Holy Week: How to Stop Shrinking the Jesus Narrative

The focus and work of years was seemingly coming to its climax. The bold announcement at the beginning, the gathering of his co-workers, the teaching and the mighty works, and then the growing tension and hard confrontations—all of the lines were coming together to reach their single goal.

Holy Week.

The work of Jesus was coming down to this, his last few days. What would his final act look like? What would he do? Would he meet the expectations of the crowds? Of his own closest followers? He had set his countenance and his feet straight for Jerusalem—so what did he have in mind?

Whatever the central meaning of his life and ministry, it would have to show itself right now. This was Jesus’s moment, if he was going to have one. And it was not a simple one. From his birth right through to his final entry to Jerusalem, Jesus has been evoking numerous strands of Israel’s long and pregnant story. There are rich layers of significance that precede this week. Will all those promises of meaning be kept?

From his birth right through to his final entry to Jerusalem, Jesus has been evoking numerous strands of Israel’s long and pregnant story.

For too many of us, these Holy Days have been reduced to one day—Good Friday—and to a single assigned meaning of that day.

“Jesus died for my sins.”

A personal substitutionary atonement.

Now the death of Jesus on a Roman cross is certainly not less than this. But it is also so much more. There is a profound loss when we minimize the meaning of the crucifixion to my salvation, especially when I conceive of this saving merely as an escape to heaven when I die. In such a reduction we shortchange the gospel and shrink the impact and import of all that Jesus has accomplished.

How do we avoid this? As with so many things in the Christian life, a healthy recovery can be found when we return to the Scriptures. The fullness of Holy Week is found in the fullness of the Bible’s telling of the story. A renewed commitment to understanding the narrative as it unfolds in the Gospels will pay multiple dividends in appreciating the depth of the Passion drama.

The Gospels, like other books in the Bible’s library, should be read whole. Their telling of the end is embedded in the context of what they’ve been saying along the way. The Evangelists build their stories of Jesus intentionally, so each Gospel gives us a unique angle on the life and meaning of Jesus. We could appropriately pick any of the four Gospels to help us in this restoration, for they each lead us up to this momentous last week in their own way.

But as an example, we’ll take Mark’s story of Jesus, since he is the most intentional about tracking each of the days. So I invite you to read Mark’s whole telling of the week’s story. Without trying to impossibly unpack everything here in this short space, we will instead simply raise questions that point us to deeper significance:

“As they approached Jerusalem . . .”

Light breaks on the first day of the last week. Jesus has spent his entire ministry focusing on the kingdom of God. It is the theme par excellence of all his previous efforts. Now Jesus clearly calls up echoes from Israel’s royal history (from Saul to Solomon to Judas Maccabeus) to boldly embody the coming of the King himself into David’s city. Jesus’ prophetic announcement of God’s return here transforms into an explicitly messianic claim. So the stage for the week is set: Jesus is Israel’s king. But what kind of king is he?

“The next day as they were leaving Bethany . . .”

Jesus has entered the city, but now his focus turns exclusively to the Temple. Why is the Temple at the center of Mark’s story here? Why does Jesus curse the fig tree? What is he looking for? Why does he immediately enact a parable of the Temple’s destruction? What is the point of his quote from the prophet Jeremiah?

“In the morning . . .”

Mark now spends more space describing the events of Tuesday than any other day of this week. What’s happening? Jesus is clearly and strongly confronting those who govern the affairs of the Temple and make up Israel’s supreme ruling body. The rulers, for their part, directly challenge Jesus’ authority. The clash that’s been long brewing in the ministry of Jesus is now coming to a head. Then the parables and provocations of the day culminate in a troubling prediction of the physical dismantling of the Temple within a generation. (It’s important to pay attention to literary form here, recognizing prophetic metaphors and apocalyptic language.) Israel’s story has reached a major turning point, and it is centered on Jesus.

“It was two days before the Passover . . .”

There are two contrasting responses to Jesus here, an act of adoration surrounded by two references to betrayal. Jesus forces choices even as he is preparing for his own death.

“On the first day of the Festival . . .”

So Jesus has chosen Passover, Israel’s great liberation event, as the backdrop to provide the meaning of his next action. Jesus claims to be bringing an Exodus, a new freedom movement. What were the elements of the first Passover and the original Exodus? Are all those elements to be found here as well?

“Very early in the morning . . .”

Jesus has now fully entered into the trial—the time of great tribulation and testing that the Jews knew would precede their full redemption. He is convicted twice, by both Jewish and Roman tribunals. Of what specifically? What do the differing charges tell us about Jesus and his work? So Jesus is condemned to death, precisely as the King of the Jews. What have the week’s events, all of them carefully chosen by Jesus himself, told us about what Jesus thought his death meant? Is his death more than a sacrifice? How can it possibly be a victory?

“The Sabbath”

As Jesus journeyed through the week, he was surrounded by symbols and echoes of Israel’s story. His recapitulation of them was not a mere repetition, but rather filled them with new and surprising meaning. Now, on the seventh day, he rests in death. What has been accomplished?

“Very early on the first day . . .”

If Israel’s story was always all about the world’s story, what does the resurrection of Israel’s Messiah mean for the rest of us? What does an echo of the creation story imply?

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We have seen the birth of a new kind of king and a new kind of Temple. And I hope we are waking up to the possibilities of a new kind of kingdom and the renewal of worship. The powers who ran Israel’s first-century world—both Jewish and Roman—knew and followed only one model for ruling. Jesus came into the city having staked his life and his chance at victory on a completely different vision, one centered on the power of self-giving love.

Yes, Jesus died for me.

But my place is found only in a much bigger and better story than my own small tale. You, me, and all of us are called to take up our place in God’s transforming work. And the only place we learn the ins and outs of God’s holy work is in God’s holy book.

The way to avoid shrinking reductions of biblical truth is nothing other than a rediscovery of the fullness of the Bible own tellings. Read big. Read in context. Make connections.

How We Receive Guidance From the Bible’s Story

We talk a lot here about reading the Bible as a story.

We believe that’s good and appropriate, because that’s what the Bible actually is—a library of books that come together to tell a story and invite us into the big, beautiful drama of God’s redemption of all things.

But how exactly is something like a story useful? Is a story the kind of thing that can show us what to do? Can a story somehow have authority?

The “reference book” model of the Bible had an easier way to answer to these questions. How is the Bible useful? Well, you simply look up the topic you’re interested in, find the right passages, and there it is! Put a list of those texts together, add them up, and you’ve found your answer.

We can discover God’s wisdom on everything from marriage to money by doing topical searches.

So let’s take slavery, for example. Since slavery was a fundamental part of the ancient world, the Bible mentions it a lot. We can track down every reference, add up the teaching, and get the Bible’s message on slavery, right?

No, actually.

In his book The Civil War as a Theological Crisis, historian Mark Noll describes the intense argument 19th-century Christians had over the Bible’s position on slavery. Those advocating a biblical defense of slavery had the easier time defending their position. It’s not difficult to produce a long list of Bible verses that explicitly endorse or assume human slavery. So . . . the Bible teaches us that slavery is okay?

No, it doesn’t. But it takes reading the Bible a certain way in order to rightly discern what the Bible does teach.

It takes reading the Bible as a story. In particular, it takes reading the Bible as a story that moves in the direction of greater redemption, greater flourishing, greater life. The full revelation of God’s purposes for humanity can’t be simply lifted from a page just anywhere in the Bible. The Torah regulations on slavery are not God’s final answer on that question.

The Bible is a narrative that unveils more and more of God’s intentions over time. The story is heading towards the full realization of God’s intentions. To be specific, the story is heading towards Jesus. It’s in the coming and work of the Messiah that we find the clearest and most definitive revelation of who God is and what he’s doing in the world. As that beautiful opening to the book of Hebrews has it: “And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. . . . The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God.” (NLT)

The life, death, resurrection, and powerful ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, now with authority over all things—this is the centerpiece of the whole long and winding tale of the Scriptures. In the work of Jesus—sent by the Father and empowered by the Spirit—is where the story finds the redemption and restoration it’s been looking for.

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But wait. Doesn’t the New Testament continue to assume slavery in its teachings that come even after Jesus? Well, yes. The letters from the apostles to the churches do continue to give instructions to both slaves and masters within that relationship.

Huh?

The Bible clearly shows us a God who insists on working within our ongoing story to bring more light and more life over time.

Here’s the thing: the creation’s restoration in the Messiah is indeed the crux of everything. But as always, God does not simply intrude into human history in artificial ways. The Bible clearly shows us a God who insists on working within our ongoing story to bring more light and more life over time. That is, God has committed to us—humans—as his creation-ruling partners. This was decided at the beginning, when God made us to his image-bearers, reflecting his good rule into the world. As decisive as the Jesus event was, it didn’t fix everything overnight. The implications of his kingdom-launching still have to be worked out by those who join his world-transforming movement. The kingdom has come and is coming, but it has not yet fully arrived. The kingdom of God is like a seed that is planted.

Let’s stay with our slavery example for a moment. After the coming of Jesus, slavery did not simply disappear. Not even among God’s own people. But then there’s Paul’s letter to Philemon. This one very short and simple letter to one slave-owning Christ-follower shows how God’s story with us does its work. Paul here shows us where the redemptive movement of the Bible’s narrative is headed. At the end of the day there is no place for one brother in Christ to own another brother in Christ. In the new humanity brought to us by the Second Adam we are all equal, members of one single worldwide family.

So don’t read the stories of the great patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to get the perfect picture of God’s intention for marriage. (No, really, please don’t.) Don’t read the Torah to get God’s final answer on slavery. Don’t even read Paul’s letters to first-century churches to get the final word on church practices for today. All of the Bible was directed first of all to its original audiences. We find ourselves in a different place, later in the story, listening in on earlier conversations.

So the way a storiented Bible tells us what to do is to give us a deep, long look at a God who is slowly working to bring life to the world. He begins where people are, and then starts to bring them to a new place. The fact is, for example, that the Torah’s instructions on slavery were a redemptive advance over the common rules for slavery at that time. Slaves in ancient Israel had more rights and more protections. God’s story had begun to move things in a better direction.

Our job, then, is to discern where the redemptive story in Jesus is headed. This is more nuanced, and a bit more work, than simply looking up reference book answers like definitions in a dictionary. This requires mature, big-picture reading. This means Spirit-led reading in community as we work together to discern how to live this same redemptive story in our very different late modern setting.

Our job, then, is to discern where the redemptive story in Jesus is headed. This is more nuanced, and a bit more work, than simply looking up reference book answers like definitions in a dictionary.Click To Tweet

The Bible invites us to look for gospel trajectories and redemptive endgames and then work to implement them in our own world. In the light of a dawning new creation we live as people of the coming Day, showing people what the future of the world looks like, not it’s past.

Grown-up Bible reading means asking: What stays the same in the biblical story? But also: What changes? The Bible gives us the light and revelation of God’s truth. It just doesn’t do it in a childish, simplistic, or artificial way. The only way this works is if we know the Scriptures deeply and well.

The Bible tells us what to do by telling us the Jesus-shaped story we’re a part of.

For further reading, see: Scripture and the Authority of God by N. T. Wright; Slaves, Women & Homosexuals by William Webb

How Personal Application Can Derail Your Bible Reading

I’ll never forget the time I was preparing to teach an adult education class at a church and I was told by the director to make sure that each lesson had a personal “takeaway” for each member of the class. “Application is the key,” he said, “the only point of teaching people the Bible, and the only thing that will hold their interest, is the personal application.”

This is an interesting statement, and it’s at least half true. The true part is that we read the Bible with the expectation that we’re doing more than learning ancient history. At the end of the day we hope to get something beyond information. We want it to say something to us, to be relevant to our lives, maybe even to do something deep and significant in us.

This is good and proper. So what’s the problem?

The problem is a set of expectations that typically go along with our longing for a Bible that’s always relevant to me, today, right here. There are likely more, but here are three key ones:

1. Talk to me

We begin by assuming the Bible is speaking directly to us. Maybe if we stopped and thought about it a little we’d remember that, oh yes, these are letters to people in first-century Corinth, or songs from ancient Israel. But it’s easy to forget and just start reading the words straight off the page and into our hearts.

2. Talk small to me

Problem #1 is only strengthened when the Bible we have is broken up into bite-sized pieces easily taken out of context. Reading Bible “verses” reinforces the idea that I can pick the tidbit that is just for me. And since some of those bits clearly don’t have anything that applies to me, I can safely stick to the good ones and ignore the rest.

3. Talk to me alone

Finally, we forget the Bible was written overwhelmingly to communities, not individuals. When we isolate the words and think only about our individual situations, we don’t even consider how a group of people would put the Bible into practice together.


So if these mistakes are distorting our Bible reading, what can we do to stay more clearly on track?

Let’s take up these correctives in the same order:

1. Listen in

The Bible is a collection of writings from the ancient world that we are essentially listening in on. The initial step in reading well is to consider what the various books meant in their own world first. The words were given in a context—historical, cultural, and religious. God was speaking to other people before he was speaking to us, and to know what he’s saying now we begin by knowing what was meant then.

2. Read big

The Bible is a collection of writings that were intended to be read in their entirety. The books are each a particular kind of ancient literature that work in their own way. They are stories, songs, letters, and more, and have to be read as the type of writing they are. Then, they come together to tell the ongoing narrative of God’s saving work in history. So read whole books instead of always jumping from little piece to little piece. Then put the books together and read them as a big story. (It’s easier to do this if you get a new reader’s edition without all the modern reference numbers.) We find our identity as a part of the story more than in individual promises or truths.

3. Think about us

The Bible is a collection of writings to communities, seeking to tell them what God is up to and how they can join his project of reclaiming the creation for good. God is creating communities of restoration that are meant to showcase where the story of the world is going. Our individual lives are crucial parts of this bigger story, but the transformation happens through entire communities of God’s people working together toward redemptive goals. Read the Bible with others.

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So here’s the thing: the Bible was never really intended to give you a personal application from each and every little verse. Sometimes it’s okay to simply read, learn, and understand what God was doing in the history of his people. We can relax, read big, and listen in. There is no need to force some application where there is none.

The Bible was never really intended to give you a personal application from each and every little verse.Click To Tweet

We need to give the Bible time and take away the pressure to constantly apply it.

But don’t worry. If we engage the Bible regularly and well, it will have more than enough to say to our lives right now. We will inherit a deep knowledge of God and his longstanding work to change the world. This kind of formation in us takes time, but is deeper and more transformative than the kind of instant application so often urged upon us. This kind of formation will take shape when we know the books of the Bible intimately and begin to live out the story in our own setting.

So yes, the Scriptures are useful to us today. But they are meant to be useful in a particular way. We have not been given a handbook filled with on-the-spot practical tips. We have been given a library of books from the ancient world that tell us the first part of God’s great story. The Bible slowly unveils the shape of God’s restoration and healing, and then it invites us in to take up our own roles.

We are players in the drama of redemption. And the most useful tool we have to help us learn how to live like this is the Bible—the script of the story that came before us.

Read it. Learn it. Live it. That’s the kind of application the Bible was built for.

Reading the Lord’s Prayer in Context

We all know it. We’ve all heard it, we’ve most likely prayed it, and perhaps we’ve even sung it.

The Lord’s Prayer. The one Jesus himself taught us to pray. It’s straight from the Master. How can we not do what he says? Since this is a Jesus prayer, we might be reluctant to admit we’re not especially thrilled with it.

But let’s admit it. At this point it can seem so . . . what? Mundane? Common? Safe?

Maybe there’s more to our lethargy with this prayer than simple overexposure. Maybe we’re verging on boredom with it because we haven’t captured the heart of it. And maybe this is because we haven’t focused on the context in which we first received it.

What context?

It’s easy to forget that this was prayer was introduced to the church by being embedded in two of our Gospels—Matthew’s and Luke’s. We don’t have space to explore both settings (or even one in any detail), but we’ll look more closely at Luke’s version in light of his Gospel’s bigger project.

The purpose here is to briefly set forth the kind of difference reading the Bible in context can make. In this case, we’ll see that there’s a whole lot more going on with the Lord’s Prayer than we’ve known.

Fitting Jesus’ Prayer into his Mission

Luke gives us the shorter, compact version of Jesus’ prayer, generally rendered along these lines in modern translations:

Father,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.

Crucially, Luke tells the story of Jesus in light of Israel’s bigger history with God. Jesus is fully embedded in Israel’s first-century context, announcing the arrival of God’s long-standing purposes for his people. In a fascinating passage that occurs just a little before Jesus teaches his disciples this prayer, we read that Jesus himself went up on a mountain to pray. Then this happens:

As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his exodus, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.

His exodus? Yes, this is one way Luke signals that the entire mission of Jesus was conceived in terms of a fresh Exodus experience for God’s people. This is precisely what the prophets had foretold. God would again come down and act decisively for his people’s liberation. God’s great new act of redemption would follow the pattern of the previous one. Biblical scholar Brant Pitre has written: “Each line of the prayer is rooted in the language and imagery of the Scriptures of Israel and in the prophetic hope for a new Exodus.”1 When we take a closer look at the Lord’s Prayer in the larger context of the Bible’s whole story, we find that it moves from being somewhat abstract and tame to bold and even risky.

When we take a closer look at the Lord’s Prayer in the larger context of the Bible’s whole story, we find that it moves from being somewhat abstract and tame to bold and even risky.Click To Tweet

Jesus is telling his disciples to urgently plead with God to bring this promised, future New Exodus. And to do it right now. In short, pray in the future. Tell God to free his people, bring them home, and establish his kingdom fully right here on earth.

Reading the prayer of Jesus in context recognizes all this:

• The Exodus was the first time God called Israel his son, and became Israel’s Father.
• The Exodus is when Pharaoh asked, “Who is Yahweh that I should obey him and let Israel go?” So God showed up and made his name holy, known among the nations.
• . . . when God brought his power and reign to earth to rescue his people.
• . . . when God brought his people daily bread in the wilderness.
• . . . when God forgave his people and revealed the Jubilee when all debts would be forgiven.
• . . . and when the time of great trial or testing came right before the great redemption.

Israel had been praying for centuries for all this to happen again. But Jesus told his closest followers and mission partners to pray for God to do it all right now, through the work of the Messiah. And then Jesus went out and did the work. He fought the great battle and brought us the New Exodus, freeing us from God’s biggest, baddest enemies—sin and death.

When read in this light, the prayer and its urgent Greek imperatives go more like this:

Father,
Make your name holy.
Bring your kingdom.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone indebted to us.
Do not bring us to the time of trial.

The early church brilliantly connected the Lord’s Prayer directly to its observance of the Lord’s Supper. A New Exodus prayer right before a New Exodus Passover meal. Those early followers of Jesus also routinely introduced the prayer with the words, “We make bold to pray.”

Who are we to tell God what to do? It may be that we shouldn’t even have the nerve to pray this way, to demand that God act decisively right now to finish his work of the world’s redemption in and through Jesus. Except that Jesus himself told us to have the nerve.

So go ahead and pray that bold prayer in all its glorious biblical context. The way Jesus taught us.

1See his article The Lord’s Prayer and the New Exodus for a detailed exploration of all the connections

Our Favorite Books About the Bible

When God chose to give us the kind of Bible that he did, it came with a set of expectations. The contents don’t automatically jump off the pages and go directly into our minds and hearts. The Bible is a library of books spanning a long period of time. They’re not all the same kind of writing. The entire collection is set in an ancient world. In addition, the books all come together to tell a great story. All of this means that to read the Bible well, we have to understand the Bible’s true character and be intentional about engaging it as the kind of book it is.

Which means we need help.

Thankfully there are lots of great resources on the Bible out there, including more books than any of us could ever read. And since there’s so many, we thought it would be helpful to give you a short list of our favorites. So we created a Recommended Reading page featuring 13 books that will provide you with a sound and useful perspective on the Bible, leading to better reading of the Bible itself. We hope it proves to be a helpful resource as you seek to deepen your understanding and love of the Scriptures.

IFBR’s Recommended Reading →