Lectionary Commentaries for April 10, 2020
Good Friday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 18:1—19:42

Alicia D. Myers

Even though it might surprise contemporary readers, all the events of John 18:1–19:42 happen on the same day: the Day of Preparation when the lambs were sacrificed for Passover (19:14; see also Leviticus 23:5; Numbers 9:2).

When we were told “it was night” in John 13:30, it became a new day according to Jewish reckoning of time. From 13:31–17:26, time stops as Jesus teaches his disciples for the last time and prays to his Father. In 18:1, the action suddenly resumes, rushing Jesus headlong into the “hour” for which he came (12:27; 13:1).

Here I will divide the passage into three sections: 18:1–27; 18:28–19:16a; and 19:16b–42. Throughout these scenes, Jesus’ steadfastness is contrasted with a number of other characters, who flicker in and out of focus, often compelled by fear. Jesus, however, remains determined to fulfill his Father’s will and shouts victoriously from the cross, “It has been finished!” (19:30, my translation) As the story unfolds, we hear Jesus’ earlier words ringing in our ears: “I am the noble shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep … No one takes it from me, but I lay it down myself. I have authority to lay it down and I have authority to take it again. This is the commandment I received from my Father” (10:11, 18, my translation). In 18:1–19:42, we watch our Noble Shepherd in action.

Arrest and interrogations (18:1–27)

When the narrative resumes in 18:1, we find Jesus with his disciples in the Kidron Valley, the same valley to which King David escaped when his son, Absalom, attempted his coup (2 Samuel 15–17). Unlike David, Jesus knows betrayal is coming; he has known Judas was a “devil” at least since John 6:70. Rather than fighting, Jesus surrenders to the cohort of armed Roman soldiers—a “cohort” was made up of 600 men! But he does not do so without first showing his full might. When Jesus responds, “I am he” to the questioning group, the men all fall immediately to the ground before Jesus. According to John’s Gospel, Jesus surrenders not out of weakness, but out of obedience to his Father and for the protection of his own disciples (18:8–9). In contrast, the high priest (who is not present) is unable to protect his own slave, Malchus, who suffers a deforming cut to the ear from Peter (18:10–11).

John 18:12–14 narrates the transition in locations. The fact that a Roman cohort leads Jesus to Annas’ house along with the “soldiers of the Jews” shows us that the Jewish elite are working hand in hand with the Romans they fear. In 18:15–18 and 25–27, Peter denies Jesus three times. After all his boldness in the garden (willing to attack in the presence of 600 Roman soldiers plus more Jewish soldiers!), Peter is suddenly paralyzed in a courtyard. What Peter seems to fear is shame rather than death. Peter was willing to see Jesus die, and to die with him (13:31–36), but only in a way he thought was noble—through combat that he would have instigated! But now, arrested, Jesus will die shamefully without a fight. Peter is not interested in that type of king.

Trial before Pilate (18:28–19:16a)

In 18:28, the location shifts again, this time to the governor’s headquarters, the praetorium near the temple grounds. In a well-recognized chiasm, Pilate shuffles in and outside his own abode, looking more like a slave with a message than an all-powerful representative of Rome. Throughout this section, the fear of those surrounding Jesus comes to a head. In 11:45–54, the high priest, Caiaphas, met with the Sanhedrin to discuss what to do about Jesus after his raising of Lazarus. Rather than jealousy, this meeting is motivated by fear: they are afraid that Jesus will become so popular he will mount an uprising against Rome. And Rome, of course, will destroy everything and everyone, including the temple, to reassert their authority. For a Gospel written twenty years after the destruction of the temple, this fear is well-warranted. Pilate too, though, is a person of fear in John 19:8. Pilate’s shuffling shows a willingness to appease the crowd before him; it is not in his best interest to rile up the Jewish people right before Passover either. In the end, both these parties, already complicit in Jesus’ arrest, now join together in their fear, resulting in Jesus’ unjust conviction.

Crucifixion, death, and burial (19:16b–42)

With his conviction complete, Jesus carries his own cross to the hill where he will be “lifted up.” Jesus’ “lifting up” or “exaltation” is double-sided: on the one hand, it is a sorrowful moment of humiliating suffering and death; but viewed from God’s (and Jesus’) perspective, it is an “exaltation” that brings life. As he hangs upon the cross, Jesus does not cry out in anguish. Instead, he watches as soldiers unwittingly fulfill Scripture by gambling for his clothes (19:23–24); he provides for his mother and disciple (19:25–27); and actively fulfills Scripture by requesting a drink (19:28). After his death, the soldiers repeat their ignorance, fulfilling Scripture even as they mutilate Jesus’ corpse.

The turning of all to look at his pierced body in 19:36–37 reminds readers of Jesus’ first extended conversation with Nicodemus. In 3:14–15 Jesus promised Nicodemus, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, it is necessary for the Son of Man to be lifted up in the same way, so that everyone who believes in him shall have eternal life” (my translation). Suddenly, Nicodemus appears for the third time in John 19:39, working with Joseph of Arimathea to bury Jesus. Joseph’s bold action to request Jesus’ body from Pilate, and Nicodemus’ joining him with a large amount of costly materials, may indicate the fulfillment of Jesus’ words. Having seen their pierced shepherd, do Joseph and Nicodemus begin to live? Even though this section of the Gospel ends with a burial, it already hints at resurrection.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12

Christopher B. Hays

This song of suffering has generated so much controversy over its right interpretation that it risks overshadowing ways in which it speaks powerfully both in its original context and in the ongoing history of Christian interpretation.

References to a servant (and, later, “servants”) are numerous in Isaiah 40-66. In particular, Isaiah 42:1-4; 49:1-6; and 50:4-9 have also been identified as “Servant Songs,” so this is the Fourth Servant Song. These were originally composed in the late sixth or early fifth centuries BCE. In the wake of the Babylonian exile, the Jewish returnees to Judah struggled over how their nation ought to be restored, who should lead, and what the people should believe. Sometimes in this part of Isaiah, the servant is identified with the nation (he is called “Israel” and “Jacob” in 44:21). The servant named in the songs, however, appears to have been the leader of a struggling prophetic group. (More generally in the Bible, prophetic figures are regularly called servants of the LORD, which seems to be based on the paradigm of Moses—as in Exodus 14:31, etc.)

The servant of the songs is said to be called from the womb (49:1), but his mission is frustrated: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity” (49:4). Here in Isaiah 53, then, we encounter the failure of that individual prophet and his apparently posthumous glorification.

Historically-minded scholars have tried many times to identify the referent of the Servant, with nearly every imaginable major biblical character proposed at one time or another. The most notable include Cyrus and Jehoiachin. But not one of these proposals has come close to commanding consensus—at least not as a solution to all the servant texts.

There are a number of familiar theological themes in the passage. For example, the revelatory work of the servant (52:15) picks up the earlier Isaianic theme of the people’s failure to see and hear (for example, Isaiah 6:9), and reverses it. Other repeated themes include: the suffering of prophetic figures, God’s servants as intercessors for the people, and the power of the righteous to influence the fate of the unrighteous (for example, Abraham or Moses bargaining with God).

On the other hand, the idea that the suffering of God’s innocent servant can substitute for that of the truly guilty seems to have been a new idea. That surprising and counterintuitive theme pervades Isaiah 53, but the author expresses it particularly graphically with the image of the asham sacrifice in 53:10. That sacrifice was intended to make atonement with God for sin (Leviticus 5:6, etc.), but normally a sheep was sacrificed, and it is not described in a way comparable to Isaiah 53 anywhere else in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, however, it became the basis for understanding Jesus as the “Lamb of God” who, by his sacrifice, takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29, 36; 1 Peter 1:18-19; Revelation 5:6; 7:14).

When read in isolation by Christians, the song is commonly taken to be simply a prophecy of the passion and resurrection of Jesus. Other aspects of the description—that the servant was “marred of appearance, beyond human semblance” (52:14) and that he was “held of no account” (53:3)—sound much less like Jesus of Nazareth, however. In Isaiah 56-66, one sees a shift to plural servants (foreshadowed by the reference to their vindication in 54:17). This may have reflected a group or movement of disciples of the original Servant, who carried on his work, but with a sectarian anger that leads them to withdraw from the wider society and define themselves as righteous in contrast (for example, Isaiah 65:13-15).[1] Such sects of the Persian period were the predecessors of later groups like the Essenes and the followers of John the Baptist. They were, then, prepared for the appearance of Jesus, in part by these texts.

It is not only because of the historical impossibility of identifying the original servant, but also because of the tension that is felt between the original composition and the later Christian theological application of the text that it has been deemed “probably the most contested chapter in the Old Testament” by Brevard Childs.[2] Even more than a century ago, the great S. R. Driver is said to have abandoned his Isaiah commentary rather than deal with the debate.[3]

It is probably inevitable that people would ask who the text is talking about. After all, that is the first question posed by the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-38 when he reads 53:7-8 and is converted, asking Philip to baptize him. From the standpoint of a preacher, though, a focus on determining a single historical referent would be unfortunate. Old Testament texts are regularly reinterpreted for new historical moments. This process begins within the Bible and extends into our own times. It is far better to appreciate the meanings of the text in its various contexts without seeking to invalidate them.

This fourth Servant Song was one of the most important passages that helped New Testament interpret the suffering and death of Jesus. Paul seems to have been among the earliest, invoking Isaiah 53:9-11 to explain atonement in Romans 4:22-25. There, he identified Jesus as the one “who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification” (see also 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Paul also interpreted Isaiah’s reference to the incredible news about the Servant to emphasize the importance of spreading the gospel (Romans 15:18-21, which cites the Septuagint translation of 52:15).

The evangelists also made fresh and interesting use of the passage. John took 53:1 as an explanation for the disciples’ failure to believe, in spite of all the signs that Jesus had performed in their presence (12:36-38; see also Romans 10:16). The lack of understanding by the servant’s contemporaries until after his suffering death is a major theme of the passage. Since their ignorance is attributed partly to the servant’s off-putting physical appearance, that might press contemporary readers to ask hard questions about our own culture, which favors the physically attractive, and can be particularly hard-hearted towards those with disabilities: What gifts might we be overlooking in those around us?

Matthew understood Jesus’ healings as the fulfillment of 53:4’s reference to “bearing our infirmities and carrying our diseases” (8:14-17). Thus, the mission of servant was extended beyond a spiritual level—it was not merely about atonement—and could well be cited in support of ongoing ministries of health and healing.

More generally, the song’s images of suffering, when applied to Jesus, emphasize Christ’s solidarity with those who are suffering in various ways. The song points towards hope—not only for individuals who suffer, but for the importance of their contributions for others. A community shows its attentiveness to this text by working to alleviate suffering, and by remembering the past work of those who have suffered for the good of others.


  1. Joseph Blenkinsopp, The ‘Servants of the Lord’ in Third Isaiah: Profile of a Pietistic Group in the Persian Epoch,” Proceedings of the Irish Biblical Association 7 (1983): 1-23.
  2. B. S. Childs, Isaiah (OTL; Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 410.
  3. Reported in C. R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah: An Historical and Critical Study, 2nd ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1956), 1.


Commentary on Psalm 22

Amanda Benckhuysen

Borne out of a gut-wrenching anguish, Psalm 22 is the cry of one who knows what it is to be bullied by his enemies, rejected by his community, and abandoned by God.1

The threat for the psalmist is imminent as a “company of evildoers” surrounds him like bulls ready to attack and lions eager to devour. Bystanders despise and mock him. Even God seems to have forsaken him. The one in whom his ancestors trusted, the one who he has worshiped since his birth, this one has also seemingly cast him aside. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the psalmist cries. “O Lord, do not be far away! … Come quickly to my aid! (verse 19).” Yet in his time of trouble, God remains agonizingly silent.

The distress of the psalmist is palpable. With no one to help, the psalmist is consumed with a fear that debilitates him, exacting a physical and emotional toll. “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax (verse 14),” the psalmist murmurs. For twenty-one verses, the psalmist voices his agonizing pain, his loneliness, his feelings of abandonment. God, where are you? “Deliver my soul from the sword … save me from the mouth of the lion! (verse 20a, 21a),” the psalmist pleads.

Then rather abruptly, the threat is gone. The enemies who once circled around the psalmist have been replaced by a worshiping community. The psalmist’s fear of affliction has been redirected into fear of the Lord. Lament has turned to praise. The world, which was once a place of danger for the psalmist, has become a place of joy and blessing — not just for the psalmist but for the wider community as well to whom blessings now flow. “The poor shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord (verse 26a).” All this, the psalmist tells us, is God’s doing. In the end, God did not despise the affliction of the afflicted but heard his cry, his desperate plea for help. God turned his face toward him. God answered and acted for his sake, one whom the community had stigmatized, marginalized, and cast off. The holy God, enthroned on the praises of Israel, stooped down and attended to the needs of one despised and rejected.

For those familiar with the Christian Scriptures, it is almost impossible to read this psalm without calling to mind the events of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross. “Eli, eli, lema sabachthani?” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” Jesus cried (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34). Certainly the gospel writers understood Jesus as taking on the experience of the psalmist and all who would pray this prayer, embodying the sorrow, the loneliness, and the abuse reflected in this psalm. Soldiers gambled for his clothes (cf. Psalm 22:18 and John 19:23-24). Passersby jeered at him (cf. Psalm 22:7-8; Mark 15:29, Matthew 27:39). Enemies sought his life. And God remained silent.

The associations between this psalm and the passion of Christ highlight how fully and completely Jesus entered into the suffering of humanity, taking the sorrow and anguish of those who are afflicted upon himself. So the writer of Hebrews can speak of Jesus as one who became like his sisters and brothers in every respect and who is able to sympathize with us in our weakness and suffering as he intercedes for God’s mercy on our behalf (Hebrews 2:17, 4:15). But Jesus’ suffering is not just about solidarity and sympathy. Jesus not only suffered like us or with us, he suffered and even died for our sake. His is a redemptive suffering, a vicarious suffering, a suffering that marked the beginning of the end of all senseless and gratuitous suffering caused by human sin and evil. Jesus’ suffering brings about the new day described in verses 22-32 when all the families of the nations shall worship the Lord and the poor shall eat and be satisfied and the Lord will reign with justice and righteous and suffering and sorrow shall flee away.

As we consider this psalm on Good Friday, at least two avenues for reflection open themselves up to us. First, Psalm 22 reminds us that our faith is not rooted in a facile triumphalism. Christ’s was a hard-won anguish-filled victory against all that the forces of evil could muster. He stared sin and evil in the face and put them to death in his own body. This psalm, then, gives us a glimpse of what our redemption cost God, the Son submitting to the excruciating journey of the Via Dolorosa all the way to his brutal death on the cross. The father, tormented by Jesus’ cries for help and overcome by grief at his last breath all for the sake of our redemption. What wondrous love is this? What greater demonstration of love can there be than that God would lay down his life for us?

Second, it is not difficult to imagine those in our society who would pray this prayer, those who are the target of prejudice and injustice, those who suffer gratuitously on account of laws, policies, and social norms which fail to make space for them, those whom our society has pushed to margins. Good Friday is a day to join with Jesus in his fierce grief and sorrow over the sin of the world, to lament the forces of evil and cry out to God to bring healing to our sin-sick world. Through the cries of Psalm 22, we are reminded the evil that still plagues our world and even resides in our own hearts and so we lift up our voices in lament, awaiting the day when God will finally bring an end to all evil and pain.

“Come quickly, Lord. Do not be far away!”


1 Commentary first published on this site on March 25, 2016.

Alternate Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9

Richard Carlson

Hebrews has the most intricate Christology in the New Testament.1

It presents a high Christology in which Christ is the agent of creation and the exalted Son of God and High Priest installed at God’s right hand (especially see the opening of 1:1-4). Yet at the same time, Hebrews stresses how the enfleshed Christ shares every aspect of our humanity with the exception of sin (2:17-18; 4:15). Both emphases also serve as motivational Christology in which the varied presentations of Christ stimulate our perseverance in faithfulness and obedience (12:1-4). All of these Christological elements come together in this Good Friday lectionary text.

Our text opens by presenting dual identities for Jesus as Son of God and High Priest (Hebrews 4:14). His identity as Son of God builds on the Old Testament concept that the Davidic king was regarded as son of God, i.e., God’s regent ruling on earth, especially as presented in Psalm 2 (quoted in Hebrews 1:2, 5; 5:5). In the Old Testament, however, the king and the high priest were completely separate offices as the former was a descendant of Judah and the latter a descendant of Levi. Jesus occupies both positions so that he not only rules the cosmos but also offers sacrificial intercession on our behalf. The image of Jesus passing through the heavens (4:14) builds on these dual identities. As Son, his passing through the heavens involved his fore-mentioned exaltation and installation (1:3-4; 2:9-10). As High Priest, he passes through the heavenly sanctuary and its curtain to perform his priestly duties (6:19-20; 8:1-3; 9:11-12,23-24; 10:19-22). The exhortation at the end of 4:14 (that we hold fast to our confession) is not simply a matter of our belief in Jesus. It also is an exhortation to live out this confession in our persistent, obedient, faithfulness.

Our High Priest’s solidarity with us and sympathy towards us include human weakness and testing which Jesus experienced. For the author of Hebrews, weakness on both our part and Jesus’ part is multifaceted including physical weakness whose end is death (2:9,14-15), social ostracism and abuse (10: 32-34; 12:3-4), and susceptibility to sin (2:17-18; 9:26-28). The only difference between Jesus and us is that Jesus was without sin which enables him to offer sacrifice on behalf of our sins as both the ultimate High Priest and the ultimate sacrifice (2:17; 7:27).

Again, this Christological presentation has a motivational intent. We are now exhorted to approach the divine throne with boldness because it is a throne of grace where we will find mercy, grace, and help throughout our perilous, earthly pilgrimage (Hebrews 4:16). This is a stark reversal of Old Testament sanctuary theology. Only the high priest was able to enter the Holy of Holies to offer sacrifice on the Day of Atonement. Now, however, we are invited to approach the divine throne with boldness to receive all the divine benefits which flow from our High Priest’s sacrifice.

Hebrews 5:7-9 expands on Jesus’ dual identities as Son of God and High Priest. Part of Jesus’ priestly service involved offering up prayers and supplications while identifying fully with humanity (5:7a; note how the technical term “offer up” was also used in 5:1,3 in connection to human priestly service). The exact content of Jesus’ prayers is not directly reported here. Some have sought to connect Jesus’ loud cries and tears in 5:7 with Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane that the cup of death would be taken from him (Mark 14:36; Matthew 26:39; Luke 22:42). Such a struggle with his fateful death, however, does not fit the theological presentation of Jesus in Hebrews. The thrust here is the emotional depth of his prayers not for his deliverance but for our deliverance as part of his priestly service (2:9; 6:20; 7:25,27; 9:24; 10:12).

A related theological point entails the description of God as “the One who was able to save from death” (Hebrews 5:7). Again, Jesus is not praying that he would avoid death. Rather, he is praying to the One who will save him out of the reality of death through his resurrection and exaltation. Thus Jesus is modeling ultimate trust in and reverent submission to the One who has ultimate power over death as part of his priestly service. He rescues us from death through his own death (2:9,14-15; 9:16).

In Hebrews 5:8 the author is putting his own Christological spin on the link between suffering and learning in Greco-Roman morality. It was commonly understood that moral character was learned and formed through adversity. Here Jesus learns obedience through his experiencing of suffering even though he is God’s Son. His intimate and lofty relationship with God does not render him immune from either suffering or obedience. Instead, his mission as High Priest involves obedience to God’s designs by suffering onto death (Hebrews 13:12). Because this remains motivational Christology, Jesus stands as our paradigm so that we too learn obedience through our experiences of suffering even though we share relational intimacy as God’s children (2:10; 12:6-8).

The result of Jesus’ educational experiences is expressed in Hebrews 5:9 which is unfortunately obscured by English translations which present Jesus as “made perfect” (NRSV, NIV, RSV, KJB). The focus here (and throughout Hebrews) is not moral perfect but soteriological completeness. “Jesus is made complete by his death and exaltation to heavenly glory, so that he now serves as high priest forever at God’s right hand. Others are made complete when they go where Jesus has gone, following their forerunner into the presence of God.”1 Thus Jesus is both the source and the goal of eternal salvation.

Within the context of Good Friday, the centrality of Jesus’ solidarity with humanity and his sacrificial suffering on behalf of humanity stand as central components of this text. In going to his death, Jesus does not renounce his identity as God’s Son and High Priest. Rather, he demonstrates and enacts his identity so that we would experience the salvation he accomplishes for us. As our paradigm, we too embrace the way of the cross to enact our faith, obedience, and perseverance in the midst of weakness and suffering.


1 Commentary first published on this site on March 25, 2016.

2 Craig Koester, Hebrews, The Anchor Bible, Vol. 36 (New York: Doubleday, 2001), p. 123.