Rambling about the Fulfillment of Scripture

I did not preach a sermon in worship today. Today is Sunday of the Passion / Palm Sunday, which  means that the gospel reading is the entire story of the passion of Christ, from the Last Supper through his burial. This year, the passion gospel was Luke 22:14 — 23:56. Since the gospel itself takes about twenty minutes to recite, and it’s a rather powerful reading on its own (particularly when recited from memory, as I do), I don’t actually preach a sermon.

However, as I was preparing the Passion reading this year, I noticed something I don’t think I ever saw before: I noticed the Sabbath. The timeline of the crucifixion and the resurrection are the same in all four gospels:

  • Jesus dies on a Friday afternoon.
  • He is buried before sunset that same day, and a stone is rolled in front of the tomb.
  • Sometime between Friday evening and Sunday morning, Jesus is raised from the dead, but nobody knows that until…
  • The women arrive at the tomb early in the morning on Sunday, find the stone rolled away, and find that Jesus is gone.

There are some subtle differences (when the stone was rolled away, for instance), and one big difference (in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Passover begins on Thursday; in John, Passover begins on Friday), but all four gospels use the above framework.

Now, many people have noticed that it’s kind of a stretch to say that Jesus was raised “on the third day” (as we say in the Apostles Creed), when truly there are only about 36 hours between when his body was laid in the tomb (~6:00 pm on Friday), and when the empty tomb was discovered (~6:00 am on Sunday). I have even found some websites of authors so scandalized by that that they’ve invented these strange systems where Jesus was actually crucified on a Wednesday, to make sure that we can fit everything literally, mathematically, and logically into our own little boxes. But you know what? The gospel stories are not meant to be read as history. And even ancient books that were written to be histories were never meant to be read the way we read history today. As John Dominic Crossan wrote in Who Is Jesus:

My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are now dumb enough to take them literally.

Nothing written in the middle east in antiquity was ever meant to be read literally, least of all religious texts. A “literal” reading of scripture is a consequence of the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th century. Prior to that, it simply wouldn’t occur to people that there was a need for something to be historically true in order for it to be true. And of all things, writing that approaches God approaches something so holy, so powerful, so different, so utterly ineffable that words have to fail at some point, and therefore, anything written in words can only approach God, not describe God. Our words simply aren’t precise or powerful or deep enough for holy things. Everything written about God is poetry. It has to be, or else it isn’t really about God.

Here’s an example: as I stated above, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Last Supper celebrated the night before Jesus’ death was a Passover meal. This is deeply true, because at that meal, Jesus transformed the Passover meal (a meal celebrating the freedom God gave the Israelites from slavery in Egypt) into the Eucharist (a meal celebrating and truly enacting the freedom God gives to us all through the work of Jesus Christ). This is deeply true, because the last meal that Israel had under Pharaoh’s thumb is in a symbolic way the same last meal that Jesus and the disciples had under sin’s thumb. But in John, the last supper is a farewell meal, but it is not the Passover. (And in fact, Jesus does not institute Holy Communion in John.) In John, Passover doesn’t start until sundown on the day of the crucifixion. This is also deeply true, because it means that Jesus was crucified at noon on the day before Passover, the exact time the Passover lambs are slaughtered. In John’s telling of the story, Jesus becomes the Passover meal. Now, from a purely historical standpoint, they can’t both be true! Either Passover started on Thursday or Friday, not both! But we are treading close to God here, and the words used for truth get fuzzy. Both are true, and both point to a deep truth, which is something like “Jesus is the new Passover meal.” That truth can’t be fully told without the Last Supper = Passover = Holy Communion story. And that truth can’t be fully told without the Crucifixion = Passover = Lamb of God story. Those two stories are poetry, and those two stories are true. That’s what truth means in scripture.

Jesus fulfilled the scriptures. That is something all the gospel writers agree on. (Especially Matthew — he’s obsessed with scripture-fulfillment.) But Jesus fulfilled the scriptures means much more than “The prophets wrote some predictions. They came true when Jesus did them.” Honestly, that’s Nostradamus stuff. No, Jesus fulfilled the scriptures means something closer to:

Jesus became the new iteration of the Hebrew scriptures.

Or maybe:

The Hebrew scriptures are a snapshot of God’s love for Israel. Jesus became the new snapshot of the same love, for all people.

I don’t know. I don’t like those descriptions that much. Maybe I just can’t reach the words. Maybe it’s all beneath, behind, and among the words. Maybe there’s no better way to say it than Jesus fulfilled the scriptures.

Wow, I got off on a tangent there. Sorry about that. To be honest, all I intended to write in this blog post was this:

Luke writes that Joseph of Arimathea took the body of Jesus, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb. The next verse says: “It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning.” Just as Jesus’ body was laid to rest, the Sabbath began. (Remember that in Jewish reckoning, days don’t begin at midnight, but at sundown. So what we would call “Friday sunset,” they would call “the beginning of the Sabbath.”) Jesus’ body rested in the tomb from the instant the Sabbath began, and we’re not told exactly when it was raised. But the next time we see the tomb, it’s “on the first day of the week, at early dawn” (what we would call “Sunday sunrise”), and Jesus is already raised. So, I think it’s fair to imagine that Jesus did what Israel was commanded to do:

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy. (Deuteronomy 5:12)

And it’s fair to imagine that Jesus did what God did at creation:

So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Genesis 2:3)

Jesus fulfilled the scriptures. On the Sabbath, he rested from all the work he had done. There that’s what I really intended to write.

This post really went around the bend and back again. I think I may have some good sermon fodder in here, which is good, since I need to write five sermons this week!

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