Lectionary Commentaries for April 3, 2015
Good Friday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 18:1—19:42

Craig R. Koester

John’s narrative of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion takes readers into the heart of the gospel.1

Because the assigned reading is two chapters long, one might read and preach on only a portion of it. One might also read a section, then preach briefly on it; read another section and preach briefly on it, and so on. The story itself is powerful, yet preaching can help worshipers hear it as a word addressed to them. Here we will focus on several episodes that occur in the middle of the passage, culminating with the crucifixion itself.

Our theme is identity, which is rarely a simple matter. We try to shape our identities so that people see us in certain ways. The way we arrange items on our résumés and Facebook pages creates images of ourselves as we would like others to see us. We seek to show that we are accomplished in a certain field, exhibit leadership ability, have insights to share. The list could go on. Those one meets in the passion narrative also project images of strength and competence. Yet the narrative peels back the images that people project, so that their pretensions come to light in the presence of Christ. The reality is that they are not the people the pretend to be. All fall short. Consider several of the leading figures in turn.

Peter initially appears to be the consummate disciple. He has been following Jesus since the beginning (John 1:40-42), and even when others are offended by Jesus’ claims to have come from God, Peter is bold to declare, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (6:68). At the last supper, Peter objects when Jesus washes feet, but then asks for a more complete bath if that is what it takes to be in relationship with Jesus (13:6-9). He even vows that he will lay down his life for Jesus (13:37). Yet in the courtyard of the high priest, the one who seems to be such a loyal disciple proves to be no disciple. When a servant girl asks whether he is a disciple, Peter repeatedly says, “I am not … I am not” (18:17, 25). Faithfulness dissolves into unfaithfulness.

The Jewish authorities seem to be the consummate law-abiding citizens. They bring Jesus before Pilate, yet refuse to enter his house so that they will remain ritually pure according to the Jewish law (18:28). They tell Pilate that according to the law of Moses, Jesus deserves to die because he has tried to elevate himself to divine status by making himself into the Son of God (19:7). They seem to have a good case. What is more, they scrupulously defer to Roman authority when they tell Pilate that it would not be proper for them to pass sentence on Jesus. As good citizens they rely on the Roman governor for that (18:31).

Yet as they try to get Jesus convicted, they violate their own principles. They briefly show that they are not such good citizens by demanding the release of a terrorist (Greek lestes) named Barabbas (18:40), and this might give the impression that they are trying to subvert the established social order. So changing course in order to achieve their goals, they abruptly declare that they have no king but Caesar (19:15). Yet now the impression is that instead of serving God they serve only the emperor — i.e., the man who would play God — and that would be contrary to Jewish law. Their pretensions are exposed by their words.

Pilate is the Roman governor. He was the most powerful man in the country, accountable only to Rome. He was in charge of the military, the judicial system, and the finances. Pilate would seem to have it all. Pilate also realizes that Jesus is an innocent man, and he declares this three times (18:38; 19:4, 6). The implications would seem obvious. If Pilate really has such power, he should be able to do what he knows to be true by releasing this innocent prisoner. Yet as the narrative progresses, Pilate proves himself powerless to do what is true, and knowingly hands over an innocent man for execution (19:16).

The trial narrative is a sustained exercise in truth telling. Throughout these chapters everyone’s pretensions are exposed: Peter the Christian proves to be no disciple. The Jewish authorities violate their own principles to achieve their own ends. Pilate the Roman proves powerless to put the truth into practice. As the narrative peels back the facades of strength and propriety for these people, it also asks readers: Are you so different? What would happen if we looked closely? The story of the trial is important, because it shows us the fallen character of the world for which Jesus came to die. It discloses the dynamics of sin at work in human relationships. It prepares us for the final aspect of the story, which concerns God’s relationship with such a world.

The identity of Jesus is an issue throughout the passion narrative. He is called a threat to God and society (19:7, 12), and described as an innocent man (18:38; 19:4, 6). But from the evangelist’s point of view, the place that where Jesus’ identity is rightly proclaimed is on the sign over the cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (19:19). This sign is written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek (19:20). It proclaims to the world what God is doing for the world by sending Jesus. The cross is where Jesus reigns because here is where the love of God reigns. In John’s gospel the power of God is revealed as the love of God that seeks to reclaim the world that has turned away from him. God sends Jesus to be the King who comes from the Jewish people in order to reign for the world. God’s kingdom is built through God’s self-giving love. In the crucified Jesus, the world comes to know the lengths to which God will go in order to reclaim the world in love.


1 This commentary was first published on the site on April 2, 2010.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12

Mark Throntveit

The church always reads this marvelous text on Good Friday. 1

Few Old Testament passages have provided preachers with as much theological and imagistic grist for the homiletical mill as this fourth and final poem in the so-called Servant Songs of Second Isaiah (42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13–53:12).

Nevertheless, the passage remains remarkably unyielding with regard to exegetical explanations of who, what, when, and where, not to mention why. Some believe the servant to be a collective figure, usually Israel, whose suffering and dislocation in the exile prove to be redemptive for “the nations.” Others prefer to identify various individuals (Moses, Cyrus, or Second Isaiah, himself, are the top contenders these days) as the servant. The church has naturally seen the suffering, death, and even the resurrection of Jesus Christ poignantly depicted here.

There are problems, however, with all of these attempts to identify the servant. The proponents of an individual identification need to wrestle with the statement that “he shall see his offspring and prolong his days” (53:10), especially in light of the text’s announcement of the servant’s death when it reports “he was cut off from the land of the living,” (53:8). Those identifying the servant with Christ can deal with the death by appeal to the resurrection, but what then of “his offspring”? DaVinci Code, anyone?

The question of the servant’s identity has been debated for centuries without consensus and this will likely continue. Structural observations, however, have contributed greatly to our understanding of the passage, regardless of the servant’s identity. The poem naturally falls into two sections: God’s affirmation of “my servant” opens (A, 52:13-15) and closes (A’, 53:11b-12) the poem framing a “report” (53:1 RSV) of the servant’s mission in the form of a confession (53:1-11a) offered by those for whom the servant suffered, as follows:

A God affirms “my servant” (52:13-15)

B Introduction to the report (53:1)
   C Description of the servant’s suffering (53:2-3)
      X Reason for the servant’s suffering (53:4-6)
   C’ Description of the servant’s suffering (53:7-9)
B’ Conclusion of the report (53:10-11a)

A’ God affirms “my servant” (53:11b-12)

The report itself (53:1-11a) displays a concentric construction. The report opens with wonder as the ones for whom the servant suffered can’t believe what they have heard (B, 53:1). The unbelievable news they have heard is, of course, what we as readers find out in the report’s conclusion (B’, 53:10-11a), namely that “it was the will of the LORD to crush him.” Who’d a thunk it? Or, as our text puts it, “to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?”

Their bifurcated description of the servant’s suffering betrays their earlier conviction that this poor loser, disfigured, abused, despised, and rejected was of “no account” (C, 53:2-3). What is worse, he accepted his fate without as much as a peep of protest, “he did not open his mouth.” What a wimp (C’, 53:7-9)!

But in the heart of the passage (X, 53:4-6) these unbelieving, incredulous confessors finally get it. They figure out that while suffering had previously been variously explained as the inevitable consequence of disobedience (e.g. Deuteronomy 28:15) or as a test of faithfulness (e.g. Job 1-2), here suffering, borne willingly, silently, innocently, vicariously, by another in conjunction with the will of God, was depicted as redemptive for others. The ones who had mocked, abused, humiliated, and finally killed the servant are now the ones who confess that he has borne their sin. Their amazement is beautifully presented in the repentant resonance of the Hebrew particles hu (he, him) and nu (we, our) that reverberates throughout this central paragraph:

He has borne our griefs”
“yet we accounted him struck down by God”
He was wounded for our transgressions”

If such is the meaning of the report found in 53:1-11a, what then is the function of the divine address that frames the report? When Arthur Hiller, the director of Love Story (the Oscar winning 1970 film, not Erich Segal’s book, upon which the film is based) begins with the final scene in which Oliver mourns the death of his beloved Jennifer, “What can you say about a twenty-five year old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant. That she loved Mozart and Bach. The Beatles. And me,” he dictates how we are to experience his film. We know that she is not going to make it; she is going to die no matter how tragic their pain, how poignant their love. If you miss the first five minutes of the film (potty stops, popcorn purchases, and parsimonious parking places head the list in my family!) you will not see the same film … you will “just know” she’s going to get better and that true love will win out in the end. But that is not the film the director wants you to see.

In a similar way, Second Isaiah frames his depiction of the Gospel in action with the divine speech that lets us, his readers, unlike those for whom the servant suffered, know in advance what is to come. This is the way God has chosen to redeem us. Is it any wonder the church, looking back through the lens of the cross, has found in this heart wrenching poem, a crystal clear portrayal of the events of God’s Good Friday?


1 This commentary was first published on the site on April 2, 2010.


Commentary on Psalm 22

Jerome Creach

Psalm 22 is a prayer of complaint that, perhaps more than any psalm, serves as a link between the Old Testament and the story of Jesus’ passion. 1

Indeed, this psalm is an appropriate lectionary reading for Good Friday because the Gospels cite and allude to it at least five times in the crucifixion account. It is important to recognize, however, that Psalm 22 is not important simply because it appears in the New Testament. Rather, the New Testament writers drew from it because of its profound expressions of suffering and faith.

Psalm 22 has “an intensity and a comprehensiveness” that is almost unequaled among psalms of this type.2 The psalm has two main parts:  (1) a prayer for help in verses 1-21a; and (2) a song of praise in verses 21b-31.  Both of these sections have two prominent divisions in which repetition of a main theme, sometimes with exact vocabulary, strengthens the psalm’s expression of both complaint and praise. Verses 1-11 has two complaints (verses 1-2, 6-8), each of which contains some of the most striking language in the Psalms. The psalm opens with the famous cry of dereliction, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

At the other end of this section the psalmist complains, “I am a worm, and not human; scorned by others, and despised by the people” (verse 6). In both cases, however, the complaint is followed by an extended confession of trust that recalls God’s protection in the past (verses 3-5, 9-11). The first confession of trust is corporate (“In you our ancestors trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them,” verse 4) and second individual and personal (“Yet it was you who took me from the womb; you kept me safe on my mother’s breast,” verse 9).

The prayer for help in verses 12-21a focuses on the nature of the psalmist’s trouble. Verses 12-13 and 16a include images of animals that circle the psalmist waiting to devour and destroy (“bulls encircle me,” verse 12; “dogs are all around me,” verse 16a). These images are followed in both cases by complaints of physical weakness: “I am poured out like water” (verse 14); “my tongue sticks to my jaws” (verse 15a); “I can count all my bones” (verse 17). The section concludes with a concatenation of petitions for God to be near and to save from the sword, the dog, and the lion (verses 19-21a).

The second major portion of the psalm turns to praise and assurance that God has heard and answered. This section offers praise and thanksgiving that matches the repeated calls for help in verses 1-21a. Verse 21b responds tersely to the complaints of verses 1-18 by saying “From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.” The rest of the psalm then promises praise to God, promises that progress from the psalmist’s profession before worshippers (verses 22-25) to the praise of those who “sleep in the earth” (verse 29).

The psalmist’s promise of praise dominates verses 22-26. Twice the psalmist pledges to honor God by recalling God’s goodness (verse 22) and by making vows in the midst of the congregation (verse 25). After both promises of praise the psalmist then declares God’s past goodness to those in trouble and those of lowly estate (“the afflicted,” verse 24; “the poor” and “those who seek him,” verse 26; the word translated “afflicted” and the word translated “poor” are actually the same, ?an? ). Verses 27-31 then expand the promise of praise so that every person in human history is included: “all the families of the nations” (verse 27), “all who sleep in the earth” (verse 29), and “future generations” (verse 30).

The connection between Psalm 22 and the story of Jesus’ suffering and death is natural given the extensive description of suffering the psalm contains. Perhaps the most obvious connection between the passion story and Psalm 22 is Jesus’ cry of God-forsakenness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). Other portions of the psalm provide an outline of the experience of Jesus on the cross.

Mark 15:29 (Matthew 27:39) implies the language of Psalm 22:7 in the description of passersby at the crucifixion:

“All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads.”

Matthew 27:43 also frames the taunts of the religious leaders with an allusion to Psalm 22:8:

“Commit your cause to the LORD;
let him deliver —
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!”

In all four Gospels (Mark 15:24; Matthew 27:35; Luke 23:34; John 19:24) the description of the soldiers’ activity beneath the cross draws on Psalm 22:18:

“they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.”

In addition to these examples, John 19:28 probably has Psalm 22:15 in mind when reporting that Jesus says, “I am thirsty” in order “to fulfill scripture.” The scripture fulfilled is most likely Psalm 22:15.

Though the original setting of Psalm 22 had nothing to do with the passion of Jesus, a Messianic reading is a natural result of the psalm’s extensive expression of suffering and its far-reaching declaration of hope. The psalm “explodes the limits” of poetic expression and thus expands the Old Testament understanding of God, human life, and death.3

Not only does the psalmist cry out to God with unparalleled expressions of pain and loss (verse 1), but the writer also expresses hope in something close akin to resurrection (verses 29-30). Thus, Psalm 22 is appropriate for the hope that accompanies Jesus’ passion as well as the grief. It anticipates a vision of God who holds the believer even after death that will only be expressed fully centuries later.  


1 This commentary was first published on the site on April 6, 2012.

2James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 107.

3Ellen F. Davis, “Exploding the Limits: Form and Function in Psalm 22,” JSOT 53 (1992), 102-103.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25

Sandra Hack Polaski

The book of Hebrews is often seen, not without reason, as one of the New Testament’s most difficult texts.1

Students who have mastered much of New Testament Greek run aground on its rocky stylistic shoals. Its imagery may seem illogical — how can Jesus be both sacrifice and High Priest? And many Christian preachers find it hard to proclaim the messages of Hebrews without lapsing into supercessionism. Why, on Good Friday of all days, should we even attempt to make sense of what Hebrews has to say? Yet today’s lectionary text reflects on the central theme of the day in ways that help us think differently about the meaning of Christ’s sacrificial death.

While most commentators see a major section break between verses 18 and 19 (signaled by the “therefore” at the beginning of verse 19), the lectionary passage includes verses 16 through 18, thereby incorporating the quotation of Jeremiah 31 that is cited more fully in Hebrews 8:10-12. The theme of the “new covenant” was popular with early Christians who understood their scriptures to be fulfilled in the coming of Christ. Here, as often, the emphasis is on the interior nature of the covenant, laws placed in the hearts of believers and written on their minds. Omitting the middle section of the quotation brings the first and last pieces into a neat parallel: when God has written the law in believers’ minds, that they might remember it forever, then God will no longer remember their lawless and sinful deeds.

The previous section of Hebrews has developed a detailed argument based on the notion of Christ as the true and eternally effective sacrifice, and this is the image to which this passage returns. Those of us unaccustomed to sacrifice as a part of worship practice may be somewhat put off by references to Jesus’ “blood” and “flesh” as effecting access to God. Yet it is self-evident to the author of Hebrews, steeped in the sacrificial tradition of the Hebrew Bible, that any act that makes divine forgiveness of sin possible must necessarily entail the shedding of blood. As the previous section of Hebrews argues, Jesus’ shed blood means that no further cultic sacrificial practices are necessary. The blood sacrifice of Christ is perfect and permanently effective.

What is likely to prove more interesting to us about this passage is what the author claims Jesus’ sacrifice means to us. The Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) tradition of the high priest entering the holiest part of the sanctuary only once a year, and only after the most careful preparation, makes the “confidence” with which believers enter into the “sanctuary” an almost comic bravado. Who would dare do such a thing–except that the Christ event has changed everything?! This “confidence” also suggests boldness even in the face of opposition, a sense likely not lost on the first readers, who lived under the threat of persecution for their faith.

Most readers familiar with the Synoptic Gospels will likely read the reference to the “opened curtain” and “his flesh” as an allusion to the tradition of the Temple curtain being torn at Jesus’ death (cf. Matthew 27:51). Yet scholars suggest that this particular tradition may not have been known to the author of Hebrews. Rather, the reference to Jesus’ “flesh” in opening the curtain may emphasize that Christ did not provide believers access to God by some heavenly journey or spiritual act, but by the obedience that brought his physical body to its painful and humiliating death (as Philippians 2:8 says, “even death on a cross”). In the situation of persecution which the first readers of Hebrews faced, their discipleship might come to entail the same sort of physical suffering. For us, the reminder is that neither Jesus’ obedience nor ours is something that involves just our spiritual being. Our entire selves — physical, mental, spiritual, emotional–are involved in our Christian existence.

In certain ways, then, this text is a variation on the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2, transposed, as it were, into a different key. In contrast to the likely Gnostic beliefs of the writer’s opponents, who would have insisted that Christ’s spiritual being transcended his earthly, material body, the author insists that it is through Christ’s body — his broken flesh, his shed blood–that believers have access to the “new and living way” (verse 20). His sacrifice makes possible his exaltation to the “high priest[hood] over the house of God” (verse 21) and our participation in the house of God.

Christ’s sacrifice enables believers to have a “true heart” (cf. Isaiah 38:3) and to practice the virtues of faith, hope, and love, mentioned in verses 22, 23, and 24 successively. There is no reason to suppose that these virtues, mentioned in this order, are an allusion to Paul’s discussion of love in 1 Corinthians 13, although it is entirely possible that both stem from a very early Christian liturgical use of the triad. In any case, Hebrews understands these three to be intimately intertwined. Faith, the author will say in chapter 11, entails hope; love is the outward working of both.

Although the book of Hebrews rarely speaks in positive terms either of the physical body or of religious ritual, both come in for commendation in this passage. Just as Christ reaches his exaltation through his physical sacrifice, we approach God in our physical bodies, “washed” in the ritual of baptism. Moreover, while we do not engage in the ineffective ritual of repeated sacrifice, we are not therefore free to “do our own thing” religiously, to make our faith practice whatever we want it to be. Rather, the regular practice of corporate worship remains important, not only to engage in ritual but also to “encourag[e] one another” (verse 25). Hebrews is not particularly concerned with details of the Parousia, although the fact that God will one day bring about the End is an important part of the Christian confession. More important is the real, physical faith community, the locus of the faith, hope, and love that are products of the Christian life, made available to us through Jesus’ sacrifice.


1 This commentary was first published on the site on April 22, 2011.