Five Errors to Drop From Your Easter Sermon
If you want to help people see Holy Week with fresh eyes, start by dropping these familiar fallacies.
Andreas J. Köstenberger and Justin Taylor/ APRIL 15, 2014
1. Don’t say Jesus died when he was 33 years old.
The common assertion seems reasonable that if Jesus “began his ministry” when he “was about thirty years of age” (Luke 3:23) and engaged in a three-year ministry (John mentions three Passovers, and there might have been a fourth one), then he was 33 years old at the time of his death. However, virtually no scholar believes Jesus was actually 33 when he died. Jesus was born before Herod the Great issued the decree to execute “all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under” (Matt. 2:16, ESV) and before Herod died in the spring of 4 B.C. If Jesus was born in the fall of 5 or 6 B.C., and if we remember that we don’t count the “0” between B.C. and A.D., then Jesus would have been 37 or 38 years old when he died in the spring of A.D. 33 (as we believe is most likely). Even if Jesus died in the year A.D. 30 (the only serious alternative date), he would have been 34 or 35, not 33 years old. No major doctrine is affected by this common misconception. But don’t damage your credibility by confidently proclaiming “facts” from the pulpit that are not true.
2. Don’t explain the apparent absence of a lamb at the Last Supper by only saying Jesus is the ultimate Passover Lamb.
While it is gloriously true that Jesus is “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), this does not mean there was no physical paschal lamb at the Lord’s Supper. In fact, there almost certainly was: “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the Passover lamb [pascha] had to be sacrificed. So Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, ‘Go and prepare the Passover [pascha] for us, that we may eat it [i.e., the pascha]'” (Luke 22:7–8; cf. Mark 14:12). Even if it isn’t specifically mentioned in the Gospel accounts, eating the paschal lamb was an important part of every Jewish Passover (Ex. 12:3). This is why the disciples ate the meal together as a group, at night, within the city gates, where it would have been eaten with red wine and consumed before the breaking of bread and singing of a hymn. While there’s disagreement about the nature of the Last Supper, we think it’s clear that Jesus celebrated Passover with the Twelve on the night before the crucifixion—with Jesus making it clear that he saw himself in the tradition of God’s mighty deliverance of his people Israel from bondage in Egypt by the blood of a sacrificial lamb.
3. Don’t say the same crowds worshiped Jesus on Palm Sunday and then cried out for his crucifixion on Good Friday.
This kind of statement makes for a powerful sermon point to illustrate the fickleness of the human heart when it comes to Jesus the Messiah. But a couple of qualifications need to be added. First, it is not entirely clear that the “Hosanna!” crowd acclaiming Jesus’ triumphal entry is the same group of people as the “Crucify him!” crowd gathered before Pontius Pilate. The former seem to be mainly pilgrims from Galilee along with Jesus’s disciples, while the latter seem to be largely those from Jerusalem. Second, both crowds are expressing passion based on misunderstanding. As Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, the excitement of those proclaiming “Hosanna!” was based on an erroneous nationalistic conception of the Messiah. And when Jesus stood with Pontius Pilate before the Jerusalem Jews, stirred up by their leaders who were falsely charging Jesus with blasphemy, their condemnation was likewise based on a misconception of the Messiah’s identity. The common bond between both crowds is not the fickleness of the human heart but the lack of genuine knowledge and worship of the humble Messiah and suffering Servant.
4. Don’t bypass the role of the women as witnesses of the resurrected Christ.
The number and identity of the women in the resurrection accounts can be difficult to untangle, which is one of the reasons why we provide a glossary in The Final Days of Jesus as a guide. One of the confusing things, for example, is that no less than four of the women share the name Mary: (1) Mary Magdalene; (2) Mary the mother of Jesus; (3) Mary the mother of James and Joses/Joseph; and (4) Mary the wife of Clopas (who may have been the brother of Joseph of Nazareth). In addition, there is Joanna (whose husband, Chuza, was the household manager for Herod Antipas) and Salome (probably the mother of the apostles James and John).
As you preach this Easter, do not bypass the testimony of the women as an incidental detail. In the first century, women were not even eligible to testify in a Jewish court of law. Josephus said that even the witness of multiple women was not acceptable “because of the levity and boldness of their sex.” Celsus, the second-century critic of Christianity, mocked the idea of Mary Magdalene as an alleged resurrection witness, referring to her as a “hysterical female … deluded by … sorcery.”
This background matters because it points to two crucial truths. First, it is a theological reminder that the kingdom of the Messiah turns the system of the world on its head. In this culture, Jesus radically affirmed the full dignity of women and the vital value of their witness. Second, it is a powerful apologetic reminder of the historical accuracy of the resurrection accounts. If these were “cleverly devised myths” (2 Pet. 1:16, ESV), women would never have been presented as the first eyewitnesses of the risen Christ.
5. Don’t focus on the suffering of Jesus to the extent that you neglect the glory of the Cross in and through the Resurrection.
Certain Christian traditions tend to focus almost unilaterally on the suffering of Jesus on the cross, on the incredible pain he had to endure, and on his humiliation and separation from God. This can be seen in cinematic depictions such as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, the Roman Catholic reenactment of his path to the crucifixion on the Via Dolorosa (the Way of Sorrows) in the stations to the Cross, and in quite a few sermons both of us have heard in the evangelical churches we attended (not to mention many of our favorite hymns). Of course, the four biblical Gospels, especially Matthew, Mark, and Luke, concur that Jesus suffered a great deal for us as he gave his life for our salvation so that we could be forgiven of our sins.
And yet, there is another aspect to the Easter story. It is best encapsulated in John’s statement that Jesus, when he “knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world … loved them to the end” (13:1, ESV). When introducing not only the scene of the foot-washing, but his entire passion narrative, John writes the following: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper…” (13:3–4; cf. 14:28).
In other words, John is at pains to show that the Cross was not a dead end but a station on Jesus’ way back home to the Father! This is why he strikes a triumphant note at the outset of narrating the Crucifixion: The Father had given all things into Jesus’ hands, and Jesus was on his way back to his pre-existent glory which he enjoyed with the Father (17:5, 24)! It is, as the writer of Hebrews put it, “for the joy that was set before him” that Jesus “endured the cross, despising the shame” (12:2). This Easter, let’s make sure we don’t leave out the “glory” part when we tell the story of Jesus’ suffering. No doubt, the Cross was glorious in and of itself in displaying Jesus’ perfect obedience, God’s love for humanity, and the God-man’s rendering of substitutionary atonement for sinners. Jesus’ earthly work is indeed “finished” (John 19:30), but his glorious work of ruling, reigning, and interceding continues to this day.
Andreas Köstenberger is senior research professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Justin Taylor is senior vice president and publisher for books at Crossway. They co-authored The Final Days of Jesus: The Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived (Crossway).