Holy Week Devotionals
Easter season is upon us, and I have written these devotionals for us to use during this time. Each day’s devotional contains a Scripture passage and a main thought, as we look at Jesus and the dramatic events of Passion Week. Each day recounts what most likely happened that very day of the week in Jerusalem. In those events, we see different aspects of the pain Christ suffered prior to His crucifixion. May this be a time of reflection for each of us, as we try to grasp what was happening in Jerusalem and in the greater unfolding of God’s eternal plan. I truly pray that each one of us will come to a deeper understanding of what happened that week, and what it means to us individually. May the Lord Jesus bless you and may His presence be so very real to each of us, as we seek Him during this season. As you begin, maybe you would like to pray the prayer I have been praying, from Henri Nouwen in Show Me the Way: Readings for each Day of Lent.
God, You have told us
To listen to Your Beloved Son
Nourish us with Your word and cleanse the eyes of our spirit
So that we may know Your glory.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, our Lord.
April 2, 2001 (revised March 16, 2008, 2018)
What a beginning to the Passover season in Jerusalem! The week began with the entry of Jesus into the city on the back of a donkey, amid the cries of hosanna and praises to God. But there was also great tension and fear in this particular year….tension between the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus, as well as political tensions between the Jews and the hated Romans. And in the mix was also the religious fervor of the Jews, celebrating their most holy season, the Passover feast. You can imagine the narrow streets overflowing with visiting Jews, planning their excursions to the Temple Mount, children squealing, merchants loudly bartering their wares - all amid noise, confusion, anticipation and a degree of fear.
It is in that atmosphere that Jesus begins His last week on this earth, entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He was crucified on Friday (according to tradition) and resurrected on Sunday. Philip Yancey says of that time, “The might of the world, the most sophisticated religious system of its time allied with the most powerful political empire, arrays itself against a solitary figure, the only perfect man who has ever lived.”
Sunday: The Triumphal Entry
The Pain of Rejection
In these passages we read the account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Note vs. 5 of Matt. 21, as he quotes the prophets Isaiah and Zechariah – their prophesy of the coming Messiah into Jerusalem. Here Jesus is greeted by cries of “hosanna”, which in Hebrew means “save now”. Jesus’ entry into the city in this way showed His true messiahship – a suffering Messiah, not in a political or military role, for which the Jews were desperately hoping. The clothes and branches spread on the road indicate the reception Jesus received, an honor reserved for kings and royalty, similar to “rolling out the red carpet” today.
Of course Jesus knew what this week would hold – suffering and eventually death. He had alluded to it frequently in the months and weeks leading up to this time. He spoke of it with His disciples and followers, but few (if any) seemed to truly understand what He was saying. The Bible tells us that Jesus is “touched by the feelings of our infirmities” (Heb). Just as we often feel a foreboding or dread of some event, so Jesus must have felt. And yet He did not adjust God’s plan to His human desires or emotions. He had been born for this very thing, becoming the sacrificial Lamb of God.
The end of the Luke passage records Jesus’ words as He approached the holy city of Jerusalem…the gleaming Temple Mount, the crowds of people flowing toward the gates, and the place of His death. As He took in the view of the city, he wept for His people, who were so spiritually blind and unbelieving. Once again we see the compassion of Christ on frail humanity! Surely we see the heart of God, reaching out in love to those who had so cruelly rejected Him. Jesus was willing to experience indescribable pain and suffering, and His mercy extended to those who were unbelieving and antagonistic.
Isaiah 53:3 says, “He was despised and rejected by men...” John 1:11, “He came unto His own and His own did not receive Him.”
Prayer for Today: Lord, I receive You. I welcome all that You are into my life. I so want Your presence in my life and anew yield my heart to you, the King of Kings. I pray that today I might grasp a better understanding of what You did for me on the cross. I ask that You help me identify any rejection of Your word or Your ways that are in my heart. Thank You for Your mercies that are new every morning and poured out so graciously on Your children.
Monday: Cleansing of the Temple
The Pain of Injustice (Exploitation of the Innocent)
This is one of the most dramatic events in Jesus’ short ministry. The Temple was the center of the Jews’ religious tradition, history and worship, known for its beauty across the ancient world. When Jews came to Jerusalem to observe the Passover celebration, they would purchase an animal for the sacrifice. The poorer the family, the simpler the sacrifice would be, such as a small bird (see Luke 2:24, Mary and Joseph in the Temple with baby Jesus). The religious establishment sold these doves at exorbitant prices, shrewdly cheating the poor who were forced to buy from them. They had devised a system of deceitful money exchanging, since it was unlawful to purchase the sacrifice with Roman coins. Of course, their “system” was of great monetary benefit to them, but an enormous expense for the common people. This, then, was the sin that so angered Jesus. In verse 13, “You have made (My house) a den of thieves!”
Their sin was not in the selling of sacrificial animals, it was the fraud willingly perpetuated on God’s people by their own religious leaders. Jesus once again revealed the heart of God, Who hates deceit, corruption and greed. This incident should remind us of a sober truth: many evils have been done in the name of Christianity….the medieval Crusades, the Inquisition, religious pogroms, etc. These events may have been done by men claiming to do them in His name, but we can be sure that God had nothing to do with them. Always God’s people have been exhorted to protect the needy and oppressed, the alien and the unloved. Jesus did that consistently in His interaction with men and women, showing us His love of justice and His care for those who are wounded, ignored or exploited.
Prayer for Today: Lord Jesus, I pray that my heart would be Your temple, cleansed from its sin by Your presence. Purify my motives and my desires.
“Search me O God and know my heart. Try me and know my anxieties; see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the everlasting way (Ps. 139:23-24)
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord my strength and my Redeemer” (Ps. 19:14)
Tuesday: Questioning His Authority
The Pain of Unbelief
In this text we see two events: the withered fig tree, and the authority of Jesus being questioned by the chief priests and scribes. In the first, Peter points out the dead fig tree that Jesus had cursed the previous day (vss. 12-14). This appears to be a strange story, until the reader grasps the truth that Jesus was communicating to His disciples. As the disciples and Jesus are passing by the withered tree the next day, Peter points it out to Jesus, who responds with a short explanation of faith. Most scholars believe that Jesus was using the fig tree as a metaphor of the nation of Israel. It looked good from a distance, or on the outside. Yet, upon closer inspection, it was fruitless and devoid of its purpose for existing. The rejection of the Messiah and the coming destruction of Jerusalem were obviously weighing heavily on Jesus’ heart (vss 22-24). The illustration of a large mountain being cast into the sea demonstrated His point: that simple, genuine faith in God can accomplish the impossible. Interesting that included in this short teaching on faith, Jesus includes a reminder in verse 25 – that we must forgive others if we want God to forgive us. Clearly this is a condition for the prayer of faith.
At this time, the religious leaders were already plotting Jesus’ death (Mark 11:18). The questioned Him in this passage regarding the nature and source of His authority (referring to His teaching and cleansing of the Temple). Mark notes several disputes brewing between Jesus and the Pharisees in His account, this being one of them. Jesus refuses to answer their question and instead brings up the controversial John the Baptist, thus exposing the true motive of their question. Their only desire was to entrap Jesus, thereby finding a way to condemn Him by Jewish law.
In both of these passages Jesus confronts unbelief. Of course He always knew men were not naturally bent toward believing God, and He taught on the topic frequently. Surely this pain was sharper on this day than at any other time of His earthly ministry…God had come to His people and they not only did not believe, but they vilified Him!
Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century believed that simple faith was the foundation for any spiritual growth and understanding. He said, “I do not seek to understand that I may believe; but I believe that I may understand. For this also I believe, that unless I believe, I will not understand.”
Prayer for Today: Lord, I echo the prayer of the desperate father in Mark 9:24; “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” What a starkly honest prayer, and it reminds me that I have such little true faith. I pray that You, by the power of Your Spirit, would increase my faith, and fill me with a simple trust in You and Your goodness. Help me not look so much for answers to my questions, but to simply believe in You – that You are the only begotten Son of God, the Messiah of Israel, the one and only Jesus Christ.
Wednesday: Privately Worshipped, Publicly Denied
The Pain of Secret Discipleship
In this passage John tells us that despite Jesus’ many miracles, people did not believe His message. Here is a hard truth: we often think that if unbelievers could just experience a true miracle, then they would believe. However, Scripture tells us otherwise…even though there were men that saw Lazarus raised from the dead, they still did not believe, but rather began to plot His death more earnestly! This unbelief fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 53. The note in the Nelson Study Bible says, “The consequence of repeated rejection is loss of the capacity to believe. Isaiah taught that some could not believe because God hardened their hearts after they repeatedly rejected the truth.”
On the other hand, in this passage, we see those who DID believe, but would not openly confess their faith. “Rulers” in this passage refers to the members of the council, the Jewish religious leaders. There were some that believed in Him, but only secretly. The reason for their secrecy is revealed in verse 43 – “they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.”’ Their position in the religious community, and the acceptance of their peers was far more important to them. We may be quick to condemn them, but which of us have not done the same? Philip Yancey, a respected and highly successful Christian writer, in Reaching for the Invisible God explores this same thought when he says, “’I am not ashamed of the gospel’, Paul told the Romans. Why do I speak in generalities when strangers ask me what I do for a living and then try to pin down what kind of books I write? Why do I mention the secular schools I attended before the Christian ones?” (One of the reasons I read everything he writes, is that I am gripped by his honesty and willingness to explore issues that we Christians find difficult to admit, much less discuss.) Many times, I must painfully admit, I have loved the praise of others, rather than the praise of God.
In John 19:38-40, we read that Joseph of Arimethea (a secret disciple of Christ) and Nicodemus (who came to see Jesus at night) were the men who took Jesus’ body from the cross and quickly buried Him according to Jewish law and custom. I am so grateful that John included this bit of information in his gospel. Despite the public denial of their faith in Jesus, they were the ones who were willing to go to Pilate for permission to care for His body (where were the disciples?) They were the last ones to see His wounds. The challenge in our reading today is this: Am I a secret disciple? Too fearful to confess Christ because of what others think? The reader can’t help but wonder how Joseph and Nicodemus felt on Sunday!
Prayer for Today: Lord, please forgive me for being a secret disciple at times. It is my wretched pride that wants to glory in myself rather than in You. Help me to never be ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God unto salvation. May I be so filled with love for You, that I only care what You think of me.
Thursday: Passover, Gethsemane and Betrayal
The Pain of Betrayal
Matt. 26:17-25, 46-56
Thursday was a very eventful day. The disciples were busy preparing the Passover meal, purchasing the food and other supplies, as well as securing a room where they would share their last meal together. They were participating in the Passover celebration, commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, by way of the final plague, the killing of the first born. At that supper, several things happened that are significant. Jesus gave them His parting words, washed their feet, and instituted the Lord’s Supper, the new covenant of His blood. As the reader begins to follow these events of Jesus and His disciples, we can feel a sense of foreboding. In the parallel passage in John 13, Jesus tells the disciples that He is “troubled in spirit”.
From there, they sang a hymn and left, walking to the Garden of Gethsemane where they often went to pray. There we see Jesus praying in true agony, asking His disciples to pray with Him, as He was assaulted by every demon in hell! Oh, how they wanted Him to refuse that “cup”. That cup held every sin mankind has ever committed – it was filthy, unrighteous, everything Jesus was not. To drink that cup was revolting to Him. And, it would cause His Father to turn away from Him, which is beyond our comprehension.
It was there that Jesus met His betrayer, Judas, who approached Him with a mob armed with swords and clubs. Judas greeted Jesus with a kiss, calling him “Rabbi”, a term of affection. Amazingly, Jesus called him “friend”. Judas, one of the twelve disciples, was the one that objected to Mary of Bethany’s extravagant worship in John 12, when she poured perfumed oil on Jesus’ feet. John records Judas’ snippy words, “Shouldn’t that money have been given to the poor?” (John 12:6). John also parenthetically mentions that Judas, who was the treasurer, often pilfered money out of the money box. Nevertheless, at the Passover meal, it doesn’t appear to be obvious to the disciples that Judas would be the one to betray Jesus. He must have seemed no different than the rest of them. And what was Judas’ motivation? Thirty pieces of silver had more value to him than the life of Jesus, which is consistent with John’s comments about Judas. Jesus experienced betrayal with Judas that night, as well as later by His beloved disciple, Simon Peter. Peter, when confronted by a housemaid, vehemently denied that he even knew Jesus.
Here is our focus today: have you ever experienced the sting of betrayal? Then you have a tiny idea of this pain. Scholars believe that Psalm 55:12-14 is a prophetic expression of the future thoughts of Jesus, “For it is not an enemy who reproaches me, then I could bear it. Nor is it one who hates me who has exalted himself against me; then I could hide from him. But it was you, a man my equal, my companion and my acquaintance. We took sweet counsel together and walked to the house of God in the throng.” To be attacked by an enemy is expected…the betrayed by a close friend is infinitely worse. Here Christ was delivered, literally “handed over” into the hands of His enemies, by one of His own.
Prayer for Today: Lord Jesus, I must admit that I have no right to condemn Judas or Peter, I’m no better than they. I have not betrayed you for thirty pieces of silver, but I am so quick to turn from my loyalty to You. The words of this hymn are my prayer today,
“Oh, to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter; bind my wandering heart to Thee,
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it
Prone to leave the God I love,
Here’s my heart
Oh take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above!”
“With Shame Weighed Down”
As we read the account of the crucifixion of Jesus, we can only imagine the agony of Jesus, His mother and His followers. Surely every dream they ever had was dying a slow death, and the sorrow and grief recorded in this passage is just unbearable. There are so many things to note in this text, but we will concentrate on just one: the shame of Calvary.
What a dreadful emotion shame is. Jesus was physically stripped naked, and nailed to the cross, place of death for common criminals. He endured the physical shame, emotional shame, and most of all spiritual shame, as His Father turned His face from the vile sinfulness Jesus bore on the cross. Jesus, the beloved and only begotten Son of God, who enjoyed such love and intimacy with His righteous Father, had to suffer the guilt of the sin of the entire world. Have you ever thought about that phrase, “the sin of the whole world”? No wonder Jesus was repulsed at the “cup” in the Garden as He prayed. That cup was for all men’s sin….for murderers, child molesters, all perverse immoralities, cruel oppression of the poor and needy – it contained all of the wicked sins of mankind.
What utter humiliation, shame and disgrace, for Jesus, the perfect Son of God, to hang on a cross, suspended between heaven and earth. As He was dying, people passed by insulting and scorning Him, believing that He was getting what He truly deserved (see Psalm 44:15). Hebrews 12:2 says that “Jesus…who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the SHAME, has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Isaiah 50:6 speaks the prophetic words, “I gave My back to those who struck Me, and My cheeks to those who plucked out My beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting.”
Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk in 12th century France penned the words that are set to music in the hymn, “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded”. This verse so poetically expressed his musings on Jesus’ death:
“O sacred head, now wounded,
With grief and shame weighed down
Now scornfully surrounded, with thorns, Thy only crown;
How art Thou pale with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!
(So often in Baptist or evangelical churches, we hesitate to stop here in the crucifixion story. It seems so “Catholic” to concentrate on Christ’s death, rather than hurry on to the Resurrection. I challenge you to ‘stay here’ today. His death deserves serious reflection on our part since it was for us that He died. It would do all of us good to soberly ponder this today.)
Prayer for Today: Lord Jesus, to say “thank You” for the cross is so pitifully inadequate. We truly have no way to express our gratefulness for Your sacrifice. I am trying to understand what You did for me, I see Your sorrow and shame, knowing that You willingly took my place. Your life was not taken, but freely given. What else is there to say but thank You for your unfathomable love and mercy.
The Pain of Disappointment
Matt. 27: 57-66
Saturday. The disciples and followers of Jesus must have been beyond exhaustion and numbed with sorrow and disappointment. What did it all mean? It was the Jewish Sabbath, the day of rest from labor. It was over, they thought. When we experience tragedy, we often relive it repeatedly in our minds, turning it over and over, searching for meaning. They must have been haunted by the memory of Jesus on the cross – the Passover, betrayal in the Garden, the denials, and finally Jesus’ gruesome death. Pilate had posted guards, should anyone come and try to steal His body. The two Marys had stayed with Jesus’ body, watching as Joseph and Nicodemus buried Him. I love those 2 Marys, I love that about them. Despite their pain and disillusionment, they were devoted followers of their Lord. I want to talk to them someday about all of this.
The thoughts and feelings of Jesus’ many disciples were succinctly spoken by two people on the Emmaus road (Luke 24) to their unrecognized Visitor; “We had so hoped that He was the one…” Their tone must have been wistful, pained with disappointment and sorrow. The death of a dream is not an easy one to endure.
Reflect on these words today, which so profoundly express the greatest truth: what can we do except willingly give our life to Him?
“Alas, and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred Head for a sinner such as I?
Was it for sins that I have done, He suffered on the tree? Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
But drops of grief can never repay the debt of love I owe…
Here, Lord…I give myself away,
It’s all that I can do.”
Sunday: Resurrection Day
He is Risen, Indeed!
I Cor. 15:13-27, 55