Holy Monday | Part 1

As we enter the Easter week it will profit us immensely to examine what the Scriptures have to say about Jesus’ ministry during this week. How did he occupy his time?

    In Mark 11:11 we are told that after Jesus’ Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday he went up to the temple. Since it was already late he left the city for Bethany (where his good friends Lazarus, Martha and Mary lived). In vrs 12 of our text we are clearly told what occupied Jesus’ time on that first Holy Monday. He returned to the temple and proceeded to cleanse it.
  2. READ MARK 11:12-25
    This passage of Scripture is a classic example of a literary technique that is common to Mark’s gospel. Commentators call it a Markan Sandwich? A sandwich has two slices of bread and then there is a filling which is what makes the sandwich really interesting. A Markan sandwich is when Mark starts with one story, then switches to another before returning to the first story again. A good example is Mark 5:21-43. In 5:21-23 we start to read about Jairus’s daughter. Then the focus shifts to the healing of a sick woman in vrs 24-34, before we return to Jairus’ daughter again in vrs 35-43. In our text today the two pieces of bread are the cursing of the fig tree in vrs 12-14 and vrs 20, 21. The filling of the sandwich is the cleaning of the temple in vrs 15-19.

a) The Cursing of the Fig Tree (vrs 12-14; 20-21).
We are told that Jesus was hungry and saw a fig tree in leaf. He went to see if it had any fruit but was disappointed. He said to the tree, “May no one ever eat fruit from you again.” The next day according to vrs 20 the disciples direct Jesus to the withered tree; Rabbi, look! The fig tree you cursed has withered!” Many people are uncomfortable with this whole episode. They say that it could never possibly have happened because it depicts Jesus behaving like a spoiled brat. You have seen kids in shops at the cashiers. The child asks for a chocolate and mom when mom refuses throws a tantrum. “Jesus would not display such petulance would he?” They miss the whole point. Even though it was not the season for figs this tree had leaves and therefore promised fruit but there was none to be had. In the scriptures the fig tree is a symbol for Israel (Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1). In vrs 11 Jesus had gone up to the temple and looked around. Now he is inspecting a tree. Clearly, he is looking for something from the nation of Israel. He was looking for the fruit of righteousness and worship. Would he find that which he desired? The answer is found in the sandwich filling in vrs 15-19.

b) The Cleaning of the Temple (vrs 15-19).
In vrs 15, 16 the courts that are being refereed to is the Court of the Gentiles. The Passover was just a few days away and the population of Jerusalem could quadruple. The Jewish historian, Josephus says that in the year AD 65, 255 600 sheep were offered. Make no mistake there were lots of leaves on the fig tree of Israel’s spiritual life. But on closer inspection there was no fruit of any lasting value. This becomes clear in vrs 15, 16. On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. The temple courts should have been used for spiritual purposes; “a house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:6-8) had degenerated into “a den of robbers” (Jeremiah 7:11). During the coronavirus lockdown period many firms are being investigated for price gouging (raising prices of goods to unreasonable amounts). The same thing was happening in the temple of Jesus’ day. Priests were cashing in on Passover worshippers. Why were there doves and animals in the temple courts? It was highly unlikely that people travelling long distances would bring a lamb or pair of doves with them all the way to Jerusalem. Of course there were loads of sacrificial animals on sale within the temple precincts at a grossly inflated price. The worshippers were being fleeced. Why were there money changers in the temple courts? According to Exodus 30 every male worshipper had to pay a half shekel in temple tax. Of course the temple authorities refused to allow foreign money. Coins from Rome, Greece, Egypt and Phoenicia were not acceptable because the head of a king on the back was considered to be an idolatrous image. Foreign money had to be exchanged for local money and for this a hefty fee was charged. Usually these markets were set up on the Mount of Olives but the High Priest, Caiaphas had recently authorized the use of the Court of Gentiles as an alternative. The priests were benefiting financially. In Matthew 21:15 the Pharisees were indignant that children shouted; “Hosanna to the Son of David” in the temple area. This was considered to be blasphemous. But they were unconcerned that God’s House had become a dishonest business house. The place which God had intended Gentiles to come to and pray in quietness had been transformed into a zoo and stock exchange rolled into one. Make no mistake. The religious tree of Israel at the time of Jesus had much foliage but no fruit – just like the fig tree. By bracketing this temple encounter with the cursing of the fig tree Mark is making a simple statement. Just as the fig tree withered as a result of his judgment so too would the temple because of the empty religiosity that occurred there. Forty years after Jesus cursed the fig tree, God’s judgment fell on the city and its temple so that not one stone would be left on top of another. If Jesus Christ passed through our homes today he may well see lots of green leaves which promised much fruit. On closer inspection will he find the spiritual fruit he longs for? The same Lord that looked for fruit from Israel in Mark 11 desires to see individual believers and churches bear fruit for his glory. We end with a humorously thought provoking poem by Arthur Guterman (1871-1943) called, Our New Religion.

First dentistry was painless.
Then bicycles were chainless,
Carriages were horseless,
And many laws enforceless.

Next cookery was fireless,
Telegraphy was wireless,
Cigars were nicotineless,
And coffee caffeineless.

Soon oranges were seedless,
The putting green was weedless,
The college boy was hatless,
The proper diet fatless.

New motor roads are dustless,
The latest steel is rustless,
Our tennis courts are sodless,
Our new religion — godless.

Holy Tuesday | Part 2

If the cleansing of the temple occupied Jesus’ time on Holy Monday it seems that teaching dominates Holy Tuesday.

    There is a well-known story associated with the Mona Lisa. Two women have come into Paris from the countryside and visit the Louvre to view the famous painting. As they stand there in front of it, one says to the other, “I don’t like it. What is all the fuss about?” The guard simply says, “Madame, the Mona Lisa has stood the test of time. When you stand before her, it is not she who is being judged. It is you.” What he means, of course is that you have no right to judge the Mona Lisa. Its place among the world’s greatest works of art is not in doubt. If you say it’s nothing special, if you pass judgment on it, you are saying nothing about the painting. You are simply demonstrating your own ignorance. Your verdict on the Mona Lisa says nothing about her, but everything about you! This is precisely Jesus’ point in telling the parable of the tenants. Jesus is simply telling the religious authorities that he knows what they are about to do. They will reject him and kill him. Their verdict on Jesus says nothing about him, but everything about them. The chief priests think that they are deciding Jesus’ fate when in fact they are sealing their own fate.
  2. READ MARK 12:1-12
    Why did Jesus tell this easily understood story? The clue is found back in vrs 28. In response to what Jesus had done the previous day in cleansing the temple the religious leaders ask the question; By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you authority to do this?” Jesus graciously answers them in this parable. Essentially Jesus has three things to say.

Jesus summarises a thousand years of Israel’s history. In this parable Jesus speaks about a man who planted a vineyard and rented it out to some farmers and went away on a long journey. The farmer or tenant would work the land for the owner under the condition that at harvest time a certain percentage of the grapes or the profits realised from their sale would go to the owner. The vine had been a symbol for Israel for centuries. Jesus has something to say about Israel. In fact the parallels between this passage and Isaiah 5 are uncanny. Who does the vineyard represent? Israel. Just a short walk from where Jesus was teaching was the temple. Around the vast door that led into the Holy Place a grapevine over 30 metres in length had been sculpted in gold leaf. The bunches of grapes that hung from it were made out of jewels. Every now and then a rich Jew would add another grape jewel or gold leaf. The vineyard in this story is a picture of Israel. Of course the tenants are the leaders of the Jewish people. The servants that God as the owner sent every year were OT prophets. The Jewish people had a history of shamefully treating their prophets. What patience did God, the owner of the vineyard demonstrate!! He sends a prophet and he is shamefully treated. You would expect God as the owner to exact swift retribution – but he doesn’t. He sent another servant and another. They are treated just as shabbily.

Remember the question which gave rise to this parable in vrs 28. Initially Jesus did not give a direct answer. But now his reply could not be clearer. “All the servants who came before me were prophets but I am different. I am special. I am the beloved Son of God.” In 11:18 we read that the chief priests were looking for a way to kill him. In telling this parable Jesus is making it clear that he knew it as well. This is the ultimate insult. To kill the Son of God!! It is easy for us to say; “How could they do such a wicked thing? Thank God that I am not like that.” But in this parable Jesus is highlighting a universal human condition. In a sense we are all like these tenants. We are all placed in this world and are told to live under God’s rule. We all owe God a debt of moral obedience. He expects his share of the fruit. But the human heart does not change. When God sends a servant, a preacher, who tells us that we are not living in accordance with God’s rules we become angry. We do not want anyone to tell us how we ought to live. We want to be free moral agents, accountable to no one. This rebellious desire for autonomy is what the bible calls sin.

In vrs 9 Jesus says; What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and kill those tenants and give the vineyard to others. According to vrs 12 the religious leaders knew only too well that Jesus had told this parable against them. They were the wicked tenants who would be thrown out and killed. What would then be done with the vineyard? It would be given to others. Who did Jesus have in mind? The Gentiles! Jesus has not finished yet. Look at vrs 10. Haven’t you read this scripture: The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the Lord has done this and it is marvelous in our eyes?” This is a quote from Psalm 118:22, 23. Two days before the crowds picked up the chant from Psalm 118:25 blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. When the Pharisees heard the singing they were indignant. Now Jesus rubs salt into their wounds by quoting from two verses earlier. “By rejecting me you are rejecting the capstone.” This is what Jesus is saying about himself. Imagine some builders at a building site. They toss stones to one side as rejects. They are searching for a cornerstone. The cornerstone was the one stone that was used to determine the lines and angles of all the other walls. If this stone was not right nothing would be right. That stone was vital. To their embarrassment they realised that the one stone that they were looking for had inexplicably been cast onto the reject pile. Jesus’ point is unmistakable. The religious authorities in Israel were casting him to one side. Yet Jesus would be raised as the capstone. In the parable the father said “perhaps they will respect my son.” The tenants didn’t. But of course the day will come according to Philippians 2:10, 11 when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. On that day everyone will respect God’s Son.

Holy Wednesday / Spy Wednesday | Part 3

    The previous few days have been packed with drama – Sunday’s triumphal entry, Monday’s temple cleansing, and Tuesday’s teaching. Now on Spy Wednesday evil is lurking in the shadows. Because of Judas Iscariot’s decision to betray Jesus, Holy Wednesday is sometimes called “Spy Wednesday”. The word spy, as used in the term, means to “ambush” or “snare”. Furthermore among Jesus’ disciples, Judas was the spy who chose to betray Christ. It is this day when the key pieces come together in the plot for the greatest sin in all of history, the murder of the Son of God.
  2. READ MARK 14:1-11
    This small town of Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem had recently been shaken by one of the greatest miracles ever performed – the raising of a man who had been lying in a grave for four days. Lazarus was a walking miracle. A special meal was held in Bethany with Jesus as the guest of honour. Our text tells us that it was in the home of Simon the leper, who Jesus had presumably also healed. At this banquet two kinds of followers of Jesus are unmasked. We read in vrs 3 about a woman (Mary the sister of Lazarus – John 12:3) who had a devoted heart and in vrs 10 a disciples of Jesus, Judas with a greedy a heart.

At some point in the meal Mary took a jar of pure nard. Spikenard is a herb that grows at between 3000-5000 metres in the Himalayan mountains of Nepal, China and India. It has a very aromatic root and the oil has a lovely rose red fragrance which was a favourite perfume of the times. Of course since it was imported from India it was very costly (one year’s wages according to John 12:5). Now what does Mary do with this bottle of perfume? She anoints Jesus’ head and feet. Why did she do it? Because in some tangible way, in a way that went beyond mere words she wanted to express her love and appreciation to the Lord. Her act not only cost her financially but her reputation. After Mary had anointed Jesus’ feet she proceeded to wipe his feet with her hair (John 12:3). Now this might seem rather innocuous to us but it was absolutely scandalous to the people of Jesus’ day. In that culture it was a shameful thing for a woman to let her hair down in public. Such people were considered to be of ill repute. But for a woman to go even further than that and wipe a man’s feet with her hair bordered on the scandalous. But Mary was so determined to show her love and loyalty to Jesus that she did not care what other people thought or what they might say behind her back. All that mattered was displaying selfless commitment to Christ. In vrs 8, 9, Jesus commends her by saying; she did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.

How did Judas respond to Mary’s extravagant devotion? In John 12:5 he was indignant that the perfume was not sold and the money given to the poor. Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages. He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus doesn’t share Judas’s miserliness. He sees in Mary’s “waste” a worshiping impulse that goes beyond the rational, calculated, efficient use of time and money. For Mary, Jesus is worth every shekel and more. In Matthew 26:10 he says she had done “a beautiful thing.” Judas, on the other hand, betrays a heart of greed. Judas’s concern was not because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. The traitor had long been on a trajectory of sin and hard-heartedness. Satan finds a foothold in this heart in love with money, and what wickedness follows. He goes to the chief priests and becomes the conspirator they are looking for. In Matthew 26:3 Caiaphas, the high priest, had assembled the chief priests and elders to plan Jesus’ arrest. Originally they did not want to do it during the Passover for fear of the crowds. They did not have all the pieces of the puzzle in place yet. Enter the traitorous “spy” Judas who would do it for a miserly 30 pieces of silver, which according to Exodus 21:32 was the price of the life of a slave.

Maundy Thursday | Part 4

    Thursday in Holy Week is most commonly referred to as Maundy Thursday. Why Maundy? Maundy is a shortened form of the Latin word mandatum, which means “command.” What command does Maundy Thursday refer to? In John 13:34, 35 we read “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” On that Thursday before Good Friday Jesus celebrated a Passover meal with his disciples. The meal started with Jesus washing his disciples feet and his radical new interpretation of the Passover meal. The meal was briefly interrupted with Judas’ departure and according to Matthew 26:30 and Mark 14:26 ended with a song. Have you ever wondered what that last song was? We do have a fairly good idea.
  2. READ MARK 14:12-42; PSALM 116, 118
    Not only would celebrants at a Passover meal eat and drink and remember how the Lord delivered their ancestors out of Egypt – they would also sing. Psalm 113-118 is a collection of psalms known as the Egyptian Hallel. Before the meal started people would have sung the first two hymns and after the meal ended they would have sung the last four psalms. It would not be an understatement to say that these songs helped prepare Jesus to die. Here are a few truths from these psalms which would have encouraged Jesus as he sang. As I hope to prove singing can help us too.

a) Jesus praised the Lord– In Psalm 113:2 we read; Let the name of the LORD be praised, both now and forevermore. In Psalm 115:18 it is we who extol the LORD, both now and forevermore. Praise the LORD. Many people will only offer up praise to God either when things have gone well or the future prospects look rosy. Jesus knew that betrayal, rejection and death were in store for him. He still offered up praise to his Father. In Matt Redman’s song “Blessed be the name of the Lord” he gets the balance right. The first verse we can all sing heartily along with.
Blessed Be Your Name
In the land that is plentiful
Where Your streams of abundance flow
Blessed be Your name.
How many of us have learned to sing the closing verse
Blessed be Your name
On the road marked with suffering
Though there’s pain in the offering
Blessed be Your name

Jesus teaches us how.

b) Jesus knew that his death was not the end – It would not be long before Jesus
experienced the full horror of Psalm 116:3 the cords of death entangled me, the anguish of the grave came upon me; I was overcome by trouble and sorrow. Compare this verse to Mark 14:34 and notice the similarity of the language. Nevertheless by singing the Hallel Jesus affirmed his conviction that his death would not be the end. Jesus could sing Psalm 116:8, 9, 15 with renewed confidence; For you, O LORD, have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before the LORD in the land of the living . . . Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. As Tim Keller says; God does, of course, allow his people, to die, but they are so precious to him that he will someday pay the ultimate price on the cross, so that our physical death will be just an entrance into a greater life (2 Corinthians 5:1-10). Singing Psalm 116 at that first Lord’s Supper reminded Jesus not only that his death was precious to his Father, but that it would not have the last word.

c) Jesus Lifted the Cup of salvation – In Psalm 116:13, 14 we read; I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the LORD. I will fulfil my vows to the LORD in the presence of all his people. I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord, I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people. In Mark 14:23 Jesus took a cup and after giving thanks reminded his disciples that the cup represented his blood. In Gethsemane a few hours later in Mark 14:36 Jesus would ask his Father to remove the cup from him. We know that the cup represents the cup of God’s wrath (Psalm 75:8; Jeremiah 25:15, 16; Isaiah 51:17). Singing this hymns helped Jesus drain the cup to its dregs. We along with the Psalmist can drink the cup of salvation, but only because Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath for us.

d) Jesus Embraced God’s Help – In Psalm 118:6-7 Jesus would have sung, the LORD is with me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? The LORD is with me; he is my helper. I will look in triumph on my enemies. This would have reminded him that since God was with him he need not fear man (mocking priests, brutal soldiers or a cowardly governor). They can inflict pain but they cannot frustrate God’s plans.

e) Jesus affirmed his mission – We have still not answered the question – what
was the hymn Jesus sang with his disciples in Mark 14:26 before going out to the Mount of Olives. We know how Psalm 118 has repeatedly cropped up in this last week of Jesus’ life. When he triumphantly entered Jerusalem the cry of the crowds was Psalm 118:26; Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD. When he explained to the Pharisees the parable of the tenants and the danger for them of not responding correctly to him Jesus quoted Psalm 118:22, 23 The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvellous in our eyes. Tucked between these two references in vrs 24 is a very familiar verse; this is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Might this thought, so helpfully put to that old chorus have been the last refrain that Jesus sang before leaving with his disciples? Jesus was the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the earth (Revelations 13:8). According to Hebrews 10:5-7 this was the goal of Jesus’ entire mission.

Holy Saturday | Part 5

Those of you who read a lot will know the feeling that overcomes us as we near the end of a thrilling novel. The finish line is in sight and the tension is building. We ask ourselves the questions. Will the hero survive? Will the heroine finally find marital happiness? We have this irresistible urge to read a lot faster so we can come to the “happily ever after” at the end of the book. We can so easily do the same thing with the Bible or in our observance of Holy Week.

    This has been the strangest Easter not only in our living memory but in the lives of Christians all over the world. For the first time in history, church doors have been shut globally and Christians have had to celebrate in their homes or by watching online services. In a normal year Christians may gather on Maundy Thursday evening for a Tenebrae Service. Most Christians gather for Good Friday services but all Christians will celebrate Resurrection Sunday. In our observance of Holy Week we can do the same thing as we do when reading a gripping novel. Jump straight from Good Friday to celebrate Christ’s conquest of death on Easter Sunday. But what about Saturday? How do you think the disciples felt that first Saturday? Sorrow? Numbness? Despair? Hopelessness?
  2. READ – MATTHEW 27:62-66; HEBREWS 2:10, 14-18
    We must not rush too quickly to the triumph of Christ’s resurrection. Let us meditate on the events that transpired that first Easter Saturday. I know that we are all frustrated by being in lockdown – no sunrise service or Easter Sunday service at church. The disciples that first Easter Saturday were also in a state of lockdown (John 20:19).

Saturday’s children are characterised by gloomy despair. What happened on that first Easter Saturday? The Scriptures have very little to say. In Matthew 27:62-66 we are told what the Jewish religious authorities did. In vrs 63 we are told that although they were convinced that Jesus was a deceiver they nevertheless remembered what Jesus had said about rising again. They did not want to entertain the possibility of Jesus’ disciples returning to the tomb to steal the body and claim that he had been raised. They requested Pontius Pilate to secure the tomb until the third day had passed. Pilate was happy to comply and dispatched a guard of fighting men to guard the tomb and affix the Roman seal on it. Anyone who tried to move the stone would have broken the seal and incurred the wrath of the Roman soldiers.

But how do you think Jesus’ followers occupied their time that first Easter Saturday. Think of his mother Mary. When Jesus was an infant she had taken him to the temple. Simeon had made many marvellous promises about this child but had also warned Mary in Luke 2:35; “a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Now on that first Saturday Mary was experiencing that sword. How do you think Peter felt that first Saturday? Paralysed by guilt. Twenty four hours ago he had denied that he even knew Jesus! The rest of the disciples would have sat behind locked doors (John 20:19) in stunned silence. The air must have been thick with despair. Their thoughts are best vocalized in Luke 24:21; “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” “But now he is dead and everything around us has come down like a pack of cards.” Gloomy despair reigned throughout that Saturday. There was no glimmer of hope. There was no thought of resurrection in their minds. Three times in Mark’s gospel (8:31; 9:31; 14:28) Jesus had warned the disciples about what awaited him in Jerusalem. “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and after three days he will rise.” The penny had never dropped. They never understood. The mere fact that as soon as the Sabbath ended the women bought spices (Mark 16:1) to lovingly embalm Jesus’s body suggests that they fully expected to find a dead body the next morning. Make no mistake, the Saturday before the Resurrection was a day of despair, shattered dreams, gloom and inertia. The disciples gathered behind locked doors – no doubt fearing that the religious authorities were plotting the same end for them as they had for their Master. Saturday’s children today are consumed by the same sense of purposelessness and despair when confronting death as these first disciples. The apostle Paul puts it very bluntly in 1 Corinthians 15:14 and if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. In vrs 17-19 he goes on to say and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.

What a difference one day and three words (Mark 16:6) “he has risen!” can make. Sunday’s children are characterised by purposeful hope. Hebrews 2:14, 15 are such hope filled words. Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death -that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. The same disciples that hid behind locked doors like scared rabbits that first Easter Saturday will in a few days be transformed into courageous witnesses who all bar one were martyred for their faith. What can explain this transformation other than the literal resurrection of Jesus? In Hebrews 2:10 we read; In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. The ESV translates the word author as “founder”. The new NIV translation however translates the Greek word (archegos) best of all when it speaks of Christ as the pioneer of our salvation. Some bible commentators try to get to the heart of this word by imagining that you are on a ship that has run up against some rocks. The only way to be rescued is for someone to swim ashore with a line, in order that, once the line has been secured others might follow. The first person to swim ashore would have been described as the “pioneer” or “trailblazer.” This is what we celebrate tomorrow. Jesus has taken on our greatest enemies – sin and death. He has risen from the dead and now holds the rope to draw His children after him.


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