As we prepare to enter the Passion season, I have tried reviewing and reconnecting to the different Biblical story-lines that seem to thread their way through this period, shaping all that is and will be happening. In so doing, something of a threefold focus seems to come into view—the Passover story, the Passion Week narratives, and their implementation in the Book of Acts.
The context of Jesus’ final week is Passover, the celebration of which Jewish pilgrims from around the land came to Jerusalem to commemorate. Specifically, it’s the memorial meal God commanded Israel to observe in preparation for, and later the celebration of, their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, readying them for their great purpose in becoming a covenant people of God’s own possession. Celebrating the Passover kept the Jews connected to their ancestral heritage, as well as igniting their passion for their identity as God’s chosen people and rousing their hopes that one day the Anointed one, Messiah, would deliver them from their own oppressors, just as God once did for their ancestors through Moses. This would just remain a story from the past if it were not suddenly brought forward in redeeming, enriching fulfillment in this present week of Passion.
Jesus and his disciples celebrated Passover in a Jerusalem upper room. They had the customary elements—unleavened bread, wine, bitter herbs, etc. They followed the usual format—the Passover story, answering the questions, singing hymns. After the meal, when it came time for what may have very well been the third cup, the cup reserved in anticipation of Elijah’s coming and traditionally left untouched, Jesus took the cup saying “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood.”
Just as shed Passover lamb’s blood would mark Israel for peace and life on the night death plagued Egypt, so Jesus’ shed blood on the cross would bring peace and life to a world weary of sin and death. The salvation story of Passover, lived out in the people of Israel, is now embodied by Jesus on his way to the cross; his resurrection from the dead three days later allows this salvation story to continue, embodied by his new covenant community.
The Book of Acts is where the story of Jesus continues in the life of the Spirit working through the Church, the new covenant community. Acts is the story of Jesus set into the habits, the thoughts, the words, the daily routines, and disciplines of those who believe; whose lives and stories have been transformed and reset by Jesus’ life and story. In a way, it’s like the Book of Acts is the story of Jesus being retold in the lives of his followers.
What does this “threefold focus” mean for believers preparing their minds for the Passion season?
Every story has a setting that gives the characters a context out of which they’ll live. These three stories frame our setting for how the story of Jesus is going to be told in our lives. The Passover story sets the scene, the Passion narratives give us our substance, and the Book of Acts shows us how to live out that substance. Together this overview forms a trinity of story-lines that connect us to God’s past, while converting us in God’s present, and finally commissioning us for God’s future.
Just like Passover, we have all been slaves to sin in need of a deliverance that only God can provide. As witnessed during Passion Week, that deliverance has been sufficiently purchased and provided for in the person of Jesus. And just like Acts, we all have our own Judea’s and Samaria’s and Macedonia’s, enemies and friends, neighbors and strangers, persecutors and the faithful. There are nights we feel rejected, stoned, or inside a jail cell or in a storm off Malta, just as there are days of earth-shattering sermons, wall-shaking prayers, prison-breaking miracles, and celebratory conversions.
As we sincerely prepare ourselves for Passion Week, we must do so with the understanding that we are the embodiment of the Story that will and must permeate life long after Passion Week is complete. We are witnesses living out the Jesus story in everything we say and do.