Having preached quite a few Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter sermons, I can say that there are things about those days that are easy to find in our Bible texts to want to teach our people. We Love familiarity, even if it can breed contempt. With the Bible, the familiar passages and truths are extremely important and I would never advocate ignoring them. I would only encourage my fellow pastors and their worship leaders to keep the passion alive because it should never get old to us.
I also advocate for dealing with lesser-known yet important facets of the familiar stories in the Bible and teaching them to our people, even if they hurt our brain, make us uncomfortable or risk confusing someone. These are the main reasons we are tempted to ignore parts of Scripture, but this is unwise to me. Christians need all the cards on the table when it comes to our source of truth. Today I want to discuss five of the things that are a part of the Jesus crucifixion narrative—from the Last Supper the night before he died until his actual death—that are too often ignored.
1. John’s timeline of the Last Supper and Crucifixion appears to conflict with the other three Gospels.
In short, the Synoptics–Matthew, Mark, and Luke–say that the Last Supper was a “Passover meal” (see Matt. 26:17-19; Mark 14:16; Luke 22:13). John, however, says in 19:14 the day of Jesus’s crucifixion was “the day of preparation of the Passover”.
Often in sermons and in writing, I have chided the temptation of those critical of the Bible to find contradictions in details in things like the four Gospel accounts. There are many if you believe the Evangelists who wrote the accounts of Jesus’ life were trying to be precise by modern courtroom standards and that they were trying to present one cohesive account of what happened. They were not on either charge. Examples of what I mean are that one writer says there were two angels at the tomb and another says there was one. One says the stone was rolled away before the women arrived and another says it was rolled away by an earthquake in their presence. My response to many of the ‘contradictions’ is that they make about as much sense to consider them in conflict as a modern NFL fan would consider it a contradiction for one Chicago Bears fan to say that their team won the Super Bowl in 1985 and another to say they won it in 1986. If you are not an NFL fan, the contradiction is easily explained: the NFL regular season takes place in one calendar year and the Super Bowl takes place in the next. Every Chicagoan calls that team the “85 Bears” yet technically they won the Super Bowl on January 20, 1986.
In fact, for my Easter sermon in 2013, I interviewed four Bears fans who watched that Super Bowl and asked them three questions about it—the score, the year, the MVP—and their answers varied slightly. As N.T. Wright has stated, the fact witness accounts differ does not mean that nothing happened. To Bears fans in January of 1986 something amazing happened! That is not the nature of eyewitness testimony and we can easily find contradictions in 2,000-year-old data by parsing the words in English. Witnesses often have differing details and if one writer says there were two angels while another says there was one, that doesn’t mean there was only one. I can easily say, “I’m going on vacation next week” and if later you hear me say, “My wife and I are going on vacation next week,” you’d be obtuse to think that is a contradiction.
Yet, the issue of what days the Last Supper and Crucifixion took place is not quite so easily discarded. It would be like hearing one parent say their child was born on Thanksgiving and the other say their child was born on Christmas. Again, it doesn’t mean their child was not born, but it does present some difficulties with the witness.
The scope of this article is not to hash out how this apparent disconnect can be resolved. My goal is to get Christians to think about these things when thinking about Good Friday. Because the skeptical world is thinking about them. I will give an excellent resource that discusses many possible resolutions and that gives an opinion on the most likely one: Last Supper & Lord’s Supper by I. Howard Marshall. The short version of the best solution to him is that the first three Gospel writers and John are using different calendars. But I strongly urge all of our REO readers to do a deep dive into it. Beyond the controversy here, Marshall offers great thoughts on the Last Supper in general, which is an event we still celebrate to this day.
2. Many early manuscripts do not contain the verse about Jesus sweating great drops of blood.
This is found in Luke 22:44. It and the prior verse are not as well attested by the massive amount of NT manuscripts textual critics use to determine original wording. Depending on what translation and what type of Bible you use, there may be a note in the margin or below that indicates this.
Let me be clear that I do not think that textual notes you read in Bibles that say “not found in many of the earliest, most reliable manuscripts” is some kind of trump card to know whether verse or phrases belong in our Bibles. So I am not saying or implying that Luke never meant to put in this verse about Jesus sweating blood and a scribe later added it. There are many people who believe that Mark 16:9-20, John 7:53-8:11, Acts 8:37 and similar passages and verses are later additions, but there are also good defenses of them belonging. Just because a manuscript is “early” does not mean that it is better and the word “reliable” is very subjective.
No, my point is that this is the kind of thing Christians should be aware of. It honestly does not matter to me what a person’s opinion is of whether Luke 22:43-44 is original or not, nearly as much as it does that Christians know how our Bibles are put together. One of my favorite resources on this topic is the NET Online Bible (Netbible.org), because it gives textual notes and notes on the original languages about verses like these. And while the text critics who write for this Bible are not the final authority, they do have informed opinions and often give the reader all of the possible options instead of a merely dogmatic take of their view.
3. The prophecy about Judas getting 30 pieces of silver and buying the potter’s field is cited from Jeremiah in Matthew 27:10, but appears more easily cited from Zechariah.
As with #1 above I do not consider this to be a legitimate contradiction that should somehow cast aspersions on the reliability of the Bible or its inerrancy. A detailed explanation of possible reasons Jeremiah is mentioned instead of Zechariah can be found here.
Instead, to me, this is simply a fantastic opportunity for Bible readers to dig deeply into Old Testament prophecies and how the Old Testament impacts the New. Zechariah seems on the surface to be where Matthew is quoting from, but as you read passages like Jeremiah 16 and 32 it helps you understand how you can connect those passages to what Matthew was writing. Finding connections between the Hebrew and Aramaic Scriptures and the Greek New Testament is crucial to practicing correct hermeneutics. Readers of the Bible only stand to benefit from reading Jeremiah, regardless of whom Matthew meant to cite. Jesus said the entire Old Testament testified about his suffering, death and resurrection. Matthew 27:10 would be a part of that.
4.The bodies of many holy people who had died came to life when Jesus died.
Found only in Matthew (27:52-53), this seemingly random and crazy twist in the story is one that I have not heard many people talk about. And since its mention comes and goes so quickly, I could sort of understand that…if it didn’t foreshadow exactly what Christ was about to do in less than 48 hours. Resurrection means everything in the New Testament and every time it happens in the Bible, whether it be God using Elijah or Elisha in the Old Testament or the resurrections of Lazarus, Eutychus or Jesus himself in the New, it matters. They all are significant and contribute to the foundation of our theology and understanding of God and eternity. Those two verses in Matthew 27 on the heels of the temple curtain being ripped should be mentioned with frequency during our Good Friday sermons.
5. What happened to Jesus’s soul between Friday afternoon and his resurrection?
I honestly do not believe this is greatly ignored in the American church because I have heard it discussed but I do think it deserves more attention than it gets. And I wonder if the strangeness of some verses in the New Testament that try to explain it (especially 1 Peter 3:19-20) gives us pause in preaching it.
And again, my intent in bringing it up is not to pontificate about my own personal view of the subject, but to urge us to think deeply about it and do a careful interpretation of the New Testament passages that can help us understand it. Even the difference in where the quotations start in Jesus’s statement to the thief on the cross matters–is it, …I tell you today, “You will be with me in Paradise”… or …I tell you, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise”…? Rightly dividing the word of truth is not for the lazy or careless and on topics like these a healthy dose of humble yet focused work is prudent.
Let me be clear again that I definitely believe the core aspects of the Good Friday part of the Passion narrative are more important than what I have shared here. Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, his forgiving of those who killed him, and his words to the Pharisees and his statements while on the cross deserve a million sermons. Yet there are details in the story that are easy to overlook but teach us vital aspects to God’s story as revealed to us in Christ’s crucifixion. We need not lose one to gain the other. We just need to give the richness of these passages their due.