Holy Week: Walking with Jesus through the days leading to the empty tomb
This week is Holy Week, the week from Palm Sunday through Resurrection Sunday, a week that is so important that much of the gospel accounts of Jesus’s life focus on just this one week. In fact, about one-quarter of Luke’s gospel, one-third of Mark’s and Matthew’s gospels, and nearly one-half of the book of John center on the last week of Jesus’s life on earth. What happened during Holy Week, the most important week since the creation of the world?
On Palm Sunday, Jesus arrived in Jerusalem to much celebration and shouts of praise (Matthew 21:1–11; Mark 11:1–10; Luke 19:28–44; John 12:12–18).
Upon entering the city area, and seeing the city as he came close, he wept over the city. Jesus showed his heart for the people and, like the prophets of old, wept because he saw a people there rejecting Him and, therefore, rejecting God Himself (Luke 19:41–44).
Once inside the city, Jesus was sought out by some of the Gentiles (John 12:20–36). This is important, that in the capital of the Jewish people, he is being sought by Gentiles. He came to be a worldwide Savior, the light of the nations! (Additionally, I love the heart behind John 12:21, “We wish to see Jesus.” May that be true of us!)
Before the day ended, Jesus entered the temple, looked around, and returned to Bethany where he was staying with the twelve (Mark 11:11; Matthew 21:17). Most likely, this temple visit had a direct relation to the events of the next day.
Returning to the city on Monday morning, Jesus was hungry (a note to his full humanity). Seeing a nearby fig tree that had no fruit, but only leaves, he cursed it, saying “May no fruit ever come from you again!” The tree then withered (a note to Jesus’s full deity). Mark’s account of this shows us that this was not just an angry response of a hungry deity, but it was instead an analogy to what was happening in Jerusalem. Mark records it like this: Jesus cursed the tree, cleansed the temple (see below), and then the twelve see the withered tree on their way back to Bethany. The point is, the temple, like the tree, was only full of leaves, but had no fruit, and ultimately would be cursed for their unfaithfulness, the cause of their fruitlessness. (Mark 11:12–14, 19; Matthew 21:18–19).
Monday also is when Jesus cleared the temple, another important and symbolic event in Holy Week. Matthew records it like this: “And Jesus entered the temple and drove out all who sold and bought in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money-changers and the seats of those who sold pigeons. He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you make it a den of robbers.” And the blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the wonderful things that he did, and the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” they were indignant, and they said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” And Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, “‘Out of the mouth of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise’?” (Matthew 21:12–16; Mark 11:15–17; Luke 19:45–46).
Having cleared the temple, Jesus again returned to Bethany (Mark 11:19).
The following day again centers around controversy in the temple. Teaching in the temple that he had cleared out forcefully only one day prior, Jesus’s authority was challenged by the chief priests and the elders: “By what authority are you doing this things, and who gave you this authority?” they asked. Luke tells us that Jesus here confronted the elders, saying that “He looked directly at them” and told them that He was the cornerstone that they had rejected, in fulfillment of Psalm 118:22. They tried to arrest Jesus then but were unable due to the people who, as Luke 19:48 says, “were hanging on his words.” Trying to build a case against Jesus, they began to challenge him by catching him in a trap: they questioned paying taxes to Caesar and the reality of the resurrection, but He answered them in such a way that they stopped asking him questions. This is also when he was challenged about the greatest commandment, and Jesus replied “Love the Lord your God with all your heart . . . and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus, having answered their questions, declared that the Messiah was not only David’s son, but also David’s Lord. He wasn’t afraid of the religious leaders: he warned disciples “in the hearing of all the people” to “beware of the scribes”. He commended the poor widow’s offering over the gifts of the rich. (Luke 20:1–21:4; Matthew 21:23–23:39; Mark 11:27–12:44).
Leaving the temple, Jesus gave ominous warnings about the future of the temple and the time to come. He gave strong words about the destruction of the temple: “there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.” This is a direct result of their faithlessness and was illustrated previously with the cursing of the fig tree. He also warned of the coming of the Son of Man and the last judgment, instructing his hearers then and now to be watchful and be ready. (Matthew 24:1–25:46; Mark 13:1–37; Luke 21:5–36).
While there is not much recorded for us specifically about Wednesday of this week, we do know that Jesus continued teaching daily in the temple (Luke 19:47, 21:37). Additionally, this is the day when the Sanhedrin made concrete plans to arrest and execute Jesus. (Mark 14:1–2; Luke 22:1–2; Matthew 26:3–5).
This day began with preparation, with Jesus sending Peter and John to make preparations for the Passover meal (Luke 22:7–13; Mark 14:12–16; Matthew 26:17–19).
Preparations having been made, Jesus observed the Passover with his disciples, and in so doing he instituted what we now know as the Lord’s Supper (Mark 14:17–25; Matthew 26:26–29; Luke 22:14–20). This is also when He foretold of Judas’s betrayal and Peter’s denial (Matthew 26:21–25, 30–35; Mark 14:17–21, 26–31; Luke 22:21–23, 31–34).
We call this day Maundy Thursday, though, because of what Jesus commanded in His “Upper Room Discourse” recorded in John 13:1:1–17:26. The word “maundy” comes from the Latin word mandatum from which we get “mandate” or “commandment.” Specifically, Maundy Thursday refers to Jesus’s new commandment to “love one another, just as I have loved you” (John 13:34–35). This time in the Upper Room and His discourse is also when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, when he declared that He is “the way, and the truth, and the life,” when he told of the coming of the Holy Spirit, and gave the analogy of the vine and the branches. It also contains Jesus’s “high priestly prayer” recorded for us in John 17. (Note that while all of this is recorded in what is known as the “Upper Room Discourse,” it seems that, according to John 14:31, the last half of it may have occured while they were walking from the Upper Room to the Garden of Gethsemane.)
The day ends with Jesus and the eleven disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus prayed “let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” Luke tells us that in the garden, Jesus was in much anguish and began to sweat drops of blood. Very soon after this, still in the garden, Jesus was betrayed by Judas and arrested by “a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders” (Matthew 26:36–56; Mark 14:32–50; Luke 22:39–53; John 18:1–12).
Good Friday is the day we remember Jesus’s death on the cross for our sins, but it began with Jesus’s sham trials and the denial of Peter. Standing before Annas, then Caiaphas and part of the Sanhedrin, then the full Sanhedrin, then Pilate, Herod, and Pilate again, Jesus faced false accusation after false accusation, and was even declared innocent by Pilate. Ultimately, though, Pilate was convinced by the crowds to release Barabbas and condemn Jesus, and he handed Him over to be crucified (Matthew 26:57–27:2, 11–26; Mark 14:53–15:15; Luke 22:54–23:25; John 18:13–19:16). During all of this, seeing what he had done by helping to condemn an innocent man, Judas hanged himself (Matthew 27:3–10).
All of the trials took place in the early morning hours. He was led away to be crucified sometime shortly before 9:00am. Before and during his crucifixion, Jesus was mocked ruthlessly by the soldiers and the crowds. On the way to his crucifixion, Simon of Cyrene was made to carry his cross. He was crucified with two criminals, one who reviled him, and one who ultimately trusted in Him and heard those words, “today, you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). According to Mark 15:25, the crucifixion of Jesus began at 9:00am (“the third hour”); beginning at 12:00 noon (“the sixth hour”), darkness covered the land for three hours (Mark 15:33). Jesus died at 3:00pm (“the ninth hour”), according to Mark 15:34–37. When Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom, signifying the end of the temple era and the possibility of access to God through Christ’s sacrifice. Additionally (and amazingly), at the same hour “many bodies of the saints … were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they appeared to many” (Matthew 27:52–53). You can read the full accounts of Jesus’s crucifixion and these events in Mark 15:16–41, Matthew 27:27–56, Luke 23:26–49, and John 19:16–30. Additionally, read passages like Colossians 2:13–14, Romans 3:21–26, and Hebrews 2:14–15 & 10:1–14 to see what Scripture tells us about the purpose of Christ’s death on the cross. Colossians 2:13–14 puts it like this: “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” The cross was God nailing the record of our sins on Jesus, that it could be cancelled and we could be forgiven.
After his death, Jesus’s side was pierced to ensure that he had in fact died, his body was removed from the cross, and he was placed in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (John 19:31–42; Luke 23:50–56; Mark 15:42–47; Matthew 27:57–61).
On Saturday, Jesus was in the tomb, but the gospels record two other notes for us as well. First, Luke mentions simply that this was the Sabbath, and so the women who were preparing spices for Jesus’s body rested “according to the commandment” (Luke 23:56). Apparently, the ladies who knew where the body was laid had prepared spices and ointments and were ready to go and care for Jesus’s body, but were unable to do so on Friday and so to observe the Sabbath (Saturday) they had to wait until Sunday. What’s interesting is that Luke specifically mentions that these ladies were resting according to the commandment, while the chief priests and the Pharisees were certainly not resting on this Sabbath. Instead, Matthew tells us that they had a meeting with Pilate and asked him to seal the tomb and set a guard over the tomb, “lest His disciples go and steal him away, and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’” (Matthew 27:62–66).
“He is not here, but has risen!” This is the announcement from the angels at the tomb to the ladies who went to care for Jesus’s body. At early dawn, on this day, the first day of the week, Jesus rose from the grave, exactly as he had promised in Luke 9:22. The accounts of the eyewitnesses at the empty tomb can be found in Matthew 28:1–8; Mark 16:1–8; and Luke 24:1–12, John 20:1–18.
After this, the guards who were at the tomb went and told the chief priests what had happened. The religious leaders then paid off the guards and told them to began spreading word that Jesus’s disciples came and stole the body (Matthew 28:11–15).
Finally, Matthew 28:9–10, Luke 24:36–49, and John 20:19–23 tell us that Jesus appeared to his other disciples (minus Thomas) on this same day, and, prior to that, he walked with the two men on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35). It is in these meetings, according to Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus declared that his death, burial, and resurrection comprised the focal point of all of Scripture (Luke 24:27, 44–47).
Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.