Death: The Final Week

Original Date: 
Sunday, April 13, 2014

Luke 9:51, et al The Jesus Profile: Death: The Final Week

His Death is Central
In many ways, Jesus’ death seems to be the point of His life.

Typically, a biography will devote less than 10% of their length to the person’s death. Even politically significant deaths, like the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mahatma Ghandi, will take up a relatively small portion of their life story. And yet, the official biographies of Jesus devote a total of 1/3 of their length to the final week of His life. Indeed, one early Christian commentator said the Gospels are chronicles of Jesus’ final week with increasingly longer introductions. (Yancey, p. 187)

This becomes increasingly evident when you look at the things Jesus said about His death and His reaction to its approach. The closer you look at Jesus’ story, the more apparent it becomes that there was an intentionality about His death. That is to say: He knew it was coming and deliberately moved Himself toward it. It appears, if I dare to say it, that Jesus wanted to die.

John Piper puts it like this:

The love of Christ for us in his dying was as conscious as his suffering was intentional. “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us” (1 John 3:16). If he was intentional in laying down his life, it was for us. It was love. …Every step on the Calvary road meant, “I love you…” We should feel the intensity of his love for us to the degree that we see his intentionality to suffer and die.

I’ll phrase it like this, our main idea this morning: The depth of Jesus’ love is revealed in His determination to die. We see the intensity of His love for us in the intentionality with which He approached His death.

So what I’d like to do this morning is go through some of the events of Jesus’ final week and look at the choices Jesus made to move toward death. Consider these five ways of seeing Jesus’ determination to die for us.

Set His Face
First, let’s talk about Palm Sunday, the occasion we mark today. We’ll see that Jesus was determined to go to Jerusalem.

Palm Sunday is often thought of as a celebration, the one day when Jesus seems to be receiving the acclaim He truly deserves.

When you really think about it though, it must have been one of the strangest parades in history. All these religious pilgrims, peasants mostly, crowding around a lone figure on a baby donkey, waving palm branches and throwing their coats on the ground. To the Roman soldiers in the vicinity, it must have been laughable. They knew how to do a parade—with majestic war horses and polished chariots and flashing banners and row after row of marching spearman. To them, the cries of Kingship for Jesus must have seemed like a joke.

But it wasn’t a joke to the religious authorities. When they heard the crowds shouting “Hosanna!”—an ancient way of saying “O lord help” that was associated with the coming Messiah—they went to Jesus and said: “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” Jesus’ response was:

40”I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)

In other words: what is happening is entirely appropriate. Jesus deserves to be worshipped. And if the pilgrims weren’t shouting “Hosanna” the very creation itself would cry out.

It’s for this reason that we call this the Triumphal Entry of Jesus.

But there’s also an ominous note to this story. One that speaks to Jesus’ determination to die. Luke introduces the story of Palm Sunday like this:

28After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

It’s an innocent enough verse, unless you are familiar with the narrative structure of Luke. If so, then you realize this verse is the end of a thread that runs through most of the gospel. I’ll explain.

Back in Luke 9:51, 10 chapters earlier, we read this:

51As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.

There are 24 chapters in Luke. Before we are even halfway through the book, Jesus begins His journey toward Jerusalem. And everything from this point on is colored by His approach to Jerusalem.

I like the way the older versions phrase this. They say that “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (KJV, RSV, ESV, et al) He was determined. He was resolute. The Message says that “he gathered up his courage and steeled himself for the journey”. Jesus was very intentional about going to Jerusalem.

So, in Luke 13:22 we read things like:

22Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.

And Luke 17:11:

11Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.

This portion of Luke reads like a travelogue on the way to the capital city.

So, what’s the big deal? What’s going to happen in Jerusalem? Jesus knows. Luke 13:33:

33In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem.

And, if that’s not clear enough, Jesus says it even more bluntly in Luke 18:31:

31”We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. 33On the third day he will rise again.

Jerusalem is the belly of the beast, it’s the jaws of the lion. Jerusalem is the city where prophets die. It’s the city where Jesus is going to be killed. He knows it. He sees it as clear as day.

And yet, He was determined to get there. He resolutely set His face to make this journey.

Palm Sunday was a day of triumph, but for Jesus it was also the beginning of the end.

Just as it is Written
So now let’s flash forward a bit, to Thursday night. The Last Supper. Here we’ll see that Jesus was determined to fulfill scripture.

The Last Supper is a meal which, with the benefit of hindsight, was loaded with pointers to Jesus’ death. Jesus and the disciples were celebrating the Passover meal together, an annual observance that recalled the Exodus of Israel from slavery through the agency of a sacrificial lamb’s blood spread on the door. In many ways, the birth of the nation Israel could be traced to that event. And so, when Jesus took the wine cup and said:

“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (Mark 14:24),

He was giving His disciples a lot of information about what was about to happen. Jesus knew He was going to die, and He knew His death wasn’t going to be just another tragic miscarriage of justice. The Exodus of Moses was about to be repeated, on a much larger scale.

But what has always bothered me about the Last Supper is the way Jesus predicts His own betrayal. As they are going through this meaningful ritual, on a night that is clearly filled with tension, Jesus drops this bombshell:

18I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me—one who is eating with me. (Mark 14:18)

The disciples are stunned, and they start to question one another and deny it to Jesus. So Jesus goes on to predict that it will be the one who dips bread into the bowl with Him. And sure enough, not long after, Judas dips his bread. Then he gets up and leaves. (John 13:26-27, 30)

What has always bothered me about that is none of the other disciples catch on. I mean, “Hello!”, Jesus spelled it out for them and hands over the bread right in front of them and then the guy gets up from the table and nobody tackles him? Even then, nobody believes it could be Judas? Obviously, they trusted him. They made him treasurer of their little group. John says that they assumed Judas had to go buy some more supplies for the feast or give something to the poor (John 13:20). I wonder, how could they be so daft?

But what bothers me even more is that Jesus knew. Obviously, He knew. And yet He does nothing to stop Judas. He does nothing to thwart Judas’ plan. Here’s what He says, Mark 14:21:

21The son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to the man who betrays the son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.

Jesus sees scripture at play here, He sees Himself as the fulfillment of prophecy. And He’s not about to disrupt the plan that He sees laid out in front of Him.

We don’t know exactly what scripture Jesus has in mind here, but it could be something like Isaiah 50 verse 6:

6I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.

Jesus knew what was coming. He knew that He was about to take the place of the Passover lamb. He knew the role that Judas would have in that. He knew what the scriptures predicted. But He was determined go just as it was written about Him.

Not My Will
Skip ahead a little more, to the Garden of Gethsemane. Here we’ll see that Jesus was determined to submit.

From the upper room of the Last Supper, Jesus and the disciples moved to a familiar garden on the Mount of Olives. There Jesus draws off by Himself and engages in a wrestling match of prayer with His heavenly father.

It is another measure of how aware Jesus is of what is coming in how dramatic this prayer session goes. Only two other times in Jesus life are we told that angels got involved: at His birth and at the end of His 40 day temptation in the desert. Now, for a third time, Luke says angels came and tended to Jesus as He prayed. Luke says He was in “anguish.” Luke says His sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground, and some medical doctors have attested to high stress situations where blood vessels have actually broken near the surface of the skin and people have literally sweated blood.

And what was it that caused Jesus such agony? Luke 22:42:

42Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.

Jesus is wrestling with His Father about a cup. Now, understand that the Biblical image of the cup is a symbol of God’s anger towards sin. There is a long biblical tradition that says the Day of the Lord is coming when the holy, righteous God is going to pour out the cup of His wrath against sin. Think of the words to the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “He is stamping out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored.”

So I think Jesus is thinking about dying, about going to the cross. But more than that, He’s thinking about what the cross represents. About the burden He is going to shoulder there.

And yet, as much as He is in anguish over what is coming, still He is intent to do what His Father asks. He ends with the commitment: “Not my will, but yours be done.” He is determined to submit.

We see the depth of this commitment just moments later when Judas shows up with the arresting party. Peter, in an act of bravado, pulls a sword and tries to cleave the head off a servant boy. He misses the mark, but manages to slice off an ear. Jesus responds like this:

52”Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?” (Matthew 26:52-54)

Again, we see Jesus consciously making choices so that Scripture will be fulfilled. But, more than that, we see that He had choices. He could have called in 72,000 angels to start a Holy War on His behalf. It probably wasn’t too late to rally all those pilgrims that had hailed Him on Palm Sunday and they would have taken up arms against the powers that be.

But that wasn’t the plan. It wasn’t the cup His Father was asking Him to drink. And Jesus was determined to submit to His Father’s will.

It is As You Say
Move ahead again, this time to the trials. Here we will see that Jesus was determined to reveal Himself.

One of the remarkable things about Jesus throughout most of His life was how ambivalent He was about being recognized as the Christ. We’re so used to saying “Jesus Christ” that we think of it as His last name, but it wasn’t. “Christ” was a title. The Greek word for “Messiah”. And so it was a word freighted with a great deal of expectation.

And yet, whenever people wanted to hail Him as the Messiah, Jesus tended to quiet them down. Demons would challenge Him: “What do want with us…? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” and Jesus would sternly tell them to be quiet (Mark 1:24-25). When Peter identified Him as the Christ Jesus swore the disciples to secrecy. When He healed people He told them to keep it down. Even at the height of His popularity, when the crowds chased Him around the lake like paparazzi stalking a movie star, He refused to let them crown Him King.

But now, when Jesus is on trial for His life, and the one thing that can most damage Him is to claim to be the Christ, now Jesus makes no attempt to hide His identity.

The first trial took place before the Jewish high priests and authorities. It was a comedy of errors. All kinds of accusations were hurled against them, but they couldn’t get their testimony to agree. It seemed they wouldn’t be able to pin anything on Him. Until they asked Him:

67”If you are the Christ,” they said, “tell us.” Jesus answered, “If I tell you, you will not believe me, 68and if I asked you, you would not answer. 69But from now on, the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.” (Luke 22:67-69)

Jesus could not have given an answer that would have damaged Him more. By calling Himself the Son of Man seated at the right hand of God Jesus was making Himself equal with God. There was no graver crime in Israel. Luke 22:70:

70They all asked, “Are you then the Son of God?” He replied, “You are right in saying I am.” 71Then they said, “Why do we need any more testimony? We have heard if from his own lips.”

The man who had worked so hard to conceal His true identity now wears it proudly, at the moment when is most likely to get Him killed.

But, of course, the Jews were an occupied country, and they didn’t have the authority to pass a death sentence. So now they have to get the Romans involved. And the Romans don’t care much for theological arguments.

But for them, the title of “Christ” has different implications. Someone who claims to be the King of the Jews is challenging the authority of Caesar. People claiming to be the Christ are the sorts of people who lead rebellions.

So the Jews bring Jesus before the Roman governor named Pilate.

History tells us that right about this time Pilate’s patron back in Rome, a fellow named Sejanus, had fallen out of favor with Caesar. Perhaps no one in Israel knew about it, but the Emperor had Sejanus executed and was in the process of rooting out and eliminating anyone in his government that he felt was too closely connected to Sejanus. Now these Jews are coming to Pilate and making noise about how if he doesn’t do something with Jesus he is no friend of Ceasar’s. Those words must have had an ominous ring to Pilate. Because, as John Ortberg says: “He is either Caesar’s friend or Caesar’s corpse.” (Who is this Man? p. 169)

So for Pilate, the question of whether Jesus thinks He is the Christ is very important. Pilate cannot be seen as soft towards anyone who would challenge the empire. So he asks Jesus straight up:

3So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.

Any other answer, and Jesus would have walked. Pilate still tried to find some way to let Jesus go. But in the end, he simply could not risk having a rival to Caesar running loose.

It’s remarkable. Again and again Jesus had the opportunity to say: “I am the Christ” and the people would have crowned Him on the spot. But now, when there are no crowds to rally around Him, when He’s in custody to the Romans, when there’s no chance that He’ll be mistaken as a conquering King—in other words, now that there is no chance for this to end any other way than in His own death—Jesus says: “Yes. That’s me. I’m the one they’ve been waiting for.”

When it was guaranteed to result in a death sentence, Jesus was determined to reveal who He really was.

Into Your Hands
Finally, let’s skip ahead to the cross, and the final moments of Jesus’ life. Here we’ll see that Jesus was determined to trust the Father.

With His final breath, Luke tells us:

46Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46)

Death on a cross was terrible. It’s from the word “crucifixion” that we get the English word “excruciating.” It was death by suffocation. Eventually the victim’s own weight snuffed out the ability to breathe. So every word Jesus spoke from the cross would have been a struggle. And yet, to His very last breath Jesus was determined to carry out the Father’s will.

Peter puts it like this:

23When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).

Jesus was determined to die. He was very intentional about journeying the path to the Calvary. He chose the cross.

The Depth of His Love
So why did He do it? Obviously, because He saw redemptive power in His death. Because He saw Himself as the new Passover lamb. Because He knew the plan spelled out in Scripture. Because He trusted His Father’s will for Him.

Jesus chose the cross because He knew by the cross He was buying the forgiveness of the world. In John 15:13 Jesus said this:

13Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

Jesus chose the cross out of love. And the more we see of His determination to go the cross the greater understanding we’ll have of the depth of His love for us.

I’ve heard a story about a family with two boys, we’ll call them Steven and Collin. The oldest, Steven, started to have unexplained nosebleeds so his concerned parents took him to the doctor and it was discovered he had leukemia. They were devastated. But the doctor assured them that it was very treatable. They just needed to find a suitable bone marrow donor.

So everybody came in to have their bone marrow tested. Mom and dad, grandpas and grandmas, uncles and aunts. When all the testing was done, it was discovered that the best match for Steven was his 5 year-old brother Collin. Mom and Dad asked him if he would be willing to give his bone marrow to his brother, and Collin said yes.

When the day for the transplant came, Collin was extremely nervous. Just before they wheeled him away in his hospital bed, he asked: “Daddy, is it going to hurt when I die?” Confused, his father asked him what he meant. Collin said: “They’re going to take my bone marrow and I’m going to die, but Steven is going to live.”

His dad could barely hold back the tears as he explained to his little boy that while it might be a little uncomfortable to have his bone marrow taken, he would not die from it. Both he and Steven would be able to live after this.

That little boy thought that giving his bone marrow would kill him, but he was willing to do it because he knew it would mean life for his brother.

Jesus, on the other hand, knew for a fact that the journey He was on would result in His death, but He was willing to do it because He knew it would mean life for you and me.

And that’s why the death of Jesus might just be the most important thing to know about Him.