His Passion—Our Pattern: Following Jesus in Holy Week

To follow Jesus Christ, as a pastor, as a believer, is to go to places you never expected. That is opposite of what some suggest. Even those who are repulsed by a “health and wealth” Gospel seem to sometimes suggest that following the principles of Christ as a true believer will avoid much of the pain of this world. And it will. But not all. To follow Christ will eventually lead to unexpected places of pain. But the lessons of the life of our Lord is that His passion, especially seen in the passages recounting this Holy Week, point to a glorious truth that we will want to embrace when we learn its full teaching: that His passion is also our patternour pattern of life; the ruling motif in the Christian’s life. And when we come to see that teaching, in its fullness, then we will see that the places He leads us, where we never expected to go, or would ever want to go, become home.

David knew this. I like going outside of the “ordinary” lectionary readings for a week like this because we are able to discover and marvel at the comprehensive and profoundly simple (and, yes, simply profound) message of the Gospel throughout all the Bible. So I turn to Psalm 71. It is, we think, David’s Psalm  of deliverance from his enemies. This is what Calvin thought and Henry and Spurgeon, though others have differed. Yet the internal evidence points to this as the last line of the next Psalm concludes the Psalms of David and begins Book three. This is an older believer’s Psalm of having watched the patterns of God‘s ways and therefore his hope, against all adversaries and conspiracies against him, that God can be trusted. Pain becomes Praise and always confounds the wicked and leads the believer to new life. This seems to me to be the message of the Cross.

The voice of this Psalm seems to be David. Yet it is most certainly Christ’s. For David’s ancient song of hope is the very passion of Jesus in this week that we remember.

The passage is God’s message to us, as pastors to God’s people, and as His people ourselves, to see how Christ’s passion becomes, indeed, our pattern; our pattern of discipleship. To know this is to know hope and new life and is to counsel out of the Gospel story that is alive in all of us through the power of the Holy Spirit.

What is this pattern? It is comprised, in Psalm 71, of at least many poignant features, each of which could be explored on its own (and deserves to be). I don’t expect you to remember all of these, but I do pray the Holy Spirit to leave a divine impression of each of them in your soul. We need this to follow Christ in our own passionate weeks of life-as shepherds of His sheep and as sheep of His pasture.

Christ’s passion which becomes our pattern of discipleship may be observed in three ways:

1. The Pattern begins with Trust (vv. 1-8)

The Psalmist faces his passion, like our Lord, by returning to God in prayer and returning  to the point of His faith which will never be put to shame. The statement seems to be made when, in fact, there is every reason for shame. This is where Christ lived. He trusts in God at Gethsemane as He faces the truth that “cursed is all who are crucified on a tree.” David may have faced the ignominy of leadership even as his people knew of his sins. We live in this world as well. We follow Christ and trust in His righteousness in the shameful presence of deeds and sinful propensities that conspire to deny that trust. This is where our people live as well.

I like reading John Donne in such times. Imagine that this great preacher-poet of St. Paul’s was also the one who wrote illicit, erotic lines as a profligate young man. He begged the unscrupulous, money-hungry publishers of his day to stop printing the filthy verses of his youth, but their coffers were all the fuller with the Dean of St. Paul’s preaching the Gospel as they spread his former sin abroad. He was shamed. Yet he preached and lived in trust out of that shame. If you have read, “A Hymn to God the Father,” you know that he recounts his sins which have led others to sin. His refrain is, as Donne prays to God, likely in 1623, as he lays dying, “When thou has done; thou hast not done, for I have more.” The repetition of the word “done” and his frequent usage of that to point to his own name, “Donne,” forces the poet and the reader to see the deeply personal character of the poem. Yet in the end, it is his trust in the Son of Righteousness that leads him to proclaim:

“I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.”[1]

He did not die then. But he experienced the pattern of the passion of Christ that would, arguably, further transform his preaching and his life. This is the message of trust that we preach this and every season of our ministries; every season of our own lives. For this is the Gospel: that what God provided God has provided. So we proclaim, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God to save…[2]” There is no more shame. There is only Christ. 

2. The Pattern leads to Trial (vv. 9-19)

The Psalmist speaks of the conspiracy of his enemies to topple him. For instance, in verses 10-11, we read:

“For my enemies speak against me; And those who lie in wait for my life take counsel together, Saying, ‘God has forsaken him; Pursue and take him for there is none to deliver him.'”

Amazing. Jesus’ ancestral father speaks words that paint the exact portrait of his Greater Son in this Passion Week. Yet this is the pattern of Jesus and it is our pattern as well.

The enemies that conspire are not only the enemies of Christ, but the enemy within. Our sin rises to condemn us. Our past, our deep and unspeakable thoughts, our fears, our doubts, all conspire like demons to shout down the faith that has been given to us by the Spirit. We don’t grow out of this trial. In verse 18 the Psalmist admits that he is grey-headed and old and yet must seek God in the trial. Yet, his earnest plea is to declare the faithfulness of God to another generation.

This week I have spent many hours counseling people who are going through trial. At one point one of the saints, infected by the false prophets of our generation, grew angry at God and turned to me and asked, “Why her? Why this precious child? Why must she suffer?” I did not respond with a precise, confessional theological answer, but sought to give her the saving solution of the events of this week, the life of our Lord, to see that He suffered and we, in this old world of woe, will, likewise, suffer (for this is most “confessional”). Yet Christ suffered for us. We suffer because we are in a fallen world. Yet, being in Christ, our suffering is not wasted. Because His passion has meaning, our passion has meaning. His to save. Ours to be redeemed.

This will be your great work throughout all of your ministries. It is the paradox of suffering. But it has a story line that in the Passion of Christ that leads to a last point in the pattern that is revealed:

3. The Pattern concludes with Triumph (vv. 20-24)

There are Old Testament scholars who tell us that resurrection is not in the ancient Semitic religious mind. I think they forgot to read Psalm 71. In verse 20, he writes,

“You, who have shown me great and severe troubles, shall revive me again from the depths of the earth. You shall increase my greatness and comfort me on every side.”

This leads the Psalmist to a new wave of lines that climax in praise and in stating that the end of the story leads him to joy and his foes to being confounded. 

This is what happened to David. Despite his sin and shame, he is listed in the New Testament as one who is honored. He is never remembered in dishonor. Why? Is his sin forgotten? No. But in God’s redemption, David’s legacy is changed. That is what happens to us when we place our trust in Christ. Our old lives do not define us. Our life in Christ is our legacy of faith. Good overcomes evil.

Jesus’ trust, and His trials turned into Triumph. The symbol of sorrow and defeat was transformed into the sign of joy and victory. Resurrection ushers in a new heaven and a new earthnow and “not yet,” but soon enough. Resurrection changes everything. And the devil and the flesh and the world must be arms-crossed, angry and pouting like Haaman or Gahazi or Herod as their world, like the Wicked Witch of the West, melts into destruction and eternal punishment. 

The Passion of St. Paul

Jesus’ passion is our pattern: in trust, in trial and in triumph.

This was the message of St. Paul in prison. And I choose another non-Passion-even-passage to end this message, one that perfectly accords with the passion of the Psalmist in Psalm 71 and with the life of our Lord in Holy Week, the “passion of St. Paul in Philippians 3:”

“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faiththat I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:8-11 ESV).

This is his passion, our pattern, and our hope as pastors and as His people. 

“And, having done that, thou has done; I fear no more.”

 

Endnotes

[1] John Donne, Poems of John Donne, Volume I, (E. K. Chambers, ed. London, Lawrence & Bullen, 1896), 213.

[2] Romans 1:16.