The Week That Changed the World.
A single week. Seven 24-hour days. One hundred and sixty eight hours of daylight and darkness. In that short span of time a literal eternity of change would take place. At the end of those seven fate-filled days a radical, revolutionary shift in the universe would come about. Nothing would ever be the same again. Mankind’s relationship with God Himself would be unalterably changed and the enemy’s hold on the souls of men would be undeniably broken.
Passion Week. Holy Week. These are two of the names that attempt to label the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. But each falls somewhat short in adequately describing the events of that week. Technically, we’re actually talking about eight days, not seven. It begins on Palm Sunday and culminates the following Sunday with Christ’s ascension. And in between those two days are a series of events that are emotionally charged and action-packed.
Sunday School Story History
For those of us who have grown up in and around the church, we’ve heard many of the stories associated with the Passion Week. We have the scene of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey with the people throwing down palm branches and shouting, “Hosanna!” burned into our memory bank. Of course, it may be based on a highly inaccurate illustration or even a cheesy flannel graph depiction, but we remember it. Then there’s the more sobering image of Jesus struggling under the burden of a heavy wooden cross, surrounded by a jeering crowd and cruel Roman soldiers. These scenes are just a part of entire sequence of events. They bookend the content of those days, but there is so much more that we probably don’t know about, or fail to put it in its proper context. So we end up with a Sunday School story history that takes events out of their context and leaves us with an incomplete and sometimes inaccurate understanding of all that went on during the final week of Jesus’ life.
The Gathering Gloom
After more than three years of teaching, preaching, healing and miracles, the focus of Jesus’ ministry is about to change. He is going to turn His attention to the real purpose behind His coming. He knows that His earthly ministry must culminate in Jerusalem and end with His own death. Luke tells us, “As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51 NLT). Jesus knew that the end was near, and rather than try and avoid it, He made a determined decision to see His God-given assignment through to the end.
Jesus, fully aware of what the future held, tried to prepare His disciples for the inevitable reality of His coming death, and He spared no details. Matthew records, “From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead” (Matthew 16:21 NLT). This was a total disconnect for the disciples. It made no sense. What good was a dead Messiah? Who had any need for a suffering Savior? Peter, being the most vocal of the twelve, “took him aside and began to reprimand him for saying such things, ‘Heaven forbid, Lord,’ he said. ‘This will never happen to you!’” (Matthew 16:22 NLT). And yet, Jesus continued to tell them what was in store for Him as He made His way, steadfastly and resolutely, to Jerusalem. This news was dark and disappointing to the disciples. It rocked their world and shattered their expectations. Their dreams of Jesus establishing His kingdom on earth and appointing them to places of honor were turning into a nightmare.
The Growing Controversy
To make matters worse, Jesus seemed to increase his rhetoric against the religious leaders. The closer He got to the Jerusalem, the more vocal He seemed to become about the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, Scribes and priests. He accused them of ignoring God’s law. He called them whitewashed tombs, hidden graves, blind fools, sons of Satan, and murderers of the prophets. He said they didn’t know God, misled the people, were violators of the law, breakers of the Sabbath and children of hell. Not exactly the way to win friends and influence people.
And as Jesus turned up the heat, the more intense the hatred of the religious leaders became – to the point of plotting His death. As Jesus entered the city to the shouts of the people that first Sunday morning, He was also under the vigilant and vindictive eyes of the Pharisees. They were watching His every move, looking for an opportunity to expose Jesus as a fraud and a threat to society.
This was not unexpected. Jesus knew that this was all part of the divine plan. The rejection of Jesus by His own people was anticipated by God. “He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even the rejected him” (John 1:10-11 NLT). “God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed” (John 3:19-20 NLT). This theme of light and darkness runs throughout the last week of Jesus life, and it helps us understand all that takes place. The forces of evil are mounting against Jesus as He prepares to offer Himself as the final sacrifice for the sins of men. He is going to defeat sin and death once and for all, and all hell stands against Him, in a vain attempt to thwart the plan of God and the efforts of Jesus.
A Battle Over Authority
The growing intensity of the struggle between Jesus and the religious leaders can be seen and felt throughout each of the Gospel accounts. Immediately after Jesus ransacked the Temple, clearing it of the money changers and those profiteering off of the people, the Pharisees confronted Him, asking Him to explain the source of His authority. They wanted to know what gave Him the right to do and say what he did. This is another important theme that weaves itself throughout Passion Week. Jesus came presenting Himself as the Son of God and the Messiah. He was God in human flesh, on a mission to provide mankind with a solution to their sin problem. Jesus received His commission from God. He spoke for God. His power to heal came from God. He acted on behalf of God. But the religious leaders refused to acknowledge Him as God. They rejected Him as Messiah. They attributed His power to heal and perform miracles as having come from Satan and not God. In other words, they would not honor His God-given authority. To do so would have required them to deny their own authority. They would have had to die to their little kingdoms in order to acknowledge His greater Kingdom and His right to reign over their lives.
The Rule of Love
One of the most significant events in the final week of Jesus’ life is a discussion He had with one of the Pharisees. Sent by the Pharisees because he was an expert in religious law, his assignment was to trap Jesus with a question. It involved an ongoing debate among the religious leadership of Israel. With a moral code made up of more than 248 commandments and 365 prohibitions, there were always laws that seemed to contradict other laws. So they were constantly trying to arrange the laws in categories of importance or significance. Some laws had to hold priority over other, less important laws. This was a controversial topic, so they wanted to see if they could trap Jesus into saying something He would regret. This “plant” simply asks, “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” (Maatthew 22:36 NLT).
Jesus’ answer is simple and succinct. But it is startlingly significant. He says, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38 NLT). Jesus quotes from the Shema, a portion of the Scriptures recited daily by the Jews. The Pharisees had this passage contained in special phylacteries that they carried on their bodies everywhere they went. Jesus is calling them to love God with every fiber in their being. And we can’t miss the significance that He stands before them as the very Son of God.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He continues, “A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:39 NLT). Here Jesus is quoting Leviticus 19:18. What Jesus is presenting is not new, but He provides it with new emphasis and meaning. The love of God is supreme. But one of the greatest expressions of our love for God is our love for mankind. John reminds us, “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a Christian brother or sister, that person is a liar; for if we don’t people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:20 NLT). Why was this so revolutionary? Because they didn’t do it! They said that they loved God, but actually hated and despised their own people. Jesus later accused them, “For they crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden” (Matthew 23:4 NLT).
Jesus is letting them know that their interpretation of the law had missed the point. It was all about love for God and love for man. It was a simple formula, but one that radically changed everything.
We are to love God
If we love God, we will love what He loves
God loves mankind
So we must love mankind
When we do, God is loved
And not long after this conversation was held, Jesus would perform the greatest act of love ever known to man. He would willingly, sacrificially give Himself as an expression of God’s love for mankind. And in so doing, He would be showing the Father just how much He loved Him. “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). And Jesus showed His love for God by loving us. “Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God” (Ephesians 5:2 NLT).
The message of the Passion Week is the love of God as expressed through the death of His own Son. It is the love of Christ expressed through His willing sacrifice of His life on our behalf. In the face of growing opposition and overwhelming darkness, the love of God penetrated history in the form of Jesus Christ, the Light of the world. This radical love of God would culminate on a cruel Roman cross. Designed as an instrument of torture and death, it has become a symbol of love and hope. The cross is unoccupied. The tomb is empty. Death is defeated. Sin is forgiven. Eternal life is secure. Jesus is King.