Believing Firmly In The Power Of Prayer
Holy Week marks the final few days of Jesus’ life before he died on the cross on Good Friday and then rose again on Easter Sunday. Where Good Friday is a solemn remembrance of Jesus’ life and death, Easter Sunday is a roaring celebration of his resurrection to new life! And because he is alive, we are alive in him.
To help prepare our hearts and guide our prayers leading up to this weekend, feel free to follow along in these readings.
(All readings in this guide are from Desiring God.)
HOW TO USE THIS PRAYER GUIDE:
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Access the Week of Prayer Guide here every day this week.
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Spend time meditating on the Bible verses in each reading and praying as the Spirit of God leads you to pray.
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Spend time each day this week praying for people the Lord is using you to reach. Pray for them each day this week, that God would use Good Friday and Easter weekend to give them new life in Jesus Christ.
Pray for the Lord to move in power and glory in our midst so that many would know him and be forever changed by him.
WEEK OF Prayer Guide
“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9–10)
Palm Sunday is the day in the church year when traditionally we mark the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem for the last week of his life.
As he rode into town on the humble beast, Jesus was not oblivious to what was about to happen to him. His enemies were going to get the upper hand, and he would be rejected and crucified. And within a generation the city would be obliterated. Here’s how Jesus says it in Luke 19:43–44:
The days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.
God was visiting them in Jesus, his Son — “he came to his own, and his own received him not” (John 1:11). But they did not know the time of their visitation. So they stumbled over the stumbling stone. The builders rejected the stone and threw it away. Jesus saw this coming.
The King Cries
How did he respond? “When he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes’” (Luke 19:41–42). Jesus wept over the blindness and the impending misery of Jerusalem.
How would you describe these tears? I would call them tears of sovereign mercy. The effect they should have on us is to make us admire Christ and treasure him above all others and worship him as our merciful Sovereign. And when we have seen the beauty of his mercy, we become merciful with him and like him and for his glory.
So, let’s admire Christ together on this Palm Sunday.
Admiring His Tender Sovereignty
What makes Christ so admirable and so different than all other persons is that he unites in himself so many qualities that in other people are contrary to each other. We can imagine supreme sovereignty, and we can imagine tenderhearted mercy. But to whom do we look to combine, in perfect proportion, merciful sovereignty and sovereign mercy? We look to Jesus. No other religious or political contender even comes close.
Look at three pointers to his sovereignty in the Palm Sunday account.
First, the crowds praised God for Jesus’s mighty works (Luke 19:37). He had healed leprosy with a touch; he had made the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk; he had commanded the unclean spirits and they obeyed him; he had stilled storms and walked on water and turned five loaves and two fish into a meal for thousands. So as he entered Jerusalem, they knew nothing could stop him. He could just speak and Pilate would perish; the Romans would be scattered. He was sovereign.
Then look, secondly, at verse 38. The crowds cried out, “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” Jesus was a King, and not just any king, but the one sent and appointed by the Lord God. They knew how Isaiah had described him — as sovereign over an invincible, never-ending kingdom:
Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:7)
A universal, never-ending kingdom backed by the zeal of almighty God. Here was the King of the universe, who today rules over the nations and the galaxies, and for whom America and ISIS and every other political state are only a grain of sand and a vapor.
Third, verse 40. When the Pharisees tell him to make the people stop blessing him as a king, he answers, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). Why? Because Jesus will be praised! The whole design of the universe is that Christ be praised. And therefore, if people won’t do it, he will see to it that rocks do it.
In other words, he is sovereign. He will get what he means to get. If we refuse to praise, the rocks will get the joy.
Fulfillment, Not Failure
It is remarkable, therefore, that the tears of Jesus in verse 41 are so often used to deny his sovereignty. Someone will say, “Look, he weeps over Jerusalem because his design for them is not coming to pass. He would delight in their salvation. But they are resistant. They are going to reject him. They are going to hand him over to be crucified. And so his purpose for them has failed.” But there is something not quite right about this objection to Jesus’s sovereignty.
He can make praise come from rocks. And so he could do the same from rock-hard hearts in Jerusalem. What’s more, all this rejection and persecution and killing of Jesus are not the failure of Jesus’s plan, but the fulfillment of it.
Listen to what he said in Luke 18:31–33 a short time before:
And taking the twelve, he said to them, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written [planned!] about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise.”
The betrayal, the mockery, the shame, the spit, the flogging, the murder — and so much more — was planned. In other words, the resistance, the rejection, the unbelief and hostility were not a surprise to Jesus. They were, in fact, part of the plan. He says so.
This is probably why it says at the end of verse 42, “But now they are hidden from your eyes.” Remember what Jesus said about his parables in Luke 8:10: “To you [disciples] it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’” God was handing them over to hardness. It was judgment.
Merciful and Mighty
The mercy of God is a sovereign mercy. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). But here is the point we see on Palm Sunday: This sovereign Christ weeps over the hard-hearted, perishing people of Jerusalem as they fulfilled his plan. It is unbiblical and wrong to make the tears of mercy a contradiction to the serenity of sovereignty. Jesus was serene in sorrow, and sorrowful in sovereignty. Jesus’s tears are the tears of sovereign mercy.
And therefore his sovereign power is the more admirable and the more beautiful. It’s the harmony of things that seem in tension that makes him glorious — “merciful and mighty,” as we sing. We admire power more when it is merciful power. And we admire mercy more when it is mighty mercy.
O, that we would see and savor the beauty of Christ — the Palm Sunday tears of sovereign joy and the self-sacrificing love and obedience that took him every step of the way during Holy Week. And O, that as we admire and worship him this week we would be changed by what we see and become more tenderly-moved, self-denying, need-meeting people.
He entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and those who bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. (Mark 11:15)
This particular Monday may have felt like the proverbial Monday morning in the modern Western world — a time to reengage the grind and get back to work. Jesus, indeed, walked into Jerusalem to take care of business.
The meek and mild Jesus of progressive “tolerance” that so many of our contemporaries have come to prefer was nowhere to be found when he made a mess of the money-changers. There was nothing soft and tender on display when Jesus, in Jeremiah-like fashion, pronounced a resounding judgment on Israel.
In no uncertain terms, his rebuke fell on their worship.
Pigeons! Get Your Pigeons!
The Christian tradition in which I was raised regularly had visiting musical groups play concerts. As you can imagine, these groups would have their albums and other merchandise to promote on the circuit, but at our local church, they weren’t allowed to sell them — at least not in the church foyer where most attenders entered. The rationale came from Mark 11:15–19 when Jesus cleansed the temple. Jesus clearly didn’t like it when folks hawked their wares around the temple, and therefore we shouldn’t sell stuff around the sanctuary.
To be sure, the place of worship in first-century Judaism and the auditorium of a rural Baptist church in America don’t exactly correspond, but true to Jesus’s words, my home church didn’t want the place of worship to be co-opted as a place of commerce. And that much is right.
So this is one temple problem going on in Jesus’s day. If you can imagine, the city would have been packed with pilgrims because of Passover. They would have come to the temple to offer sacrifices and, seizing an opportunity, pigeon-vendors set up shop. It might not have been too different from a sporting event today when sweaty salesmen walk the aisles and herald their popcorn — except these were sacrificial birds, their motive was sinister, and the prices were probably jacked even higher. “Pigeons! Get your pigeons!” they would have hollered.
Without doubt, this is a far cry from what the place of worship should have been, and Jesus wouldn’t have it. Turning heads by his claim of authority, Jesus spoke for God and turned over tables. And central to it all was what he quoted from the Old Testament, from Isaiah and Jeremiah:
Out of Sync
The co-op for commerce was a problem, but that wasn’t the only thing, or even the main thing, that Jesus was addressing. The real fiasco was how out of sync Israel’s worship was with the great end-times vision Isaiah had prophesied — the new age that Jesus had come to inaugurate.
Jesus quotes a portion of that vision from Isaiah 56: “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations.”
The context of Isaiah 56 tells us more. According to Isaiah’s vision, eunuchs would keep God’s covenant (Isaiah 56:4), and foreigners would join themselves to him (Isaiah 56:6), and the outcasts would be gathered with his people (Isaiah 56:8). But Jesus approached a temple pulsing with buying and selling. The court of the Gentiles, the place designed all along for foreigners to congregate, for the nations to seek the Lord, was overrun with opportunists trying to turn a profit. And the Jewish leaders had let this happen.
Their economic drive, and their false security in the temple as an emblem of blessing (Jeremiah 7:3–11), had crowded out space for the nations to draw near, and therefore Jesus was driving them out. The great sadness of this scene wasn’t so much the rows of product and price-gouging, but that all this left no room for the Gentiles and outcasts to come to God. This place of worship should have prefigured the hope of God’s restored creation — a day when “all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob’” (Isaiah 2:2–3).
In other words, the ultimate vision of God’s people in God’s place would look a little more motley than it did when Jesus stepped foot into Jerusalem. And because their worship was so far removed from this vision, Jesus had enough. The worship of God’s people was so out of line with God’s purposes that zeal consumed God’s messiah. It had to stop.
What About Us?
And here is the lesson for us on this Monday of Holy Week, or really, here is the question.
How well does our worship prefigure the prophetic vision of the new creation? Do our relational investments and our corporate gatherings reflect, even in a small way, the heart of a God who gathers the outcasts?
This question is no more relevant than on Easter, when our churches try especially to look their finest. When we assemble for worship this weekend, no one will set up tables to exchange currency. No one will lead in their oxen in hopes of getting rich. No one will tote a cage of high-priced pigeons. But our decorations may be elaborate. Our attire may be elegant. Our music may be worldclass. We may put exuberant energy into these things, and make it an impressive spectacle, but if Jesus were to come, if he were to step into our churches this Sunday, he’d be looking for the rabble. Where are the misfits, the socially marginalized, the outcasts?
There is plenty of life in the veins of Easter to propel us beyond our comforts, our cliques, and our Sunday best, and send us powerfully out in the pursuit of the least.
“The Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles.” (Mark 10:33)
The road to Calvary was a road of confusion, not confidence, for those first disciples.
Three times Jesus explained to these men what it meant for him to be the Messiah. It was a horrific, yet hope-filled story: the murder of the promised king and then an inexplicable, unprecedented resurrection. It was way over the shortsighted, glory-hungry heads of Peter, James, John, and the others.
Their ignorance and wrong responses highlight ungodly grooves in the human heart. Their errors weren’t peculiar to first-century fishermen. No, they’re as pervasive and offensive in the church today. As we look forward to the horrors of Good Friday and the victory of Easter, we have to ask again, Who do we say this Jesus is? (Mark 8:29). Is he the Christ (on God’s terms)? Or is he just the all-wise, all-powerful key to something or someone else?
The Son of Suffering, Not Comfort
The drama begins with that question, “Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Peter was simultaneously very right, and very wrong. The word Christ was fitting in every respect. It was the right answer. But even though Peter’s profile of the promised one was rightly named, it fell woefully flat.
Jesus paints a more detailed portrait of the Christ — the job description of the most important human who’s ever lived:
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. (Mark 8:31)
Peter (and presumably the other disciples) despised the idea of a suffering Christ. That’s why he immediately gets in Jesus’s face (Mark 8:32). Having rightly identified the Christ, he then presumed to have the perspective and authority to correct him. Right, yet tragically wrong.
The only Savior who truly saves, only saves through suffering. The cross was the only means of making us sinners right before a holy God. Our salvation was purchased with suffering, and it will be sealed and preserved with suffering (James 1:2–4), not comfort. We are promised comfort in the Christian life (2 Corinthians 1:4), but not the cheap, temporal imitation we’ve grown accustomed to in our modern world.
“The rewards of following Jesus won’t come in full today, but they surpass anything else you could have hoped for.”
If we come to the crucified one expecting him to make life easier and more comfortable, we’re not listening to him. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).
The Son of Death, Then Life
Again, Jesus tells them the story of Calvary before it happens:
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” (Mark 9:30–31)
Many of Jesus’s followers thought Jesus came to rescue and reign now. They anticipated a physical and political freedom from the oppressive Roman rule. For them, the Christ was the key to their immediate, this-world issues. Life now. Freedom now. Power now. But Jesus, walking to the cross, instead says to wait. Be patient.
The rewards of following me, of finding life in me won’t come in full today, but they will far surpass anything else you could have hoped for. In this story of life and hope and freedom, death comes first, and then life. Darkness, and then liberating, untouchable, unsearchable light.
The Son of Rejection, Not Approval
A third time, Jesus prepares them (and us) for his death:
And taking the twelve again, he began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, “See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death and deliver him over to the Gentiles. And they will mock him and spit on him, and flog him and kill him. And after three days he will rise.” (Mark 10:32–34)
“We must surrender to the King we really needed, not the one we might have imagined for ourselves.”
The disciples certainly imagined there would be opposition in Jerusalem, but not like this. They expected a hostile takeover — and that did happen — but they expected Rome would be the bruised one, not the King. They were happy to have an opposed King, but not a rejected one, certainly not one who was betrayed, tortured, and executed.
Jesus did not come to purchase the approval of others. No, he “was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised” (Isaiah 53:3). Why? Because it is God’s approval we desperately need. And God’s approval doesn’t come by popular opinion, but by divine intervention — the substitution of his own Son in our place. We were saved through rejection (Isaiah 53:3), and by God’s grace, we will be carried and delivered through rejection (Matthew 10:22).
The call to Calvary — to follow Jesus — is a call to die, and rise again. It’s a call to everlasting next-life gain through temporary this-life loss. Salvation isn’t about securing our unique and selfish desires and ambitions on this earth, but about securing and preparing our souls for another world, a new creation built and preserved for our glory in God’s and our satisfaction in him.
To truly live, we must surrender to the King we really needed, not the one we might have imagined for ourselves.
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. (Mark 14:10)
The chief priests wanted Jesus dead. But they couldn’t kill him in the open. No, the people liked him too much. And their public image was fragile enough as it was. Jesus had seen to that. The temple-cleansing. The parables. The shrewd evasion of every verbal trap they could drum up. They needed a way to pounce on him in private. And it had to be quick.
He was in Jerusalem, so the time was ripe. But Passover was in two days. Two days. What would they do?
At this point in Mark 14, we leave the chief priests to their bloodlust and hand-wringing and shift our attention to a house in Bethany, just a couple miles east of Jerusalem. Simon the leper was hosting a meal. Jesus, the disciples, and some others were reclining around the dinner table. And then she came. John 12:3 tells us that the woman was Mary the sister of Lazarus, but Mark is content to leave her nameless: “A woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head” (Mark 14:3).
Very costly. In fact, for some at the table, it was too costly.
Traitor Among the Twelve
A year’s worth of wages fell out of the flask. And for some of the guests, the fragrance that filled the room became the stench of lost opportunity. “Why was the ointment wasted like that?” they complained. “For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor” (Mark 14:4–5). Stuff and nonsense. They didn’t care about the poor. What they really wanted was a bloated pouch of coins in the benevolence budget. At least, that’s what Judas wanted. Selling the ointment would give him a fresh stash of funds from which to filch (John 12:6).
Jesus rebuked the murmuring, much like he had the Sea of Galilee. But mutiny was afoot. Mark shifts his narrative focus from Bethany back to the chief priests. Judas, the spy, winded from the two-mile hike back to Jerusalem, found the religious leaders in their lair. Maybe he was seething from the shame he had received back at Simon’s house. Maybe his love for money had so muddied his thinking that he couldn’t get over the waste he had just seen. And not just waste, but waste that Jesus applauded. “She has done a beautiful thing to me,” Jesus said. “She has anointed my body beforehand for burial” (Mark 14:6, 8).
Maybe Judas was stewing over these words as he huffed his way over to the Holy City. Alright, Jesus. You’re ready for burial? I’ll make sure you get one. After all, I’d hate to see all that ointment go to waste.
Thirty Pieces of Silver
And so, Judas offered the chief priests the solution they had been waiting for: He would betray his master. But not without something in return. Mark simply records that the chief priests promised to give Judas money (Mark 14:11). The word “promise” suggests that Judas wasn’t surprised by the offer. It appears that he had pressed the priests for payment. Matthew tells us as much, in fact: “Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?’ And they paid him thirty pieces of silver” (Matthew 26:14–15).
The drama of Mark 14 revolves around two characters — the woman and Judas — and their opposing reactions to Jesus. But there is a third character, an antagonist both sinister and stealthy.
Notice how quickly Judas and his fellow grumblers are able to appraise the value of the ointment at Simon’s house. Like veteran pawnbrokers, they could intuit at a glance how much something was worth. The nard had barely left the flask before they were calculating, “This ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii” (Mark 14:5).
Blind to the Value of Christ
And yet, the irony of Mark 14 is that Judas could see the value of the ointment rolling down Jesus’s head, but he couldn’t see the value of Jesus. He was a pawnbroker with cataracts. That’s why he took such offense at the woman. The woman, on the other hand, could see both the value of the ointment andthe value of Jesus. That’s why she broke the flask.
“Judas could see the value of the ointment rolling down Jesus’s head, but he couldn’t see the value of Jesus.”
Spy Wednesday is a tragic reminder of 1 Timothy 6:10: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.”
But Spy Wednesday is also full of hope, because it shows us that the beauty of Jesus can break the spell of financial gain. This is the woman’s message to us, a message that Jesus wanted us to hear again and again: “Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9).
“Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)
Darkness had descended on Jerusalem. Its residents had finished their Passover meals. The lamb and unleavened bread had been consumed; the sandals, staffs, and belts put away (Exodus 12:1–11).
In Caiaphas’s house, a conference was underway with some members of the Sanhedrin, some officers of the temple guard, and one of Jesus’s closest friends. In the secluded hillside olive garden of Gethsemane, just outside the city’s eastern wall opposite the temple, Jesus sat with his other eleven closest friends. The eleven friends could not stay awake. Jesus could not sleep.
The Great Passover Unveiled
Earlier that evening, Jesus had shared with his disciples the most marvelous Passover meal of all time, though his disciples only recognized this in retrospect. Jesus had “earnestly desired” to eat it with them (Luke 22:15). For the Great Passover, the one for which the Passover in Egypt was a type and shadow, was about to take place.
The angel of death was coming to claim the Firstborn Son (Colossians 1:15). The worst plague of God’s judgment was about to fall. But this Firstborn Son, being all and in all (Colossians 3:11), was also the Passover Lamb who would be slain to take away the sins of the world (John 1:29; Revelation 5:6). The eternally obedient Firstborn Son, the spotless Lamb of God, would take on himself all the sin of the sons and daughters of disobedience (Ephesians 5:6), his blood would cover them, they would receive his righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21), and they would forever be shielded from the death angel’s blow (John 11:26).
So the Firstborn of many brothers (Romans 8:29), the Great Passover Lamb, had taken bread and wine and said to the first eleven of those brothers, “This is my body . . . This is my blood . . .” (Mark 14:22–25). And in doing so, the old Passover was subsumed into the new Passover.
From that moment on, the new Passover meal would be eaten in remembrance of Jesus (1 Corinthians 11:23–26) and how he delivered all his brothers and sisters out of the slavery of sin and death and led them into the promised eternal kingdom of the beloved Son (Colossians 1:13).
Nine Unfathomable Words
But now, among the olive trees, Jesus was praying. Many times he had prayed in “desolate places” (Luke 5:16). Yet never had he known desolation like this.
In this familiar garden of prayer, Jesus looked deeply into the Father’s Cup he was about to drink and was terrified. Everything in his human flesh wanted to flee the impending physical torture of crucifixion. And his Holy Spirit groaned with ineffable dread at the far greater impending spiritual torture of being forsaken by his Father.
Such was his distress over this “baptism” (Luke 12:50), the very thing he had come into the world to accomplish (John 12:27), that Jesus cried out, “Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).
Yet not what I will, but what you will. Nine words. Nine unfathomable words.
God, having longed, and even pled, to be delivered from God’s will, expressed in these nine simple words a humble faith in and submission to God’s will that was more beautiful than all the glory in the created heavens and earth combined. Mystery upon Trinitarian mystery: God did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but became obedient to God’s will, even if it meant God dying an incomprehensibly horrifying death on a Roman cross (Philippians 2:6, 8). God wanted God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven, even though in that dark moment, God wished in body and soul that God’s will could be done another way.
Obedience in Suffering
And in that moment, another mystery came into view. God the Son, perfectly obedient to God the Father from all eternity, “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). Never has another human felt such an intense desire to be spared the will of God. And never has any human exercised such humble, obedient faith in the Father’s will. “And being made perfect” — having exercised perfectly obedient trust in his Father in all possible dimensions — “he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9).
As the Son learned this perfect and preeminently humble obedience as he yielded to the Father’s will, the first drops of his bloody agony seeped out of his pores (Luke 22:44).
Barely a kilometer away, in the high priest’s courtyard, his treacherous disciple prepared to lead a small, torch-bearing contingent of soldiers and servants to a familiar garden of prayer.
Your Will Be Done
No one understands better than God how difficult it can be for a human to embrace the will of God. And no human has suffered more in embracing the will of God the Father than God the Son. When Jesus calls us to follow him, whatever the cost, he is not calling us to do something he is either unwilling to do or has never done himself.
“No human has suffered more in embracing the will of God the Father than God the Son.”
That is why we look to Jesus as the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). He is our great high priest who understands, far better than we do, what it’s like to willingly and faithfully endure the sometimes excruciating, momentarily painful will of God for the sake of the eternal joy set before us (Hebrews 4:15; 12:2). And now he always lives to intercede for us so that we will make it through the pain to the eternal joy (Hebrews 7:25).
So this Maundy Thursday, we join God the Son in praying to God the Father, “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10). And if we find that, in body and soul, we wish God’s will for us could be done in a way different from what God’s will appears to be, we may wholeheartedly pray with Jesus, “Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me.” But only if we will also pray with Jesus these nine gloriously humble words, “Yet not what I will, but what you will.”
Because God’s will for us, however painful now, will result in joy inexpressible and full of glory and the salvation of our souls (1 Peter 1:8).
At the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” (Mark 15:34)
Up to this point, the narrative of the crucifixion has focused on the physical sufferings of Jesus: the flogging, the crown of thorns, and his immolation on the cross. Six hours have now passed since the nails were driven home. The crowds have jeered, darkness has covered the land, and now, suddenly, after a long silence, comes this anguished cry from the depths of the Savior’s soul.
The words are an Aramaic-tinged quotation from Psalm 22, and although Matthew and Mark both offer a translation for the benefit of Gentile readers, they clearly want us to hear the exact words that Jesus spoke. At his lowest ebb, his mind instinctively breathes the Psalter, and from it he borrows the words that express the anguish, not now of his body, but of his soul.
He bore in his soul, wrote Calvin, “the terrible torments of a condemned and lost man” (Institutes, II:XVI, 10). But dare we, on such hallowed ground, seek more clarity?
Against All Hope
There are certainly some very clear negatives. The forsakenness cannot mean, for example, that the eternal communion between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit was broken. God could not cease to be triune.
Neither could it mean that the Father ceased to love the Son: especially not here, and not now, when the Son was offering the greatest tribute of filial piety that the Father had ever received.
“Jesus did not merely feel forsaken. He was forsaken; and not only by his disciples, but by God himself.”
Nor again could it mean that the Holy Spirit had ceased to minister to the Son. He had come down upon him at his baptism not merely for one fleeting moment, but to remain on him (John 1:32), and he would be there to the last as the eternal Spirit through whom the Son offered himself to God (Hebrews 9:14).
And finally, the words are not a cry of despair. Despair would have been sin. Even in the darkness God was, “MyGod,” and though there was no sign of him, and though the pain obscured the promises, somewhere in the depths of his soul there remained the assurance that God was holding him. What was true of Abraham was truer still of Jesus: Against all hope, he in hope believed (Romans 4:18).
Yet, with all these qualifiers, this was a real forsaking. Jesus did not merely feel forsaken. He was forsaken; and not only by his disciples, but by God himself. It was the Father who had delivered him up to Judas, to the Jews, to Pilate, and finally to the cross itself.
And now, when he had cried, God had closed his ears. The crowd had not stopped jeering, the demons had not stopped taunting, the pain had not abated. Instead, every circumstance bespoke the anger of God; and there was no countering voice. This time, no word came from heaven to remind him that he was God’s Son, and greatly loved. No dove came down to assure him of the Spirit’s presence and ministry. No angel came to strengthen him. No redeemed sinner bowed to thank him.
Bearing the Curse
Who was he? He cries out in Aramaic, but he doesn’t use the greatest of all the Aramaic words, Abba. Even in the anguish of Gethsemane, distraught and overborne though he was, he had been able to use it (Mark 14:36). But not here.
Like Abraham and Isaac going up to Mount Moriah, he and the Father had gone up to Calvary together. But now Abba is not there. Only El is there: God All-mighty, God All-holy. And he is before El, not now as his Beloved Son, but as the Sin of the World. That is his identity: the character in which he stands before Absolute Integrity.
“He stands where none has stood before or since, enduring at one tiny point in space and time, all that sin deserved.”
It is not that he bears some vague relation to sinners. He is one of them, numbered with transgressors. Indeed, he is all of them. He is sin (2 Corinthians 5:21), condemned to bear its curse; and he has no cover. None can serve as his advocate. Nothing can be offered as his expiation. He must bear all, and El will not, cannot, spare him till the ransom is paid in full. Will that point ever be reached? What if his mission fails?
The sufferings of his soul, as the old divines used to say, were the soul of his suffering, and into that soul we can see but dimly. Public though the cry was, it expressed the intensely private anguish of a tension between the sin-bearing Son and his heavenly Father: the whirlwind of sin at its most dreadful, God forsaken by God.
His Anguish of Soul
But no less challenging than the torment in Jesus’s soul is his question, “Why?”
Is it the why of protest: the cry of the innocent against unjust suffering? The premise is certainly correct. He is innocent. But he has lived his whole life conscious that he is the sin-bearer and has to die as the redemption-price for the many. Has he forgotten that now?
Or is it the why of incomprehension, as if he doesn’t understand why he’s here? Has he forgotten the eternal covenant? Perhaps. His mind, as a human mind, could not be focused on all the facts at the same time, and for the moment the pain, the divine anger, and the fear of eternal perdition (the cross being God’s last word) occupy all his thoughts.
Or is it the why of amazement, as he confronts a dreadfulness he could never have anticipated? He had known from the beginning that he would die a violent death (Mark 2:20), and in Gethsemane he had looked it in the eye, and shuddered. But now he is tasting it in all its bitterness, and the reality is infinitely worse than the prospect.
Never before had anything come between him and his Father, but now the sin of the whole world has come between them, and he is caught in this dreadful vortex of the curse. It is not that Abba is not there, but that he is there, as the Judge of all the earth who could condone nothing and could not spare even his own Son (Romans 8:32).
The Cup Is Drained
Now, Jesus’s mind is near the limits of its endurance. We, sitting in the gallery of history, are sure of the outcome. He, suffering in human nature the fury of hell, is not. He is standing where none has stood before or since, enduring at one tiny point in space and in one tiny moment of time, all that sin deserved: the curse in unmitigated concentration.
“The Cup is drained and the curse exhausted, and the Father now proudly holds out his hands to the spirit of his Beloved Son.”
But then, suddenly, it is over. The sacrifice is complete, the curtain torn, and the way into the Holiest opened once and for all; and now Jesus’s joy finds expression in the words of another psalm, Psalm 31:5. In the original, it had not contained the word Abba, but Jesus inserts it: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
We have no means of knowing what intervened between the two cries. We know only that the Cup is drained and the curse exhausted, and that the Father now proudly holds out his hands to the spirit of his Beloved Son.
Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. (Mark 15:46)
We all know that Jesus died. “‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!’ And having said this he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). But what happened after he died? We know that his body was laid in Joseph’s tomb, but what about his human soul?
Reflecting on this question not only sheds light on the Bible’s teaching about death and the afterlife, but it also is a great encouragement to us, who must face death and seek to do so without fear.
First of all, what exactly is death? Death is separation, a dividing of things that ought to be united. Fundamentally, it is separation from God. Paul suggests as much in Ephesians 2:1–2, “You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked.” To walk in sin is to be dead, to be enslaved to dark powers, to be separated from God, to be children of his wrath. This type of separation is an estrangement, a hostility, an alienation from the life and hope of the living God. In this sense, all of us, by nature, are born dead, and it is this death that Jesus endured in his suffering on the cross.
“God made human beings to be embodied souls and ensouled bodies. Death rips this union asunder.”
But of course, death is more than just separation from God. Death also marks the separation of the soul from the body. God made human beings to be embodied souls and ensouled bodies, and death rips this union asunder. But what happens to these two parts after they’re separated? Psalm 16:10 gives us a window into the biblical teaching.
You will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.
This passage directs us to the normal account of what happened when a human being died prior to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The soul was abandoned “to Sheol,” and the body saw corruption or decayed.
In Acts 2:29–31, Peter tells us that David, in writing this psalm, foresaw the resurrection of Christ, “that he was not abandoned to Hades [that is, his soul wasn’t], nor did his flesh see corruption” (notice that Peter reads the second line as a reference to Jesus’s body or flesh). Thus, prior to Jesus, at death, souls normally went to Sheol (or Hades), and bodies (flesh) decayed. We’re all familiar with the latter, but the former is more opaque. A quick Bible study will show us why Peter thinks that David’s prophecy in Psalm 16 is such good news.
In the Old Testament, Sheol is the place of the souls of the dead, both the righteous (like Jacob, Genesis 37:35, and Samuel, 1 Samuel 28:13–14) and the wicked (Psalm 31:17). In the New Testament, the Hebrew word Sheol is translated as Hades, and the description of Sheol in the Old and New Testaments bears some resemblance to the Hades of Greek mythology. It is under the earth (Numbers 16:30–33), and it is like a city with gates (Isaiah 38:10) and bars (Job 17:16). It is a land of darkness — a place where shades, the shadowy souls of men, dwell (Isaiah 14:9; 26:14). It is the land of forgetfulness (Psalm 88:12), where no work is done and no wisdom exists (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Most significantly, Sheol is a place where no one praises God (Psalm 6:5; 88:10–11; 115:17; Isaiah 38:18).
In the New Testament, the most extended depiction of the afterlife is found in Luke 16:19–31. There we learn that, like the Hades of Greek mythology, the biblical Sheol has two compartments: Hades proper (where the rich man is sent, Luke 16:23) and “Abraham’s bosom” (where the angels carry Lazarus, Luke 16:22). Hades proper is a place of torment, where fire causes anguish to the souls imprisoned there. Abraham’s bosom, on the other hand, while within shouting distance of Hades, is separated from it by “a great chasm” (Luke 16:26) and is, like the Greek Elysium, a place of comfort and rest.
While much mystery remains, the picture begins to take shape. All dead souls go down to Sheol/Hades, but Sheol is divided into two distinct sides, one for the righteous and one for the wicked. The righteous who died prior to Christ dwelt in Sheol with Abraham, and though they were cut off from the land of the living (and therefore from the worship of Yahweh on earth), they were not tormented as the wicked were.
“Following his death for sin, Jesus journeys to Hades, to the City of Death, and rips its gates off the hinges.”
What, then, does this tell us about where Jesus was on Holy Saturday? Based on Jesus’s words to the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43, some Christians believe, that after his death, Jesus’s soul went to heaven to be in the presence of the Father. But Luke 23:43 doesn’t say that Jesus would be in the presence of God; it says he would be in the presence of the thief (“Today you will be with me in paradise”), and based on the Old Testament and Luke 16, it seems likely that the now-repentant thief would be at Abraham’s side, a place of comfort and rest for the righteous dead, which Jesus here calls “paradise.”
Following his death for sin, then, Jesus journeys to Hades, to the City of Death, and rips its gates off the hinges. He liberates Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, John the Baptist, and the rest of the Old Testament faithful, ransoming them from the power of Sheol (Psalm 49:15; 86:13; 89:48). They had waited there for so long, not having received what was promised, so that their spirits would be made perfect along with the saints of the new covenant (Hebrews 11:39–40; 12:23).
After his resurrection, Jesus ascends to heaven and brings the ransomed dead with him, so that now paradise is no longer down near the place of torment, but is up in the third heaven, the highest heaven, where God dwells (2 Corinthians 12:2–4).
Now, in the church age, when the righteous die, they aren’t merely carried by angels to Abraham’s bosom; they depart to be with Christ, which is far better (Philippians 1:23). The wicked, however, remain in Hades in torment, until the final judgment, when Hades gives up the dead who dwell there, and they are judged according to their deeds, and then Death and Hades are thrown into hell, into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:13–15).
Good News for Us
What implications does this have for Holy Week? Christ’s journey to Hades demonstrates that he was indeed made like us in every way. Not only did he bear the wrath of God on our behalf; he endured death, the separation of his soul from his body. His body was in Joseph’s tomb (Luke 23:50–53), and his soul was three days in Sheol, “in the heart of the earth” (Matthew 12:40).
“When we die, we join with the angelic choir and the saints of old to sing praises to the Lamb.”
But as Psalm 16 makes clear, Jesus is not only like us, but different. Jesus’s body was buried, like ours, but it did not decay. Jesus’s soul went to Hades, like the Old Testament saints’, but wasn’t abandoned there. God raised him from the dead, reunited his soul with a now-glorified body, so that he is the firstfruits of the resurrection harvest.
And this is good news for us, because those in Christ now bypass the land of forgetfulness, where no one praises God. Instead, when we die, we join with the angelic choir and the saints of old to sing praises to the Lamb who was slain for us and our salvation.
The Lord is risen. The Lord is risen indeed.
“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him.” (Mark 16:6)
The word on the street that Sunday in the Holy City was almost too good to be true. This was so unexpected, so stupendous, such a dramatic reversal of the heartbreak and devastation of the previous three days. This would take days to sink in. Weeks even.
In some ways, it would take his disciples the rest of their lives to grasp the impact of this news. He has risen. Indeed, for all eternity his people still will stand in awe of the love of God on display in Christ’s death, and the power of God bursting forth in his resurrection.
The Sheep Had Scattered
No one truly saw this coming, except Jesus himself. He told his disciples plainly that he would be killed, then rise again (Mark 8:31; Matthew 17:22–23; Luke 9:22). He had hinted at it as early as the first temple cleaning (John 2:19). At his trial some testified against him that he’d made such an outlandish claim (Mark 14:58; Matthew 26:61; 27:63). Then there were his references to “the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12:39; 16:4), and the rejected one becoming the cornerstone (Matthew 21:42).
But as much as he’d done to prepare his disciples for it, a literal crucifixion was so contrary to their paradigm that they had no meaningful way to bring it into their minds and hearts. It was “a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling” (Isaiah 8:14) for the long-awaited Messiah to go out like this. His men had abandoned their master in his most critical hour, leaving him alone to carry the weight of the world’s sin. And the greatest burden of all — being forsaken by his Father.
One of his own had betrayed him. The chief among his men had denied him three times. After his death, the disciples dispersed. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered” (Zechariah 13:7). Their doors were locked (John 20:19). Two even took to the road and were on their way out of Jerusalem (Luke 24:13).
When news came from the women, it seemed like sheer fantasy. “These words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11). It was beyond their imagination, but not beyond God. Could such a dream become reality? Might there be, after all, some deep magic that could turn back time? Better, might there be a power magnanimous enough to bring in a whole new age — the age of resurrection — and triumph over the final enemy, death itself?
Seized with Astonishment
The initial report left them in shock. Mark tells us the women “went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (Mark 16:8). Astonishment seized them. Had the news been less spectacular, perhaps they would have celebrated right way. But this was far too big, and too surprising, to melt into immediate rejoicing. They were stunned. That’s what Easter does to the human soul when we own up to the reality of its message. That’s how explosive, how cataclysmic, how world-shattering it is that Jesus is alive.
It is a joy too great for instant gratification. First there is utter astonishment. Then comes the mingling of “fear with great joy,” and finally the freedom to rejoice and tell others (Matthew 28:8).
Sadness Comes Untrue
But what now of his passion? What of his excruciating agony at Golgotha? Yes, as C.S. Lewis says, the dawning of this resurrection age “will turn even that agony into a glory.” Now Joy has triumphed over sorrow. Day finally has dominion over night. Light has thrashed against the darkness. Christ, through death, has destroyed the one who had the power of death (Hebrews 2:14). Death is swallowed up in victory (1 Corinthians 15:54).
Easter now has become our annual dress rehearsal for that great coming Day. When our perishable bodies will put on the imperishable. When the mortal finally puts on immortality. When we join in the triumph song with the prophets and the apostles,
Just as rehearsing the details of Jesus’s final days leading up to the cross prepares us for the fiery trial coming on us, so also Easter readies us for the triumph that will follow. Easter is our foretaste of glory divine.
“This is our annual dress rehearsal for that great coming Day. Easter is our foretaste of glory divine.”
Christ has been raised. Day no longer is fading to black, but night is awakening to the brightness. Darkness is not suffocating the sun, but light is chasing away the shadows. Sin is not winning, but death is swallowed up in victory.
More Than Conquerors
Indeed, even agony will turn to glory, but Easter doesn’t suppress our pain. It doesn’t minimize our loss. It bids our burdens stand as they are, in all their weight, with all their threats. And this risen Christ, with the brilliance of indestructible life in his eyes, says, “These too I will claim in the victory. These too will serve your joy. These too, even these, I can make an occasion for rejoicing. I have overcome, and you will more than conquer.”
Easter is not an occasion to repress whatever ails you and put on a happy face. Rather, the joy of Easter speaks tenderly to the pains that plague you. Whatever loss you lament, whatever burden weighs you down, Easter says, “It will not always be this way for you. The new age has begun. Jesus has risen, and the kingdom of the Messiah is here. He has conquered death and sin and hell. He is alive and on his throne. And he is putting your enemies, all your enemies, under his feet.”
“The joy of Easter speaks tenderly to the pains that plague you.”
Not only will he remedy what’s wrong in your life and bring glorious order to the mess and vanquish your foe, but he will make your pain, your grief, your loss, your burden, through the deep magic of resurrection, to be a real ingredient in your everlasting joy. You will not only conquer this one day soon, but you will be more than a conqueror (Romans 8:37).
When he wipes away every tear, our faces glisten more brilliantly than if we never would have cried. Such power is too great to simply return us to the Garden. He ushers us into a garden-city, the New Jerusalem. Easter announces, in the voice of the risen Christ, “Your sorrow will turn into joy” (John 16:20) and “no one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).
Easter says that the one who has conquered death has now made it the servant of our joy.
At Harvest, we believe firmly in the power of prayer.
We believe that prayer makes a difference.
By God’s grace, we are convinced of these truths:
- Apart from Jesus Christ, we can do nothing (John 15:5)
- We don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on Him (2 Chronicles 20:12)
- God will bless those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied (Matthew 5:6)
- We do not have because we do not ask, so we will ask with the desire that God will be glorified as He provides (James 4:2-6)
- God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5-7)
Our prayer meetings are intentionally vertical. In a spirit of humility, we long for the glory of God to fall upon us and change us, our families, our city, and our country in ways that only God himself can accomplish.