What Was Easter Actually Like?
On March 19, 2021, Jeremy Jenkins hosted the All Things All People Podcast and guest Andreas Kostenberger talked with him on the topic, “What Was Easter Actually Like?”
The following is not an exact transcript but may serve as a general record of the main lines of conversation.
Jeremy Jenkins: Our Christian thinker for the week is Dr. Andreas Kostenberger. My next guest is Research Professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology, Director of the Center for Biblical Studies, and the co-founder of Biblical Foundations, a ministry devoted to restoring the biblical foundations in the home, the church, and society. He is the author of many important commentaries and books, including Signs of the Messiah: An Introduction to John’s Gospel. He also has the distinction of being the first two-time guest on the All Things All People Podcast (see our earlier conversation, “What Was Christmas Actually Like?”).
Dr. Kostenberger: Thanks so much for having me back, Jeremy.
Jeremy Jenkins: In our Podcast, we’ll be pointing not only toward the Gospels but also toward your book The Signs of the Messiah. I’m so excited. You know, one thing people don’t know about you is that you’re not from the United States, you’re from Austria. I’ve never made it to Austria. Is there a significant difference in the way people celebrate holidays in Austria?
Dr. Kostenberger: As you might imagine, growing up in the Roman Catholic Church, there are certainly traditions, religious and otherwise, that are similar, but some are different as well. I remember, there were fourteen stations of the cross in the church near our home. They were commemorating the Via Dolorosa, the way Roman Catholics reenact the final steps of Jesus on his way to the cross. This was meaningful to me at some level, but I never really understood the meaning of the cross when I was a teenager.
I only became a Christian in my early twenties in college. But it still gave me some background as to the suffering and the pain Jesus had to endure left an impression on me, like The Passion of the Christ movie which focuses heavily on that aspect of Jesus’ life. As a Christian, the resurrection has become much more important to me. Now I understand from Scripture why it is that Jesus had to die and I put my trust in his work on the cross.
Jeremy Jenkins: I’m a pastor of a Southern Baptist church. We are sometimes accused, somewhat appropriately, of not having as rich a tradition in the way we celebrate those holiday. How do you even personally celebrate Easter without getting too bogged down in tradition?
Dr. Kostenberger: That’s a good segue to talk about The Final Days of Jesus. That was a big reason why Justin Taylor originally encouraged me to partner with him and to write this book. He wanted us not just to write another publication on Easter, but to provide a tool for families to understand the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. We wanted families and people in the churches to have a tool for study and worship. Thankfully, we were able to reproduce the relevant texts in the ESV.
In the book, we start with Palm Sunday and move through the week. The idea is, just like with Advent in the case of Christmas, to have a better understanding of what happened during Holy Week day by day. I would highly recommend The Final Days of Jesus for family discussions, for churches, Bible study groups, and other settings. This is not a replacement of Scripture, but a guide of both what Jesus went through and what it means for us personally.
The Meaning of Palm Sunday
Jeremy Jenkins: What is the most important thing to understand about “Palm Sunday” and the triumphal entry? What is it that those calling out “Hosanna” would have likely meant by it?
Dr. Kostenberger: Yes, that’s a great place to start. First, for our listeners, of course, you can find the account of the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as it is commonly called in all four Gospels because it’s that central to the biblical story of passion week: in Matthew 21, Mark 11, Luke 19, and John 12. It’s the first major event in the final week of Jesus.
I think probably the most important thing to understand about “Palm Sunday” is that those crowds who were excited to welcome Jesus into the city of Jerusalem and who waved those palm branches that they would probably have gotten from the nearby city of Jericho, “the City of Palms,” hailed him as the king of Israel. What they meant by that was that he was a sort of political, militaristic leader who would overthrow the Romans who were occupying Palestine at that time and restore Jewish independence which the Jews had enjoyed for about a century during the Maccabean period.
Now some of those same people who waved palm branches on Palm Sunday and cried “Hosanna!” (which in Hebrew means “Lord, save!” or “Rescue!” as in Psalm 118, for example, where it continues, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”) cried “Crucify! Crucify!” just a few short days later, which shows how fickle crowds can be. So there is a deep irony here. The crowds’ acclaim of Jesus was really based on a misunderstanding of who Jesus was.
At the same time, I think there is a second, related component. In entering the way Jesus did, in his humble mode of entry, mounted on a donkey, he modeled a different kind of Messiah. He fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 9:9, and he emulated Solomon’s entry into the city a millennium earlier (1 Kings 1:32-40).
So here we see Jesus the greater son of David fulfilling royal messianic prophecy while at the same time the crowds fail to understand who Jesus truly is. And you see that in the New Testament, very people really understood who Jesus was prior to the crucifixion. Incidentally, many today who celebrate and reenact Palm Sunday still don’t understand this deep irony that was present at the original occasion when Jesus entered the Holy City. When the crowds waved those palm branches, it reflected misunderstanding. They had the right idea, but they really didn’t understand who Jesus was.
Celebration of Passover
Jeremy Jenkins: Maundy Thursday brings us to Jesus celebrating the Passover with his disciples hours before his arrest sets the tone for the ensuing events. What should Christian readers understand about Passover to get a fuller understanding of its significance in the passion narrative?
Dr. Kostenberger: Well, Passover, of course, derives from the exodus, where the death angel literally “passed over” the Israelite firstborn while striking the Egyptians, the greatest and climactic one of the Ten Plagues, on the basis of the blood of a lamb which the Israelites smeared on their doorposts (Exodus 12). That was not just a one-time event. Ever since, they were to celebrate the Passover to remember God’s mighty deliverance from bondage in Egypt on the eve of the exodus.
Now Passover, in turn, in the Jewish festival cycle was part of the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread. During the last week of Jesus’s earthly life, Passover was celebrated on Thursday evening, the night before the crucifixion on Friday afternoon. The day before Passover, incidentally, was the Day of Preparation, where Jesus’s followers went and made all the preparations for the meal and the celebration, just like we today would do the grocery shopping or make reservations at a restaurant before a major holiday such as Easter.
For Christians, of course, the last supper, the final Passover Jesus ate with his disciples, has great added significance in that it is also the first Lord’s Supper marking Jesus’s establishment of the new covenant in his body and in his blood. As the true lamb of God, Jesus died for the sins of the world, in the place of each one of us, so that we could be mightily delivered spiritually from our sins and be reconciled to God and spend eternity with him if we put our trust in Jesus and repent of our sin.
And just like the Israelites were commanded to celebrate Passover every year in remembrance of God’s mighty deliverance at the exodus, so as Jesus’s followers we are to celebrate the Lord’s Supper regularly in remembrance of God’s mighty deliverance of all believers through Jesus’s death on the cross. Luke 22:19 says, “Do this in remembrance of me”; and Paul later repeats that in 1 Corinthians 11. We talk about this in greater depth on pages 60-61 in The Final Days of Jesus.
Jeremy Jenkins: The moment Judas emerged as Jesus’ betrayer in John has two interesting questions that must be asked. How might it have been that in this intimate scenario, Judas would not have heard Jesus’ words to John?
Dr. Kostenberger: Yes, good question! When you read the Gospels’ portrait of the disciples, they weren’t always the most perceptive. In The Final Days of Jesus, we actually have a graphic depicting the seating arrangement at the last supper. At the head table would have been Jesus, kind of like a wedding where you have a head table, flanked by the apostle John on one side and Judas on the other, the two seats of honor. This shows how Jesus loved Judas, despite what he was about to do. Peter would have been further away, and the other disciples as well, some on the left, some on the right.
The posture was not that everyone sat on a chair around a table, but people were reclining to their side, leaning on their elbow. Also, the meal was in several courses and would have lasted quite a while (think of our Thanksgiving), so people would have been talking with the person beside them or even across the room. When Jesus was talking to John on his one side, Judas may have been talking to someone else, or been too far away to hear if Jesus kept his voice down when talking to John. So it’s kind of like a real-life setting at a meal where people are talking. It was such a momentous occasion, and yet it was like an ordinary meal, one final festive meal Jesus had with his disciples.
Jeremy Jenkins: So what did John mean when he said that Satan “entered” into Judas?
Dr. Kostenberger: As to Satan entering into Judas, we see that John, in particular, portrays Jesus’ coming as part of a cosmic battle between God and Satan; John makes no reference to demons anywhere in his Gospel. So here we see that Satan enters Judas to use him as the human instrument by which Jesus was betrayed and delivered over to his accusers. Interesting, John is not the only one who mentions this. Luke 22:3-4 also says, “Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve. He went away and conferred with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to them.”
This goes to show that the Gospel writers align very closely in this portrayal. Ironically, both Satan and God wanted Jesus crucified – but for very different reasons. Satan because he thought that this way he could kill Jesus forever, God because he wanted Jesus to make atonement for sin and to die as our sinless substitute. And, of course, by raising Jesus from the dead, by bringing Jesus back to life, God then overruled the guilty verdict that the Gospels make clear was based on a travesty of justice in any case.
DEATH, BURIAL, AND RESURRECTION
The Great Exchange: Imputation of Sin
Jeremy Jenkins: Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians that Jesus “became” the curse while He was on the cross. How should followers of Jesus understand this teaching?
Dr. Kostenberger: In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Theologians refer to this as “the great exchange.” It means that Jesus, who himself was sinless, took our sin upon himself so that God could declare us righteous on the basis of what Jesus did for us, kind of like me paying my son’s parking ticket. In 2 Corinthians, this is presented in terms of our reconciliation with God.
Sin ruptured our relationship with God, who is holy, so that we were spiritually separated from God and could no longer enjoy fellowship with him. By dying on the cross for us, Jesus also restored our relationship with God. What is more, now that Jesus reconciled us to God, we are also reconciled to each other in the body of Christ and are in turn to share the message and ministry of reconciliation with unbelievers, both individually and corporately as part of the church.
Jesus’ Alleged Descent into Hell
Jeremy Jenkins: I frequently get questions about Saturday, on Christ’s descent to hell. What are your thoughts on this?
Dr. Kostenberger: So this is something we don’t actually talk about in The Final Days of Jesus, but if you like, I can briefly comment here. They key passage is 1 Peter 3:18-22, which says, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the Spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, … the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.”
The relevant portion in that passage is that Jesus was “made alive in the Spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah.” I take this to mean that Jesus, after the resurrection, made public declaration of his victory over Satan at the cross to a group of spirits, demons, who had disobeyed in the days of Noah and were therefore kept in some sort of spiritual prison or holding area.
If you read Genesis 6, you see there that prior to the flood a group of demons had sexual intercourse with women and procreated offspring, a very severe and unique sin, which apparently resulted in a very unique punishment for those demons. For some reason, Jesus chose to proclaim his victory over Satan specifically to those demons after the resurrection. If you want more, we discuss this in our New Testament introduction, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown.
The Role of the Resurrection
Jeremy Jenkins: If Christ was our substitution on the cross, and I mention John Stott’s seminal work The Cross of Christ, and thereby became the curse so that we could become righteous, what role does the resurrection play in the salvation of the believer and why is it that Paul would say, if it weren’t for the resurrection, everything would be in vain?
Dr. Kostenberger: Great question! And extremely relevant! The words of the apostle Paul come to mind, who wrote in Romans 6 that “We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.” So, because of the resurrection, we can literally live a new life that is different from the life we lived before we trusted in Christ.
Paul goes on to say in Romans 6, “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin.” So here we see that before we trusted Christ, we were in bondage to sin. But now we are no longer slaves to sin; we can actually choose to do right!
Then Paul elaborates, “Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” So, as believers, we believe that sin and death no longer have any dominion over us. This is the hope of Easter. We can now consider ourselves to be dead to sin and alive to God.
Paul concludes, “Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” I love that final reference to grace. So as believers, we are now under grace, and we should present the members of our body as instruments of righteousness.
Dr. Kostenberger: My wife is currently working on a book on sanctification for Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series published by Crossway, so I am very excited about this question – how Christ’s resurrection is vital for our new life in Christ and life in the Spirit. So, thanks for asking that question to show how Easter and the final days of Jesus are incredibly relevant for the way we as Christians are to live today.
Jeremy Jenkins: Well, I certainly agree. We are the heralds of the resurrection, and this is what this week is all about. You have made a profound impact on my life, so thank you for blessing us with your time.
Dr. Kostenberger: Thank you so much, Jeremy. I appreciate you, and I appreciate your ministry. Blessings on you.
Note: For a related podcast, see “All Things All People Podcast: What Was Christmas Actually Like?” For further study, see The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived. For other Easter resources, click here.