Jesus was celebrated, honored, denied, arrested, tried, and crucified all in a matter of days. But on Sunday, He rose from the dead, conquering the power of sin and death over humankind.
The first four books of the New Testament–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John– or the Gospels, have much to say about Holy Week. But these books of the Bible also reveal themes, teachings, stories, and symbols that modern-day Christians might miss in reading the familiar passages.
This is why we spoke with Dr. Richard Vinson, a biblical scholar who knows the Gospels well, including the historical context of Jesus’ time and the different themes through which the Gospel writers convey their God-given messages.
It’s important to dig a little deeper into the Bible and possibly gain a fresh perspective so that when Easter Sunday arrives, we can stand ready to follow the risen Christ in the ways He has commanded.
Q/ Tell us about the last week of Jesus’ life.
A/ According to Mark, Jesus entered Jerusalem on “Palm” Sunday, with his disciples singing psalms and putting down their cloaks and “leafy branches” for him to ride across, sitting on a donkey. The next day he cursed a fig tree and entered the Temple to create a disturbance.
The next day (Tuesday) he came back to the Temple to teach, and on the way in he and his disciples noticed the fig tree was withered. He answered challenges to his authority, asked a few tough questions of his own, and predicted the Temple’s destruction. On Wednesday he ate dinner in the house of Simon the leper, where a woman anointed him (“for my burial,” says Jesus).
Either that same night or the next morning Judas made arrangements with the Temple leaders to hand Jesus over to them. Thursday night Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples, gave them the Lord’s Supper as a commemorative meal, and was arrested after praying.
During the night he was interrogated by the Sanhedrin, who decided, early Friday morning, to hand him over to Pilate. Pilate examined him and asked the crowds to choose between Jesus and Barabbas; they chose Barabbas, and Jesus was condemned and crucified. He was dead sometime after noon, and was buried before sundown and the start of the Sabbath. Sunday he was raised from the dead.
Q/ According to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus cries out while on the cross and says, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Tell us more about the meaning behind this statement and why Jesus might have said it.
A/ I can’t speculate on Jesus’ motives, but I can guess what Mark may have thought about it. Mark’s narrative shows Jesus’ support peeling away from him: first Judas, then the rest of the disciples (who run away when Jesus is arrested), then Peter (who denies he knows Jesus), and then he is left alone with those who hate him.
The Sanhedrin hands him over to Pilate, who hands him over to be killed. At the end in Mark, everyone makes fun of Jesus–the guards, the Temple leaders, even the other criminals being crucified.
I think Mark wants to demonstrate, with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” that Mark understood Jesus to feel desolate and alone. But the phrase is also the first line of Psalm 22, which speaks at first of how it would feel to be very near death, and then turns to expressions of hope and faith in God’s ability to bring the sufferer back to health.
I think Mark may also want us to think about that aspect–that Jesus was desolate, but not defeated, and still believed that God would raise him, as Jesus had been predicting.
Q/ The Gospels each imply slightly different ways to understand Christ’s death. Will you explain them briefly?
A/ The New Testament asks and answers that question in several ways: (1) The earliest confession (1 Corinthians 15:3) says “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,” which offers two reasons–that Jesus’ death was as a sacrifice for our sins and that it was in accord with God’s plan revealed in the Old Testament.
The Gospels pick up on this and relate Jesus’ death in several ways to the image of the Servant of God in Isaiah 53 whose death brings forgiveness of sins.
(2) Another early way of explaining Jesus’ death was that by dying and being raised, Christ defeated the evil powers who control the earth and who, through the power of death, terrorize God’s people.
(3) Luke presents Jesus’ death as a model for us, especially for those who face martyrdom. If we imitate him, we will die bravely and with full assurance in God’s care for us.
(4) John’s Gospel presents perhaps a dozen different ways to think about the cross: as a beacon drawing the world to God; as a journey Jesus took back to God in order to prepare the way for us; as a sign of God’s love for the world. This last was an especially bold move, since crucifixion was done in order to humiliate and discredit someone.
Q/ How should Christians understand following Jesus Christ by the way of the cross? Surely, by “taking up the cross and following” Christ, this doesn’t mean that believers should allow themselves to be unjustly abused. What does it mean?
A/ We don’t enjoy thinking about being unjustly abused, but the Gospels are pretty clear that “the way of the cross” does include suffering without retaliation. In Luke, for example, Jesus says “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Jesus shows how you do that by saying (only in Luke) “Father, forgive them.”
However, none of the Gospel writers lived in a time or place where ordinary people had any sort of recourse against being persecuted by the wealthy or the Roman colonizers. We can hope to change the circumstances that lead to abuse in a way that New Testament writers could not imagine. We can vote; we can expect police and social workers to step in regardless of the victim’s race or sex or economic status.
We can resist evil without resorting to violence or retaliation; and we should remember that Jesus expects us to do good to the evildoer, which is a broader responsibility than merely stopping someone from doing more harm.
Q/ In the Gospels we hear the phrase “The Kingdom of God” often. What did the authors intend for that phrase to mean? How is it used as a theme?
A/ The Kingdom of God is used often by Mark, Matthew, and Luke, and sparingly by John and the rest of the New Testament. It means the reign of God, when God’s will is done “on earth as in heaven.”
In Mark, the stress is on how the Kingdom breaks in suddenly when the Son of Man returns, but how the signs of its arrival are already present in Jesus’ ministry of exorcism, healing, and preaching.
Matthew takes Mark’s themes over and adds the details of how some of the dead were raised when Christ was raised, showing that in his view, Jesus’ resurrection began the Kingdom of God.
Luke uses the many meals that Jesus has, with friends, sinners, and Pharisees, to symbolize the forgiveness and reconciliation that is available in the Kingdom. John’s Jesus tells Pilate “my kingdom is not of this world,” and in John one gets the impression that “kingdom of God” is another way to think about “eternal life” or “abiding with Christ”–not Heaven only, but the believer’s life with God that begins with faith.
Q/ What challenges might the Gospels have for American Christians and our particular weaknesses?
A/ I’ll give 3: (1) The Gospels, especially Luke, condemn materialism. The whole notion that it’s OK to be as rich as we like so long as we give some fraction to the church–the Gospels not only challenge that, they repudiate it.
(2) Matthew and Luke say that Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and do them good. As the bumper sticker says, it’s hard to imagine that he meant to bomb our enemies.
(3) All four Gospels have Jesus say that among Christians, the object is to be like children or like slaves, and that using power to get what we want is set aside.
Q/ What does Luke’s Gospel have to teach us about forgiveness and repentance?
A/ Luke is the only one where Jesus offers forgiveness to those who kill him and to a penitent thief. In Luke, Jesus celebrates communion with all 12 disciples before he speaks of the one who will hand him over.
Then in Luke’s second volume, Acts, Stephen forgives those who stone him. So one lesson is that forgiveness is offered regardless of repentance–God’s gift of grace does not depend on our response.
The other side is repentance: those who come to Jesus in Luke often do so by confessing and repenting. Peter says “I’m a sinful man O Lord”; the woman who anoints his feet does so because she has been forgiven; Zacchaeus, the Lukan counterpart to the rich man who won’t give away his possessions, does repent and promise to make restitution.
Q/ What part of the Gospels has struck you as a powerful meditation for this Easter, maybe in regard to what is going on around the world right now or in contemporary culture?
A/ I have been thinking about the passage at the end of Mark 12 when Jesus tells the scribe that “love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength” and “love your neighbor as yourself” are the two greatest commandments. The scribe agrees with him, and Jesus tells him that he isn’t far from God’s Kingdom.
With all the bad news lately, it has helped me to think that the most important things we do are loving God and loving each other. If we focused on that, could we stop fighting so much? Could we stop measuring ourselves and others by how much money we make?
An Alabama native, Richard B. Vinson was educated at Samford University, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Duke University. He has served churches in Alabama, Nebraska, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia. Vinson taught at Averett University (Danville, Virginia), where he was dean of Arts and Sciences for five years, and at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, where he was dean of the faculty. Vinson currently is a visiting professor in the Department of Religion at Salem College (Winston-Salem, North Carolina).
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