As I’ve said before, I’ve really felt the benefit these past few years of having a build up to Easter. Personally, it’s helped me connect with the story in a devotional way. Often I find I’m rushing through seasons, constantly looking to what’s next. And taking time to consciously slow down and walk step by step through the story of Holy Week has been a nourishing practice.
But also along with those in my church community, I’ve found it helpful to pause and have a moment to reflect on the Easter message; through a preparatory sermon series, a series of holy week devotionals, a Good Friday service and finally an Easter Sunday celebration including baptisms. I preached on Easter Sunday two years ago and will do again this year, and I know I preach the resurrection better when people are primed for it.
Consequently, Lent is an important time for me. And yet, the challenge to keep reflections fresh during this period is not an easy one to manage. The past two years I’ve written daily devotionals for our church during Holy Week, and I must admit that the prospect of doing that again for a third year is daunting. What can I say that hasn’t been said before? How can I phrase or apply it in a way that still packs the punch it deserves to?
So I was really excited to receive my copy of The Final Days of Jesus by Andreas Köstenberger and Justin Taylor. As soon as I heard about it I suspected it would be a fresh and helpful book, and I really wasn’t disappointed. Seeing either author’s name on the front cover of a book would have been a giveaway that it was going to be worth a read. I’ve often valued Köstenberger’s clear-thinking, and in particular his writings on the gospels. And Justin Taylor is a very sensible, sharp writer who manages to communicate huge amounts of content in snappy and accessible ways. Seeing both their names side by side made picking up this book a no-brainer.
The book is broken down into chapters around each of the days of Jesus’ final week; the most important week of the most important man who ever lived. Step by step, the authors walk through the events of Holy Week, harmonising the gospel accounts to paint a vivid picture of the moments leading up to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The authors really get the balance of detail right – no mean feat in a book like this. Not so much as to leave your head swimming, or distract from the heart and emotion of the events; not so little as to make you feel they’re glossing over the big questions. They don’t allow themselves to get bogged down in some of the debates that occupy too many pages of commentaries. So some people might feel they come away with niggling questions about why they placed certain events in the order they did; but there are plenty of commentaries (not least those by Köstenberger!) that can fill in the gaps. Their suggested reading lists are helpful, and their explanations for why they’ve made certain assumptions are succinct and strong.
The descriptions of places, people and practices are snappy and illuminating, everything is referenced well and the maps and charts manage to accentuate the story rather than making it seem cold.
I came away feeling I had a better sense of how the narratives weave together, and highlighted some pages I will go back to again and again.
If you’re looking for a book to guide you through Lent, I really recommend The Final Days of Jesus; and the Kindle edition is under £4. It may be that you want to start now and work through at a gradual pace on the run up to Easter. It may be that you’d like to work through it on the days of Holy Week. Either would work well; though bear in mind if you’re going through it on Easter Week that you’ll need to leave aside a significant chunk of Good Friday given that the ‘Friday’ chapter (rightly) constitutes about 35% of the book. The bonus is, you get off lightly on Wednesday!
I’m teaching a couple of days on the gospels in two weeks’ time, and beginning to prepare for Easter, and this book has given me the help I needed to come back to these well-known stories with fresh eyes. And for that, I’m profoundly grateful.