By Mark Abbott
Seattle Pacific University Adjunct Instructor
Read this week’s Scripture: Luke 22–23 |
Imagine being a leader who is about to leave the team you’ve been building. You’ve taught and shown, instructed and illustrated. You’ve sent team members out to gain experience by putting into practice what they’ve learned. You’ve been warning that you will be leaving them and that your departure will be under trying circumstances. Now it’s the last days before this climactic transition is upon them. What will you say? What will you do? How will you explain what is going to happen to you?
On the last day before his crucifixion, Jesus gives his closest followers not just further explanation but also something to do. John’s gospel records what Jesus taught them on that last day (John 14–17). But the other gospels, including Luke, highlight Jesus’ giving the disciples a sacred meal by which they — and all Christ followers since then — would remember him and would enter into what he had done on their behalf. Before we get to that, though, the plot against Jesus thickens as a sinister twist evolves at the hand of one of Jesus’ own followers.
Luke 22:1–6: Plotting With Judas
Here are the chief priests and scribes, religious leaders who have wanted to get rid of Jesus. Since they recognize Jesus’ popularity with the common people, they plot toward a less-than-public way to do it. In fact, Matthew reports them strategizing, “Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people” (Matthew 26:5).
Today we would talk about an “undercover operation” — more politically acceptable than a public arrest, trial, and execution. Judas, one of the 12 inner-circle followers, provides the religious leaders with what they need: An inside betrayer. Luke writes that Satan, the adversary, “entered into Judas,” who negotiated a price for handing Jesus over “when no crowd was present” (22:3–6). But this “handing over” would be tricky: the confines of old Jerusalem were jammed with Passover pilgrims.
Luke 22:7–23: Passover and the Lord’s Supper
Passover in Jerusalem was something like America’s Independence Day celebration; it was a time when all good Jews celebrated their ancestors’ deliverance from Egyptian bondage. At least 1,200 years before Jesus, God acted to liberate his people from Egyptian bondage, thus defeating the powers of evil, judging Egypt, and saving Israel. The blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of their homes resulted in the angel of death’s “passing over” God’s people. Since then, the Jewish festival of Passover has celebrated this epic event.
Earlier, Jesus had spoken of “his exodus,” which would be accomplished in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31). Now Jesus makes clear that his mission is to do for Israel and for the whole world what God did through Moses and Aaron in the first Exodus. As N.T. Wright puts it, “Now the judgment that had hung over Israel and Jerusalem, the judgment Jesus had spoken of so often, was to be meted out; and Jesus would deliver his people by taking its force upon himself.” [Author’s Note 1]
Jesus has eagerly anticipated this last Passover meal with his followers. Now Jesus reenacts the ancient Passover ritual, with bread and cup, but gives it new meaning. “Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus says. Referring to the unleavened bread and one of four cups appointed to be drunk in the Passover meal, Jesus declares,
This is my body which is given for you …. This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood (22:19–20).
Whenever we obey Jesus’ command to break bread and drink of the cup in memory of him, we celebrate the wonder of our salvation, or rescue, from the power of evil. As Wright puts it, “The powers may still rage, like Pharaoh and his army pursuing the Egyptians after Passover. But they have been defeated, and rescue is secure.” [Author’s Note 2]
Luke 22:24–30: Who Is the Greatest?
Surely out of these solemn moments would come new understanding of what Jesus was all about and what following Jesus would mean. But no! The disciples, hearing Jesus predict that one of them will betray him, discuss which one of them would do this terrible thing (22:20–23).
Then, in the very next verse, their conversation moves from the worst disciple possible (a betrayer) to “which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (22:24). Instead of being focused on what was ahead and their role when Jesus is gone from their midst, these closest followers of Jesus engage in “debate” about who would be regarded as the greatest. (Lest we are too hard on them, though, let us remember times when the spirit of Jesus has not been exhibited among us as Christ followers today.)
Notice how Jesus responds:
- Jesus describes attitudes about greatness among Gentiles. They “lord it over” those regarded as inferiors. Those in authority get themselves called a fancy title like “benefactor.” In fact, some kings in the ancient world adopted the title “benefactors,” or “friends of the people” (CEB).
- Jesus makes it clear that, among his followers, self-elevating, lording-it-over practices must not be seen. “But that’s not the way it will be with you“ (22:26, CEB), he tells them.
Bottom line: For Christ followers, Jesus’ model of serving others is to be their guide. The greatest must be like the youngest, or the one with least authority. The leader is to be like the servant who waits on tables. For, says Jesus, “I am among you as one who serves” (22:27).
John’s gospel pictures Jesus, the rabbi, taking on the servant role of washing his disciple’s feet. Jesus drives home what he has just done. “If I your lord and teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:1–14). But, says Jesus, despite this servant role modeled by him, there will come a time of vindication and exaltation for the disciples. “[Y]ou will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (22:30).
Luke 22:31–38: Jesus Predicts Peter’s Denial
Turning to Peter, Jesus implies that this disciple has a leadership role among Jesus’ followers then and in the future, a role that would be tested by the adversary (22:31–32). Jesus prays for Peter that his faith may not fail, and commissions Peter to “strengthen your brothers” (22:32). After Peter pledges undying loyalty to his master, though, Jesus predicts that this disciple would that very day deny even knowing him (22:34).
Linked with the prediction of Peter’s denial is the unique-to-Luke passage in which disciples, previously told to travel light, are now urged to take purse, bag, and even sword. When disciples, taking Jesus literally, come up with two swords, Jesus declares, “It is enough” (22:38). Some today, seeking justification for arming themselves, take Jesus’ words about the sword literally.
However, in view of Jesus’ later command to Peter and the others to put away their swords (22:51, and even more directly in Matthew 26:52), probably Jesus’ words are to be taken figuratively. Jesus was not a Jewish revolutionary who would defeat and drive out the Romans by the sword’s power. The early church did not take Jesus’ words about acquiring and using means of defense literally. Rather, many early believers accepted martyrdom instead of using the sword in their defense. Maybe Jesus is graphically bringing home the reality that the disciples face a situation of grave peril.
Luke 22:39–54a: Jesus Is Betrayed and Arrested
In keeping with Luke’s special interest in prayer, the story of betrayal and arrest comes only after Jesus agonizes alone with God. Clearly indicating his humanity [Author’s Note 3], Jesus shrinks back from the horror ahead. Luke, a physician, reports that the anguished Jesus’ sweat “became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground” (22:44). Contrast Jesus’ agony with the disciples’ grief-induced sleeping (22:45).
The hour of betrayal breaks in upon the dark and still olive grove. Imagine loud cries, blazing torches, a betraying kiss, a sword’s slash, and a howl of pain. But Jesus heals the sword’s damage to a guardsman’s ear.
The segue to the next paragraph is the statement, “They seized him and led him away, bringing him into the high priest’s house. But Peter was following at a distance” (22:54).
Luke 22:54b–71: Peter Denies Jesus
Peter is deeply loyal. Peter is also fatigued and afraid, and thus vulnerable. He hangs around the high priest’s fire, where three different people pick Peter out of the crowd and accuse him of being connected with Jesus. Three times Peter denies he even knows Jesus. When the cock crows for the third time, “The Lord turned and looked at Peter” (22:61). Then Peter remembers what Jesus said, and weeps bitter tears.
Sadness surrounding Peter’s denial is only one of the intense pressures Jesus experiences that night. Jesus is insulted, bullied, and beaten. Before the Jewish Sanhedrin, he is subjected to false witness and perversion of justice. Leaders coax words out of him that can be interpreted as blasphemy. Jesus is led away to Pilate to be charged not only with blasphemy but also with treason.
Luke 23:1–26: Jesus Before Herod and Pilate
After a preliminary hearing with charges and questioning of Jesus, Roman Governor Pilate grasps at a straw: Maybe this accused man could be someone else’s problem. Jesus is from Galilee. Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, king at the time of Jesus’ birth, is puppet king in Galilee. Pilate’s relationship with Jewish leadership is already strained. A riot is the last thing the Roman governor wants. Maybe Herod, in Jerusalem for the Passover, can take this “hot potato” off Pilate’s hands.
This suits Herod well. “He had been wanting to see Jesus for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign” (23:8). This is the Herod who executed John the Baptizer. Luke has already reported Herod’s attempt to hunt down and kill Jesus (13:31). Now Herod wants Jesus to provide some magic, some entertainment. As The Message renders 23:8, “He hoped to see him do something spectacular.”
But Jesus won’t perform on demand for Herod, instead maintaining his silence in the face of extensive questioning. Herod is offended, turns on Jesus with contempt, and sends him back to Pilate mockingly garbed in royal robes. The two rulers, Pilate and Herod, who were previously at odds, are now reconciled.
With the ball once more in Pilate’s court, the Roman governor declares he does not find Jesus guilty of the Jewish council’s charges, and tries to release him. It was common practice for the governor to release a prisoner of the people’s request (Mark 15:6). Pilate offers Jesus, but to no avail. The cry is to release Barabbas, a revolutionary and murderer, instead. Pilate gives in to the crowd’s demand.
Barabbas is guilty of crimes with which Jesus is falsely charged, especially treason. Therefore, either Barabbas or Jesus must die. Luke’s readers through the ages may see themselves in Barabbas, who deserves to die. Instead, their death — and our death — is born by the innocent one.
In addition to Barabbas, another minor character takes the stage. Simon from Cyrene, a North African pilgrim in Jerusalem, is drafted from the crowd to carry the cross for the now exhausted Jesus. While Barabbas becomes a model of sinners for whom Jesus died, Simon exemplifies those who carry Jesus’ cross — not under compulsion, as in Simon’s case, but willingly.
Luke 23:27–56: Jesus Is Crucified, Dies, and Is Buried
Crowds usually went to gawk at an execution. This crowd was also filled with mourners, who followed Jesus to “the place that is called The Skull” (23:33).
Two criminals are also to be crucified with Jesus. Crucifixion was the cruelest form of capital punishment ever invented. It involved excruciating pain, lingering death, public nakedness, and humiliation. It was how Romans demonstrated to everyone what happened to people who opposed their rule. Despite its physical and psychological horrors, however, none of the gospel writers lingers on the torment of Jesus’ death. This is not a Mel Gibson movie, but the gospel, which is concerned with the significance of Jesus’ death, not his suffering.
Read again Luke’s story of Jesus’ death, watching for these elements:
- Jesus offers prayer for the forgiveness of his tormentors (23:34). Old Testament law indicates the possibility of forgiveness for those who sin unwittingly (Leviticus 4:2; Numbers 15:25–29). In Luke’s second book, the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen’s death also includes a prayer for the forgiveness of his killers (Acts 7:60).
- There is a persistent, mocking outcry that Jesus saved others but cannot save himself (23:35–39). Truth is, if Jesus had saved himself, there would be no saving others.
- Jesus interacts with a penitent criminal crucified with him. To him Jesus declares, “I tell you, today, you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43). [Author’s Note 4]
- Jesus dies with psalms on his lips. Having lamented his sense of alienation from God in the words of Psalm 22:1 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), Jesus now quotes Psalm 31:5, “Into your hand I commit my spirit” (23:46). Jesus, as a good Jew, had surely memorized most of the psalms, and turns to them, in particular to psalms of lament, in his time of great adversity.
- The centurion, probably in charge of the execution, praises God and declares that Jesus must be an innocent, righteous man (23:47).
Luke concludes the story of Jesus’ death by reporting on his burial in a borrowed cave-tomb, provided by secret believer Joseph of Arimathea. With sundown Friday approaching, all activity ceases for the Sabbath. Because of the rush to burial, women are not able to perform their last duties to Jesus’ dead body. But they note where he is buried and plan to return on Sunday. Here the story pauses before the extraordinary and climactic events that will soon take place.
Questions for Further Reflection
- Why do you think Judas took the drastic step of betraying Jesus? Can you think of contemporary ways such betrayal might occur?
- How do leaders today sometimes act like “the Gentiles”? What does servant-hood on the model of Jesus look like for today’s Christ-followers?
- How do you respond to Jesus’ anguish in the garden on the night before his crucifixion? How does the expression of Jesus’ humanity speak to you?
- If someone were to ask you what impact Jesus’ death has had on your life and why, how would you answer?
AUTHOR’S NOTE 1
N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 262.
AUTHOR’S NOTE 2
Luke for Everyone, p. 264.
AUTHOR’S NOTE 3
Though some manuscripts do not include 22:43 and 44 (NRSV puts them in parentheses), there is good evidence that they are genuinely from Luke. They square with the biblical understanding of Jesus as fully divine and fully human. Very likely an early scribe, convinced of Jesus’ deity, saw these verses as too starkly portraying Jesus’ humanity and omitted them. Twenty-first century followers of Jesus can identify with the picture of our Lord agonizing, even shrinking back, before his deep trial.
AUTHOR’S NOTE 4
The word “Paradise” comes from the Greek translation of Genesis referring to the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:8;13:10). Paradise eventually came to refer to the abode of the righteous dead. In 2 Corinthians 12:4, Paul speaks of being “caught up into Paradise,” where he hears what “no mortal is permitted to repeat.”