The final days of Jesus’ life were spent in and around the temple, where he was repeatedly critical of the religious leaders and predicted a crisis in which the temple would be destroyed. He urged people to choose to see themselves as part of the Kingdom of God – a kingdom in which in which the poor heard good news, suffering people found healing, and the oppressed were set free.
It was Passover, the week of Jews’ most important festival. Jesus marked it, as all Jews did, with a meal. He gathered his followers around him for the celebration, but there were two things about it which made it different from any other Passover.
First, Jesus shocked the people he had been leading by undertaking tasks that a servant would usually do. He welcomed them for the meal by washing their feet, which would have been dirty from the unpaved streets. He told them that this was an example of how his followers should live – humbly serving each other.
Second, as the Passover was eaten, with its traditional retelling of Jewish history, Jesus drew attention to two of the foods. He took the bread, thanked God, broke and shared it (which was not unusual). He then added, ‘This bread is my body; take it and eat it’ (which was extraordinary). When it came to passing round the cup of wine that was a central feature of the Passover, he told them that it was his blood they were drinking, and that because his blood was shed, sins could be forgiven. He told the group to repeat this whenever they gathered so that he would not be forgotten. Christians have obeyed this ever since. The service in which they do so is called by many names – communion, mass, eucharist, breaking of bread, the Lord’s supper.
During this meal Judas, who had been one of Jesus’ twelve closest followers, made up his mind (for reasons that have never been clear) to organise Jesus’ arrest. He went to the Jewish leaders and let them know the best time and place to seize Jesus without a crowd to protect him. He was paid thirty pieces of silver for this betrayal.
On their way back to the house where they were staying Jesus and his disciples stopped in a garden called Gethsemane. Jesus wanted to pray there, but his prayers were tormented because he knew that suffering lay ahead of him, and he desperately wanted to avoid it. This time of deep distress ended with him accepting that there was no alternative but to submit to God’s plan. His closest friends slept through the whole episode.
Judas arrived and greeted Jesus with what appeared to be affection. However, this was a sign to tell the soldiers who accompanied him which man they should arrest. When they grabbed him, Jesus did not resist, and his terrified friends fled.
After a night of mockery and torture, Jesus faced the first of two trials. He stayed silent in front of the Jewish supreme court, who accused him of blasphemy. They sentenced him to death for claiming to be the Christ (the Messiah).
The Jewish court did not have the authority to carry out the execution, so they sent Jesus to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to have the sentence confirmed. Pilate was fascinated by Jesus and scorned the Jewish authorities. He made an attempt to save him. Thinking that it would please the Jewish pilgrims, he offered to set Jesus free. However, rabble rousers who supported the Jewish leaders had turned the crowds against Jesus. They bayed for his blood. Pilate washed his hands, as if to distance himself from their decision, and signed Jesus’ death warrant.
Jesus was subjected by the soldiers to a mock coronation and an extreme beating. They then paraded him through the streets and took him to Jerusalem’s execution site, a hill called Calvary. There, with nails hammered through his wrists and ankles, they hung Jesus on a wooden cross. This style of execution was known as crucifixion. During the six agonising hours during which he was dying, Jesus showed remarkable restraint. He quoted hymns from the Old Testament. He screamed to God in anguish, but then committed his spirit to his care. And, astonishingly, he asked God to forgive his murderers.
What the Bible says about it
An extract from the Bible:
The sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last. The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’
Where to find it:
About these words:
Luke describes Jesus’ final moments. All four accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible describe his death with a combination of agony and restraint. Crucifixion was a barbaric form of execution. It was common – two others were put to death at the same time as Jesus. A condemned man (or woman) was stripped, humiliated and whipped. His arms were then stretched and nailed or tied to a wooden beam. He carried the beam through the streets to the execution site. It was hoisted and secured to an upright stake or tree trunk. The feet of the victim were then nailed to the vertical post, and he was left to die while onlookers spat at him. The cross shape that this disgusting spectacle created has become Christianity’s most familiar symbol.
And they said…
Isaac Watts, poet and preacher, 1674-148:
When I survey the wondrous cross
Where the young Prince of Glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride …
Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.
Bonaventura, theologian, 1221-1274:
What kind of man is this who for our sakes is hanging on the cross, whose suffering causes the rocks themselves to crack and crumble with compassion, whose death brings the dead back to life? Let my heart crack and crumble at the sight of him. Let my soul break apart with compassion for his suffering. Let it be shattered with grief at my sins for which he dies. And finally let it be softened with devoted love for him.