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Introduction To The Scripture For Good Friday - Year C
Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12; Psalm 22; Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16,5:7-9; John 18:1-19:42

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
Good Friday - Year C


ISAIAH 52:13-53:12.   This passage from the unknown poet-prophet of the
Babylonian exile had great influence on the writers of the gospel
narratives of the Passion of Christ.  It was originally written, however,
against the background of events several hundred years earlier.  Modern
scholars have suggested that Jesus himself may have chosen this as the
model for his ministry. 


PSALM 22. According to Mark 15:34, Jesus uttered the opening words of this
psalm as he died on the cross.  The question remains whether or not he
actually did feel totally abandoned by God as this lament suggests.  In the
end, did he too, like the psalmist, give hopeful praise and thanks to God?


HEBREWS 10:16-25 OR HEBREWS 4:14-16; 5:7-9.   Either passage makes
reference to Hebrew scriptures and ritual customs which would have been
familiar to all Jewish-Christians in the 1st century CE.  In the first
passage, the reference is to the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34.  The
author saw the death of Christ as having fulfilled the intent of atoning
sacrifice offered by the high priest in the Holy of Holies of the temple on
the Day of Atonement.  Because of his sacrifice, Christians are now able to
live the covenant prophesied by Jeremiah.

In the second passage, the author cast Jesus in the role of the high
priest.  He held that because he knows our temptations and learned
obedience to God through suffering.  Jesus has become the source of our
salvation.


JOHN 18:1-19:42   Each of the authors of the four gospels had a different
purpose in mind as they told the crucifixion story.  Accordingly, the
details of the actual event do not always agree.  It is unwise to pick and
choose various aspects from the four narratives to create a cohesive
account of what may have happened.  Yet many have tried to do so, at times
thereby creating great art.  The point of the passion story is not to give
us a factual account of how it happened, but to tell us why and to move us
to faith in the Christ who triumphed over sin and death.  John's account is
particularly forceful in its condemnation of "the Jews."  This has been the
source of considerable anti-Semitic propaganda, hatred and violence against
Jews through the centuries.

************

ISAIAH 52:13-53:12   There can be little doubt that this passage was
crucial to the authors of the whole NT, whoever they may have been.  The
story of the Gospel as they heard and subsequently narrated it rested on
their understanding of this passage from the writings of the unknown
prophet of the Babylonian exile scholars have designated as Second Isaiah.
In many respects, the Passion of Christ was not only based on this passage,
but was also seen as the fulfilment of it. 

Scholars have designated the passage as the fourth of the Servant Songs.
The name is appropriate because of the person whose mission is
characterized as being the servant of Yahweh. (See also 42:1-4; 49:1-6;
50:4-9)  Debate still rages whether the "Servant" is an individual or the
whole nation of Israel.  Many scholars also hold to the thesis that Jesus
himself adopted the mission of the Servant as the model for his own
ministry. (See Richardson, Alan. *An Introduction to the New Testament,*
passim under the indexed subject 'Servant of the Lord.') 

That the death of Christ was interpreted a fulfilment of scripture comes to
the fore again and again in the gospels and the letters of the NT.  But
what scriptures?  The Hebrew scriptures, of course, since those were the
only ones that the early church knew.  In Acts 2:42, the new converts to
the infant faith tradition "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching
and fellowship."  But what were the apostles teaching them?  It would seem
reasonable to conclude that there was more than the story of the life,
death and resurrection of Jesus as they knew it from personal experience.
The apostolic community also drew on the Hebrew scriptures frequently
discovering there new references which they interpreted as directly
foreshadowing all that they had seen and heard from the person whom they
now believed was the Messiah/Christ, Son of God.  Isaiah 52:13-53:12 aptly
suited their instructional purposes.

As originally written, the passage did not explicitly refer to someone who
was born, lived and died more than 500 years earlier.  The prophetic image
of one man suffering for others appeared in more than this particular
passage.  If anything , it was a typical prophetic motif and many of the
prophets did suffer for their witness to the will and purpose of Yahweh in
the history of Israel as recorded in the OT.  This was, indeed, Ezekiel's
own title for himself who spoke of the Shepherd-Servant who would save the
flock of God from evil shepherds (Ezek. 34:23).  The prophetic servant is
named in Amos 3:7 as the one to whom Yahweh would reveal the divine will.
If Jesus ever applied the term to himself, it is not recorded except
perhaps in his shepherd and sheep parables and other references attributed
to him (e.g. John 10:1-18).  It is impossible to discern whether these are
actual words as spoken by Jesus or the apostolic teaching about him in
subsequent years before they were recorded in the gospels.

Thus, the words of this passage from Second Isaiah actually convey the
image of how this particular prophet saw his own role and experience of
suffering in a period of great devastation.  Israel had been overwhelmed by
the Babylonians, its temple destroyed, it leading citizens led away as
captive slaves, its common folk destitute after what must have been a
frightful holocaust, and left to mourn their dead under the heel of an
oppressive foreign regime.  We cannot tell whether the prophet-poet who
wrote these lines was himself an exile or one of those who remained behind
and could only recall in painful memory what he had seen as he shared the
fate of his compatriots.  If 53:8-9 gives a clue, he may have been in
Babylon when he died and this passage was written by one of his circle of
followers. 

Nonetheless, Christians do well to embrace this passage as a messianic
prophecy.  Whether Jesus himself taught this about himself or not, or
whether we have instead his apostles' teaching after the resurrection, this
is how Jesus himself died.  The church has always claimed this role for
Jesus of Nazareth: he suffered for us.


PSALM 22   The initial words of this psalm leap out at us.  According to
Mark 15:34 they were spoken by Jesus as he hung dying on the cross.  As
read into it, we can recognize it for what it is - a lament of one who
suffered greatly, and a prayer that not only ends with hope, but sounds a
hopeful note throughout.  It also becomes clear that the gospel authors
interpreted the psalm as having special reference to the passion story.
Mark put the opening words on Jesus' own lips.  Mark 15:29 corresponds to
vs.7.  Matthew 27:43 echoes vs.8.  Mark 15:24, Matthew 27:35, Luke 23:34
and John 19:23-24 all repeat vs.18 of the psalm in different ways.  It has
even been suggested that the passion narratives are midrashes on this
psalm.

While first part of the psalm (vss. 1-21) classifies as a true lament, the
second part (vss. 22-31) has radically different characteristics.  It
resounds with thanksgiving and praise.  This has led some scholars to
suggest that this is really two psalms melded together by a later editor.
The purpose of this editorial action may have been to create a liturgical
form for anyone who came to the temple to offer thanks for deliverance from
some personal affliction.

The present whole expresses a profound faith in Yahweh's ability to save
even the most hopeless victim.  No wonder the gospel writers found it so
relevant to the story they had to tell.

All humans suffer affliction at one time or another in their lives.  No
amount of wealth, power, parental protection or personal righteousness can
prevent it from occurring.  The metaphors of vss. 12-21 suggest that behind
this psalm there may have been some kind of conflict with particularly
hostile enemies. 

This would have spoken with considerable force to the apostolic community.
The passion narratives adhere closely to the point of view that Jesus had
intense conflicts with the moral and spiritual leadership of Israel.  The
Romans actually executed Jesus for political reasons, but the enmity of the
high priest and his following and the determined opposition of some of the
Pharisees did play an important part in his death.  Some of the hostile
images of wild bulls, powerful dogs and roaring lions in vss. 12, 20 and 21
would certainly have spoken with intensity to the late 1st century
Christian communities for whom the gospel were written. 

Whatever the original form of this psalm, it presently ends with deep,
abiding  trust in Yahweh as the one who alone has dominion over the affairs
of nations (vs. 27-28).  The afflicted will be recompensed (vs.26).  The
whole world will take notice and will worship Israel's god (vs.29). 
Yahweh's vindication of the victim's trust will be spread abroad and to
succeeding generations (vss.30-31).

This, of course, is exactly what the gospel narratives were composed to do.
This is the Easter story we still tell each year at this glorious season.  

 
HEBREWS 10:16-25   Either passage make reference to Hebrew scriptures and
ritual customs which would have been familiar to all Jewish-Christians in
the 1st century CE.  Most scholars believe that the letter was written
toward the end of the century when the conflict between Jews and Christians
had reached a critical point with the ascendance of the rabbinical
Pharisees to power after the destruction of the temple.  Christians,
however, still used the Hebrew scriptures as their own, but were
reinterpreting it for their own purposes.  They drew from it as many
references as they could which seemed to them to prophesy the life, death
and resurrection of Christ which they heard proclaimed in their gatherings
for worship and instruction. 

In the first passage, the reference is to the new covenant of Jeremiah
31:31-34.  The author saw the death of Christ as having fulfilled the
intent of atoning sacrifice offered by the high priest in the Holy of
Holies of the temple on the Day of Atonement.  Because of his sacrifice,
Christians are now able to live the covenant prophesied by Jeremiah.

Not all commentators agree that the verses should be considered together.
In one instance, they are seen as the conclusion of one main section of the
letter and the beginning of another. (Alexander Purdy. *The Interpreter's
Bible,* vol. 11, 708-712)  The author of the letter, however, wished to
make the point that Jeremiah's prophecy of a new covenant with Yahweh did
prepare the way for Jesus to open the way to God for one and all.  It was
not only the sacrificial death of Jesus that was so important, but the
enabling faith that his death and resurrection created for all who believe.

The passage presents several strong exhortations to the hearers of the
gospel and recipients of the letter (vss.22-25).  The author, while not
Paul himself, must have been familiar with Paul's Letters to the
Corinthians, especially his "trinity" of faith, hope and love.  Unlike
Paul, he connected good works with love (vs.24).  He then went on to urge
his audience "not to neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some."
This refers to the characteristic assembly of Christians for worship and
teaching.  It would appear that some had fallen away from the weekly
celebration of the gospel.  Possibly they felt that they did not need to do
so as they awaited the Second Coming.  To this author, such assemblies were
all the more necessary. 


HEBREWS 4:14-16; 5:7-9   In the second passage, the author cast Jesus in
the role of the high priest.  He draws a clear distinction, however, 
between the traditional high priest of Israel and Jesus as the Christian
high priest.  That distinction rests in Jesus' compassion for our sins.  He
knows what they are because he has been tested in every respect by the same
temptations we face.

Not only that, despite having been tested "in every respect... as we are,"
he remained without sin. 

The concept of Jesus as sinless created a problem for the writers of the
NT.  Why would the Messiah need to be baptized "for repentance" according
to John the Baptist's practice? (Mark 1:4)  The same issue existed with
regard to the crucifixion? (Mark 8:31-33 cf. 1 Cor. 1:23)  Matthew provided
the solution to the problem.  When John protested baptizing Jesus, saying
he needed to be baptized by Jesus, Jesus replied that it was to justify the
people of God.  In attributing these words to Jesus, Matthew may well have
been recalling Isaiah 53:11 where Isaiah of the Exile wrote, "My righteous
servant shall make many righteous."  In Paul's letters, justification
became the special work of Christ's dying on the cross.

The Fourth Gospel emphasized the same truth by making John the Baptist
witness to Jesus as "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."
There was also a basis for this belief in an intertestamental document from
the 2nd century BCE, *Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.*  The supposed
testament of Levi includes a prophecy that Yahweh will raise up a new
priest to whom all the words of Yahweh will be revealed.  "In his
priesthood sin shall cease and all lawless men shall rest from their evil
deeds and righteous men shall find rest in him."  It seems probable that
the concept of a sinless high priest in this passage in Hebrews depends on
this obscure prophecy.

The whole point of this emphasis becomes clear when the author states the
Christian imperative.  Our obligation as believers compels us to come to
Christ to receive his grace whenever we need it, which is constantly.
 
In the second part of this reading, the author held that Christ not only
knows our need for grace, he himself learned obedience to God through
suffering, and so has become the source of our salvation.  Despite his
fervent prayers, he was not saved from dying on the cross.  He remained
faithful and obedient to death.

At this point the author introduced Melchizadek as the high priest who
foreshadowed the priesthood of Christ.  He reiterated the reference three
more times (6:20; 7:17 & 21).  He referred, of course, to the priest-king
whom Abraham encountered and from whom he received a blessing (Gen. 14).
Although there is only one other reference to Melchizadek in the OT (Ps.
110:4), the point of the reference is to establish the supremacy of Christ
above all mortal priests.  From Christ alone comes the blessing of eternal
salvation through his sacrifice of himself on the cross.


JOHN 18:1 - 19:42   Each of the authors of the four gospels had a different
purpose in mind as they told the crucifixion story.  Accordingly, the
details of the actual event do not always agree.  It is unwise to pick and
choose various aspects from the four narratives to create a cohesive
account of what may have happened.  Yet many have tried to do so, at times
thereby creating great art.  The point of the passion story is not to give
us a factual account of how it happened, but to tell us why and to move us
to faith in the Christ who triumphed over sin and death. John's account is
particularly forceful in its condemnation of "the Jews."  This has been the
source of considerable anti-Semitic propaganda, hatred and violence against
Jews through the centuries.

John's timing of the betrayal and crucifixion is slightly different from
the other gospels.  According to John, these events all took place on the
Day of Preparation for the Passover.  He does not follow the other gospels
in regarding the Last Supper  as the Jewish Passover meal.  Rather, it was
a simple fellowship meal shared with the disciples for the last time.
Between the incidents of the washing of the disciples' feet (13:1-10) and
the betrayal (18:1-11), John interspersed the long discourse and prayer
which surely did not occur in the way set down.

There are also many anomalies in various aspects of the trial.  The best
conclusion we can come to is that several oral traditions existed in the
years between the actual event and the written documents.  These traditions
were interwoven in ways that are now virtually impossible to discern.  The
historicity of one or other detail cannot be argued except by adopting a
literalist approach.  Even that leads to confusion because the details do
not always correspond. 

Were there actually two trials: one Jewish before the Sanhedrin or part of
that supreme council; and one Roman before Pilate?  What was the
difference?  Was the Jewish trial about Jesus' messiahship and the Roman
trial about his insurgency?  In both John presents the Jews as the
initiators of both, as do the other gospels.  The later Jewish tradition of
the rabbis accused Christians of exaggerating the role of the Sanhedrin.
John described Pilate as being a somewhat more sympathetic if vacillating
character who tried to set Jesus free.  He even tried to have the Jews do
their own dirty work (19:6).  He argued the case back and forth several
times  with both Jesus and the leaders of the Jewish community
(18:29,33,38; 19:4,9,12,14.)  In the end, out of fear, he finally acceded
to the crucifixion.  But John is not entirely clear as to whom he turned
over Jesus (19:16).  Who actually did the crucifying?  It had to be the
Romans, but John's attitude toward the Jews left that in the shadows of the
pronoun, "them."

The other point that needs to be lifted up in John's account is his
reference to the people "at the foot of the cross" as hymnody and art
portray.  John makes no reference to Peter after the cock crowed (18:27).
But John, presumably the "beloved disciple," was there and received Jesus'
dying instructions to care for Mary, his mother.  So were three other
women: Mary's sister, who is not named; Mary, the wife of Clopas; and Mary
Magdalene.  It would seem that Joseph of Arimethea and Nicodemus were not
far away, for they took care of the burial after receiving Pilate's
permission to remove it from the cross before the Sabbath.  These two were
probably members of the Sanhedrin, although perhaps not present at the
hastily summoned trial.

Tourists are shown the Garden Tomb in Jerusalem which in many ways has
characteristics of the tomb in which they placed the body of Jesus. 
However much human sentiment may honour this garden, its tomb and the cliff
shaped like a skull nearby, there is no way of proving that this was indeed
the place.  The older tradition holds firm to the site of the Church of the
Holy Sepulchre as the probable location, although it was not until the 4th
century that Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, so designated it. 

Crucial to John's narrative are Jesus' final words, "It is finished." 
These words tied together many threads of John's story.  As he had Jesus
say in 10:18, "No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own
accord."  Jesus had come to into the world that sinners might have eternal
life. The work he had come to do had been completed by his dying. The rest
was up to God (cf. John 5:17).

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006, 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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