By Dr. Paul Knudtson
Holy Week is the last week of Lent that culminates with Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It begins with Palm Sunday, the day Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey. It is difficult to determine with certainty what Jesus did each day of this week since the gospels do not present a detailed chronology regarding the events of Jesus’s final week. But based on clues in the gospel text (we will follow Mark here), together with church tradition, one can at least construct a tentative outline of what Jesus does throughout this week.
- Palm Sunday: Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and is heralded as King. (Mark 11:1-11)
- Monday: Jesus cleanses the temple in Jerusalem (Mark 11:12-19)
- Tuesday: Jesus teaches in the temple (Mark 11:20 – 13:37)
- Wednesday: Jesus is anointed by a woman at Bethany (Mark 14:1-11)
- Thursday: Jesus celebrates the Passover in the evening with his disciples (Mark 14:12-31)
- Friday: Jesus is tried, crucified, and buried (Mark 14:32 – 15:47)
- Saturday (Sabbath): Jesus’s body lays in the tomb. (see Mark 15:42-47)
- Easter Sunday: The tomb is empty; Jesus has been raised (Mark 16)
In the meditations that follow, some will focus specifically on what happens on that particular day of this final week: Tuesday, Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Other meditations will feature a theme related to the passion narratives more generally.
A Crucified Messiah
“Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!” – Mark 11:9-10
“’But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’” – Mark 8:29
“Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am.’” -Mark 14:61-62
“It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” – Mark 15:25-26
“We proclaim Christ crucified (or, a crucified Messiah), a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” -1 Corinthians 1:23.
While Mark’s gospel begins with the clear identification of Jesus’s identity (“Jesus Christ, the Son of God”- Mark 1:1), the human characters described in Mark’s account are slow to figure out who Jesus is. In fact, in the entire gospel of Mark the only human (other than Jesus at his trial) to say sincerely that Jesus is the Messiah is the disciple Peter in the verse quoted above from Mark 8. At the end of the gospel, as Jesus hangs dying on the cross, the chief priests and scribes also refer to Jesus as the Messiah, but do so in jest. They say, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:31-32).
We learn in Mark 8 that most of the Jewish people who know Jesus think of him as a prophet. They form this opinion, apparently, because of the many miraculous signs that Jesus performs that makes him resemble the prophets Elijah and Elisha (1-2 Kings), or because of his authoritative speech like that of the prophets of old. Almost no one recognized Jesus during his lifetime as the Messiah, yet this becomes the central claim of the first believers concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the Messiah (or the Christ– “Christ” is the Greek term for the Hebrew word “Messiah.”) This title becomes the name for Christ’s followers, “Christians.”
At the time of Jesus, the title “Messiah” was understood principally as a royal term, that is, as the coming future Jewish king who would rule over Israel and the nations, thereby establishing the rule of God. As a descendant of King David of old, this ruler would usher in a new age of salvation upon earth. One senses how such messianic expectations excite the crowd that welcomes Jesus as he enters Jerusalem riding a donkey. They enthusiastically anticipate “the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” (Mark 11:10). Images of the coming messiah grew from Old Testament prophecies into full-blown intertestamental pictures of Israel’s ideal future king. Such texts described how Israel would one day enjoy peace and prosperity under such a king in a world where justice and goodness would flourish.
1 Maccabees (Apocrypha) describes the rule of the Jewish leader Simon in idealized terms as though he were the messiah (without using the word). The portrait of life under Simon contributes to our understanding of Jewish messianic expectations at the time of Jesus.
“8They tilled their land in peace; the ground gave its increase, and the trees of the plains their fruit. 9Old men sat in the streets; they all talked together of good things, and the youths put on splendid military attire. 10He supplied the towns with good, and furnished them with the means of defense, until his renown spread to the ends of the earth. 11He established peace in the land, and Israel rejoiced with great joy. 12All the people sat under their own vines and fig trees, and there was none to make them afraid” (1 Maccabees 14:8-12).
Another Jewish writing from roughly the same period, the Psalms of Solomon, explicitly describes the coming Messiah (Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigraph, vol. 2). This text helps us form a good picture of common Jewish expectations for the coming messiah.
The Messiah would possess powerful military might that would bring about Israel’s exaltation and the subservience of other nations. The Messiah “will have gentile nations serving him under his yolk” (17:30), “He will not tolerate unrighteousness even to pause among them” (17:27), “the alien and the foreigner will no longer live near them” (17:28), and “He will gather a holy people whom he will lead in righteousness” (17:26). This will be a powerful Messiah, a fearsome judge of the whole world who will be able “to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar” (17:23) and “to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth” (17:24).
It seems, then, that Jews at the time of Jesus commonly expected the coming Messiah to be one who would rule with power and might, thus winning Israel’s political sovereignty over Roman, and would establish a kingdom of peace and righteousness over the whole world. To use modern language, such a king would bring about Israel’s national independence and security, her economic prosperity, the elimination of crime and injustice, the help and protection of the poor and downtrodden, universal health care and physical health, and the universal knowledge of the true God (Habakkuk 3:14). Likely no one anticipated a Messiah like a Jesus, one destined to be rejected, crucified, and resurrected. Three times before his final arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus tries to educate his disciples concerning his identity (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). Peter was right in concluding that Jesus was the Messiah (Mark 8), but he and the other disciples still needed to understand that Jesus was a Messiah who was vastly different from common expectations. He was to be a “crucified Messiah.”
When Jesus tells his disciples that he must be rejected and killed (and raised again), Peter will have none of it. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him (8:32). But Jesus corrects Peter’s faulty thinking in no uncertain terms. Evidently, Peter shares the common Jewish expectation of a powerful and triumphant warrior Messiah.
Clearly Jesus is a Messiah who transcends human expectations. Instead of a strong man who throws his weight around, Jesus is a Messiah who “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In the same way, the God and Father of Jesus the Messiah is also one who works in surprising ways, choosing the insignificant nation of Israel to be his people through whom he would accomplish his purposes, instead of mighty world empires like Rome or Babylon or Assyria. The kingdom of this God, that Jesus inaugurates through his ministry, is not at first big and obvious and overpowering, but is “like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth” (Mark 4:31), but in the end “becomes the greatest of all shrubs” (4:32). So too, the Messianic identity of Jesus, when he lives like a servant rather than a master, and especially when he ends up being crucified as a criminal, is difficult to perceive. Jesus the Messiah defies human expectations.
But even as the crucified Messiah would be raised from the dead by God, so also will Jesus the Messiah be revealed with power for all to see and will fulfill all of the promises of the prophets concerning the age to come (Acts 3:20-21). Until that day, we follow a rejected and crucified Messiah as we learn what it means to deny ourselves, to take up the cross, and to follow him (Mark 8:34). We are coming to know that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).
Meditation: What does it mean for me to follow a Messiah who defies human expectations, that is, a crucified Messiah who calls me to deny myself and take up the cross in order to follow him?
Prayer: Lord Jesus, help me when I, like Peter, think in merely human ways regarding you and your ways. Teach me how to save my life by losing it for your sake and for the sake of the gospel. Amen.