All four gospels dedicate a major portion of their narrative to the last week of Jesus’ life. Often in popular Christianity that tumultuous week gets condensed to the glory of Palm Sunday, the brief few hours of Jesus’ arrest, interrogation and suffering on the cross, and then the surpassing glory of Easter. For the average worshipper, unless they attend a solemn Maundy Thursday or Good Friday service, it’s a straight shot from glory to glory. And even in the solemn moments, not to worry, we know the outcome. But not so for those who experienced the events first hand.
In the euphoria of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the disciples made it clear that, in spite of Jesus’ repeated warnings about his impending suffering and death, they still expected a glorious restoration of the power and righteousness of Israel and their own accession to power (Luke 22:24–30). But soon enough the disputes with religious leaders which had been a continual feature of Jesus’ ministry escalated, Jesus caused an uproar in the Temple by trashing the legitimate businesses of the moneychangers and purveyors of sacrificial animals, and the elders set aside their hatred of the Romans long enough to seize him and drag him before a hastily arranged tribunal. Jesus’ disciples knew about Roman justice. They had seen common criminals and popular resistance leaders writhing naked in agony upon the Roman scaffolds. The only assured outcome in these cases was an agonizing death.
From the cheers of the welcoming mob as Jesus entered Jerusalem – mobs, even when they’re on your side, are hard to predict and control – to the jeers of the condemning mob who shouted “Crucify him!”; from Jesus’ sublime public teachings and repartee with the scribes and Pharisees to the private moments with his inner circle; from the chaos in the Temple as he overturned the moneychangers’ tables to the solemn Passover meal in a rented room; from the hauling of a shackled Jesus back and forth between the Roman procurator and the ruling elders in a sham legal proceeding, with his followers fearfully hovering around the edges; from the stark horror of his public flogging and his nailing on the cross to the exhilarating and unbelievable message from the women who first visited the empty tomb: the followers of Jesus were on a gut-wrenching rollercoaster with no way out and no assured outcome. And even afterward, when their uncomprehending eyes beheld his resurrected body and heard his unmistakable voice, they repeated the old, inadequate question: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
Still today believers and skeptics alike ask uncomprehending questions. Believers seize upon Jesus’ words about “wars and rumors of wars” and “famines and earthquakes in various places”, his prediction about the destruction of the Temple, and his solemn statement that “this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place” (Mark 13:30). Since we the living are always “this generation,” we pull out our Bibles and correlate a potpourri of biblical texts with current events to reassure ourselves that things are proceeding according to plan. Meanwhile the skeptics say, “Generations come and go, death reigns and nothing changes.” Partly we buy into the skepticism, and wring our hands and wonder why justice and righteousness are continually deferred and death is still universal. We, too, are on a rollercoaster of faith and doubt.
But the largely unacknowledged Good News is that the generation who were eyewitnesses of Jesus did not pass away before his prophetic words were fulfilled. The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed within a generation of his words and wars and rumors of wars have continued to be the universal human condition in a sin-broken world. And the resurrection of Jesus continues to be the pivotal event of human history, the guarantee that God has the first and last word, that life triumphs over death and that, in the words of the Apostle Paul, our hope is not “for this life only” (1 Corinthians 15:19). In our Holy Spirit powered faithfulness, forgiveness, inclusive welcome and deeds of mercy, in our unquenchable hope, we the Body of Christ are a sign of God’s future set like a rainbow in the midst of the world’s struggles.
—Dr. David L. Wheeler