How Jesus Spent His Final Days Before the Cross
Over one fourth of the book of Matthew is devoted to the last week before Jesus’ death. All of Scripture builds to this pivotal week, pointing to the moment when Jesus would bear the weight of humanity’s sin.
As you prepare for Easter, this 7-day reading plan will guide you through some of the critical moments in Scripture leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
- Monday: Matthew 21:12-19 (Jesus cleanses the temple)
- Tuesday: Matthew 21:23-46 (Jesus rebukes the Pharisees)
- Wednesday: Matthew 24:1-36 (Signs of things to come)
- Thursday: Matthew 26:20-75 (The Significance of the Last Supper)
- Friday: Matthew 27:1-61 (Jesus’ crucifixion)
- Saturday: Matthew 27:57-61 (Responding to the Cross)
- Sunday: Matthew 28:1-20 (Startling Implications of the Resurrection)
Day 1: Jesus Cleanses the Temple
Read Matthew 21:12-19
Who is this Jesus?
There are many things we could say about him, but first and foremost He is the holy King. A prophecy made around 500 years before Jesus came witnesses to Christ’s holiness and purity. Based on the prophecy in Malachi 3:1-4, the Jewish people expected the Messiah to come and purify the temple and the people of Jerusalem. Here is what we read:
“See, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. Then the Lord you seek will suddenly come to His temple, the Messenger of the covenant you desire—see, He is coming,” says the Lord of Hosts. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who will be able to stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire and like cleansing lye. He will be like a refiner and purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver. Then they will present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. And the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will please the Lord as in days of old and years gone by.
Jesus fulfills these expectations
in a way the people never could have expected.
Malachi speaks of God’s messenger restoring the worship life of the people of God and purifying the priests. But once again, Jesus fulfills these expectations in a way the people never could have expected. He walked into a scene where people were bustling in the outer court of the temple, known also as the court of the Gentiles, a place for the nations to meet with God in worship, praise, and prayer. Instead of such worship, however, Jesus found a commercial business filled with scores of people selling sacrifices and exchanging money. People were profiting off of one another and even taking advantage of one another, all while ignoring the purpose of the temple. So Jesus, in righteous anger, drove them all out, overturning their tables and their seats (Matthew 21:12). He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer.’ But you are making it a den of thieves!” In Isaiah 56:7, God says that His house will be called a “house of prayer for all nations.” Yet here in Matthew 21, the people of God were preventing the nations from praying.
In the second part of verse 13, Jesus says that God’s house has been made into a “den of thieves.” This is likely a reference to Jeremiah 7:10, a temple address in which God disciplined His people for offering ritual sacrifices while living in total disobedience to Him. Jeremiah’s wider context is worth quoting here:
“Do you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, burn incense to Baal, and follow other gods that you have not known? Then do you come and stand before Me in this house called by My name and say, ‘We are delivered, so we can continue doing all these detestable acts’? Has this house, which is called by My name, become a den of robbers in your view? Yes, I too have seen it.” This is the Lord’s declaration. (Jeremiah 7:9-11)
This hideout for criminals against God
needed to be restored to a house of prayer for God.
God’s people were offering worship in Jeremiah’s day, yet they did not behave in obedience to God. Jesus walked into a similar situation in Matthew 21, and as a holy King, He came to cleanse and to purify God’s temple. This hideout for criminals against God needed to be restored to a house of prayer for God. Jesus does not deal with sin lightly, but in righteous anger. This leads to the next attribute of Jesus.
Jesus has the right to cleanse the temple because He is the authoritative King. In this chapter and the chapters that follow, Jesus’ authority is put on display. This section of Matthew’s Gospel has been referred to as Jesus’ final break with Judaism, for He takes the religious leaders of Jerusalem head-on, making claims that they considered blasphemous—claims that would lead them to crucify Him.
Consider the authority Jesus demonstrates Jesus had made clear in Matthew 12:6 that He is greater than the temple. Indeed, He is Lord of the temple, and He has the right to do in it whatever He desires, including throwing it into disarray. It must have been quite shocking for Jewish leaders who prided themselves in religious practices at the temple to have Jesus come in and turn it upside down. Who does He think He is? Is He in charge of this place? Yes, as a matter of fact, He is.
Day 2: Jesus rebukes the Pharisees
Read Matthew 21:23-46
Jesus knew that God the Father had given Him the authority to do everything He had done up to this point in His life and ministry (John 5:19- 29). Matthew 21 has already presented several aspects of this authority: Christ came to Jerusalem and received praise and worship from the people, cleansed the temple, and taught in the temple courts. These actions led the religious leaders to ask, “By what authority are You doing these things? Who gave You this authority?” (v. 23). The religious leaders were questioning Jesus’ authorization to do what He did. They essentially asked, “Is it from God or from man?” Today people still wonder whether Christianity is from God or whether it is just another man-made religion.
More than just innocent questions…
Lest we think these were just innocent questions by the religious leaders, remember that they had already rejected John the Baptist’s message (v. 32); these questions often come from unbelief. They had already rejected earlier revelation from God, so their rejection of Jesus was not altogether unexpected.
Will we let unbelief and the
opinions of others control us?
Unbelief isn’t the only reason people question Jesus’ authority. These questions often come from misplaced fear, which is what we see in verse 26. Instead of fearing God, which the Bible says is the beginning of knowledge (Proverbs 1:7), these leaders had an unhealthy fear of man. This misplaced fear is what led them to question Jesus, and it leads many people to question Jesus’ authority today. The question for us is, Will we let unbelief and the opinions of others control us, or will we submit to God and His Son Jesus Christ?
Their professed agnosticism
was a smoke screen.
Jesus responded to the questions of the chief priests and the elders by posing a question of His own. To force their hand, He asked them whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from man (v. 25). John had made Jesus’ identity as the Messiah clear, and the people respected John as a prophet. Therefore, the religious leaders couldn’t reject John, or the people would turn against them. However, if they claimed that John’s authority was from heaven, then they would be guilty of rejecting God, since they denied that Jesus was the Messiah. Jesus knew that His question would uncover their hearts. Their professed agnosticism—“We don’t know”—in verse 27 was simply a smoke screen.
Day 3: Signs Of Things To Come
Read Matthew 24:1-36
We’ve seen in Matthew 24 that we are to trust in the authority of Christ and persevere in the power of Christ. Based on the portrait of Christ we see throughout Matthew’s Gospel, we should long for the coming of Christ. The realities of tribulation, deception, temptation, and persecution create anticipation. The more we live in this world, the more we will long for Christ to come back to this world.
The more we live in this world,
the more we will long for Christ to come back to this world.
This text leaves no doubt that the day of Christ’s return will be evident to all. His coming will be no secret: the angels of heaven will let out a trumpet blast, and every eye will behold the Son of Man in the sky (vv. 29-31). How different this will be from His first coming! The first time He came to a remote, obscure town just outside Jerusalem, where He went largely unnoticed, save for a few shepherds and some farm animals. He came the first time lying in a manger; however, He will come the second time riding on the clouds. This is what Daniel prophesied centuries before:
And I saw One like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was escorted before Him. He was given authority to rule, and glory, and a kingdom; so that those of every people, nation, and language should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and His kingdom is one that will not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
He will come on the clouds
in power to execute judgment.
Just as surely as He came the first time in humility to provide salvation, so He will come the second time in glory to execute judgment. Matthew’s reference to “the clouds of heaven” in verse 30 is not just an allusion to Daniel 7. Throughout the Old Testament, God reveals His glory in the image of a cloud. It was a pillar of cloud that led God’s people in the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:21). Then, at the end of the book of Exodus, God’s glory was revealed in a cloud that covered the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-38). Psalm 104:3 says that God makes the clouds “His chariot,” and Isaiah 19:1 depicts the Lord riding on a “swift cloud.” The picture we get in Matthew 24 is of the glory of God revealed in the glorious Son of God, who will come on the clouds in power to execute judgment.
In verse 30 Jesus says that the tribes of the earth will “mourn” when they see Him coming. That day will be a day of judgment, and all who are not ready for that day—that is, those who have refused to turn from their sin and to trust in Christ as Savior and King—will come face to face with the Holy One whom they have rejected.
What if this happened today? Would I be ready?
This text should cause us to ask ourselves, “What if this happened today? Would I be ready?” If not, then repent and believe in Christ today. If you are a genuine follower of Christ, are there things in your life that you still need to repent of, sins that you’re holding on to and toying with? What are you doing today that would cause you to be ashamed before Jesus if He were to come this moment? If so, let go of these things. Confess your sin and find mercy in Your Savior, so that you will be ready for His coming.
Following Jesus’ description of His second coming in verses 29-31, He tells the parable of the fig tree in verses 32-33. The lesson of this parable is that Christians confidently watch, for they see the leaves on the tree (the signs Jesus has spoken of) indicating that the Lord’s return is near. In a very real sense, we keep our eyes on the sky and our hearts prepared, even though we don’t know the exact timing of His coming. Yet we know that His timing will confound our wisdom. When the Son returns, we will see that the Father’s timing makes perfect sense, so we watch with confidence in the sovereign control of God.
We watch and we wait.
While we watch, Christians patiently wait. In verse 34, Jesus says, “I assure you: This generation will certainly not pass away until all these things take place.” This verse has been particularly confusing, because it seems that Jesus is saying that the generation He was speaking to would see His second coming. There’s much discussion over what is meant by terms like “generation,” “pass away,” and “all these things.” Good scholars have reached different conclusions. It seems clear, however, that Jesus did not mean that He would return before His disciples died. After all, He explicitly told Peter in John 21:18-19 that Peter would be put to death. Matthew 24:34 seems to teach that all of the things that Jesus has talked about—tribulation, deception, temptation, and persecution—would come upon His disciples, and that others in that generation would see the destruction of Jerusalem as a foretaste of the return of Jesus. But those things would not be the end. In the midst of these signs, from generation to generation, followers of Christ are called to wait patiently.
Day 4: The Significance of the Last Supper
Read Matthew 26:20-75
With that backdrop, Jesus refers to the cup in the Last Supper as signifying “My blood,” which is “shed for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28; emphasis added). He is the Passover lamb (Exodus 12) who saves us with His blood. When God’s wrath and judgment come, we hide under the blood of a substitute sacrifice, Jesus the Lamb of God, and we are saved.
He is our substitute sacrifice.
The account of the Last Supper also connects Jesus’ death with the law God gave to His people. He is the covenant keeper (Exodus 24) who seals us with His blood. Jesus refers to “My blood that establishes the covenant” in Matthew 26:28, and this is the only time the word “covenant” is used in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus is alluding to Exodus 24, when the law-covenant that God had given His people at Mount Sinai was confirmed. In Exodus 24:8 Moses sprinkled the blood of the sacrifice on the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you concerning all these words.” This was a picture not only of God’s forgiveness, but also of His binding of the people to Himself in relationship.
Now, with Jesus’ death, we have a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-27) sealed not with the blood of an animal sacrifice, but with the blood of the Son of God Himself (Hebrews 10:1-18). He is our substitute sacrifice, and He has died the death we deserved to die.
Day 5: Jesus’ crucifixion
Read Matthew 27:1-61
Jesus’ cry on the cross was a cry of physical agony, spiritual anguish, and relational alienation. He quoted from Psalm 22, and understanding that psalm is key to understanding this cry. Much could be said about the themes in this psalm and their relation to the crucifixion, but for now we should note that this was a cry of physical agony as Jesus physically hung on the cross. Psalm 22:14-16 captures this physical anguish:
I am poured out like water, and all my bones are disjointed; my heart is like wax, melting within me. My strength is dried up like baked clay; my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth. You put me into the dust of death. For dogs have surrounded me; a gang of evildoers has closed in on me; they pierced my hands and my feet.
Jesus’ physical anguish was very real and His suffering was intense. However, as we noted earlier, Jesus’ cry on the cross was also a cry of spiritual anguish. Jesus experienced the wrath of God, and not just for a moment, but for hours. Shrouded by darkness and seared with pain, He experienced the cup of God’s wrath.
Jesus was given the full recompense of our disobedience.
In addition, this was also a cry of relational alienation. In a mysterious way, Christ was alienated not only from His friends, but also from the Father. This is the curse of the cross (see also Galatians 3:13). As He came under the sentence of sin, Jesus was cut off from the Father’s favorable presence. God’s presence was real at the cross, but it was His presence in judgment and wrath toward sin. Jesus was given the full recompense of our disobedience. This is what Paul speaks to in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Martin Luther spoke of this exchange:
Our most merciful Father, seeing us to be oppressed and overwhelmed with the curse of the law [so that] we could never be delivered from it by our own power, sent his only Son in the world and laid upon him all the sins of all men, saying: Be thou Peter that denier; Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; David that adulterer; that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise; that thief which hanged upon the cross; and briefly, be thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men; see therefore that thou pay and satisfy for them [all]. (As cited in Stott, The Cross of Christ, 345)
Jesus experienced the separation that we as sinners deserve, so that we might receive reconciliation. That is the effect of the cross for all who trust in Jesus. Before the cross, we were cast out of God’s presence; because of the cross, we are now invited into God’s presence.
The barrier separating man from God was ripped away by God so that hell-deserving sinners could be welcomed safely into the presence of the infinitely holy God.
This entrance into God’s presence is why, right after Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom (Matthew 27:51). The barrier separating man from God was ripped away by God so that hell-deserving sinners could be welcomed safely into the presence of the infinitely holy God of the universe.
Do you see now why the cross is so significant? What happened on the cross was so much more than a naked man dying on a wooden post on the side of the road in a non-descript part of the world. This was the holy God of the universe giving His Son to die our death, endure our condemnation, and suffer our separation so that we could be declared righteous and welcomed into His presence.
Excerpts from Exalting Jesus in Matthew from the Christ-Centered Exposition commentary series.
Day 6: Responding to the Cross
Read Matthew 27:57-61
All history revolves around this scene in Matthew 26–27, and all our lives are determined by what we do in response to this scene. At least two responses are appropriate as we think about the cross.
Surrender your heart
First, surrender your heart to God. If you are an unbeliever, turn from sin and trust in Christ. Do not seek to add to His infinitely gracious and worthy sacrifice, but instead repent and embrace this free gift of salvation. If you are a believer, continue daily to trust in Christ, your substitute. Stop toying with sin and pursue the One who died to set you free from it.
Second, the cross ought to compel us to proclaim the hope of the gospel. The gospel is the greatest news in all the world. Many people know that Jesus died, but they don’t know why. They don’t know why the cross is the centerpiece of all history and the determinant of our eternity; but you do! So tell them, and pray for their salvation. Let everyone know that the Son of God came to save sinners, and that He has given His life on the cross for those who deserve His wrath. This is the good news, and it is our great privilege to proclaim it.
Day 7: Startling Implications of the Resurrection
Read Matthew 28:1-20
Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Matthew records for us the events of chapter 28, he is, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, making claims that change the world. We’ll look at three implications concerning the authority of Christ based on the resurrection.
1. He has authority over life and death.
If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then we don’t have to worry about a thing He said, because it was a lie. But if Jesus rose from the dead, then we must accept everything He said, for His authority is absolute. Jesus closes this chapter and the Gospel as a whole by claiming, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (v. 18). Jesus’ absolute authority based on the resurrection means that He has authority over life and death. Shortly before His own death, Jesus told His disciples the following:
No one takes it [My life] from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again. (John 10:18)
That’s an astounding statement. None of us decides when we will come into this world, and when we die, none of us has the power to say, “I’m coming back to life.” But that’s precisely what Jesus did, and if He did rise from the dead, then He has absolute authority over life and death.
2. He has authority over sin and Satan
If Jesus rose from the dead, then we must also admit that He has authority over sin and Satan. All men die because they sin, for death is the payment for sin (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23). However, Jesus is one man in all of history who died without sinning; so why did He die? Jesus died for our sins, in our place (1 Peter 2:24). After His death, Jesus rose from the grave, not only in victory over death, but in victory over sin. 1st Corinthians 15:55-57 teaches us that sin is the “sting of death”:
Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? Now the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
3. He has authority over you and me
The fact that Jesus has authority over life and death, as well as over sin and Satan, leads to one unavoidable conclusion: He has authority over you and me. Paul speaks to this reality in Romans 10:9-13, what we might refer to as the foundational confession of Christianity:
If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. One believes with the heart, resulting in righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, resulting in salvation. Now the Scripture says, Everyone who believes on Him will not be put to shame, for there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, since the same Lord of all is rich to all who call on Him. For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.
So what does it mean for Jesus to have absolute authority over you and me? First, it means He reigns over us supremely. Many times Christians say, “I’ve decided to make Jesus the Lord of my life.” I hate to break it to you, but you didn’t have a choice in the matter. Jesus is Lord over your life. Scripture says that one day every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord (Philippians 2:10-11). The question is not whether or not Jesus is Lord; the question is, “Will you submit to Him as Lord now or when it is too late?”
Second, He loves us deeply. Remember that the purpose of the resurrection is grounded in Christ’s love for us. God sent His Son to pay the price for our sin, and the resurrection lets us know that our hope of salvation is not some made-up story, some fanciful myth. The resurrection of Jesus validates everything He said, taught, and told us He came to do. In Galatians 2:20 Paul speaks of the Son of God who “loved me and gave Himself for me.” Believers should rejoice in Jesus’ love demonstrated in both His cross and His resurrection.
Third, Christ’s authority over us means that He will judge us eternally. Jesus speaks of His role as judge in John 5:21-23. For all who believe in Christ, the truth of Christ’s judgment is good news. It’s good news because you can be saved from eternal judgment if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead (Romans 10:9). Christ’s role as judge is also good news because the resurrection reminds us that this world is not all there is. If our only expectations are for this life, then we have no hope in the face of tragedy in this world. Furthermore, Christ’s judgment means our efforts for justice in this world become meaningful.
All of us have built-in longings and desires for meaning and purpose, and this tells us that this world is not the entire picture. Neither disease nor natural disasters have the last word in this world; because of the resurrection, Jesus does. And He will have the last word in the lives of each of us for all of eternity.