This blog post is the first half of a collection of “episodes” I wrote for Holy Week. In reconstructing the final days of Jesus, I wanted to show how Jesus’s revolutionary message and life challenged the political, economic, and religious structures of his day – just like they still do today.
For those who don’t subscribe to the divinity of Jesus, I hope these readings manage to paint Jesus as a compelling figure worthy of admiration and further study. And to those who have grown up with these stories, I hope I can challenge you with some of the more dangerous aspects of Jesus’s message that are too often glossed over or ignored within the American church.
Episode I: Hail, Anti-Caesar!
Five days before his state-sponsored execution, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey.
The city was flooded with Jewish pilgrims preparing for the Passover festival – an annual celebration commemorating their freedom from Egyptian slavery (you know, the Moses story).
The Jewish people lived in constant expectation of a prophet who would liberate them from the Romans the same way Moses liberated Israelites from the Egyptians. They were anticipating a new David – the storied warrior-king from Israel’s glory days.
They referred to this person as the Messiah, or “Anointed One” (in Jewish tradition, you anoint the head of a new king with oil). In Greek, this word is Christos, or “Christ.”
Jesus’s reputation as a wise teacher and miracle worker preceded him. On either side of the road, onlookers laid down palm branches – a symbol resistance from a previous Jewish revolution.
The people shouted, “Hosanna!,” which means “Salvation is here!” They believed Jesus to be the one that would save them from the oppressive rule of Caesar, the Roman Emperor.
Jesus’s humble entry into Jerusalem is a reference to an obscure prophecy in the Hebrew Scriptures, but it’s also a sharp critique aimed straight at the heart of the Roman Empire.
Jesus’s trek into Jerusalem carries echoes of an Imperial Triumph – a Roman military parade that announced the entrance of a military commander. During the Triumph, the Caesar or general would lead the processional atop a mighty warhorse, surrounded by an entourage of chariots and soldiers.
It’s political satire, or – as writer/activist Shane Claiborne describes it: “Imagine the president riding a unicycle in the 4th of July parade.”
Jesus is redefining what it means and looks like to be a king. He’s presenting a fresh vision devoid of pompous grandstanding and militaristic intimidation.
So dangerous was this spectacle that a group of religious scholars tries to get Jesus to silence the crowd. They feared the parade would be seen as an act of open revolt by the Roman government. A few decades prior, more than 3,000 Jews were slaughtered by Roman troops during a particularly volatile Passover celebration.
But Jesus doesn’t heed their warnings.
He carried forward on his borrowed donkey, toward the site of his imminent torture and murder.
Whether you believe Jesus was the actual Son of God (or just a backwoods-preacher-turned-religious-icon), the hinges of history swing upon the final seven days of his life.
And if you don’t believe the life and death of this peculiar first-century Jewish rabbi can speak into our modern world, then you haven’t been paying attention.
Episode II: Kingdom Come
Outside of fantasy novels and history class, we don’t talk about kingdoms much anymore. And that’s a shame because kingdoms were very important to Jesus and his early followers.
Jesus spoke more about the Kingdom of God than any other topic during his ministry. And yet, “kingdom language” is strangely absent from our worship gatherings, sermons, and gospel presentations.
Jesus said this Kingdom is already “in our midst.” But shifting worldviews has led us to believe it’s somewhere “up there” and distant from our reality.
The modern church is stuck between two versions of the prosperity gospel – both of which miss the heart of Jesus’s message.
The first one presents Jesus as a wish-granting genie who offers better health, wealth, and relationships in exchange for religious devotion.
The second one reduces Jesus into a personal passport that allows access to a celestial paradise after you die.
In both Gospels, Jesus becomes a means to an end. The heartbeat of the Christian faith is replaced by a desire to live a better life or escape hell. They’re both “Prosperity Gospels” because they’re designed to answer THE defining question of our age: “What’s in it for me?”
Consumerism is the secular worldview that dominates the cultural landscape of the United States. It turns everything – time, relationships, religion, etc. – into a product meant to alleviate feelings of boredom, anxiety, worthlessness, fear, loneliness, and desire.
And a consumerist mindset grossly distorts how we read, understand, and share the true Gospel of Jesus.
But the gospel of the Kingdom is the antidote to shallow faith and apathetic religion. It’s countercultural invitation to sacrifice your own self-interests for the betterment of the world and the mission of God.
The Kingdom Gospel is less about going to heaven when you die than it is about bringing heaven to Earth while you’re alive.
In fact, that’s how the Biblical narrative ends – with heaven descending, not us ascending.
The Kingdom of God is a community of redemptive participation powered by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It does not seek to dominate culture or reclaim a nostalgic past, but to transform the world through sacrificial acts of peace, justice, mercy, creativity, and love (Mt. 25:31-46).
The beauty of the Kingdom Gospel is that it offers an opportunity to participate in this “heavening” of Earth right now. It’s the moment “Thy Kingdom Come, On Earth As It Is In Heaven” changes from prayer to divine calling.
It’s not a kingdom of political superiority or military dominance.
It’s the type of kingdom where the king washes the feet of his servants.
It’s an upside-down kingdom where the first are last, and the last are first.
These truths about the Kingdom of God were (and still are) difficult to accept.
And at least one of Jesus’s disciples – Judas – rejected them completely.
Episode III: Judas, Interrupted
Excluding Hitler, there is no other name in our modern lexicon shackled with so much weight. It is a name that has become its own insult, and a word that conjures images of treachery, betrayal, and wickedness.
He could easily be considered the most hated man in history – Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus.
Even though he’s become a cultural and theological punchline, Judas deserves a second look and a thoughtful examination.
It could be argued that before any other disciple, Judas understood Jesus wouldn’t be a traditional Messiah. He probably grasped the full implication of Jesus’s teachings on nonviolence and the healings of Roman citizens.
But Judas held fast to the traditional belief that the Messiah would restore Israel to its former glory the old-fashioned way – with steel, thunder, and blood.
Imagine the disillusionment Judas experienced when he finally realized that Jesus – though a charismatic public speaker and wonder-worker – was not going to be the kick-ass savior he had been anticipating.
He knew that if a violent revolution against Roman was imminent, it would not be Jesus leading the charge. Unlike the other disciples, he probably takes the prophecies Jesus makes about his own death seriously.
And so Judas sells out.
He trades loyalties from the Kingdom of God to the Kingdom of the World.
Some Christians believe the best way to bring the Kingdom of Heaven down to Earth is by electing Christian politicians, pass Christian legislation, protect our Christian borders, and lay waste to our non-Christian enemies overseas.
But that’s not the Kingdom of Heaven.
It’s not even a democracy – it’s a caliphate or theocracy.
When Christians “sell out” to the false promise of political power or nationalism, they’re betraying their loyalty to a “kingdom not of this world.” It forces people to associate the witness of Christ with vulgar politicians and dehumanizing legislation
We’re told Judas sells out for “30 shekels of silver” (Mt. 26:15), which is the same amount of money the Torah requires for the accidental death of a slave. It’s a meager sum of money.
The collision of religion, politics, and national identity corroded Judas’s faith in Jesus and blinded him to the reality of a better Kingdom in his midst.
In a country ravaged by partisanship, Christians have a choice – do we become another hypocritical punchline? Or do we have the courage to offer the world a better way?
Because the torches are lit and the mob is on its way to Garden of Gethsemane, and they’re being led by Judas, whose pockets are ringing with the sound of silver.
Episode IV: Blood in the Garden
After they’ve finished the Passover feast and Judas has been sent out to complete his dirty work, Jesus and his disciples head to the Garden of Gethsemane.
Gethsemane literally means “oil press” (remember the connection between oil and royalty in Jewish tradition).
In the midst of the garden, Jesus delivered his longest recorded prayer in all of Scripture.
In a shocking – almost scandalous – moment of uncensored vulnerability for a Messiah, Jesus falls to the ground and repeatedly asks God to stop the events that have already been set in motion. He is so distressed, he sweats blood.
A group of soldiers and officers from the temple – led by Judas – entered the garden. They’re carrying torches and weapons.
They’re expecting a fight.
And at least one of the disciples tries to give it to them.
Peter draws his sword. The blade flashes. Blood sprays. A severed ear drops to the ground.
In the stillness that follows, Jesus turns toward Peter and says, “Put your sword back into his sheath. For those who live by the sword, die by the sword.”
Tertullian, an early Christian apologist considered to be the “founder of Western theology,” believed that
In disarming Peter, Christ disarmed all Christians.”
In fact, nonviolence was one of the defining characteristics of the first-century church, even in the face of unimaginable persecution.
But Jesus isn’t through yet. In the Gospel of Luke, we’re told Jesus reaches out and heals the man who Peter struck with his sword.
Do you understand the gravity of what has just taken place? In the final hours of His life, Jesus healed someone who was sent to deliver Him over to be crucified.
Earlier in his ministry, a religious man once asked Jesus, “What’s the greatest commandment?”
And Jesus replied, “Love your God with all your heart, soul, and mind” (Mt. 22:37)
Jesus could’ve stopped there. After all, the man asked for the greatest commandment.
But Jesus knew telling people to love God wasn’t enough.
In the name of God, we launched the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition.
In the name of God, we slaughtered millions of Native Americans.
In the name of God, we enslaved millions of African-Americans.
In the name of God, we defended segregation.
In the name of God, we turned a blind eye to civilian casualties caused by American wars.
When people are driven solely by their devotion to a god, bad things tend to follow.
And that’s why Jesus gave the man not one, but two, “greatest commandments.”
He continues, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”
You can’t love this God without loving people.
Peter was driven by a love of a God to swing his sword, but he had dismissed his love for people.
A few hours earlier, during the Last Supper, Jesus reiterated this command by saying, “This is my commandment, that you love another as I have loved you.”
In the chaos, the disciples scattered.
The Roman troops shackle Jesus and lead him toward his trial – a cosmic confrontation between kingdoms that will reverberate throughout history.
The revolution has only just begun.
The story concludes in The Last Week: The Revolutionary Final Hours of Jesus.