February 14, 2018

What is Lent?

Every year, millions of Christians around the world begin the Easter season by celebrating Lent. Lent is a period of forty days, not including Sundays, that runs from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. The forty days of Lent are to commemorate the forty days that Jesus fasted in the wilderness before beginning his earthly ministry, and is meant to help Christians spiritually prepare for Easter.

Christians start the Lenten season by celebrating Ash Wednesday, where during evening services they receive the mark of the cross on their forehead. The cross is created from ashes made from the burned palms used from the previous year for Palm Sunday, and combined with olive oil. The ashes are to remind us of the passage in Genesis 3:19 which states that "for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." It also reminds us that we are nothing without the Lord, and that we are to look to the cross of Jesus to live.

During this forty day period, Christians will often abstain from things such as meat, sugar, alcohol or tobacco. They will also seek to do things that will help bring them closer to Christ, such as serving others, giving alms, seeking to pray more fervently, or reading more from the scriptures. One my favorite activities is to take up a study of the events of Holy Week in preparation for Easter. This helps me spiritually prepare and to focus more on the true meaning of Easter, and less on Easter eggs and candy.

Over the next 40 days I will produce several videos about the significant events of Holy Week. Within these videos I will show you some of the traditional Holy Week sites in Israel, and will also use an incredible new app designed by BYU to help bring first century Jerusalem to life. The app is one of the first of its kind, in that it allows you to actually wander around the ancient temple of Jerusalem, and to visualize significant locations of the New Testament.

I hope you will join me this year in celebrating Lent, by not only taking up a study of the events of Holy Week, but also by seeking for opportunities to serve others as you prepare for Easter this year.

December 21, 2017

What was the birth of Jesus like?

Ask almost anyone about the setting of the birth of Christ, and you will likely be told about a stable, a wooden manger filled with hay, animals surrounding the baby Jesus, and snow falling outside as the shepherds enter the stable to worship the king of Kings. The problem is that this depiction, though we've heard it many times, is likely far from what actually took place on this night of nights.

To better understand the more probable setting of the Nativity, it's first helpful to understand a little about the natural landscape of Israel, and in particular Bethlehem. The land of Israel is covered with stones, hills and caves. In fact there is so much stone that most ancient homes would have been built almost exclusively of stonework, only using lumber for building aspects like the roof, ceilings, and doors. Trees were a limited, valuable resource, so they choose to build from the more abundant supply of stones. Caves were also commonly used, and it is probable that the "stable" which is not even mentioned in scripture, was located in one of the caves surrounding the hills of Bethlehem. These caves were a perfect place to keep animals, as it was cool during the hot days, and warmer during the cooler nights. [1] It also was a naturally built fortification, so little work would be required to build it, except for adding a fence and gate at the entrance.

Also, that wooden manger filled with hay, well, it actually would be made of stone as well. Many ancient stone mangers have been found in Israel of different sizes, shorter ones for animals like sheep and goats, and taller mangers for animals like horses and donkeys. The mangers were generally block-like in shape, and were only about six to eight inches deep. In addition, mangers were not used for hay, but instead for watering animals, as cutting and storing grass for feed was not necessary because of the warmer climate. Because Israel really only has a rainy season and a dry season, with little to no snow, grass is available all throughout the year. [2]

Stone manger found in Tel Megiddo in Israel
So why do we so often see a wooden stable and a manger filled with hay? Well, because most early Christian artists who depicted the Nativity, lived in Europe, where trees were readily accessible, winters were cold so that you had to store hay, and mangers were made of wood, and used to feed the animals.

Oh, and what about all those animals, especially the sheep, donkey and the ox that are in virtually every Nativity scene? Well, once again, the birth accounts of Jesus never mentions other animals being present, it only mentions that there was a manger, implying that there would be animals. So where do the animals come from? The sheep are there, most likely because of the shepherds. The ox and donkey however, come from, interestingly enough, a prophecy of Isaiah. The verse states: "The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand" (Isaiah 1:3). In other words, an ox and a donkey can recognize who feeds and waters them, but Israel could not recognize God's hand in their lives. Because this verse refers to a manger, or a crib as translated in the King James Bible, later Christians decided to incorporate an ox and a donkey into the story. [3]

Understanding the setting of the birth of Jesus, not only gives us a more realistic picture of this significant event, but also it seems to foreshadow the mission and death of Christ. At his birth, Jesus was likely born in a stone cave because there was no room in the inn, wrapped in linen swaddling bands, and laid in a stone manger. At his death, Jesus was buried in a borrowed stone tomb, wrapped in white linen, and laid on a slab of limestone. In addition, how appropriate that the great Messiah, the one who provides eternal living water (see John 4:14), was laid as an infant in a watering trough. It seems that even from the very beginning, the events of the life of Christ, were meant to point to and foreshadow the most important part of His life, that of His atonement, death and resurrection.

[1] Stone Manger, by Jeffrey R. Chadwick - location 788 of 2025
[2] Stone Manger, location 189 of 2025
[2] The Origins of Christmas, by Joseph F. Kelly, page 36-37

December 13, 2017

The Annunciations - The Nativity

Luke begins his Nativity narrative with the annunciations of the angel Gabriel to Mary and Zacharias. It seems that Luke purposefully places these two stories next to each other to not only contrast Mary and Zacharias, but also to compare the two miraculous birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ.

The first annunciation of Gabriel occurs in Jerusalem at the temple to Zacharias, a priest of the course of Abia. The courses of the priests were established during the reign of King David, when there were too many priests to serve in the temple at one given time. Because of their large numbers, King David divided the priests into twenty-four courses, Abia being one of these courses. Each of these courses would serve for one week twice throughout the year, meaning that Zacharias would only have the chance to actually serve in the temple for two weeks during each year.

Temple assignments for the priests, ranging from performing sacrifices to lighting the menorah, were chosen by casting lots. The most honorable assignment was to burn the incense before the veil of the temple. This burning incense was offered every morning and evening in the Holy Place and represented the prayers of Israel ascending to heaven before the veil. This was the closest that Zacharias would ever come to the Holy of Holies, and it appears to be an assignment that he had never previously received.

As part of the ritual, Zacharias, while praying, was to burn a combination of incenses on the golden altar, including interestingly enough, frankincense, one of the gifts of the wise men. Outside, the people would be praying and waiting until Zacharias had finished. After which he would come to the door of the temple to pronounce a blessing upon them. Of course, Zacharias would never be able to pronounce this blessing, because he had been cursed by the angel, adding to the awe and wonder of the people.

The second annunciation of Gabriel occurs in the small village of Nazareth, to an obscure young girl named Mary, who was probably around 12 or 13 at the time. The contrasts between these two annunciation stories is remarkable, and it seems that Luke hopes that we will notice the differences. One occurs to a notable and respected elderly man and temple priest, the other to an unknown young girl. One occurs in Jerusalem, and at the temple, the most holy place in Israel, the other in an obscure village of Galilee, likely in a meager and simple home.

Luke also contrasts the very words of the vision of Gabriel, perhaps to teach us of how we should respond to inspiration from God. Both Zacharias and Mary are visited by the angel Gabriel. Both are told to fear not, and that they would be blessed with a child. Both Zacharias and Mary ask for a sign or for understanding. The angel then gives both of them a sign; in the case of Zacharias he is made dumb and possibly even deaf, and Mary is given the sign that her relative Elizabeth, who has been without child, will conceive a son.

It is interesting to note that while these two visions are very similar, there are also some striking differences, that perhaps help teach us why Zacharias was cursed, while Mary was blessed. One of the differences seems to be in one simple word. When responding to Gabriel, Zacharias asks, "Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years." Yet, Mary responds, "How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?" Zacharias is seeking for a sign to know if the angel is really speaking the truth, while Mary simple believes, and only asks how this miracle will actually happen. One other difference is how Mary responds when she says with faith: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word." Mary not only believed without doubting, she immediately was willing to follow.

It is remarkable to think of the consequences of these annunciations for both Zacharias and Mary. For Zacharias, having a son would be one of the greatest blessing he could receive. Yet for Mary, being unmarried, and pregnant, would likely mean that she would tried before the local synagogue, and be mocked and scorned for years possibly her entire life. Yet Zacharias, a man, a priest, and a respected individual, is the one who seeks a sign, and waivers in believing. While Mary, a young girl, and really a nobody in society, simply believed and trusted that she would be blessed for following God. What remarkable faith and determination Mary had. No wonder, the Father of us all, chose her to be the mother of the Son of God.

December 1, 2017

Christmas Study Resources

One of the things that has helped me better prepare for Christmas each year is to take up a study of the story of the Nativity about a month before the actual holiday. Advent (the four Sundays before Christmas) is a great time to begin, and gives you plenty of time to read at least one book, and the two accounts of the birth of Jesus Christ as found in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. Adding this to my study during the weeks before Christmas makes this special day become all the more holy. Below are a few of the books I have enjoyed reading to prepare for Christmas:

Good Tidings of Great Joy by Eric D. Huntsman

An excellent resource for Advent. The book is divided into five main sections, which are designed to be read during the four weeks before Christmas, with the last chapter studied on Christmas eve or day. The book includes commentary, music, and activities that can be added to Advent to help increase the overall feel of this special season.

Advent of the Savior by Stephen J. Binz

Short (only 69 pages), yet concise and powerful. This has become one of my new favorites for the study of the birth of Christ. A verse-by-verse commentary on the Nativity story, yet it does not have the feel of most commentaries. Excellent insights and highly recommended!

The Nativity by Alonzo L. Gaskill

A simple, short, yet very interesting study of the Nativity story. The book is divided into sections that discuss the account of Matthew and Luke, with other supplemental material (including a short quiz to see how well you know the Nativity story). If you want a simple quick read, this is the best book to read.

Mary and Elisabeth by S. Kent Brown

BYU professor, Kent Brown, examines the lives of two of the most important women in scripture (the two mothers of the Messiah and the greatest prophet ever). As we so often gloss over the lives of Mary and Elizabeth, and focus on the birth of Jesus (who is of course the reason for the story), this is an excellent study of the lives of these two women. There is much we can learn from their examples of faith and devotion.

A Coming Christ in Advent and
An Adult Christ at Christmas by Raymond E. Brown

Short, yet very detailed and doctrine heavy booklets on the story of Christmas by Raymond Brown, one of the greatest American Catholic scholars of our day. The first booklet covers Matthew 1 and Luke 1, the second booklet covers Matthew 2 and Luke 2. This is the very condensed version of his 750 page Birth of the Messiah.

May 28, 2017

The Blessings of Continual Repentance

A talk I gave today in church.

500 years ago this fall, Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the Catholic parish in Wittenberg, Germany. This act ignited the country of Germany and eventually the world, leading to what we now call the reformation. Luther's first of ninety-five theses reads: "When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, he called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance." This first of many points that Luther made was to show that repentance should be a lifelong pursuit, not a single momentary fleeting thought of becoming clean before God. The Catholic Church was known for death bed repentance, penance tied to simple prayers, and indulgences. Repentance to a priest, or Bishop, often is an important part of our process of becoming one with God. Yet, if we see repentance as a simple checklist of things to do, and more importantly, something we do infrequently and irregularly, we miss the true purpose behind the gift and blessing of continual repentance.

Why Continual Repentance?

To better understand the reason we need continual repentance, let us first examine why we even need to repent. The obvious answer is because God has asked us to. But why? Why does God need our repentance? What does it do for us? According to the scriptures, no unclean thing can dwell in the presence of God. This means that each time we sin, we spiritual cut ourselves off from God. This is, at least in part, why the Lord commanded early Israel to make sacrifices of an animal in connection with repentance. It was to teach them that the consequence of sin is death, spiritual death. It also of course was to symbolize the future death of the Lamb of God, who by His death, would allow for repentance to occur. As part of the process, the Israelite would bring their animal to the priest before the altar, and the offeror, not the priest, would kill the animal by slitting the throat. This was meant to be a vivid teaching moment to the offeror, that they were the one responsible for the death of the animal because of their sin. Likewise, we in all reality are just as responsible for the death of the Savior because of our sins.

With death being the consequence of sin, we must have a way to make amends, or to once again gain the favor of God. This is where repentance comes in to play. As we repent, we show our willingness to accept the will of God, and to allow for the atonement of Christ to be efficacious in our lives. As we repent, we learn, little by little, to align our wills with God. As we do so, we begin to become more like our Father in Heaven. This is where continual repentance becomes important. Infrequent or once in-a-lifetime repentance does not help with the process of allowing God to shape our lives. We do not learn to make daily, minor alterations, but instead are required to make major, often difficult changes.

Imagine, for example, trying to drive across the country while only making a few adjustments to the steering wheel. A road trip of this magnitude requires constant checking, corrections, and verification of the paths you have taken. If you make a mistake, you correct it early, which allows for the least amount of time required to make it to your ultimate destination. When thinking of a trip like this, we don't think even twice about making course corrections, and would laugh at the very thought that we should be able to just set the steering wheel once and make it all the way. Yet, on our eternal road trip back home, we seem to suggest that anyone who needs to make course corrections is just weak, or not a true saint. It seems we want to show our spirituality by not needing to repent. Without the constant course corrections, we make it harder and harder to become at one with God. Without these changes, repentance only becomes an act of cleansing, but not an act of seeking to actually change our lives.

These constant opportunities to repent are in reality, one of the greatest blessings the Lord has given us. It shows us that not only does He trust us immensely, but wants us to be able to make constant corrections until we get it right. It is as if we have a final exam that we can take as many times as it takes until we pass. How many of us would complain to a teacher that allowed for this? Yet, we often see repentance as more a form of punishment then a form of learning. How grateful I am to the Lord for allowing me to daily repent, and course correct.

The Sacrament and our Continual Repentance

So if continual repentance is actually a great blessing, then how can we better utilize it and develop it in our lives? Well, the easy answer is just to repent. This, however, is easier said than done. As humans we are quick to forget the Lord in our daily walk. We are commanded to remember the Savior, but how many of us actually remember Him always? Well, the simple answer is none of us. We all have fallen short. Once again, our Father, knowing the best way to help us return to His home, provided the incredible ordinance of the Sacrament for this exact reason.

In my opinion, there is no other ordinance that has so much beauty, symbolism, and power as the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. Of all the ordinances of the gospel, it is the only one that is performed on a weekly basis, and performed on behalf of an individual more than once in their life. We are only given a baby blessing once, we are only baptized once, we are only endowed and sealed once in the temple. We may return often to the temple to perform work for the dead, but once we have received one of these ordinances, we no longer receive them for ourselves again. Yet the ordinance of the Sacrament is performed every week, and is for our benefit each time. It is the only ordinance that we are commanded to observe more than once in our life (see D&C 59:9-12).

Ordinances have been a part of the gospel since the foundation of the earth. They are an essential part of the process that must be completed in order to become one with Christ. Ordinances are a representation of an inner-change that must occur within ourselves prior to becoming truly unified with Christ. They are a sign or witness of the eventual destination that we each must have. Ordinances, such as baptism, in and of themselves, are not enough to bring us to exaltation, they are only a symbol of what we are to become. When we truly have faith in Christ, repent of our sins, and have been baptized of water and of the spirit, then we are truly born again as Christ commanded us to become.

The simple act of partaking of the Sacrament, in and of itself, will do nothing for us. The actual saving power comes when the change represented by the Sacrament, actually takes place in our lives.

As asked by Elder Orson F. Whitney: “Is there any sacred efficacy in the bread or water, taken alone? No; there is not water enough in the ocean nor bread enough in all the bakeries of the world, to constitute the Lord’s Supper. What, then, makes it effective as a Sacrament? It is the blessing pronounced upon it by the Priesthood and the symbolism whereby those elements are made to represent something greater than themselves, namely, the body and blood of the Savior. What is done then becomes a holy ordinance, full of force and effect” [1]

As I mentioned earlier, the symbolism behind ordinances are to represent the true inner-change that is to take place within our hearts. For example, at baptism we are lowered into the water and out again by one representing the Savior. This is to symbolize that it is in the Lord in whom we are to place our trust, and that it is His power that lowers us and lifts us out of the waters of baptism. It is Jesus Christ alone that lifts us out of sin unto a new life.

The act of partaking of the Sacrament likewise has powerful symbolism that is to represent the inner-change in our lives. What is this inner change? Jesus, after feeding the five thousand, taught us of this important key to understanding the symbolism of the Sacrament. In the Gospel of John it reads: “Then Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you. Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is meat indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. As the living Father hath sent me, and I live by the Father: so he that eateth me, even he shall live by me.” (John 6:53-57).

What is the partaking of the Sacrament to represent if we truly want the blessings of eternal life? We must partake of the atonement of Christ and make it part of us, just as the bread and water nurtures us and provides strength, so too the atonement must become part of us and give us strength. When the atonement becomes part of us, just as literal as the bread and water becomes part of our very being, then too, the Sacrament has fulfillment, and we are sanctified and purified through the Pascal Lamb, the Lamb of God.

So how does the Sacrament relate to our continual repentance? The Sacrament gives us a way to remind ourselves on a weekly basis of the spiritual feasting upon the atonement of Christ that we must do to be forgiven. The weekly reminder helps us make constant course adjustments as we navigate through life. It helps us to see the need of repentance on at least a weekly basis as we prepare to be fed by the Lord. These constant course corrections help us become more like Jesus, not just become clean, which is why we were sent to this earth. If becoming clean was our only purpose, then the once in-a-life repentance would suffice. But God wants us to become like Him, to have His joy, and to experience the blessings He has. This requires more then just becoming clean.


My hope is that we can see in repentance, as Martin Luther wrote 500 years ago, the need for continually repentance and change. My hope is that we can view repentance as a means of learning, not a punishment. A way that our Father shows His love and trust in us. How grateful I am to the Savior for going through what He did, so that I can repent on a continual basis. To make course corrections that will lead me back to Their presence to live with Them again.

[1] Orson F. Whitney, as quoted in The Sacrament, by Truman G. Madsen, pg. 23 (2008)

April 16, 2017

The Resurrection: Part II – Our Road to Emmaus

Dust filled the air as the two disciples walked the path towards Emmaus. They had just come from Jerusalem and had heard the miraculous stories told by the women who had claimed to see the risen Lord. However, these fanciful stories were too fantastic to believe. As they continued their journey a man in a long robe that covered his face drew nigh unto them. The two began discussing the week’s events with this man; however, as they continued they could see that he had no knowledge of the events that had transpired, and yet he seemed to have the spirit of prophecy with him like no mortal they had known. As they drew near the city of Emmaus they asked the man if he would stay with them for the night; the time was about 4:00 in the afternoon. The man came in unto their home and asked for bread and brake it and gave it unto them. As the scales upon their eyes fell and they realized that the very Lord stood in their midst, he vanished from the room leaving them with a feeling of awe and reverence. “And they said one to another, Did not our heart burn within us, while he talked with us by the way, and while he opened to us the scriptures?” At the same moment they arose and returned in haste to Jerusalem that they might find the disciples before the setting of the sun. (see Luke 24:13-35).

Each of us at some time in our life will find ourselves on the road to Emmaus. We each have been told fanciful stories of grace and mercy that are often more than we can believe. We have been told of stories of power beyond comprehension. Many have heard personal witnesses from others who have claimed to have seen the Savior or who have felt of His love and power. The question will be that while we journey upon our own road of mortal life, how will we respond? Will we believe those who have testified of the Savior and accept his redeeming blood, or will we lack the faith required to believe? When the Lord comes to us through the service of others will we invite them in to sup with us and to partake of those things of which we have been blessed?

Every day we are faced with the opportunity to serve another human being that stands in need of our help. Every day we are given the chance to serve the Lord by giving to those who hunger and thirst. For “inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40).

When our days upon the earth are past we will not be asked about the size of our homes or how many personal possessions we gained. However, we will be asked if we believed on the words of others in regards to the Savior and if we have served God by serving our fellow man. Though these two disciples at first did not believe, I feel that because they were so willing to serve that the Lord allowed their eyes to be opened and their hearts to be softened that the presence of the Lord would abide with them. In that moment of faltering faith and fear that must have filled their hearts that day as they walked to Emmaus, they had not forgotten the words of their Master to serve others. In their attempt to follow the Lord Christ He blessed them beyond description. That we each may serve the Lord by serving our fellow man, and that we may always stand ready to welcome in the presence of the Lord into our homes and hearts is my prayer on this Sabbath day.

The Resurrection: Part I – The Empty Tomb

It was just before dawn on the first day of the week. The Jewish Sabbath had not yet come to a close. As Mary Magdalene and several other woman walked towards the tomb with lamps in hand to light the way, they peered into the darkened garden. As they looked, they scarcely could believe their eyes! Was the stone rolled away? They began to run towards the rock hewn tomb. They peered inside the tomb and saw that it was empty except for the single burial cloth that had wrapped the body of their Lord. As they stared in amazement, two men in brilliant white robes appeared before their eyes. “Be not affrighted: Ye seek Jesus of Nazareth, which was crucified: he is risen: he is not here: behold the place where they laid him. But go your way, tell his disciples and Peter that he goeth before you into Galilee: there shall ye see him as he said unto you!” Wonder and awe filled their hearts as they rose from the ground and turned on the empty tomb and began to run towards the city gate of Jerusalem. The sun was now just rising over the Mount of Olives. Today was truly a new day! (see Mark 16:6-7)

The day was Sunday morning, just before the daybreak. The time would be around 6:00 A.M. Several women had come to complete the burial process for their Lord. At the burial of a loved one, the family would tightly wrap the body of the deceased with white linen. As they wrapped the body they would place various types of ointments and spices within the folds of the cloth (interestingly one of these ointments was that of myrrh, which was also given to the child Jesus as a gift by the wise men). This embalming was to help to mask the smell of death as the family would continue to come and honor the deceased at the tomb. As they came they were greeted by messengers from heaven who told them that the Lord had risen and that they should go and tell the disciples of the Lord's rising. Upon coming to the disciples, the brethren where slow to believe and decided that they must go and see for themselves. This disbelief is not hard to understand, for though they had seen three individuals raised from the dead by the Lord, never had they seen one who had been resurrected from the dead. It is one thing to see one who has passed on before be restored to life, only to die again, but entirely different to see one raised from the dead, never again to die. Truly, this would be a hard thing to understand or believe. Truly, this was an amazing and miraculous event.

We each, on a daily basis, are given a similar choice. We each have heard testimonies and witness of the Savior. We have felt the power as apostles of the Lord have spoken to us. We have felt peace as we read the words of prophets past who testified of the Savior and of His atoning power. The choice we have is to believe upon the words of others, or to go and seek Him for ourselves. If we lack the faith to believe on the Lord, we should at least go and see for ourselves if what we hear is true. This personal witness will come as we kneel to the Lord and seek for His guidance and witness.

May we each, whether weak or strong in our faith, believe upon the words of prophets and apostles past and present and go and seek this Jesus who is great and mighty to save.

April 14, 2017

Holy Week: What was crucifixion like?

Crucifixion was one of the most dreaded and painful forms of execution in ancient times. Thousands of crucifixions were performed by the Romans, the most famous of course being Jesus Christ. Yet, because almost all depictions of Jesus on the cross were painted centuries later, our image of the death of Christ is in many ways incorrect. Understanding Jesus' death, though gruesome and painful in nature, can help us better understand the incredible love that the Savior has for us because of what he was willing to endure.

Crucifixion was often first preceded with the painful process of flogging or scourging, as is the case of Jesus. The scouring was done to physically weaken the condemned person, accentuating the already painful process of crucifixion. The whip, or flagrum, was made of strips of leather fastened to a handle, with broken glass, nails, bone, and lead weights fastened to the end of the strips. The flagrum was designed to rip through the flesh, tearing skin and muscle from the bone. The powerful symbol of the sacrament bread, which represents Christ flesh, being torn apart, is an apt reminder of the scourging that Jesus endured on our behalf.

Once flogged, the convicted person was made to carry his own cross through the city till they arrived at the place of execution. Unlike most depictions showing Jesus carrying an entire cross, the condemned man instead would actually only carry the cross piece. This was because of the incredible weight of a full cross, and because wood was such a scarce resource that it was common to use an already existing tree, or permanent post as the base of the cross. The fact that Jesus may have been crucified on a living tree, brings beauty to the title of Jesus as the Tree of Life.

The gospels tell us that Jesus was crucified at "a place called Golgotha" from the Hebrew word meaning skull, most likely referring to a knoll or small hill, shaped like a bare skull. Today in Jerusalem there are two main traditional locations for Golgotha, the hill top in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and Skull Hill, just outside Damascus gate.

The first location was chosen by Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine, in about 325 AD, because of several earlier traditions that marked this as the place. Today, the hill is located within this enormous church under slabs of stone, with only portions of the original hill visible behind sheets of glass. Interestingly, it because of this church, with its steep steps that lead up to the traditional place of crucifixion, that we so often see paintings and film depicting the crosses on top of a hill. However, Rome did not generally crucify on the tops of hills away from onlookers, but instead, right next to the main roads and gates of the city. Crosses were also much shorter then normally depicted, so as to bring their victims as low as possible placing them almost at eye level with onlookers. This was so that all who passed by would vividly see the consequences of opposing Rome.

The other traditional site, Skull Hill or Gordon's Calvary, was identified only about 175 years ago. It was chosen because of the hill's remarkable resemblance to a skull, and because of its close proximity to an ancient tomb, now known as the Garden Tomb. It was also identified because in the Law of Moses animals were to be killed on the north side of the altar of sacrifice. With this hill, being north of the Temple, and in a continuation of the same mount where the Temple stood, the place seemed to be an apt location for the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

In 1968, several tombs were discovered in Jerusalem dating to the time of Jesus. Within one tomb they found a stone ossuary, or bone box, with a nail driven through the ankle bone of the buried man. This find is extremely significant, as it is the only known archaeological find of a crucified person. Experts were able to learn several intriguing things from this discovery. First, the nail was not driven through the front of the foot, as is often depicted in art of Jesus, but instead through the side of the ankle, directly through the bone. This means that a separate nail was driven through each foot, with the feet straddling the cross, instead of in front. Archeologists were also surprised to find wood fragments on both sides of the ankle bone. This has led to the conclusion that the nail was first placed through a wood washer before being driven through the foot and cross. The washer would have prevented the victim, or family members from attempting to tear the body from the cross to avoid the excruciating pain of crucifixion.

Hanging on the cross, the victim would be forced to stand upon these nails driven through his ankles, alternating with holding his weight up through his outstretched nailed hands. This process was made all the more painful as the torn flesh on the back from scourging, would be pressed to the cross as they alternated between hanging from their hands, and standing on their feet. Victims were known to live for several days on the cross before dying, making Jesus' death after only a few hours, very unusual. It is believed that victims died from asphyxiation, or in other words the lack of air, caused from the sheer exhaustion of hanging on the cross.

The willingness for Jesus to die on the cross for us, in such a painful and agonizing way, teaches us of His incredible love. Jesus could have been killed by stoning, or by one of many other ways, but He instead chose to be crucified. He submitted to the most heinous and dreaded forms of death, so that He could understand and succor His people. None of us can claim that Jesus cannot fathom our sorrows, anguish and pains, for He has endured all things. Truly, as Isaiah so prophetically stated: "he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."

April 13, 2017

Holy Week: His Blood Be On Us

After Jesus Christ was judged of the high priest, taken to Pontius Pilate to be judged, beaten, judged by Herod, and then judged again of Pilate, He was taken in front of his Jewish accusers by Pilate. The most vocal of the group was comprised of the chief priests of the temple and the leaders of the Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling body). The day was Friday of Holy Week, at about 6-7 in the morning.

The scriptures then record the profound interchange that took place between Pilate and the Jewish leaders: "When Pilate saw that he could prevail nothing, but that rather a tumult was made, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this just person: see ye to it. Then answered all the people, and said, His blood be on us, and on our children." (Matthew 27:24-25).

Here among the group were many of the priests of the temple, including the high priest himself who well understood the concept of a blood atonement. The word khapper (atone) in Hebrew means to cover, blot out, expiate, condone or cancel. For the priests, this term also had a literal application during temple sacrifices, wherein a portion of the blood of the animal was dabbed upon the altar, covering it with the blood of the sacrifice. In addition, on the Day of Atonement (the holiest day of the year), the high priest entered into the Holy of Holies of the temple and dabbed or covered the four corners of the Arc of the Covenant. Because of these rituals, the act of covering with blood, and atonement were almost interchangeable for the Israelite people.

How ironic that here the people ask that His blood be upon them. Of course they did not actually request that His blood would atone for them, or cover them, but the symbolism of the word they choose still vividly remains. How true their request would be that the blood of the Lamb of God would come upon them or cover them; for Christ did suffer for all, even His accusers. Even more powerful is the statement that His blood be upon their children, for all, both Jew and Gentile, are to be grafted into the lineage of Abraham, thus becoming children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Each of us, in essence, are part of the crowd who requested that Jesus' blood cover them. As sinners we each have the need of having our sins blotted out, or covered up to be remembered no more by God. Truly, it is by His blood coming upon us that we are forgiven. It is through His suffering, death, agony, and resurrection that we will live again. How prophetic the words of these wicked men, who in attempting to place blame on their children, actually helped in providing salvation to their children through the blood of the Lamb of God. The Lamb, that on their behalf, and by their request, was slain!

The Last Supper and the Passover Feast

Each year, Christians throughout the world celebrate Holy Week, the most significant period in the Christian calendar. Holy Week commemorates the last week of the life of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and his resurrection from the tomb.

During this same time each year, Jews around the world celebrate Passover, the most significant festival in the Jewish calendar. The Jewish holiday of Passover commemorates the redemption of the ancient Israelites from bondage in Egypt after being slaves for 300 years.

The Bible records the Lord’s command to celebrate the first Passover: "And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, Speak ye unto all the congregation of Israel, saying, In the tenth day of this month they shall take to them every man a lamb...without blemish, a male of the first year…and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it. And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it....For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, And the blood shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt." (see Exodus 12:1-13)

For 3,500 years Jews have celebrated Passover, and have used the symbolism of the meal to remember the captivity and redemption of their fathers, and to look forward to the Messianic age and their own final redemption.

The Betrayal by Marilyn Todd-Daniels
Jesus, himself a Jew, likewise used the symbolism of the Passover meal to teach His disciples about His mission, as He prepared them to understand the spiritual redemption that would come from his suffering and death. Just as the blood of the Passover lamb on the doorposts of the homes of faithful Israelites had saved them from the power of the destroying angel, so the blood of the lamb of God, shed for all on Calvary’s cross, would save all who would come unto Christ from the power of sin and death.

Though it is difficult to know exactly how the Last Supper took place, the gospel writers refer to several Passover symbols during the meal and discourse that followed. Understanding this sacred holiday in its Jewish context will help us appreciate the Last Supper and the Savior's redemption on this Passover night.

Tradition tells us that the day was Thursday, the first day of the Passover feast. As the evening approached, Jesus and His disciples gathered in a large upper room on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. His disciples had made preparations beforehand and the table was set with all of the necessary elements for the Passover.

According to Jewish tradition, a roasted lamb would be served as the main dish, in remembrance of the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of the homes, which protected their ancestors from the destroying angel. Alongside it, bitter herbs, representing the bitterness of slavery, and a mixture of chopped apples and nuts, called haroset, representing the mortar used by slaves to build the wonders of Egypt. Salt water was used to recall the salty tears shed by the Israelites in slavery. Into the salt water they dipped greens, such as parsley, representing springtime, the season of Passover, the season of hope.

Passover symbols: haroset, salt water, parsley, wine, and bitter herbs
Central to the Passover feast was the unleavened bread, or matza, which reminded the disciples of the haste with which Israel left Egypt--their ancestors not having even enough time to allow their bread to rise. This was the bread which Christ blessed and broke and gave to his disciples, saying, “Take, eat, this is my body which is broken for you, this do in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:24).

“After the same manner also he took the cup...saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do...in remembrance of me” (1 Corinthians 11:25). In instituting this sacramental emblem, Jesus used one of the four cups of wine which was consumed during each Passover meal, each cup representing a unique aspect of God’s promise to redeem Israel.

During the meal, the question was asked by the youngest member: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Whereupon, the story of the redemption of Israel from captivity was told. Passover is different from all other nights, but this Passover night was truly different, for on this night, Christ would redeem all His children from the slavery of sin, and the bondage of death.

After completing this symbolic meal “And when they had sung a hymn, [Jesus and his disciples] went out into the mount of Olives” into a garden called Gethsemane (Matthew 26:30). Jesus’ atoning journey had begun. The true Passover Lamb had come.

The text of this script comes from a  youtube video I produced back in 2011 with the help of Amy Grigg. With over 8,000 views I decided to update the video to HD and widescreen.