Saturday, April 4, A.D. 33 began for the Jews at what we now consider six o’clock in the evening. It was the Sabbath, the seventh day of the week, which God commanded in the law of Moses to be kept as a holy day of rest in memory of the day God rested from his creative cosmic work (Exodus 20:8).
And it was a high Sabbath, because it was the Passover, the high feast which God commanded in the law of Moses to be kept in memory of the night when the blood of an innocent lamb shielded God’s people from his angel of lethal judgment on Egypt (Exodus 12).
But no one yet understood that this Sabbath was far higher than any that had been kept since God’s ancient day of holy rest. And no one yet understood that this Passover was far holier than even the first Passover — that the Egyptian Passover was, in fact, foreshadowing this ultimate Passover.
God Finished His Work
By six o’clock, the Passover Lamb of God had been dead three hours, having been slaughtered on a cross-altar outside the city. Fresh traces of his sacrificial blood still marked moments of agony and horror in the governor’s palace, along the road, and on the ignominious hill called “The Skull.”
Late afternoon on Friday, the Lamb’s body had been courageously secured from Pilate by a member of the Sanhedrin, the very council that had secured from Pilate the Lamb’s execution. And in order to keep this highest of Sabbaths holy, the sympathetic Sanhedrin member, with the covert help of another member, had hastily placed the Lamb that was slain in criminal dishonor in a grave of aristocratic honor (Matthew 27:57–60; John 19:38–42). It was one more twist of providential irony. One more fulfillment of divine prophecy (Isaiah 53:9).
And now, on this highest of holy Sabbaths, beneath a linen shroud, on a cold stone slab behind a large cold stone, lay the body of the Lord of the Sabbath (Matthew 12:8). He had done the holy, horrible work that his Father had asked him to accomplish (John 5:17; 12:27). The Holy One had become unholy so that in him the unholy ones could be made holy (2 Corinthians 5:21). And just as in ancient ages past, so again on the sixth day he had pronounced this part of his genesis work of new creation “finished” (John 19:30). And now, once again, “he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done” (Genesis 2:2).
A Rest Like None Other
That the mortal flesh of the immortal Word was undergoing the rest of rigor mortis on this Sabbath following his work of supreme sacrifice was no coincidence. Yet this was a rest like none other. His was the inscrutable rest that only the only wise God could have conceived (Romans 16:27): the holy, disgraceful rest of the sin-cursed death of the blessed, eternally sinless, immortal Son of God.
Who would have dreamed such a thing? “Who has known the mind of the Lord” (Romans 11:34)? The Son, at the direction of the Father, indeed always does all things well (John 5:19; Mark 7:37).
Lord of the Sabbath
And even at this moment of perceived supreme weakness, of bodily death, the Life (John 14:6) remained the Lord of this Sabbath. Even in death, he provided refreshment to his followers and exposed his enemies.
During this holy Sabbath, he refreshed the faithful women who had followed him (Luke 23:55–56). They had kept vigil with him during the dark, tortuous hours of Calvary and had been the only ones brave enough to accompany Joseph and Nicodemus to the tomb (Matthew 27:61). They were planning to return at first light Sunday. They had borne profound grief. They would be the first to know Easter joy.
He also provided Sabbath convalescence for his sad, beleaguered disciples, locked away in fear and confusion (John 20:19). Back in the garden, Jesus had told them, “Sleep and take your rest later on” (Matthew 26:45). And now Jesus graciously gave them a “later on” day to rest before once again throttling them with the shock of resuscitated hope and joy and launching them into a life’s work that would forever change the world.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, this high and holy Sabbath did not find the chief priests and Pharisees resting. After determining that the Sabbath-healing Son of God must be killed (John 5:18), and having achieved their goal, these leaders were gathered at Pilate’s headquarters busily working on this Sabbath to secure a military guard at Jesus’s tomb (Matthew 27:62–66). The work of healing on the Sabbath was anathema, but apparently not the work of collaborating with pagans to keep the Lord of the Sabbath in his grave.
Would their homicidal anger only rage higher at Jesus if they knew that, even as he rested beneath the Roman seal they secured, he was working the greatest healing ever conceived? How despondent did they become when they discovered the next day that all their Sabbath work had not prolonged his death-rest?
For as this holy Sabbath ended, and the soldiers stood guard, and disciples sat in anxious uncertainty, and the women lovingly readied their spices for the dawn, the body of the slain Lamb stirred. The Lord of the Sabbath was about to be revealed as the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25). And not all the Roman legions in the world could have kept that tomb sealed.
For Holy Week 2016, we are publishing a series of fresh meditations, one each for Palm Sunday and Easter and two each on the other six days. Also, our new devotional book, Your Sorrow Will Turn to Joy, provides morning and evening readings for Holy Week and is available for download, free of charge.