Passion Week or Holy Week? Whatever the label, the week before us commemorates the heart of our faith in Christ. As we will see here, the Gospels spend a proportionately huge amount of time on this week for a reason.
There is no gospel apart from the cross and the empty tomb. Stress on these events separates the canonical Gospels from the apocryphal “gospels” that typically abandon the way of the cross in order to present esoteric sayings of a gnostic sage rather than the fulfillment of God’s promise to bless the world through the Jewish Messiah.
For those who have decided to follow Jesus, there is no turning back from the way of the cross. A Christ-centered life is a cross-centered or cruciform life. We must bear the cross if we will wear the crown. Taking this pervasive New Testament teaching seriously leads us to look carefully at the fourfold Gospel tradition of Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. Followers of Jesus must follow him through this week that climaxes all four Gospels.
Passion Week in the Fourfold Gospel Tradition
Only two of the four Gospels (Matthew and Luke) tell us about the birth of Jesus. The Gospels tell us very little about Jesus’ life before he began his ministry. They focus on his ministry after his baptism by John, but they especially emphasize the last week of his earthly life on earth. That tells us that the heart of the Gospels and the gospel itself is the cross and the empty tomb.
Think about it just in terms of the number of chapters in the Gospels. There are 89 chapters in the four Gospels combined. Four (4) chapters, roughly 4.5% of the Gospel chapters, cover the roughly one year period leading up to Jesus’ birth. Fifty-five (55) chapters (roughly 62% of the chapters) cover his three-year ministry up to the passion, and 30 chapters (roughly 34% of the chapters) cover the last week. If you break it down, that’s about .08 chapters per week for Jesus’ infancy, .37 chapters per week for Jesus’ public ministry, and 30 chapters for the last week alone! Based on chapters, the Gospels devote 80 times as much space to the Passion Week as they do to Jesus public ministry overall!
The Gospels tell us what happened during that last week harmoniously, like the voices in a quartet. They are all “reading the same music” (the words and deeds of Jesus), but they are not always “singing the same notes.” Each of them has its own way of telling the story to emphasize the author’s personal pastoral concern for the church. Each Gospel is selective and thematic, not completely comprehensive and precisely chronological. Scholars differ on the precise chronology of the week—what happened on each day is not always clear. Taken together, the fourfold Gospel tells us everything we need to equip us for our faith and life in Christ, not necessarily everything we want to satisfy our curiosity.
Resources for Study
For another approach to the passion week, go here to watch the biblical story unfold, accompanied by the paintings of James J. Tissot (1836-1902).
Music is a key way to reflect the work of the Spirit in our lives—”Singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, making music to the Lord in your hearts” (Eph 5:19 NLT). Songs that reflect on the passion are especially meaningful, for example:
- How Deep the Father’s Love for Us (Element Creative/Stuart Townend
- The Beautiful, Terrible Cross (Selah)
- Yet not I but through Christ in Me (CityAlight)
From then on Jesus began to tell his disciples plainly that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem, and that he would suffer many terrible things at the hands of the elders, the leading priests, and the teachers of religious law. He would be killed, but on the third day he would be raised from the dead. . . . Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it. (Matt 16:21, 24-25 NLT)