The crucifixion and resurrection events were now rushing rapidly towards them all, and his disciples were struggling to ‘keep up’ emotionally and psychologically. First the scene shifts to the peaceful home at Bethany (whose Hebrew name means ‘house of figs’), the same village where Lazarus, Martha and Mary lived. John 12 tells us that they were invited too, in honour of Lazarus’ resurrection from death. A woman (Mary in John 12) opens a jar of very expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus as an act of worship.
The disciples have clearly swallowed a ‘political correctness’ pill and start to gently rebuke Jesus (Judas being the ringleader) for being indulged at the expense of the poor. Jesus rebukes them in turn and explains that the poor will be around after his death, resurrection and ascension, and that Mary was correct in her priorities. Note that no-one else was pouring the perfume nor blessing the poor at that point, so what right did they have to criticise anyway! And Mary did what no-one else ever managed to do: she anointed the body of the Son of God for burial – whereas all the other women were too late by the time Easter Sunday had arrived.
Judas showed his true mercenary ‘colours’ afterwards when he went to the chief priests and offered to betray Jesus in exchange for about £8,000 in today’s money. People (even Christians) who are obsessed with money will rarely make much spiritual progress and will often derail the progress made by others too. Love of money, or fear of its lack, are corrosive of our faith and begin to make our thought-life completely materialistic. The remedy is to force yourself to become a generous giver, relinquishing control over a substantial proportion of your income in favour of your spiritual home. ‘Giving’ is the antidote to greed and financial fear, in the same way that fasting is the antidote to gluttony.
Talking of food, after supper (that supper!), Jesus redefined the Jewish Passover Meal as a new covenant ritual. Participating in this – from that time onwards – ratifies your membership of the universal Body of Christ, worldwide and timeless. The covenant he refers to was spoken of by Jeremiah in 31:31-34; unconditional and irrevocable, we are the objects of the Father’s love and the recipients of his unlimited grace. Partaking of the bread and wine will pull both yesterday’s and tomorrow’s blessings into today and will revive for each of us the full benefits of the great covenant to which were are counterparties. Now that’s a good reason to take bread and wine!
Later, in the garden, Jesus began to experience the massive sorrow that comes with the awareness of impending death. He was as fully human and he was fully God, and his emotions were at least as developed as ours. Crucifixion was something that every citizen ran a mile to avoid – for very good reason – since it was the most prolonged and painful death devised by any totalitarian regime on the planet. But Jesus also knew that, for him, the physical agony was the tip of the iceberg; separation from his infinitely loving Father, whose presence and love had always been there for him for all eternity, would be much more painful to his soul. Not surprisingly, that sorrow almost brought death itself to Jesus, as he anticipated its effects on him. “Father, if there is any other way…” he pleaded. But, of course, there wasn’t.
“Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”. (14:38). Our lives are in a war between flesh and spirit – not that the physical aspects of our nature are evil, but simply that they are weak and so vulnerable to attack, distraction, and invasion by forces of evil. As we pray, we reinforce the spiritual aspects of our makeup, and this makes us better defended against the Devil and his schemes.
During Jesus’ arrest, a strange event occurs, narrated in Mark’s gospel only. There is mention of a “young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment” who was a follower of Jesus, and who fled naked when Jesus was arrested. This man was very possibly John Mark himself, the author of the gospel, who gave himself a quick autobiographical mention – albeit rather unflatteringly!
Yielding to the will of an evil superpower was part of the deal – even when you could have summoned up 72,000 angels as an impregnable defence! The scriptures had to be fulfilled, and the Servant had therefore to suffer. After a ridiculously incompetent trial, Jesus even had to incriminate himself in order to get the job done: “From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One (Psalm 110:1) and coming on the clouds of heaven (Daniel 7:13)”. Good enough for the courts to convict of blasphemy – although there didn’t appear to be any provision in the legal system for the situation when the true Messiah put in an appearance!
Peter, meanwhile, was scared. It is simple enough for us to condemn him for denying his Master, but fear makes you irrational and the truth expendable. Most of us would probably have succumbed to the same temptations levelled at our weak flesh, and most of us would have lied our way out of the situation. Peter had not yet received the Holy Spirit as we have now, so let’s not be judgmental until we have faced the same kind of persecutions ourselves.
LEVITICUS 16, 17, and 18
The Day of Atonement was arguably the holiest day in the Jewish calendar. It signifies forgiveness, reconciliation, and redemption. The word ‘Atonement’ in English can be recast as AT-ONE-MENT; in other words, it is a process designed to reconcile enemies and to weld them back together as family. Man’s sinfulness is more of a barrier between man and God than any other thing in the whole world; this is symbolised by the curtain in the Tabernacle between the Covenant Ark in the Holy of Holies, and the priests in the Holy Place. The reason for that barrier is that a Holy God cannot co-exist with sin, and neither can his justice ignore it. Once a year, that curtain could be breached by an already-purified man carrying the blood of a goat behind the curtain and sprinkling it onto the Atonement Cover, thereby symbolically placating the wrath of God by paying the penalty for Israel’s collective sin that year. Let’s remind ourselves that the purpose of atonement is to re-join us with the love, the power, and the glory of God. It is a means to an end. When Christ much later died on the cross, the heavy curtain in the Jerusalem temple was torn completely in half, from top to bottom!
Romans 3:25 describes Christ as the “sacrifice of atonement” and it uses the exact Greek word that is used here in Leviticus. The difference in New Testament terms is that Christ was not only the priest, but also the sacrifices and the presence of God all rolled into one! Two separate images are required in Leviticus – both featuring goats – to help us see the different aspects of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross so many years later. The goat that was killed symbolises the penalty paid for our sins by the loss of life – just as Christ died on the Cross for our sins. The goat that had hands laid on it and that was then sent out of the camp lonely into the wilderness symbolises that fact that Christ was separated from God in order to carry our sins away from us. Isaiah 53:5 and Isaiah 53:8 comment on each type of goat. The term ‘scapegoat’ is still used today to indicate someone who takes more than their share of the blame for a wrongdoing. Jesus took the full blame, despite being perfectly innocent. The good news is that his death and separation was for a finite time only, after which he was restored to glory.
Blood sacrifices other than the ones prescribed at the tabernacle were strictly forbidden; the setting up of personal shrines and altars around the countryside was already an obsession in the native peoples of the Promised Land, and the Lord did not want Israel getting into bad and idolatrous habits. Furthermore, blood was not to be eaten under any circumstances since it symbolised powerfully the life of a creature and needed to be treated with respect. Therefore animals killed for the purpose of food had to be carefully hung for some days and drained of all liquid blood before being eaten.
Chapter 18 describes a catalogue of forbidden sexual practices and relationships; since they also appear in Chapter 20, I will defer any comments until then.