Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Jesus' Last Week: Crucifixion and Resurrection


Last week we talked about how Palm Sunday was actually a dangerous day.  It was more of a political demonstration than a religious event:  or at least that’s how most people would have seen it.  The people who were singing and praising Jesus didn’t understand his message.  That’s why he stood on the Mt. of Olives weeping over them and weeping over Jerusalem. 

Then he entered the Temple and overturned the tables of the moneychangers and threw out those buying and selling there.  This made the leadership of the nation even more angry with him. 

All this time, his disciples believed something fantastic was about to happen, that the kingdom of God was about to come, and the Romans would be removed from their country.  Even at the Last Supper, they were thinking about fighting the Romans.  When Jesus was talking about his crucifixion, they said,   "Lord, look, here are two swords!"  They didn’t understand what he was talking about, and they didn’t understand what was going to happen, even though he had warned them over and over again.

After the Passover Meal, the Bible says they sang a song.  This was probably the Hallel psalms that are still read or sung at Passover today. 

Garden of Gethsemane

Then they went out to the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mt. of Olives.  This was a beautiful, quiet spot near the city.  John mentions that “Jesus often met there with his disciples” (John 18:2).  But this Passover night, Jesus was locked here in a battle of prayer.  Part of the battle was deciding to stay in Jerusalem.  All he had to do was walk five or ten minutes up to the top of the Mt. of Olives and he would be out in the desert, where no one could ever find him.  But if he stayed, it meant death. 

Gethsemane means "Oil Press."  This was a place where olives were crushed to make olive oil.  This was a two step process.  First the olives were crushed under a stone wheel.  Then the crushed olives were put into the press in a basket or sack.  The press used a heavy rock to press down on the sack of olives, which pressed out the oil. 

Oil Press

This is exactly the picture the Bible gives us of Jesus that night, as he was pressed in the Garden of the Olive Press.  We usually picture Jesus kneeling in the Garden to pray, but Matthew says that he lay flat down on the ground and prayed (“And having gone a little ahead of them, he fell on his face, praying…” Matt. 26:39). 

Luke says that his sweat was dropping off him like drops of blood (“And being in agony, he was praying very fervently; and his sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground,” Luke 22:44).  It doesn’t say it was blood, only that it fell like blood.  How does blood drip?  Thick and heavy, like oil from an olive press.  So the image painted for us in the gospels is that he was laid out, flat on his face in prayer, with thick drops of sweat rolling off him, just like the oil in an olive press.  Jesus himself was being pressed in the garden of the olive press. 

The disciples fell asleep almost as soon as they got there.  I used to be angry at them for this.  But that was before I celebrated my first Passover.  Peter and John would have spent the whole day preparing the meal:  taking the lamb to the Temple, roasting it, fixing all the other food.  With all the singing and Scripture reading and prayers, the meal would take at least four to five hours.  Some people were up all night celebrating.  This means the earliest they could have arrived in the Garden of Gethsemane was after midnight, and it might have been later than that.  No wonder they were tired. 

Later that night, Judas arrived with an armed crowd to betray Jesus with a kiss.  This was the moment when everything began to go terribly wrong for the disciples.  Peter drew his sword, and cut off the ear of the servant of the high priest.  The disciples were ready to fight.  But Jesus told him to put away his sword.  Jesus didn’t resist the crowd, but went along with them willingly.  The disciples were shocked; they were scared, and went running away in every direction.  This didn’t fit with their hopes and dreams.  Why would Jesus let himself be arrested? 

Palace like that of Caiaphas
After he was arrested, Jesus was taken to the palace of Caiaphas, the high priest, for questioning.  Somewhere in the palace was a courtyard where a group of people huddled around a fire on that chilly spring night—when Peter came up to join them.  How did Peter get into the courtyard of a private and closely guarded palace like this?  No one knows.  Scripture says only that his companion, probably the apostle John, was "known to the High Priest" (John 18:15,16).  In other words, John was recognized by the doorkeeper, who let them in.  But how could a fisherman from Galilee, a follower of Jesus, have a “security clearance” to get into the Palace of the High Priest?  All kinds of legends have been made up about this, claiming John was of priestly descent, and so on.  But the bottom line is that no one really knows. 

Before long, Peter was recognized—his accent gave him away—and rather than stand up for his Teacher, as he boldly promised to do a few hours before, he denied Jesus and swore he didn't know him.  And then the rooster crowed.  This was probably about 2 or 3 am.

Meanwhile, inside the palace, the high priest asked Jesus if he was the Messiah, the Son of God (“I charge you under oath by the living God, tell us whether you are the Messiah the Son of God.’” Matt. 26:63).  When Jesus said “yes” (“you have said it,” Matt. 26:64), this was blasphemy as far as the Council (the Sanhedrin) was concerned.  The high priest tore his inner garments, which was the customary thing to do when you heard blasphemy (Matt. 26:65).  Now, there was no more need for a trial.  To their minds, Jesus had committed a serious offense right there before their eyes.  This made a trial unnecessary.  The punishment for blasphemy, according to Jewish law, was death by stoning.  But instead of putting him to death themselves, since they were afraid of the people, the Council sent Jesus to Pontius Pilate.  

The next day was already dawning when Jesus was taken to the Praetorium, the residence of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea.  We’re not sure which of three buildings in the city this was. But most likely, it was the Western Palace built by Herod the Great.

The Western Palace
Christians have mixed feelings about Pilate.  In one church he was even made a saint (the Egyptian church).  But historians at the time described Pilate as cruel, corrupt, and inhumane.  Pilate's attempts to free Jesus were probably intended more to mock the Jewish leadership than to help Jesus.  The issue was finally decided when the charge of rebellion was raised against Jesus—a crime of great concern to any Roman (“As a result of this Pilate made efforts to release him, but the Jews cried out, saying, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of Caesar; everyone who makes himself out to be a king opposes Caesar,’” John 19:12). 

This forced Pilate to take action, and so he sat down on the judgment seat “at a place called the Pavement” (John 19:13).  This was probably the paved area between the two wings of the Western Palace, some of which has been found by archeologists.  Here he pronounced judgment against Jesus.  But even in that judgment his mockery continued:  "Shall I crucify your king?" (John 19:15). 

Although Christian tradition pictures Jesus carrying the entire cross to Golgotha, the actual Roman practice was for condemned prisoners to carry only the crossbar, called the patibulum in Latin.  So then why did Jesus fall down under its weight? 

You have to remember that before this, he had the scourging, the whipping, with thirty-nine lashes.  This was done with something like what we call a cat-o’-nine-tails, a whip with several cords on it.  At the end of each of these cords was a sharp piece of metal or broken glass.  The damage from the whipping came not only from the impact of these cords on your back, which didn’t feel good of course; but each one of those sharp pieces of metal or glass stuck in the skin of your back.  And then when the whip was pulled back again with a jerk, it ripped out tiny pieces of flesh.  After this was done thirty-nine times, you no longer had any skin left on your back, just a big, open wound.  Many people died from the whipping alone. 

Jesus was also beaten in addition to this by the soldiers, and had a crown of thorns pushed down on his head.  So it’s a miracle that he was even able to walk to the place of crucifixion, let alone carry something heavy.  You, too, would tire carrying something heavy like that in the hot desert sun up and down the steps in the streets of Jerusalem.

It was the custom for each prisoner to wear a sign around his neck, called a titulus in Latin.  This announced the crime that he was guilty of, and was a last chance for justice.  Because if anyone saw him being led through the streets that had evidence he was innocent, he could quickly run to the governor before the death sentence was carried out.  But in the case of Jesus, his sign was more mockery from Pilate:  "Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews" (John 19:19).  How can a king come from the tiny, unimportant town of Nazareth?  This is the sign that was later nailed on the cross over Jesus’ head. 

Crucifixion was not used for Roman citizens, but only for those who did not have citizenship.  It was a long, slow way to die.  You could be on the cross for days.  Here, Jesus was exposed to the hot sun and the loss of blood through the wounds in his hands and feet.  The actual cause of death was hypovolemic shock: low blood pressure and reduced blood flow to the cells and tissue, which led to death. 

Trees used as crosses
Recent archeological evidence pictures the cross quite differently than Christian tradition:  The upright post was probably a rooted olive tree with the branches stripped away.  This helps explain why the cross is so often called "the tree" in the original Greek of the New Testament (the cross is called “the tree” in Acts 5:30, 10:39, 13:29; Gal. 3:13; and 1 Pet. 2:24, though often translated “cross” instead). 

Since the trunks of olive trees only grow to about seven to eight feet in height, this means that the feet of the victim were just a few inches off the ground.  This is quite different than in Christian art, which usually shows Jesus far off the ground.  The reality was much less pleasant. 

But what about the soldier that lifted up the sponge to Jesus on a stick?  Doesn’t this prove that Jesus was high up above the ground?  John tells us that this stick was a branch of hyssop (“They put a sponge full of the sour wine on a branch of hyssop, and brought it up to his mouth,” John 19:29).  Hyssop is a little bush that only grows to about a meter in height.  The soldier used the stick not because Jesus was so far away, but out of disgust, so he didn’t have to touch the criminal. 

The nail was not put through the flat part of the foot, as we often imagine, but through the ankle.  Studies have shown that if they put the nails through the palms of the hands and the flat part of the foot, it couldn’t hold up the body, and would just rip through the flesh.  Instead, they put the nails through the wrists and the ankles.  In the case of one victim whose remains have been found, they put his feet one on either side of the cross, and nailed in sideways through his ankles, one nail for each ankle. 

In this same victim, there was also a gap between the head of the nail and the bone of his foot.  What was this for?  In order to get a breath on the cross, you had to push up to breathe, putting pressure on the wounds in your wrists and ankles.  After many hours of doing this, the holes of the nails would get wider and wider.  And eventually, you could just pull free from the cross.  To stop this from happening, they put a small piece of wood in front of your wrist (or ankle), and then drove the nail through the piece of wood, then through your wrist (or ankle) and into the cross.  This way, you couldn’t pull off the cross before you were dead.   

Jesus was on the cross from the time of the morning sacrifice at about 9 am to the time of the afternoon (or “evening”) sacrifice at about 3 pm. 

At noon, there was a strange darkness that came over the land.  What was the meaning of this?  To us, it just seems like a strange supernatural thing.  But it would have reminded the people there that day of something.  This was like the plague of darkness of the Exodus that they had been reading about the night before in the Passover Meal (“And I will pass through the land of Egypt on this night and I will strike all the first born in the land of Egypt,” Exo. 12:12).    In Exodus, the plague of darkness was the next to last plague.  And what was the last plague?  The death of the first born.  What was the message of this darkness?  That Jesus was the first born child of God. 

At 3 pm, Jesus cried out (“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Matt. 27:46).  And then, soon after, he died.  What was the meaning of these words?  Did God really forsake him, as some say.  Actually, Jesus was quoting the opening verse of Psalm 22, which is the most amazing detailed prophecy of his crucifixion.  It mentions the people sneering at him (22:7), his thirst (22:15), the piercing of his hands and feet (22:16), the dividing of his garments by the soldiers (22:18)…just incredible!  But it also mentions his total and eternal victory, with the gospel going out to the ends of the earth (22:27)!

Then one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side (“but one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately there came out blood and water,” John 19:34).  What was the purpose of this?  To be sure that Jesus was dead.  The fact that water came out with the blood means that he broke the pericardium around the heart which, if Jesus was not already dead, would have killed him for sure.  This is also mentioned in Psalm 22, vs. 14:  “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint…”

Jewish burial always takes place on the day of death, even today (though certain exceptions are allowed).  So Jesus was taken quickly to be buried, especially since the Sabbath was about to begin, on which no more work could be done.  Criminals were usually put in a common grave.  But exceptions were sometimes made, as in the case of Jesus, whose body was taken away by Joseph of Arimathea.  As it says in John 19:38:  “And after these things Joseph of Arimathea, being a disciple of Jesus, but a secret one for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus; and Pilate granted permission.  He came therefore, and took away his body.”   Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the Sanhedrin Council, the highest council of the Jews.  Then, as it says in Luke 23:53:  “And he took it down [the body of Jesus] and wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid him in a tomb cut into the rock, where no one had ever lain.”  According to Matthew, this tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea himself (Matt. 27:60). 

Tomb from the time of Jesus
Many of the tombs in ancient Israel were man-made caves carved out of the rock.  These were not single burials, but family burial places, reused over and over again for centuries.  They were always located outside of town, because they were considered unclean.  If you stepped on a tomb or even touched a tomb, it made you unclean for seven days.  (Because of this, all the tombs in Israel were whitewashed at Passover time, so no one would accidently touch one and become unclean.  If you were unclean, you could not eat the Passover.) 

Bench inside the tomb
These tombs had a low entrance opening or shaft.  You had to bow down or kneel down to get in.  This led into an entrance room, which then led into a small room with a carved stone bench on three sides.  The dead body was laid out on this bench to prepare it for burial.  Here it was wrapped in grave cloths mixed with spices.  For Jesus, Nicodemus brought 100 Roman pounds (75 lbs, 34 kg) of a mixture of myrrh and aloes (a Middle Eastern tree sap, used also by the Egyptians for embalming).  You can buy myrrh in the market in Israel today.  The good quality myrrh is quite expensive.  They mixed the myrrh and aloes together, then sprinkled them in the cloth as the body was wrapped.  The reason for this was because of the horrible smell in the hot climate.  (John 19:39,40: “And Nicodemus came also, who had first come to him by night; bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds. And so they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen wrappings with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews.”)  This is the same Nicodemus that came to Jesus in John 3, asking how a person can be born again.  Nicodemus was also a member of the Sanhedrin Council.  So here we can see that belief in Jesus had reached the highest levels of Jewish society. 

Now getting the spices and preparing the body like this were considered work.  But this day was the first day of Passover, which the Bible says was to be a day of rest, just like a Sabbath.  So why were they doing work like this on a feast day?  Because they were allowed to do all necessary tasks for the dead even on Sabbaths and feast days.  The body had to be buried right away, no matter what day it was.   

Luke 23:55,56: “Now the women who had come with [Jesus] out of Galilee followed after, and saw the tomb and how his body was laid.  And they returned and prepared spices and perfumes.  And on the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.”  The final preparations of the body could be done later, so the women waited to do these other things until after the Sabbath.  Relatives and friends often visited the tomb until the third day, after which the corruption of the body was understood to begin.

Tombs were sealed with a stone plug of various kinds.  Most just had a large stone pushed into the opening, others made a little stone wall.  But those who could afford it had a rolling stone door, called golel in Hebrew.  This was a circular stone set in a shaft or stone track so it could not tip over.  The track was angled, so it was easy to close, but difficult to open.  This was the kind used in the tomb of Jesus.  As it says in Matthew 27:60:  “And laid [Jesus’ body] in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock; and he rolled a large stone up to the entrance of the tomb and went away.”  Of the hundreds of burials found from the time of Jesus, only a handful were sealed with a rolling stone of this kind.  Every one of these tombs with a rolling stone were the tombs of wealthy individuals.  Why is this important?  It matches the New Testament, since Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man.  It’s also a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, in Isaiah 53:9:  And he will make his tomb with the wicked, and with one who is rich in his death, because he will do no violence and there will be no deceit in his mouth.   

After a burial, there were seven days of mourning (known as “sitting sheva [seven]”).  This is why the disciples remained together during this time.  During the days of mourning, mourners would sit on low stools or on the ground.  It was forbidden to wash, put on perfume, study, or do any business.  The first three days of the week were considered the “days of weeping.” As it says in John 20:11, “Mary was standing outside the tomb weeping.”  Sometimes they visited the tomb during these first three days.  After that they would seal the body in the tomb.   

But Jesus did not stay very long in that tomb.  On the third day he rose from the dead!  Why is it important that Jesus rose on the third day?  As I mentioned, it was believed that corruption began after the third day.  But Jesus rose before this.  As Peter said in Acts 2:31:  David “looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh suffer decay.”  What verse is this talking about?  Psalm 16:10:  “For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol; you will not make your faithful one to see corruption.”  There is also the prophecy of Hos. 6:2:  "He will revive us after two days; he will raise us up on the third day."  And there is the sign of Jonah:  “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the huge fish, so will the son of man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Matt. 12:40).


So when exactly did Jesus arise?  When did this incredible miracle take place?  For religious purposes in Judaism, any part of a day was equal to a day.  So, for example, if you became unclean just an hour before the end of a day, that hour was considered the first day of your uncleanness.  For Jesus, his first day in the tomb was Friday late in the afternoon, when he was laid in the tomb.  His second day was from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, which was the Sabbath day according the Jewish way of counting the days (from sunset to sunset).  His third day began on Saturday at sunset.  So Jesus could have arisen anytime from Saturday just after sunset to Sunday just before sunrise. 

But what does it mean when we say Jesus arose?  Jesus himself had raised people from the dead, like Lazarus for example.  But this was not an eternal resurrection.  Lazarus was raised in an ordinary human body, of the kind that we all have today.  So later, when he got older, Lazarus died again. 

But when Jesus arose, this was an eternal resurrection, of the kind we will experience when Jesus returns.  As it says in 1 Cor. 15:20:  “But Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep.”  He is the first of many that will follow. 

Jesus, when he was raised, was able to do things that ordinary humans cannot do.  He could appear anywhere and disappear at will.  As it says in John 20:19:  “On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”  How did Jesus get in the room if the doors were shut and locked?  The same thing happened a week later, when Jesus appeared to Thomas (John 20:26). 

Because of this, the apostles thought they were seeing a ghost or spirit (“But while they were telling these things, he himself stood in their midst.  But they were startled and frightened and thought that they were seeing a spirit,” Luke 24:36,37).  But Jesus was quick to show them that what they were seeing was not a spirit:  “See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself; touch me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have’” (Luke 24:39).

Already before this, when Mary Magdalene saw Jesus near the tomb, it says that the women had touched his feet (“And behold, Jesus met them saying, ‘Greetings.’  But those who came up to him grasped his feet and prostrated themselves before him,” Matt. 28:9).  Mary had held onto him so tightly, that Jesus had to tell her to let go (“Jesus said to her, ‘Stop holding onto me, for I am not yet ascended to the Father…’” John 20:17).  You can’t hold on to a spirit. 

With the disciples, he proposed another test to prove that he was real.  “He said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ And they gave him a piece of broiled fish; and he took it and ate it before them” (Luke 24:41-43).  Obviously a spirit cannot eat a fish. 

Later, when the disciples saw Jesus by the Sea of Galilee, he ate a meal of fish and bread with them (John 21:9-14).  Jesus was raised in his own body, a real, physical body, but that body had been changed.  It was a body that could never die again. 

It was in this same body that the disciples watched Jesus a few weeks later ascend into heaven.  And when Jesus returns, he will come back in that same physical body.  As the angels said in Acts 1:11:  “And they also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched him go into heaven.’”

The apostle Paul helps us understand the mystery of the resurrection body in 1 Cor. 15:42:  “So also is the resurrection of the dead.  It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body.”  Our bodies are like a seed sown in the ground.  When we die and are put in the tomb, our bodies are in a state of corruption.  In fact, that’s the way our bodies are right now.  We can get sick, we can die, things in our bodies can stop working properly.  But in the resurrection, our bodies will no longer be subject to corruption. 

One of the most dramatic proofs of the resurrection of Jesus is the effect it had on the disciples.  Before this, they were hiding away in locked rooms for fear that they, too, would be arrested and put to death.  But after seeing Jesus alive, they boldly proclaimed the gospel to whoever would listen.  Many of them went to distant countries to proclaim the gospel.  And according to tradition, all but one, John, died for their faith.  That’s a big change.  Because of their meetings with the resurrected Jesus, they completely lost their fear of death. 

Through Jesus’ resurrection, God revealed to us that this life is not the end, nor is death the end.  God is going to bring us a new life that will last forever.  What about you?  Are you still afraid of death?  You can be set free from that fear right now, today, by accepting Jesus.  He’s alive.  And he’s here by his Spirit.  All you have to do is say yes to him.  Say yes to his invitation to become a believer in him.  And he will come into your life, and change your life.

As Jesus said to Martha:  “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26).  Do you believe it?  What better day to accept Jesus than today, the day he rose from the dead?  If you’re a believer, you no longer have anything to fear.  Jesus has gone before us to show us the way, and to show us the glory that will soon be ours.  Amen?  Let’s pray…

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