told them “I am he” – an echo of the divine name – but then he submitted to them. When Peter stepped up and cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant, Jesus healed it.
He told the mob, as well as his followers, that this was all God’s plan and a fulfillment of Scripture, and asked that his disciples be let go. At that point, they all deserted him and fled.
Before the authorities
Throughout the night and into the early morning, Jesus was shunted back and forth between the Jewish authorities and Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea.
To the former, he didn’t have much to say. He remained silent before their kangaroo court with its perjured witnesses and false accusations. It was only when they asked him point-blank whether he was the Messiah, the Son of God, that he confirmed it, which convinced them he was guilty of blasphemy and worthy of death.
With Pilate, however, Jesus engaged in a sustained discussion about authority and truth and the nature of his Kingdom. Pilate, bolstered by this exchange, tried for a while to have Jesus released. But in the end, he caved to the Jewish leaders and the mob they’d stirred up, and condemned Jesus to be crucified.
The Roman soldiers whipped and beat Jesus, spat on him and knelt before him in mock worship. They had no idea they were in fact kneeling before the Sovereign Lord of the universe, their Creator who held their life in his hands.
By the time he was to be crucified, Jesus was already in considerable physical distress due to the trauma he’d suffered. In fact, the soldiers had to press a bystander, Simon of Cyrene, into carrying Jesus’ cross up to Calvary. On the way, Jesus was offered a mixture of wine and myrrh to deaden the pain yet to come, but refused it.
From the cross, he continued to care for those around him. He prayed that his Roman executioners would be forgiven, even as they gambled over his clothes, because they didn’t know what they were doing. When one of those crucified with him turned to him in faith, Jesus assured him they’d be together in paradise that day. And upon seeing his mother and John standing by the cross, he instructed them to care for each other as mother and son.
At the height of his suffering, Jesus shouted, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Although he knew he would rise again on the third day, he was overwhelmed by the horror of being separated from his Father for the first time in all eternity, as he bore the full weight of God’s judgment on the sins of the world.
Once his redemptive mission was accomplished, the sins of humanity paid in full, he cried, “It is finished” and committed his spirit into the hands of his Father.
Outside the empty tomb
Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish ruling council and a secret disciple of Jesus, mustered his courage and asked Pilate to release Jesus’ body for burial. After the soldiers had ascertained that Jesus was dead, Pilate released the body and Joseph buried him in his own new tomb, sealing it with a massive stone.
During all this time, at the cross and at the tomb, there was a group of women who stayed with Jesus and watched over him. These were the same women who had followed the Lord from Galilee to Jerusalem and supported his ministry out of their own means. The group included Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, Salome, and several others. Meanwhile, with the exception of John, the rest of the disciples were nowhere to be seen.
On Easter Morning, the women were first on the scene and first to see the risen Lord. In fact, Mary Magdalene was the first person to speak with Jesus after his resurrection.
The women reported everything they’d seen – the empty tomb, the angel, the risen Lord – to the eleven and to the rest of Jesus’ followers. Yet even though these women were loyal, prominent disciples who had financed Jesus’ ministry from the start, they weren’t believed and their report was dismissed by the men as nonsense.
Appearing in various places
Before long, however, Jesus began appearing to others, as well. On that same day, the first Easter Sunday, he joined a pair of disciples as they walked to the nearby village of Emmaus. At first, they didn’t recognize him, but then he joined them for dinner and their eyes were opened as he broke bread and blessed it. When they returned to Jerusalem to tell the others, they found out Jesus had also appeared earlier to Peter.
That evening, the disciples were gathered in the upper room, behind locked doors for fear of the Jewish authorities. Jesus appeared and greeted them, inviting them to examine the wounds in his hands and feet to prove he was alive, and ate a piece of fish in front of them. After all, ghosts don’t eat.
Jesus also opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, that everything written in the Law, the Prophets and the Psalms was about him.
A week later, he met them again in the upper room, inviting Thomas, who’d been absent the first time, to touch his wounds so that he might believe. Later still, he joined seven of them for breakfast beside the Sea of Galilee. Then he met all of the eleven on a mountain in Galilee, where he gave them the Great Commission and told them he had been given all authority in heaven and on earth, and that he would be with them to the end.
On the Mount of Olives
Jesus continued to appear to his disciples over a period of 40 days. During that time, he spoke to them about the Kingdom of God and gave them further instructions. They were to stay in Jerusalem until they received power from the Holy Spirit. Then they were to testify about Jesus, declaring forgiveness of sins in his name, beginning at Jerusalem and fanning out into Judea, Samaria, and all the nations of the world.
After the 40 days, Jesus led them out to the Mount of Olives near Bethany, where he blessed them and was taken up into the sky, disappearing from their sight into the clouds.
It was a final, intimate moment with his friends, near the little village where they’d spent joyful days and evenings together. But it was also a moment of cosmic wonder, as Jesus left our world and travelled beyond the vast universe to rejoin his Father in infinite glory.
While the disciples stared up at the sky, a pair of angels appeared to assure them – and us – that Jesus would return one day, the same way he had departed. For followers of Jesus, this is our expectant hope and joy, not just at Easter, but every day beyond.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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