Mark 11:1-11 and Matthew 27:45-61
Today is known by Christians as either Palm Sunday or Passion Sunday, the day on which we recall Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem but also the day on which we recount the sufferings of our Lord Jesus in the week that followed that triumphal entry.
Three of the greatest lessons that can be derived from Holy Week have to do with the nature of a promise, the nature of love and the nature of victory. A true promise is a promise that is fulfilled. A true love is a promise that is fulfilled. A true victory is a promise that is fulfilled.
Holy Week is all about promises and fulfillment for, as the apostle Paul has written, “No matter how many promises God has made, they are all “Yes” in Christ. And so through Him the ‘Amen’ is spoken to us to the glory of God.”
Promise. Love. Victory. It is always with those who keep their promises that we feel safest. It is always the love that requires the greatest sacrifice that is the most precious. It is always the hardest won victory that is the sweetest. This is evidenced nowhere more clearly than in the Holy Week of Jesus. The week began with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem where He was met with great rejoicing, with honor, and with praise.
As Jesus approached Jerusalem, He knew full well what lay ahead of Him in that city for Jesus had come in the flesh so that He might take upon Himself the punishment rightfully due to sinful humankind. By going to the cross, He was opening the door for reconciliation with God. Jesus, Himself God, followed through on God’s own plan for the redemption of those who would believe. He was fulfilling all the promises.
Before His arrest, He had foretold that one of His own disciples would betray Him. He had predicted also the suffering that He would undergo at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law. And He had warned His disciples that He would be killed but that three days later He would be raised from the dead.
Before He went to the cross, Jesus used the image of this instrument of His death to instruct His followers in the need for being willing to bear the cross for Him, being willing to suffer and perhaps to die, in obedience to Him but always with the realization that eternal glory was in store for those who would submit themselves to God.
As Jesus neared the villages of Bethphage (bait-fuh-gee) and Bethany (Baith-a-nee) on the eastern boundary of Jerusalem, He knew it was time for Him to be revealed as the Messiah. Messiah translates into English—“Anointed One.” He was the One for whom the people had been waiting. But many in the crowd didn’t recognize Him because they expected the Savior to come in power to wipe out their enemies and to reign as an earthly king. Others understood that this Jesus—in the Hebrew “Yeshuah” (which means Savior) was the Messiah to Whom what we now know as the Old Testament pointed.
And some came to understand that by coming as He did, He was defeating their enemies not just within their lifetimes but for eternity for, with His crucifixion and resurrection, He won the victory over sin, death and Satan.
Jesus was the answer to more than 300 Biblical prophecies/promises that were all fulfilled in Him.
Hundreds of years before He came, the prophets Micah and Isaiah predicted that the Messiah would be born of a virgin in the village of Bethlehem and that He would come from the tribe of Judah and the line of King David.
Zechariah, prophesying more than 500 years before the coming of Christ, wrote that the Messiah would be sold for 30 pieces of silver and it was for this amount that Judas Iscariot handed over Jesus. Zechariah also predicted that the money would be returned for a potters’ field, a burial place for foreigners. And it was.
And, as Isaiah predicted, Jesus was led like a lamb to the slaughter and He was crucified with sinners. Isaiah had said that the hands and feet of the Messiah would be pierced, that He would be mocked and insulted, that He would be given gall and vinegar to drink, that He would pray for His enemies, that His side would be pierced, that soldiers would cast lots to see who would get His clothes, that not a bone of His would be broken and that He would be buried with the rich. All of these prophecies were fulfilled in Jesus.
And all of this suffering—the prophets foretold—would be necessary so that the Messiah might take upon Himself our sins and, in so doing, accept the grievous penalty for them. The prophets also foretold that Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven would guarantee eternal life to all those who would believe and accept what the Savior had done for them on the cross.
One other prophecy was offered by Zechariah and it is this that leads us into our passage from Mark. In the ninth chapter of the book of Zechariah, the prophet wrote: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, daughter of Jerusalem! See your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”
And this prophecy was fulfilled as Jesus asked His disciples to procure such a colt that He might enter the city—the city of His destiny—not on foot, as would be expected of a pilgrim and not on a horse, a mighty steed, as a warrior, but on a lowly donkey, as a man of peace.
On the colt—and we are told in the gospel of Matthew that it was the colt of a donkey—the disciples placed cloaks to create a sort of saddle for Jesus. As a token of homage to Him, cloaks and leafy palm branches were spread on the road before Him.
The words of praise the people then offered are recorded in Mark’s gospel and in like passages in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. “Hosanna?! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” The word Hosanna is a Hebrew exclamation that translates “Save Now!” It was an appeal to God to save the Israelite people now that the Messiah had appeared among them. The words “He Who Comes” is the title by which the Messiah was denoted. “Save us now, Messiah!”
And so, on what has come to be known as Palm Sunday, Jesus made His triumphal entry into Jerusalem. On the following Sunday, He would make His triumphal resurrection from the dead.
In between, there would be a full week. On Monday, He would cleanse the temple of the moneychangers and, in that same temple, He would heal the blind and the lame and He would instruct His disciples on the power of faith.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, He would share a number of parables, teach about the Greatest Commandment, tell about the events that would signal the end time, and describe the final judgment.
Wednesday would close with Mary’s anointing of Him with oil and with Judas’ promise to the authorities to betray Jesus.
On Thursday, there would be the preparation of the Passover meal, the washing of the disciples’ feet, the designation of the traitor, the Last Supper, the parable of the true vine, the promise of the Holy Spirit.
And then there would be the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. “Gethsemane” translates from the Hebrew: oil press. John’s language in his gospel suggests it was a walled garden and Luke tells us it was located on the slope of the Mount of Olives.
The symbolism in all of this is astonishing. In Jesus’ day, olive oil took the place of butter and cooking fat and so was crucial in a person’s diet. Oil was used as fuel for lamps. It was also used in healing. Further, in religious life, those consecrated to God’s service were anointed with oil. The prophet, the priest, and the king were all anointed with oil in ceremonies of consecration. Jesus, the anointed One, gathered up into Himself the triple function of prophet, priest and king and this Messiah, who fed the multitudes, who brought light into the darkness, and who healed in body, mind and spirit—this Messiah came to the Garden of Gethsemane and prepared to undo the damage done by the inhabitants of the first garden.
So, just as the Bread of Life was born in Bethlehem, which translates to the English, “House of Bread,” and was placed in a feeding trough, so now on the night of His betrayal, the Anointed One is found at Gethsemane, in the oil press, on the Mount of Olives.
Jesus knew what was coming. He could have run. Instead He prayed and He waited and He made a request of His disciples. “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” They fell asleep.
Luke 22:44 tells us that as Jesus anguished over what was coming, His sweat was like drops of blood falling on the ground. The medical term for this, “hemohidrosis” has been seen in patients who have experienced extreme stress or shock to their systems. The capillaries around the sweat pores become fragile and leak blood into the sweat.
The fully human Jesus knelt in prayer and anguished over what lay ahead of Him. The fully human Jesus would know every excruciating lash of the whip and the piercing pain of the crown of thorns. This Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was fully God and fully human. Now, e may not understand how this is possible but to appreciate the magnitude of what Jesus did, we need to accept it.
He was fully present on the cross but beyond the horror of the cross, Jesus knew even more awaited Him. He, the sinless One, who had existed from all eternity, pure, unspotted, holy, knew that He would redeem us from the curse of the law by taking all our filthy sins upon Himself that they might be crucified with Him on the cross.
After this time in Gethsemane, there would be His arrest, His healing of the High Priest’s servant, and the desertion of His disciples.
On Friday, Jesus would appear before Caiaphas (kay-a-fus), the high priest, then before the entire Sanhedrin (the highest judicial and ecclesiastical council of the ancient Jewish nation composed of 71 members). Then He would be before Pilate, Herod and Pilate again.
Judas, filled with remorse and self-loathing over his betrayal of Jesus, committed suicide. Pontius Pilate, responding to the cries of the crowd to crucify Jesus, approved the death sentence and then tried to wash his hands of the whole affair.
But before sending Him off to be crucified, Pontius Pilate had Jesus scourged. In this form of punishment, the prisoner was tied to a post with his back bent and a whip with long leather thongs studded with sharp pieces of bone, rocks, lead pellets and glass was used. With each lash, the whip would wrap around the body, stripping off pieces of flesh. Roman beatings could be so severe that bones and organs were left exposed. By the time they got through beating Him, Jesus’ body may well have been barely recognizable. The pain from being struck with this instrument—up to 39 times from the neck to the knees–was so severe that men died under it or broke with loss of their senses. But Jesus retained His consciousness throughout.
Then Matthew, in chapter 27, beginning at verse 27, records the preparation for Christ’s crucifixion. The Roman guard—about 200 men—took Jesus into the barracks at the Fortress of Antonia (an-toe-nia) and began to mock Him. They stripped Him of His clothing and put a scarlet robe on Him, the color symbolizing power and kingship. On His head, they put a crown of woven thorns. In His hand, a staff to symbolize a scepter. Then the guards knelt before Him: “Hail, King of the Jews!”
They spat on Him and took the staff and struck Him again and again on the head and then they led Him away to be crucified. John tells us that Jesus—battered, whipped, dehydrated, exhausted from a sleepless night–carried His own cross as they headed out of Jerusalem. But, with His condition weakened by the torture, Jesus stumbled under the load. And the soldiers took a man—a North African—from the crowd—Simon of Cyrene—and ordered him to carry Jesus’ cross. Jesus followed until the 650-yard journey from the fortress of Antonia (An-toe-nia) to the place of crucifixion was completed.
That place of crucifixion was the skull-shaped hill called Golgotha. There Jesus, naked and already in unimaginable pain, was nailed to a cross.
Jesus was crucified at about nine o’clock in the morning. Our passage from Matthew refers to the sixth to the ninth hours (which, in our reckoning would be from noon to 3 o’clock) and in those three hours, darkness came over the land.
C. Truman Davis provides a physician’s description of what would have happened on the cross. He tells us that the soldier who nailed Jesus to the cross would have looked for the depression at the front of the wrist and through that would have driven the heavy, square, wrought-iron nail. The soldier would then have moved to the other side and driven the nail into the other wrist careful not to pull the arms too tightly but to allow for movement.
Jesus’ left foot would then have been pressed backward against the right foot, and with both feet extended, toes down, the nail would have been driven through the heels.
Then Davis imagines: Jesus slowly sags down with more weight on the nails in the wrists. Then as He pushes Himself upward to avoid this stretching torment, He places His full weight on the nail through His feet. Again there is the searing agony of the nail tearing through the nerves between the bones of the feet. At this point, as the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles, knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by his arms, the pectoral muscles in his chest are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles by His ribcage are unable to function. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically, He is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in oxygen. It was probably during these periods that He uttered the seven short sentences recorded throughout the gospels:
The first, looking down at the Roman soldiers throwing dice for His seamless garment, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
The second, to the penitent thief, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.”
The third, looking down at the terrified, grief-stricken John—the beloved Apostle—Jesus says to him, “Behold your mother.” Then, looking to His mother Mary, “Woman, behold your son.”
The fourth cry harkens back to the first words of the 22nd Psalm, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani (sa-voke-tanee),” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
Hours of limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain where tissue is torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber. Then another agony begins. A terrible crushing pain deep in the chest as the pericardium (the double walled sac that contains the heart) slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.
We are reminded in this of the 22nd Psalm, the 14th verse: “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels.”
It is now almost over. The loss of tissue fluids has reached a critical level; the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissue; the tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. The markedly dehydrated tissues send their flood of stimuli to the brain.
Jesus gasps His fifth cry, “I thirst.” This recalls another verse from the prophetic 22nd Psalm: “My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth, you lay me in the dust of death.”
Someone runs to get a sponge filled with drugged wine, puts it on a stick and offers it to Jesus to drink. He refuses it. Some continue to mock Him. And then perhaps Jesus feels the chill of death creeping through His body and He speaks the sixth of His words from the cross: “It is finished.”
His mission of atonement has been completed. He can allow Himself to die. With one last surge of strength, He once again presses His torn feet against the nail, straightens His legs, takes a deeper breath, and utters His seventh and last cry, “Father! Into your hands I commit my spirit.”
At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom signifying the fact that, at that moment, Christ had made it possible for believers to go directly into God’s presence. The earth shook, the rocks split, the tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.
Finally, when the centurion and the others with him saw all of this, they realized what they had done and they were terrified. He must have been the Son of God! And those of His followers who had not deserted, watched from a distance.
As evening approached, Joseph of Arimathea, accompanied by Nicodemus—we’re told by the gospel writer John—dared to go to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. Can you see them working together to take Him down and to wrap Him gently in a clean linen cloth? Placing Him in the tomb? And can you see the two women—Mary Magdalene and Mary, the mother of the apostles James and John–outside the tomb?
Well, this is where we find ourselves in this Holy Week. This week, if you dip your bread into oil or eat an olive, think as you do of Jesus pouring Himself out in grief on the Mount of Olives—in Gethsemane–the oil press—as He looked toward the cross. As you receive a palm branch today, give thanks to the One who went to the cross for you and praise Him—our Prophet, Priest and King, our Savior, our Lord.
If you happen to pass a field where donkeys are grazing, think of the Man of Peace riding triumphantly into Jerusalem. Imagine yourself in the throng, laying your tributes at His feet. Place yourself at the Last Supper, in the Garden of Gethsemane, listen to His teaching, walk with Him through these days. May we not slumber on through this time but rather read and read again the gospel accounts of this Holy Week. As you are able, as your strength permits, spend time fasting, feasting only on the Word of God and praying.
Take a few moments to contemplate the great love of our Lord that sent Him to the cross for the remission of our sins.