Plagues, Passover, and the Cross of Christ

darkness at the cross of jesusJesus didn’t die on just any week of the year. He died on Passover, a festival recalling the book of Exodus when it was first instituted. Passover, and the slaying of a spotless lamb, remembered when God’s judgment passed over those whose homes were covered with blood on the doorposts and lintel. God had raised up a deliverer, Moses, who would lead the captives free through a mighty exodus.

Jesus was crucified between two criminals around 9 a.m. on Friday (Mark 15:25), and for three hours the scene resembled the hundreds of crucifixions that the Romans were used to performing. But around noon, darkness covered the whole land for three hours, ending at approximately 3 p.m. (Matt. 27:45).

Given the context of Passover, the covering of the land with darkness probably evokes the ninth plague in Exodus. In Exodus 10:21, God told Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.” And the darkness was all over the land of Egypt for three days (10:22).

From noon to 3 p.m. on the day of Jesus’ death, darkness covered another land entirely for a span of time numbered with “three”–this time, though, for three hours, not three days. Such pervasive darkness denotes something supernatural, the judgment of God. As one preacher said, by God’s power it looked like midnight at midday.

At approximately 3 p.m., God’s Son died on the cross (Matt. 27:46, 50). Since the darkness during Passover already recalled the ninth plague, perhaps the subsequent death of Jesus recalled the tenth in Exodus 12. In Exodus 12:29, God struck down “all the firstborn in the land of Egypt . . .” And on the cross, God struck down his own Son. Jesus, the Lamb of God, was not spared. He himself would be the sacrifice whose blood would cover others.

The scene at Golgotha not only portrayed Jesus as the spotless and slain Lamb, it described events of darkness and death that, in the context of Passover, recalled the ninth and tenth plagues in Exodus. The story in the Four Gospels is that God had once again raised up a deliverer, this time one who would lead the captives free from sin and Satan. The Messiah’s victory would surpass any Old Testament conquest.

Reverence, Not Rebellion, in the Garden of Gethsemane

The words of Hebrews 5:7 may refer to the agonizing experience of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence.” He may have prayed other agonizing prayers during his earthly ministry, but none were more climactic and sorrowful than the Gethsemane prayers.

The term reverence is an important lens through which to see the Gethsemane experience. In Matthew 26:39, Jesus prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” If his words in the garden were rebellious, he would have been sinning. And if he sinned, we would no longer have a sinless Savior going to the cross in our place.

Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane was not an expression of rebellion. He prayed again in Matthew 26:42, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” In both 26:39 and 26:42, Jesus resolved to do the Father’s will, and the author of Hebrews said Jesus was heard because of his reverence. The Son was praying to the Father and submitting to the Father as he battled temptation in the garden.

In what way did the Father hear the Son? Perhaps the Hebrews author only means that the Father heard the Son’s prayer that the “cup pass from me” yet held out the cup anyway. Or perhaps the Father “heard” the prayer in the sense of answering it. If the second option is best, then the vindication of the Son was the Father’s answer to the prayer. Jesus was delivered indeed–only not from the cup but through it. On the cross, the Son of God hung condemned, yet divine justice did not abide on him forever. He cried out “It is finished!” That moment showed that God’s wrath was satisfied and no longer rested on the Son. And nothing proved the vindicated status of Jesus like his resurrection on the third day.

The earthly ministry of Jesus was characterized by his reverence for the Father. Even in the Garden of Gethsemane, which was a scene of deep sorrow and grief, we see a submissive Son who, as Spurgeon put it, resolved to “drink damnation dry.”

The Cup at the Last Supper: The Words of Jesus and Old Testament Allusions

After Jesus interpreted bread as his body (Matt. 26:26), he spoke of a cup as his blood: “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:27-28). His words alluded to at least three places in the Old Testament.

“blood of the covenant”–This alludes to Exodus 24:8. Moses threw blood on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.” The context was the sealing of the Mosaic covenant, and the blood he threw was from animals.

When Jesus appropriates Exodus 24, like Moses he is also speaking in a covenant context, only not about that old covenant. He is making a new covenant (see Luke 22:20, which adds the word “new”). This new covenant didn’t involve animal blood. Jesus said the cup was “my” blood.

“which is poured out for many”–This alludes to Isaiah 53:12. The prophet Isaiah said, “Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors.”

When Jesus appropriates Isaiah 53, he is taking on the Suffering Servant role described by that ancient prophet. The words of Isaiah 53 painted a graphic picture of the suffering and death of Jesus who would pour out his life unto death. The language also shows that his death is substitutionary.

“for the forgiveness of sins”–This alludes to Isaiah 53:4-6. The prophet Isaiah said, “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned–every one–to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Again alluding to Isaiah 53, Jesus teaches that his upcoming death would achieve the reconciliation with God that sinners so desperately needed. The Son’s substitutionary death had a design, a purpose. The Father would crush him in the place of sinners in order that forgiveness for sinners could justly and permanently applied.

In Matthew 26:27-28, as Jesus spoke about the cup, we learn how he would live up to his name that the angel proclaimed in 1:21: “. . . you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Jesus would bring salvation, saving sinners from their sins.
How will such a feat be achieved?
Through death, his own blood poured out.
His own blood? But the covenant with Moses already prescribes sacrifices.
Yes, but animal sacrifices cannot atone for sin. This will be a new covenant.
How will his death atone for sin?
It will be substitutionary. He will be crushed in our place, bearing our iniquities.
Forgiveness of sins! For how long will this last?
Forgiveness is full and forever. If anyone be in Christ, he is not condemned.

The Hymn Jesus Sang After the Last Supper

And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives (Matt. 26:30)

What hymn? The last supper had just ended, and Jesus and his disciples sang a hymn, though the narrator doesn’t specify which psalm(s). A Passover meal included the singing of the Hallel, which were Psalms 113-118. According to Passover tradition, participants sang Psalms 113-114 earlier in the meal, and they sang Psalms 115-118 after the meal ended.

Back to my question: what hymn did Jesus and his disciples sing after the Passover meal ended? Psalms 115-118, from memory no doubt. Soon Jesus would be praying in the garden of Gethsemane and then arrested, so the timing of these psalms is powerful when we consider their content.

  • Jesus would’ve sung Psalm 115:9-11, “O Israel, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield. O house of Aaron, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield. You who fear the LORD, trust in the LORD! He is their help and their shield.”
  • Jesus would’ve sung Psalm 116:3-4, “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the LORD: ‘O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!'”
  • Jesus would’ve sung Psalm 118:5-7, “Out of my distress I called on the LORD; the LORD answered me and set me free. The LORD is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me? The LORD is on my side as my helper; I shall look in triumph on those who hate me.”
  • Jesus would’ve sung Psalm 118:22, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. This is the LORD’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.”
  • And on that Thursday night, when Jesus prayed in a garden with a heart full of sorrow before one of the Twelve came to betray him, he first would’ve sung the words of Psalm 118:24, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”

N. T. Wright on “By Means of His Own Blood” (Hebrews 9:12)

The writer of Hebrews said Jesus “entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb 9:12).

In his Hebrews For Everyone commentary, N. T. Wright writes, “This is perhaps the most striking, indeed shocking, idea in the whole letter. At almost no point in the voluminous Jewish literature from the Bible through to the Jewish writings contemporary with the New Testament, and indeed beyond, does anybody suggest that human sacrifice might be a good thing—still less that the Messiah himself would become such a sacrifice. Apart from the powerful and deeply mysterious passage in Isaiah 53.10, which speaks of the sacrificial death of God’s servant, the closest that Judaism comes to such an idea is the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac at Mount Moriah (Genesis 22), a story which played a considerable role in Jewish thinking at this time, and which Hebrews will refer to in 11.17-18; but the point there, of course, was that God stopped Abraham actually killing Isaac. The sacrifice didn’t happen. Nor, of course, was there ever a suggestion that a high priest would have to become, simultaneously, both the priest who offered the sacrifice and the sacrifice itself. The idea would have been laughable if it hadn’t, almost certainly, appeared blasphemous” (p. 95).

“A River Flowed” – Good Friday Poem

“A River Flowed”
3/29/13

A river flowed, a crimson tide,
With mercy in its stream,
As Jesus Christ was crucified
By God through human scheme.

The sin he bore was not his own,
For ours he carried to
The wooden cross, the judgment tree,
To pay the wages due.

Hear him cry out “It is finished”
With his final breath,
For with this love he satisfied
God’s wrath and died our death.