What are the lessons to be learned in Jesus’ journey from the Last Supper to the cross? How should that journey be seen through the lens of the Old Testament? How do the four Gospels recount Jesus’ final hours?
Bible Gateway interviewed Christopher J. H. Wright about his book, To the Cross: Proclaiming the Gospel from the Upper Room to Calvary (InterVarsity Press, 2017).
Your book presents the gospel message of Jesus’ final hours from each of the Gospel writer’s point of view. Give an example of how they synchronize with one another and another example of how they diverge from one another.
Christopher J. H. Wright: All four Gospels record the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus. It was clearly a very important thing to be recorded (and remarkably so, given that the source must have been Peter himself). However, only John records the restoration of Peter after the resurrection, by the Sea of Galilee. I think that’s because John himself was present at the denial, according to his own account of it—as “the other disciple.”
All four Gospels agree that there were two others crucified at the same time. But only Luke records that one of them asked Jesus to remember him, along with Jesus’ remarkable promise in response.
All four Gospels record things Jesus said as they crucified him, but the “seven sayings from the cross” are distributed across the different Gospels.
Only John takes us into the inner thoughts of Jesus, in describing what he was thinking when he spoke the words, “I thirst,” and “It is finished.”
Why does each Gospel writer emphasize different aspects of the events from the Last Supper to Christ on the cross?
Christopher J. H. Wright: For the same reason that there are four accounts of the gospel itself! The momentous events of the conception, birth, life, teaching, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus of Nazareth are too vast to be adequately viewed from one angle alone. Just as we need several points of view to “see” a person’s face, so we need these varied emphases and angles to gain the full perspective of all God wants us to understand.
It’s important, though, that there are not “four gospels.” There is only one gospel: the good news of what God has done through Christ to save the world. But we read that one gospel in four complementary accounts: The gospel, according to Matthew, according to Mark, according to Luke, according to John.
What does Jesus mean when he refers to himself as the Son of Man?
Christopher J. H. Wright: Sometimes it’s just an alternative form of speech to “I.” But in some significant passages, including at his trial, he clearly has in mind Daniel 7. There the Son of Man is a human figure, who represents the saints (that is, the people of God in their suffering and persecution), who’s presented before God “on the clouds of heaven,” and receives an everlasting kingdom. This is clearly a very exalted figure, sharing the very throne of God. It was when he claimed this text at his trial, that the High Priest cried out that he was committing blasphemy. [Editor’s note: Also see Hearing the Message of Daniel: Sustaining Faith in Today’s World by Christopher Wright in the Bible Gateway Store.)
What is the main lesson Jesus taught during the Last Supper?
Christopher J. H. Wright: The Last Supper was essentially a Passover meal (either on the day of Passover itself or the evening before, as John seems to imply). So the disciples knew what that was all about: the celebration of God’s redemption of Israel in the exodus out of Egypt, coupled with the hope and prayer that God would do it again and bring liberation to his people forever. What Jesus did was to transform that into a story that was now fulfilled in himself. He would give his body and blood; that is, he would die sacrificially, like the Passover lamb. He would accomplish the true and complete exodus redemption. And in doing so, as in the book of Exodus, he would make a new covenant for all those who trust in him.
So Jesus was building on the knowledge that his disciples already had from their Scriptures, making himself the key focus, and giving them an understanding of the meaning of his death the next day, and, in commanding them to eat bread and drink wine in memory of him, he gave them an ongoing sacrament that would keep taking them back to the cross as the center of their faith and hope.
Why is Peter’s denial of Jesus so significant that it’s one of only a few events recorded in all four Gospels?
Christopher J. H. Wright: I think, because it embodies in that single incident the essence of human failure and sin—for which Christ died. As Paul says, even though we as human beings know God, we refuse to acknowledge him. That’s what Peter did. He refused even to “know” Jesus! Peter’s failure reflects all our failure. It forces us to face the reality about ourselves.
But the point of the story is that Jesus foretold this—he knew it was coming. And Jesus forgave Peter, when, in the humbling questioning after breakfast in John 21, Peter confessed his love for Jesus. So the story illustrates both the horrible nature of sin, and the amazing reality of grace. That’s essential to the whole meaning of the gospel.
What should we learn from the way Jesus reacted to the insults he received during his final hours?
Christopher J. H. Wright: That’s an amazing part of the story of the cross. It’s easy to say, “we should follow his example”—but easier said than done! Nevertheless, that aspect of the story is certainly taken as a model for how Christians should respond to suffering in 1 Peter chapters 3-4. So it does stand as something we’re called to imitate in the way we handle opposition and suffering for the sake of Christ.
How does Mark use Jesus’ words in Mark 15:34 to “signal the dawning of the light of the gospel”?
Christopher J. H. Wright: Those words, “My God, my God, Why have you forsaken me?” express the deepest depths of the darkness of Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Mark has told us that the sun had stopped shining, so there was physical darkness at the same time. But it’s precisely because Jesus bore the depths of the reality of what separation from God means, and did so on our behalf and in our place, that we can have forgiveness for the sin that otherwise would separate us from God eternally.
So after that terrible moment, the story moves on to Jesus’ final great cry—which John tells us was “It is finished”—that is, Christ had now accomplished what he came to do. And so Mark begins to take us into the light of our salvation, accomplished in the darkest moment of the cross. And he indicates that both by the tearing of the curtain in the temple— separating people from the holy presence of God (the way is now open)—and then by the confession of the centurion that Jesus was “the Son of God.” The light of the gospel reaches not only to the holiest place in Israel’s faith, but also to the Gentiles; including one who had just crucified Jesus!
What did Jesus mean when he said on the cross, “It is finished”?
Christopher J. H. Wright: It means that Jesus had accomplished all that God’s mission had sent him to do. It did not merely mean that his life was over (like, “I’m finished”). It was a statement of achievement of purpose—God’s purpose to deal with sin and guilt, to defeat all the powers of evil, to bring about the reconciliation of enemies, to defeat death itself, and to accomplish the reconciliation and liberation of the whole creation. All of these things are referred to in different passages in the New Testament, in relation to what God did in Christ at the cross, as I explain in one of the chapters in To the Cross.
Bio: Christopher J. H. Wright (PhD, Cambridge) is international ministries director of the Langham Partnership, providing literature, scholarships, and preaching training for pastors in Majority World churches and seminaries. He’s written many books including Hearing the Message of Daniel: Sustaining Faith in Today’s World and commentaries on Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, Lamentations, and Ezekiel. An ordained priest in the Church of England, Chris spent five years teaching the Old Testament at Union Biblical Seminary in India, and 13 years as academic dean and then principal of All Nations Christian College, an international training center for cross-cultural mission in England. He was chair of the Lausanne Theology Working Group from 2005-2011 and the chief architect of The Cape Town Commitment from the Third Lausanne Congress, 2010.
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