A week ago, Palm Sunday marked Jesus Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem while the crowds cheered him and some shouted that he was the King of Israel. Yet paradoxically, despite the strong up-swelling of support, Jesus entered the city not as a conquering hero of the people astride a noble steed but rode in like a humble servant on the back of a donkey. Thus begins an amazing final week in the life of Jesus.
This story can be read in the Gospel of John from chapter 12 to 20. If you are not familiar with the story, may we suggest that you read it. It is a fascinating account and has all the elements of a great story.
The story starts with a dinner amongst friends, the calm before the storm. Yet even here we learn that there is embezzlement going on behind the scenes (John 12:6) and away from this peaceful scene, Jesus’ enemies, which included respected and powerful members of the community were plotting and mobilizing (John 12: 10).
The next day was the triumphant entry into the city. Jesus’ popularity with the common folk was never higher and many believed that he would become King (John 12: 12-15). Yet at this moment, the story foreshadows the future with Jesus saying that he must die even as a kernel of wheat must die in order that it may grow and produce many seeds (John 12: 23-24).
Jesus is a man on a mission but he is not a two-dimensional character. He suffers from doubts but yet he re-affirms his dedication to the mission that God the Father has given him. His followers and all present receive two divine signs, a voice from heaven and Jesus prophecy specifying how he will die. The people though are not happy. Their hero speaks not of victory and the lifting of Roman oppression but speaks of his own death and apparent defeat. Many begin to lose their faith in their hero (John 12: 37).
Despite, his impending doom which he himself predicted, Jesus continued to spend intimate moments with his disciples, teaching them revolutionary ways of thinking, like that the greatest should serve the least (John 13: 1-17). The story now darkens with hints of betrayal from amongst his closest friends. Jesus knows who will betray him and asks only that he does it quickly (John 13:18-30).
The disciples begin to get worried as Jesus begins to reveal to them the extent of the plot against him and warns them that they too will later suffer for their beliefs and obedience to God. Jesus comforts them and prays for his frightened flock.
The plot now moves quickly to the dreadful act of betrayal (John 18: 1-11). Judas who has been at Jesus side for most of three years meets Jesus in an olive grove, hugs him and kisses him. Alas, the kiss was the signal for the soldiers to arrest Jesus; the irony of being betrayed with a kiss. Judas’ motivation? Greed.
Next comes the court scenes. The law is subverted but a show trial is carried out. Jesus stands alone. All his friends desert him. Some would be so intimidated by fear that they would deny even knowing him (John 18:25-27).
The legal maneuvering comes to a climax when the plotters appeal for the Roman Governor to pardon a known murderer but to sentence Jesus to death. Pilate the governor wants to release Jesus as he finds him innocent of any wrong doing but is afraid of losing control of the angry mob. The mobs chant for Jesus’ blood; they warn Pilate that releasing Jesus may be construed as treason against Caesar. Pilate relents and sends Jesus to be executed by crucifixion (John 18: 28 – 19:16).
What follows is a dark tale of torture, abuse and finally a poignant death. There are no angry words from Jesus, no curses or threats. Instead, he asks God to forgive his enemies even as they stand and taunt him and mercilessly watch him die (John 19:17-37 and also Luke 23:34). The whole point of his mission was to bring forgiveness to men.
And so, Jesus died. For his mother and his family, the grief was soul-rendering. For his followers, they saw their hope die and were powerless to do anything. All that was good had been snuffed out. The forces of evil were rejoicing. It looked like the end of all the wonders that Jesus had shown them.
But like all the best of stories, hope will reappear from the ashes and victory will be snatched from death’s jaw. However, that story is for the sequel, “Crucifixion II: the Resurrection.”