[Editor’s note: For this year’s Passion Week, we share an oldie and a goodie from Russ Ramsey, which originally appeared on the blog ten years ago. In this post, Russ outlines the narrative arc of Passion Week one day at a time, from Palm Sunday through Good Friday and into Resurrection Sunday. We hope Russ’s words bring you closer to the story, and we encourage you to revisit them throughout this week.]
(Passion Week is upon us. We ran this post last year, and it occurred to me—a little late this year, I’m sorry to say—that it might be a good one to run again as we prepare our hearts to celebrate Easter. As a pastor, I have the honor of putting together and leading not only an Easter worship service, but also a more contemplative Good Friday service for our congregation. That Good Friday Tenebrae service stands as a sober reminder that the greatest gift God has given his people came at so great a cost. The daily readings below, which reflect my best estimates concerning what happened during the last week of Jesus’ earthly ministry before the cross, take us deep into the drama, the hope, the violence, and the unmatched mercy unfolding in God’s answer to our deepest need. I hope these readings help to immerse you in that story this week.
—Russ Ramsey, March 25, 2013)
In John 10, Jesus said, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I alone have the authority to lay it down, and the authority to take it up again, and this charge I received from my Father.”
This is a statement worth testing. Does the Scriptural narrative tell the story of an inspirational man martyred because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and simply couldn’t avoid capture? Or do the last days of his life tell the story of someone intentionally offering himself up, on his own terms, by his own authority? As we approach Easter, have you ever taken the time to really examine what took place on each day of the week from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday? Here’s a daily reading guide for each day of Easter Week.
(See Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, John 12:9-19.)
When Jesus rode into Jerusalem perched up on a colt on Palm Sunday, it was the first time since raising Lazarus from the dead that he’d shown his face in the city. The story of Lazarus’ resurrection had circulated so that even those who only heard about it later regarded Jesus as a celebrity. Everyone wanted to catch a glimpse of Jesus. They went out to meet him and received him like a king, because they heard he had done this. (Jn 12:18)
Jesus said Lazarus’ death would end in the faith of many, and in the “glory of God—that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” (Jn 11:4) But the glory he had in mind was even more glorious than his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. In fact, he wasn’t referring to the glory these people gave him at all. Lazarus’ resurrection would steel the resolve of the religious leaders to hand Jesus over to a death he would freely accept—a death he would conquer. That was the glory he meant. As he rode into Jerusalem, the people cried, “Your King is coming!” They praised his victory over Lazarus’ death. But the irony was that he wasn’t coming to claim his crown on account of Lazarus’ death and resurrection, but on account of his own.
(See Matthew 21:12-22, Mark 11:12-19, Luke 19:45-48.)
If Jerusalem was a beehive, with Jesus’ triumphal entry the day before, Jesus had hit it with a stick and you could hear the buzz grow as the anger within got organized. With that kingly arrival, he made a strong declaration about his authority over all the conventions of man.
On Monday, he returns for more, this time to declare the failure of his own people to live up to the covenantal mandate God had given them to be a blessing to the world. Much of what the Gospels tell us about Monday centers on the theme of Jesus’ authority—both over the created world and in his right to pass judgment over it. Everything Jesus did, he did with authority. So when he woke his disciples Monday, saying he wanted go back into Jerusalem to teach, as risky as it sounded, it wasn’t surprising. But everyone sensed something stirring, as if Jesus had rounded a corner and his end was coming fast. He was a marked man.
(See Matthew 21:23-26:5, Mark 11:27-14:2, Luke 20:1-22:2, John 12:37-50.)
If Monday’s arrival in the temple was marked by Jesus’ all-inclusive, living parable of cleansing God’s house, Tuesday’s entrance is marked by a direct, verbal confrontation with the appointed leadership. After Jesus makes the point that he refuses to regard these leaders as having any authority over him, he elects to spend the rest of the day right there in the temple so that he might teach the people the word of God. But Tuesday afternoon would be the last time Jesus would publicly teach in the temple as a free man. His words on this day would be his closing argument—his manifesto.
When Jesus left the temple that Tuesday, “the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him.” (Mk 14:1) But they couldn’t take his life from him solely on the strength of the charges they meant to bring—not if he defended himself. But he would not. Instead, by his silence, he’d offer up his life for a world of blasphemers and traitors and liars who so desperately needed to be upset. This was what he had come to do, and as he left the temple that Tuesday afternoon, he knew he would do it soon.
(See Matthew 26:6-16, Mark 14:3-11, Luke 22:3-6.)
The past several days have been a rush of tension and anger for Jesus’ opponents and of unflinching resolve for Jesus. Words have been his currency, and he has spent piles of them. But on the Wednesday before his death, Jesus was still.
He was in the home of Simon the Leper, a man known by what was wrong with him. During their meal together, Mary of Bethany, Lazarus’ sister, (Jn 12:3) came to Jesus with an alabaster flask of perfume. She had been saving this perfume, worth a year’s wages, for this very occasion. (Jn 12:7) She began to pour the perfume on Jesus’ head and feet, which required breaking open its container. (Mk 14:3) Like popping the cork on a $20,000 bottle of champagne, this was a very intentional act. She was there to deliberately offer Jesus everything she had. By giving to Jesus her most valuable possession, she was expressing that she knew what he was about to give of himself was for her.
What Mary did was beautiful and Jesus wanted everyone to know it. She was preparing him for burial. There was honor and kindness in her gesture. He returned the honor by saying history would never forget her act of beauty. And we haven’t.
(See Matthew 26:17-75, Mark 14:12-72, Luke 22:7-71, John 13:1-18:27.)
The Thursday prior to Jesus’ crucifixion fills many pages in Scripture. It begins with John and Peter securing the upper room. There, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, explaining he was there to make them clean.
As they begin to eat, Jesus announces one of them is about to betray him. Each wonders if he means them. Then he dispatches Judas to do what he intends.
During this last supper, Jesus sets apart the Passover bread and cup and reassigns—or better, perfects—their meaning. The bread is his body. The cup, his blood. This meal will no longer primarily remind them of God’s deliverance from the external tyranny of Pharaoh, but rather from the internal tyranny of their own guilt and sin against God.
Jesus prays for these his friends and those who will come to know Christ through them—that his Father would make them one. (Jn 17) Then Jesus and his friends leave for the Mount of Olives to pray. (Mk 14:33) But he isn’t there only to pray. He is also there to wait. Soon a line of torches snake their way toward him in the darkness. This is what he has been waiting for.
(See Matthew 27:1-61, Mark 15:1-47, Luke 23:1-56, John 18:28-19:42.)
On Thursday night in Gethsemane, Jesus was arrested—betrayed by one of his own disciples and abandoned by the others. The Chief Priests and the Sanhedrin called for secret trials in the dead of night, and the verdict handed down was that Jesus would be crucified. This was something the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate, would have to execute. And reluctantly, he did.
After a severe beating, Jesus was nailed to a cross where he’d remain for six hours until dead. Never in human history, before or since, has more been lost and gained at the same time as at Jesus’ crucifixion. The world gained the atoning sacrifice of Christ. But for those present, either the significance of the moment was lost on them or their hearts broke because the one they believed to be the Savior of the world was dying at the hands of Rome. They couldn’t stop it and they didn’t realize it was for them. They hoped in him, and though he had told them he would suffer many things and rise three days later, (Mk 8:31) how could they have possibly known this was what he meant?
Saturday: The Forgotten Day
(See Matthew 27:62-66.)
The Saturday following Jesus’ crucifixion might be the most unique and overlooked day in the history of the world—the day between Jesus’ death and his resurrection. Less is written about this day than any other in the scope of this week. Yet what makes it so unique is that this is the only full day in history when the body of the crucified Christ lay buried in a cave.
The day before, he was crucified. The following day, he rises from the grave. But what about Saturday? Though we may not make much of this day, when we look at the few verses the Gospels give us accounting for it, we find this was by no means a forgotten day to the Chief Priests who had handed Jesus over to death. During his earthly ministry, Jesus said many times that he would die in Jerusalem at the hands of the Chief Priests, but on the third day rise again. (Mt 12:40, Mk 8:31, 9:31, 10:34)
Of course, the Chief Priests scoffed at this. But they didn’t forget it. On the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Jesus’ prediction preoccupied their thoughts such that they simply couldn’t leave it alone. Matthew 27:62-66 tells us the strange story of how they couldn’t seem to simply dismiss out of hand the possibility that Jesus might have known something they didn’t.
(See Matthew 28:1-20, Mark 16:1-8, Luke 24:1-53, John 20:1-21:25.)
Early on this Sunday morning, some of Jesus’ friends set out to his grave to anoint the body of their friend and teacher. But when they arrived, they were greeted by what one of the Gospel writers calls “a man dressed in lightning.” He tells them Jesus is not there, as he said. He is risen.
In the week leading up to his death, Jesus, the Good Shepherd, went out to meet the wolves of judgment, sin and death, and he did so with all authority. One might wonder, what good has it ever done anyone to die for some cause? This is the glorious beauty of the Gospel: Jesus didn’t die as a martyr for a cause. He was never in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was never at the mercy of anyone. He lived, died, and was buried because he meant to be.
No one took his life from him. He laid it down. For who? For his flock, his people. And he laid it down only to take it up again. The point of the cross was not to die, but to die and rise again, defeating the prowling wolves of sin and death themselves. He said, “I have authority to lay my life down, and I have authority to take it up again.” And this is just what he did.
Easter says of Jesus, “He meant it! He meant to lay down his life for you! And as sure as he has taken it up again, he knows you!”
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).