Lectionary Commentaries for March 29, 2024
Good Friday

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 18:1—19:42

Holly Hearon

The Gospel of John’s passion narrative helpfully reminds us that different voices in the New Testament speak about the death of Jesus differently. A close comparison with the other Gospels shows that John’s narrative differs from them in many ways:

  • There is no prayer in the garden, nor do the disciples fall asleep.
  • A lengthy dialogue between Jesus and Pilate is introduced.
  • Simon of Cyrene does not carry Jesus’ cross; rather, Jesus carries the cross himself.
  • Jesus is crucified on the day of preparation for the Passover.
  • Jesus speaks to his mother and the beloved disciple from the cross.

These and many other differences generate a distinctive perspective that expands our own reflections on the passion narrative.

Contextualizing John’s narrative

Context is everything. To better grasp the significance of characters’ words and actions in the passion narrative, it is helpful to look at how John contextualizes them. Three contexts are at play: Jerusalem, the world, and Passover.


Jerusalem was the capital of the Roman province of Judea. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus journeys to Jerusalem once. In the Gospel of John, Jesus travels to Jerusalem three times (2:13; 5:1; 11:55). This shifts attention away from Galilee and locates much of Jesus’ ministry in the heart of regional and empirical power.

The governor of Judea was Pontius Pilate, appointed by Rome. Pilate, in turn, appointed the high priest. The Roman governor was dependent on the cooperation of local leaders to maintain stability in the region, effectively making the Temple leaders allies of Rome; yet the Temple leaders also were dependent on and subordinate to Rome.1

The tensions created by this complex relationship play out dramatically in the exchanges between Pilate and the Temple leaders, each manipulating the other while the crowds are swept along by the loudest voices. Their finger-pointing strategies are both familiar and a cautionary tale. In contrast, Jesus is portrayed as guileless (18:4–8, 20–21, 22–23), in control of his destiny (18:11, 32–37; 19:17, 30), and concerned for those in his care (18:8–9; 19:25b–27).

The world

The events in Jerusalem take place within a broader context, which John calls “the world” (18:20, 36, 37). Jesus is not “of the world” (18:36), yet the world came into being through him (1:9–10). The world is described as a place where evil has free rein (3:19–20). Notably, Jesus prays to God not to take those entrusted to him “out of the world” but “to protect them from the evil one” who rules the world (17:15).

Yet while we remain in the world, it can be a challenge to discern evil when faced with fear, instability, and moral complexity. This struggle is illustrated by Simon Peter, who declares he will lay down his life for Jesus, only to deny association with him (13:37–38; 18:10–11, 15–18, 25–27). Yet there is equal opportunity to move from a position of ambiguity toward truth, as illustrated by Nicodemus (19:39).

Jesus declares that he was born into the world to testify to the truth (18:37; see also 19:30)—that is, that God loves the world without reservation (3:16–17). Jesus’ presence in the world is testimony to this love: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (15:9; see also 13:34–35). When Pilate asks (rhetorically), “What is truth?” the irony is profound: Pilate cannot see truth even when he is looking it straight in the face.


In the Synoptic Gospels, the movement of the narrative is toward a single Passover: a culminating event. In John there are three Passovers (2:13–25; chapter 6; chapters 13–19), and Passover imagery is employed throughout the Gospel to describe the significance of Jesus. Notably, Jesus’ final supper with the disciples is not a Passover meal, but a meal the evening before the day of preparation for the Passover (13:1; 18:28; 19:42). As a result, Jesus’ crucifixion coincides with the sacrifice of the Passover lambs in the Temple.

Earlier, John the Baptist says of Jesus, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin [singular] of the world” (1:29; see also 1:36). At the crucifixion, we learn that, like the Passover lamb, none of Jesus’ bones are broken (Exodus 12:46; John 19:32–33; see also John 19:36).

Further, John specifies that the vinegar offered to Jesus is lifted up on a branch of hyssop (19:29); in Exodus 12:22, a bundle of hyssop is dipped in the blood of the lamb and sprinkled on the doorposts of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt to protect them from the angel of death (Exodus 12:11–13). The Passover lamb is not a sin offering, but effects liberation from bondage (“You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” [John 8:32]).

Context within context within context

If we layer the three contexts, one on top of another, the interplay between them illuminates key aspects of John’s passion narrative. Passover, a festival that celebrates the liberation of the enslaved Israelites, draws attention to ways in which the Roman province of Judea is in bondage to Rome. While the province is self-governing to a degree, it is Rome that possesses power over life and death. Its interests will always be self-serving because its goal is self-preservation.

If we layer over this “the world,” the “sin of the world” represents another layer of bondage. Under the power of “sin,” the world rejects God’s unconditional love for the world by condemning the one whom God has sent into the world to testify to God’s love. It is also demonstrated when we fail to demonstrate love for one another. “Sin” is not a matter of degree, but of inclination; one could even say loyalty. Where Rome and the world are self-serving, God is not.

Turning to Jesus’ crucifixion, it is worth noting that John never speaks of it in terms of death—only ever “the kind of death” Jesus was to endure (12:33). For John, the crucifixion signals the moment when Jesus will be “lifted up” (also, “glorified” [12:33–34]) and ascend to God (13:1). This ironic twist reveals what appears to be the triumph of the world to be, in fact, the triumph of God, whose love continues to pour into the world through the presence of the Spirit and the community of faith.


  1. Warren Carter, John and Empire: Initial Explorations (New York: T&T Clark, 2008), 290–91.

First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 52:13—53:12

Katie M. Heffelfinger

This poem holds a vivid place in the Christian imagination. Christians have been making associations between this poem and Jesus since the New Testament period (for example, 1 Peter 2:22–25). However, the poem was originally addressed to Judean exiles in Babylon. It offered them, through vivid personification, a vision of what embrace of God’s comfort and response to God’s will meant in their suffering.1

Christian readings that perceive later echoes of this ancient vision in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus should take care to do no harm to others, particularly Jewish readers.2 Attention to others’ interpretations might further enrich Christian readings, not least by highlighting the importance of the text’s address to a community and the embrace of responsiveness and humility invited by the poetry’s presentation of this figure.

A twofold challenge faces this text’s preachers on Good Friday. First, there is a temptation to see this passage simply as pointing to the crucifixion and so miss its meaning and message on its own terms. This approach “risks robbing the passage of much of its power.”3 The preacher’s task is to keep hearers attentive to this poem long enough for it to do its formational work.

Second, there is a temptation to read this text as a triumphant confirmation of one’s own religious certainties. However, this approach reads against the text’s emphasis on confession. The preacher’s task is to allow the text’s own confessional posture to shape humility and compassion.

This passage begins and ends in glory (see, for example, 52:13; 53:12). This glory is what the divine voice announces, but what the human speakers of the center of the poem specifically cannot see (53:2). The “appearance”4 of the Servant is an apparent cause of his rejection by others. Appearance (52:13, 14; 53:2) and sight motifs weave through the poem (52:13, 15; 53:2, 10, 11), underscoring the audience’s mis-sightedness.

The speaking “we” plays a dominant role in pronouncing the poem, declaring their thoroughgoing misapprehension. They confess their profound mistakenness. The one who, in the divine vision, is “exalted” is the one that “we accounted … stricken” (53:4) and treated as “of no account” (53:3). The “we” who rarely speak in Isaiah’s exilic chapters, here speak the poem’s central lines while “kings … shut their mouths” (52:15), and the Servant himself is celebrated as “silent” (53:7).

Our moment is arguably intensely appearance-focused and tempted to self-glorifying power. These tendencies stand opposed to the God-given glory envisioned in this poem. Rather than having “form or majesty,” the Servant’s appearance is undesirable (53:2). He is undemanding and non-protesting. Twice the poem announces: “He did not open his mouth” (53:7).

That contrast deserves intentional proclamation in a culture infused with the corrosive impact of pervasive artificial, appearance-driven media and self-glorifying power-seeking.5 By offering a counter-vision of glory, this poem may reorient those who dwell richly with its imagery of the ironically exalted, mistakenly despised Servant.

Importantly, the “we” in this passage make corporate confession. This is not a statement that “I” have done wrong, but that “we” have done wrong. Often, especially when reflecting on Good Friday in the Christian tradition, we highlight the central importance of personal response to God’s grace. Such response is vitally important, but so is an awareness of our embeddedness in community. Attention to resonances with Jesus6 should not obscure the apparent original meaning of the Servant figure for the community of Judean exiles,7 nor that early Christian believers were invited, as a community, to embrace Jesus’ example.8

Isolation and loneliness have become particularly pressing concerns in our own context.9 Those who respond by confessing their misunderstandings of God’s work in their world, and who embrace the humility with which this poem invites them to hold their own perceptiveness, find the opportunity for connection within a “we” who together announce that God’s good work heals them (53:5).

Preachers who take up this text’s invitation on Good Friday may invite the lonely and self-isolated of our moment to be reminded of their belonging within the worldwide, time-transcendent body of believers. In this moment we join innumerable multitudes in confessing our ignorance, our looking for God in all the wrong places, and our arrogance in thinking that we hold the keys to all the answers.

The poem has the capacity to enhance our confession, to form humility, and to deepen our compassion for the others’ suffering.10 To the extent that believers perceive resonances with Jesus’ suffering, they might be aided to see the injustice of undeserved suffering in their own contexts and moved to respond in active compassion. By discerning similarities between this personification of perfect embrace of God’s will and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Christians might helpfully be formed into imitation of Christ’s own compassion, humility, and embrace of God’s will.


  1. See e.g., Marvin A. Sweeney, Isaiah 40–66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016), 201, 215.
  2. See e.g., Marc Brettler and Amy-Jill Levine, “Isaiah’s Suffering Servant: Before and After Christianity,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology 73, no. 2 (2019): 172, on the importance of “diversity of interpretation” and the risk of “reading … at the expense of someone else.” On the history of Christian readings of this passage and others in Isaiah, see John F. A. Sawyer, The Fifth Gospel: Isaiah in the History of Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
  3. John Goldingay and David Payne, Isaiah 40–55, ICC (London: T&T Clark, 2006), 2:286.
  4. Biblical quotations are NRSVue unless otherwise indicated.
  5. See, for example, recent research published by the American Psychological Association on the impact of social media on body image in adolescents: Helen Thai, et al., “Reducing Social Media Use Improves Appearance and Weight Esteem in Youth with Emotional Distress,” accessed February 17, 2024, https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/ppm-ppm0000460.pdf.
  6. I am not claiming that this is the poem’s original or only meaning. It is, however, a resonance that Christians indisputably have heard, particularly in the context of Good Friday.
  7. See, for example, Brettler and Levine, “Isaiah’s Suffering Servant,” 158.
  8. The verbs directed at the audience in 1 Peter 1:21 are plural.
  9. See, for example, the recent statement from the U.S. Surgeon General titled Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, accessed February 17, 2024, https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-social-connection-advisory.pdf.
  10. See Brettler and Levine, “Isaiah’s Suffering Servant,” 172–173.


Commentary on Psalm 22

Rebecca Poe Hays

Psalm 22 is a song-prayer about cognitive dissonance, unmet expectations, and the disorientation that can come from trusting a caring God while living in a world full of suffering.

An overview of Psalm 22

The superscription of Psalm 22 identifies it as “A Psalm of David”—a label referring to the collection to which the psalm belongs rather than to its authorship—and includes what might be a reference to the musical tune worshipers would use when singing the psalm: “according to The Deer of the Dawn.” While we don’t know exactly how the ancient Israelites used the psalms in their worship, this superscription suggests that singing was part of it and can serve as a reminder to us that the words that follow were embraced as part of faithful, corporate worship.

Psalm 22 is an individual lament psalm. Like most laments, Psalm 22 includes cries to God by name, descriptions of the psalmist’s current situation, requests for help and reasons that God should help the psalmist, and statements either celebrating that these calls for help have been answered or anticipating that they will be answered. In Psalm 22, these elements generally fall into two main parts:

  • verses 1–21a   Plea for help
  • verses 21b–31 Praise for help received

In the Hebrew, the language of the psalm underscores this two-part division. In verse 2, the psalmist laments that God does not “answer,” while in verse 21b, the psalmist declares that God has finally “answered.” Many translations, including the New Revised Standard Version (and the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition), render this word as “rescued” rather than the more literal “answered.” The point, however, is that the psalm represents actual dialogue with a God who listens and responds—with both word and deed, statement and action. We cry out, and God answers.

The crux of Psalm 22, however, is that God does not always answer immediately or in ways that seem obvious. In verses 1–5, the psalmist contrasts her current experience of forsakenness with her ancestors’ experience of deliverance.1 Why did they receive divine help but she does not? It doesn’t make sense, and it hurts. In verses 6–18, she expands on these hurts in graphic, emotive language. She describes social ostracization and bullying, she describes physical attacks, and she describes how her body feels in response to all of this.

Notably, the psalmist seems to hold God—not just her human enemies—culpable for her suffering: her recollection of God’s importance in her life since her birth is an indirect accusation of the God who has kept her safe before but is not doing so now (verses 9–11). The human enemies may be the ones who surround her, mock her, and bind her, but it is God who she says is laying her down in death (verse 15b). Rendering the disorientation of this experience even more poignant is that the image in verses 9–10 is of God as a midwife who delivers babies (verse 9) and as a mother or wetnurse who cares for them (verse 10). How, the psalmist cries, can a God who cared for me so intimately now abandon me?!

In the middle of verse 21 and with no explanation of when or how change has come, the psalmist switches to praise of the God who has not abandoned her. The communal dimension of this psalm is on full display as she vows to tell the story of this divine deliverance to those in the congregation in order to inspire and instruct them in their worship (verses 22–24, 30–31). The psalmist’s story—including her raw and even accusatory lament—becomes the means by which others can “remember and turn to the LORD” (verse 27). Even those who, like the psalmist, feel as though God has laid them down in death will come to worship and live for God (verse 29).

Reading into Psalm 22

The superscription of Psalm 22 categorizes this prayer as part of the Davidic collection. While being part of the Davidic collection does not necessarily mean that David wrote the psalm, the association indicates that some of the earliest interpreters of the psalm in some way connected its theological perspective with David’s experiences.

Later Jewish tradition often associates this psalm with Esther. The biblical book that bears her name contains no references to God nor any explicit mention of prayer, but the implication of the story is that, confronted with Haman’s plans to commit genocide, she spends time in fasting—and prayer—as she prepares to take action on behalf of her people. She is the one who cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” She is the one who remembers how God has delivered Israel from genocide and exile in the past and wonders why it seems like God is letting such violent acts occur now. And ultimately, she is the one who celebrates the fact that God does finally deliver once more.

The Christian tradition, of course, strongly associates Psalm 22 with Jesus. The psalmist’s description of the crisis maps easily onto the narrative of Jesus’ passion: Jesus is mocked (verses 6–7), his physical suffering is extreme (verses 14–15), he is bound (verse 16), and his clothes are divided according to lot (verse 18; see Matthew 27:45). Furthermore, both Matthew’s and Mark’s accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion report that at about three o’clock, Jesus cried out loudly the first verse of this psalm (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34).

Important to emphasize from the pulpit is that Jesus’ quotation of this psalm does not mean that God had actually forsaken him on the cross. The Father did not turn his face away from the Son on the cross. Even before the theological issues that arise if we say that one Person of the Trinity abandoned another, quoting verse 1 of Psalm 22 implies reference to the whole of the psalm—a psalm that ultimately declares God’s faithful presence no matter what the psalmist feels in the moment.

The fact that we can so easily associate Psalm 22 with Esther, Jesus, or other biblical characters such as Jeremiah or David points to the fact that the emotions it articulates are extremely common. As we hear this psalm again on Good Friday—and on any other day—we are also invited to locate our own experiences within the psalmist’s story. We, too, may feel forsaken and need to cry out loudly about this feeling. We, too, can take comfort in the reminder of God’s presence, protection, and provision even in the midst of feeling abandoned: God “did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (verse 24b).


  1. I am using feminine pronouns as I read this psalm because I am reading—and identifying with it—as a woman. Historically, the psalm’s author was almost certainly a man.

Second Reading

Commentary on Hebrews 10:16-25

Elisabeth Johnson

The author’s reflection on Jesus as our “great high priest,” begun in Hebrews 4:14, continues into chapter 10. Throughout these chapters, the author argues that the high priesthood of Jesus is superior to the Levitical high priesthood. Jesus’ high priesthood is eternal, of the order of Melchizedek (5:5–6; 7:1–22). He is high priest of a new and better covenant (8:1–13; 9:15). He does not enter an earthly sanctuary “made by human hands, a mere copy of the true one, but he entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (9:24). Furthermore, the sacrifice of his own blood is far superior to the blood of goats and bulls in its efficacy for purifying and sanctifying us (9:12–14; 10:4–10).

In 10:11–14, the author repeats an argument already made several times in these chapters—that unlike ordinary priests, who must offer again and again the same sacrifices that cannot permanently take away sins (see also 10:1), Jesus has offered the perfect sacrifice to take away sins once and for all. He is now seated at the right hand of God, waiting until “his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet” (10:12–13, citing Psalm 110:1).

In 10:15, the author connects the sacrifice of atonement with the idea of the new covenant by citing Jeremiah 31:33–34, which speaks of the Lord making a new covenant with the people and putting his laws in their hearts and minds (10:16). The end of the citation, with the Lord declaring that he will “remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more,” bolsters the argument that since sins have been forgiven, there is no longer any need for sacrifices (10:17–18). The sacrifice that Jesus makes purifies from sin once and for all and transforms hearts and minds, fulfilling God’s promise of a new covenant.

The argument culminates in exhortations similar to those with which this long section on the high priesthood of Jesus began (4:14–16). Since we have “confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus”—our great high priest, who has definitively opened the temple curtain that separated us from God—let us approach God in full assurance of faith, knowing that we have been purified (10:19–22). 

The author encourages readers once again to “hold fast to the confession of our hope,” with the assurance that “he who has promised is faithful” (10:23). He also encourages the community not to neglect meeting together, “as is the habit of some,” but to continue encouraging one another to love and good deeds, “and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (10:24–25).

Here we get to the heart of the author’s purpose in writing. He is concerned that his readers are growing lax in their faith and discipleship and wants to reinvigorate their zeal. He does this in both a positive way—by encouraging them to approach the throne of grace with confidence, knowing that they are forgiven and purified by the sacrifice of Christ—and in a negative way, by warning them of God’s judgment (10:26–31). 

He then returns to encouraging his readers, recalling earlier days when they endured suffering and persecution for their faith, including the plundering of their possessions (10:32–34). This section concludes with the confident assertion that “we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved” (10:39).

Hebrews is the only New Testament writing to depict Jesus as high priest, except perhaps the Fourth Gospel, where Jesus speaks of sanctifying himself so that others might be sanctified (John 17:19). Other writings speak of Jesus as a sacrifice for sin (John 1:29, 36; Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2), but Hebrews speaks of Jesus as both sacrifice for sin and the high priest who offers the sacrifice.

How, then, does Hebrews’ depiction of Jesus as high priest inform and nourish our faith, especially as we reflect on his death on Good Friday? Certainly, we remember Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf, and we turn to God in sorrow and repentance. As we do so, we remember that self-punishing acts of penitence serve no purpose. Jesus has accomplished all that is needed for our forgiveness and sanctification. We can approach the throne of grace with confidence, knowing that our faithful high priest continually intercedes for us. This frees us to be outwardly focused. Forgiven and restored, we encourage one another to love and good works.

As an aside, perhaps a word of caution is in order concerning the polemical tendencies in Hebrews. The emphasis on a new and “better” covenant and on the superiority of Jesus’ high priesthood to the Levitical priesthood could easily be read in a supersessionist manner in our contemporary context.

Though we have little certainty about the context in which Hebrews was written, its pervasive biblical language and images suggest that it was written for people intimately familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures (read in Greek, the version known as the Septuagint). It was likely written for Jewish believers in Jesus or a mixed community of Jewish and Gentile believers who highly valued the Jewish Scriptures. It may even be the case that, faced with persecution for their confession of Jesus as Messiah, they were tempted to return to more traditional Jewish beliefs and practices. Hence the author’s concern to demonstrate the once-and-for-all-ness of what Jesus has accomplished, the perfect nature of his high priesthood and sacrifice.

It is helpful to remember that the words “Christian” and “Christianity” appear nowhere in Hebrews, so it is not a question of the church replacing or superseding the Jewish community. Rather, the author and his audience view Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, and themselves living as God’s people in light of this new revelation. The embrace of a new covenant does not necessarily devalue the old. There is continuity between the two covenants such that, without the old, the new would be incomprehensible.