I have been preaching through a series at our church called “Seeing Jesus Again for the First Time.” It’s been fun to wipe away some of the dust from Jesus’ face as we take a fresh look at him. What we have always assumed about Jesus isn’t always true.
This last week, being Palm Sunday, I preached the following message. I wanted to highlight a couple of the events of Jesus’ last week before his crucifixion. I talk about his entry into Jerusalem and the Last Supper; specifically his washing the feet of his disciples, his betrayal, and especially the meaning behind the meal they shared. Today we call it communion. And it has a lot more meaning that you’d realize. If you don’t read anything else of the sermon, skip down to that part.
Again, I make no apologies for formatting.
In a lot of churches, when we get to this time of year…they will rush right past all of the events that occur during the last week of Jesus’ life to get to Easter. A lot of churches, including ours, don’t have a Maundy Thursday service or a Good Friday service. And I think mentally, we skip right past those significant events to get to Easter.
It’s interesting to me that, in the Bible, only 2 of the 4 gospel accounts mention Jesus’ birth. All 4 of them talk about his resurrection, but only give that event a few pages. But, all 4 of them devote around 1/3 of their length to the events of the last week of Christ’s life. This does not mean that the last week of Christ’s life is more important or more noteworthy than his resurrection, but I do think that we need to slow down and take a look at some of the significant things that occurred during that last week. We can’t just rush right past them in a hurry to get to Easter Sunday.
Today we are going to spend some time looking at some of the most significant events of Christ’s life during that last week. Since the writers of the gospels focused so heavily on the events of those last 7 days, we are going to take a look at them and see some new facets of Jesus that we have never seen before. We are going to look good and hard at some of these events that we have oftentimes just glanced at as we walked right on by towards the empty tomb.
But, that empty tomb is a part of the whole. And to fully understand the empty tomb, we have to understand what happened around it.
So, let’s start by looking one week ahead of Jesus’ resurrection…Jesus rose on Sunday and we will look closer at the Sunday prior, often called Palm Sunday, which many churches are celebrating today.
First, we have to set the stage…
Jerusalem in these days was the religious hub for the area. It’s where the main temple was located for worship. And each year, there were several religious festivals that would bring people to Jerusalem…but the biggest one each year would be the Celebration of the Passover.
If you will read the OT, you learn about God and His characteristics of might and power and justice. And, there are few instances in the OT where the God of Israel shows His power and might than at the Exodus. Remember…the Jews were under the thumb of Egypt. They had lived there peacefully for some time, but as they grew in number and power, the leader of the Egyptians put them under the yoke of slavery. For generations, they cried out to God to save them from the Egyptians. God heard their cries and sent to them one of their own—Moses. Moses went to Pharaoh and demanded his people be released, but Pharaoh refused. And God displays His power…
He knew that Pharaoh would not comply…He told Moses earlier:
Exodus 3:19-20 (TNIV)
19 But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. 20 So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go.
And God did perform wonders…the OT records plagues that God brought on the Egyptians…where rivers turned to blood and frogs and gnats and flies and boils came. Where the livestock of the Egyptians died but none of the Hebrews. Where darkness came over the land where the Egyptians lived but not over the land where the Hebrews lives. The plague of hail and locusts…and finally, the plague on the firstborn.
On the night of this last plague, God would bring death to the firstborn of every Egyptian family…and not just the firstborn children, but also the firstborn of the cattle. Listen to what God tells Moses.
Exodus 12:5-13 (TNIV)
5 The animals you choose must be year-old males without defect, and you may take them from the sheep or the goats. 6 Take care of them until the fourteenth day of the month, when all the members of the community of Israel must slaughter them at twilight. 7 Then they are to take some of the blood and put it on the sides and tops of the doorframes of the houses where they eat the lambs. 8 That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. 9 Do not eat the meat raw or boiled in water, but roast it over a fire—with the head, legs and internal organs. 10 Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. 11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover. 12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD. 13 The blood will be a sign for you on the houses where you are, and when I see the blood, I will pass over you. No destructive plague will touch you when I strike Egypt.
And so God did just that…wiped out the firstborn of the Egyptians, but passed over the houses of the Hebrews. And the Egyptians finally let Israel go.
And thus, in celebration, every year from that one, the Hebrews celebrate the Passover. The celebrate the faithfulness of God, the power of God, the strength and might, and remember His mighty acts to bring them up out of slavery.
And, when Jesus enters Jerusalem for his final week, the Jews had gathered there to remember this Exodus and to celebrate the Passover. Thousands and thousands of people had gathered. And there were rumors running through the streets…perhaps the long-awaited Messiah had come.
We know how the story ends…but we have to take ourselves out of the pews here in Omaha in 2007…and place ourselves in the sandals of those following Christ during these specific days. They didn’t know what was about to happen…we have to see if we can grasp how they felt, what they thought, the emotion of all they were about to see and do.
The Triumphal Entry
All four gospel accounts mention Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Let’s read one of the accounts:
Luke 19:28-41 (TNIV)
28 After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 29 As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, 30 “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’ ” 32 Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” 34 They replied, “The Lord needs it.” 35 They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. 36 As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. 37 When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: 38 “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!” 39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” 40 “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” 41 As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it…
This appears to be the one time where Jesus let the people give him acclaim…and really, what they are doing is treating him like a king. Which is ironic, because we see that early in the Scriptures, they had tried to make him the king and he refused…slipped right out of their hands.
But here, Jesus lets them…in fact, the Pharisees who were in the crowd yelled out to Jesus, “rebuke your disciples!” But Jesus refused…and even said that if his disciples keep quite about him, the very rocks would cry out.
There are a couple of things worth pointing out:
First of all, Jesus sends a few of his disciples ahead to get, according to Luke, a colt. As I mentioned, all four of the gospels mention this story, and some of the others points out that it was a donkey colt. And Jesus rode this colt into the city. Back in the time of King David, he would ride a donkey or a mule. And when he made Solomon king after him, he placed Solomon on his own donkey. And so for Jesus, riding in on the back of a donkey, would show that he was a rightful king from the line of David. And to the Jews, who considered David the greatest king, this would make sense and be right. Jesus the King, riding on the donkey, much like his ancestor David.
The people are calling out to Jesus, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” This is a direct quotation from Psalm 118:26, which is what was called a Hallel psalm. These psalms were generally sung by the Jews as they celebrated Passover…and so, it seems fitting that they would sing this to Jesus at the beginning of their Passover celebration.
In these days, processions like this were fairly common. But there are some great differences between this one and a ‘normal’ one. In Rome, the triumphal procession would have the conquering General of the Army sitting high in a chariot made of gold. Great big stallions would pull that chariot of gold. Behind the General, officers of his army would wear polished armor and display the banners and flags of the enemies that the great General had conquered. And behind the officers would come the procession of slaves and prisoners of war…and they would be in chains.
But, let’s look at Jesus’ triumphal procession. He rode in on a donkey…a humble, lowly animal. It was no stallion. He is not in a chariot. Instead of officers following him in polished armor, Jesus had an adoring crowd of the lame, the blind, lepers, peasant, children and women. And, instead of standing tall on that day, what does Jesus do? He weeps. The passage says that he wept over the city as he entered it. Hardly what the General would do.
There is no doubt that Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem had about it a sense of triumph and victory. But there would also be a sense of defeat and lowliness that accompanied. This procession would not have impressed the Roman crowds…and for most of the Jews there, it wouldn’t impress them either. But for those whom laid the branches down for Jesus and yelled Hosanna, there was great loyalty and anticipation for who he was.
On the following day, Monday, Jesus curses the fig tree and clears the Temple of the money changers. On Tuesday, he is anointed and teaches in the Temple. On Wednesday, we begin to see the plots develop to take his life.
And then on Thursday, we get a glimpse at the Last Supper.
The Last Supper
There are really three significant things that happen during the evening that the last supper took place. First of all, they had gathered to actually celebrate the Passover Feast, and so they do that. But Jesus also washes the feet of his disciples…and he also betrayed by Judas. I want to look briefly at these three things.
Let’s start reading:
John 13:1-17 (TNIV)
1 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” 9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” 10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. 12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
What occurs here changes the course of history…it did then, and it can today. Verse 3 tells us that that God had put all things under his power. All things. So…verse 4 says…so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist and proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples. All the power was his, so you know what he did? He served.
Seems backwards, doesn’t it? Foot washing in these days was so degrading a task that a master would not even require his own Jewish slave to do it. That’s why Peter responds the way he does…in his mind, Jesus would never be so degraded as to dress up like a slave and do that which would not even be required of a Jewish slave.
M. Scott Peck says tells that the foot washing of Christ was one of the most significant events in Jesus’ life. He says, “Until that moment the whole point of things had been for someone to get on top, and once he had gotten on top to stay on top or else attempt to get farther up. But here this man already on top—who was rabbi, teacher, master—suddenly got down on the bottom and began to wash the feet of his followers. In that one at Jesus symbolically overturned the whole social order. Hardly comprehending what was happening, even his own disciples were almost horrified by his behavior.”
And it’s interesting to note that Jesus asks his followers to do the same…to wash the feet of others. He also asks us, in other places in the Scriptures, to baptize and teach others and to share communion…which we see in just a bit. And we do those things…we share communion each week and we baptize, but we don’t wash feet. And there are some denominations that do have, as a regular part of their worship service, a ceremony of foot washing. I suspect we think that to actually wash someone’s feet would be too unsophisticated or backcountry or something…but that’s exactly the point. Jesus did not care about his dignity…but became a slave to others. I wonder, if we would literally wash each other’s feet, if we wouldn’t be reminded that our Christ did that very same thing? There is no doubt, though, that Christ has called us to serve.
The other night I watched the movie “The Departed,” which one the Oscar for Best Picture. The entire film is about a mobster and the police who are trying to catch him…and, like all good mobster films, there is a Rat. The Rat could be a cop who has infiltrated the ranks of the mob or a mobster who has infiltrated the ranks of the police. But either way…there is a Rat.
There is a Rat in Jesus’ ranks. Judas had earned the trust of Christ and the other disciples and was made the keeper of the money bag.
John 13:18-30 (TNIV)
18 “I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has lifted up his heel against me.’ 19 “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am. 20 Very truly I tell you, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.” 21 After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.” 22 His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. 23 One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. 24 Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.” 25 Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” 26 Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. 27 As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” 28 But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. 29 Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Festival, or to give something to the poor. 30 As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night.
And so Judas simply disappears…and you can tell from the Passage, even though it’s clear as day for us now, that even the disciples still didn’t suspect Judas of anything wrong. They thought, since he carried the money, he was simply stepping out to get some supplies.
You know, there was another disciple who betrayed Christ…Peter. And Peter and Judas have a lot of similarities. They both were with Christ while he taught. They saw him do amazing miracles. They both, at one point, denied Christ.
But Judas was unrepentant and accepted the logical consequences of his actions—and took his own life. He is now known as the greatest traitor in history. Peter though, was different. He was humbled by his actions and open to receive the grace and forgiveness that Christ offered. That grace and forgiveness are the illogical consequences of denying Christ—but grace is often times illogical. And Peter, as we know, went on to become the Rock of the new church.
Finally, this morning…let’s talk about the meal.
Luke 22:7-20 (TNIV)
7 Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.” 9 “Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked. 10 He replied, “As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him to the house that he enters, 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.” 13 They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover. 14 When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. 15 And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. 16 For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.” 17 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. 18 For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” 19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” 20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
Jesus and his followers are getting ready to share in the traditional meal that remembers the Passover. This was a very sacred, special event. It was rich in tradition. And Jesus honored many of those traditions…although not all of them. The meal was made up of particular elements to remember specifics about the Passover.
And one of those traditions was to eat the meal standing up…
Exodus 12:11 (TNIV)
11 This is how you are to eat it: with your cloak tucked into your belt, your sandals on your feet and your staff in your hand. Eat it in haste; it is the LORD’s Passover.
Since their release from captivity after the actual Passover happened so quickly, one of the traditions in celebrating the Passover was to eat the meal quickly…ready to go. So, they would eat it standing, with their cloaks tucked into their belts (which was how they could walk) and with sandals on their feet and a staff in their hands.
But we can read from the Scriptures in Mark 14:18 that Jesus and his disciples ate their Passover meal reclining…which was how you usually ate in these days…reclining on a pillow.
And so, Jesus honors tradition, but he also breaks tradition. There is a great place for tradition in the faith. But traditions have a purpose. They remind us of what happened long ago. If tradition is only observed for the sake of tradition—meaning, if we lose the meaning of the traditions and we just do it because “we have always done it that way,” than it is no longer worthy of being observed.
And we are going to see that is what Jesus really does with the Passover tradition. He takes something that the Jews have known for so long—and changes the meaning of it. And we celebrate that new meaning every Sunday when we take communion. I’ll explain.
To celebrate the Passover was to remember God’s redeeming the nation of Israel from the hand of the Egyptians. The blood of the lamb over the doorframes of your house secured your life. Jesus over and over again refers to himself, and others to him, as being the Lamb of God. Just like a lamb’s body had to be broken and his blood had to be spilt to save Israel—now Jesus’ body had to be broken and blood had to be spilt to save everyone.
And Jesus says…this meal you have shared remember God’s Passover…I am going to give it new meaning. Now you will remember me when you eat it.
But there is more to it than just that…and I love this. And it all has to do with a wedding.
Let me share with you some facts…
In Jesus’ day, families usually lived in a cluster of buildings called insulas. These insulas were usually located around a courtyard, and entire families would live together in these insulas. Grandparents, parents, children, aunts, uncles…would all live in these together and constantly interact with each other.
So let’s say we have the son of a family living in this insula. And this son was of the age to marry. The father of the groom and the father of the bride would negotiate what was called a bride price. The is the price the groom’s family would pay to the bride’s family for her…not as an exchange of property, but because both families recognized that the bride leaving her family would be a great loss.
The bride then and the groom would sit down to a meal together with their families. The groom would have a cup of wine in front of him. He would take a sip from the cup of wine and then slide the cup across the table to the bride. What he was doing was symbolically saying to her that he wanted to make with her a covenant. And part of that covenant was his saying that he would give his life for hers. If she drank from the cup he gave her, she was agreeing to the covenant and basically sealing their engagement. From that point on, she was referred to as “one bought with a price” and seen as an engaged woman.
Then the groom would leave and return to his father’s home…the insula, remember? And the groom would build new rooms for he and his bride, essentially adding on to the insula. Meanwhile, the bride would prepare for her groom’s return. Nobody knew when that would be…to build on could take some time, but she didn’t risk it; she prepared herself, for on the day of his return would be the wedding, so she had to be ready. She didn’t want to be caught unprepared.
When the groom was done with his building, and it met his father’s approval, he would travel back to his bride. He would then blow a shofar (ram’s horn) and the bride would hear it and know that her wedding day had arrived.
Do you see what Jesus did here at the Last Supper? He took what had become a great tradition and gave it even more meaning…
Listen to his words:
John 14:2-3 (TNIV)
2 My Father’s house has plenty of room; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.
Jesus had just held a cup of wine…and gave it to his disciples. They would have immediately recognized the bridal imagery. And then Jesus says that his father’s house has many rooms…insulas. And that he, as the groom, is going away to prepare a place for his bride. And if he goes away to prepare a place for his bride, he will come back to get her.
Jesus is confessing his great love for us…his bride. He is saying, at the last supper, that he loves us so much he would pay the price…give his life for ours. He seals it with a covenant…and then goes to prepare a place for us, and if he does that…he will come back for us.